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Milestones

Chapter Text

The rising sun casts a warm, orange glow on the landscape surrounding Ellie, bathing every house that she can see down below in Jackson in its light. Here, sitting on the rocks at the top of the small waterfall overlooking the town, she feels like she witnesses all of it coming to life: the birds, the skies, the houses at the edge of the horizon, everything. Any other time, she would have found it beautiful. Now, the lighting is just a painful reminder of that day where everything she had known – what little comfort and habits she had – was brutally thrown out of the window.

When have we ever gotten into trouble?

Her and Riley had had a habit of sneaking out of the military school’s walls, sometimes for an hour, sometimes for a whole night. They had never been caught or seriously injured, but Riley’s statement about having never gotten into trouble was, well, untrue by any stretch of the imagination. Taking part in armed conflicts between Hunters, Fireflies and the military hardly qualified as “not getting into trouble” in Ellie’s book, but she had followed Riley out in the middle of the goddamned night anyway. Old habits died hard.

Don’t go.

The words had slipped out of her mouth before she had a chance to hold them back. Before she had a chance to understand that they meant “don’t leave me again, take me with you” instead of just “stay”. She remembers the flash of understanding in Riley’s dark eyes, always expressing what her face never was. She remembers feeling on top of the world as she watched the other girl throw away her Firefly tags, never breaking eye-contact. She remembers what it felt like to kiss her for that fleeting moment when the world around her stood still for a few seconds, feeling too overjoyed to hold it in. She remembers all of it, and it hurts so fucking bad.

That kiss hadn’t been their first, or their second for that matter. They shared a few quick pecks on the lips before, always hidden behind a closed door or another, away from curious eyes and ill-intended people. They weren’t in a relationship – Ellie didn’t think there was a word in the English language that would define what they had been to each other with accuracy – but she knew Riley was the one person in this god-forsaken place that she would take a bullet for without a second thought, the one person she could talk to about her unknown past, her doubts, her fears and her hopes, without feeling judged. She had always acted like she’d be by her side no matter what, until one day she shoved Ellie as she was trying to kiss her goodnight. The words she said felt like venom and cut into her like knives: all about how she would never fit in, how she was a freak, how she would be kicked out of the military school if anyone found out she liked girls, even worse if their super-religious director was the one to figure it out. How their life here meant nothing, how they were trained to become willing casualties in a fight dating back 20 years or chose to refuse that and live on the streets, with barely enough rations to get by, until they were raped, murdered, kidnapped, or even sold.

No, Ellie and Riley hadn’t been in a relationship, but that fight had felt as final as a break-up. Now, Ellie understands why she did it, so she could make her leaving easier on both of them. A year ago, she just felt hurt and betrayed again. Still, to this day, she can’t figure out if Riley was really talking to her as she said all those horrible things, or if she was talking to herself and trying to convince herself she was making the right call.

Her coming back, however unexpected, had felt like a blessing to Ellie, if only for a few hours. If she had known that their stolen kiss on top of the old jewelry displays would be their last, she would have made it last longer.

We could be all poetic and just lose our minds together.

It had been a year since Ellie had started living on borrowed time that she did not deserve, and it wasn’t getting any easier to deal with.

Sighing, Ellie turns the tags in her hands over and over, looking at the Firefly logo and the name written on the other side. Riley Abel. Just seeing the name hurts. She puts the necklace around her neck, tucks into her shirt and jumps off the rock she had been sitting on. Her legs are numb from staying in the same position for the past two hours and they take some time before working properly again. Ellie looks around her. The wind is lazily rustling the leaves, birds are starting to fly out of their nests, chirping, and the morning dew covers the grass and rocks in a fine layer, just enough to drench her shoes completely. She can see smoke coming out of the town’s main hall, can faintly make out the light turning on in some of the homes. Time for her to head back to reality.

Ellie makes her way back without much trouble. She can probably do it with her eyes closed. After all, it’s just a 15 minutes walk to the part of the eastern wall where, if you know where to look, you can hang onto the cracks in the wood and scale your way up and over the fence. On the other side is an abandoned house, so no one ever sees her sneaking in or out of the town. Escaping like this, unseen, invisible… it makes her feel closer to Riley somehow. For a few hours, she can pretend that they’re sneaking out of the Military School, and she needs that more than anything tonight.

Ellie walks back to the house she shares with Joel, all the way up the main street where the town hall, the armory and the clinic are located, careful not to be seen by any of their neighbours. Lucky for her, the night shift hasn’t ended for anyone on guard-duty, so she doesn’t have to pass people on her way home and exchange that weird, non-comital-I-don’t-know-you-enough-to-say-hi nod that everyone seems to be doing. The new kid walking around by herself at the ass-crack of dawn would certainly be subject to some gossiping if any of the middle-aged ladies ever saw her. This town sure loves its gossip, however little of it there is.

 When she gets home, the lights are still out. Joel is probably still sleeping, but she’s still careful not to make any noise as she climbs up the tree on the left side of the house and pulls herself up on the roof, making sure her feet don’t dangle in front of Joel’s bedroom window on the way up. The attic of the house had been converted into a bedroom and a storage room some time around the whole CBI outbreak, because when they had moved in there were only wooden beams separating the two rooms. Joel had taken care of that first thing after they arrived. He said it was because it would be more complicated to do it after Ellie was all settled in – wood dust and all, he said – but she knew without having to ask that he needed to feel a sense of purpose somehow, especially after having spent the past year of his life figuring out a way to get them nearly all the way across the country, and this was his way of doing so. Joel wasn’t meant to stay in one place without having something specific to do, and neither was she.

Ellie crawls slowly to one of the two gable-fronted dormer windows leading to her room, her footsteps silent on the old shingles. She had kept the window open when she had snuck out, so she wouldn’t have it squeak as she’s trying to get back in. Ellie crawls in and immediately flops down on her bed so she can take her shoes off before they can drag mud all over the house.

“How did you sleep, kiddo?”

Her hand instinctively reaches for the knife tucked into her back pocket as she looks for the source of the sound, her heart trying to pound its way out of her chest. She barely relaxes when she spots the large figure sitting on her desk chair, unmoving in the dark. “Jesus fuck, Joel, how much of a creep can you be? You can’t knock on a door like a normal person?” Ellie exhales a few times, trying to get her heart rate under control, and gets back to untying her shoes. She can feel Joel’s eyes staring at her, waiting for her answer. Finally, she kicks the shoes off and sits cross-legged on the mattress.

“What?”

“How did you sleep?” Joel repeats, his tone neutral.

“Fine, I guess. Woke up early, went for a walk.”

Joel glances at the old clock on her wall between the two windows, his eyebrows raised. “Really, a walk… sure, 5:26 in the morning is a great time for that.” Ellie sighs, knowing there’s no getting out of this.

“Imagine my surprise when I came into your room to get some tools in the storage closet to help Tommy with the ranch’s fence and saw your bed empty, window open and shoes gone. Where were you?”

Ellie bites her tongue, thinking about her answer. “Out. I walked around town for a bit, then I came back here.”

Joel’s face hardens, and she knows she stepped right where he wanted her to. “So you weren’t the girl wearing jeans and a green flannel, holding a knife and running into the woods that Donny saw two hours ago?”

Ellie bites her lips. She’s been caught. “Don’t be like this, Joel, I just walked. I never was more than 15 minutes away from town anyway.”

Joel scoffs. “Don’t be like what? Don’t worry when I don’t find you in your bed in the middle of the goddamned night? Don’t go looking for you? Don’t go asking around every watch tower if anyone has seen you? Don’t worry about you?”

Joel gets up and Ellie matches his movements, standing her ground. “I was safe the whole time!”

“The outside is anything but safe and you know it! I spent nearly a year hauling you from state to state, kept you alive all that time and you’re just going to throw that away the very moment we’re finally somewhere where it’s possible to stay and be safe? You better have a goddamned good reason for running away like that, kid, because I’m too old to keep having heart-attacks like this.”

Ellie turns away from him and walks over to her dresser, pulling her clothes for the day out of the drawers, purposely ignoring him.

“Ellie!”

“What the fuck do you want me to say, Joel? Yeah, I snuck out of Jackson, no, I didn’t think of the consequences, yes, I’m a dumbass kid. Anything else?”

She turns around and faces Joel, equal parts exasperated and angry. His expression reflects hers perfectly. “Is this some kind of joke to you? You’re free to do whatever you want here, and you still risk getting killed for what, a hike?”

“Free? I am not free here, Joel! I’m stuck inside the walls, for fucks sake, being confined to the same square mile everyday is not freedom. Every day is the same, everyday it’s school, working at the stables and coming home, and repeat, for the past two months. How is any of that freedom if you’re the one choosing it for me?”

Joel’s eyes are shooting lightning bolts. “So your solution is to sneak out to wander the woods at night? You’ll end up being attacked by an Infected or something and I won’t be there to save your stupid ass.”

“Maybe I don’t want you to be! If I get killed sneaking out, so be it. It’s none of your fucking business!” Ellie pushes Joel back with all the strength she can muster, away from her, but he barely takes two steps back, which only infuriates her more. “You can’t protect me forever and I don’t want you to!”

Joel steps closer to her, his bulky frame towering over her shorter, lanky one.

“You listen here, baby girl, and you listen well. I didn’t bring you all the way here for you to just throw it out the window at the first goddamned opportunity, so you better stop your sneaking around and get it through that thick head of yours that it’s not worth it. You deserve to be safe, to build a life of your own here if you want, don’t go around wasting that because you’re going through a rebellious teenager phase.” He pauses. “I’m grounding your ass. Only school for you, miss, until I decide otherwise. See if you still wanna sneak out after that.”

She feels her eyes burning and she blinks back tears. “You don’t get it, do you? I’m not going through a ‘rebellious teenager phase’, I never got to be a teenager in the first place!” Ellie rolls up her sleeve as she’s talking, revealing the bite scar with raised edges that she’s forced to hide everyday with long sleeves, even if the heat outside is suffocating. She shoves it in Joel’s face to emphasize her point. “I stopped being a teenager the day I got bitten and you know it! Don’t go around telling me to…”

“Then why do this?” Joel interrupts, grabbing her wrist and pulling it away from his face. “Why risk leaving here when you’re safe, after all you went through?”

“Because I don’t deserve it!”

Ellie stops talking, feeling like she’s said too much already. She pulls her wrist out of Joel’s grip and she feels hot tears running down her cheeks, which she wipes away furiously. Get a hold of yourself, Ellie. Joel just stands there, looking at her with his mouth open, unable to form a sentence.

“I think you should leave,” she says, turning away to wipe the tears that keep escaping her eyes.

She doesn’t hear him move behind her, and she doesn’t dare ask him to leave again because she’s not sure she’ll be able to contain all the thoughts that are running through her head if she opens her mouth.

“What do you mean, you don’t deserve it? Don’t deserve to be safe?” Joel’s voice is softer, but she can still make out the angriness faintly tainting his words. She stays silent, biting her lips, and her chest physically hurts from trying to suppress the sobs that are threatening to break through. She’s so tired, she just wants to get to sleep and forget all of it, all of today, all of the last year. “Baby girl, you fought tooth and nail for everything we have now. You deserve to be here, and so much more.”

She feels her resistance crumble like the old fortresses of cardboard boxes she used to make at her first orphanage, before she was enrolled in the Boston Military Preparatory Schools. “I don’t deserve to be alive,” she whispers. Ellie sits down on her bed, holding her pillow to her chest as she sobs into it, not caring about Joel being there anymore. She’s too tired and the metal of the Firefly tags around her neck weighs a hundred pounds of pure guilt. She takes them off and shoves them to the ground, where Joel picks them up.  

“Oh, baby girl, it wasn’t your fault.”

“Except it was!” she spits out through her sobs. “Riley came back for me when she was already out, if she hadn’t she’d still be alive. I’m the reason she’s dead.”

She sobs like she hasn’t sobbed in months, not since the day Riley died. She’s barely aware of Joel putting the necklace in her hands and pulling her into his arms, but she knows she drops the pillow and grips his shirt instead. She muffles her cries in his shoulder. Truth is, she never really had time to grieve for Riley, and certainly never had anyone to talk to about it. It takes a while for her to realise he’s stroking her hair and back, and whispering reassuring words in her ear, like he’s done last winter, except this time they don’t have to run for their lives right away.

“There are a million ways we should've died before today. And a million ways we can die before tomorrow. But we fight... for every second we get to spend with each other. Whether it's two minutes, or two days... we don't give that up. I don't want to give that up.”

Her friend’s words still echo in her head like a haunting lullaby.

“How is any of it fair? I lived. She had so much more to live for, but she died anyway and not a day goes by where I don’t think about her, and where she would be, what she would be doing! I did nothing to deserve to live, Joel! She was good, she gave back to people and she just wanted to make this shithole of a place better for everyone! It's not fair Joel. The only reason she was bitten is because she came back for me. She was almost out of that place... It should have been me. I should have died, and she should have lived. Why did I? I miss her so fucking much...”

Joel pulls her closer as she tries to control her sobs, to regain some kind of control, but she’s bottled up her feelings for so long that it’s like trying to force the wind to change directions. Impossible.

“C'mon. Let's get outta here.”

Ellie grabs Riley’s outstretched hand, slick with blood – her blood – and the older girl pulls her to her feet. “What do you want to do now?” she asks. “Where do you want to go?”

Riley furrows her brow, thinking. “What do you say we go back into the mall and take out these fuckers? We’ve got nothing to lose and you clearly could use an outlet for your anger.” Ellie knows she’s referring to her smashing a whole bunch of flower pots earlier, and she nods. It’s not like they can leave the mall unseen anyway.

So they backtrack to where they came from, taking out any Infected they find on their way. There’s really not that many of them, but it feels good to make sure they don’t infect anyone else, and her and Riley make a mighty good team. While it lasts, Ellie can pretend that killing the Runners will turn back time and keep them from getting bitten in the first place. It feels nice to pretend, but as soon as they reach the old carousel, still light up and beautiful, reality comes crashing down on them again. They’re going to die.

On their way back, Ellie picks up her backpack and Riley’s tags, discarded on the department store floor. She doesn’t know why, it’s not like they’ll need any of those things anyway. They talk for hours, sitting on the floor of the old attraction among the painted horses, surrounded by absolute silence.

At one point, when Riley starts feeling light-headed, they decide to tie themselves to the carousel with two pieces of rope that they found on their way back, making sure they won’t attack anyone after the infection sets in. Staring at each other, the two of them tied to wooden horses, facing each other without touching, held in place by the tight knots Ellie tied – if there’s one skill she managed to master during those military drills, it’s knot-tying – it feels so final. Riley doesn’t cry, but Ellie does, albeit as quietly as possible. It’s all so unfair.

It takes around 15 hours for Riley to start showing signs of a fever and increasing confusion. It starts with small things, like forgetting that time Ellie and her got caught trying to steal apples from the kitchen, and by the 20th hour after being bitten, she’s yelling incoherently and throwing punches at the air and Ellie knows her time with her friend is coming to an end. She can see the fungus spreading from her hand all the way up her arm and neck and spreading to her chest. Still, except for the pain she feels in her forearm, and the distress she experiences at the whole situation, Ellie feels… normal. Not good, but normal. It doesn’t take too long after that for Riley, her best-friend, confident, and at times, protector, to start pulling at the rope, lunging at Ellie relentlessly, growling. There is nothing human left in her.

“I’m so, so sorry, Riley,” Ellie cries as the other girl pulls harder at the rope keeping her in place. “For everything.”

Why isn’t she turning?

She sees Riley’s gun on the floor between them and she stares at it. Surely, a bullet through her brain is better than dying at the hands of her own friend. She picks up the firearm, its weight in her hand unsettling. Riley pulls at the rope again, her arms flailing around, trying to reach her. “Riley, stop.” Sobs are racking her body wildly and tears are clouding her vision, blurring everything, but she can still make out the fibers of the rope tied around Riley’s midsection fraying gradually. It won’t hold her for long.

There’s a loud bang behind her and Ellie glances back to see the metal doors they had entered the room through swing open, revealing a woman pointing a rifle at her, flanked by two men doing the same. Marlene.

“Put your gun down!”

“I’m putting the gun down, don’t shoot!”

The gun clangs on the metal floor of the attraction as she trows it away and Riley starts to pull in the direction of the newcomers. “Hold your fire!” Marlene yells as her two goons make move to shoot them.

She walks to them, taking in the scene. She looks at Riley – bloodshot eyes, mouth foaming, and signs of the fungus clear on her skin – and then her eyes fall on Ellie’s bloodied arm. She raises her gun at Ellie who raises her hands in defense. “I’m sorry it has to end this way, Ellie,” she says, her eyes dark as she aims for her head. “I promise I’ll make it as quick as possible.”

“Stop! Please don’t do this! My mom trusted you to take care of me, not shoot me! Please, Marlene!”

She hesitates, sadness showing in her eyes for a fraction of a second before disappearing. “How long ago?” she asks, motioning to the wound on her forearm.

“Same time as Riley… day and a half-ago.”

Marlene looks at Riley, thrashing and growling, and then back at her, hands raised and begging for her life. “No, it can’t be.”

“I swear it’s true! Look, I can’t tell you why, but I feel… the same? I don’t know what’s going on.”

Marlene looks at her some more, the two Fireflies behind her keeping their guns trained on Riley and her as the older woman lowers hers. She put her hand to Ellie forehead, clearly feeling for a fever that she knows she doesn’t have, and examines her eyes for any sign of the infection.

“Take me with you! If I go back to the school they will kill me on sight.”

Marlene keeps her eyes fixed on her without answering as she motions to the two men. “Escort her back to camp and isolate her. If she tries to run away or starts to show any signs of turning, shoot her.”

“Shouldn’t we shoot her now?” one of the Fireflies asks. “She’s a risk.”

“I said, escort her to camp.”

There is no compassion in Marlene’s eyes as the two guards cut the rope holding Ellie and push her toward the door, only confusion and curiosity. Ellie looks back at Riley, and she swears her heart breaks at the sight of her friend. She wants to say something, a final goodbye, anything, but the words get stuck in her throat and only her sobs come out. She’s being pushed along the corridor when she hears the gunshot and her knees collapse under her. She doesn’t have to see it to know that Marlene has shot Riley.

“I should have insisted they take us both, but I only tried to save my own ass,” Ellie chokes out. “Some kind of friend I am.”

Joel pulls her away to force her to look at him as he speaks. “There’s nothing you could’ve done, baby girl. Your friend was already gone, you would’ve both died if you had insisted Marlene take Riley too. You did everything right.”

“Then why do I feel so guilty? It’s been exactly a year, and it still kills me inside to think about that day.”

She wipes her tears with her sleeves. Joel squeezes her knee. “It’ll never get better, but it’ll get easier to live with. I promise.” Her fist is closed around Riley’s tags, holding them so tight her knuckles are turning white.

“I just… Marlene told me that she came looking for me when she found out I missed the morning drills, because of the whole deal with my mom. I just keep thinking, what if she had come looking earlier? What if she had found out I wasn’t at the school an hour earlier? Maybe Riley would still be alive today…”

Joel’s eyes are softer now. She doesn’t think he notices when he starts rubbing his watch while shaking his head. The watch Sarah gave him. Suddenly, she feels bad about snapping at him, because she’s not the only one whose past decisions haunt them. Joel had never told her exactly what happened to his daughter, but Tommy had said enough for her to understand that he blamed himself for her death, even though he had no reason to do so.

“Imagining what you could’ve done different won’t change a thing about what happened. I know it seems impossible, but you need to come to terms with it, and move on. You don’t need to forget your friend’s death, but you need to honour her life. I’m sure she wouldn’t have wanted you to blame yourself forever.”

Ellie nods. She’s exhausted and Joel sees it. “Get some sleep, I’ll tell the school you’re sick today.”

She falls asleep as soon as her head hits the pillow, before Joel even has time to leave the room.

Ultimately, their conversation doesn’t change a thing between them, Joel carries on as if nothing happened when Ellie drags herself from her bedroom, late in the afternoon. He doesn’t remind her that her eyes are red and puffy, doesn’t mention the fact that she slept all day, or complain that she’s snacking barely half an hour before diner will be ready. He keeps quiet, as usual, and Ellie can’t thank him enough for it. She doesn’t trust herself to talk about Riley without breaking down again. She doesn’t think she’ll talk about her again for a long time, but she can’t deny it felt good to have someone tell her that she couldn’t have prevented any of the events that happened that day.

They never talk about this moment again, when Ellie felt so uncharacteristically emotionally weak, but it allowed her, after some time, to finally turn the page on that part of her life and get to enjoy Jackson as much as she could, in honor of the friend that would never get to enjoy a life where she could worry about something other than choosing between starving and enlisting in an army she despised.

She never took Riley’s pendant off her neck after that day and it felt like, even though her friend had passed away, she followed her everywhere she went, and that was the most comforting thing Ellie could think of.

Chapter Text

“The fuck is this about,” Ellie mumbles under her breath, flipping back and forth between the pages of the book she’s currently reading. It is called The Tempest, and the old spine of the book cracks every time she turns a page. It’s not the biggest book she’s ever read – she used to read all the time back at the Military Preparatory School in Boston, as there was little else to do – but somehow after a week of intense reading she’s 25 pages in and still, she has no idea what in the hell is going on.

She’s been sitting in the library for the past hour now. “Library” is a big word for the room she’s sitting in: it has four rows of books – fiction, non-fiction, various skills and romance, without any signs of comic books, much to Ellie’s annoyance – and an old and yellowed magazine stand in one corner. In another corner, there is a small stack of children’s book covered in dust that, to her knowledge, no one has even touched since her and Joel arrived in Jackson nearly four months ago. There are about 20 underage kids in the whole town, 3 of whom are too young to read and at least 10 are too old for The Adventures of Geronimo Stilton. She assumes the remaining kids just don’t like reading much. In the middle of the room, near the only window, is the table which Ellie is currently sitting at, her book open in front of her and her walk-man plugged in, blasting a Queen tape through the earbuds. Joel gave it to her a few months back after he found it while cleaning out what would become their permanent house in Jackson, saying he used to listen to it all the time while he was a kid. She liked some of the tracks, but most of them she thought were a little, well, weird.

Ellie sighs and bangs her head against wall behind her, closing her eyes. Her head hurts already, and that book absolutely has to be done by tomorrow. Because clearly, in a post-apocalyptic world infested with an uncurable fungus that makes people go berserk and attack each other, it is imperative that teenagers do well in school. Whatever. Once she passes all the classes required, and she reaches 16, she can be reassigned to something other than being a student if she so desires. So if reading this God-awful manuscript was something she needed to do to qualify for outside patrols, then she’ll do it, however long that may take her. She’d be damned if she was going to fall behind after barely two weeks of school.

Apparently, Maria’s dad had this idea that the infection would stop spreading at some point and that they would all need to go back to leading “normal” lives – whatever that meant. Ellie had never known his version of normal. Since he founded the settlement, everyone pretty much went with it, and as the years went by (according to Tommy), even fewer people wanted to contradict the beliefs of the very grumpy, yet hopeful, old man. He had made sure that every kid in Jackson had at least a basic level of understanding of math, literature, science and history by himself for a few years until Ms. Jackie, who had been a high school teacher in Arizona before the outbreak, came along and took over his teaching duties, educating the children of Jackson to the best of her abilities – or rather, scaring the living shit out of them. Witnessing everything she had ever known turn to shit apparently stretched her patience a bit thin, according to Joel, and she had a habit of yelling a lot which scared most of the younger kids. Three years ago, as the workload was getting too much for the aging woman, another woman had been assigned to help her out. That split the kids into two groups: the older ones being taught by Ms. Kelly, and the younger ones being terrified daily by Ms. Jackie.

The whole setup also had the unofficial purpose of keeping the restless kids out of trouble and out of everyone’s way as the adults accomplished different duties during the day. As Ellie figured out the hard way, fighting her way through Infected, Hunters and cannibals across more than half the country, in addition to not having had any classes other than “Killing Fireflies 101”, (which was what she had called her military drills, back at the Preparatory School) for the past two years did not excuse her from attending school in Jackson like every other kid here.

She opens her eyes and leans on her arm, going back to reading. She understands all the words, it’s just their order that make no sense to her. She’s never seen words arranged that way, it seems so unnatural to her, like there is way too many words to express one thing, and the words seem to quite literally jump around the page. Suddenly, the sunlight coming in from the window disappears and Ellie can’t read anymore. She lifts her head up.

Between her and the only source of light in the room is one of the other teenagers residing in Jackson. Ellie doesn’t know her name, but she knows she’s in the other class – the class for the older kids. She was put in the younger kids’ one because, to be honest, she’s never really been to school and the school of life apparently does not count – neither does wandering around the country with a grumpy old man, as character-building as it is. A year on the road, however, had meant that Ellie was not at all on the same level as the other teenagers in town, academically speaking, and thus, was relegated to the younger kids’ class until she could get up to speed, much to her outspoken annoyance and dismay.

The girl before her looks to be just a little taller than her, a bit darker skinned too, and wears her long dark hair in a high ponytail with wild strands of hair escaping from the hair band holding her hairdo together. The girl’s dark brown eyes are staring at her unblinking, and she’s smiling widely. The red sweater she’s wearing is a bit to big for her, and a lot discoloured, but it suits her well somehow.

Ellie realises she still hasn’t said a word to the other girl and straightens up. “Can I help you?” she asks, concluding that the older girl wasn’t going to speak first.

The girl’s smile fades just a little as she pulls out a chair close to Ellie and plops down beside her. Out of habit, she moves her chair away – she’s never been good with human contact to begin with, and her whole ordeal with David has just made her weary of anyone touching her at all. The girl seems to understand and stays on her side of the table. “I haven’t seen you around town before,” the girl finally says, her eyes examining her from head to toe, making Ellie feel a little – a lot – self-conscious. “You new here?”

Ellie only nods in response. She’s been in Jackson for a while, but socializing had not been high on her priority list that summer. The girl smiles brightly at her. “Well, welcome to the lovely town of Jackson then. Name’s Dina.” The girl extends her hand toward her, and it hangs in the air for a second while Ellie convinces herself the gesture is not threatening in any way. The girl’s smile falters a bit more and she drops her hand. “Ellie,” she finally manages to answer, and she sees the smile come back on the girl’s lips. “Came here ‘bout three months ago”.

“Three months!” the girl – Dina – exclaims. “Where were you hiding, under a rock?”

“None of your fucking business,” comes Ellie’s nearly automatic reply, and she immediately regrets it. “Sorry. I’m just being an asshole.”

Dina chuckles, pressing a book that Ellie hadn’t noticed against her chest. It’s grey and almost as dusty-looking as the children’s book. “Well, at least assholes are entertaining, wouldn’t you say?” Ellie shrugs. She just wants to finish her book.

Dina sees her eyes flicker to the open paperback between them and she makes a sound of disgust. “The Tempest, really? That thing took me ages to finish, it was so boring. Why would you read that on your own free time?”

Ellie folds the corner of her page to mark the spot where she was interrupted and closes the book. She drops it in her backpack, along with her Walkman, swings it on her shoulder and gets up. “I have a lot of stuff to do,” she offers as an excuse to the confused looking girl still seated at the table. “See ya around, Dina.”

The girl gets up and cuts her access to the door, and she can’t help but notice how fast she moves. Now Ellie is just annoyed. Hasn’t she made her wish to stay by herself painfully clear by now? “I’ll leave,” the girl offers, waltzing past her. With both of them now standing, she can see that the dark-skinned girl is probably only an inch taller than her. “You were here first, and I just swung by to pick up this here gardening manual”. She waves the book she’d been holding as proof and starts walking backwards to the door. “Enjoy your night, Ellie. It was nice meeting you.” She winks at her and with that, she’s gone just as quietly as she came in.

Ellie is left standing halfway between the door and the chair she got up from only a few seconds ago. Might as well put whatever sunshine’s left to good use, she thinks. She estimates there’s only two to three hours of sunlight left before she has to close up and go back home, unless she wants Joel to flip the whole town inside out looking for her. Again. She might be exaggerating a bit, but not by much. Like her, he’s having trouble adjusting to the mostly quiet life of Jackson and for him, keeping her close means hanging on to what he knows, even something as little as keeping a close eye on her at all times. Whatever, it’s not like Ellie has much to do outside of their house anyway, so she doesn’t really mind.

She walks back to her previous spot, the wood still warm from her being seated there for so long and takes the book out from her backpack. She can almost hear the novel mocking her inability to comprehend the subject as she opens it to the right page. Thing is, she’s quite a bit insulted that the school board – school board being again big words to describe the two adults teaching the bunch of unwilling kids from Jackson – decided to place her in the little kids’ class, even though she’s 15 and has seen a lot more than many of the Jackson residents ever would in their lifetime. She knows she fucked up her own skill evaluation exam with flying colours, but this doesn’t keep her from being insulted to her very core by the whole thing. She hasn’t been treated like a kid for the past year and it does not feel good to suddenly be demoted like this. She’d spent the whole summer hauled up in her bedroom, catching up on what she apparently was supposed to know already just to be put in the right class because, sure, throwing paper airplanes and spit-balls at each other is fun but it’s not getting her anywhere close to where she wants to be. So when she heard that they were doing an evaluation of skills for a 14 year old boy that arrived with his mom and two sisters only last week, she figured this would be her chance to retake it at the same time. She talked to the kid, his name was Jacob, figured out what they had asked him to prepare – maths, literature and history, mostly – and set out to conquer this novel that he had been told to read before his evaluation exam. Nothing too hard, right? Wrong.

Joel had helped her a lot with the other stuff, things he remembered from his time in high school, but even he admitted that, while The Tempest was regarded as a classic in his time, he had never understood much of the story. 2 pages in, Ellie understood why.

She reads for another hour and a half, only getting through around 10 pages, before she hears the door opening again. From where she’s sitting, she can see both exits, the window and the door – old habits die hard – and she’s treated to the sight of Dina walking in like she owns the damn place, a duffel bag slung over her shoulder and the same book she’d left with in her hand. Her hair is down now, and it falls in dark waves below her shoulders. “Good, you’re back, I was just getting lonely here all by myself,” Ellie hears herself say, sarcasm omnipresent in her words.

If the girl noticed the mockery in her greeting, she didn’t show it, plopping down on the creaky chair on the other side of the table, disregarding the one next to Ellie, and dropping her bag on the floor with a bang. Ellie raises and eyebrow when Dina immediately starts rummaging through its contents without so much as a “hello”.

“Ah-ha!” The girl pulls out a stack of papers from her bag and drops them in front of Ellie. “There you go.” She looks at the stack in confusion, the first page simply reading “2032” in tall, large numbers, and then back up at the beaming face in front of her. “What’s this, 2032 ways to get you to leave me alone without actually having to say it?” Ellie asks, even more confused when the girl laughs at her like she made a really good joke. What a weirdo.

She leans in and flips through a few pages, stopping at a page titled “October 7th” and tapping the title with her index. Ellie reads the subtitle – The Tempest, by W. Shakespeare (Analysis). Her eyes widen at the sight. “We read it last year in class,” Dina clarifies with a chuckle at her astounded expression. “I don’t know why you’d want to read it if you don’t have to, but I figured you’d have to have a pretty good reason to sit through this headache waiting to happen. Anyway, I thought you might appreciate this.”

Ellie quickly flips through the next few pages. All have subtitles, ranging from “Characters”, “Plot”, “Themes” and many others. Dina’s handwriting is loopy and wide, and she draws little hearts instead of dots on top of the i’s, but it’s fairly easy to read. She indeed appreciates it.

The girl in front of her smiles and pulls out candles and matches from her bag. “If you’re in the mood to stay here a bit longer,” she explains. “It’s getting dark outside.” Dina slings her bag over her shoulder and heads for the door and Ellie scrambles to find something to say, a thank you, a goodbye, anything.

“Wait a second, Ferdinand is Alonso’s son?” It’s a shitty reply, and Ellie knows the answer – that much she had managed to understand – but it’s the first line she spots in the “Characters” section of the handwritten notes before her. Dina stops dead in her tracks and turns back around. Once again, she can’t help but notice how fast she moves, kind of like a cat pouncing on its prey. She cocks her head to the side and her bag hangs limply from her arm, slipping down from her shoulder somewhere along the line. “Are you serious?”

Ellie nods, even though that’s not true. She should have just said thank you and left it at that. Dina drops her bag right there in the middle of the floor, grabs the chair closest to Ellie – Ellie’s issues with proximity be damned – and sits down on it. This time, she doesn’t flinch away as much when she feels the girl’s fingers brush against the fabric of the long sleeved-shirt she’s wearing on their way to flip back to the first page of the book. She reaches up and ties her hair in a bun. Ellie can smell something flowery in the air when she does that – her shampoo, maybe? – and she stares at her for a bit too long, until the girl asks her if she’s okay. “Just peachy”, she answers, snapping out of it when she realizes she’s been staring at the girl’s face for a while now. Her brown eyes soften and she smiles. “Good, because we’ve got a lot of work to do, Ellie dear.”

She spends the next two hours patiently explaining all about the book and its themes and plotlines and whatnot – not without a few colourful swear words on Ellie’s part – until Dina deems her knowledge of the book satisfying enough. They end up talking for another hour after that – well, Dina does most of the talking, Ellie is content with just listening – and she learns that Dina is 16 years old, born on January 4th, came to Jackson with her grandfather and her mother 9 years ago, now lives with the two of them, her step-father and her five year-old step-brother, and once had a pet rabbit named Chester. And she once stapled her finger to a chair because she wanted to see if staples could pierce skin or not. Ellie doesn’t say much about her past, but Dina doesn’t seem to mind, chatting away like they’ve known each other forever. Finally, they part ways around midnight, and Joel is none too happy to see her walk through the door three and a half hours past the time she said she’d be home.

The next morning, Ellie meets up with Jacob – more like intercepts him on his way to class, but that’s a technicality – and they make their way to the fourth house to the left of the town’s medical clinic, where the “school” is located. They are silent the whole way and Ellie repeats what she learned from Dina’s notes over and over in her head, like an unrelenting song. They finally get to the big red house with the brick façade. Most of the walls inside the house had been knocked down years ago to create two big rooms, one on the second floor and one on the ground floor. The younger kids’ class was the one downstairs – mostly because Ms. Jackie despised having to climb stairs – and the older ones were taught upstairs by Ms. Kelly.

There is a flight of stairs on the side of the house that leads directly into the upstairs classroom without having to enter the house through the front door, so Ellie thankfully doesn’t have to face Ms. Jackie’s scowl this early in the morning. It’s well before class hours, and Ms. Kelly raises an eyebrow at her when she enters the makeshift classroom after Jacob, but she hands her a blank piece of paper anyway when she sees her sit down at a table and pull out a pencil. “You have an hour, questions are on the board. I’m here if you need anything or if you have questions.”

Ellie reads the first question and starts writing.

***

An hour and a half later, she’s sitting on the steps outside the house and throwing stones at an old stop sign, trying not to hit any of the kids running around in the process. Jacob had already been asked to take a seat inside the classroom (she had graded his paper first since he had finished a good half-hour before Ellie), but it had been at least fifteen minutes since Ellie was forced to wait alone and it was driving her absolutely nuts. A short while later, she heard Ms. Kelly’s boots on the wooden steps, approaching rapidly. The woman made it down the stairs and headed straight to the front door, not even glancing at Ellie on the way. She didn’t stop on the steps and instead marched straight inside the ground floor of the house – right into Ellie’s class.

Ellie follows her inside, but she barely has time to cross the threshold that the door to the small room at the very end of the house. She assumes it had been a small bedroom, or a huge closet, before it became Ms. Jackie’s self-assigned office. She settles for sitting at her usual desk, complete with a little “Ellie” cardboard sign – she hadn’t wanted one, but apparently that was one more choice that was not hers to make. She can faintly hear the two women talking behind the closed door, but they weren’t speaking loud enough for her to make out the words.

It seems so alien to her, the normalcy of it all. Getting up every morning, going to school, doing her chores, going back home… It reminds her a bit of the Military School in its focus on order, minus the yelling and the drills and the bullies.

Slowly, students start to trickle in and Ellie starts to get nervous. What’s taking so long? It shouldn’t take this long. Long after every student has entered the room – and one spit-ball fight later – Ms. Kelly opens the door and steps out of the office, a very disgruntled-looking Ms. Jackie in tow.

Ms. Jackie gets her student to sit down and Ellie’s eyes are trained on Ms. Kelly. The teacher smiles at her and holds up her copy of the exam. On the first page, next to her name, is a big 91% circled in red pen. “Are you coming, Ellie? I don’t want to keep my class waiting for too long,” she says.

Ellie nearly runs out after her, eager to escape the zoo (as she had taken to calling her class, much to Joel’s amusement). Once outside, Ms. Kelly turns to her.

“You’re quite surprising Ellie, I must admit,” she states while walking up the steps to her own classroom. “I saw your skill evaluation exam from this summer and I must say, if I hadn’t seen you take that exam myself, I would have been inclined to think you had cheated on it. I wasn’t expecting to see this much improvement so soon. Welcome to my class, try to catch up.”

Ellie knows the woman’s words are said in a teasing way and can only smile in response as she opens the door to four tables with two students seated behind each of them. No free spaces, Ellie notices. Contrary to what’s happening downstairs, the teens in the room quiet down when they see their teacher walk in.

“Everyone, please welcome Jacob,” she gestures to the boy seated in the front row, ”and Ellie. They’re our new students,” Ms. Kelly calls out. Then she turns to Ellie with the various greetings from the other teens almost drowning her out. “Sorry, I wasn’t expecting two new students today… you can sit at my desk if you want, for now, until we can get a new table and bench.” Before she can answer that she doesn’t mind (she can sit on the windowsill for all she cares), a familiar voice speaks up from the back of the room.

“That’s okay, there’s enough space for three of us here!”

Ellie’s eyes connect with the owner of the voice – Dina, who else – who has a smile to rival her own plastered on her face. She’s sitting next to a tall Asian fellow with shoulder length black hair that falls into his eyes. She believes his name is Jesse, and she knows he’s done a few patrols with Joel and Tommy. She’s a little surprised to see him still in school, she thought he was old enough to be reassigned already, but she guesses he’s still here because they are integrating him gradually to their rotations.

Dina slides closer to Jesse their shared bench so Ellie can sit down beside her. He nods politely at her when she sits down but doesn’t pay much attention to her at all, his eyes going back to the plans he had been drawing in a notebook – they look like patrol routes to Ellie, which doesn’t really surprise her much. She guesses that he’s not that much of a talker. It’s a tight fit, but it could be worse. Ms. Kelly starts her class, something about hydrogen’s reaction to different elements, and as soon as she’s deep enough in her lecture, Dina turns to Ellie with a knowing smile. “So that’s why you were reading that book,” she whispers. “You could’ve told me!”

Ellie smiles in return and opens her backpack, taking out a pencil to write notes with, along with Dina’s old notes that she hands back to her. “What, and ruin the surprise?” Dina chuckles and quickly hides it with the worst fake cough she has ever heard when Ms. Kelly looks their way.

“It is a pretty good surprise”, she agrees when the woman in front of the room turns back to her board and continues her lecture. Both girls turn their attention back to the matter at hand. It’s not until problems are being written down on the chalkboard – this morning’s exam had been erased right after Ellie had handed in her paper – that she turns back to Dina, who has her brow furrowed and is chewing the tip of her pencil as she’s reading their first problem. Wild strands of hair are escaping her ponytail and she keeps blowing them away from her eyes every few seconds. “Dina?”

“Yes, dear?”

“Thank you.”

Dina smiles at her and winks, and somehow, it feels like her day got even better for a reason she can’t quite explain.

Chapter Text

She can still remember the feeling of sinking, of seeing the bright beams from the flashlights and the headlights of the trucks at the surface getting smaller and smaller as she’s descending lower and lower into the water. She can still feel the cold water filling her mouth and nose, and her lungs desperately trying to suck air in to no avail, until she had almost stopped flailing her arms and legs in an attempt to learn how to swim on the fly. Until the current had pushed her all the way back up to the surface, and a pair of strong arms had pulled her close and kept her from crashing into a boulder.

“You okay, Kiddo?”

Ellie snaps out of her memories to see Joel looking at her, waist-deep in the lazy waters of the river circling Jackson. Her feet are in the water, but she can’t quite bring herself to take another step forward, instead staring at the spot in front of her where she can see the muddy riverbed dropping steeply. The feeling of the water around her ankles makes her uneasy, but not nearly as much as the sight of the seemingly bottomless stream ahead. “Just peachy.”

Joel walks back toward where she stands frozen until his thighs are out of the water. “We don’t have to do this today if you don’t want to,” he says. “There’ll be other occasions.”

Ellie shakes her head. “I want to do this. I can do this.” She takes a deep breath, still not moving. “I’ve nearly drowned enough times as it is.”

The hot September sun is burning into Ellie’s back, her black tank top drenched with sweat. It is unusually warm for the time of year, and for the first time since they had moved to Jackson, Joel had some free time at the same time she did. In the distance, a cicada sings steadily, a constant reminder of the suffocating heat.

“How do I do this?” Ellie asks, nervously tugging at the hem of her top. To say she had no idea how to go about this whole thing was the understatement of the year.

“Gimme your hands,” Joel instructs her, his tone letting Ellie know this was not the first time he was teaching – or at least, trying to teach – someone how to swim. “Come on, I don’t want to still be standing here when the sun rises tomorrow morning.”

She reluctantly extends her arms in front of her and Joel takes her small hands into his own, pulling her gently toward him, and she finally takes a step forward, the water reaching the middle of her calves with only one step. She stops when she feels her feet sink and slide into the muddy ground, the water reaching her knees now. “I got you, baby girl.”

She’s taken back to the bus depot, nearly five months ago, when they were still trying to reach the Fireflies in Salt Lake City. Joel had crossed the gap between the overturned bus and the ledge effortlessly, but when it had been Ellie’s turn to make that jump, the deafening sound of the water rushing furiously below had stopped her dead in her tracks.

You’re gonna catch me?

I got you.

And he had kept his promise, even though in the end, she hadn’t needed his help at all. It was still comforting to know he had been there, ready and waiting, his hand steadying her less than graceful landing.

See, you didn’t even need me.

Her grip tightens around Joel’s fingers, but still she takes another step forward, then another, only stopping when the water is reaching her shoulders and she has to stand on her toes to keep her chin from touching it. She feels like the pressure against her chest is becoming too much, too fast, and she struggles to keep her breathing steady. It’s so hard to convince herself that there is no imminent threat of drowning associated with the water this time. “You’re doing great.”   

“You’re just saying that to make me feel better.”

“Is it working?” he asks, still holding her hands.

“Nope,” Ellie replies, anxiously eyeing the wild currents she can faintly make out, further down the river. Being submerged in water doesn’t bring back any good memories. Back in the Boston QZ, when she was around 8 years-old, one of her foster parents had tried teaching her how to swim using the old “sink or swim” technique, and she had nearly drowned before they had realised it wasn’t going to work out. Sometimes at night, she still dreams of the water replacing the air in her lungs – still remembers how it burned – and she still recalls the absolute terror she had been consumed with back then when she had been able to see the sun shining above the surface, but unable to reach it. She could still hear the disappointment in her foster dad’s voice as he had finally pulled her out, vomiting water, crying and throwing every insult she had learned up to that point his way.  Ever since, she had felt uneasy even taking a bath, and it wasn’t long before her obvious resentment at the whole ordeal had caused her to be unceremoniously sent back to the orphanage she had come from. No, it wasn’t a good memory at all.

Joel moves to her side, shifting one of his hands from her wrist to her back. “I’m going to let go of your other hand now,” he says, and Ellie immediately tightens her grip on him. “Just for a second,” he adds. “Trust me.”

Ellie feels herself start to shake, but she gradually loosens her death grip on his hand, letting him move it. Joel sinks lower into the water and she feels the hand she just released brush against the back of her thighs. Before she can ask him what he’s doing, he lifts her up and she yelps in surprise, her arms reaching around his neck to keep herself out of the water. “What the hell, Joel!”

Joel winces. “Stop digging your nails into my back, Kiddo.”

“Then stop startling me!”

“Alright, alright,” he grumbles, and his beard is scratching Ellie’s face. “No more surprising you.”

She nods, trying to calm down her racing heart. For a second there, she had thought he had been about to drop her down into the water. “Before you start to swim, you gotta learn how to float. It’ll be much easier after that.”

“I don’t float,” comes her automatic reply, and she has to stop herself from gripping his shoulders tighter at the perspective.

“You’ll learn. You gotta let go of me, though.”

Joel’s eyes are staring into hers, waiting for her to make a move. She can’t. “I’m afraid to.”

His face softens just a little at her words. “I know, but I’m here and I’m not letting you go until you’re ready.”

“Okay,” she breathes out, letting go of him. “Promise you won’t let me go?”

Joel chuckles. “Kid, it’s barely 4 feet deep, you can touch the bottom if you stand straight.”

He lowers her slightly into the water, gradually, so she can get used to the water surrounding her. It’s okay, you’re okay. Joel’s here. Still, she can’t help but instinctively clench her fists over nothing as she fights the urge to scale Joel’s body like a wall to get back to the nearest riverbank. “You’re doing okay, kid.” She nods, her whole body stiff from her nervousness.

He keeps her like this for a while, waiting for her to relax, telling her to place her arms or her legs in a certain way to help her stay afloat, his hands never leaving her back and thighs in doing so. “You’re getting the hang of this quicker than Sarah did,” he says softly, his eyes far away. “It took her a whole goddamn summer to stop clinging to the side of that pool.”

Ellie almost tries to sit up when he mentions his daughter, momentarily forgetting that she has no leverage to do so. “You never talk about her,” she remarks.

Joel shrugs, still keeping her afloat. “Most of the time it still hurts too much to think about her.” He leads them deeper in the water, slowly. “Okay, I’m going to let go of your legs now, and I want you to try to keep floating,” he says, changing the subject.

She nods, but as soon as he takes his hand away, her legs sink down like they’re made of concrete and she accidentally inhales water while trying to pull them back up. Joel lifts her half-way out of the water, sputtering and choking. “You okay?”

“Awesome,” she manages to cough out.

“Then let’s do it again.”

By the end of the afternoon, she has managed to float for a few seconds by herself and she can’t stop beaming. It’s a small step, but it’s still an improvement. She falls asleep as soon as her head hits the pillow, utterly exhausted.

The unbearably hot weather continues for another two weeks, and so do their swimming sessions. Whenever they can, they go down to the river, whether it’s for an hour or three, morning or evening. On her second lesson, Joel has her sit at the bottom of the river, just deep enough to have water over her head when she sits, but shallow enough to be able to get her head and shoulders out of it when she stands. Ellie knows he does it to get her used to being submerged without panicking, but it doesn’t stop her from being anxious everytime she dives down. It’s hard to differentiate drowning and swimming, but she tries her best.

Before long, Joel has her kicking her legs at the water, holding only her forearms to get her used to the movements, and then he’s holding her by the waist as he teaches her to paddle around like a dog. There is something natural to the way Joel patiently explains things to her. He is a good teacher, despite admitting that he had signed up Sarah for classes instead of teaching her himself, years ago.

He struggles to find the balance between supporting her full weight and letting her sink, and sometime after their third session, he crafts a makeshift harness for her out of some broken belts and ropes. Life-jackets and swimming boards would be better, he had defended himself, but he hadn’t seen one in over 15 years. She’s a little insulted at first when he insists she try it on, but she can’t deny it helps her a lot, allowing Joel to have a better grip on her – she’s not the smallest of students after all, and it’s hard for him to keep her afloat and far enough from him so she can move.

Then one day, he drags her deeper than they have ever been yet, deep enough for Joel to have to stand on his toes to keep his head out of the water. Ellie clings to him still, albeit not as tight as she would have had a week prior. “Alright,” he says, tilting his face up so the water doesn’t get in his mouth when he speaks. “I want you to swim all the way back, and I’ll hold you up as we go. Ready, kid?”

She nods and starts moving her arms and legs like he taught her. Ellie sinks under the surface a few times, but everytime she’s submerged Joel pulls on the back handle of her harness, pulling her up. The water gets in her eyes, and her limbs burn from the exercise – they’re definitely not used to swimming – but she presses forward and collapses in sheer exhaustion when she feels the soft mud on the shore scrape her knees.

“See? You almost didn’t need any help,” Joel’s smile is so wide it’s stretching his cheeks, and Ellie can’t remember the last time she’s seen him act like this. She can’t help but think this is what a proud father would look like, and her heart tightens when she realises how often he must’ve looked like this before the Outbreak, back when he had had a daughter to care for. It’s so easy for her to forget that not everyone grew up in a world with Quarantine Zones and ration cards.

“How did you learn how to swim?” Ellie blurts out, still a little out of breath from the exercise. “Did you take a class, like Sarah?”

Joel keeps quiet for a moment, and Ellie fears she went too far by mentioning his daughter when he doesn’t reply right away. The water is dripping from his hair into his eyes, but he doesn’t seem to notice or be bothered by it. “My old man taught me and Tommy,” he finally answers, and Ellie sighs in relief. “He though kids should learn how to swim as soon as they could walk. I don’t recall much of how he went about teaching us exactly, but I’ve always liked being in the water, as far as I can remember.”

“Did you swim often?”

“All the time. Back then, my folks had a pool in the backyard, and we used to have pool parties all the time during the summer,” a smile tugs at his lips at the memory. Ellie doesn’t remember him ever speaking that fondly of his life before the outbreak.

“Pool parties?”

“Yeah. My folks used to invite people over and we’d spend the afternoon swimming and floating around in the pool, eating hot-dogs and burgers… I always pushed Tommy back in the pool whenever he’d try to get out, until my mama would tell me to stop. He used to complain about it all the time.”

Ellie pondered his words for a moment. “It didn’t freak him out, being pushed in the water like that?” She thinks back to the times where she had been plunged unexpectedly in the water and she shivers at the thought.

Joel just chuckles. “Nah. Back then, almost everyone knew how to swim before they started school. It was part of the fun.”

“Wish I could be that comfortable around water…”

Joel nods in understanding. “Come on, let’s get back to it before it gets dark.”

They do the same thing a few more times, Ellie trying her best to swim forward and Joel holding her up whenever he has to to keep her from panicking. Everytime she makes her way back, it gets a little easier, and she gets a little faster.

By their fifth run, the sun is starting to set behind the tree line in the distance, and Ellie shivers a little. The temperature drops faster now when the sun goes down, as fall is inevitably drawing closer and closer. “One last time,” Joel says. “Then we go home.” Ellie happily let’s herself be towed back to their usual spot, floating the whole way. She found out that she kind of liked just floating about, shifting with the water’s movements. Who would’ve thought…

Joel turns 180 degrees so she faces the shore when they reach their destination, holding her in place. One last time.

She pushes against Joel’s leg with her feet, setting out toward the shore like they’ve done so many times tonight. Her legs are kicking relentlessly, her arms exiting and entering the water unsteadily but forcefully, like he taught her. She goes under a few times, but Joel pulls her upward just enough to keep her head above water. She keeps swimming until, once again her knees scrape hard against the mud, the hidden little pebbles digging in her skin.

“Okay, enough,” she chokes out, coughing. “If we do this again my arms might fall off.”

Ellie reaches an arm out to her left, searching for Joel’s shoulder to hang on to as she gets up, but her hand opens and closes on nothing a few times. Confused, Ellie looks to her side, but there is no one beside her. “Joel?”

She turns around, her eyes searching for the familiar figure for a second before they finally find him… still at their starting point. “Joel!”

He’s holding both of his arms up in victory, a beaming smile plastered on his face, accentuating the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. “Joel, you let go of me!”

She can’t decide if she should be mad or not.

Joel swims to her, his movements effortless compared to hers. “You didn’t need me, you just wanted a safety net to fall back on. You did it all on your own!”

Ellie breaks into a smile as the realization dawns on her. Joel hadn’t pulled her out of the water when her head had gone under on that last run – she had. She had been able to swim back to the surface and keep herself afloat. “I did it? I fucking did it! Joel, I can swim!” Her last word is muffled in Joel’s chest as he crashes into her, knocking the wind out of her lungs. He spins her around a few times before unceremoniously dropping her back into the water with a splash. She’s exhausted, her whole body feels sore, but right now Ellie is too happy to care.

She can’t wipe the smile off her face until they’re back all the way back in Jackson, the streets almost empty, save for the Masons sitting on their porch, watching the surroundings like they do every night. They give them a weird look, and Joel nods politely at the couple as they pass them by. They must make for funny sight, the both of them soaked to the bone, even though it had been sunny outside up until a few minutes ago. Her hair is dripping wet and she’s shivering, but the exhilarating feeling of finally confronting her fear of drowning is making her feel all warm inside despite the now chilly outside temperature.

“I can swim,” she repeats in disbelief as they reach the front door of their house.

“You can doggy paddle,” Joel corrects her, his amusement evident in his voice. “You still got a lot to learn before you can swim properly.”

Ellie smiles wider. “Can’t wait, old man.”

Joel went on to almost regret even teaching her how to swim in the first place, because, less than two years later, he caught her sneaking out of Jackson at the ass-crack of dawn to go “cliff-diving” with her friends at the dam. Apparently, they’d been doing it for weeks when he had found out, and really, it was a miracle Ellie hadn’t been sucked through one of the turbines yet. How that kid found risking her life and pushing her limits like this even remotely fun, he would never understand.

Decidedly, he was getting too old to keep up with a rebellious teenager phase, especially, he felt, coming from his reckless – and stubborn as all hell – adopted daughter.

Chapter Text

Ellie shivers uncontrollably for what seems like the third straight day, lying on her side on the frozen concrete floor in a corner of the abandoned house’s basement she had found shelter in a few days ago. Her hands are tucked into her coat sleeves, and her face is half-hidden in the collar of the coat she managed to find along the way, but even that isn’t enough to shield her from the bitter cold.

She opens her eyes, deciding that sleep would not come back to her anytime soon, and does a quick scan of the room. The windows are still bolted shut like she left them, the door still barricaded with a heavy chain and lock… and Joel’s limp body is still safely tucked in the blankets she scavenged from the upstairs bedrooms, his face grey and chalky. He looks dead. For a second, she can swear her heart stopped beating at the sight of him, but then he takes a shaky breath and she feels its panicked rhythm pounding away against her ribcage. He’s still alive. For now.

“Don’t leave me alone,” Ellie breathes out, hugging her knees tight to her chest. “Not you too.” She doesn’t know if her words her intended for herself or for the shell of the man she’d gotten to know, but she knows the hot tears she feels stinging her frozen cheeks aren’t going to help him. He needs something to lie on that’ll stop the cold. Maybe a carpet would do, or even a mattress if she can manage to find one.

Maybe trying to keep Joel alive is a lost cause, but she’d be damned if she wasn’t going to try her fucking best.

Ellie gets up, wiping the tears from her face. She’d have time to cry later, no matter the outcome.

 

Ellie blinks suddenly, her mind snapping back into focus. Back into her bedroom in Jackson, safe and warm.

“Ellie, we’re going to be late!”

Shit.

Ellie almost bangs her head against her nightstand jumping out of her bed, the comic book she had been trying to read, before her mind had wandered deep in her memories, falling to the floor and sliding under her dresser as she scrambles to her feet, the sound of Joel’s footsteps coming up the stairs getting closer by the second. She takes one look at the assortment of plates, cups and utensils lying on every flat surface of the room – no time to hide all of it. Joel appears in the doorway, buttoning his shirt. “So that’s where all the cutlery went,” he says, his eyes scanning the room before settling on her. “That what you’re wearing?”

Ellie’s eyes flicker to her flannel shirt and usual jeans. “What’s wrong with it?”

“Your jeans don’t have knees anymore and your shirt only has three buttons left,” he scowls, tugging at his collar.

“But it’s my favourite!”

Joel holds up his hands in defeat. “Alright, just hurry up and get yourself downstairs.” He turns around and walks back down to the ground floor, grumbling incoherently as he goes. Ellie doesn’t really care what he’s mumbling about, not anymore. Truth to be told, there isn’t much she actually cares about lately.

She exhales loudly – a sound awfully similar to Joel’s signature sigh of exasperation, come to think of it – as she shifts her gaze from the doorway to the window. Outside, the snow is falling steadily still, like it has been since yesterday evening, the snowflakes whirling wildly in the wind. Ellie shivers, even though she’s not cold. Fucking snow.

She settles for another pair of jeans, one without as many obvious holes in them that she had been working on sewing up in the during the past week – anything to keep herself from leaving the house. She keeps the flannel, though, frayed cuffs and missing buttons and all. She’s compromised enough for one night already.

When she drags herself downstairs, barely two minutes later, Joel is pacing in the living room by the front door, rubbing his thumb over the cracked face of the watch. “Took you long enough.”

“I’m here, aren’t I? What are we waiting for, let’s go.”

Joel steps aside, letting her open the door and leave the house. By the time he steps out the door himself, Ellie is already halfway to the street – the faster she can get to Tommy’s house, the better. “Ah, shit, hold on,” Joel shouts out from the porch. Ellie turns around to see him duck back into the house, not bothering to turn the lights back on as he does so. Not even a minute later, he emerges from the dark residence and shuts the door behind him with a click.

“Have to give Tommy my patrol report,” he offers in explanation when he catches up to her.

The snow is steadily falling outside and not showing signs of stopping any time soon. By the looks of it, there’ll probably be one more foot of accumulation outside before the next morning, in addition to the four already on the ground. Ellie shudders, burying her face in the hood of her jacket. Spring can’t come soon enough.  

They make their way to Tommy and Maria’s place in silence while Joel fiddles with the button on his cuff. “What’s on your mind, old man?”

Joel’s head snaps up, his right hand still on the left cuff of his worn-out jacket. “Huh?”

“Come on, Joel, I’m not stupid. In a year and a half, you never gave two shits about what I was wearing, and you certainly never dressed up for anything or anyone, and you look like it’s your fucking wedding day.”

“Language, kid. And I’m not that well-dressed, it’s just a clean shirt.”

“To be fair I’ve never seen you wear anything that didn’t look about to fall apart. So, are you going to tell me what’s going on?”

Joel shrugs and keeps fidgeting with the button until Ellie hears a ripping sound over the howling wind. “Well fucking damn,” he grumbles, holding his torn jacket up to his eyes.

Language, you old fart.”

“You’re a weird kid.”

“You’re a weird guy,” Ellie retorts, a smile barely tugging at the corner of her lips. It feels weird, she hasn’t smiled in what feels like ages, it’s like her cheek muscles are, well, numb. Joel stops in his tracks to look at her with a concerned expression on his face, but only for a second before he goes back to his usual neutral expression and steady walk.

“It’s nice to see you smile again,” he says simply as they resume walking in the empty streets of Jackson to Tommy and Maria’s place. “Haven’t seen you look happy in a long time.”

Ellie scratches the back of her neck, smiling slightly. “Well, I’m living with you, you’re not exactly a cheery guy yourself.”

Joel chuckles at her remark. “So… I guess that’s worth an answer to my question then?”

“Alright,” Joel scoffs. “This is the first Christmas I get to actually spend with Tommy since the Outbreak, I’m just a little nervous. It brings back some memories.”

They keep quiet for a little while, trying their best not to sink knee deep in the ever-growing pile of snow on the way. It’s easier for Ellie, she’s much lighter than Joel is. “I know you guys were apart for a few years there, but you never celebrated Christmas while you were together?”

Joel shakes his head. “Nah. The best part about the holidays for me was giving presents to the people I cared about, and after I lost Sarah, I didn’t much see the point in it anymore. I just stopped enjoying a lot of things after she passed away… It changed me, when she died. It was like the part of me that knew how to enjoy things died with her.”

Ellie nods. “Must’ve been horrible,” she breathes out, barely audible over the howling wind around them.

Joel squeezes her shoulder. To the unsuspecting onlooker, it may look like he’s simply helping her over the snowbank, but she knows by now it is meant to comfort himself at the same time. Ellie never had to say it, but Joel seems to know that whenever he mentions his daughter, winter, or even hunting, she keeps thinking back to last winter, where everything was about surviving, and surviving only. Enjoying things hadn’t been an option, between him getting impaled and David trying to kill her. To this day, she isn’t even sure she can enjoy anything to its full potential anymore. Joel doesn’t say anything. There is nothing to say. She appreciates that. He doesn’t try to say that the pain gets better with time, because he of all people know it doesn’t.

At night, Jackson looks a lot more like a ghost town than it does during the day, the houses with the lights on inside of them far outnumbered by the empty ones plunged in the dark. With everyone running about during the day, Ellie often forgets that there’s not even enough people in Jackson to occupy all the houses. At night, most of them look closer to haunted houses than warm homes.

They kept quiet the rest of the way to Tommy and Maria’s place. The snow gets into Ellie’s face, neck and even inside her coat, and she can’t wait to get inside. The feeling of the cold snowflakes on her makes her skin crawl.

Joel only has to knock once before the front door to his brother’s house swings open to reveal a flour-covered Tommy sporting a very displeased look on his face. “Here I was thinking I’d be the first one to have a full head of white hair,” Joel cocks his head to the side, examining the man in front of them. “The years have not been kind to you, little brother.”

“Well, that’s what happens when you run a town,” he replies before opening the door wider, letting them in. Flour flies out of his hair when he turns around and marches back into the kitchen out of view. “Maria! Joel and Ellie are here.”

“Great, get them to help you with those pies, I’d like them to be ready before next week and I’d like it if you didn’t disappear in a cloud of flour in the process,” Maria’s voice replies from upstairs.

Joel chuckles and shuts the door behind them. Tommy and Maria’s house is a little more spacious than the one she shares with Joel, but it has the same outdated feel to it and flickering lightbulbs. Sure, they have electricity because of the dam, but the wiring in the whole town is in dire need of an update. Well, everywhere except for the clinic, which Maria insisted they keep as technologically updated as possible.

They hang their coats on the hooks beside the door and take off their boots. “This a part of your usual Christmas traditions?” Ellie asks before they go further inside the house.

Joel doesn’t bother to answer her question, instead raising an eyebrow in surprise at the sight awaiting them in their host’s kitchen. Behind the counter, Tommy is looking at his work with an exasperated look on his face, an apron covered in flour laying discarded behind him on a chair. “Well that’s a new tradition,” Joel breathes out, his eyes widening at the mess his brother made.

“Maria’s family used to make pies for desert on Christmas Day before… well, before,” Tommy grumbles, running a hand through his hair. So that’s why he has flour on his head. “I wanted to cheer her up a bit.”

“You do know that the flour goes on the counter and not all in the actual dough.”

“Do I look like I knew that, Joel?”

Ellie steps away from the bickering brothers just as they start arguing about who the better cook is. If there is one thing she learned from the brothers’ relationship, it’s that, if no one stops them, they can argue until the end of time. They never take it too seriously, but both have a tendency to stick to their guns no matter what, which inevitably causes friction sometime. She’s not in the mood for it, so she steps into the living room instead.

It’s bigger than the one she and Joel have in their house, with enough space for two sofas, an armchair and a coffee table in the middle of the room, whereas their living room only fits one narrow couch and a rocking chair that somehow always ends up halfway into the dining room whenever anyone sits on it. Guess they had a lot of opportunities to pick up stuff in however many fucking years they’ve lived here.

There are a few pictures hanging on the wall. Most of them are yellowed by the sun or wrinkled by water, but it’s still possible to make out the faces on them. There are some of a young girl, who she assumes is Maria, in different settings and with different people. Ellie gets closer, her nose almost brushing against the picture. The man in some of the photos looks familiar, but at the same time she can’t quite place him.

“I miss having that much hair on my head, now my scalp gets sunburnt all the time.”

“Oh my… motherfucker!” Ellie yells out, spinning around so fast her eyes barely keep up with the movement. “You scared me half to death, Leonard. Not cool, I’m too young to die of a heart attack.”

The older man standing behind her smiles, his eyes fixed on the picture she was looking at. She now recognizes a younger, happier looking Leonard, posing proudly with a young Maria, maybe five or six years old, next to a red pick-up truck. Knew he looked familiar for a reason.

Joel looks over from the kitchen, a dish towel slung over his shoulder and his hands full of flour and pie dough. “Good to see you, Lenny. Glad you’re feeling better.” Joel’s eyes catch hers, and Ellie can practically hear him telling her to behave. Watch your language, kiddo. She smirks. He’s taking his guardian role very seriously.

“That picture was taken when I first got that truck. First one I ever bought,” Leonard says. “Maria used to love riding in it because she could see everything from up there. Her mom hated it though… she called it the death cab.”

“What did you think of it?”

Leonard laughs heartily. “Oh, it was an absolute liability, it’s a wonder it never exploded in my face. To be fair it did catch fire in Dallas. Don’t repeat that to anyone.”

Footsteps approach behind them and Maria appears from what Ellie assumes is their bedroom, fixing one of her earrings. “Are you still talking about the truck, Dad? Such a shame it was stolen while you were on that business trip.”

Ellie raises an eyebrow in confusion, and Leonard winks at her behind Maria’s back as she runs toward the kitchen.

“Oh my god, Tommy, the oven’s on fire!”

***

“And then she realised, she was sending messages to her ex’s Facebook all along!”

The whole table erupts into laughter… well, the whole table except for Ellie. Man, I really need to figure out what that book of faces everyone keeps mentioning is.

The laughter quiets down a little, enough for Ellie to place a few words in. “Can you pass me the pears?”

Joel slides the opened can from across the table. Canned pears, peaches and cranberries were the next best dessert option after the pies Tommy had been trying so hard to bake had died in a tragic fire, killing the oven along with it. Still, it was a pretty good end to one of the tastiest meals Ellie had ever had the pleasure of eating. Not to diminish Joel’s abilities as a cook, but his reheated canned beans were no match for Maria’s turkey.

“Where did you learn to cook like this?” Ellie had asked as she had shovelled forkful after forkful of turkey and mashed potatoes in her mouth. “This is delicious.”

“My cooking is good too,” Joel interjected, obviously offended.

Ellie hadn’t bothered answering. It didn’t help his case that the most complex meal he had attempted – in front of Ellie, at least – had been a chicken that had ended up giving them both food poisoning. At least now, no one was desperately running for the bathroom, so that was a point in favor of Tommy’s wife.

“I see how it is. Let’s see you try to cook dinner tomorrow then, see how good you are.”

The rest of the meal had continued without a hitch, eventually moving on from the main course to the last-minute dessert and whiskey for the adults around the table. Joel had shot her a disapproving look when she had handed her glass to Maria so she could pour her a drink, so she had settled for water as Leonard, Tommy, Maria and Joel went back to reminiscing their younger days – more allusions to things Ellie did not understand. Prom, clubs, frat parties – whatever those were. Tommy had apparently had a very entertaining time in college.

When Joel was busy examining the old picture of Leonard’s truck and exchanging comments about which model had been the better one in 2001, Tommy poured the content of his own glass into Ellie’s bowl of fruit with a wink. Peaches and whiskey were a pretty damn good combination, all things considered.

It was toward the end of the evening when Tommy audibly cleared his throat.

"Alright, so while you two are here, Maria and I got an announcement to make."

Joel's fork stills halfway to his open mouth, his eyes darting between his brother and his wife. "Don't tell me it's what I think it is." His eyes are fixed on his brother, unmoving, as if he was waiting for him to attack. Or faint, Ellie couldn’t tell.

Tommy takes Maria's hand in his own, rubbing his thumb over her fingers and before placing a kiss on her knuckles. "Ah, shit," Joel growls, his spoon clanking on the table as he lets it fall from his fingers.

"Ah shit indeed… Can't say it was exactly planned."

Joel pinches the bridge of his nose and Ellie finally realises what Tommy's words mean – not that she’d admit it, but the alcohol might have affected her reasoning just a little. "Jesus Christ, you guys are having a fucking baby!"

Joel doesn't reprimand her like he does so often now that they are living in Jackson, he just continues to stare open-mouthed at his brother. Quiet Joel is a scary Joel. "Are you absolutely insane?" he finally hisses. "How can you be that stupid?"

"Well, we went 11 years without getting pregnant, I'd say it's not a bad ratio at all."

Joel’s eyebrows shoot straight up, so high that they disappear under the hair falling over his forehead. "I managed to go the last 33 years without getting anyone pregnant, that's a good ratio!"

Tommy scoffs indignantly. "You’re one to talk, you had a kid when you were 17!"

Leonard clears his throat and gets up from his chair, nodding at everyone. "Well, it's getting late, I think I'll head on home. Joel, Ellie, Merry Christmas to you. Maria, Tommy -- congratulations again."

"I'll walk you out," Maria chips in. She’s probably eager to leave, just like Ellie herself is. She leans in to plant a kiss on Tommy's cheek and leaves, escorting her dad out. "Don't kill each other, you two, I just washed the floors."

Joel doesn't acknowledge her leaving, his eyes burning a hole into Tommy's skull. Ellie fidgets with her hands, wishing she could just disappear through the wall. “Lenny already knew about this? And he's okay with it?"

Tommy shifts his chair closer to Joel's. How he though getting closer to the obviously angered man when all the signs were encouraging him to do the exact opposite baffled her – she certainly wouldn’t have picked that option. "Look, man, I know you think we're being stupid being happy about having a baby, but..."

"You are stupid."

"But we really are happy about this. I want this. Can you just be happy for us?"

Joel glares at him still. Man, how she wishes she could disappear through her chair. "I'll put these away," Ellie says, finally finding an excuse to get up. She grabs the cans of fruits and busies herself transferring the rest of the contents in some plastic containers, so they can be stored easier.

At the table, Joel still hasn't spoken. Neither has Tommy. Silent arguments must've been a pretty common with those two when they were kids.

Joel finally clears his throat. "What's the due date?"

"Hard to say exactly, it’s not like we’re equipped to figure that out here. Maria seems to think sometime around May or June."

Suddenly the whole house goes completely dark, and the sudden contrast leaves Ellie momentarily unable to see her own hands until her eyes adjust to the ambient darkness.

The front door opens and a feminine figure walks in, illuminated by the snow reflecting the moonlight. "There's no power anywhere in the settlement," Maria announces, grabbing her coat from the hooks by the entrance. "Probably something wrong with one of the turbines again. I'll go have a look."

"I'll come with you," Tommy shouts back, leaping from his chair. "I'll go grab the flashlights and my jacket."

He sets out toward his bedroom, using his hands against the walls to keep from bumping into the furniture as he goes. Joel grumbles something and steps outside too, barely nodding at Maria when he passes her by, only slowing down to grab his jacket. The woman shakes her head and follows him outside, calling his name out in the night.

Ellie awkwardly shuffles about until she reaches the door, only banging her toes on one of the chairs once. "Hey, Ellie?"

Tommy catches up to her, the flashlight in his hand casting a soft glow in front of him. He gives her shoulder a soft squeeze. "Listen, I know you're not really Joel's kid and all, but I want you to know that, whatever happens, as far as I'm concerned, you're always going to be the little one's big cousin Ellie. You're a part of this fucked up family now."

He turns away and steps out the door, tightening his jacket around him to protect himself from the bitter cold. She’s glad he doesn’t linger, because Ellie can already feel her throat closing up from the emotion. Never before had someone said something like that to her, and actually meant it.

“Ellie! Take one of the least burnt pies home with you, will you?”

She doesn’t have the heart to tell Tommy that there is no ‘least burnt pie’, so she grabs the first one she can reach and runs after Joel.

He is already heading up their street when she finally manages to catch up with him. “What the hell’s your problem?” 

Joel stops dead in his tracks, making Ellie – and the pie – crash into his back. She collapses to the ground, sinking apparently endlessly into the snow. “What did you say to me?”

Ellie pulls herself up, grabbing the crushed remains of the pie with one hand and dusting herself off with the other. “Don’t pretend you’re going deaf in your old age, you heard what I said. Tommy was really excited to tell you and you ruined it for everyone.”

Joel shrugs and keeps walking to their house. “Why can’t you just be happy for him?” Still, he doesn’t answer, and only when Ellie gets tired of him acting like she’s not even there and pushes him into the door – not hard, she just wants him to turn around after all – does he give any sign of having heard anything she said in the past minute.

“Why are you happy for him, Ellie?” he asks, and she finds she has no answer prepared for that question.

“I don’t know, they’re in love and they look happy about it, so why shouldn’t I be? This is a safe place. You can’t blame them for being excited about starting a family together.”

Joel rests his forehead against the door for a second before finally turning to face her. His eyes are hard, but otherwise devoid of emotion. “Oh yes, they love each other alright. Head over heals for each other, these too. But you know what? Once they have that baby, they’re going to love it so much that their love for each other will mean nothing in comparison. And it’s going to absolutely kill them inside when something happens to that kid, because of that.”

Ellie is taken aback, “Why does anything have to happen at all? That kid could live a safe and happy life, you don’t know!”

“Name one person you know who’s lived a life like that.”

She opens her mouth to answer, but no names come to mind. Joel’s expression is unreadable. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.

As he turns the doorknob, it dawns on her. “This isn’t about Tommy. It’s about Sarah. How you won’t let yourself get attached to people so you can’t be hurt like that again.”

Joel eyes lock onto hers, and she’s taken back to that ranch, over a year ago, when she had last mentioned Sarah to confront him. When he speaks, his voice is low, barely above a whisper, but Ellie is relieved to find out it doesn’t hold an ounce of aggressivity toward her. “Sarah’s been dead for 21 years, this has nothing to do with it. Tommy just doesn’t know how dangerous it is to love someone that much, how consuming it is. I can’t see him get hurt like that, I can’t let him down again.”

She doesn’t know what overcomes her in that moment, but she throws herself into Joel’s unexpecting arms, the pie falling forgotten on the porch. “You can’t protect everyone, Joel” she hears her own voice speak, muffled against his jacket. “No matter how much you want to.”

 

“I couldn’t save her. I had one job, and I couldn’t do it right. My baby girl died because I wasn’t good enough.”

Ellie turns to Joel. This is the first time he has spoken in days, and even though his voice is hoarse and shaky, it feels good to hear it again. She knows it’s the fever talking more than anything, but the hopeful part of her wants to take that as a sign that he is doing better. The pessimistic side takes it as a sign that he’s losing it.

Joel struggles to keep his bleary eyes opened and trained on her as he speaks. “Then I swore to protect Tommy, and I drove him away from me.”

“Your brother made his own choice, you can’t blame yourself for this.”

Her own voice sounds millions of miles away. She has no idea what happened between the two brothers, really, but she can’t imagine it was Joel’s fault – at least not all of it. Joel shakes his head weakly. “If I’m not there, how can I keep him from getting hurt?”

His head falls back onto the pillow and Ellie rushes to his side. “I promised Tess… I promised her I’d take you to Tommy, just to realize I couldn’t make sure you were alright if I left you with him. And now I failed again.”

Ellie doesn’t have time to think of a response before his eyes roll back into his head and he falls back into unconsciousness.

 

She feels Joel’s arms close around her after the initial surprise of her sudden movement has subsided. She wasn’t expecting her mind to go back to that moment, and it caught her by surprise.

“What’s gotten into you?”

Ellie shrugs. “Just glad you’re still here.”

He understands, but answers nothing. There is nothing to say, she knows there’s nowhere else his grumpy ass would rather be. “Come on inside, we’ll freeze to death out here.” His voice is softer, and Ellie pulls away from him.

He turns the doorknob and steps aside, letting her enter first, and almost knocks her over when she stops dead in her tracks as soon as she steps one foot inside the dark house. “Holy shit, Joel.”

In the middle of their living room, where the rocking chair used to be, stands a crooked Christmas tree, the wrinkled, hand-made foil star sitting on the top of it brushing against the ceiling. It takes up even more space than the chair had, blocking half of the stairs to go up to her room so she’d surely have to crawl her way up there. It was devoid of any decorations, save for the star and a coloured paper garland wrapping around the tree, but stopping just short of the bottom. “Dina made that.” Joel offers. “She felt it wasn’t festive enough.”

Ellie is still frozen in place when Joel slams the door shut behind her. “So, are you going to open anything or stare at it until they unwrap themselves?”

“What?”

Joel pushes her lightly forward and with a few more steps she can just make out the two bundles wrapped in old newspapers, waiting under the tree. The couch had been blocking her view from the doorway. Joel lights a bunch of candles on the kitchen counter, lighting enough of the room so they can see each other.

“Wow,” she breathes out, words escaping her. She’s never had Christmas presents before. “That’s for me?”

Joel chuckles. “Nah, it’s for the cat next door.”

She approaches the presents cautiously. Jeez, it’s not going to jump out at you. The first one is square, the size of a shoebox, and it is sitting alongside the second one, a smaller one that has no definite shape.

Joel sinks into the couch, huffing as he does so. In the candlelight, he looks even more tired than usual, but the smirk tugging at the corner of his lips betrays his amusement at the whole situation.

Ellie tentatively reaches out to grab the first one, glancing back at Joel to make sure he isn’t making fun of her or pranking her in anyway – not that she knows him as much of a prankster, anyway. He motions for her to go on, and she rips the precarious wrapping off in less time than it took for her to pick it up in the first place. She finds herself with a cardboard shoebox in her hands, and she’s met by the sight of over a dozen tapes when she pulls the lid off. “Thought you might enjoy some more music for that walkman of yours.”

She smiles so widely at him she thinks her cheeks might split open. She reaches for the second one, and her fingers break through the paper as she grabs it, revealing the slightest hint of a grey and blue checkered pattern. “You really don’t like this one, do you?” Ellie asks, holding a brand-new flannel shirt up to her eyes. And by brand new, it is brand new – it still has a price tag attached to the inside of it, not that the price on the piece of paper means anything to her. Ellie can’t remember ever owning clothes that had never been worn before.

“Well, it’s getting a little small for you… and you know, this one is a little warmer. Better for winter and all.”

“I love it.” She can’t stop beaming. “Thank you, Joel. I’m sorry I don’t have anything for you.”

He dismisses her with a grunt as he gets up. “Don’t thank me yet, I still have another one for you. Close your eyes.”

Ellie has never obeyed a command that fast in her life, the smile never leaving her lips, the foreign feeling of excitement rising within her. She hears his steps move away from her before coming closer again, a soft thud signaling to her that whatever he had left to get had been placed before her. “I didn’t have enough paper to wrap it. Open your eyes, kiddo.”

She does. Before her, laid out on the carpet, lies a faded black acoustic guitar case with golden-coloured latches keeping it shut. “No way!”

Joel’s smile is as wide as hers. “What are you waiting for, open it!” She doesn’t need to be told twice. Her hands flip the latches open slowly, with controlled, measured movements, as if her fingers were touching some sacred relic and not a banged up and dusty guitar case. Inside lies a brown acoustic guitar, the dark color of the wood around the edges fading to a lighter one in the middle. “No way,” Ellie repeats, unable to form another coherent sentence. It’s beautiful.

“Found it a while back on a scavenging trip. I promised to teach you, back in Pittsburgh. We never talked about it after, but if you want to, I could show you a few things. If that’s something you want, of course.”

He’s scratching the back of his neck – he seems nervous. Ellie carefully lifts the instrument out of the case, holding it close to her. The strings are cold against her fingertips, and she finds that they dig deep into the skin at the tips of her fingers. It feels weird to hold the guitar, like it’s meant for someone much bigger than she is. “It’s beautiful, Joel.”

He nods in agreement. “I already tuned it, if you want to try it.”

She brushes her right hand against the strings, and the sound that comes out of the instrument is absolutely awful. Ellie loves it. For a while, she’s content with just experimenting with the different strings, and different hand positions – not that she has any idea what she’s doing. Joel just watches her, his eyes smiling in a way his lips can never match. Finally, she looks up at him. “Will you show me how to play?”

Joel pulls a chair from the kitchen in front of her. “So, these things are called the frets…” he begins.

Teaching her is a tedious process – and a painful one too, Ellie finds out as her fingertips go numb after only a few minutes – and she can’t remember half the words he used to describe the different parts of the instrument and their purposes. The ambient darkness isn’t helping much, but Ellie throws herself fully into the lesson. She doesn’t know how long they stay like this, but her eyes are burning by the time all the lights come back on in the house at once.

“Guess they figured out what was wrong with the dam,” Joel says as he glances at the wall clock beside the front door. “Alright, time for bed, you’re on stable duty tomorrow.”

Ellie regretfully puts the guitar back in its case. “Can I ask you a question?” Joel nods, picking up the ripped pieces of newspaper from the floor as he gets up. “Where the hell was that tree hidden?”

He chuckles. “In my closet.”

“And the presents?”

“The one place I knew you would never look – the cleaning supplies closet.”

Ellie scoffs. “Hey, I clean sometimes.”

“Yeah, you clean out my house of all the food I manage to get.”

“I’m a growing teen, I’ll have you know.”

Joel throws the papers in a corner of the kitchen, not really caring where the ball he crumbled them into falls. “You’re a growing stomach on two legs.”

Ellie chucks the last piece of paper at his face. “Alright, old man. You win, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’ve been bunking in with a dead tree for who-the-fuck-knows how long.”

“Yes, and I’ll have you know that the tree and I grew very close. Expect an invite to our wedding any day now.”

“Can I be the tree’s maid of honor?”

“I was thinking you could officiate.”

Ellie smiles, closing the final latch on the guitar case and picking it up. “Sounds like a plan.”

They stare at each other in silence for a moment, neither of them knowing how to end the moment. “It’s a pretty damn good first Christmas,” she says. “Thank you.”

He nods. “You deserve much more than that, baby girl.”

Ellie feels her throat close up at the nickname, knowing that it was Sarah’s. Joel eyes divert uncomfortably from hers, recognizing the emotion within them and choosing not to call her out on it. “Though you almost got a dead squirrel before in that case before I cleaned it out.”

The comment saves her from the awkwardness she feels. “It snow problem, I’m still a little hungry.”

Joel growls. “That’s your worst pun of the year, by a long stretch. Get out of here, before I take that guitar away already.”

“Aw, it snow fun anymore!”

“Ellie.”

She practically leaps upstairs, the guitar safely tucked away against her chest. She never sees Joel’s amused gaze follow her until she’s out of sight.

***

Much later that night, Joel is about to get himself into bed when he sees the light seep from under Ellie’s bedroom door. He pushes the door open as silently as he can, avoiding the creaky second step from the top on his way up. He’s just about to flip the switch off when he catches a glimpse of Ellie, in her bed.

She’s sprawled out on her mattress, her blanket discarded on the floor beside her. Joel smiles at the sight of the teen lying flat on her back, one arm raised by her head and the other wrapped loosely around the guitar. Over the past month, ever since the first snow had fallen on the ground, the few hours she was actually sleeping at night were spent with her fists closed and by her head, ready to strike, a stark contrast with her current position, and mumbling incoherently. Most of the time, she would wake up screaming or punching a threat in front of her only she could see. Most nights though, Joel could hear her pacing above his head well into the night, while he himself was trying to sleep in his bedroom below. It broke his heart, to hear her like this without knowing how to comfort her, and it made him realize just how little he knew of what she had been through to keep him alive. Ellie never told him – he never asked – but he suspected that the cannibal town and David hadn’t been her only hardship that winter. How he wishes he could take her pain away.

Joel makes his way to her bed. He hasn’t seen her that peaceful in weeks, but tonight, he was granted a rare glimpse of the Ellie he knew, smiling and joking. She’s snoring lightly – a fact she denies vehemently when awake – her mouth slightly open. He brushes the lone strand of hair stuck to her lips away from her face and delicately puts the guitar back in the open case by the foot of the bed. Joel grabs the blanket from the floor as he gets up, his knees creaking when he rises, and covers Ellie with it. She stirs when he covers her, and for a second, he’s afraid he has woken her up, but she simply buries her face deeper into her pillow.

“M’rry ‘smas,” she mumbles, not opening her eyes. Joel can’t tell if she’s asleep or not.

Joel backtracks to the door, flicking the light switch off. “Merry Christmas, baby girl,” he whispers in the darkness.

Chapter Text

Inventory duty, as Ellie had quickly found out, was a long and tedious and not at all entertaining process. When the assignment sheet for the week had been put up on the board in the town hall, Ellie had been delighted to find her name had finally been added to the rotation, after months of pestering Joel, Tommy, Maria, Leonard, and basically anyone else she could think of – one step closer to getting to go on patrol. Or guard duty, at the very least. Yes, she had been ecstatic… for a grand total of two seconds and a half, until she noticed exactly what she had been assigned to for the week.

Inventory.

She thinks she might’ve groaned out loud, judging by the stern look Joel had sent her way. The next afternoon, right as her mandatory morning classes had ended, she had found herself in one of the storage buildings’ basement, armed with a notepad and a pencil, surrounded by seemingly never-ending shelves of canned goods and bags of potatoes, carrots, onions and other produce.

She managed to count the contents of the very first shelf before deciding that she would no doubt go insane before the week was over. Three days later, she started dreaming about a carousel of cans and vegetables and bottles of alcohol. That’s it, this is how I’m going to lose it.

When she got to her headquarters, as she had taken to calling the warehouse basement, she was displeased to find that one of the windows had swung open from the strong winds of the past night and had shattered on the concrete floor. “Piece of shit,” she mumbles under her breath, little puffs of condensation coming out of her mouth. “I knew I should’ve brought my coat.” She had been warm enough in her hoodie on the walk over, but she had expected to spend her afternoon in a semi-heated room and not an outside temperature one. The early March weather was anything but forgiving, but at least there weren’t piles of snow as tall as she was outside anymore, so that was a plus.

Continually swearing under her breath, Ellie sets out to find some spare wooden planks to at least try to close the gaping hole in the wall where the glass panel used to be, which is no hard task, considering how many falling apart and inhabited houses there are in Jackson. They are a big settlement, as far she knows, but it is still a far cry from what the original head-count must have been, before the outbreak, meaning most of the abandoned houses were still empty, preserving old memories of past lives under a thick layer of dust. Once a month, there would be a crew assigned to clean out one of the houses in case some friendly people in need of a place to live happened to stumble upon Jackson. Still, the streets closer to the borders were inhabited, the residents preferring to settle in closer to the center of town – Downtown, as the older residents called it – where the community center, the clinic, the patrol headquarters, the old church and the storage warehouses were.

Twenty minutes, a tarp, a few planks, and a badly bruised, most likely broken, thumb later, the wind has stopped infiltrating the room. It’s still cold as fuck, but at least there is no wind to make it worse anymore.

“All right, it’s just you and me, sad stack of… ‘canned beets in vinegar’. Man, that sounds disgusting,” Ellie says out loud as she reads the faded label on the first can of the section.

“Oh, it absolutely is.”

Ellie’s yelp of surprise echo off the wall, as does the clank of the metal can when it slips out of her hands and hits the concrete floor, rolling under one of the shelves she was planning on inventorying that day. “Fuck, Dina! You can’t knock, or say ‘Hi’ like a normal person?” She bends downs to pick up the can and she sees from the corner of her eye a pair of jean-clad legs and leather cowboy boots approach her.

“Now where’s the fun in that?”

“I swear to God, Dina, one day I will punch the fucking lights out of you before I realise who the idiot who snuck up on me is.”

Dina bends down next to her and steals the can from her hands. “Dear, you may bark loudly, but we both know your gentle soul is incapable of hurting my sweet face.”

“Not that I would lack a reason to,” Ellie grumbles, a slight smile tugging at her lips, getting up and dusting the knees of her pants. “Aren’t you supposed to be training at the clinic today?”

“Jessica is sick, she told me to take today and tomorrow off since there is no on else on hand to train me.” Dina hoists herself up on one of the empty shelves beside them, making imaginary quotation marks in the air at the word ‘sick’. The piece of rusted metal squeaks suspiciously under her weight, but it shows no sign of giving out under her. “She’s been sick every morning for the past week and a half, only eats potatoes dipped in mayonnaise at lunch and yesterday she cried because she saw a ‘cute’ kitten that turned out to be a baby raccoon digging its way into exam room 3.”

“So, pregnant again?”

“Most definitely. After this one her husband and her are going to be only two kids short of a full baseball team, that’s an achievement.”

“I’m not sure it is, but if you say so,” Ellie snickers, organizing the cans in front of her by content, and then by size.

She works in silence for a while until Dina’s voice breaks it. “Speaking of being pregnant…”

Ellie drops her second can of the day and it lands right on her left foot. “Ow, fuck!” Her toes throb painfully, and she can swear she hard something crack. Great, first the thumb, now the foot. Her mind snaps back to the reason she dropped those canned beets in the first place. “What, you… what? Who? When? No way.”

“Oh, calm down Freckles, I’m not growing a mini-me, I was going to ask you about Maria.”

Ellie blushes, and Dina thankfully pretends not to notice. “Oh. She’s doing okay, I guess. She’s due in a few weeks. Says she can’t wait for the baby to be born so she can see her own feet again.”

Dina laughs, and the sound echoes off the walls of the storage room making it seem like there’s more than one of her finding this funny. Ellie can’t help but chuckle too, as she goes back to counting and organizing the contents on the shelf in front of her. Dina has a way of laughing that is contagious. “You really thought I got knocked up?”

“Shut up, it’s not like it’s impossible.

Dina raises an eyebrow. “Did anyone ever have the talk with you? Because I’m not sure you actually know how babies are made.”

“I hate you,” Ellie grumbles, even though she can feel the slightest hint of a smile tugging at the corner of her lips. Of course, no one had ever had the talk with her – Joel probably would have spontaneously combusted out of sheer embarrassment before getting one full sentence out – but that didn’t mean she had no idea how it all worked. She had ears, and sex hadn’t really been a taboo subject amongst the Boston Military Preparatory School’s students. “So, Morgan?”

“Hand stuff only, but we’re over now so it doesn’t really matter.”

“Oh. Cool.”

Ellie turned back to the task at hand. The rows and rows of different things she had to count for inventory seemed never-ending. It would be lucky if she finished it all by the end of the month, never mind the end of the week. She thought she had managed to successfully ignore Dina when a pair of arms lands on her shoulders, and suddenly Ellie is staring into a pair of curious brown eyes. “Dina, I have to get this done!”

“Alright, alright, this won’t take long. Promise.” Ellie groans, but she lets the notepad fall to her side nonetheless, which Dina takes as an invitation to step closer to her and join her hands loosely behind Ellie’s neck. The closeness warms her up just a little, but Dina’s breath tickles her face. She can live with that for a while. 

Ellie exhales loudly. “What do you want?”

Dina looks mockingly offended. “What makes you think I want anything? I could just want to get closer to you, you know.” It’s Ellie’s turn to raise an eyebrow at her comment, and Dina’s offended face falls like a mask. “You got me, I have a favor to ask.”

“I’m all ears, since apparently you won’t let me do any work before I hear you out.”

“You’re learning so fast!” Dina excitedly squeals out. Her voice hits a much higher pitch when she gets excited like this over things, Ellie noticed over the past few months. This isn’t good. “Anyway, what I need you to do is very, very, simple.”

Her voice is back down to its normal pitch. She lets one of her hands fall from Ellie’s neck and slightly taps the tip of her nose. “I need you to close your eyes and ignore what I’m going to do. Think you can manage that, Freckles?”

“Sounds an awful lot like you’re going to murder someone under my nose.”

“Almost.” Dina waltzes away from her with that confident walk she uses whenever she’s trying to prove a point. Or impress someone. Or make fun of someone. Alright, she walks like this most of the time, but it’s so different from the way anyone else she knows walks that Ellie can’t help but notice. And notice that she strides straight over to the very last shelf in the room, the shelf containing all the alcohol bottles that had been found on scavenging trips – well, most of them. Joel had been fairly transparent about the people he was on patrol with smuggling some of the bottles home instead of handing them over like the rest of the salvaged supplies upon their arrival.

Dina grabs one of the bottles labelled ‘Vodka’. “What the fuck are you doing, put that back!”

“I told you not to look!”

Ellie walks over to Dina and tries to snag the bottle from her hand, but the girl has a death grip around the neck of it. She’s deceptively strong, and the alcohol doesn’t leave her grasp. “Leonard will know it’s me if a bottle goes missing now, and I’ll be stuck with stable duty and school forever.”

“Sweet, sweet innocent Ellie,” Dina starts, putting her other hand on top of the one Ellie has on the bottle, and she can’t help but roll her eyes in annoyance. “Why do you think I picked a bottle of clear alcohol?”

“Because you like it?”

“No, silly dear, because it looks like…” Dina trails off, waiting for Ellie to complete her sentence.

Ellie scoffs. “Water.” Her fingers loosen, and Dina shoves the bottle inside her coat as soon as they do. “Dina, no one will fall for that.”

“Of course not, but by the time anyone realises it, there will have been a bunch of other people on inventory duty, and no way to link this back to you specifically,” Dina explains. “Smart, isn’t it?”

Ellie shakes her head. “Stupid is the word you’re looking for.”

“Stupid, smart, if it works, who cares?” Dina zips her coat up to her neck, shrugging. “Anyway, Jesse’s having a few people over tonight for drinks, it would be great if you finally stopped by to grace us with your presence.”

Jesse is having people over? Silent and brooding Jesse, our Jesse?” Ellie could swear her eyebrows shot up so high in surprise that they disappeared into her hairline.

Dina gives a non-comital shrug. “He doesn’t exactly know yet. Alrighty then, see you tonight, Freckles!”

The older girl leans up a little as she passes her by – Ellie had kept on getting taller since Joel and her had arrived in Jackson (having regular, balanced meals probably helped) and the two girls now stood about the same height, when just six months before, Dina was the taller one by over an inch – and plants a quick kiss on her cheek, near her ear. Right as she gets to the exit, she turns around and gives a mock-salute. “I thank you for your blindness, Private Williams.”

She blinks a few times, frozen in place watching Dina walk out of the room. “No problem,” she whispers, after the door already shut behind Dina.

When she finally brings herself to go back to counting potato bags and whatnot, she swears she can still feel her friend’s lips on her skin.

***

By the time Ellie finished counting, arranging and throwing away rotten carrots and onions, it was already dark outside. She briefly considered continuing with another section, but no way was she even attempting to go through the older sacks of potatoes that she was willing to bet were older than her. Or just a few weeks old, which was basically the same thing in potato years.

And so, it is frozen to the bone and soaking wet – it started pouring rain right as she left the storage building, go figure – that Ellie found her way to Jesse’s place. From the outside, it looked just as quiet as all the other houses on his street, but when Ellie pushed the door open after getting no answer to her knock, she was met with the sight of Dina, Jesse, and three other silhouettes sitting on the living room floor in a circle. Two of them she recognized as friends of Jesse’s who were a little bit older than her and the other one she had seen around a few times, but never talked to.

“Ellie!”

Dina motions her over, shifting closer to Jesse – it wasn’t as much ‘shifting closer’ as Dina getting as close to sitting in his lap without actually doing it – making their friend turn a slight shade of pink that he would no doubt blame on the empty bottle of vodka in the middle of the circle if asked about it. Ellie smiles against the sleeve of her hoodie as she wipes her face with it. She wonders if Jesse had asked Dina out yet. Knowing him, he probably hadn’t. For all the confidence Jesse projected daily, he was surprisingly shy around women the women he was interested in.

As Ellie gets closer to the little group, still slightly dripping from the downpour outside despite having dried herself as best she could before she entered the house, she notices an old checkers’ board filled with shot glasses, save for a few empty spaces. She plops herself down in the spot Dina left open. “What’s all this?”

“That’s the roulette-less roulette,” the girl in front of her answered, slurring, her eyes unfocused. She broke out in an uncontrollable bout of laughter as soon as the words left her mouth and she buried her face into the shoulder of the guy Ellie had never actually met, but seen around town fairly often. Oh, guess they’re dating. He planted a kiss on top of the girl’s hair, as alcohol impaired-looking as she sounded. Oh, definitely dating.

“We used to play with an actual roulette, but someone broke it,” Jesse adds, staring intently at the other teen Ellie didn’t know.

The guy raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t see you trying to stop me from trying to see how long I could hang on to it with Jake spinning me!”

Jesse throws the cap of the vodka bottle in his face, the faintest smile on his lips. “For the last time, Logan, I wasn’t there!”

Dina bumps her shoulder as Jesse and Logan keep arguing, and the couple whisper and snicker among themselves on the other side of the circle. “What took you so long? I thought I was being stood up!”

“Like anyone could stand you up,” Jesse comments behind Dina. Oh, Jesse, you hopeless and awkward fool.

Dina winks at him, turning her attention back to the board in front of them. “Alright, my turn. Quinn, what do you call?” Dina grabs a dice from the floor.

The girl lifts her head from her boyfriend’s shoulder, her short blonde hair sticking up where it had been rubbing against the sleeve of his shirt. “Five.”

Dina smiles. “Come on, give mama a five!” She throws the dice in front of her and it lands in front of the girl – Quinn, Ellie remembered. The face displayed shows five black dots. “Boom!”

“Aw, damn.” Dina picks a shot glass from the board and hands it to her. Quinn makes a disgusted face but lifts the glass up to her lips and downs its content anyway, her face unceremoniously scrunching up immediately. “Okay, I’m out. Be responsible, you kids. Jake, walk me home?”

She bolts up, not saying goodbye to anyone, and stumbles out the front door without bothering to close it behind her. Jake gets up too, stretching his legs. “Option one, we’re going to have sex behind your house.” He winks at Jesse, who rolls his eyes disapprovingly. “Or, option two, the likeliest of the two… She wants me to hold her hair while she throws up in a bush somewhere.”

He walks to the door and just as he’s about to close it, he pops his head back inside, grinning from ear to ear. “… and then we’re going to have sex behind your house.”

A symphony of groans rise up from everyone still in the living room. “You guys are the worst!” Dina exclaims and Ellie can’t help but chuckle, even though she doesn’t really know the couple or their antics.

“Quinn literally just threw up, man!”

Jesse’s other friend, shaking his head in amused disbelief, reaches over and grabs the dice from its forgotten place on their host’s living room floor. “My turn. Ellie, that’s your name, right? What’s your call?”

“Two.”

Logan groans as the roll comes out as a four and hands the dice over to Jesse for his turn. By the time the dice comes back to its starting point in front of Dina, Ellie is fairly sure she has figured out the rules, if they could even be called that.

As far as she understands, the person rolling the dice called out the name of someone else in the circle, who in turn chose a number. If the number the first person rolled was the same number the second person had chosen, the first person selected a shot-glass from the board and handed it to the second person. Some of the glasses were filled with water, others, with vodka. In all honesty, Ellie didn’t really understand the goal of the game. Be the last one standing? Drink as little as possible? Drink as much as possible? Who could say?

It’s Dina’s turn to roll the dice, and Ellie knows what she’s going to say before the words leave her lips. “Ellie-dear, what do you call?”

Ellie eyes the dice carefully. “Six.” She can swear her friend’s eyes fucking twinkle with mischief.

“Alright then, let’s get mama a six.”

Of course, the dice shows a six upon landing. How does she keep doing that? Dina winks at Ellie, handing her a glass. She can’t tell if it’s filled with water or alcohol, and Dina keeps smiling.

“You don’t have to drink it if you don’t want to,” Jesse chimes in. “Really.”

Ellie nods. It’s very Jesse-like, to make sure everyone is comfortable with what they are doing, and it is very Dina-like to make people forget their objections in the first place. All things considered, this is a usual night. “I know.” And with that, she gulps down the liquid in her hand.

… And promptly chokes on it.

She feels the burning in her throat, all the way down to her chest, followed by a warmth spreading through her whole body. It’s a foreign sensation to her. Sure, she has had beer before, back in Boston, a few swigs of stolen whiskey, but never that much in so little time. Never enough to feel this warm when she knows fully well how cold she should be.

She feels Dina’s hand rub her back as the last cough shakes up her body. “Looks like it was someone’s first time drinking,” Logan snickers in front of them.

Ellie doesn’t know why, but something about the way he said it rubs her the wrong way. “Far from it, I used to drink all the time.” Lie. “It just went down the wrong pipe.” And lie, again.

Logan nods, but it’s clear he doesn’t believe her. “Whatever you say, lightweight.”

“Let’s play something else,” Dina chimes in. Whether or not she felt the tension rising between Logan and Ellie, or she was just getting restless, she would never know, but she most likely avoided a very unnecessary confrontation between the two. “Let’s play Never Have I Ever.”

“What’s that?”

Jesse straightens up, inching slightly closer to Dina still. Their thighs were actually touching now. “When it’s your turn, you say ‘never have I ever’, and then a statement. If anyone has done that thing, they have to drink.”

“Like… Never Have I Ever peed my pants,” Logan starts, raising one of the glasses left on the checkers’ board up to his lips and shooting it back. “Fuck, it’s just water.”

Everyone else does the same – Ellie remembers very clearly the day Sergeant Hicks decided bathroom breaks were a waste of time, which, coincidently, was just minutes after she had participated in a water-chugging contest with Riley and some of her friends. Needless to say, after five hours of drills, she had indeed peed her pants in a quite spectacular fashion, but then again, so had half of her drills’ squad. Ellie shivers in disgust as the liquid once again burns its way down her throat. This is what drinking lighter-fluid must taste like.

Jesse makes the same face she must have just made, while Dina passively swallows the content of her glass. When Ellie looks at her with a confused expression, she winks. “Water. My turn now. Never Have I Ever… had a crush on anyone in this room.” She chugs her drink, winking playfully at Logan while Jesse quietly drinks, out of Dina’s eyesight. Ellie sees Dina noticing it from the corner of her eyes. She’s playing with the poor guy, pretending to flirt with Logan when Ellie is positive that she has never had any feelings for him. Not that she knows of anyway, but with Dina, who could tell for sure?

Over the course of the next half-hour, Ellie learns that both Jesse and Logan had mistakenly called their teacher ‘mom’ at one point, that Dina had walked around for a whole day with her pants inside out and that she was the only one of the four who had ever been pooped on by a chicken. Ellie vaguely recalls telling them that this was why she had started insulting people by calling them ‘chickenshit’, but the details of whatever else she might’ve revealed along the way are fuzzy. Her eyes seem almost out-of-sync, catching up with her head movements half a second too late, and she lost feelings in her face and fingers sometime around the fourth real shot of vodka. On the bright side, she can’t make out the horrible taste of the alcohol on her tongue anymore, but on the other hand, her balance went out the window around the same time and the couch she is resting her back against is now the only thing keeping her somewhat upright.

“Never Have I Ever…” Jesse looks up to the ceiling, thinking. “… kissed anyone.”

He drinks, Dina drinks, Logan drinks – though Ellie isn’t sure it counts as drinking if you spill most of it on your chin – and she stares at the next-to-last shot glass on the board. The memory of Riley, the feeling of her lips on hers, creep up on her. It’s been a while since she has even thought about her late friend.

Ellie has been in Jackson for nine months, but she hasn’t told her friends about Riley yet. Or anything note-worthy on her past, really, just trivial bits of information here and there. She isn’t sure she wants to share that information.

The voice of reason normally telling her to keep to herself, however, is drunk out of her goddamned mind, and of no help at all at the moment. Just drink. You don’t have to explain yourself. No one will see you anyway, everyone is hammered. So, she does drink, hoping everyone’s inebriated state will keep them from noticing or making a big deal out of it. That reasoning was unfortunately grossly underestimating Dina’s curiosity, and Ellie realises she must have been watching her the whole time as she hears her gasp as soon as the content of the glass touches her lips. Just water this time, thankfully. She doesn’t think her system can handle anymore alcohol.

“Ellie! You never told me that!” Dina turns her attention to her, pulling away from Jesse’s arms – weird, she can’t remember when they got into that position to begin with. “Who was it?”

Ellie’s empty glass slips out of her fingers and bounces softly on the carpet the four of them are sitting on. Nope, she definitely can’t feel her hands anymore. “None of your business.” She shifts her eyes to Dina, who is leaning toward her with an excited look on her face, completely ignoring Jesse in the process. Poor guy. “We’re out of vodka.”

“Screw vodka, you’re out of ways out of this, Freckles! Come on, tell me!”

“Nope.”

Please!”

“Nope.”

“Pretty please, oh Ellie-love-of-my-life.”

“Fucking nope, Dina. And you know those cowboy boots are the love of your life, not me.”

Dina stares appreciatively at the discarded boots near the front door. “Busted, I’m considering proposing to them right now. Unrelated question, when you attend our wedding, will you be bringing a date?”

Ellie snorts in laughter. She attempts to playfully punch Dina’s shoulder, but misses by an embarrassingly wide mark and ends up awkwardly stroking her collarbone with her knuckles instead. I should leave. “Shut up, Dina.”

“Tell me! Is it someone we know?”

“No.”

“You said ‘no’. You never say ‘no’, you always say ‘nope’… It is someone we know!”

Ellie rolls her eyes. Sometimes, Dina reminds her of a guard dog – never letting go of what she grabbed a hold of until it fell victim to her powerful teeth. It wasn’t the best analogy in the world, Ellie was aware, but the fact remained that Dina was very, very persistent when she wanted to be.

“Is he from school? Is he from patrol squad? Oh, is it one of Jesse’s friends? I need to know!”

Ellie realises that Dina is halfway in her lap and gripping her shoulders. When did she get so close? And when the hell did her eyes get so… warm-looking? It’s like staring into two chocolate marbles. Strands of hair are coming loose from her usually tight bun, and Ellie can smell the faint scent of her shampoo coming from the curly locks tickling her face. It’s intoxicating, but not in a bad way, strangely enough, and Ellie can’t remember what she was going to say for the life of her. How does her hair smell so good? We use the same goddamned shampoo and mine never smells like flowers.

“At least tell me his name,” Dina keeps trying to convince her, and Ellie partly snaps out of her drunken haze. She thinks Riley is a guy. “Is it Jacob? Patrick? Ooh, is it Mike?”  

The sound of glass being broken saves her from having to answer any of Dina’s questions. Truthfully, she has no idea what her answer would have been. Maybe she would have just said no, maybe she would have corrected her.

“Hey, that glass was mine, Logan!” Jesse shouts out, jumping up. The remains of said glass were scattered on the part of the floor next to his friend that wasn’t covered in a rug. Logan is leaning heavily on the couch behind him, on the opposite side to the one Ellie is leaning on. He is chuckling softly while staring at the mess he has made, though he makes no visible effort to fix it. His eyes lock onto Jesses and, Ellie doesn’t know him all that well, but she can swear he looks at her friend with… defiance?

“Oops. To be fair, it was a really ugly glass.”

“It had playing cards on it and it was a gift,” Jesse shouts back from the kitchen, where he presumably went to find something to pick up the glass shards before one of their drunken asses steps on it.

Ellie hears Dina hiss beside her. She can almost hear her think that this was not the best thing to say. Apparently, Logan thinks the same, and Ellie doesn’t have to wait long to find out why. “Yeah, a very nice gift, from a very nice person,” he spits out, his words like venom. “At least, she gave you something before she ran away.”

Jesse reappears from the kitchen, his expression back to its usual hardness and unreadability, all signs of inebriation gone from his demeanor. Dina, although still visibly very drunk, had tensed too at the situation. Ellie has no idea what brought on this change of tone in him, when just a minute ago, he was playfully making fun of Jesse for not being able to pronounce the word ‘stairwell’ properly.

Jesse gets closer to them, placing himself between them and Logan. Ellie takes one look at his closed fists at his sides and his stance, one foot behind the other and feet shoulder-width apart and pulls herself to her feet, despite the uncontrollable spinning her head is subjected to. Everything about Jesse tells her that there is a very real possibility that things could go south pretty fast, and her reaction time would be much faster standing as opposed to sitting cross-legged on the floor, even in her very inebriated state. Normally, she wouldn’t stay behind Jesse like this, but she has a feeling that if she takes a step forward, she will crash to the ground and never get up again.

Logan also gets up, as does Dina, and pretty soon all four of them are standing in a circle, staring at each other in tense silence. Logan is staring down Ellie, Dina and Jesse, and the three teenagers are staring him down in return.

Jesse is the first one to break the silence. “I think it’s time you go home, Logan. We’ve all had enough to drink.” His eyes are neutral, unreadable, but fixed on Logan. Ellie knows he is trying to predict every move the visibly upset young man could decide to make and analyzing every possible outcome to the situation. She can practically see the gears shifting in Jesse’s brain. This is what makes him such a great asset to any scouting or patrol team – he has a reputation for always being three steps ahead of everyone, like a master chess player.

In all honesty, Ellie doesn’t know shit about this Logan guy, except that he is on the watchtowers’ rotation shifts, a friend of Jesse and Dina, and that he is a little bit older than them, if her memory serves her right. She recalls him being a very loud and exuberant guy, a stark contrast with Jesse’s quiet and calculating demeanor – Ellie never really understood what the two even had in common anyway – but Logan had never struck her as being aggressive in nature.

Logan looks at Jesse, eyes unfocused, and chuckles dryly. “Jesse, my man…. You know I drink to forget! You would too, in my situation.”

He finally breaks their staring contest, his eyes shifting to his coat hanging off the back of the couch. He stumbles backwards as he tries to put his boots on without falling flat on his face but manages to regain his balance just in time. He gives up on lacing them, letting the laces drag on the ground behind him with every step. His situation? What situation?

Neither Jesse or Dina move to help him get dressed, and he struggles to button up his coat. The tension in the air is palpable, and Ellie awkwardly shifts her weight from one leg to the other “Just wait until you get one of them girlfriends to dump you for another woman, then you’ll understand,” Logan mumbles, his speech slurred, examining the leftover button on the left side of his collar that he had no more holes to put into, because he had skipped the first one while buttoning himself up. Ellie can’t help but think that he looks comically confused, with his unlaced boots and badly buttoned coat paired with his unfocused eyes, his obviously impaired balance and his hair sticking straight up on one side of his head. She holds back a snort of laughter – this was probably not a good time to laugh.

Ellie leans against the arm of the couch, trying to stop Jesse’s living room from spinning in and out of focus around her. So this is what being drunk feels like. Can’t say I love it.

A raised eyebrow breaks Jesse’s emotionless exterior. “I highly doubt that’s going to happen.”

Logan laughs, but it is devoid of any real enjoyment. “Yeah, that’s what I thought too, but here I am.” He stumbles out the door, the steps leading to the old, overrun by grass driveway in front of the house creaking loudly under his weight. He didn’t even bother to shut the door behind him, leaving to gusts of cold wind to blow mercilessly inside the residence.

“The fuck is his problem?” Ellie breathes out when Dina goes to shut the door. The rain at turned to snow at some point in the past few hours – again, she really can’t catch a break today – and snowflakes are swirling in along with the bone-chilling wind.

Jesse busies himself with picking up the jagged shards of glass on the floor, meticulously putting each piece into a small black dust pan he had pulled out from God-knew-where. “Logan is… going through some stuff,” he finally answers, not looking up from his task as he does so. “He’s not usually like that.”

Dina adds to his explanation, probably noticing the barely disguised curiosity in Ellie’s eyes. “His girlfriend left him a while back and he isn’t taking it very well.”

Jesse finally looks up from his task. “I’m fairly sure that if she had left him for another guy, he would be handling the situation much better.”

“Why did she leave him?” Ellie questions, her eyes shifting from Jesse to Dina, and back again as best as she could.

“She figured out men as a whole were not her type.”

“Oh. That’s a convincing reason, why is he mad then?”

Jesse just shrugs and walks back to the kitchen, glass-filled dust pan in hand, so Dina answers her question. “He never explicitly said why, but my guess is that it hurt his ego in some way and he started to act like a little bitch about it instead of moving on like the adult he was.”

“You’re a bit harsh,” Jesse chastises, plopping himself down on the far end of the couch.

Dina raises an eyebrow, crossing her arms in front of her chest in a defiant pose. “Saying he started acting like a little bitch is the least harsh way of describing what he did. Kate didn’t deserve anything that he did.”

“You don’t know for sure it was him.”

“How many people in Jackson would have had any reason to send her death threats if she ever ‘got together with a woman in town’?”

Ellie leans more heavily on the armrest on the opposite side of the couch that Jesse is sitting on. The spinning is getting worse by the second. She can’t say if it’s all because of the alcohol or if being in the middle of a Jesse and Dina argument is also making her head spin.

“I don’t think I’ve met her,” Ellie blurts out before she can hold the words back. “Kate, I mean.”

“She received so many homophobic anonymous threats after breaking up with Logan that she packed up her things and left. That was a few months ago. No one knows where she went, she refused to tell anyone.”

“And the people around town knew about this and did nothing?”

Jesse shrugs once more, clearly uncomfortable. “No one really knew how to handle the situation. Nothing like this had ever happened before… Some people found it easier to pretend it wasn’t anything serious and turn a blind eye.”

He runs his hand through his hair and clears his throat. He sinks deeper into the cushions, looking at Dina, seemingly wanting her to carry on, but she stays quiet. Her expression is hard, not angry per se – Ellie has seen it directed at various people enough times before to recognise it – but her displeasure is evident. Had she known Kate? Jesse clears his throat.

“It went on for quite a while. It started with letters, then it was rocks thrown at her windows and insults painted on the façade of the house she was sharing with her mother.” Jesse pauses, his mouth opening and closing a few times in search of the best words to express his thoughts. “We all blamed ourselves for not doing more to stop this, we all felt like, if we had been public with our support, she might’ve stayed. But it’s too late to do anything about it now.”

“Some of the older guys in town made it pretty clear that homosexuality was an obstacle to ‘repopulating the town’. They never explicitly stated it, but word around here is that some of them witnessed Kate being harassed and did nothing, even participated to some extent,” Dina adds when Jesse drifts off, his voice shaky. Her eyes are far away, and Ellie knows she is lost in thought.

The fact that anyone would manage to survive the fucking end of the world, get through literal hell to a self-sustaining, safe, settlement like Jackson, only to be chased out because of who they chose to love made her sick to her stomach. “That’s so wrong,” is the only thing Ellie manages to say out loud, her many questions dying on her lips.

Had Kate been the only victim of this? Was anyone in Jackson openly gay? She couldn’t think of anyone, but maybe it was just because she didn’t really try to connect with many of the residents of Jackson? What was Jesse’s opinion on this? And Dina’s? Why were they still friends with that guy, if they knew all of this? Did Joel know about it? Tommy? Maria?

Her head is pounding.

Dina pulls another bottle, the liquid darker in this one, out of her coat. There is maybe a third of the original volume of liquid left in it. “This is getting too serious, let’s drink! Don’t think I’ve forgotten about your mystery guy, Williams.”

She pushed the questions to the back of her mind as Dina explains the rules of yet-another drinking game, this one involving empty glasses and old quarters, thankful for the distraction.  

***

Ellie is trying to tie her right shoe when she hears Jesse clear his throat behind her to get Dina’s attention. She smiles and keeps tying her shoe, painfully aware that if she tries to go faster to give them some privacy, she will trip over the laces. Those last few shots of whiskey had been too many, for sure. Come on, Jesse, just ask her out.

“You’re sure you’re okay to walk back home? Your house is all the way on the other side of town, and, you know, you’ve had a lot to drink… I guess what I mean to say is, erm, do you want to stay the night? Take my bed, I’ll sleep on the couch.” 

Ellie all but crawls out of Jesse’s house, getting down the front steps as fast as her body and balance would allow her to. Still, she can’t help but hear Dina’s answer.

“I managed to survive a clicker attack with only a cardboard box as a weapon, I think I can handle a 15-minute walk by myself,” Dina declines, and Ellie can almost hear the disappointment in Jesse’s silence. “Besides, someone has to make sure Lightweight over there finds her way home.”

Ellie turns around to argue her ‘lightweight’ status just in time to see Dina lean up on her tiptoes and places a kiss on Jesse’s cheek, her lips so very close to his but not quite brushing against them. Jesse stills, his face turning beet-red.

Ellie’s complaint about her new nickname dies on her lips and she turns right back around, walking down the street.

She’s almost a whole street away when she hears Dina running behind her to catch up. “Hey, hold up!”

Ellie slows down, staring curiously at the slightly winded girl next to her. “How the hell are you able to run? I almost broke my neck stepping over a rock.”

Dina shoves her, and Ellie has to hold on to her friend’s shoulder to keep from tumbling over. She hears Dina snicker, but she opts to ignore her mockery in favour of regaining what little pride and stability she has left. “Practice, Ellie-dear, practice.”

She only nods in response. Ellie knows she should feel cold – she hears the wind howling around them, sees the snowflakes angrily flying toward her face – but she can’t feel the frozen bite of winter she has come to dread.

“I thought you’d be staying over at Jesse’s tonight,” Ellie finally breaks the silence. It unnerves her to hear only the newly fallen snow crack under her shoes and the wind howl deafeningly.

“Not tonight, no. I’ll let him think a little longer, see if he can find a better way to make a move on me.”

Ellie’s snort of laughter echoes off the walls of the empty homes on either side of them. “You’re the worst.”

“Oh, shush.”

“You like him, he very obviously likes you, what the hell are you waiting for? For him to make some stupid grand gesture or announcement?”

Dina stops dead in her tracks right in front of her. Try as she might, Ellie can’t step out of the other girl’s way fast enough and unceremoniously trips over the heel of Dina’s boot, tumbling down with the all grace and elegance of a baby deer on ice. She barely has time to wipe the snow off her face before Dina’s smirking face appears above her. “This, my dear innocent child, is the art of driving boys crazy. Why would I put an end to the fun that soon?”

“I dunno, having someone to cuddle with at night? Sex? Someone to massage your smelly feet at the end of the day?”

“You romantic sap,” Dina teases. She holds out her hand to help her up, which Ellie gladly grabs a hold of. She can’t say if she pulled harder than necessary on Dina’s arm, or if the other girl lost her balance – Ellie can only assume she must be as drunk as she feels, after all, she had been drinking before she had even gotten to Jesse’s house – but instead of ending up on her feet, she feels the weight of Dina’s body crash into hers and send her back into the cold, wet snow covering the ground. For a second, she can’t breathe.

“Ellie!” Dina exclaims. “I was supposed to pull you up, not be dragged down!”

Her elbow – or knee? – is digging into Ellie’s ribcage as she rolls off her, giggling the whole time. Dina manages to stand much quicker than she does, and with much more grace and dignity too. Ellie has to roll onto her belly, push herself up on her elbows, steady herself on all fours and then stagger to her feet, the whole process happening to the soundtrack of Dina’s hysterical laughter. “I fucking hate you,” she grumbles. Ellie closes her eyes, hoping the spinning will stop if she doesn’t see anything. It doesn’t – it gets worse. I’m so going to fall on my face again.

There are tears streaming down Dina’s face when she opens her eyes again. “Oh no, tomorrow you’re going to hate me. You know, when that hangover hits you like a freaking truck.”

Ellie notices the almost imperceptible slurring of her words, barely noticeable. Or maybe her hearing is just the next thing leaving her, after her balance, who knows. “I’ll be fine,” she mumbles, the last word stretching out seemingly forever on her tongue. “I’m never sick.”

“Never, huh? Not even… lovesick?” Dina wiggles her eyebrows and bursts into laughter. “Come on, Freckles, I need to know who he is!”

Ellie groans audibly, but the chuckle that escapes her betrays her amusement. “You’re annoying, and I’m not telling you anything.” It’s not a ‘he’, anyway.

“Please!”

“Nope.”

Dina wraps her arms around Ellie’s neck, and she just stares at her for a while, silently, her head tilted to the side. Ellie has no idea how to keep her eyes focused on Dina’s as she speaks, she keeps seeing double and staring at a four-eyed version of her friend is very unsettling. She feels nimble fingers being crossed behind her neck, at the beginning of her hairline where the stubborn baby hairs refuse to stay in her ponytail.

“You’re really close,” Ellie states before her brain can catch up with her mouth. She really should learn to stop talking sometimes. Dina steps even closer to her and it takes a second for Ellie to realise that she is leaning against her, her mouth only a fraction of an inch away from her ear. Her whole body is radiating heat in the chilly night air.

“I’ll bake you a cake?”

Ellie doesn’t know what she was expecting to hear, but it certainly wasn’t that. The offer takes her by surprise, as does the uncontrollable snort of laughter that escapes her. Dina pulls away, her eyes… twinkling, it seemed? That alcohol really was stronger than Ellie had thought.

“Last time you said that I ended up with a half-eaten a pancake,” she manages to reply despite not feeling her lips anymore. She can’t focus her thoughts at all. The familiar smell of shampoo is back, almost overwhelming.

Dina pulls back a little, her hands dropping from their place on Ellie’s neck to her shoulders. She misses the warmth on her skin already. “And I’ll bet it was the best pancake you’ve ever had.”

“Sadly enough, yes. But still, nope.”

“I’ll do anything!”

She can only laugh at her mock desperation. It is no secret to anyone in Jackson that Dina absolutely loves to gossip – almost as much as she loves her battered old  pair of leather cowboy boots. “How about this. I give you a first name, and in return, you stop playing with Jesse’s feelings. I don’t give two shits what you feel for him, but don’t lead him on, I really can’t take anymore of his flirting. Or whatever you want to call what he is doing to get your attention. He is awful at it.”

Dina exhales, faking indecision. “You play a tough game, Williams.”

“Deal?”

“Alright, deal.”

“And you have to keep it to yourself.”

Dina puts her hands on her hips in a mockingly offended manner. “How dare you insinuate such things!”

“Are you kidding me? When Jessica told you she was pregnant with her fourth kid, it took a grand total of 20 minutes for half the town to know about it.”

“You’re exaggerating, Freckles.”

Joel knew about it, and he tries his goddamned hardest to avoid hearing about shit like this!”

“I’m sure Joel secretly loves the gossip.”

Ellie rolls her eyes and starts walking – or, more accurately, stumbling – towards her home, she is just a few houses away when Dina blocks her path, almost making Ellie crash into her a second time. She drops the act, now grinning from ear to ear. “Alright, I give up. I promise, Ellie, this stays between us. Tell me, please.”

Dina’s smile is reassuring, and Ellie can’t help but give in to her demand. There’s something about her friend, something she can’t explain, but no one she knows can resist her when she gets like this. She’s almost certain that Dina could convince anyone that if they were to jump off the roof of the barn, they would fly.

Her answer forms itself easily in her head. Her name was Riley, Riley Abel.

“Riley.”  

The rest of the sentence exists only in her mind, never managing to cross the barrier of her lips.

“Oh my god!” Dina squeals a little too loudly, and Ellie slams her hand against the excited girl’s mouth to muffle the sound.

“You’ll wake up Joel,” Ellie hisses.  

Dina swats her hand away. “We’re four houses down the street, Freckles, I think he’ll sleep through this.”

She makes a point of squealing again, a high-pitched sound that makes Ellie wince and roll her eyes at the same time. Sometimes, she swears Dina momentarily turns into a ten-year-old pre-teen with too much attitude. “The man can hear a clicker from a mile away, I’m not taking any chances.”

“Whatever, Riley sounds hot.”

Ellie is lost in thought for a second. Memories of Riley’s smile, with her one chipped tooth, upper-lip scar and all, of the way it would stretch her lips and create little wrinkles at the corner of her eyes – Ellie used to call them her smile-lines – overcome her. She remembers the way it felt to hold her, as she was holding her back, recalls the tickle of her wildly frizzy hair on her cheek and how nothing else seemed to exist in those moments. It still hurt like hell to think of her, even if all she thought about were the good parts – especially if it was only the good parts. Looking back on those peaceful moments made dealing with her absence even harder.

“Yeah… yeah, I guess.”

Dina squeals again, quietly this time, and Ellie keeps walking with her friend practically hanging onto her arm and talking excitedly. She lets her. As long as she’s imagining scenarios of how it all went down, she isn’t asking anymore questions, and Ellie is thankful for that. She likes Dina a lot, but sometimes her bubbly personality is a little too over the top for her taste – or maybe she’s just used to Joel’s brooding and she just forgot how normal people act.

She interrupts her excited monologue as they get close to the front steps of her house, as dark and quiet as every other one in sight.  

“So, you’re going to hold up your end of the deal?” Ellie asks, trying her best to scale the four steps leading to the front porch without falling flat on her face for what would be one-too-many times tonight.

She doesn’t see Dina, concentrated as she is on guiding her feet to the right place, but she can see the eye-roll and glare in her head as if she was seeing it with her eyes. “I’ll talk to Jesse tomorrow, promise. You’re right, I shouldn’t toy around with him. He doesn’t deserve that. I like him a lot, actually.”

It’s Ellie’s time to tease, now. “You romantic sap,” she quotes, earning herself a weak punch on the shoulder in response. “You two would look cute together.”

“I’d look cute with anyone, Freckles, it’s me we’re talking about.”

But underneath the playful exterior, Ellie sees her bite her lower lip, sees the faint blush appearing on her cheeks. Dina is as close to being embarrassed as she’s ever seen her.

“Alright, you fulfilled your assignment. I’m home, safe and in one piece,” Ellie breathes out. She’s leaning against the windowsill, her back against the cold glass panel. “I’m sure Jesse is still up, if you want to go back to his place instead of going home.”

The older girl zips her jacket all the way up to her chin and buries her face up to her cheeks into the collar until only her eyes are showing. The cold outside is unforgiving. “I’m already cuddling with your hot ass tonight, I’ll have to save cuddling with Jesse’s for another night.”

“What?”

“I kind of told my mom I was sleeping over at your place, I can’t very well be stumbling home drunk out of my mind when I told her I’d be watching movies with you all night. And you know her, she’ll ask Joel if I really was here and I’d rather not have an angry mother on my back for the next month.”  

Ellie stares at Dina wordlessly until she motions for her to open the door. “Alright, but I’m keeping my pillow.”

Dina chuckles and Ellie turns the doorknob, wincing as the old hinges creak when she opens the door. God, she hopes Joel didn’t hear that.

As soon as she steps in, and Dina follows her, Ellie swings the door closed like she normally does everytime she comes home out of muscle memory alone, she firmly believes. It shakes the wall so hard as it slams shut that the painting on the living room wall falls off and bounces off the couch. It’s a really terrible depiction of a cabin near a lake on a foggy morning, faded around the edges, but it was a ‘housewarming’ gift from Maria and Tommy – how much say Tommy had had in the gift-choosing process was unclear – and so, up on the wall it had gone.

Ellie winces. There is no way in hell that he hasn’t heard that.

Still, the house remains silent, with the exception of the old clock on the wall ticking steadily and for the faint noise of the wind still howling outside. Slowly, she motions for Dina to be silent – the irony of how she is actually the one making all the noise is not lost on her, no ma’am – and leads her into the narrow staircase that goes up to her room in the attic. She thinks it’s the first time she has actually used the ramp on the wall, and she is sure that without it, she would not have reached the top. Her ascension is done to the soundtrack of Dina’s muffled laughter and Ellie tries turn her head to glare at her, but her surroundings start spinning so fast at the sudden motion that she abandons the project without a second thought.

Finally, she half-stumbles, half-throws herself into her bed, her face squished against the mattress. It doesn’t help with the spinning, in fact she swears it is worse with her eyes closed. Her feet are hanging over the side and she feels Dina pulling at them for a while. She understands what her friend is doing only when her first shoe falls to the floor unceremoniously. Joel must’ve heard that, his room is right underneath my bed. She’s too tired, too drunk to care anyway.

“You’re such a mess, Lightweight.”

It takes all her willpower to answer, to keep herself from drifting off to sleep. “You love it.”

Dina’s giggle sounds far away, as if it is coming from an adjacent room instead of right next to her ear. “It has its charm.”

She feels her friend sink in the mattress when she sits on it, the shift causing Ellie to roll from the end closest to the wall to the middle, her hip coming to a stop against Dina’s backside. “Good God, you’re taking up the whole bed! Are you hitting on me, Williams? I swear, you’re worse than Jesse.”

“I have a twin bed, it’s not hard to take up all of it.”

“Where am I supposed to sleep?”

“There’s a very comfortable rug in the bathroom.”

“Fuck you. Scoot over.”

Ellie rolls back to the side, banging her shoulder against the wall. She keeps her eyes closed. Am I going to be sick? She hears the rustling of clothes being taken off, then Dina lies down next to her and pulls the covers over them. Ellie is still wearing her hoodie, and she will no doubt be covered in sweat when she wakes up, but her limbs feel like they weight two hundred pounds, so she doesn’t do anything to fix that.

“I’m glad you told me about Riley.”

The statement requires no answer on her part, but she gives Dina one anyway. “Sure thing.” She feels herself drift off to sleep and her brain circles back to one question, over and over again, even as noise, smell and sensation around her dims as she nods off.

Why didn’t I tell her Riley was a girl?

When she finally loses her battle with sleep, moments later, she still hasn’t found a satisfying answer.

***

Ellie wakes up briefly some time later, when the sun is just barely rising outside. She has no idea what time it is, nor does she know what time it was when they went to sleep, but one thing she knows for certain is that she can feel the beginning of a headache forming and that everything is still spinning out of control. She closes her eyes as soon as she had opened them. It’s like she’s trapped in a life-size version of a baby mobile, not unlike the one Joel is ‘secretly’ building in the shed for his unborn niece or nephew.

As she had predicted before falling asleep, she is drenched in sweat, the room too hot for her hoodie and the warm body pressed against her not helping in any way. She pulls off the unnecessary piece of clothing, making sure she holds the bottom of the t-shirt underneath in place so it doesn’t get pulled off too, briefly opening her eyes again to throw it in a corner of the room, by her desk. Her movement make the covers fall off Dina’s body.

The older girl took the time to untie her hair before going to sleep, her trademark bun no where to be seen, and now it falls in wild curls over the pillow and down her back. Aw, man, I told her not to take the pillow. She also took off her coat and the baggy shirt she had been wearing that day, keeping only a light grey tank top that rode up her hips while she was asleep, exposing the skin of her lower back.

Ellie leans over her to grab a hold of the covers, to cover them back up, but the damned thing slips down even further, exposing more of Dina’s body. Ellie stills, her fingers holding firmly a handful of her blankets, her eyes catching a glimpse of long – and definitely not pants-wearing – legs. Leave it to Dina to be comfortable enough to take her goddamned pants off before crawling into bed. Not that her underwear is revealing or anything, the faded blue cotton panties are quite opposite, actually, but Ellie adverts her eyes as soon as she notices them. She feels like some sort of pervert, watching a partly undressed girl sleep.

“Stop watching my butt and go back to sleep,” she hears Dina mumble, the words muffled by the pillow. “It’s too early to wake up.”

“I’m not watching you, I was trying to grab the covers!” Ellie squeals, her face burning.

Dina’s shoulders shake from barely contained laughter as Ellie covers her back up and lies down, as rigid as a plank of wood. “Whatever you say.”

Ellie stays quiet for only a few seconds. “You took my pillow.”

“And it is as soft as a cloud.”

Ellie drifts back off to sleep after that, unable to hold herself awake any longer.

***

“Ellie! You’re late for work, you dumbass.”

Ellie groans loudly as the words resonate painfully in her head. Her throat feels like she tried swallowing a handful of dirt and gravel, and her skull feels like someone is taking a sledgehammer to it from the inside. There is no mistaking Joel’s voice, even if it is coming from downstairs, and he sounds pissed.

“Oh my god, who kicked in my head?” she mumbles, one of her sheets sticking to her mouth.

“Good morning, Lightweight!” a cheery voice greets her, and Ellie manages to crack one eye open enough to see Dina slip on one of her boots, sitting at her desk chair. The hair is back in her usual bun, her shirt is back on and – thankfully – so are her pants. “There’s a glass of water on the nightstand for you.”

Ellie buries her face in the mattress. Where the fuck is my pillow? The rays of sunshine coming from the window are making the already unforgiving pounding in her head even worse, if such a thing is possible. “I hate you, and your stupid ideas.”

“See, I told you you’d say that!”

She holds up her middle finger in answer.

She hears the door to her room open. “Morning, Kiddo.” Ellie groans again. She hears Joel approaching, his steps heavy and slow, calculated. “Get the hell up, you’re going to work.”

“It’s Sunday, old man,” Ellie grumbles. She feels just about to throw up. “It’s my day off.”

Suddenly, the covers are ripped off her and she has no choice but to open her eyes again to stare at a very unhappy Joel. Dina is pretending to be busy, fidgeting with the zipper on her coat, pretending it is stuck. Ellie knows it isn’t.

“Not this week. I told Leonard you’d be coming in to do some extra work at the stables today, he’s expecting you anytime now.”

Ellie buries her face in her mattress again. “Nope.”

“Get your ass up.”

“I’m not getting up.”

For a moment, she thinks Joel gave up, but the illusion lasts only for a few seconds before she feels her whole world being tipped over and she tumbles to the floor, tangled in her sheets. “What the fuck!”

She pulls the sheet off her face to see Joel smirking through his beard, holding on to the side of her mattress, now on its side. Fucker fucking flipped my mattress over to get me out of bed. “Now that you’re up, get to work.”

He turns on his heels and just as he is about to close the bedroom door behind him, Ellie calls out to him. “Why do you have to be such an ass?”

He looks at her with a defiant raised eyebrow. “When your future kid wakes you up at four in the morning knocking your whole goddamned living room over when she said she’d be home right after diner, you’ll get to be an ass too.”

“You’re the worst.”

“Sure, kid.” He looks over to Dina. “I assume you had nothing to do with this getting drunk thing?”

“Nothing at all,” Dina states, winking as if she was letting him in on a joke. Joel is unamused.

“Your mom was looking for you this morning. I suggest wasting no time getting home.”

Dina’s eyes widen in panic and Joel finally leaves. Ellie leans her back against the overturned mattress, trying to will her stomach to settle and her head to stop pounding. “I gotta go,” Dina says. “It’s not a good sign she was looking for me. Here, return this when you have the time.”

She approaches Ellie and shoves something in her hands. Looking down, she sees the bottle of vodka from the day before, refilled to the brim with what she can only assume is water. She doesn’t know if it is the somersaults she did as she was thrown out of bed, or if it is the sight of the alcohol bottle, but she can suddenly taste vodka again, and she barely has time to grab a hold of the too large flower pot on her night stand before she throws up in a quite phenomenal fashion.

She doesn’t know for how long her stomach empties itself into a fucking flowerpot like this, but she feels Dina’s finger tie her hair back and rub soothing circles on her back until she feels well enough to wipe her mouth with her sleeve and let go of the disgusting pot in her hands.

Dina hands her the glass of water, her eyes half-apologetic, half-amused. She drinks only in tiny sips, testing how her stomach would keep the liquid down. Ellie pats the back of her neck surprised not to feel her hair brushing against it.

“Did you put my hair in a bun?”

“It looks good on you,” is Dina’s only comment.

Ellie shifts her eyes, feeling her cheeks turning pink at the compliment. However, she did not think things all the way through, because her eyes fall back on the vodka bottle discarded on the floor and she retches into the flowerpot once more.

She has a feeling she is going to be stuck with the nickname “Lightweight” for a very long time.  

Chapter Text

Ellie absentmindedly runs a finger over the forearm of her long-sleeved grey shirt, feeling the familiar ridges of the bite-shaped scar underneath. The weather is becoming hotter by the day, and that means that, while every other resident of Jackson is happily trading jackets for short-sleeves, she is stuck in bite-concealing clothes. Seeing as it’s only the end of April, she predicts an excruciatingly hot summer, which sucks if you can’t wear t-shirts or tank tops.

She isn’t mad about it – she understands the reasoning behind Joel’s warning to keep her arm out of sight all too well – but it doesn’t make the summer weather any less suffocating. Of course, when they had first moved to the settlement, it had already been September, and the days, while warm, weren’t as hot as the average temperature had been for the past three months, so justifying the long sleeves had been easy. Any time someone had brought it up, Joel had just stated that they were used to warmer weather, and no one pushed the matter further.

Now, nearly a year later, people were beginning to take notice of the teenage girl who never showed her arms, who swam with long-sleeved shirts under the unforgiving sun. She heard whispers, here and there, as she walked through town. People were suspicious.

“Does it still hurt?”

Ellie’s eyes snap up. Joel is looking at her, a shovel slung over his shoulder, his dirt-stained checkered shirt safely tucked into his pants. He has the hand not holding the tool safely tucked away in one of his pants’ front pockets, as he usually does after a long day of work. She doesn’t know if it is a habit he picked up recently, or if it was something he did even before the Outbreak. She has never bothered to ask him about it. “You’re back early. I’m digging your outfit, by the way.”

Joel groans, but still a smile tugs on his lips as he sits down with her on the front porch of their house. “What did I say about your little jokes?”

“Not before dinner,” Ellie recites by heart. This had been the topic of numerous conversations after she had found another pun book in the town library and had managed to drive Joel bat-shit crazy with them. “I ate already, so technically, I’m in the clear.”

“Whatever you say, kid.”

There is absolutely no wind today to attenuate the ambient heat and even now, as the sun is slowly setting behind the tree line, Ellie can feel the runaway hairs from her ponytail clinging to her neck and cheeks from the sweat. The dawn gives Jackson a very surreal lighting and combined with the stillness around them – the few neighbours they do have are not the type to stay up late at all, and she suspects most of them of already being snoring away – it almost makes Ellie want to spend her whole evening sitting here, watching the sun go down and the stars come out. Almost.

“You’re avoiding the question.”

Ellie shifts her gaze back to Joel’s face. His hair is steadily going grayer, and it is falling into his eyes, but still, he won’t let anyone cut it. His eyes, however, are still as piercing as ever, just like they’ve always been, and right now they are looking right through her. “It tingles, sometimes,” Ellie shrugs, crossing her arms protectively over her chest. “But no, it doesn’t hurt.”

Joel nods. His eyes fall to her crossed, covered forearms, then lift to her face, examining the wet strands of hair stuck to her forehead. “I’m sorry you have to be so uncomfortable.”

Ellie shrugs again. “Nothing you can do.”

He wipes his muddy hands on his equally dirty jeans, then runs one through his hair. It leaves a little bit of dirt on his forehead, exposed by the hair sticking up like weird horns. Joel exhales loudly, and Ellie can almost hear him add “I wish there was”. He doesn’t need to say it, though. She knows, but she also knows that the odds are not in her favour if someone ever sees the bite mark on her arm, and she knows he knows it too.

“You’re home early.”

Ellie raises an eyebrow at the sudden change of subject. “I think you spent a little too much time in the sun, old man. It’s like, almost sunset and I’ve been gone since sunrise, that’s not early.”

“Yeah, well, I was counting on you being away for longer than that.” He gets up, and his knees crack as he rises from his spot on their front steps. “Go get cleaned up, we’re leaving in 20 minutes.”

She follows him inside, the heat even worse inside the home. They forgot to open the windows before leaving this morning and it shows, but at least while she’s inside there she can roll up her sleeves to make the temperature just a little easier to deal with. “Where are we going?” she asks no one in particular, because by the time she shuts the door, Joel is nowhere to be found.

“Tommy’s,” she hears him yell out from the bathroom, almost drowned out by the sound of the running water turning on.

Ellie strides past the bathroom door on her way up to her room. Knowing Joel, “we’re leaving in 20 minutes” was more likely to mean “we’re leaving in 10, be there or be square” than anything else.

Not even five minutes later, she’s waiting in front of the bathroom door for her turn, towel in one hand and a change of clean clothes in the other. “I thought Maria didn’t want to have anyone over until the baby was born,” she asks through the closed door. It swings open and she barely gets out of Joel’s way before he dashes into his room, towel tightly wrapped around his waist.

“Yeah, well she decided she didn’t want to leave her house more than she didn’t want to have anyone over, and who am I to argue with the woman?”

“She scares you, so you didn’t want to contradict her and went along with whatever she asked you?” Ellie mockingly translates.

She can hear Joel’s grumbled reply even as she closes the door and turns the water back on. “We’re leaving in 5 minutes, hurry it up or I’m leaving without you.”

She laughs so hard she almost chokes on the stream of water falling steadily on her head.

As he had warned, Joel was halfway down the steps when she managed to catch up with him. In her hurry, she trips on the top, uneven step, falls flat on her face as she tries to put her left shoe on, and rips one of the knees of her last good pair of jeans.

“What the hell are you doing?” Joel sighs, stepping over her sprawled out body as if it was a fallen tree branch.

“Stargazing?”

Joel keeps walking, unbothered by her antics. “It really is a wonder you survived that long in this world.”

“Hey! I’ll have you know, Tracy is clumsier than I am!” she yells out as she finishes tying her shoe while hopping precariously in Joel’s path.

“And everyone is anxious whenever she gets close to an outlet, is that really who you want to use as a comparison?”

Ellie finally catches up to him – with both shoes safely on her feet this time – and matches her pace to his. It has become second-nature to her, after all these months of travelling together, to walk like this, to fall into step with Joel as soon as they go anywhere together. It feels familiar, safe, and… well, normal.

Joel walks so much faster than usual that Ellie has trouble keeping up with his much longer strides. She may have grown a little in the past year, but her legs are no where near long enough to match his pace without breaking into a jog. “Whoa, where’s the fire?”

“We’re late.”

“Late for what?”

“We’re nearly half an hour late.”

“You’ve literally answered none of my questions!” Ellie exclaims.

“I’m thinking of ways to keep Maria from ripping my head off for being late right as I walk through the door,” Joel grumbles. Ellie disguises her snicker behind a cough. She thinks it is hilarious how scared he is of his sister-in-law. The woman had really made quite the impression on him when they had first visited Jackson, and she was just as intimidating to him after a year of seeing each other on a daily basis.

“I think you should make your peace with it, I’m like, 98 percent sure she can still outrun you even without seeing her own feet.”

“I don’t recall asking for your opinion.”

“I’m proactive like that!” Ellie shrugs. “But seriously, why are we here?”

Tommy and Maria’s house is only two houses away, and she’s sure they have never made their way there that fast, ever. Ellie hears music coming from the residence, very loud music. Well, that’s new. “You’ll see.”

Joel doesn’t even bother to knock on the door before entering, although he makes sure to put Ellie in front of him before stepping foot inside the house, probably to make sure he at least has some reaction time before Maria tears him a new one.

“We’re here!” Joel shouts out before reaching the kitchen. As they round the corner, they are met with the sight of an absolutely empty kitchen and dining room. “Where the hell’s everyone?”

Ellie looks around. There is a half-folded basket of laundry on the living room table and various cooking tools strewn about on the kitchen counter. It’s very unlike Maria and Tommy to leave things unfinished like this, and she immediately tenses up, suddenly hyper aware of her surroundings, of the blaring music upstairs, of the setting sun outside and of the open windows above the kitchen sink and near the table. Her heart thunders against her chest. Her hand automatically reaches into the right back pocket of her jeans and she pulls out her switchblade. It flicks open with a familiar click, ready for her to use if she needs it.

Joel widens his stance, his feet wider apart than usual. Ellie keeps silent, only looking around. She knows he is listening for any sign of life in the house, which is damn near impossible to do with the music still blaring. “Tommy!” His call gets no answer. “Maria!”

Still, no one answers.

“Stay here,” Joel orders, and Ellie nods. Lately, she spends most of her time arguing with him whenever he tries to boss her around like this, but she has no intention of doing so now.

He puts his back flat against the wall, and he slides against it silently until her reaches the corner of the with the wooden ramp and the stairs leading up to the second floor of his brother’s home. He disappears behind the wall, making his way upstairs without making any noise at all. It always amazes Ellie how heavy his footsteps sound when he is feeling calm and laid-back, but how absolutely silent they are whenever he is feeling stressed.

Ellie stays quiet. Her whole body is tensed, ready for whatever comes next. She can’t hear anything other than the music, and then a crash so loud it makes the walls around her shake. Dust falls on her head from the ceiling and she takes off running. If dust is falling, then it means someone fell on the floor – her ceiling – and she’ll be damned if she let anyone get hurt under her watch.

Before she gets to the stairs, however, Joel reappears in her line of sight, literally running back down to the main floor and furiously rubbing the back of his neck. His whole face, neck and the portion of his chest left visible by the top, unbuttoned part of his checkered shirt are beet-red.

“What the hell’s going on? I heard a noise and…”

Joel holds up a hand and the rest of her question dies on her lips. She can see the faintest hint of a grin beginning to pull at his lips, see his shoulders shake with noiseless chuckles. She doesn’t understand anything.

“I found them,” he finally says, and then Joel burst out laughing.

Before she can process exactly what he said, she hears another pair of footsteps upstairs that sound like they are coming toward the staircase. Ellie instinctively faces the steps, confused as all hell, her grip tight on the handle of her switchblade, just in time to see a white-faced Tommy fly down the stairs. She isn’t sure he touched even one of the steps on his way down.

“Okay, I feel like a fucking parrot, but what the hell’s going on?” Ellie repeats, louder, her eyes shifting repeatedly from one brother to another. She flips the knife closed – she’s afraid that, in his agitated state, Tommy will accidentally impale himself on the blade. “Anyone?”

Tommy pays absolutely no attention to her, his eyes trained on his brother’s. “You gotta help me, man, I don’t know what to do.”

“How in the hell do you expect me to help you?” Joel snickers. “That’s your wife, not mine.”

Maria’s voice yelling out louder than the music makes Ellie jump about a foot in the air. “You get your fucking ass back up here, Thomas Miller, or I will make goddamned fucking sure you’re never able to father another child!” 

“You’ve done this before, help me out here,” Tommy pleads, panic in his eyes. He grabs Joel’s collar and holds on to it, his face inches away from his brother’s. “It’s been like this for hours, I don’t know what to do anymore, and there’s tears and yells and...”

Joel sighs. He pulls Tommy’s hands away from his shirt, then promptly slaps him. It’s not a hard slap, by any means, but it surprises Tommy enough that he stops blabbering uncontrollably for a few seconds.

“First of all, I don’t think I’ve heard anyone call you Thomas since mom died. Second, you get your ass back up there and you do whatever the fuck your wife asks of you. She wants water? You get her some water. She wants to hold your hand? You let her crush it and you better not complain. She wants you to do the robot dance…” Joel trails off, gesturing for Tommy to continue.

“I do the robot dance,” Tommy mutters, his eyes still panicked.

“Exactly. Do you understand what I’m saying?” Tommy nods simply. “Good. Stop freaking out so much, you got the best nurse in town upstairs to help you through this.”

“Jessica scares me almost as much as Maria.”

“I don’t care. Now go back upstairs, and turn that god-awful music down, will you?”

Tommy heads back to the stairs reluctantly, walking backwards the whole time. “Maria wanted to listen to music.”

“Then you keep the music up, did you not hear any of what I just said? The woman is pushing a human being she carried around for nine months out of her body, your only job now is to do whatever your wife asks of you and shut the hell up about it.”

“TOMMY!” Joel’s brother winces at the sound of his name being yelled out angrily once again and Ellie can’t help but laugh at the normally carefree man biting his nails in nervousness.

“Please stay here,” he pleads again, and Joel finally nods. Tommy mouths a silent thank you and then bolts upstairs, no doubt heading back to his wife’s bedside.

“They’re having their baby,” Ellie mumbles in wonder. “Wow.”

Joel scoffs. “Maria is having their baby, Tommy is having a meltdown,” he grumbles, but Ellie can hear how amused he is at the whole situation. She’s gotten pretty good at deciphering his various grumbles, groans, grunts and scoffs in the year and a half that they’ve known each other, if she does say so herself.

Joel pulls out a chair and sits at the kitchen table, surveying the now-spoiled food on the counters behind him. “You can go home, if you want,” he says, turning back to her. She’s still standing at the bottom of the staircase and she suddenly realises she hasn’t moved since Tommy came flying down the steps.

“Like hell, I’m going home. I’m staying here as long as you are. I want to see if Tommy ends up fainting by the end of the night.”

Joel chuckles behind his beard and kicks the chair in front of him so it is distanced enough from the table for Ellie to sit on. She unceremoniously plops herself down on it, disregarding the cracking sound one of the legs makes at the sudden added weight. Outside, the sun is still steadily going down and the main floor of Tommy and Maria’s house is bathed in a warm orange glow that seems to make the heat even more suffocating when it should be the opposite. “Soooooo, how long do these things usually take? An hour, two?”

Joel looks at her with raised eyebrows. “Jesus, kid, do you know anything about all this?”

Ellie feels her cheeks turn red. “I know enough,” she deflects. This is not a conversation she wants to have, especially not with Joel, no matter how much of a father figure he is to her. Actually, she doubts any daughter in the history of mankind has ever wanted to have the talk from her father, but that is far beside the point. “I grew up in orphanages and military schools, I’ve never been around pregnant women much, that’s all. Plenty of people hooking, though.”

Joel stares at her. She can’t read his eyes, which is unusual. Oh man, she hopes he lets the matter go.

“I came by here a few hours ago and Maria was fine,” Joel finally says, slowly. “She can’t have been in labor for more than three or four hours, so my guess is, we’re gonna be here a while. Part of the night, for sure.”

“Better get comfortable then,” Ellie says, propping her feet up on the table and leaning back in her chair. Joel gives her one stern look, then, noticing how she has no intention of moving, he knocks her feet off the surface and her heels hit painfully the grey tiles of the kitchen and dining room floors.

“Do this at home if you want, that’s your business, but keep your boots off where other people eat. Have some manners, Kiddo.”

“Alright, alright, I got it. Sweet Lord, were you raised in a barn?” she imitates Joel’s deep, gravelly voice for that last part and he scoffs at her antics.

“Glad you said it so I don’t have to.”

Joel normally doesn’t really give a shit what she does in their home, or whether or not she takes her shoes off when she walks through the door, but he is surprisingly strict about manners whenever they visit anyone. The first time she did something like this, she swears she heard him mumble about how shit like this wouldn’t fly in his mama’s home. Joel might’ve left Texas well over 20 years ago, from what he told her, but Texas never really left him. He’s a big old country boy at heart.

Something occurs to her suddenly. “Why were you here before anyway? I thought you were rebuilding the south fence, you left at the same time I did this morning.”

Joel straightens up, sitting just a little bit taller than before. “No point in keeping it a secret any longer, I guess.” He signals with a nod of the head to the counter beside them. “Have a look at the food.”

“So I can feel bad about eating early?”

She sees Joel shrug from the corner of her eye as she gets up and makes her way over to the kitchen. “If you want, that’s a bonus. You’ll understand when you see it.”

On the counter space are various cans – beans, vegetables, mostly – some chopped up meat on a wooden cutting board being attacked by a battalion of flies, and some spices. Well, mostly salt and pepper, and some herbs. She sees the big pot on the stove, empty, and another one filled with water – ready to boil. I’m guessing there was a chili or a stew of some sort on the way here. Man, that’s a shame, Maria’s food is the freaking best. Still, it gives her no answer to her questions.

“Joel, I don’t understand. What am I supposed to see?”

 Joel gets up, and the exasperated sigh escaping him as he does so is not lost on her. “Maybe you should get your eyes checked out, then.”

“My eyes are fine, thank you very much. How about yours, old man?”

“Then you’re just a regular old dumbass,” Joel continues, disregarding the jab at his age.

Joel puts his hands on her shoulders and turns her around so she faces the part of the counter closer to the refrigerator. There, in the relative shadows created by the way the steadily setting sun hit the appliance, was a cake. It looks like a huge donut to her – she only knows what they are called because Maria’s dad Leonard baked some a few weeks ago, for some guy’s birthday, if she remembers correctly – and she sees that there is some icing on top of it. Joel’s hands push her a little closer still. She turns her head sideways to get a better look. She can see it clearly now. It isn’t patterns that are drawn in icing – it’s letters. Words.

“Happy 16th birthday Ell…,” Ellie reads out. The last two letters of her name are missing, but there is no mistaking the message. “No way! We were having dinner with Maria and Tommy for my birthday?”

“Yeah, well, the plan was for Tommy to get a few of your friends over here also, but I’m guessing he got a little sidetracked before he actually got to it. Somewhere after the second ‘L’ in your name, I reckon.”

The end of his sentence trails off as Ellie throws herself at him, knocking the wind out of him as she does. “Thank you.”

“It was nothing.”

“I’ve never had a birthday party.”

Joel pushes her away, and his smile stretches wrinkles all the way up to the corner of his eyes. “I know. You told me.” 

She looks up to him, confused. She never told him about that.

“You thought I was too feverish to understand, but I remember,” Joel explains, holding her at arms length so that he can see her as he speaks. His hands feel warm and reassuring on her shoulders. “I remember you telling me all about how you’ve never gotten a present in your life, how you’ve never celebrated Christmas or even seen a Christmas tree. How you’ve never gotten to blow out a candle on a cake, because you never had one.”

Ellie feels her throat close up. “I was just trying to pass the time. You weren’t much of a talker.”

“Well, try getting impaled on a rebar like a kebab, see how much talking you’re willing to do.”

“I literally have no idea what a kebab is.”

“Doesn’t matter much. Just because you act like all tough and pretend it’s nothing doesn’t mean it’s not important to you.”

Joel reaches around her and grabs the plate with the cake on it to put it on the table. He motions for her to sit, and she does. Upstairs, the music is still blaring, playing song after song with catchy beats, something she recalls Joel describing as ‘fake’ music. She thinks the real name for it is ‘pop’ but she’s not sure.

“You know, Christmas would have been enough. It’s too much.”

Joel reaches into his jeans’ pockets, pulls out a small object. A matchbox.

“I know. I don’t have any presents this time around, though, if it makes it any better.”

He sits at the table, and Ellie watches, amazed, as he pulls yet another handful of tiny objects out of his pockets. How deep are those? He opens his hands, and she stares open-mouthed at what he is holding. A pack of tiny, multicolored candles, like she’s seen in movies or in illustrated children’s books so many times before. “Where did you get those!”

“It’s amazing what you can find in old attics,” Joel offers. “People used to keep a lot of stuff they didn’t have much use for anymore in those. There was a whole box of them hidden away in that house we tore down last month.”

He sticks the candles in the cake, one by one, until the box is empty. There are 15 of them and Ellie can’t speak, but she hears him mumble something about being one candle short. It’s beautiful.

“You know what stuck with me the most? How you said you never knew what your own birth date was,” Joel explains as he lights all the candles on the cake. “How you told me you picked the date yourself, because your records at the orphanage only stated the year. How you picked April 24th, because 24 is your ‘lucky number’, and April because it was Riley’s birth month and you wanted to share that with her.”

Ellie smiles fondly at the memory. Riley had asked her when her birthday was, and she had had no answer to give her. Joel lights the last candle, and the match burns out in his hand. He lights another one and sticks the wooden part of it in the cake, making a homemade 16th candle.     

“Your life has been anything but normal,” Joel continues, “but you best believe I’ll try my goddamn best to make it as good as possible from now on. And normal starts with blowing your candles out on your own birthday cake, with people who care about you. Some of them, anyway.”

He leans on his elbows and the shadows from the tiny flames dance on his face. She’s hypnotized, watching with fascination the candles burning, hot wax dripping down the sides and falling on the cake, making tiny pools of colors.

“Make a wish and blow them out, baby girl.”

She wants to say so much, wants to tell him how touched she is that he remembered and pulled all this together, wants to scream how much he means to her. Instead, she settles for blowing her candles out.

She wishes for him to be as happy one day as she feels right now.

They eat half the cake by themselves – well, Joel eats most of it, but since he hasn’t eaten anything since lunch, she doesn’t call him out for it. The cake is a little dry, probably from having been left out in the open air for Heaven knows how long, but she can’t complain. When they’re done, they pack up whatever food on the counter they deem as still edible, put the leftovers in the fridge and clean up the kitchen, trying their best to ignore the occasional shouts and insults coming from upstairs that manage to be even louder than the music.

Four hours later, they are both seated in the living room, music still as loud as before. Ellie’s head is starting to pound from the rhythmic beat of the music upstairs and, judging by how Joel pinches the bridge of his nose, so does his.

It’s been a few hours since the sun went down. There really wasn’t much to do, and after they took care of folding the basket of clean laundry that had been left discarded on the living room table, they had been left to stare at the excruciatingly slow movements of the hands of the clock on the wall. Tommy only came running down the stairs in panic twice, and both times, Joel sent him back upstairs just as fast as he had appeared. She thought the whole thing was hilarious.

“Were you as freaked out as he is? When you became a dad,” Ellie asks Joel. She feels bad when she realizes that he had been drifting off when she had spoken.

He runs a finger on the broken glass display of his watch, as he does when he thinks back to his late daughter. They’ve spoken about her a few times in the past year, and it does seem to get easier for him to talk about her everytime he does, but he still gets this far away look in his eyes for a second whenever she or Tommy mention his girl unexpectedly.

“I was worse,” Joel starts, speaking slowly, looking as if he is weighing every word as they leave his lips. “Was pretty young when she was born, and I had no idea what do to.”

He stares out the window into the darkness, still rubbing his watch mechanically. Ellie doesn’t try to encourage him to talk, because she’s afraid he’ll stop if she pushes too much.

“I was on a job out of town that day. Sarah’s mom didn’t tell anyone she was in labor until her contractions were so close together that they had to call an ambulance because she thought she was going to give birth right there on our bathroom floor.”

“Ambulance?” Ellie repeats, the syllables feeling foreign on her tongue.

“Big yellow trucks that used to transport injured people to hospitals. They had that real annoying siren sound, too. Anyway, they ended up rushing her to the emergency room in one of those things. Complications, they said. They took her to get an emergency C-section, and her mom called me from the ambulance.”

“That’s when they cut you open to get the baby out, right?”

Joel looks back to her. “That’s simplifying it a lot, but yeah. I drove there as fast as I could when I got the call. Crashed my truck into a telephone pole, so I ran the rest of the way. When I got there, they were prepping her for surgery, and she threatened to castrate me.”

He stops talking then as a they hear a particularly loud curse from Maria break through the Michael Jackson tune – Ellie knows that one, at least. Joel shakes his head in amused exasperation, then he returns to his observation of the scenery outside, which, frankly, has been the exact same for the past two hours he has spent seated next to the window. “What happened next?” Ellie presses.

“You’re too curious for your own good, kid.”

“It’s my birthday! Please?”

“Fine. She may or may not have broken my hand when one of her contractions hit, and I may or may not have passed out on the ceramic floor.”

Ellie stifles a laugh, which quickly turns into a yawn. “She sounds like she gave you a run for your money.”

His hand wraps once again around his watch, as he shakes his head.

“You got no idea how true that is. After Sarah was born, we drifted apart, and she left with my truck, whatever money I had managed to save and my six-string. Sarah was three. Her mom never came back after that.”

“That must have been rough. Sorry you had to deal with that.” Joel shakes his head dismissively, as if to say that it is no big deal. She knows it must have been. Ellie lies down on the couch. Her eyelids feel like they weight a thousand pounds each. She yawns again, which doesn’t go unnoticed by Joel. “It’s okay if you want to go to sleep. It’s been a long day.”

She doesn’t make him tell her twice, and before the next song playing above their heads is over, she is out like a light.

***

“Ellie. Ellie. Ellie, wake up.”

She opens her eyes when she feels a hand on her shoulder shaking her awake insistently. The first thing she notices is Joel’s face watching her, quickly followed by the clear absence of any sound in the house. “What’s going on?”

“I was just upstairs. Ready to meet the baby?”

Joel has the foresight to move out of her way to avoid getting it in the head by her bolting up from the couch in one, surprisingly fluid motion, considering how deeply asleep she had been just thirty seconds before. “Jesus, how long have I been asleep for?”

“Do I look like I own a working watch? It was half past 11, last I walked by the clock, you do the math.”

Joel leads her to one of the upstairs bedrooms, the same one they had helped Tommy paint a gender-neutral yellow not even a month ago. The mobile Joel made in his spare time hangs above the crib, carved elephants and lions and zebras dangling at the end of short strings, and the little clouds they’ve painted on the walls look as fake as ever in the faint yellow light of the lamp in one of the corners, it’s halo barely reaching the rocking chair Tommy is sitting on. Ellie sees none of it.

Ellie’s eyes are fixed on the little bundle of blankets he is holding close to his chest and she stops in the doorway, fidgeting nervously with the hem of her shirt.

The dark circles under Tommy’s eyes are impressive, and his hair his sticking up in the same way Joel’s does after a long day of work, but the smile on his face is as large as she has ever seen it. He doesn’t look up as Joel approaches him, his eyes trained on his baby. The older brother’s hand on his shoulder manages to finally tear the younger one away from his contemplation.

Tommy motions for her to come closer with the hand not supporting the baby’s weight. She does, just as nervous as she was when she snuck out of her orphanage for the first time. I shouldn’t be that worried. It’s a baby. It isn’t going to bite. I don’t think? Shit, do babies bite?

“Sorry about your birthday, Ellie,” Tommy whispers when she finally gets close enough.

“Don’t worry about it, it’s fine… You had more pressing matters to get to, anyway” she trails off with a reassuring smile, and Tommy nods in agreement.

“Yeah, I sure did.” His free hand brushes back the flap of the tiny white blanket obscuring the baby’s face. “Meet your new cousin, Ellie: little Michael Thomas Miller. Mikey for short.”

The baby in Tommy’s arms is tiny, barely the length of his father’s forearm. He has a tuft of blonde hair, and he is sound asleep with his mouth wide open, like both his dad and uncle do. His little fists are closed and raised by his face, like the cutest like boxer she has ever seen. She can’t help but smile at the thought of someone so small getting into a fight with anyone. It’d be the funniest boxing match in history, for sure.

“He’s beautiful… thank God he looks like his mom,” she teases him.

Little Mikey yawns, stretching his arms up as he does it. Oh my, he’s the cutest. Tommy looks down at his newborn son, beaming. “You can’t tell right now, but he has Maria’s pout down to a T. Do you want to hold him?”

Ellie instinctively steps back, bumping into Joel’s chest. “I’d rather not. I’ve never held a baby before, feels like it’d put a damper on things if, you know… I dropped the little guy.”

Tommy gets up anyway, carefully cradling little Michael against him and completely disregarding anything she just said. Before Ellie can protest anymore, Joel pushes her down into the rocking chair. Tommy kneels in front her, the baby still fast asleep in his arms. “Well, up until an hour ago, neither had I, and it’s working out fine so far. I’m sure you’ll be alright.”

He shifts the baby so that he can transfer him into Ellie’s arms, Joel’s watchful eyes following their every movements like a hawk. He is letting Tommy run the whole transfer operation, but he is standing as close as possible to them, probably ready to make a diving catch for his nephew if either one of them screws it up.

“Watch his head,” Joel warns as the full weight of the little boy rests against her arms. “Here, like this.” He places her arms slightly closer together so that Michael’s head rests in the crook of one of her elbows. One of his tiny arms drops to the side and she instinctively reaches down to fold it back against his chest. She almost squeaks in surprise as his fingers wrap around her index finger. For someone that was born not even a few hours ago, he has a surprisingly strong grip.

“He’s holding my finger,” Ellie whispers in awe.

“He’s got quite the grip,” Tommy agrees. “I’m going to check on Maria, can you guys stay with Michael for a little while?”

Joel nods, sitting cross-legged on the floor and leaning against the side of the crib.

“How is she doing?” Ellie asks him when she finally manages to lift her eyes from the tiny human in her arms, long after Tommy left the room.

He shrugs. Joel strokes his nephew’s head with his thumb – she notices his hand is bigger than the baby’s head, neck and part of his torso, and it strikes her how little a baby actually is. “Exhausted, understandably. She was sleeping, now, last I heard.”

Ellie looks back down at the baby – her cousin, she reminds herself with a fond smile. It feels alien to her that Tommy and Maria, who’ve only known her for a few months, accepted her as part of their family, no questions asked. She can’t describe the feeling, but she can’t quite wipe the smile off her lips when she thinks about it.

The soft bundle in her arms is warm against her chest, his little chest steadily rising and falling with every tiny breath he takes. She is in awe of the little guy, can’t tear her eyes away from him even if she tried. It seems so surreal to her that, only a few hours ago, he was just this apparently huge alien growing in Maria’s rounded belly, but now he was here, much more delicate than she had anticipated and breathing in the same air she was. “I get that he is really small, but I can’t believe that little guy literally came out of Maria.”

Joel looks up at her from his spot on the floor, his hand dropping from Michael’s head into his own lap. “He’s actually a little shorter and lighter than the average baby I’ve seen. Sarah was nearly a pound heavier and she was right on the average. I’ve seen babies double his weight, back in Texas. Hard to believe, right?”

She nods in acknowledgement. “That doesn’t make me want to push one of those out of me, like, at all.”

“Give it time, you might change your mind,” Joel snickers.

She pays him no mind. She keeps rocking the baby until Tommy comes back in the room, informing them that Maria is still fast asleep, and they swap places. She’s sure she had a mini heart-attack when they transferred the baby back from her arms to his, but Michael never even stirred.

Tommy places him carefully in the crib, leaning against the top part just looking at his newborn son with a smile on his face. Ellie doesn’t think she has seen it leave his lips since she came in the room. It sure suits him well to look this unconditionally happy. “Look at him. It’s like looking at a little bundle of hope in a blanket,” Tommy whispers, careful not to wake his boy.

Joel claps his brother softly on the back. “Ellie and I are gonna go, let you guys get some well-deserved sleep. Congratulations again, little brother. You guys made a handsome kid.”

Tommy turns around and hugs his surprised older brother. “Thanks, man, for slapping some sense into me before. I needed to hear that.”

Joel’s lopsided grin almost mirrors the emotion in his eyes. “That’s what big brothers do.”

Tommy turns to Ellie, hugging her too and accidentally crushing her nose against his shoulder in the process. She can’t find it in her to complain.

“We’ll have you over some other time, El. Promise. Sometime this week!”

She nods. “Don’t worry about it. This was a pretty great birthday already.”

As soon as they are out of earshot, Joel turns to her. “I wouldn’t count on that, if I were you, they’re gonna realise pretty soon that a baby that young doesn’t sleep at all at first,” he mumbles.

She just shrugs. When they reach their home, Joel turns to her, his hand on the doorknob. “Remember how you picked April because you wanted to share your birth month with Riley? Now you share the exact same birthday as Michael.”

She smiles, and it seems her cheeks ache from doing it so much in one evening.

It was a pretty great first birthday celebration, all things considered.

Chapter Text

“Alright, boys! Ellie,” Tommy adds as a second thought. “Your favourite time of the month has come again… it’s scheduling time!”

His announcement is met with a cacophony of groans and complaints, mostly from the two older guys in the back of the room whose names Ellie still can’t recall, not that she especially wants to. Tommy holds his hands up to quiet everyone down.

He turns to the blackboard behind him, chalk in hand. “It comes back every 30 to 31 days, shocking, I know,” Tommy mocks. “Faster we get on with it, faster we’re out of here.”

He turns to the board and starts scribbling names down on one side. “So, in addition to our usual happy bunch of morons, we’ve got Jesse on the rotation for the next month at least, so that makes 13 of you to fill up the available spots.”

“I thought Jesse was on patrol now?” one of the guys from before questions – Mark? John? She really has no idea, or interest in the matter, but what she does know is that the hair he combed back over the top of his head does nothing to hide how fast he is going bald. “Was he missing us already?”

“Yeah, that’s why he broke his ankle falling through a roof on his last patrol, he was too eager to go back to sitting in the cold for hours staring at the darkness of the woods,” Ellie mumbles out, not expecting anyone to hear and nearly jumping out of her skin when the man next to her snickers at her comment. In front of her, Tommy rolls his eyes. Maybe she spoke louder than she had thought.

“Like our wonderful ray of sunshine here so delicately put it, Jesse is physically unable to be on the patrol schedule for now,” Tommy repeats for everyone else to hear.

“Who runs across a rotten rooftop anyway?” Ellie grumbles under her breath.

“And thank you for volunteering for the first night shift of the month, Ellie! Who’s next?”

Ellie groans out loud. She really should learn to speak more quietly. “Since when is my name written with a Y at the end, anyway?” she remarks.

Tommy looks back at his handwriting, noticing the obvious mistake he made. “I have a five-week-old baby who refuses to sleep for more than two hours at a time, be grateful I didn’t rename you ‘Annoying-Niece-of-Mine’ for the time being.”

She leans back in her chair and vows to be silent for the rest of the meeting.

It takes nearly an hour to complete the schedule for June between Tommy’s sleep deprived state and everyone’s demands, and by the time their merry little group walks out of the room, she can barely keep her eyes open. She already has to be up in three hours for her night shift on the west watchtower – with Jesse, of all people. She can already hear him complaining about having to stay off his feet for the upcoming weeks and she doesn’t have nearly enough hours of sleep in the bank to put up with that.

“Hey, Ellie!”

The guy that was next to her during the schedule-making process runs up to catch up to her. His taped-up glasses slip a little on the bridge of his nose when he skids to a halt next to her. “Hey, I noticed you got the 13th at night, and I was wondering if you wanted to switch shift with mine? I have the early morning shift on the 14th.”

“Oh, yeah sure,” she agrees. “Just change it on the board when you get a chance, you know how Tommy likes to know who is freezing half-to-death in which post at all times.”

He nods and rolls up his sleeves. “Frankly, I don’t think he’ll notice, but sure. I’m Chuck, by the way. I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced before.”

He reaches out a hand and Ellie shakes it. Her eyes travel down his arms, to the fully tattooed forearms newly exposed to her curious eyes. The designs she sees run all the way from his wrists to where his sleeves are rolled up to, some of them in black ink only, some other in various levels of faded colour.

“Nice tattoos you got there.”

He doesn’t look down to his arms, just shrugs. He probably gets comments on his tattoos all the time. “Thanks.”

She stares at his tattoos for a few extra seconds, her eyes lingering on the naked mermaid on a rock by his elbow. That seems a little distracting… or maybe that’s the point? Was it common to get drawings of naked chicks tattooed before the Outbreak?

“Well, see you around Ellie.”

She nods and he walks away, on the opposite side of the street from where she’s headed. She gets to walking herself, tugging the cuff of her right sleeve down out of habit, making sure it covers her whole arm even though she just wants to roll it up and let her skin breathe. Whatever. She’s nearly home anyway, it doesn’t matter if her bite is exposed once she gets there.

As expected, Joel is none too pleased when she finally makes it to their house, mainly because he was waiting for her to eat and now their bowls of chili are cold. He stops brooding when she offers to wash their dishes and then proceeds to promptly fall asleep on the couch with an open book of crosswords in his lap.

When she is finally alone, lying on her back in her bed in the darkness of her room, she can’t help but look at her own arms in the faint moonlight and wonder how they would look with patterns similar to Chuck’s inked on her skin.

***

Nearly a week later, Tommy asks her to take an extra shift on the south-west tower and, as it turns out, her partner for the day is none other than Chuck. A very annoyed Chuck, when he realises just how much staring at his arms she does over the first few hours of their watch.

“Your interest is very flattering, but girl, I could literally be your dad,” he jokes when he catches her yet-again staring at his biceps – he’s wearing a t-shirt this time, and she can see the patterns run even higher up his arms than she had previously.

“Aw, but I’m so into silver foxes,” she pretends to pout and Chucks lets out a loud chuckle that echoes in the stillness of the early morning.

“Well, I am a fine specimen, but I’m sure you can find someone your own age.”

They sit in silence until people start to walk around, indicating to her that they are roughly half-way through their shift. “What do you want to know?” Chucks breaks the silence once he gets tired of just staring into the tree-line. “I’m sure you’ve got lots of questions to go along with all that observation of my tattoos you’ve been doing.”

Ellie moves her chair closer to his. “Did you get those before the Outbreak?”

Chucks looks down at his arms and gestures to both of his biceps. “Those yes, the ones on my forearms are from after. I wanted to keep them hidden under my clothes in case I wanted to change my career plans at some point but, you know… I don’t think anyone will discriminate me because of them, now.”

“Wow… Who tattooed you, was it someone you knew well?”

“Mostly me. I had my own tattoo shop in Los Angeles, before everyone started to try to kill each other, so the ones in color that you see were done back then. When shit hit the fan, I took one of my tattoo guns with me and kept on tattooing myself and others ever since. Was only able to make black ink out of scratch, though, the colored ones always fade a little or turn out a little blurry on people’s skin.”

Ellie doesn’t know what to say. The amount of details she sees in his work is astounding, especially on the waves surrounding the mermaid and the tree roots he has tattooed on the underside of his forearm. She really can’t believe he did all of it, that every one of them existed at one point in time only in his head. “Wow, you’re really good. Do you still do it?”

He nods. “Tattoo-gun still works, but I’m starting to run of skin to tattoo. I just enjoy it a lot… Reminds me of better times.”

He rubs a tattoo near his wrist – 2012/12/04. She wonders what the date means, but she feels as if it isn’t her place to ask about it. “What do you say we go back to doing our jobs?”

She nods, noticing how he changes the subject but choosing not to call him out on it.

She tries really hard not to, but she still spends a fair amount of time staring at his tattoos from the corner of her eye, committing them to memory.

***

“I want a tattoo.”

Joel stills, a forkful of salad half-way up to his mouth. The contents of the utensil fall back into his plate before he sets the fork back down on the table. He frowns, looking at her like she’s about to grow a second head. “You what?”

“I want a tattoo,” Ellie repeats, louder this time. The idea has been growing on her for a few weeks now, but it’s the first time she’s spoken of it to Joel. “I’m getting a tattoo.”

“And here I was thinking I escaped having this kind of conversation when the goddamn apocalypse broke out,” he grumbles, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. “Where the hell are you going to find a tattoo shop anyway?”

Ellie just shrugs. “I know a guy.”

Joel stares her down. “You know a guy.”

“Yep.”

His gaze is locked on hers, and his eyes go back to their usual unreadableness. “Just don’t get one on your face, then.” He resumes eating, paying her no more attention than if she had asked him if she could have the last slice of pie.

“That’s it? No ‘that’s a stupid decision, Ellie’, no ‘you absolute dumbass’?” she asks. She was expecting a lot more resistance from him.

Joel doesn’t look at her when he answers, his salad obviously more deserving of his attention. “Would it change your mind?”

“No.”

“There you go. I’m not gonna give myself a headache trying to convince your stubborn ass otherwise when you and I know very well that you’re going to do it anyway.”

“You’re the worst.”

“Sure, I am.”

He uses his fork to push food around in his plate, missing Ellie’s eye roll. She gets up, washes and dries her plate and puts it away in the cupboard before heading to the door.

“What, now?” Joel’s voice stops her in her tracks.

Ellie turns back to him. He still hasn’t moved from his place, but he is watching her more intently than he had been seconds ago when she had gotten up from the table. “I’m not going to do it tonight. I just have to figure a few things out before I do.”

“Be safe.”

“Always.”

“That’s not even close to true.”

“Goodnight, Joel!”

She’s careful to remember to roll her sleeves down to hide her bite mark before stepping outside.

Ellie sets out to look for Chuck, though she realises pretty fast that she has absolutely no idea where the guy lives or even hangs out at. In fact, she doesn’t remember seeing much of him at all before this very week. After a long time of wandering around town and asking anyone if they had seen the big, tattooed man anywhere tonight, she stops to have a look on the schedule, and as luck would have it, notices he is on watch tower seven with Leonard until midnight.

She heads down to the north side of the fence, where watchtower seven is located, kicking rocks along the way. She has a little bit of time to spare – or rather, a few hours – before Chuck gets off his post. She knows it is worthless to try to talk to him while he is on duty, especially seeing as his partner is Maria’s dad, a man known by all to be extremely – excessively, some would even dare say – cautious and hellbent on following protocol. Hell, she’s ninety-eight percent sure he invented protocol.

She sits by one the of the trees nearby, so neither man can leave without her seeing them walk by but enabling her to rest her back comfortably against the bark.

Life in Jackson is… quieter than she had expected it to be. The normalcy of everyday life had been unsettling at first. Joel had adjusted to it much quicker, and better, than she had, to be honest. After all, he was used to the schedules, the rounds, the patrols… her? Not so much. When she had been little, she had been hauled around from orphanage, to foster home, back to another orphanage, and so on until she had been deemed unadoptable. After that, it had been the Military Prep School in Boston, and everyday she woke up with no way of knowing if today was going to be day she pissed off the wrong guy, or if she was going to get to eat at all – rations were sometimes hard to come by, and why bother feeding properly a bunch of teens that would most likely become canon fodder before the year was out? It hadn’t been a rare sight to see the directors and training officers eating until they could barely stand, while she and her unfortunate companions had to go through their leftovers or even the trash just to get by. And then Riley had left, and reappeared, and shit had hit the fan in a spectacular fashion that sent her on a nearly 18-month trip across the country.

During that whole year and a half, neither she or Joel had known when or what they were going to eat, where they would sleep or if they even would make it in one piece to see the sun rise the next morning. After all that, getting used to a routine was a hard thing to do, because it had never been a part of her life. Getting up, knowing she would eat three meals a day and sleep in a bed every night… it was foreign to her.

She got used to it, with time. Almost. If she was honest, she kind of missed the unknown of life on the road. Maybe that was why she wanted to get on the patrol rotations so bad, to get back that feeling of unexpectedness that was ‘normal’ to her.

Maybe then, she’d stop feeling like she had missed her chance to do something meaningful with her life. She hadn’t been able to provide a cure for the virus when they had gone to Salt Lake City to meet up with the Fireflies, but what she could do was take out a shit-ton of Infected along the way.

“Earth to Williams? Anyone home?”

The voice makes Ellie jump. She was so deep in thought, she had missed the sun setting over the fence… and Dina’s patrol squad reporting back after their day out in the woods.

Dina herself was standing above her, her body blocking most of her line of sight.

“Sweet mother of God, what is that smell? Do you have a dead possum hiding in that backpack of yours?” Ellie exclaims, teasingly covering her mouth and nose with part of her shirt.

Dina slaps her arm and lies down next to her. “Hilarious.”

“Seriously, you smell like shit.”

“Thank you for sugar-coating it.”

“Anytime. Seriously, what happened to you?”

Dina closes her eyes, stretching on the still-warm grass by the tree. “Fell down an old septic tank.” Ellie shudders, remembering the damp, rotten smell of the sewers they had had to escape through in Pittsburgh.

“Isn’t that supposed to be underground?”

“It was, but it broke when Tyler and I walked over it. We kinda pulled a Jesse-move and fell through.”

“Oh, that’s why it smells like dead fish.”

Dina raises an eyebrow. Oh man, I screwed up. She lunges at Ellie from her spot on the ground and tackles her – she has the element of surprise on her side, which sends them both tumbling to the ground. “Shit, you’re disgusting, get off!”

The older girl just laughs, rubs her hands and arms all over Ellie’s face and wraps her legs around her waist so she has no way of escaping Dina’s grasp. “Now you smell horrible by association, darling!”

She pushes Ellie down on the ground so she can rub her face against hers – her hair smells worse than the old mop that has a permanent place in the bucket of dirty water in the community center. She feels something dig into her back, causing her to yelp out in pain and Dina to pull away.

“Root’s digging into my back,” Ellie explains as she straightens up, resting her hand on one hand so she can massage the small of her back with the other. “I hate you, by the way.”

Dina blows her a kiss in a very dramatic, Dina-like fashion and grabs a hold of her arm to roll off her. Ellie’s breath catches in her throat and she swears she feels her heart stop for a second as she stares down at Dina’s hand.

Dina’s fingers are wrapped directly over her bite.

Sure, it is covered, but she can’t help but remember the raised, hard skin around the bite. She’s going to feel it. What do I do now? Shit. Shit. Shit, I should have been more careful, what if she tells anyone?

But Dina doesn’t seem to notice anything out of the ordinary as she pulls herself to her feet, much to Ellie’s relief. “Not that I don’t enjoy your smelly company, but I’m going to take a shower before I start attracting wildlife.”

“Your mom is so going to make you burn your clothes before you walk inside her house.”

Dina chuckles. “I know, that’s why I’m headed to Jesse’s place.”

Ellie nods, her heart barely recovering from her previous scare. “Isn’t he bedridden for now?”

Dina dusts her pants off and winks at her, starting to walk away at the same time. “Exactly.”

Ellie can’t help but laugh at her friend’s antics.

“Be safe, you two! I don’t want to be an aunt just yet!”

“Shut up, Freckles.”

***

In retrospect, she really should have waited until Chuck was done with his sip of water before asking him to tattoo her.

“You want me to what?” he sputters, water shooting out of his nose.

Ellie wipes her face of the sprayed water that just unceremoniously landed on it. “I want you to tattoo me,” she repeats. “Please.”

Chuck wipes his face with the bottom part of his shirt, exposing his fully tattooed stomach for a brief second. Jeez, how many tattoos does this guy have?

When the shirt falls back to its usual place, Chuck’s eyes lock on hers as if he is trying to read her thoughts. Trying to analyse her. He has bright blue eyes, not that noticeable behind his dark rimmed glasses, but now they seem to see right through her. She might as well be wearing no clothes at all, considering how naked she feels under his gaze. Ellie starts shifting her weight from one foot to the other, nervously looking around to see if anyone heard their exchange.

At this hour of the night, Jackson basically turns into a ghost town, save for whoever inherits the overnight shifts on the watch towers. Other than that, the streets are empty and the houses are dark. Tonight is no different, and she sees no one around them.

“A tattoo’s not a game,” he finally says. He screws the lid of his water canteen shut and puts it safely in his backpack before speaking again. “It’s not going to come off when you get tired of it. It’ll stay on you, forever.”

Ellie nods in response. “I know. That’s exactly what I want.”

“What do you want a tattoo for anyway?”

Ellie paused. Why did she want one anyway?

“I guess I have my reasons.” Chuck chuckles, then turns on his heels and heads out, walking the opposite way she came from – to his place, she assumes. Ellie stays behind, uncertain. “So? You’ll do it?”

He doesn’t turn around, just shouts his answer over his shoulder. “If you can think of a better reason than that, sure.”

Ellie stares at him until he disappears in the distance, swallowed whole by the darkness of the sleeping settlement.

It takes her most of the night to figure out what her answer to Chuck would be, why she wants to get a tattoo so bad. It takes her hours to admit to herself that getting a tattoo doesn’t have much to do with wanting to show off her new ink, but rather, to take focus off something else.

When she realises the real reason behind wanting Chuck to ink her up, the sun’s rising and she hasn’t slept a wink.

Might as well get up.

She can hear Joel in the kitchen downstairs, making breakfast. Or tea, she isn’t sure, but she hears no grumbles about how tea is just a sad substitute for coffee, so her bet is on breakfast. Maybe if she’s lucky, there’ll be leftovers and she won’t have to cook for herself – unsurprisingly, she is an absolute liability in a kitchen, and thus most of what she cooks tastes like burnt toast.

“Is there some for me?” she asks Joel when she hops on one of the stools by the kitchen counter. He is fully dressed, contrary to her, still clad in oversized sports shorts and a plain grey t-shirt.

He pushes a plate of scrambled eggs across the counter. “I heard you tossing and turning all night. Figured you’d be hungry,” he explains to her unspoken question.

“Thanks.”

They eat in silence, not a word exchanged between them again until Joel puts his empty plate in the sink. “Are you going to tell me why you want a tattoo or are you going to let me guess for another day?”

“You’ve got to let me explain it all the way through.”

“Ellie…”

“Promise me,” she says, and the hardness in her voice surprises even herself. “Promise you’ll listen.”

He exhales slowly and sits on the stool he had just left a few seconds ago. His lips are pulled into such a thin line that she can barely make them out through his rapidly greying beard. “Alright.”

“I want to get a tattoo on my right forearm,” she says slowly.

Joel stares at her, expecting more, but then he realizes what will inevitable be exposed if she gets someone to tattoo her skin there and his face hardens.

“Absolutely not.”

“Let me explain!”

Joel pinches the bridge of his nose, his elbow on the flat surface before him. “What is there to explain, kiddo? You can’t show that mark to anyone, ever! Those are the rules, you know that…”

Ellie grabs his wrist and slams his hand down on the counter to force him to look at her, not taking into account just how heavily he was leaning on his it and nearly smashing his forehead against the hard surface of the kitchen counter. She doesn’t waste a second before she starts talking, words spilling out of her mouth at an uncontrollable pace. The element of surprise would only work on Joel for so long before he regained his senses.

“Listen to me! I want to cover the bite. I don’t want to hide forever, Joel!”

She’s breathing heavily. He doesn’t look her straight in the eyes, she can tell he is staring at something just slightly over her head. He’s avoiding eye contact. She can tell by the way his body tenses up, the way he focuses on anything but her, that he isn’t even considering a word she is saying. “You’re not getting a tattoo. End of discussion.”

She sees red.

“The discussion never started in the first place!” Ellie screams out, jumping out of her stool. Joel gets up too, albeit slower. She may have grown a few inches since they first came to Jackson, and he still towers over her by nearly a foot, but she’s so mad that it makes no difference in her mind as she shoves him. Hard. “I’ve been hiding for nearly two years, Joel. Enough.”

She tries to shove him again, because it’s the only way she feels she’ll get her point across, the only way to make him listen. He is expecting it the second time around, and he grabs a hold of her wrists before her hands can connect with his chest once more. “You’ve survived for two years.”

“And I can’t take it anymore! I’ve been afraid to get close to anyone, because I’m afraid I won’t be careful enough and they’ll see the bite and I’ll be done for. This isn’t a life. We were supposed to be safe here, but I feel on the edge every single day I leave this house.”

She shakes her hands free of Joel’s grasp. The older man doesn’t try to restrain her, but his eyes are as hard as ever. Joel can do a lot of things right but compromising and considering other people’s point of views… those are not some of those things.

“We worked so hard to get here, and you’re just going to throw that away because you don’t want to wear long sleeves anymore? No. This isn’t your call to make,” he grunts through clenched teeth.

“Then whose call is it? Yours? You’re not my dad!”

The last words slip out of her mouth before she can hold them back, and as soon as she speaks them, she regrets them. The hurt she sees flash across Joel’s eyes is unlike any she has ever seen.

Joel gulps and steps back, his back banging against the wall.

“I can’t do it, Joel,” she continues, and her throat feels like it’s about to close up. She has no idea if it is because of the words she is speaking now or the ones she has spoken before. “To you, this whole thing just means long sleeves and being unbelievably sweaty for three to four months each year but to me… Try to see it from my point of view. As long as I have to hide my bite, I have to hide part of who I am. Part of my story. And that means that I can’t get close to anyone. Not really, anyway. No dates, no relationships, nothing, because there is no way I can hide the scars for that long if I let anyone in like this.”

Ellie leans back against the counter. Her head pounds and her ears are ringing with all her yelling. “I don’t want to be alone, Joel,” she adds. “And if showing one person my bite so it can be hidden under a tattoo to everyone else after that is what it takes not to be, then screw it. I’m willing to make that gamble. If Chuck freaks out and outs me, if I get shot for being infected, then so be it. It’s a risk I’ll just have to take. Please tell me you can understand that.”

Joel turns back on his heels and crosses the whole house to get to his room, not a word coming out of his mouth, no comment, no insult, no debate, nothing. The slamming door behind him sounds like a bullet to Ellie’s ears, and her fist goes through the wall in front of her in anger as she screams at the top of her lungs. The pain shoots through her whole arm, but the pounding in her hand is not the worst thing she’s feeling right now.

Her scar feels like it’s burning.

It doesn’t matter if Joel doesn’t want her to go through with it. She’s 16. She’s made her fair deal of choices by herself so far, and she can make one more. Even if it turns out to be her last one.

***

Dina wraps the bandages tighter around her injured hand. “You punched a wall because… you lost yet-another game of chess against Jesse.”

“Nope.”

“You punched a wall because… Logan said something stupid.”

“Nope.”

“You punched a wall because… Maria said you couldn’t have dessert before dinner?”

“How old do you think I am, seven?”

Dina’s hands still in the middle of tying the bandages closed, a diaper pin stuck between her lips. “Ellie, dear, I’ve seen you do that before.”

Her friend’s hands resume their movements steadily, flawlessly, as usual. It looks to her like her fingers are dancing, in the way they run across her palm with a feather-light touch.

“It was an afternoon snack, I’ll have you know,” Ellie contests, mockingly outraged.

“Freckles, 6 PM is not the afternoon,” Dina chuckles under her breath, examining her handiwork. “How does it feel?”

Ellie wiggles her fingers experimentally, and the pain in her hand seem to have dulled a little – at least, it isn’t bleeding anymore – but as she moves her hand in wider movements to test it out, she can’t hide the wince from the pain shooting through her wrist. Oh fuck it’s bad.

The shift in her facial expression, however brief, does not go unnoticed by Dina.

“Let me see,” she orders, her finger grabbing her arm to pursue her work. “Lift up your sleeve, I need to see better.”

Ellie’s internal alarm goes off and she pulls her hand back as fast as possible. “It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”

“Girl, you’re as stubborn as a donkey.”

“I am not a donkey!”

“You’re right, the donkey is much cuter.” Dina puts the rest of her first aid kit back in the white plastic box, and snaps it shut before sliding it back under her bed in its rightful place, by Ellie’s legs.

Her bedroom is smaller than Ellie’s, but her bed is wider and higher, so much so it makes walking around the room a hard feat as there are only about two feet on each side of the bed and the door doesn’t open all the way, stopped by the edge of the mattress. It is cozy, and small, and luminous, and so very… Dina.

She turns back to Ellie as the younger girl gets up, and shoves both of her hands in her back pockets. They are face to face, and the restricted space means they are standing impossibly close. Due to their height difference, however little it is, Dina’s breath tickles her lower lip and chin.

“You’re hiding things, Williams. It’s okay,” she adds when Ellie opens her mouth to argue. “It’s fine. I just hope someday you feel comfortable enough to share them with me.”

Dina flattens the collar of Ellie’s grey and blue flannel shirt. Her hand lingers on her shoulder a little, until she jumps up at the sound of her mother’s voice calling from the living room. “Dina, come here please!”

“I should go,” Ellie offers, walking backwards to the door and ducking out of the room. “Thanks, you know… for the hand.”

Dina doesn’t make a move to follow her out. “No problem, Freckles.”

She wanders around for a few hours before going home. It makes no sense to her to go back to her house if she knows she’ll only spend her time hauled up in her room, alone. She’s out of reading material anyway, and there’s only so much staring at the ceiling a girl can do before going batshit crazy. She ends up helping out the Kellers with their garden, mostly pulling weeds and watering plants, but it only keeps her busy until the sun goes down, and as soon as it does, the streets become deserted once more. Ellie drags her feet back to the house, hoping that she won’t have to confront Joel when she gets there. She’s not up for a second fight in the same night.

The house is dark when she gets to it. He’s probably asleep already. Pretty sure he has a patrol round early tomorrow morning.

She tiptoes her way through the living room and almost reaches the stairs leading up to her room when the lights turn on at once, blinding her. When her vision comes back into focus, she spots Joel, sitting in the rocking chair, positioned in such a way that he was out of her field of view from the moment she walked in the door up to the stairs. “Fuck, Joel, you’ve got to stop making dramatic entrances like that, my heart will give out before its time.”

Joel says nothing, he just stares at his hand. Not his hand, Ellie realises with a start, but rather, the nearly empty glass of a dark-coloured liquid – whiskey – he is holding in it. “Joel?”

He doesn’t look up still, but he finally starts moving. He swirls what’s left of his whiskey around his glass and lifts it up to eye-level.

“It’s been years since I’ve had a sip of whiskey that good,” he mumbles as he takes another sip. “Probably since the Outbreak.”

Ellie takes a hesitant step closer to the shaky living room table – it was the first, and only piece of furniture Joel had asked her to put together with the wooden pieces he had cut himself, and she had done a really shitty job of it. “I found a damn good bottle on my last scavenging trip. Was waiting for an occasion to break it open,” Joel explains.

He puts his glass down on the table and Ellie fears for a second that it is going to collapse under its weight. It holds up, amazingly enough, and she is left to stare at Joel, still seated but with his arms crossed over his chest now. “You never told me all this.”

Ellie shrugs. “You never asked.”

“You’re right.” Joel uncrosses his arms and leans forward on his chair. “Listen, kiddo. I’m sorry. I just want to protect you, so much that I forget that you can take care of yourself just fine. And you’re right… You’re not a kid, never really been, and I should stop trying to treat you like one. So, if getting that tattoo is what you want, then do it. Whatever happens then, we’ll deal with it.”

Ellie’s throat feels dry, but her eyes feel just a little too moist. She clears her throat to answer.  

“I have something to tell you too. I just want to say, I’m sorry. About what I said before. I didn’t mean it, I was…”

“Angry, I know,” Joel interrupts. “Don’t apologize for that. What are you planning on getting anyway?”

“Haven’t really given it a lot of thought, to be honest. Something big enough to cover the bite, maybe some cool patterns, or animal footprints even. A bear pawprint would be kinda cool.”

Joel gets up, nodding softly, and heads to the door. Instead of leaving like Ellie expects him to, he turns around and holds it open next to him. “I suggest you think of something fast. Chuck is expecting us. I’d tell you to jump back in your shoes, but from the looks of it you still haven’t learned to take them off when you walk in.”

Joel stares at the puddles of dirt and mud she has dragged around the floor from the door to the stairs, and she can only smile sheepishly in response.

***

As it turned out, they really shouldn’t have made such a fuss of it all. Surprisingly enough, convincing Chuck not to take off running and alert the whole town of her situation was as easy as convincing him to exchange a watch shift. Maybe it had something to do with how Joel sat him down on a chair and towered over him as Ellie explained why she wanted a tattoo and how the scar came to be, cutting off his access to the door of his own basement. Or maybe he was just that chill of a dude, which was the explanation Ellie wanted to go with.

Either way, Chuck’s face had turned a little white when she had uttered the words “bitten by a Runner”, but he hadn’t made a move to run away and actually relaxed quite a bit when Joel added that it had happened nearly two years ago, and that she hadn’t experienced any symptoms since then.

“When I told you to come up with a better reason, I wasn’t expecting that,” Chuck finally says as he lays her uncovered arm down on a wooden table to examine it. “It really doesn’t feel any different than the rest of your skin?”

Sometimes it feels like it’s burning, sometimes it just itches, but most of the time it’s just kinda numb.

“No. Feels exactly the same,” she lies. She feels bad outright lying like that, especially considering how understanding Chuck is of the whole situation, but there’s no point in sharing that information with the guy.

Chuck pushes his glasses up on his nose and brings his face closer to the crescent shaped scar near her elbow. When he starts poking at the raised, bubbly-looking skin of the old wound, Ellie has to resist the urge to pull her hand away. “We’ll have to do a few tests on your bite before we try tattooing your whole arm,” he mutters as turns her arm over a few times.

“Why?” Joel asks from his spot leaning on the ramp attached to the stairs. “Can’t we just do it now?”

Chuck lets go of Ellie’s arm and she tugs her sleeve down out of habit. “I don’t know how the bite will react. I’ve tattooed scar tissue before, but this… It’s unlike any scar I’ve ever dealt with. I want to be able to adjust if the scar reacts weirdly.”

Joel nods, and Ellie does the same. “What do you say I just do one line, wait a week, then see how we go from there?” Chuck suggests, leaning forward on his chair.

She nods again. Chuck gets up to get his gear and Joel finally makes a move to come closer before the younger man can sit back down. “You keep this to yourself, got it? All of it,” Joel growls.

“Joel!”

Chuck gestures for her to calm down – she hadn’t even noticed she had jumped out of her chair at the older man’s display of distrust. “Loud and clear. No one will know.”

Joel retreats back to the darkness of the basement stairway. The tattoo gun starts buzzing in Chuck’s hands and Ellie pulls her sleeve back once more. “Are you ready, Ellie?”

She has never been more ready for anything in her life. “Sure.”

She doesn’t know exactly what she expected going in, but she barely feels the sting of the needle digging into her skin repeatedly. She feels the vibration, though, through her whole arm. Then, as soon as it started, the buzzing stops.

Chuck looks up to her. “You good?” She nods again. “Alright. Did you have something specific in mind?”

“Not really? I just want something big enough to cover the bite mark, and maybe covering the rest of my arm too, so it doesn’t draw too much attention to the area of the scar.”

Chuck stares intently at her arm again. His eyebrows are furrowed in deep concentration and his glasses are slowly slipping down his nose. “It should be darker near the elbow, but it shouldn’t stick out too much from the rest, maybe a tree or something? No, that won’t do it. Tribal patterns? That’d be dark enough…” Chuck interrupts his musings to sneak a quick glance at her face. “No, that won’t do, it doesn’t fit her vibe at all.”

He keeps mumbling softly to himself as he puts his stuff away in the shelves under the staircase, sneaking glances periodically. Ellie and Joel share a look. Man, this guy is off his rocker. Right now, he sounds to her like one of those comic book’s crazy scientist trying to figure out the perfect formula to go along with his masterplan.

“How about I sketch a few things, and when you come back in a few days, we’ll figure out what to do?”

He then goes back to wondering out loud, pulling out pages out of a leather-bound sketchbook and pencils out of a desk drawer. Joel and her leave Chuck’s house soon after, when it becomes apparent that they won’t get another word out of him aside from indistinct mumblings, with a promise of meeting up again in a week and one last threat to Chuck’s life if he says anything about their encounter.

Decidedly, trusting people wasn’t in Joel’s nature any more than making well-thought out decisions was in hers.

The week they agreed upon pass by at the same speed she imagines a handicapped snail would travel at. She mostly stays inside during those days, staring at the line of black ink on her skin relentlessly as the rain outside crashes against the glass panels of the windows. Fortunately, she isn’t scheduled for any watch shifts during that time. She would have been miserable, sitting outside under the pouring rain for hours and unable to even sneak a peak at the state of the early stages of her tattoo. Instead, she covered a few shifts at the stables and managed to avoid inventory duty altogether, effectively keeping her mind off her arm for most of those days.

The line Chuck tattooed on her skin starts out as very clear, and then it starts to itch so bad as it starts scabbing and she has to constantly fight the urge to scratch at it like a demented cat. But as far as she can tell, the line doesn’t fade, blur, drip, or whatever other adverse reaction the ink could have had, she assumes. Truth to be told, she knows next to nothing about tattoos.

She takes it as a good sign.

When she finally makes it to the agreed upon date, not without almost bouncing out of her own shoes with excitement a few times. Joel is out on a scavenging trip this time, and no amount of pestering and grumbling on his part was able to get him out of it for a second time in a row – apparently, he had found a way to convince Tommy to replace him on the round the first time they met with Chuck, but managing that feat twice without arousing suspicion from anyone would be next to impossible.

Ellie only slips out of her house once the darkness of the night has fallen, providing her with cover and anonymity as she makes her way to the other side of town, where Chuck’s house is located. The fastest way there would be the one going through “downtown” – the center square where the clinic, church, armory, community center, school and most of the warehouses are located – but that would mean more chances of running into someone. People are rarely out and about in Jackson once the sun goes down, but if ever she was to run into anyone she’d have to explain where she was going and that isn’t something she wants to do in the slightest. Not that she feels she particularly has to hide where she is going and what she is going to do there, but people have a tendency to talk and gossip and Jackson is no different. She was never one for gossip much, anyway. Joel’s indifference on the matter must’ve rubbed off on her at some point in the last year.

She takes the longer way there, mostly through backyards and hugging the fence walls until she finally makes it to her destination. It takes nearly double the time, but she doesn’t mind. It gives her time to think.

Ellie doesn’t bother knocking when she gets to Chuck’s place. His house, if it can even be called that, is a lot smaller than most residences in Jackson, barely a fraction of say, Dina’s mom’s place. It’s closer to the size of a shed, really. But whereas most residences look decidedly old, and from another time altogether, Chuck managed to make his house truly his own, with paintings and drawings on the wall, big curtains framing the windows and various animal pelts decorating both the walls and floors. Nothing seems to fit together, but at the same time, it’s so very… well, Chuck.

Speaking of the devil, she doesn’t see him anywhere – and she’s sure there’s no way in hell she could have missed a hiding spot in the fraction of a second it took her to survey the entirety of the living area. His bed is neatly made, in a military style that was all too familiar to Ellie – had he been military before ending up in the middle of Wyoming? Had he been affiliated with the FEDRA armed forces? She truly had no idea, but now she really wanted to find out. There are no seats of any kind on this floor that she can see, but the plush rug in the middle of the space seems to serve a lot of purposes in this house.

“Chuck? It’s Ellie!” she calls out when it has become apparent that he either hasn’t heard her come in or he just isn’t home at all, though it doesn’t seem like him to forget their “appointment”. Joel made quite sure of it with the threatening-father act.

“Downstairs!” Chuck’s voice calls out from beneath her. 

Ellie looks around a few times. She can see a curtain half-hiding the doorway to a small bathroom, a kitchen with no table or chairs in sight, a few cushions… but no visible way to go “downstairs”. The first time they had met up with Chuck, they had gone through an outside door leading directly under his house. Maybe that’s where she had to go back to meet up with him?

Chuck replies to her unanswered question before she can say it. “In the closet, by the bathroom.”

What a fucking weird place to hide a staircase. In said closet was not the staircase Ellie had expected to find, but rather, a goddamned trap in the floor hiding the freaking thing.

“Nice bunker you got there,” Ellie greets as she crawls into the tiny space to join up with Chuck.

He doesn’t look up from the table he is bent over, furiously drawing something on a sheet of paper. She can see an array of papers, with different designs on them, anything from a tiger to flowers, including angels and clouds. “Wish I could say it was my doing, but it came with the house. The owner was some kind of survivalist, I think. Had all kinds of guns and canned goods down here, from what Leonard told me, before they looted the place.”

The only source of light is a small lamp on his workstation, barely diffusing enough light to illuminate the whole surface. “Did you think of anything you wanted?”

Ellie says no, though she isn’t sure he hears a word of what she says anyway. She takes place in the stool in front of him, ruffling through some of the discarded sketches in front of her. “Wow, Chuck… these are all beautiful.”

She means every word of it. Every single artwork she picks up amazes her, there is so much details and it feels so… personal.

Chuck briefly looks up, then goes back to his drawing. “They’re just scribbles. What do you think of this one?”

Chucks blows off whatever graphite dust still remains on the paper and hands it to her.

She thought the previous drawings she had seen on his table had been amazing.

This one knocks the wind right out of her.

It’s one of the simplest of them all, but its beauty, in Ellie’s mind, lies exactly within that simplistic approach. She stares at it, open-mouthed, until Chuck clears his throat. “Ellie? What do you think?”

The words won’t come out of her mouth, the design takes her breath away that much, so she settles for another, just as convincing answer.

She undoes the single button holding the cuff of her flannel shirt and promptly lifts her shirt sleeve nearly up to her shoulder before slamming her newly exposed arm down on the surface of the table. The pencil Chuck had been using rolls off the table with the sudden motion and the little bottles of ink shake and clang together.

She doesn’t need to speak – Chuck understands. He doesn’t say a word more than she does as he prepares his equipment and she stares in awe at the piece of art that he created.

The buzzing sound of the device is overwhelming, and the pain from the needle repeatedly digging into her skin is annoying, to say the least, but it doesn’t matter as she watches his sketch being gradually inked into her skin for the rest of her life, like a piece of art she’ll carry around with her all the time, everywhere. Over the next two hours, the lines connect and the shapes become clearer and soon enough, the whole length of her forearm itches and burns and, most importantly, is tattooed from her elbow down past her wrist, over her hand.

Ellie can’t tear her eyes away from her own arm, even as Chuck tells her he is done and starts putting all his equipment away.

It’s even better than she had hoped for it to be.

The tattoo starts near her elbow, with a big, dark moth with its wings spread wide open above her bite. The way Chuck placed it, the patterns on the wings of the moth, little, uneven circles at the bottom of the wings, cover the few more defined teeth-mark on her skin, and the rest of the bite, the part that wasn’t as defined as the rest, is perfectly hidden by the body and the darker parts of the wings of the moth. The moth itself warps around the inside of her forearm, effectively covering any discernable trace of the scar that had been haunting her for the last year. There are still some scars on the back of her forearm, but the Runner’s teeth hadn’t sunk as deep there as they had on the inside of her arm, and they hadn’t bubbled as abnormally as the others had. They could easily pass as the result of an unfortunate accident, if anyone was to ask her about them.

The second part of the tattoo is the two fern leaves upon which the moth is resting, one of them with its leaves inked in while the other had only the contours of the leaves drawn with the interior left blank. The tip of the leaves stretched all the way over her wrist and down on her hand.

“I’d recommend not exposing it to sunlight for at least three to four weeks, but I’d be kidding myself if I believed even for one second that you would listen to any of that.”

“I’ll be honest with you, Chuck, I’ll give it time to heal, but after that…” she trails off, examining every inch of her arm, turning it so she can really see all of it.

Ellie pulls her sleeve back down over the tattoo.

“At least don’t dunk your arm in water just yet.”

“I promise. Chuck, I… I don’t know what to say, this means so much to me. How can I ever thank you enough?”

Chuck smiles at her as they both get up and head for the staircase leading to the main floor of the house. “Just… keep your dad away from me for a little while? Lately he’s been showing up way too much in my nightmares and I can’t say I care for it too much.”

Ellie chuckles, closing the floor trap behind her as she extirpates herself from the closet after Chuck. “Sure thing. Thanks again, big guy.”

“I never should have told you that was my nickname when I was a teenager.”

Ellie hugs him, surprising even herself as she does it. It has been a long time since she has hugged someone other than Joel, Tommy, Maria, or Dina.

“Now, get out of my house, Ellie,” Chuck says as she pulls away. “I’ve got to be up in less than three hours for my watch, and none of those hours include chitchatting with a teenager whose dad bullied me into tattooing her.”

She nods and turns to leave, the beaming smile on her lips never fading.

“Oh, Ellie, one last thing. Don’t tell anyone I did this, I don’t want a line-up for tattoos at my door.”

She pretends to zip her lips closed and to throw away the key, and then she sets out into the darkness. She’s halfway to her house when she stops abruptly in the middle of the street. Her eyes travel down to the flannel sleeve over her arm.

Her hand is shaking as she rolls the sleeve up over her elbow, her skin feeling the evening breeze for the first time in nearly a full year. The tears sting her eyes as they threaten to escape. Instead she resumes her walk, slower than she can remember ever wandering the streets of Jackson, enjoying the moment, her arm uncovered for the first time for anyone to see, if there was anyone around to see it.

She’s so blissfully happy, she damn near dances her way home.

***

Surprisingly enough, Ellie almost waits three full weeks before the skin of her arms sees the sun. She is sitting on the steps of Dina’s house, one morning, as they had both finished their respective shifts – Dina was doing a few patrol rounds since Jesse had been injured, and Ellie was envious to no end as she was still stuck up on her watchtower where nothing ever happened. Dina is rambling away about the last stupid thing Jesse had said, and how it had turned into a fight, and then make-up sex – the best part of any fight, according to her.

The heat is suffocating, as it usually is during the month of July, and as beads of sweat roll down her neck, Ellie suddenly straightens up from her position leaning on the porch ramp. Some pale blue paint chips get stuck on her black, long-sleeved shirt, leaving the bars even more older looking then they had before.

“What?” Dina jumps at her sudden motion. “Was that too much information?”

“Dina, it’s always too much information, no matter how many times I ask you to tone it down. No, I… do you have a pair of scissors or a knife nearby?”

“I’m more of a gun girl myself, but I could try to convince my mom to let me borrow her sewing scissors.”

Ellie shivers jokingly. Dina’s mom’s sewing supplies were as closely guarded as she imagines the Queen of England’s crown must’ve been… if it ever existed? She wasn’t quite sure if the Queen she had read a few times about had actually lived or not, not that it mattered much now anyway. “No thanks, I still value my life to some extent. Here, use this instead,” Ellie replies. She pulls her switchblade out of her back pocket and flips it open before handing it to Dina, careful to hand her the handle of the weapon instead of the blade. “It should work well enough.”

Dina looks at her with puzzled eyes, the knife in one hand and the other on one of her hips. “Well enough for what?”

Ellie gets up and faces her. She can practically hear the temperature rising as fast as the seconds go by.

“I want you to cut off the sleeves of my shirt,” Ellie says slowly, staring at Dina dead in the eyes. The older girl gets up too, so she’s face to face with her.

She gives Ellie a sideway grin, so imperceptible that Ellie might’ve missed it if she hadn’t already been looking at her face intently. “Freckles, if you wanted me to take off your shirt so bad all you had to do was ask.”

“Will you just get to cutting these off already?”

Ellie feels her cheeks burn but bends her neck so she doesn’t have to meet Dina’s eyes as she gets to work with her left sleeve. The cut-off part falls down, and Dina moves on to the other one. Ellie’s heart is pounding so hard against her ribcage it’s the only thing she hears and she’s about ready to bet that Dina can too.

With the notable exception of Joel and now, Chuck, she has never let anyone near that arm. Near the bite. Near her past.

The second sleeve falls off, and Dina whistles appreciatively. Ellie finally manages to look at her again instead of staring at her own feet.

“So that’s what you were hiding all that time? Damn, Williams, you’re edgier than I thought you were. How long have you had this?”

She shrugs. “A while, now.”

“Well, I think it looks great. I don’t know why you felt the need to hide it.”

Dina looks at the tattoo attentively. The rapidly rising sun of the late morning warms the skin of her arms – her pasty white skin, if she had to qualify it – and it feels foreign, somehow. As if her skin had been deprived of the sunlight for so long it had forgotten how good the warm rays felt.

Ellie looks up and catches a glance of Dina’s mom through the kitchen window. She is positive she is being thrown the dirtiest look the mother can muster.

“I don’t think your mom shares your opinion,” Ellie whispers, making sure to move sideways so that Dina’s head effectively blocks her mom’s view of her lips. She isn’t sure the woman can ever read lips, but she prefers to be on the safe side.

“Oh, don’t mind her. She just doesn’t like tattoos much, says they’re how you recognize thugs and ex-prison inmates. But this looks hot.”

Ellie blushes again.

“Wanna come to the lake?” Dina asks, purposely not mentioning the crimson color across her cheeks. “The whole gang is meeting up there. I know you don’t usually want to go, but I thought maybe this time you’d…”

“Fuck yeah, I’ll go,” Ellie interjects. “It’s hot as all hell out there.”

They make their way to the lake, the very same one Joel had taught her how to swim in all those months ago. On their way there, they meet up with Logan, who is headed the same way and whose only comment on her arm’s unusual state of undress is: “Look at that, she doesn’t actually have scales on those arms!” She knows it is a joke coming from him, but she can’t help but wonder what other rumors were going around behind her back about all this.

As they near the south gate, they come across Joel, heading back from patrol.

“I’m going out to the lake, don’t wait for me for lunch,” she informs him as they meet each other.

The beaming smile on her face and the cut-off sleeves of her shirt exposing her arms do not escape him.

He shares a knowing smile with her. “Have fun, kids. Don’t do anything stupid.” Joel winks at her, then goes on his merry way. She and Dina head out to the lake.

For the first time in a long, long time, she doesn’t feel like she has the weight of the world pressing down on her shoulders. She feels free. She feels confident.

She feels happy.

Chapter Text

“Son of a bitch!”

Birds perched on the nearby tree branches fly away as a runaway hammer comes barreling toward them at an alarming speed. Below where they used to be, a particularly annoyed teenage girl keeps angrily mumbling out a string of very colorful swear words as she massages her rapidly swelling left thumb. It is throbbing painfully, and she suspects it will turn a lovely shade of blue in a few hours.

“Fucking hell,” Ellie mumbles out. “Now, where the fuck did that death tool go?”

The hammer she had thrown as far as she possibly could just a few seconds ago is now nowhere to be found.

“Joel will be pissed if you lost another one of his tools,” Dina mumbles with her lips clenched tight, three nails balanced precariously between them. She reaches for one of them, hammers it down and then reaches for the two remaining and shoves them back in the leather pouch hanging off her belt. “I think it went somewhere between the yellow house and the one we’re supposed to be knocking down tomorrow.”

Ellie looks up in the direction Dina indicated. With the notable exception of two little boys chasing a deflated soccer ball around, she sees nothing out of the ordinary in her line of sight. “Do you think Joel will believe me if I say it was stolen by a vicious crow?”

Dina bites back a laugh. “No, but maybe if you say it was a falcon or an owl he might.” She pulls herself up, hammer in hand, and walks carefully over to where Ellie is kneeling, still clutching her thumb. She kneels and pulls Ellie’s right-hand fingers away from her opposite thumb, blowing a rebel strand of hair out of her face. It sticks sideways to her forehead and Ellie bites back a laugh – it looks like the weirdest unibrow of all time. “Doesn’t look broken to me. Can you bend it? Yeah, you’ll be fine.”

“I don’t know, I’m thinking we might have to cut it off,” Ellie sarcastically replies, bringing her hand up to her forehead in the same dramatic fashion she has seen old-timey women use in some of the movies she had seen.

“If you keep injuring it like this, it might fall off altogether and we won’t have to.”

“Hey!”

The only response she gets from the older girl is a blown kiss. “We’re out of planks. I’ll try to see if I can spot that hammer of yours on my way back.”

“Thanks, Dina,” Ellie calls out, but she is already climbing down the ladder resting against the edge of the rooftop.

There had been a bad storm a few days ago, and even though they had ran around like headless chicken for the first hour of that storm, nailing down everything that was at risk of flying away and herding all the animals in the various barns so none of them would wake up the next morning to a cow stuck up on a tree – and with the winds she had witnessed, Ellie had had no doubts that this had been a definite possibility. All things considered, the town had been very heavily hit. A number of houses had been badly damaged, part of the north fence had been knocked down by fallen trees and the old church building had no bell-tower on its roof anymore. Some of the still-inhabited houses had been hit the hardest, because preparing them to withstand that fucking mini tornado had been dead last on everyone’s to-do list.

As it turned out, the house Dina had had her eye on for some time had been among the casualties and part of the roof had been blown off and the interior had fallen victim to the unforgiving wind and rain. She had been crushed when they had seen it the next day, and Jesse had suggested she picked another house to move in, but it had been apparent to all of them that it wouldn’t hold a candle compared to the first one in her eyes.

Dina had been just about to move out when the storm had hit. She lived with her mother, her step-father and her three little brothers, and she made it known to any soul that would listen how it was like living in a circus – she assumed. Like most of them, she had never seen a real circus, but according to Joel when Ellie had questioned him about it, it was awfully similar in ambiance.

“I’m just tired of having everyone around all the time. I have no time for myself, between the clinic, the patrol rounds and anything else that comes up, I never get to be alone. There’s always a brother who needs watching, you know, or a pile of dishes to be washed. I want to read, or sleep in, or like, take a bath!”

Ellie had looked up at her from behind her comic-book. “You want to move out of your mom’s house because you don’t want to do the dishes anymore. Got it.”

“I really hate it!”

And so, Ellie, Dina and Jesse – as best as he could while moving around on crutches – set out to fix the original house so the older girl could move into it. Apparently, redoing the roof on a house also included a fair amount of swearing and injuring limbs on Ellie’s part, and a lot of mockery and brushing up on her first aid skills. Jesse, from his crutches-bound status, had given himself the title of coordinator for the renovations, and had subsequently promptly resigned from the position after he had tried to teach both girls how to hammer down a nail and Ellie had threatened to break his good leg. From that moment on, he stayed out of the way, promising to help out more once he was able to stand again.

Repairing the gaping hole in the roof was almost done, save for the small section Ellie had been working on before she decided to smash her thumb into a thousand fucking pieces.

“Hey, look at that! Bet I can reach that top branch over there!”

The voice startles Ellie, and her head automatically snaps in the direction of the noise. Down below, near where her hammer had flown, according to Dina, stood three teenagers, one of them annoyingly familiar to her.

“What do you want to bet?” says Logan’s familiar voice.

“I have inventory duty next week, we could bet that.”

“Yikes. Alright, we have a bet.

Ellie peers over the edge of the roof. Logan, some girl she knows to be named Lily but has never talked to and a guy she doesn’t know but looks to be around their age are standing around the nearby houses, looking up to a huge tree. Not too long ago, she heard about two young adults that had been found starved half to death near the dam, she assumes he must’ve been one of them.

She hasn’t spoken to Logan, except for exchanging information at the change of shifts in the watchtowers, since the party at Jesse’s house. She isn’t too sad about it, to be quite honest, considering how much of an asshole he had been back then. The guy may have had his flaws – okay, many flaws – but he sure was welcoming to newcomers.

As she looks on, Logan braces himself for his jump, the new guy looking on with an amused smile on his face. Lily stands back, eyeing the tree warily. Apparently with good reason, because as soon as Logan’s hands wrap around the branch, it breaks off from the trunk in a spectacular fashion, sending him tumbling head over heels in the tall grass. The new guy laughs out, loudly.

“Hey, you so knew that was going to happen!” Logan says accusingly while brushing his pants off.

“Oh, yeah, I did, but it was still fun to watch.”

Lily is laughing too, although to her credit, she’s trying to hide it with her hand covering mouth. Her hair is untied, and it is blowing in the wind, brushing across her face and one strand is caught somewhere in the neckline of her shirt and down her…

“Hey, Freckles! Do you mind helping me out or are you just going to stare at the woods until that hammer flies back up to you like a boomerang?”

Ellie nearly jumps out of her skin when Dina’s voice interrupts her reverie. She’s directly under her, her arms outstretched handing her a plank. “Too lazy to bring them up the ladder?” Ellie smirks, but reaching for the piece of wood her friend was passing along, nonetheless.

“Well, I would, but, you know, I’d much rather leave the art of getting injured to your honorable expertise and stick to what I know… and make fun of you as I do it.”

“How nice of you,” Ellie chuckles. She hoists the last plank of the bunch up on the roof beside her and offers her hand to Dina as she reaches the top of the shaky ladder so she can safely step onto the almost renovated rooftop.

Dina stares at her as she bends down to put one of the planks over the gaping hole she was in the process of fixing. “What?”

“Since when are you… gentlemanly like that? Did you have a stroke or something?”

“Shut up and hand me your hammer, will you?”

Dina hands the tool over and bumps her shoulder teasingly. “Are you trying to seduce me, Ellie-dear?”

“Don’t flatter yourself, I just need my self-assigned medic to remain alive long enough to treat my stupid ass next time I injure myself, and you can’t do that if you fall off a roof.”

She hammers the nail down, then the next and then realizes she has no more left and reaches in the pouch attached to Dina’s belt for another handful.

“You’re just going to go for it, no foreplay? Very well, then. How romantic of you.”

“You’re the fucking worst, Dina,” Ellie mumbles, turning back to the task at hand. She feels the heat creeping up the back of her neck and spreading to her cheeks, and she knows it has nothing to do with the suffocating weather they have been subjected to for the past four hours.

Ellie really does try to finish what she started, but she keeps getting distracted from her task. The flow of words spilling out of Dina’s mouth at a dizzying rate does nothing to help her, sure, but usually she can just kind of tune out the sound of her voice and nod along until her friend runs out of topics to discuss by herself. Today, however, she keeps sneaking glances at the three teens below. Logan and the new guy are discussing whether or not to go double or nothing on the climbing bet, and Lily, cheeks and nose turning red from being exposed to the sun, still hasn’t noticed the runaway strand of hair stuck down her shirt, isolated from the rest of the blonde waves she now sports in a high ponytail. It really is bothering her more than it should.

Maybe I can go down there and tell her? Nah, we don’t really know each other that well, she’d probably think I’m a weird ass stranger. Or not?

“So, what do you think I should get Jesse for his birthday?”

Ellie answers mechanically, not even listening. “Yes.”

“Freckles!”

Ellie’s eyes snap back to Dina’s indignant face. “What?”

The older girl raises her eyebrows and puts her hands on her hips. Oh, shit.

“Well, for starters, this was not a yes or no type of question, and also, I had stopped talking for a whole minute before that and you kept nodding and agreeing with me!”

Dina’s eyes wander in the direction Ellie’s just left and a knowing smirk stretches her lips. “Dina? Dina, what’s that face?”

“You were staring at Logan!”

Ellie almost bangs her thumb a second time with the hammer. “What? No! Watching a dead bird is more interesting than watching him try to impress everyone all the time.”

Dina nods, her eyes fixed on the happy trio down below, analyzing them with attention. “Yeah, you’re right. Too macho for you.” She slaps Ellie’s arm, her eyes lighting up as if she had solved the greatest mystery there ever was. “You were so checking out the new kid!”

“No! Dina, come on!”

Her friend takes the tool and the nails out of her hands – is she expecting her to throw this one into the woods too? – and crosses her arms over her chest. “Ellie-dear, I saw you looking that way with goddamn stars in your eyes, if you weren’t checking them out, what the hell were you doing?”

Checking Lily out?

“I wasn’t! I was, erm, trying to see where my hammer had landed.”

Dina shakes her head in disbelief. “You are a horrible liar. You were checking the new guy out!” Her voice spikes up to that high range it shifts to whenever she gets really excited about something. Usually, it makes the dogs either cower away or run to her, one or the other.

Unfortunately for Ellie, the noise, in addition to attracting dogs and bats, also attracts the attention of the three teenagers below, revealing their presence on the roof nearby. Fucking hell.

Ellie slams her hand over Dina’s mouth, effectively cutting off the high-pitched noise she was producing. “Shhhhhhhh! Would you just be quiet, for once, please?”

She stares at Dina in what she hopes to be a menacing glare, and the older girl nods her agreement. She removes her hand and waves nervously at the curious teens. They wave back, only half-confused. Well, now she definitely thinks you’re a dork.

Looking back at Dina, she barely catches a glimpse of mischief in her friend’s eyes before she moves out of her reach. “Hey, Simon! You’re single, right?”

Ellie tackles Dina, but not before the words are out of her mouth.

“Huh, yeah, I guess?” comes the new guy’s – Simon – answer, below. It’s a miracle either of them hear it, really, because they’re still wrestling on the roof, Ellie trying to stop Dina from talking, and Dina trying to escape Ellie’s hold. They must make for quite the sight.

“Great! Wanna go on a date with my friend here? I promise she doesn’t usually tackle people!”

Ellie freezes, both her hands now covering Dina’s mouth. “What the fuck are you doing?” she hisses through her teeth.

There is a moment of silence, during with they both stop struggling, and it gets broken once again by Simon’s voice. “Sure, I guess. I’ll meet you here tomorrow after dinner?”

Dina’s eyes could not bear a more triumphant look even if tiny medals, trophies and ribbons started dancing around in them. Ellie releases her grip on her, too stunned to answer.

Dina shifts her head to the side to look down at a very confused-looking Simon, an even more confused Logan and a slightly amused Lily. “Sounds good, she’ll be here.”

The tree friends scatter, and Dina untangles herself from Ellie’s arms. For a while, she just sits there frozen, wondering what the hell happened and if it is at all possible to throw someone off a roof without causing serious bodily harm.

“I believe the words you are looking for are ‘thank you’. And you’re welcome, by the way!”

“Dina, I’m going to fucking strangle you!”

“Careful dear, you might break your arm trying to.”

“You’re a dead woman!”

***

Ellie paces, again, endlessly walking back and forth along the length of the living room of Dina’s soon-to-be house. “Why the hell would you do that?”

Dina looks up, the runaway strand of curly hair falling in front of her eyes. She blows it out of her face, then leans back on her heels and puts the crowbar she had been holding down on her thighs. Her face is flushed from the effort of ripping off wet and rotten floorboards. “You’re kidding me, right?”

Ellie stills on her way back from the far side of the room.

“Do I look like I’m kidding?”

“Look, you had been checking him out for a while, I just thought I’d give you a nudge in the right direction.”

Checking her out would be more accurate. “I don’t need any help.”

Dina scoffs. “Would you have asked him out?”

“Of course not, but…”

… not because I was chickening out, because I’m not interested.

Dina interrupts her half-way through her sentence. “There you go. Just go on the date, see how it goes. What do you have to lose?”

She wants to storm out, yell, do something, but instead she just sighs. There’s no point in arguing with Dina, especially now that she’s wielding her crowbar again. She kind of feels bad for the poor floorboards breaking apart in the process, first the flood and then an exasperated Dina armed with a potentially lethal metal tool. Clearly, they’re having a worse day than she is, all things considered.

“Alright. I’ll go, but this is the last time you interfere with my love life.”

“Oh, love life – this is serious,” Dina teases from her spot on the ground. “Have fun on your date.”

“You know what I mean!” Ellie shouts over her shoulder. “And I mean it! No interfering anymore.”

The door closes behind her before she can hear Dina’s reply, but there is no doubt in her mind that it goes somewhere along the lines of ‘I don’t know what you mean’ or even ‘I can’t hear you, Freckles’ – she’d be willing to bet her right hand on it… okay, maybe not her right hand, but definitely her left. Alright, maybe no hands at all, just an inventory shift, but she’s almost certain she said one sentence or the other.

Once outside, Ellie practically jumps off the porch and onto the beaten dirt path. She doesn’t know where she’s headed, just that she doesn’t wish to be anywhere near here when Simon shows up. She almost makes it all the way back to her place before bumping in a familiar face.

“Hey! Ellie, is it?”

Well, this day is just getting better by the minute. “Yeah… How do you know my name?” Ellie didn’t exactly mean it as an inquiry, but that is how it sounds coming out of her mouth. The new guy – Simon – notices and pauses slightly at her unconventional answer. “Sorry. I’m a little on edge.”

He smiles and when he does she notices he has a chipped tooth, one of his upper canines. Wonder how he got that…

“Aren’t we all a little bit?” he says, his smile falling a little. “And Logan told me your name. I was kinda wondering who the wrestling girls on the roof were.”

“Oh. I guess we made for quite a sight, huh?” Ellie chuckles nervously.

Simon shoves his hands in his pockets, shrugging. “Nah, I used to see that at least once every week, Roof-Wrestling is a very popular sport where I’m from.”

“Wha… Really? Where the hell are you from?”

He breaks into a smile, exposing once again the broken tooth. “I’m messing with you, dude.”

“Oh.”

They stand in front of each other, quiet, after that rather awkward exchange. He’s kind of cute, if she had to qualify him. Dirty blonde hair falling into his blue eyes, tall, nice… exactly the type of guy any girl she knows would fall head over heels for, so why doesn’t she?

“Look,” she begins, and she notices him shifting his weight from one foot to the other – he’s as uncomfortable as she is. “I know Dina cornered you into doing this, and really, you don’t have to. You can just go home, and I’ll tell her it just didn’t work out. It’s fine.”

He nods and takes his hands out of his pockets, only to cross them over his chest. “I was, erm, kind of hoping you’d show me around town a bit… if you want to. Logan isn’t much help, unless I’m looking for places where he fooled around with girls, and that is some sightseeing that I have no wish to do.”

He bites his lips, waiting for an answer.

“Yeah, I guess,” Ellie blurts out. “But there is not much to see, I’m afraid.”

They head back toward the center of town, where she mechanically points to every building they pass by and gives the shortest description of them in the world. Despite this, he adds little funny comments at the end of every description, and before they reach the end of the main street, she starts to warm up to him. Simon is actually a nice guy, and she truly has no reason to be that cold and distant toward him.

“Sorry about all this,” Ellie says between the broken fountain and the old church. “Dina can be a little over the top sometimes, but she’s a really nice girl… you know, when she isn’t basically ordering people to go on dates with each other.”

Simon kicks a rock out of his way. She can see him shrug and barely makes out the hint of a smile tugging at his lips. “And I am sorry about the way this not-a-date date is going… I’m a bit rusty on the whole dating thing, to be honest.”

“I’d be willing to bet I’m even rustier than you are, so…”

“Well, this is going great, then!” he exclaims. He raises his arms up in the air in mock victory, a stupid, goofy smile plastered on his face. She laughs.

She can’t help it, really.

They keep walking.

Eventually, they move on from pointing out places in favor of just walking around and talking, following the fence line until the sun is well into the process of setting over the tree line.

“What, so you’re saying they just forgot you in there? What the hell!”

Simon shrugs, hands buried deep in his pockets. “In all fairness, I did tell them I’d be waiting for them at the ration line, but it took an embarrassingly long time for them to figure out they left the shelter with five kids and not six.”

“Still!”

“What about you, your parents ever forgot you anywhere?”

Ellie almost trips on her own shoes at the unexpected question. “No, not really. I can’t remember.”

“Come on! I’m sure Joel forgot you somewhere at one point.”

Ellie scoffs loudly. “First of all, you’ve been here for three days, how do you even know him?”

Simon’s cheeks turn red and he stops abruptly, leaving Ellie to take two extra steps before even noticing she is walking alone. “Promise not to laugh?”

“I won’t make any such promises, but I can punch the living daylights out of you until you give in and tell me?”

He rubs his neck nervously. “I kind of, you know, dropped a bucket of dirty water on his head a day ago while I was mopping the second floor of the clinic. I went to the window to dump it out and he happened to be fixing the steps below.”

“Oh my God, you’re Dipshit Von Bucket!” she exclaims. Simon groans loudly, his eyes rolling in their sockets as he does. “He was so grumpy about it that when he came home that night that he didn’t even have it in him to be mad at me for breaking his favourite chili bowl.”

“No chance he forgot about me in the meantime?”

“Considering I told him that there was a chance of isolated downpours of old mop water and handed him an umbrella on his way out the door no later than this morning, I’d say your chances are slim.”

“I’ll just hide under a rock forever, it’s fine,” Simon mumbles as he curls into a ball beside a tree in the high grass. “Would you mind rolling that boulder over me? Thanks.”

Ellie kneels next to him, soft chuckles shaking her shoulders. The grass is now cold, and more than a little itchy on her shins and knees, but it is a strangely nice contrast to the searing heat still lingering in the air around them. “You’d be much less fun to talk to if you get crushed into a pancake.”

Simon stretches out, shifting onto his back, his legs seemingly stretching on for miles. “Oh, so I’m fun to talk to, now?”

“Shut up!” Ellie elbows him in the ribs, rips a handful of grass strands out of the ground and starts to tear them into little pieces. “I meant as opposed to Joel.”

“What an honor,” he chuckles, folding his arms under his head and resting against them. He stares up at the sky, silent, until he continues as an afterthought. “Why do you call your dad by his first name all the time?”

Because he isn’t my dad? She drops the bundle of cut of grass pieces on the ground, then lies down next to Simon, their bodies parallel but not touching. “I don’t know. Force of habit, I guess. I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember.”

It got darker outside since they started walking around, and the lights are starting to turn on in the occupied houses nearby. Ellie gazes into the sky, where the stars are just beginning to show, along with the moon. It is a full moon tonight. “What was the second thing?”

“What?”

Simon turns his head to her, his light blue eyes, so similar to her baby cousin’s, staring into her own. “You said first of all before asking how I knew Joel… what was the second part?”

It’s Ellie’s turn to smile. “Second of all, you really don’t know Joel at all if you think he’d ever forget me anywhere. The guy is a real mother hen.”

“To be fair, I’ve actually only met the top of his head.”

Ellie wonders if before becoming the obsessively overprotective man she knows, he had ever done something like forgetting Sarah at school or at a friend’s house. She makes a mental note to ask him later.

They talk for what feels like minutes to her, but the curtain of bright stars and the moon high up in the sky remind her that it has actually been closer to hours since they first laid down on the grass. Simon tells her all about how he found this group of travellers after his family died in a barn fire a few months ago and travelled with them until they stumbled across the dam near Jackson where they got into a gunfight with a group of Hunters. That’s how he ended up in Jackson, the gunfire attracted the unit patrolling nearby and they found his group. Simon had managed to escape with only scratches and bruises, and another man had been brought back to Jackson to treat his injuries but had died on the operating table of the clinic shortly after. The rest of the group had died in the fight, and so Simon had been the only one to get to the town.

It’s easy to talk to Simon. Just like how easy it had been to talk to Sam, for the short period when she and Joel had travelled with him and Henry. With the notable exceptions of Dina and Jesse – and Chuck, if she’s really stretching the limits of the definition of the word ‘friendship’ – she hasn’t really been able to grow close to anyone she has met in Jackson. It’s nice to feel this carefree. She finds herself telling him about the things she and Joel went through to get to where they are today and how much she still feels like an outsider despite having lived here for just over a year now.

Ellie stops suddenly to think about how much personal stuff she just told a guy who was a complete stranger just three hours ago. “I should get going, Joel is going to freak out if I’m not home soon,” she explains, pulling herself up. The grass left its prints on the back of her arms and on the side of Simon’s face where it had been pressed on the ground to look at her.

He nods, getting up too. “Oh… yeah, right. Which way are you going?”

She points to her right. “You?”

Simon gestures to her left.

“I guess this is where we leave each other,” he mumbles. “I had a really nice time tonight… you know, for a forced date and all.”

Ellie nods. She notices how he is nervously shifting his weight from one side to the other again, his hands once more being shoved deep into his pockets. “I had a nice time, too,” Ellie says.

She watches him take a step forward, closer to her. She sees him take a shaky breath and open his mouth noiselessly a few times before words start coming out of his mouth. “I have no idea how to end this right.”

“Neither do I,” Ellie breathes out. “Anyway, I…”

She never gets to finish her sentence because Simon bends his head down to her level and kisses her cheek.

“Sorry,” he says sheepishly. “Thought this should end with a kiss goodnight. See you around?”

Ellie nods. “Sure. Goodnight.”

Simon turns around and starts walking up the street.

“Hey, Simon?”

“Yeah?”

Before her mind can catch up to the rest of her, she has caught up to him. What the hell are you doing?

He’s looking at her with big, hopeful eyes and it’s been a while since anyone has kissed her cheek – except for Dina, but kissing someone on the cheek to her is like a handshake to everyone else, so it doesn’t really count – and frankly, she’s just wondering if actually kissing him would feel the same as she remembers it to feel.

Oh, screw this.

She puts her hand on his shoulders, Simon puts his hands – trembling hands – on her hips and she balances herself on her toes to try to even out the height difference. His eyes are locked onto hers, and she brings on of her hands to the back of his neck, pressing down just enough so that he lowers his head to meet her lips halfway.

***

Ellie’s knock is met with an unusually exasperated invitation to come in. She’s greeted by the sight of her friend sitting cross-legged on the floor of her bathroom, her trusty crowbar in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other, surrounded by shards of broken ceramic tiles and lumps of soaked drywall. “Rough night?”

“Stupid water getting everywhere,” she mumbles in return. “I swear to God, if this house is ever water-damaged again, I’ll be moving in with you.”

“I’ll prepare a spot for you in my closet.”

Dina looks at her with an intrigued look. “You’re back early. Was it that bad of a date?”

“Not at all. We got along really well, actually.”

“And?”

“And, what?” Ellie repeats, leaning against the doorframe.

Dina hands her glass so she can get up. “Did you guys kiss?”

Ellie shrugs, downing the last sip of whiskey despite Dina’s protests. “He kissed me on the cheek when we said goodnight.”

“Hot damn, don’t make me an auntie just yet, Freckles!”

“Shut up, you’re the one most likely to make me an aunt before my time and you know it.”

Dina sits her down on what remains of the tub while she takes place on the closed lid of the toilet. This has got to be the weirdest place anyone has ever had a conversation in, ever. “Alright Williams, spill it. What’s wrong with him?”

“Why do you assume there is something wrong with him?”

“You’re telling me,” she starts, her eyes disbelieving, “that you went on a date with a perfectly nice guy, who you had a perfectly nice time with, but who you have no intention of going on a second date with? I’ll take him off your hands if you want, the guy is cute.

Ellie chucks the piece of soaked drywall she had been toying with right at her face, which Dina barely manages to dodge before it hits it marks. It sticks to the wall behind her head, and the irony of drywall that is wet makes her chuckle. “Aren’t you taken? Tall guy, doesn’t smile often, kind of looks like a very lifelike Asian vampire statue most of the time?”

Dina scrapes the wet drywall off the orange bathroom wall and dumps it into the bucket she had been using to toss the debris from the renovating she was doing in the room before Ellie barged in. “Ellie-dear, just because mama is on a diet doesn’t mean she can’t look at the menu. Especially if the menu is tall, handsome and right nearby.”

“You’re the worst.”

Dina blows her a kiss. “I’m the best and you know it. But seriously, what was wrong with him?”

“Nothing. Really, Simon seems like a really nice guy. Really easy to talk to, and funny… We walked around town for a while, we talked, stargazed… It was nice.”

“But?” Dina presses on, eager for more details. Ellie has none to give her.

“I don’t know. He’s not my type, I guess.”

She doesn’t tell her that after kissing her on the cheek, she kissed him on the lips, and felt absolutely nothing out of the ordinary, that she had been excessively conscious of his breath against her face, of the sparse hairs on his upper lip tickling her, and how unusually moist his lips seemed. It wasn’t a bad kiss, by any technical sense of the word, but it was… flat. No feelings, no metaphorical butterflies in her stomach, nothing. It was nice, but that was it.

She leaves a few minutes later with a comforting kiss on the cheek from Dina that leaves a tingling feeling on her skin and heads home. She’s just about to get into bed, after sitting through a stern talk from Joel reminding her that he’s too old to be worrying like this when she doesn’t come home when she’s supposed to, when the light in the second-floor bedroom window across the street turns on, and her eyes briefly sneak a glance outside. She doesn’t mean to, but she catches a peek of Lily getting changed in her room – nothing much, just a bra-covered chest and a toned stomach, but it is enough to get that image circling back in her head for the next few minutes and no matter how hard Ellie tries, she can’t stop picturing it. Wondering what she would have seen if she had kept looking for just a few seconds longer…

Ellie’s eyes fly open as the realization hits her. She guesses, on a certain level, she’s always kind of known – ever since Riley – she just never took the time to think about it much. There was always an angry sergeant around the corner, or a pack of infected to run away from, or a bite to hide from people that distracted her from questioning herself, but now she knows. She knows why she hasn’t felt attracted to anyone Dina had tried to introduce her to, why she felt completely indifferent to Simon, however nice and attractive he was.

“I’m into girls,” she whispers to herself with only the cut-off magazine pictures and drawings taped on the walls as witnesses. “I like girls.”

She must have repeated it a thousand times in the dark, over and over, until the sun came up and the words didn’t feel as foreign on her tongue as before. Until it felt as natural to say it as it did to state the color of her hair. Until it felt right.

My name’s Ellie. I’m 16 years old, I am immune to CBI, I have a tattoo… and I like women.

Chapter Text

The sun had finally set over Jackson after another unusually suffocating October day, and it took no time for the temperature to drop dramatically along with it. It was a relief to Ellie, who had been sweating away in one of the stables on the edge of town for the better part of the afternoon and evening. All things considered, there were worse tasks to be accomplished in Jackson – inventory, for one, which she had actually traded in favor of cleaning up barn number three – but that did not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that it was an enjoyable one.

The warm sun had been beating down on the roof of the farm building for the whole day, and the heat did nothing to tone down the horrible, horrible stench lingering in the air. She had ended up opting to tie her shirt around her neck and use it as a scarf to hide her nose and mouth behind it instead of wearing it the way it was meant to be. Whatever. She highly doubted she had offended any of the cows present in the barn, and the heat was much more bearable with the sports bra she uses to swim in than the warm long-sleeved shirt she had been wearing since she had left the house this morning.

One of the big animals mooed loudly behind her and Ellie nearly jumped out of her skin. “Sweet Lord, do you even know you almost gave me a heart attack?” The huge farm animal kept looking at her, steadily chewing, its eyes big and indifferent to anything happening around. “Of course not, you’re a cow. You don’t give a shit about any of that.”

She turns back to shovelling shit into a bucket, the steady sounds of her shovel digging into the soft dirt floor and the cow chewing is all she can hear. “What the hell are you chewing?” Ellie wonders out loud after a few more minutes of constant shovelling. “There’s no more hay to be found anywhere nearby! It’s all locked away!”

The cow moos again in answer, as if understanding what she said, but continuing its activities nonetheless. You’ve clearly spent a little too much time on your feet, you’re talking to a cow. Time to hit the hay, Ellie. She chuckles at the wordplay, even though no one but her witnessed it.

Ellie is just getting around to fixing the loose latch on one of the stall doors, almost done with her tasks for the day, when one of the huge barn doors at the other end of the building swings open and crashes against the wall with a thundering bang. She fumbles her screwdriver at the sound and her head snaps to the source of the unexpected noise.

Dina runs in, hair undone and flying wildly behind her. “Ellie! Where were you, I’ve been looking for your ass for almost an hour!” She skids to a halt in front of her, and suddenly, Ellie is very conscious of the shirt tied around her neck and very much not covering anything it is supposed to be.

“I was here!” Ellie blurts out, slipping the shirt back on as fast as she possibly could. “Alone here, all day!”

She catches a glimpse of Dina’s red and panicked eyes and her heart sinks. She’s still in the uniform she wears at the clinic – whatever those pajamas-like clothes are actually called escapes her – and the front of her shirt is absolutely soaked in dark, crimson blood. “What’s going on? Whose blood is that?”

Dina catches her breath before stammering out her answer. “It’s Joel… he’s at the clinic. It’s bad, Ellie, really bad. I was there when he was brought into the operating room and I ran here right after.”

The ringing in her ears is deafening, but Ellie manages to make out the words injured, blood and attack, and it is enough to send her running out of the barn as fast as her legs can carry her, not caring in the slightest that she had to jump through a giant pile of shit on her way out.

She’s never ran that fast in her whole goddamned life.

Ellie has no idea how she even got to the clinic, but she definitely remembers crashing through the door that says ‘pull’ on the front.

“Joel!” There is no one around when she finally catches her breath enough to speak any words at all. “Joel!”

She calls out his name, over and over again, opening one door after the other in search of signs of life until finally, one of them opens before she can get to it and the familiar face of the head nurse appears in the doorway.

“What the hell’s going on?” Ellie asks before the woman can open her mouth to speak. “Where is he?”

The door closes behind her as quickly as it opened, but, through the tiny window, Ellie still has time to see a bunch of people huddled around an operating table, and muddy boots poking out of the huddle. Very familiar boots.

“I want to see him,” Ellie says, pushing her way up to the door. “Let me see him.”

“Ellie, I understand this is a hard…”

“I don’t give a shit, I want to see him!”

The nurse stands in front of her, blocking her line of sight. “Ellie, we’re doing the best we can right now but you can’t…”

Before she can think it through, she shoves the nurse into the wall. “Fucking let me through, it’s my dad!”

No amount of begging, cursing, or pushing on her part gets her into that room, and eventually Ellie has to back down when the woman in front of her threatens find someone to knock her out to get her to stop yelling. When the nurse dives back into the room, she makes her promise not to barge in, arguing that if could hurt Joel worse if one of the hands of the people operating on him were to jolt and slip, and she is very careful to close the little blue curtain to obscure her view.

Being alone with her thoughts in that waiting room is the worst thing she can imagine.

If hell does exist, it must be this.

***

It’s my dad. It’s my dad. It’s my dad.

She keeps repeating the sentence in her head until it makes no sense anymore. She means it. Somewhere along the way, she started seeing Joel as a father figure and they very much acted liked the father and daughter they were pretending to be for the sake of the town’s people, anyway. What if she never got a chance to tell him? They’ve been through so much together, and now she feels like she has run out of time to tell him how much he means to her.

“How’s he doing?”

Ellie looks up from her own intertwined fingers at the sound of Dina’s voice coming from the doorway. She changed her clothes before coming back to the clinic, her shit no longer stained with blood, now wearing her regular jeans and blue hoodie, along with a jacket and her beloved leather boots.

The sound of her footsteps echoes off the walls. Ellie shakes her head no and looks back down to her hands. Dina takes a seat on the floor next to her and Ellie hugs her knees to her chest. “Not too good. Jennifer told me that him and Victor stumbled on a pack of Infected on their patrol, and Victor tried to shoot the Infected that jumped Joel but shot him instead. They won’t tell anything else.”

“Holy shit,” Dina exhales. “Anything I can do?”

Ellie shakes her head once more, her gaze stubbornly fixed on her own fingers. Her hands are still caked in mud and dirt, and it gets into the little cuts that cover her palms and fingers. She rubs them, trying to clean her hands as best as she can, without much success. The dirt under her fingernails stubbornly refuses to come of, and all her scrubbing does is open up the small wounds on her hands even wider than before.

She feels Dina’s hand rub the base of her neck, but still, she refuses to look up. Her friend has such a way of looking at people, when she wants to, like she’s seeing right through them. Ellie isn’t sure her shaky façade can hold up to her gaze without crumbling to pieces.

“Freckles? How are you doing?”

The unshed tears threaten to fall, but she finally looks at her friend. “Not too good, either.”

Dina says nothing, she knows there are no words she could speak that would bring her comfort right now. Instead she leans over and gently slips her fingers between hers, squeezing slightly, her other hand still massaging the nape of her neck. For once, she doesn’t shy away from her touch in any way, instead choosing to lean into her. “Do you want me to stay with you?”

“Please,” Ellie breathes out, barely above a whisper, her voice shaky.

Dina presses a kiss to her cheek, a simple answer, before pulling her in to wrap her arms around her shoulders.

Ellie wants to thank her, but heart is stuck in her throat, and so she choses not to speak.

***

Hours passed before any of them saw a sign of life coming from the room down the hall. Night had fallen a few hours ago, and despite the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, Ellie’s eyes were steadily closing every now and then – a full day of farm work had a way of exhausting her to her very core, she had found when she had started participating in the daily tasks around town. She finds herself nodding off more and more often as the night wears on, which doesn’t go unnoticed by her friend.

“Just go to sleep, Freckles. I’ll wake you up if something happens.” Dina removes her jacket as she speaks, her back still leaning against the wall. She’s sitting with her back against the wall, like her, despite the cold air around them making her shiver.

“I don’t want to sleep.”

She means it. She’s afraid something might happen the second she closes her eyes, and she will miss it. She can’t miss a single thing.

“You should sleep, Ellie. There’s nothing you can do now anyway.” Tommy’s voice echoes on the walls of the corridor. He came in a few hours after Dina, his reaction close to that of his niece when he was told he could not see his older brother. Like Ellie before him, he had settled for sitting down on the bare, cold ceramic tiles, and was waiting it out, hoping for the best but still expecting the worst.

Dina pats her lap, her legs extended in front of her. “Come on, Ellie. Just sleep.”

“It’s been hours,” she replies, completely disregarding her friend and uncle’s demand. “Shouldn’t he have been out by now?”

Tommy shifts uncomfortably. “I don’t know. Could be a good thing like it could be a bad one.”

Ellie finally gives in – gives up – lying down on the floor and resting her head on Dina’s thighs. Almost as soon as she does, she feels her eyes closing again, her eyelids seemingly weighing a thousand pounds. “Promise you’ll wake me?”

“I promise, Ellie.”

Her eyes are closed before Dina can finish her sentence, and the last thing she is aware of before she slips into darkness is that the older girl drapes her jacket over her body in some effort to make her more comfortable. She doesn’t have time to thank her, but she’s ever so grateful.

Ellie’s sleep is restless. She dreams of Joel, and Clickers, and Hunters and even David, so much that she loses count of how many times she jolts awake only to be softly soothed back to sleep by Dina. The last time she wakes up, it is after a particularly vivid dream in which she sees Joel getting impaled by the rebar, back at the University, only this time she is frozen in place and he looks over to her with glassy eyes that can’t see anymore, says nothing as she witnesses the light fade from his eyes. This time she can’t get to him.

She wakes up so suddenly she startles Dina.

“Go back to sleep, Ellie. No one came out of that room yet,” she murmurs above her head. Ellie can’t see her from where she is curled up, but she can imagine her eyebrows scrunching together in worry. She feels her friend’s hand rub soothing circles on her back as she tries to catch her breath and calm her racing heart.

Ellie turns over onto her back. Dina’s face is lined with concern, the bags under her eyes dark and her lips pale. “It’s worse when my eyes are closed,” she explains, her voice hoarse from not being used in a while. It is barely above a whisper, but her words bounce off the walls as if she had yelled them at the top of her lungs. “I just keep seeing him die, over and over again.”

“He might be just fine, you don’t know.”

“Or he could be dying right now, and I’m stuck here in this stupid hallway.”

Dina brushes a strand of Ellie’s hair off of her face, her fingers brushing along the line of her cheek and jaw and resting against the crook of her neck. “There’s nothing you can do, Freckles.”

“I know, I just…” Ellie stops midsentence, holding herself up on her elbows. “I’m scared as hell.”

Dina bends down and wraps her arms around her, and suddenly she’s all Ellie can see or feel. There is no more cold hard floor, just the soft and warm body holding her tight and whispering reassuring words into her ear. Her face is buried into a wild mess of dark frizzy hair that no longer smells of flowers like it usually does, cheek pressed against the skin of Dina’s neck. A hand is stroking her hair, steadily, and another one is stroking her back. Still, she can’t shake the feeling of dread that made itself a home in her gut. She feels Dina start to pull away after a while, but Ellie brings one arm up to her back to hold her in place.

“Tell me he’s going to be alright.”

Dina’s sharp intake of breath doesn’t go unnoticed. Ellie’s fingers curl of their own will into the back of the shirt and suddenly she’s holding a handful of fabric in her hand, making sure she doesn’t go anywhere. “I can’t tell you that,” Dina whispers. “But whatever happens, you’ll be okay.”

She doesn’t believe her.

She has spent so much time with Joel, she doesn’t know what she’ll do if he doesn’t make it. The house would be empty, there would be no one to complain about her boots dragging mud all over the place, no one to tell her how much of a dumbass she is whenever she makes a really stupid decision… No one to look out for her like he does.

It’s like the university all over again. Except back then, there was something she could do to help him – she had to do something, his life had depended on it. There had been no time to wonder, no time to second-guess herself, not a second to waste, but today… today she is useless, and it somehow feels worse.

Today, she feels like she is losing the only family she’s ever known, and there is nothing she can do to stop it from happening.

At some point, Dina unties Ellie’s hair, and only then does she notice the headache spreading to her whole forehead.

Tommy went home around the same time, to check on baby Michael while Maria was out supervising repairs to the dam. He swore he’d be back as soon as he could find someone to watch his son but had been a while and he still was not back at the clinic.

Ellie is slumbering again, her head back on Dina’s lap. Her face is so close to her friend’s stomach, she can feel it press against her cheek as she breathes, steady, reassuring. Her eyes are closed, but she’s not sleepy anymore. It’s just easier to pretend to be asleep than it is to confront the reality of her helplessness.

“Hey, Freckles?”

Ellie opens her eyes to Dina’s curious face. “Yeah?”

“What in the world were you doing in a barn with your shirt over your face?” The slightest of all smiles tugs at the corner of her lips as she asks her question. “Is that what you’re into?”

Ellie feels the blush spread across her cheeks and buries her face into Dina’s shirt, the girl’s stomach shaking against her face in quiet laughter. “I was trying not to get killed by the stench.”

“Sure, that’s what they all say.”

Ellie looks up at Dina and rolls her eyes. “Whatever. Do you know any jokes?” Ellie changes the subject.

Dina whistles softly. “Let’s see… I once heard a joke about amnesia, but I forgot how it goes.”

“I taught you that one, dummy,” Ellie chuckles half-heartedly. “I used to wonder why my Frisbee looked bigger the closer it came… and then it hit me.”

“That’s awful.”

“Yeah? Let’s see you do better, show me what you’ve got.”

If she understands she’s desperately trying to change the subject to take her mind as far away from Joel’s situation as possible, she doesn’t comment on it or even lets it show.

Dina looks up to the ceiling, trying to remember another joke. “Okay, how about this one? My wife refuses to go to a nude beach with me… I think she’s just being clothes-minded!”

“Where did you learn that one?”

“Jesse.”

“Wait, Jesse is able to make jokes? Was he having a stroke or something?”

Dina slaps her arm playfully and Ellie pretends to be hurt. “Your turn, Freckles.”

“Alright. Whenever I undress in the bathroom… My shower gets turned on.”

Dina chuckles. “Judging by what little I saw in that barn, I’d be turned on too if I was your shower.”

“You’re the absolute worst.” Ellie knows that Dina is only teasing, but she can’t help but feel the blush spread to her cheeks and neck once more tonight at the mere idea of her friend being anywhere near her while she takes a shower. And then she remembers where they are, and why they are there, and she sobers right up.

What feels like a lifetime late, one of the doors nearby opens with a discreet click and Ellie scrambles to her feet, nearly knocking Dina completely flat on the floor. “Ellie?” the woman from before calls out, surveying the corridor until her eyes land on the two girls sprawled out on the floor, one of them shooting upright immediately and the other one having to catch herself before she gets pushed down even more.

“Yeah?” Ellie hears herself say as if far, far away.

The woman in front of her gets closer, her eyes unreadable, and her face tired. She feels Dina reach for her hand. “Your dad is going to be alright.”

Ellie releases a breath she didn’t know she had been holding, her knees nearly giving out from under her. Joel was going to be alright. He was going to be fine.

“Wha… Really?”

“Really. Your dad is a lucky man, if that bullet had hit anywhere else he would have been dead before even getting back here. It hit just under that big scar on his abdomen,” she explains. The scar from the university.

“What happened?” Dina asks, releasing Ellie’s hand.

The nurse bites her lips. “From what I got, they were attacked by a pack of Infected, and one pinned Joel to the ground. Victor tried to shoot it, but he missed and shot Joel instead.”

“He wasn’t bitten?” Ellie asks. She knows the answer – no one would have bothered trying to keep Joel alive if he had been bitten – but she needs to hear it.

The nurse sighs. “Joel was fine, but Victor had a bite on his leg.”

“Shit,” Dina breathes out. Ellie can’t find it in her to say anything back. “Where is he now?”

The woman clears her throat, clearly uncomfortable, and she knows what her answer will be before it even comes out of her mouth. “Dead. Leonard made the call, him and a few others decided they couldn’t risk him turning here with everyone else around… they were friends, you know. He’s taking this pretty hard.”

The nurse leads her to the room and tells her it could take a while before Joel wakes up, because they sedated him pretty heavily. She then leaves, her shoulders slumped, exhausted from an obviously much longer than expected day.

“I’m going to go home,” Dina says before Ellie goes in. “My mom is probably freaking out already because I didn’t sleep in my own bed, but my door is always open, if you need anything.”

Ellie nods, her eyes trained on the closed door before her, and the unconscious body she can see through the window. She doesn’t see Dina leaving.

***

Ellie fiddles with the edge of the sheet. It is coming apart at the seams, the tread hanging off the side of the bed. The soft glow of the morning light does nothing to help Joel’s pasty white complexion, or the bags under his eyes, which probably mirror hers. Neither does the bright light from the overhead lights, bright and unflattering. He truly looks like shit, almost as bad as he had looked over a year prior.

Even though she sees him, his chest rising and falling regularly with his breathing, she has trouble believing he will be okay. Call her pessimistic, but Ellie doesn’t feel like this whole ordeal is over yet. Instead, she feels like some other complication will arise before they even get to the one at hand.

Ellie doesn’t mean to, but her exhaustion overtakes her now that she knows Joel’s condition is non-life-threatening.

It takes a while – probably hours, judging by the position of the sun in the sky – and she has time to fall asleep a few more times, her forehead resting against the mattress, before she feels Joel start to stir next to her. “Hey,” Ellie whispers. His eyes are fluttering, trying to focus on something. “Welcome back to the world of the living.”

Joel groans, his hands feeling around his stomach over the ratty pale green sheet until they brush against the newly sewed up wound on his abdomen. He winces and lets his hands drop back to his sides as soon as he manages to somewhat asses the damage. “How the hell did I get back here?”

“Victor dragged your ass back here.”

Joel looks at her with confused eyes. “Is he okay?”

Ellie bites her lips and Joel exhales. She doesn’t have to give him an answer for him to understand roughly what happened. She provides one anyway. He should know.

“He was bitten when you were attacked, and he started to turn sometime after he dropped you off here.”

Joel purses his lips. “Son of a bitch… I want to see him.”

“You can’t,” Ellie shakes her head. “The nurse said they executed him before he could turn. Before he became a threat to the town.”

“Sweet Christ…”

She lets the silence between them go on for a little while longer before breaking it. She doesn’t like the way shit went down, but there is nothing she can do about it now.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” Ellie whispers when the silence between them becomes too heavy to withstand. “I was really scared I was going to lose you.”

Joel puts his hand over hers and squeezes softly. “After all of this? You’re not getting rid of me that easily.” Ellie laughs, but it is not lost on either of them how teary her voice sounds. Joel exhales slowly, deeply. “Well, they did a far better job at sewing me back up than you did.”

“Shut up, you old man! You lived, didn’t you?” Ellie sarcastically replies. She knows he is teasing her to make her feel better. “Anyway, what do you have in there to keep getting shit to go through you, a fucking huge magnet instead of your liver?”

Joel chuckles, then his face scrunches up in pain when the motion pulls at his new stitches. He winks at her to let her know not to worry about it too much. “Still a bit sore,” he offers in explanation.

“I should hope so. You were shot, not tickled into unconsciousness.”

Joel looks at her, and his eyes are starting to drop again. Soon, she guesses he will be asleep once more. “So… I’m your dad now?”

Ellie stammers. “Who told you that?”

“Jessica, when I woke up. She said you threatened to come in through a window if they didn’t let you see me.”

“Oh, so that’s her name.” Joel stays silent, knowing she’s trying to divert the subject away from his initial question but unwilling to give her the option to do so. He knows her too well. “I mean, everyone already thinks you are… you’re the closest thing I’ve ever had to a father, and I know I can never replace Sarah in your life, but I really do think of you as my dad.”

Ellie looks at his hand, still laying motionless over hers. When she looks up at his face, his eyes are fluttering closed but he is fighting hard to keep them open. “If it makes you a little less embarrassed, I think of you as a daughter too,” he mumbles through his beard.

Ellie chuckles. “I’m still going to call you Joel, though.”

“Would be weird if you didn’t, baby girl.”

He makes her promise to go home and stop worrying about him long enough to sleep a few hours. She does, and swears she’ll be back later during the day, but he is sound asleep by the time she gets the sentence out of her mouth. 

Only when Tommy reappears does she finally consent to leave the clinic, and by the time she does so, the sun is already high up in the sky.

Instead of going home like she had promised, she heads all the way across town to Dina’s mom house, where her friend was still living for the time being until her own house was renovated enough to be deemed liveable.

She knocks on the door, and after a few seconds it opens to reveal Mona, Dina’s mom, the front of her shirt full of flour. Her friend really did look like a younger, much shorter version of her mother, without the wrinkles at the corner of her eyes and mouth, or the grey streaks in her dark brown, almost black, frizzy hair. “Oh, Ellie, I wasn’t expecting to see you here today. How’s your dad? Dina told me about the incident. Such a shame, what happened…”

“He’s going to be fine, but he’s pretty banged up and out of it now… Tommy’s with him at the clinic.”

They look at each other in silence for a few seconds, the older woman’s eyes travelling down to Ellie’s right arm, to the edge of her tattoo showing around her wrist and over the back of her hand. The woman was very vocal about her dislike of body art, and made it known around town quite clearly that she thought Chuck was a thug, with all his tattoos, and that Joel shouldn’t have let her hang out anywhere near the tattooed guy at all, never mind get one herself.

“Is Dina home?” Ellie breaks the silence.

Mona steps away to let her in and she does, mindful to take her shoes off before going any further inside the house. “She’s upstairs in her room, I think she just got out of the shower.”

Ellie nods and makes her way through the house to her friend’s bedroom. Even if she hadn’t known the way to Dina’s room, the sound of her friend whistling an old country song – ‘Jolene’, she thinks it is called – would have guided her there just as well. She knocks, three little knocks, and waits.

“Come in!”

Ellie steps through the door, making Dina jump out of her skin. She has a towel tied around her, and her wet hair, unusually flat, is still dripping all over the carpet of her bedroom. She’s holding a fresh set of clothes in her hands, obviously about to get changed. “Oh my god, Ellie, I wasn’t expecting you. Is everything…”

She doesn’t get to finish her sentence before Ellie crashes into her, almost picking her off of the ground with the motion. Her arms wrap tightly around Dina’s shoulders, and it takes her a moment to react and hug her back. “Thank you for being here last night… I would have gone nuts without you there. Or, you know, tried to punch a hole through the wall and crawl my way to that room through it.”

It takes a second for the older girl to react.

“You’ve never hugged me first before,” is Dina’s only response.

“There’s a first time for everything, I guess,” Ellie tightens her embrace one last time before pulling away. Dina’s hair is back to its usual flowery scent. “I don’t know how to thank you enough… Let me do something nice for you!”

“You really don’t have to, I just did what any friend would have,” Dina shoots back, tightening the towel around her chest. “Ellie!”

She has already turned around and walked out of the room, despite her friend’s call.

“I’m too far away to hear you!” Ellie closes the door before her friend can argue with her some more.

***

“No peeking!” Ellie orders, pulling her friend along the dirt path that had once been a street, but had been overrun with plants and grass in the years since the town had been abandoned. When the first few people had come back to it, no one had bothered to clear it all away. She’s walking backwards, dragging Dina by her outstretched hand.

“Why do I feel like you’re going to walk me straight into a puddle of liquefied cow shit?”

Ellie scoffs. “Ye of little faith.” She helps her blindfolded friend up the stairs leading up to the creaking porch and opens the door to the house, pushing Dina softly inside. “You ready?”

Dina nods, and Ellie unties the blindfold obscuring her vision. “Oh my… Ellie!”

She laughs as her friend takes in her surroundings, mouth gaping open at the sight before her.

The house they were in now, Dina’s house, to be exact, didn’t look anything like it did merely a week before. The walls had been freshly painted, carpet had been installed in the bedroom and the living room, and the bathroom had been redone.

“Did you do all this?” Dina exclaims, her eyes shining.

Ellie smiles and gestures to the kitchen and bathroom. “Chuck helped me with the plumbing and electricity, and Jesse and I did the rest. We scavenged most of the material from the houses right outside of the fences by Watchtower 2. Hope you don’t mind the mismatched tiles in the shower, we ran out of the original ones halfway in. Anyway, it’s ready to move in when you are.”

Dina squeals and proceeds to run into every room, open every cupboard and closet and turning on and off every light switch, like an overexcited child, while Ellie .

“Ellie, this is too much!” she finally says when she stops running around.

“Call it an early present birthday present from Jesse, and a thank you gift for putting up with my shit for the past year from me. Jesse’s coming by later today after his patrol to help you get settled in.”

Dina lunges herself at her, and it almost sends Ellie tumbling backwards with the force of the impact. Ellie holds her in return, breathing her in. “Thank you, Freckles.”

“My pleasure.”

Seeing her this happy made all the blisters, cuts and burns on her hands and arms worth it.

Chapter Text

Ellie glances up and over Simon’s shoulder, eyeing the people dancing behind him, their feet kick up a layer of dust that had probably been accumulating on the wooden floor of one of the barns’ attic for years before it was invaded by a legion – okay, probably no more than twenty – of teenagers and young adults. The upbeat music resonates in her ears, overwhelming, distracting.

“I got a pair of twos,” Jesse grumbles, throwing his cards on the overturned empty barrel they were using as a table. “What do you guys have?”

“Pair of tens,” Simon smiles, and Jesse groans. “Ellie?”

“I ain’t got shit,” she replies, throwing her cards face-down on top of Jesse’s.

Simon hoots and rakes all the chips in the middle toward his side of the barrel, humming another upbeat, albeit off-key, melody as he does. Her sad pile of chips is getting smaller with every turn, but it’s nothing compared to the massacre Jesse’s stack is suffering at the hands of Simon.

“You’re sure you’ve never played poker before?”

Simon looks up briefly as he stacks his chips into piles, dividing them up by colors. “Yeah, about that… I kind of started bluffing before the game started. I used to play Texas Hold ‘Em with my parents all the time.”

“Well that explains a lot,” Jesse grumbles. He scratches the stubble along his chin with a sigh as he leans back in his chair.

“Come on, don’t be a sore loser,” Ellie teases from across the barrel-table.

“I haven’t lost yet!”

He shuffles the deck of cards as Simon takes Ellie’s place teasing him, and she loses interest in their usual banter.

She has gotten quite close to Simon in the past weeks, once the awkwardness of their ‘date’ had faded a bit. He actually took the whole ‘you’re a great guy, but I don’t like you that way’ speech pretty well – she guesses dating Lily helped him get over the whole thing quicker. To her, Simon’s sarcasm and jokes are a welcomed addition to Jesse’s stoic behavior and Dina’s flirty one.

Ellie surveys the room. Simon, Jesse and her are huddled in one corner of the attic above one of the barns, while there are some people dancing in the middle to the music blaring from the old radio set-up on a table that also housed a pile of  dusty CDs, and some more teens and young adults were playing a game of spin the bottle in the opposite corner.

The lights hanging on the ceiling, tied to the wooden beams, give off a warm glow, just enough so they can see each other, without the illicit feel of the gathering being compromised. They’re usually stowed away in the community center, being saved for Christmas, New Year’s and other pre-approved parties, but Logan – it always seemed to be Logan that was sneaking stuff out of locked cabinets without anyone noticing – had brought them all to way to the outskirts of town without anyone noticing.

Except for the occasional moo, none of the cows under them were complaining about the temporary upstairs’ neighbours’ noisiness.

“Ellie? It’s your turn.”

She shifts her gaze back to the game and consequently to the two guys staring at her. Ellie glances at the cards in her hand for a second before making her decision. “I fold.”

She throws the cards on the flat surface of the barrel and turns back to observing the game happening all the way across the room. She counts nine young people sitting in a circle, with an empty beer bottle in the middle of the huddle that they spin. Ellie does try to keep track of who ends up kissing who but loses count when she sees Dina leaning over to give a quick peck on the lips to the guy in front of her. Good God, the girl to guy ratio is all out of whack. She sees only 3 girls sitting there, counting her friend.

“You know you can join them if you want,” Jesse calls out. “We can just call it even, play some other time.”

“Don’t try to get out of this just because I’m winning,” Simon chirps in. “She could just give you her chips and you could carry on getting your ass handed to you, you whiny loser.”

“Hey! I’m still here,” Ellie interrupts, taking a sip of whiskey from her glass. “Do I look like I enjoy people’s company enough to go over there?”

Jesse chuckles, takes the deck of cards away from Simon and shuffles it, over and over again. “I’m actually surprised you’re here at all.”

“I could say the same of you. Unless it’s at your own place, you never show up to those things.”

Jesse nods in the direction of the mess of people kissing each other in the distance. “I’m supervising party-girl over there,” he says, his eyes trained on the cards.

“You’re spending your evening getting your ass kicked at poker and watching your girlfriend kiss a shit-ton of people that are not you… yeah, you’re the weirdest boyfriend in the history of all boyfriends,” Simon teases.

Jesse turns around and punches him in the shoulder, never even looking up from the task he is busying himself with. “You’re one to talk, your girlfriend has been dancing with Logan for the better part of the night and you’re nowhere near that dance floor.”

Simon looks up, surveys the dance floor, spots his girlfriend and shrugs. “It’s Logan, can’t say I’m that worried about him. He’ll probably say something stupid and earn himself a slap in the face anytime now.”

“Alright, alright, we get it, you’re both very trusting and confident boyfriends, can we finish this game?” Ellie mockingly snaps at them, taking the cards away from Jesse to deal them.

They keep playing, until eventually Jesse runs out of chips and leaves, grumbling about running out of whiskey as well as fake currency, and it is only Simon and Ellie anymore.

Ellie has just won their last hand when he chuckles into his hand. “What?”

“Nothing.”

“Simon?”

He holds up his hands in pretend surrender. “Alright, I was just thinking we should try to set you up with someone.”

Ellie raises an eyebrow. “We in this case being…?”

“Jesse, Dina, me… the fucking whole town, if it comes down to it. We could hold like a contest and you could be the grand prize!”

“As lovely as the idea sounds,” Ellie snickers. “I’m really not interested in anyone, and besides, I like being by myself. You know, no one to supervise during undercover parties.”

Simon scrunches his eyebrows in confusion. “I don’t have to supervise any… Aw, goddammit,” he groans as he looks behind him. “Lily, at least aim for the trash can!”

Just like that, he disappears, leaving his chips and cards right there on the barrel to make sure his retching girlfriend doesn’t make too much of a mess.

“Just you and me now, Whiskey,” Ellie says, looking at her glass. “Although you’re almost gone too.”

She settles for playing with the chips, building little castles and fortifications, and resolving to leave as soon as her drink is finished. All the way across the room, the people playing spin the bottle are exclaiming sporadically while the people dancing obscure her view of the game, though she has no real desire to witness any of that.

She’s just fine with staying on the outside looking in, watching everyone from a distance. Drunk people, she found – especially drunk teenagers, in retrospect – were unpredictable, and she wasn’t a real fan of unexpected behaviour from anyone. Guess she had more than a lifetime’s worth of un-predictableness in the past eighteen months…

Ellie looks over to the people dancing, holding each other close and swaying to the rhythm of the slower song that just came on. It looks so natural for them, to be close like that, but she can’t imagine ever being okay with that kind of closeness, especially not with a bunch of people around watching her.

She’s just about to build the third watchtower in her mini version of Jackson when someone sits down in one of the empty stools beside her. “You do know that sitting by yourself building shit with poker chips is not the fastest way to make friends?”

“It isn’t? Oh my, that explains a lot.” She looks up to see Dina staring at her, leaning her elbows on the table for support. She’s obviously in a very inebriated state, barely holding herself upright. Her hair is half out of her bun, “I take it you’re done playing?”

Dina leans closer to her. Her breath smells heavily of beer, and whiskey? Maybe vodka. She isn’t quite sure. “Can I tell you a secret?” she slurs. “I’m still playing, right now.”

“How can you still be playing there when you’re sitting all the way here with…”

Dina’s lips are on hers, and Ellie is frozen in place, eyes wide open for a second before they shut of their own accord, the final word of her sentence forever lost.

Holy fucking shit.

Her mind is blank, she can’t hear anything anymore, but she feels Dina’s lips move against hers, soft and warm, and then her tongue just brushing lightly against her bottom lip. Dina is deepening the kiss, and it seems that her whole body is unable to move except for her mouth, just moving in sync with whatever Dina is doing, matching her move for move.

It takes a second for her brain to register that the alcohol she tastes is not the one she had been drinking before, but rather the lingering taste of vodka – definitely vodka, not whiskey – on Dina’s lips.

Ellie pushes her away, holding her at arms length, and only then does the sound of people hooting and cheering all the way from across the attic reach her ears. Her face burns, and she knows it must be matching Dina’s shirt by now.

“Bottle pointed at you,” Dina slurs in response to her unanswered question. She’s swaying, eyes unfocused, barely able to stand on her feet without holding on to the edge of the barrel. Ellie has seen firsthand Dina drink people under the table many, many times before, enough to know that she is absolutely hammered right now.

“Dina, just how much did you have to drink tonight?”

Dina grabs Ellie’s discarded whiskey glass and chugs it in one swift motion, not even making a face as she downs the alcohol. “Dunno. Too much, if I absolutely had to give you an answer. Hey! Wait for me before the next turn!”

Ellie steadies her as she turns around to head back to the circle of people playing Spin the Bottle. From the corner of her eye, she sees Jesse heading over and resolves to let him be the one to tell drunk-Dina that she’s had enough.

Ellie turns back to her now empty glass, stunned beyond words, as the sounds of Jesse and Dina arguing cover the music blaring from the radio. Her heart is trying to hammer its way out of her chest.

She’s painfully aware of people – from the drinking game side of the room and the dance-floor side alike – looking at her, and the arguing couple, and whispering among themselves like they weren’t in any way responsible for the events that had just transpired. Bunch of hypocrites.

She ends up leaving as soon as her legs decide to cooperate with her again.

She does her best to ignore the eyes burning holes in her back as she heads for the only exit.

On her way down the stairs, she almost trips over the box of lights Logan had brought over but ends up only knocking it over, the newspaper and flyers that were stuffed in there to prevent the bulbs from breaking spilling out. Almost broke my neck on the stupid thing.

She bends down to put them back in the box and put it away so no one trips on it like she did. Ellie is in no way as inebriated as some of the people she has just left upstairs, and she still almost tumbled her way down.

“Fucking Logan, leaving boxes lying in dark stairways,” she grumbles as she puts the crumpled up balls of paper back where they came from. She tucks the box neatly under a table where anyone coming down the stairs will surely see it if they look for it, but notices one runaway flyer that got stuck between one of the steps and the wall.

Better pick it up before one of the cows chews it tomorrow.

She does, and in the faint light seeping in from the space between the planks of wood from the attic floor, she spots the subject of the flyer.

“CBI Safety Pamphlet,” Ellie reads out, slower than she usually reads because of the shadows from people walking above her between the paper and her light source complicating the process, and her eye catches one of the subheadings. “Transmission. The two known ways to contract CBI are: breathing the spores emitted by the Cordyceps… Contact with bodily fluids of a person infected with CBI, usually by being bitten.”

Ellie’s blood runs cold. She glances down to the tattoo on her arm, to the bite concealed beneath it, and back to the pamphlet.

Contact with bodily fluids of a person infected.

Ellie’s brain plays back to scene from a few minutes before. Dina kissing her, her lips against hers… her tongue brushing against them, their kiss deepening, however brief it had been.

Usually by being bitten.

“No,” she whispers in the dark. “No…”

***

“Joel! Joel, you gotta get the fuck up, right now!”

Ellie bangs her fists on his door until he swings it open, hopping in place to pull his pants up while trying to rub the last remnants of sleep out of his eyes. “I swear to God, if this house isn’t on fire I will…”

“Can I infect other people?” Ellie interrupts him.

Joel is wide awake now. “What? Ellie, what’s going on?”

She has no idea where to begin.

I was at a secret party in the attic of one of the barns, drinking with some friends.

She’s out of breath, having sprinted all the way back to their house in the pitch-black darkness of the night. She feels dizzy too, and she highly suspects it isn’t only because of the makeshift marathon she just ran.

“Dina kissed me,” she blurts out, the words spilling out of her mouth faster than she ever thought she could speak. “We were at this party, and I was playing poker and she was over there playing Spin the Bottle and apparently it pointed at me, and she came over and she just kissed me.”

Joel stares at her, calm beyond belief compared to her uncontrollably agitated behaviour. “Okay?”

“Okay? This is all you have to say, ‘okay’?”

“Just give me a second,” he sighs and finally leaves his spot in the doorframe in favor of his rocking chair in the living room just one door down. She follows him ready to yell at him some more, though she has no idea what words would come out of her mouth.

He sits down and pinches his nose. “Okay, walk me through it. You guys kissed…”

She kissed me!

“She kissed you,” Joel corrects himself with a barely concealed sigh. “So, what?”

“This is how the infection spreads, doesn’t it? Contact with bodily fluids from an infected person. I was bitten, I scan positive for CBI even though I don’t have any symptoms… Do you think I can transmit it to other people with my saliva? Like, am I some sort of carrier or a non-batshit-crazy-non-violent future Runner?”

She’s rambling in her nervousness, rubbing the crescent shaped scar of her bite almost compulsively as she speaks. Joel sits her down on the coffee table, careful not to sit her in the middle where it bends dangerously. As a second thought, he forces her hand away from her bite, which is probably a good thing because there is a very strong chance she might scrape off her tattoo altogether if she keeps this up. “Kiddo… I recall you kissing that Dipshit Von Bucket guy, and he’s still walking around just fine.”

How he knows that is beyond her, and it is also dead last on her list of things she wants to ask Joel about. “That wasn’t the same!”

“How the hell isn’t that the same thing?” Joel groans, rubbing his temples. He lets go of her hand, and it automatically wraps around her bite again.

“Tongue!” Ellie exclaims out, ignoring the urge to hide under the cushions of the couch as she says it. “Quick peck on the lips with Simon, not the case with Dina… not the same!”

Joel leans back in his chair, shaking his head and huffing as he does. “If you had told me 30 years ago I’d be discussing kissing techniques with my 16 year-old kid, I’d have punched your face in.”

“Focus, Joel!”

“What do you expect me to tell you?” he snaps. “That you’ve Infected her? That you haven’t? I don’t know that.”

His voice softens as he finishes speaking, eyes trained on her waiting to see what her next move will be.

Elle breathes in, shakily. She’s feeling her throat start to close up, feeling the unshed tears blurring her vision and threatening to break the dam holding them in. “I want you to tell me it’s going to be fine,” she finally whispers.

Joel squeezes her knees in what she him to intend as a reassuring gesture, but it only manages to accentuate the feeling of dread filling her. “I don’t know that, Baby Girl. Whatever happens, there is nothing you can do to stop it now. We’ll just have to wait it out.”

He pulls her in, her face pressed so close against the bare skin of his shoulder that she can feel the ridges of one particularly nasty scar he has there brush her cheek. “I can’t lose someone else,” Ellie whispers again, to herself more than him. “I can’t be left behind again.”

If Joel hadn’t been listening already, he might’ve missed it.

***

She doesn’t sleep for one second that night. Instead, she tosses and turns, stares at her ceiling and the pictures and drawings that are glued there with only the soft red glow of her alarm clock’s digital display to break the absolute darkness surrounding her.

Ellie keeps seeing Dina kiss her, but when she pulls away, her mind starts playing tricks on her. She sees Dina’s eyes, bloodshot and she’s growling – delirious – her lips twisted in a snarl. At some point, she realises her brain is bringing her back to the carousel, when she had been bitten, and instead of losing one best friend to CBI she’s losing another one. It’s like watching Riley turn all over again. She hadn’t been plagued by those images in a long, long time. She could have done without them for a while longer still.

Before long, the sun has risen, its rays seeping under her curtains, and she hasn’t closed her eyes for even a second.

Joel says nothing to her as she passes him by to get to her watch shift, after a brief shower that doesn’t manage to wash away the disturbing images out of her head.

From the moment she sits down on her chair, riffle carefully placed on her knees as she surveys the surrounding area, she can swear time slows down to the point of almost standing still. Each hour that goes by feels like a day, and with every passing minute she grows more restless.

She has the evening shift on watchtower 8, so she’ll probably stop by the headquarter to check the schedule because she can never remember where she’s supposed to be at.

But an hour passes, and then two, three, four, and still no sign of Dina anywhere on the horizon. Ellie is sure she’s driving her partner nuts with how many times she glances away from the wooded area in front of them to observe the perfectly safe landscape of the settlement.

She probably switched shift with someone because she knew she was going to that party. It’s fine, there is nothing to worry about. She’s probably just sleeping in.

Still, the nervousness keeps uncontrollably growing within her.

Where the hell is she at?

Finally, she reaches the end of her shift and swaps places with Chuck, going down the ladder two steps at a time and heading home. Maybe she’ll do some axe throwing, maybe some other target practice – whatever works to keep her mind and body busy, and most importantly, away from the fact that she has seen no sign of Dina since last night.

“Hey Ellie!” She turns around, seeing Simon running toward her, still wearing the exact same clothes he had on the night before. The stupid smile on his face tells her he either spent the night at Lily’s place or found a magic lamp with a wish-granting genie trapped inside. Odds are, it is the latter. “What are you doing now?”

“Nothing much,” she answers.

“Can you take the evening shift on watchtower 7 tonight? Tommy asked me to do it, but I don’t really want to.”

“Whose watch is it?”

“Dina’s. Apparently, she was supposed to be on 8, but she traded with someone else or whatever. I wasn’t really paying attention when Jesse explained it to me. He said she came down with a fever, but that’s all I know.”

Ellie swears her heart physically skips a beat. She sees Simon’s lips keep moving – he’s still talking – but all she hears is a deafening ringing in her ears that’s drowning out everything else.

I need to see her.

She thinks she tells Simon she has something else to do tonight, but with the ringing in her ears she isn’t sure the words actually came out of her mouth at all. She doesn’t give a shit. She heads straight for Dina’s place, careful not to pick up her pace until she is out of view as to not arouse anymore suspicion.

Between the ringing in her ears and her heart trying to beat its way out of her chest, she feels there is a definite possibility that she might explode of stress before she reaches her destination.

I should have seen her coming, she never should have been able to reach me.

She picks up the pace once more, jogging now.

That’s what you get for letting people get close to you.

She’s running now. Only two street corners to go.

Riley, Tess, Sam, Henry… Now Dina too…

She’s running so fast she can’t even see the houses flying by beside her, only focused on the tiny one with the blue door, windows and fence.

She trips on the last step in front of Dina’s house and consequently crashes through the already shaky front door. She tumbles to the ground, unable to stop herself before the impact, rolling on herself upon crash-landing but still managing to smash her forehead against the wall.

“Good God, Ellie!”

She looks up – the way Dina’s house is configured, she landed smack in the middle of her living room, right at the feet of the pasty white – bordering on green, if she was honest – young woman sitting on her couch with a grey plastic bucket balanced on her lap. She’s wrapped in her warmest blanket, the one her grandmother had sewn her when she was a little kid, and her eyes are looking at her in tired, but overall unimpressed, surprise.

“Do I even want to know?” Dina asks, examining the remains of the door over the edge of her bucket. Looking back at it, Ellie sees that only one of the tree hinges holding the door up is still intact, the other having ripped off the wall when she burst through it.

Ellie scrambles to her feet as fast as she can while still seeing stars from her unexpected headfirst collision with the wall, looking at Dina, examining her, looking for any sign of her turning. She sees none.

“Ellie, what’s going on?”

She’s counting in her head. It had been around midnight when Dina had kissed her, it was now the end of the afternoon, roughly just before five if she had to guess.

17 hours. It had taken way less time than that for Riley to start showing signs being infected.

Doesn’t mean shit. Riley was bitten, Dina… well, I don’t know what’s going on there.  

“What’s going on with you?” Ellie asks her, disregarding her friend’s previous question.

Dina puts her bucket aside by her feet. “Clearly, I just came back from my mid-afternoon two-hour run in the mountains,” she retorts, her usual sarcastic self. “Was it not obvious?”

“I’m serious, Dina… how are you feeling?”

“Like shit. Ellie, you’re kind of scary me. Are you okay?”

I’ve spent the past 17 hours convincing myself I have just signed my friend’s death warrant, so yeah, I’m just… peachy.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine.” Dina looks at her, obviously not buying it. She lets it go nonetheless.

Ellie pushes the door back where it used to be – it closes okay, if you don’t mind the gap between the side of the door and the wall, but as soon as someone opens it again it will surely fall sideways. She’ll have to fix that, sometime.

“What are you doing here, Ellie?” Dina asks, pulling her blanket closer to her body. She’s shivering, Ellie notices, and whatever feeling of dread she had managed to ditch at the door comes rushing back to her.

“I, ehm, I, I wanted to… check up on you!” Ellie cringes at the way her voice gets squeakier over the last part. Lying is so not in your skill set.

Dina groans, leaning her head back against the back cushion of the couch. “I told Jesse not to tell people about this!” She opens one eye to stare at Ellie, still keeping her head in a horizontal position. “How many people did he tell?” 

“Just me.”

What is up with the lying today, Williams? And what the hell wasn’t Jesse supposed to tell?

Ellie sits on the armrest, keeping her eyes trained on Dina’s pale face. “Well, shit,” the older exhales. “Seeing as it’s out of the bag now… How bad was I really?”

“What?”

“At that party last night!” Dina clarifies. “You were there, weren’t you? On a scale of one to ten, how embarrassed should I be?”

Ellie’s eyes widen. “Did you just ask me if I was there? Dina, how much do you remember?”

She shrugs. “Drinking, dancing, drinking some more… I remember sitting down to play truth or dare, and then the rest of my night is either fuzzy or blurry, one or the other.”

No way she doesn’t remember kissing me. Can she?

“You weren’t playing truth or dare, you were playing spin the bottle!”

“What do you know, Jesse was right. Man, I’m such an asshole. He said I made fucking scene, and we actually had a fight about it right this morning.”

“I hate to side with him, but you also kissed like half the people there.”

“Great. Anyone important?”

Dina’s last two words echo in her head, like some kind of sick song, and she can almost picture them bouncing off the inside of her skull. The answer to her friend’s question, however, is nowhere to be found in that stupid brain of hers. What the hell am I supposed to say? ‘Anyone important’… did she mean someone in particular? Am I important?

“No, no one you’d care about,” is the response that escapes her lips.

Dina shivers and straightens up, untangling herself from the cocoon of blankets that she had wrapped around her body. “Pass me my bucket, I’m going to hurl.”

Ellie executes herself as fast as her body will allow. She tries her best to ignore the sounds of Dina vomiting in the container and sticks to rubbing circles on her back with shaking a shaking hand that her friend doesn’t notice and holding back the frizzy curls of her wild mane of unbrushed hair. No, no one you’d care about… Anyone important? No one you’d care about. She can’t decide if she’s happy the other girl doesn’t remember kissing her, or if she’s disappointed. Does she remember at all?

Dina finally leans back into the cushions, handing Ellie her bucket which she holds at a good arm length and puts on the ground with a wrinkled nose. “Gross.”

“Shut up, you’re gross,” Dina retorts, pulling the runaway strands of hair behind her ears. She’s an impressive shade of pale green, not quite green but still kind of white. Green-ish, if she had to say.

Other than that, Ellie sees no signs of infection in her. No incoherence, no feverish delusions, no confusion, no aggressivity, nothing.

17 hours. 17 hours after first being bitten, Riley was already starting to lose her fucking mind, but Dina is here, all here, albeit nursing one hell of a nasty hangover.

“Hey, did Jesse happen to mention who you kissed?”

Dina leans her head down on the armrest and stretches her legs over the rest of the couch, resting them over Ellie’s. In doing so, she sneaks them under Ellie’s right arm, and leaves the younger girl no choice but to set her forearm down on Dina’s thigh. She hopes her friend doesn’t notice the hesitant motion of her hand, or the slight tremor of her fingers as they rest against her leg.

She doesn’t want to be, but she’s afraid. Irrationally afraid, scared half-to-death that the mere act of being next to her for an extend period of time or breathing the same air will infect Dina.

If she had to turn, she would have started to show signs by now. You probably can’t infect anyone, you just test positive for CBI. She’ll be fine. She’s fine.

No amount of convincing on her part manages to put her panicking mind at rest.

“No,” Dina answers, interrupting Ellie’s interior debate with herself. “Do you know?”

Ellie carefully considers her answer. “Nah. Just curious, that’s all.”

Dina nods. After a moment of tense silence during which Ellie keeps a watchful eye on Dina’s every move, the older girl drapes part of her blanket over Ellie.

“Come over here and warm me up, I’m freezing.” Before she can object, Dina has crawled in the space between her arms, curling up against Ellie’s body like a cat in search of a warm shelter. “Quit squirming away, Freckles, if you hadn’t ruined my door I would be fine with just my blanket, but now I’m down one door and still frozen solid.”

With that, Dina grabs hold of Ellie’s wrist and wraps her arm around her own shoulders. Ellie hopes to whatever god there might be, if there even is one left in this batshit-crazy world, that she doesn’t feel her hand shake against her shoulder blade where it rests.

“I can fix your door,” Ellie stammers, very aware of Dina’s body pressed flush against her side and of her own heart beating alarmingly too fast for someone sitting down on a couch. She feels Dina’s breath against her neck, and her head is throbbing. Probably from her headfirst collision with the wall from earlier.

“You better fix my door,” she jokingly threatens as she playfully pokes Ellie’s ribs. “But not now. Right now, you’re my human heater.”

As much as Ellie is afraid of staying near her, she’s even more terrified to leave – petrified at the idea of Dina starting to turn, physically feeling the aching need deep within her to make sure she would continue to be okay – so she stays put, huddled on one side of the couch, frozen in place, with Dina occupying all the remaining space on the cushioned piece of furniture.

Outside, night is falling slowly – it is almost the middle of November now, and the bitter cold is making its presence known rather harshly. The wind is seeping in from the space between the side of the door and the wall where Ellie tore it off its hinges, and before soon, she uses her free arm to bring her side of the blanket up to her chin and sink deeper into the cushion where it is warmer.

“It’s cold as shit.”

“Well, it was warmer when there wasn’t a hole in my wall.”

Ellie looks over at Dina, who has her eyes closed. “Sorry, again.”

“Let’s move this to my room, okay, Freckles?”

She thinks her heart stutters as much as her voice does on her next words. “Wha… what?”

Dina finally opens one eye, playful despite obviously not feeling well. “It’s out of the air current, dummy.”

“Oh.”

Dina glances down ever so briefly, and Ellie feels her fingers press against her ribcage, on her side, “Your heart is beating awfully fast.”

I can’t help it.

“It’s always been a little on the faster side. Don’t worry about it.” 

It isn’t the most satisfying explanation, but Dina doesn’t push it further, mostly because she grabs her bucket in panic just in time to avoid throwing up all over them, the couch and the blanket.

Ellie is almost thankful.

***

Later that night, when Dina has gone back to bed and promptly fallen asleep right when her head hit the pillow, Ellie went to work on the broken door. Busying herself with a physical task also meant harnessing the wild string of horrible scenarios running loose in her head since the night before. She could almost pretend she didn’t notice the fever Dina was running, or the throwing up, or the dizziness.

She’s just hungover.

22 hours now, and other than the fever and the vomiting, nothing was different.

It might just be a regular old virus, like Jesse had last week.

23 hours, and now the door was fixed, she had no more reason to stay, but still, she couldn’t find it in her to go home.

Do pregnant women tend to run fevers a lot? I know they throw up a fair deal… Jesus, I’ve never wished that bad for anyone to be pregnant, ever.

24 hours.

I’m losing it. I’m losing it. I’m losing it.

Hours keep on going by, one after the other, like they always have. Her going stir-crazy doesn’t change any of that. Every few minutes, she pushes the door to Dina’s bedroom just enough so the light from the living room creates the tiniest ray of light, bright enough for Ellie to see that she’s still sleeping – soundly, peacefully, lightly snoring under the covers – but not bright enough to rouse her from her slumber.

Every time Ellie closes her own eyes, curled up on Dina’s couch, she sees her friend kissing her again, and downing her whiskey – which had also come in contact with her saliva, come to think of it – and it’s impossible to get to sleep when she’s that worried.

30 hours.

She makes eggs for breakfast, and Dina eats with an unprecedented appetite – “I haven’t eaten since the party, give your girl a break”. She’s still a little pale, except for her cheeks, which are a deep crimson color, and her forehead is clammy and hot to the touch. She’s still feverish.

36 hours.

If Dina wonders why she is sticking around for so long, she doesn’t say it. Instead she keeps chatting non-stop like they haven’t seen each other non-stop since the day before. At one point she asks Dina if she can take a shower, hoping it’ll calm her nerves. It doesn’t, and she just stands under the cold stream of water shivering until she can’t hide in there any longer before it becomes suspicious – she has no doubts Dina is going to pound on the door if she suspects her of using up all her hot water again. Do you want me to turn into an ice cube next time I shower?

Ellie doesn’t use any hot water. It certainly isn’t her first cold shower, or even her last, she assumes.

48 hours. It’s probably just the flu.

She goes home.

“You’re sure you’re okay, Freckles?”

She takes another look at Dina, back to her usual skin color and chirpy personality. “Yeah,” she mumbles. “I’m okay.”

72 hours. 96 hours. 120 hours. A week. Two weeks. A month.

She keeps a watchful eye on her the whole time, but still, Dina doesn’t turn, and Ellie can’t be thankful enough for this.

Chapter Text

“27,” Ellie mumbles under her breath, her hand blocking the rays of the setting sun from shining into her eyes, surveying with attention the line of trees in front of her until she sees it again. It’s so cold outside she can see her breath making little puffs of condensation in the air. She can’t feel the top of her ears anymore, she’s in fact willing to bet they are about to fall off on the rudimentary wood floor. “28…”

“You know, you only have to count up to ten before you have to go look for people,” a voice calls out from behind her.

She turns around to see Chuck leaning on the side of the scaffolding, his feet still on the ladder steps and his elbows resting on the floor of the watchtower nest. He’s looking up at her, his eyes half-hidden behind the strands of carrot-colored hair escaping from his faded blue baseball cap, squinting to see her despite the bright rays blinding him.

“And you have to hide until I find you, dumbass.” Ellie doesn’t think she has ever greeted Chuck with something other than sarcasm since he had tattooed her, and she can’t remember him not teasing her.

“Point taken, my young padawan.”

“Your what, now?”

He huffs as he pulls his heavy frame the rest of the way up into the inside of the observation nest. The ladder’s top two steps had been broken sometime mid-November, and no one had bothered to fix them or change the ladder altogether since then, so people actually had to drag their sorry asses up now.

“Man, if there is one thing I miss from before the Outbreak, its people getting my cinematographic references.” He takes place into the empty chair beside Ellie’s, the fragile, weather-worn structure creaking under his weight. “So, what were you counting to before stopping to observe my workout?”

“Workout? That looked more like a beached whale trying to drag itself back to the sea.”

“When have you ever seen a beached whale?”

“Don’t need to when I see you doing this all the time.”

“Fuck you.”

“And I think you’re great too.”

He surveys the horizon for a few seconds, orange light covering everything in sight and reflecting off the absolute whiteness of the snow. Judging by that, Ellie estimates they probably have only an hour, maybe an hour and a half at most, before night falls over Jackson. This falls earlier each day, it seems, and it does nothing to change her total dislike for winter. There is nothing positive about it – dying plants, migrating birds, fewer deer, rabbits and older wildlife to hunt, cold weather that chills her to her very bones, shorter days… and awful memories and nightmares as an added bonus.

She had been hoping that after her first winter after the whole David ordeal had passed, they would go away on their own and leave her the fuck alone. Apparently, she wasn’t worthy of such luck.

“Anything else I should know about?” Chuck asks. He’s skimming over her watch notes in the leather-bound notebook they keep on a small metal shelf up in the nest of the watchtower. It is mostly used to record temperatures, observations and technical notes of every shift, but Ellie uses it to doodle around when the days are slower. Chuck turns over the notebook, showing her a basic drawing of what could only be described as a hybrid between a horse and a moose on the half-page marked December 12th, 2035. “I take it this was a slower shift?”

Ellie chuckles. “You could say that. Most interesting thing I’ve seen since this morning is a squirrel going up and down the same goddamned tree 28 times in like, half an hour. Town’s a freaking ghost-town today.”

“You need to find some hobbies, Ellie.”

“Don’t I know it. Have a good watch, Chuck. Don’t freeze to death up here.”

She hands him the riffle, and her fingers have trouble uncurling from around the barrel where she had gripped it, hours ago. Man, they just froze there. It’s too fucking cold outside. She fantasizes about jumping right into her bed as soon as she gets home, wrapping herself in a cocoon of blankets and re-reading her comics for what must be the hundredth time.

She hops down the ladder – not without getting a few splinters in her hands on the untreated wood in her hurry to get down – and almost lands directly on top of Jesse’s head. She always jumps down the last few steps, but today she ends up slipping down instead of jumping down.

He simply sidesteps her rapidly falling body, impassive as always.

“What in the world are you doing here?” Ellie asks, looking him up and down. He’s wearing his usual patrol outfit, patched up cargo pants with lots of pockets, all loaded with survival items and supplies, a backpack and what used to be a black hoodie with the big pocket on the front of it ripped out and the actual hood cut off – for safety, she remembers him saying as he was cutting it out, months ago. He has a grey jacket slung over his shoulder, to complete the outfit.

Jesse holds up a finger in front of his lips, signaling to her to be quiet. He’s holding one of their walkie-talkies up to his face, turning the dial carefully – she assumes to try to tune in the right channel. The white numbers on the dial had faded years ago, Tommy had told her, and only the ones on Leonard’s were still visible, but no one dared touch that one.

After a moment of silent staring, Tommy finally dares to makes eye contact with her. “Have you seen Mitch anywhere?”

“No,” Ellie replies, watching him carefully. “Why?”

Jesse doesn’t answer right away. She hears only static coming from the different channels, and Jesse’s occasional requests for a reply. “Oh, for fuck’s sake…”

He shoves the talkie back into one of the side pockets of his cargo pants before rubbing the top part of his nose between his eyes. It’s something she noticed he does quite often when he isn’t sure what he should do next.

“Who did you piss off this time to get the cold shoulder even with the talkies?”

“Dam’s turbines are fried. No one knows why – Tommy thinks it’s a malfunction, Maria thinks it was intentionally sabotaged – but it’s all hands on deck over there until it gets figured out. Only people left here are the ones already on a watch shift, a patrol, needed somewhere else or unable to leave Jackson for one reason or another.”

He’s pacing, eyeing both the gate nearby and the street he presumably came from.

“What’s the big deal?”

Jesse stops pacing, and he looks at her with steely, calculating eyes. “The patrol team that left on Monday never reported back. They radioed from one of our checkpoints two days ago, but that’s the last we heard of them. I’m supposed to go up to their last known location with Mitch, but the dumb shit is nowhere to be found,” Jesse informs her. He kicks a rock out of his way and it bounces all the way to the fence separating Jackson from the Wyoming wilderness. Up above them, Ellie spots Chuck briefly peeking over the edge of the watch tower nest to investigate what the unexpected noise was. “Christ, I don’t have time for this.”

The words are out of Ellie’s mouth before her mind catches up to her lips – something that, objectively, happens way too often for her liking. “I’ll go with you.”

“You’re not on the patrol roll,” Jesse objects. “And, you’re 16.”

“Almost 17,” she counters. “You were 17 when you started to do patrols.”

“I was turning 18 the next week!”

“Do you really have the luxury of arguing with me while you wait for someone else to magically become available? You said it yourself, everyone is needed elsewhere. I’m not.”

Jesse scratches at the stubble of his patchy beard, checking his watch and back towards the center of town where Mitch would be coming from if he actually managed to show up. Still, there is no one there.

“I’ll be careful,” Ellie continues, pleading her case. “Everyone in Jackson is busy, and it’ll take over an hour to go fetch someone from the dam to come with you. Let’s leave now – if those guys are in trouble, we shouldn’t waste anytime talking about this.”

Jesse stares her down. She tries to make herself taller by standing straighter, but her friend is still a good head taller than her. “You’ll do as I say?”

“I promise.”

“Your dad is going to skin me alive if anything happens to you,” he grumbles. Jesse pulls out a pistol from one of the side pockets of his cargo pants and hands it to her, careful to hold it so it doesn’t aim for anything in particular. “Make sure it doesn’t happen.”

She nods and takes the gun, shoving it into the pocket of her coat as Jesse asks Chuck to let Joel know that Ellie is gone with him. Ellie knows she shouldn’t be happy about any of this – after all, the whole reason Jesse and Mitch were going out in the first place was because a patrol party failed to check in multiple times when they were scheduled to – but she is. For the first time in a long, long time, she feels like she’s actually useful to the town.

Ellie feels more alive leaving the fenced community behind than she has in the past year. It feels good.

***

“Don’t you miss it? The city life, I mean…”

Jesse sneaks a brief glance sideways at her. He easily steps over a fallen tree trunk while Ellie has to climb over it to try to keep up with him. Damn short legs.

“Why would I?” Jesse questions back. She doesn’t usually ask him any questions that involve anything more than a yes or no answer on his part, but they’ve been walking for an hour now and walking silently is driving her nuts. She already tried telling a few jokes, but she barely got a sideway glance in response – a vey Jess-like reaction, not that she expected anything else coming from the unusually quiet guy.

She knows Jesse ended up stumbling upon Jackson with his dad when he was 12, and that he was born in the Denver Quarantine Zone. That’s about it.

Ellie ducks under the branch in front of her. “Dunno. Just figured you’d miss the anonymity of a larger city, that’s all.”

“I don’t think I have as big an issue with people knowing me as you do.”

“I don’t have an issue with that.”

Jesse scoffs and shakes his head. “Sure. And I don’t have issues with small talk.”

“Forget I said anything, then.”

They keep walking up the dirt path leading around a cliff, and then down onto a beat-up road that they follow at a safe distance under the cover of the trees. There are no birds chirping anymore, and the only sound reaching Ellie’s frozen ears is the crunching of the snow under their boots as they make their way further and further away from Jackson. Night had fallen about a half-hour ago. If it wasn’t for the full moon reflecting on the snow, she isn’t sure she would have been able to follow Jesse – his linger legs allow him to walk way faster than she can, and so he always seems to be walking a few yards in front of her, at least. Hell, she isn’t even sure Jesse would have found his way in the complete obscurity of the night.

Thankfully, they manage to reach one of the cabins they use as a checkpoint not long after she thinks her toes are going to fall off from the cold. It is partially covered with tree branches and snow, and if Jesse hadn’t made a sharp turn when they reached it, she probably would have walked right by it without ever noticing a thing.

It is warmer inside, but still too cold for her liking, even after they light a small fire – not big enough to draw attention, but enough to warm them up, even just a little.

“I don’t miss the city,” Jesse says, poking absentmindedly at the embers with a stick. She was just about to drift off, laying down on a ratty blanket that had been stored in the cabin for an occasion just like this one – as close to the fire as it was safe to. “I miss the life I had there.”

“Do you wish you could go back?” She knows she does – she’d trade a lot of things to be 13 again, when life was much simpler and she had not yet been bitten. When Riley was still alive. But then she remembers Joel, and Dina, and Jesse, Tommy, Maria, Michael, Chuck… She never would have met them if she hadn’t wandered in the mall that night.

Jesse keeps playing with the fire. He lights his stick a few times, then puts it out, and then lights it again. Finally, just when she thought she would not get the answer, Jesse speaks again.

“No,” he mutters, almost a whisper to be confused with the wind outside their shelter. “The things that I miss… they’re not in Denver anymore than I am. It wouldn’t do me any good to go back.”

He looks at her over the flames and she can almost see how freaked out he is about having already shared that much with her in such a short time. Almost. To the outside observer, he looks exactly the same as always – tall, quiet, confident – but to her, he seems just a little less dark and mysterious. She guesses his persona is part of his charm.

“I used to play chess, with my mom, and then she died and we never played again,” Jesse continues with his eyes going back to staring into the fire. “Not me, not my dad, and not my brother.”

She doesn’t know much about Jesse’s life before Jackson, but she figures this might be her only chance in a while to learn more.

“What was his name?”

“James. My dad was a big fan of westerns – old movies about the Far West and shit – and he thought it would be hilarious to name his sons after a famous outlaw. Guy’s name was Jesse James. My mom apparently wasn’t pleased when she figured it out, but my dad told me that by that time we were already five or six, so it stayed that way.”

“I never would have guessed you had a twin,” Ellie confesses. “It’s hard enough to deal with you, let alone a clone.”

Jesse smiles at her pitiful attempt at lightening the mood. “We were quite mischievous back then. My mom pretended to hate it, but I always thought she was glad we were getting along that well more than she was mad at us for the shit we were pulling. She was a wonderful lady. Patient, kind… it would have broken her heart to know what happened to James.”

Jesse stops talking, but not before Ellie hears the faintest hint of a tremor in his voice. She might have made it up, she isn’t sure. What happened to James? To your mom? She itches to ask the questions out loud, but if she does she’s afraid Jesse will close off altogether, so she doesn’t interrupt him.

“Dad never pursued anyone else, not to my knowledge, at least. Always said mom was the love of his life, his one and only.” Jesse finally looks up from the dying embers to stare at her. He puts another log in before speaking again. “What about you, Ellie? Anyone you left behind back home?”

Anyone I left behind.

Riley.

The girl I was before I got bitten.

Everything I knew.

“No. There was nothing left for me in Boston – my only family is Joel, and he’s here.”

Jesse nods. He rolls out one of the blankets onto the ground, on the other side of the fire from her, and lies down on it. She can’t see him anymore, but she can still hear his voice. “Mom never made it out of Denver. Some soldier shot her in the street like a dying animal. James got sick along the way. He didn’t get to Jackson.”  

She hears him shuffle on the other side of the cabin. “I’m sorry, Jesse. I had no idea.”

“We should get some sleep. Long day tomorrow.”

She doesn’t push him further – he has already willingly provided more personal information on his life before they met than she had ever hoped to get out of him. She settles for listening to the noises outside their shelter, especially the howling wind or the occasional hooting owl nearby.

It takes a while for her to finally drift off but when she does, her sleep is restless, plagued with dreams in which she keeps imagining waves upon waves of Infected flooding the cabin. Some of them are plain-old Runners and Clickers, but some of them are grotesque caricatures of people she knows that have turned. She wakes up in cold sweat, frozen to her very core on the cold, hard ground.

When Jesse finally stirs awake on the other side of the dying fire separating them, she’s already been staring at the branches and snow making up the roof for what feels like a lifetime.

“We should be at John and Kenny’s last known checkpoint in an hour, maybe two if the snow blocked our usual path,” Jesse mumbles, shoving items into his backpack with practiced movements. Ellie has no doubts everything has its own place in there by now.

“It’s the abandoned rest-area, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, that’s the one.”

They set out on the rest of their journey under the early morning light, silent except for short commands on Jesse’s part and quick comments on hers.

At one point, the wildlife gets less dense and the forest clears out to reveal the remains of what must have been a huge rest stop back before the outbreak. There are two buildings side by side, both with plants and moss growing over the brick façades from years upon years of abandonment, both two-stories high with no windows on the second-floor. She sees that one of the sides of the left-most structure is practically non-existent, with a fallen tree in the middle of where she assumes the wall must have been, and puddles of water collecting at the bottom. It looks like a haunted mansion if she’s ever seen one.

“Cozy,” Ellie comments, whistling in mock appreciation.

“It’s worse than it looks once you get inside,” Jesse replies over his shoulder. In the time it took for her to observe the damage done to her surroundings, he had walked almost all the way to the empty doorway of the right-side building. There is no door there, and she can’t say she is too surprised considering the overall and overgrown state of the area.

She hastens her pace to catch up to him before he ducks inside, only to be slammed against the wall besides the door as soon as she steps through. “What the fuck, Jesse!” she exclaims as she feels the rough surface of the bricks slam into her back painfully, her voice almost immediately getting muffled by Jesse’s hand against her mouth. Her eyes wander behind him to the room they just entered.

Whatever she thought she might find inside, she wasn’t expecting that.

There is blood, everywhere – on the walls, on the floor, on the ceiling, and on the two obviously dead men lying in the middle of the room. John and Kenny. She knows it is them, but she wouldn’t have recognized them in their current state. There isn’t much of them left to recognize anyway.

The air reeks of blood, so much she can almost taste it. Ellie pulls Jesse’s fingers away from her lips. “Holy shit,” she whispers, so low she almost didn’t hear her own voice.

Faintly, she hears the sound of footsteps coming from the upper floor and both their heads snap up just in time to see a barely noticeable layer of dust falling from the ceiling, in one spot, then a second, then a third, all going in the general direction of the staircase she can just make out at the far end of the room, plunged in absolute darkness.

Jesse pulls out a gun from the side pocket of his backpack, and she does the same. Three bullets. That’s all she has. Three bullets between her and whatever the hell is upstairs.

Her heart is hammering away in her chest, the thundering sound in her ears almost drowning all the other sounds. Almost. “We have to go,” Jesse hisses through his teeth, pushing her backwards.

She crouches, as does Jesse, and she takes a step back, then another, until she’s outside and she feels the icy air brush against the back of her neck, her eyes trained on the crumbling stairway the whole time.

“I’m telling you, I heard people coming through here.”

The sound of the voice – definitely not Jesse’s – make her jump. It’s coming from behind us.

“Shit!” she whispers. “They’re everywhere.”

Jesse looks around. It’s hard to pinpoint where the voice is coming from, but there is at least two people coming from the woods behind them, and one unidentified person or Infected coming at them from inside the building. There is nowhere to run off to.

If they go back to the woods, they’ll come face to face with whoever is behind them. If they go back inside, they’ll have to face whatever was upstairs and quite possibly the strangers from the woods. If they go around the building, they probably won’t have time to make it to the safe cover of the tree line before they are spotted.

Jesse grabs her arm and yanks her toward the other building, the one with the tree inside of it. “Move it, Ellie!”

Ellie dives over Jesse behind the crumbling brick wall just in time to avoid getting seen. She tries her best to calm her racing heart and her shaky breaths. If anyone sees the little puffs of condensation coming out of their mouths, they’re done for, so she does her best to breathe as sparsely as possible. “Fuck, oh fuck.”

They lean their backs against the wall, shoulder to shoulder. Ellie is right where the edge started to collapse on itself and when she turns her head sideways, she can see just a little around the corner. Enough to see the two men that just emerged out of the woods.

“Hunters,” she whispers to Jesse. “Two of them, five o’clock.”

He nods, gripping the handle of his gun tighter. She sneaks another glance around the corner to see them bend down to examine the footsteps in the snow that will no doubt give their position away soon enough.

“How many bullets do you have?”

Jesse checks his 9MM as she keeps an eye on the two guys that just appeared. One of them is wearing only a t-shirt and pants, along with boots and gloves and the other one is dressed for the weather, but none of them look friendly. They draw their weapons, one wielding a shotgun and the other one, a very long blade. A machete.

Ellie’s blood runs cold.

“I got two,” Jesse’s hushed voice pull her from her observation briefly. “No way out?”

Ellie looks again. They’re advancing toward them, following the two sets of footsteps in the snow. They are less than thirty feet away from them. “No way out,” she whispers back.

Just my luck – I finally get to go on patrol, and I’m going to end up in a gunfight. Man, when we get back Joel is so going to wrap me in bubble-wrap and lock me away in my room so I don’t injure myself again.

Jesse looks over her to the other building. There is a pile of rubble next to it, big enough to hide behind. “Think you can cover me?”

Ellie looks to their two newfound enemies one last time. Her grip on the pistol Jesse lent her tightens in anticipation.

She nods. She hasn’t had to shoot anyone since last year, just before she reached Salt Lake City with Joel when they’d been attacked by three Hunters in the middle of the night. She doesn’t miss it, but she’ll have to do it again if she wants to live another day.

She takes a deep breath and fires the gun.

As soon as the bullet leaves the pistol, she hears an overwhelming ringing in her ear, and nothing else, but she knows she hit one of them. At the very least, it stunned them long enough for Jesse to crawl over to the rubble pile and take cover behind it. All at once, she can hear again.

“Fuck, they’re in the building! They shot me!” she hears one of them yell out, immediately followed by a deafening crack and a downpour of tiny pieces of rubble that cuts her face, neck and hands before she can flatten her body on the snow-covered floor. The shotgun blast hit somewhere above her head.

Jesse fires once, and she hears the bullet hit the bricks of the other building. He missed.

There is one of the Hunters crouching behind a fallen tree trunk and she has no clue where the other one is, but the one she does see is aiming his shotgun straight at Jesse’s head.

She raises her own gun and the Hunter falls flat on his back, a bullet lodged in his chest. Ellie releases a breath she didn’t know she had been holding in as she drops back behind the relative safety of the collapsing building.

“Fucking piece of shit!”

From the corner of her eye, she spots something moving behind Jesse’s hiding place and she fires her third and final shot.

The Runner falls at Jesse’s feet with a hole in its head before her friend even has a chance to turn around.

“Where the hell did it…”

Jesse’s eyes widen as she speaks. “Ellie, watch out!”

She lives the next few seconds as if in slow-motion.

She sees Jesse raise his gun up to his face to aim, turns around only to see the remaining Hunter – the one she shot before – barreling toward her and realize that she doesn’t have time to avoid him before she feels the guy’s fist crash into her face, sending her tumbling in the snow.

The sound of Jesse’s gun jamming sounds like the bell of her last hour ringing. She sees stars.

She feels a hand close around her ponytail as she tries to scramble away and yank on it.

Ellie actually feels the roots of her hair rip out of her scalp and she yelps out in pain, bringing both her hands up to her head to try to free herself. The Hunter pins her to the ground, his full weight on hers keeping her from moving even an inch away.

“Stupid little girl, thinking you can get away from me,” he growls above her, straining to keep her in place.

“Fuck you!”

He had a machete, where the hell is it now?

“Maybe I will.”

One of her fists connects with his face, feels his teeth dig into her knuckles.

He slams her back into the ground by pulling on her ponytail. Stars spin in front of her eyes, it’s like someone split her skull open and she’s sure she’s going to pass out either from the pain or because the full weight of a grown man resting on her chest is keeping the air from entering her lungs.

“Why don’t you run, little girl. See how far you can make it, but I’ll still catch you,” he hisses into her ear, his breath hot and fetid against her skin. “Might as well give up now and I’ll make it easier on you.”  

She stills.

When her eyes finally focus, it isn’t the Hunter’s face that she sees. It’s David’s.

Run, little rabbit, run.

It’s okay to give up.

She manages to reach into the pocket of her coat and her fingers close around the familiar handle of her knife.

You can try beggin’.

She plunges the blade into the guy’s neck and waves of blood fall upon her. When he leans back to press his hands against the open wound, it gives Ellie just enough room to get one of her legs out from under him and kick him square in the chest to crawl out from under him.

The sound of a gun firing stills her.

She turns around to the sight of Jesse holding his smoking gun, with blood dripping all over the length of his arm and a bloody machete on the ground.

She hears the Hunters body fall like a sack of flour behind her.

“You okay?” Jesse asks, panting. He presses his hand to his shoulder to stop the bleeding and looks down at the Infected at his feet. “Guess that was the thing upstairs.”

“Yeah,” she mutters, scrambling to her knees and trying to catch her breath. “Must’ve been.”

She reaches for the knife still plunged into the Hunter’s neck. He has a bullet hole right over his left eye, and a still profusely bleeding even though the guy is clearly unconscious and on the verge of dying.

Her hand is shaking so bad when she reaches for the weapon she has trouble pulling it out. She feels like she’s going to throw up.

“We have to go,” Ellie finally manages to say. “Now.”

Jesse ducks into the other building where they found the corpses before being attacked and comes back with a ring – a plain, simple wedding band – and a watch.

“For their families,” is Jesse’s simple answer to her silent question.

Riley’s tags feel heavy against her skin, and she remembers how comforting they were when her best friend had just died, how it felt like a little part of her was still with her somehow. She understands.

***

Their trek back to Jackson is done in silence. They’re both bleeding, and sore, and not in any mood to talk. They don’t stop for water, or sleep, only to change or tighten bandages, and soon enough, the fences surrounding the community of Jackson come into view.

To say she feels numb is an understatement.

She leaves for her house just as Jesse hands the wedding band to John’s screaming widow. Joel is nowhere to be found when she climbs the stairs up to her room and flops down on her mattress, not bothering to take off her clothes or her boots. She falls asleep immediately.

***

“Ellie.”

She opens her eyes to Dina’s worried face, and darkness surrounding them. When they had reached Jackson, it had been morning.

She must have headed here after making sure Jesse was okay.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she mumbles, pulling herself into a sitting position. There is blood in her bed, on her pillow, both new and old. Her head is pounding, and her face hurts, as does the rest of her body. There isn’t an inch of her that isn’t sore right now.

Dina nods and simply reaches her hand up to brush her fingers against her cheek. Ellie winces – this is where the Hunter’s fist made contact with her face. She can barely see out of that eye, and she knows for a fact her lip is busted. The wound reopened just by saying those seven words before. The rest of the skin from her face is covered in cuts and bruises from the shotgun blast, and she feels her hair is heavy with caked blood, both her own and the Hunter’s.

Dina brings back a bucket of warm water, a few rags, and proceeds to clean out the wounds methodically. The hardest is the one on her head where a patch of skin came off in their scuffle when he yanked on her ponytail, but Dina manages to get all the blood out of there anyway.

At some point, she hears Joel at the bottom of the stairs and she’s sure he’s going to come up, but he doesn’t, and she distinctly hears his footsteps walking away.

“You don’t have to tell me what happened,” she whispers when she’s done. The water in the small container is red now, as are the rags and her hands. “Just tell me how I can help.”

She almost tells her that she can’t. Almost.

Everytime she blinks, she sees the Hunter yank on her ponytail again, completely exposing her throat and rendering her basically helpless. She had been too vulnerable, and she’d be damned if she didn’t learn from her mistake.

“There is a pair of scissors in my dresser’s top drawer.”

***

Later that week, they hold a funeral service for the two dead members of their community in the old Church building. Jesse has his arm in a sling – turns out the Hunter that had attacked her had thrown his machete at him before pining her down, cutting deep into his shoulder. He would make a full recovery, but he had been lucky not to lose an arm.

She’s seated in one of the pews, between Joel – who insisted this was going to be her only outing of the year after that “stunt” her dumbass ha pulled -- and Dina, with Jesse seated on the older girl’s other side.

The tips of her hair, cut by Dina just over her shoulder and tied back into a low bun, brush against the nape of her neck in a still foreign fashion. No one would ever grab her like that again. Ever.

As Kenny’s daughter tries her best to get through her speech in honour of her dead dad, Ellie keeps seeing the man’s dead body, blue from the cold and blood loss, lying in a pool of frozen blood on the bare floor. Then it’s her own hand driving a knife into a man’s throat, and there is even more blood.

She snaps back to reality when she feels Dina’s fingers curl around her shaking hand. Her hand has been shaking with various levels of intensity whenever she thinks about the events of the past few days and she can’t help it. The older girl doesn’t shift her gaze from the eulogy or let go of Jesse’s good arm that she’s holding on to when she gives her hand a soft, reassuring squeeze.

Ellie reciprocates the touch, fingers intertwined between Dina’s. Thank you, she wants to say.

Dina lets go over her hand and it falls back into her lap.

It stopped shaking.

Chapter Text

Ellie should have seen this coming, really. One moment, Dina was chatting away, making plans to celebrate Ellie’s upcoming 17th birthday while the younger girl was trying her best to ignore her extravagant plans, and the next, there is an all-too-familiar screech behind her making her blood go cold.

“Ellie, watch out!” Dina yells out, and Ellie barely has time to duck before the Runner slams into where she had been standing just a fraction of a second before. It hits an old wardrobe – the kind that looks like a big, upright chest – and it comes crashing down on top of her.

Ellie swears under her breath as she feels the piece of furniture pin her to the floor, knocking the wind out of her lungs. The shelves are digging into her stomach and legs and she’s squirming as fast she can to get out of the unfortunate predicament. She’s vulnerable, unarmed, and temporarily blinded by the cloud of dust that materialized itself around her when over twenty years of accumulated grime fell upon her.

“It’s a simple scavenging trip, three hours tops. The building has already been cleared out by a patrol earlier today, it’s basically risk free” Tommy had said as he assigned Dina and Ellie to the tasks.

Risk-free, my ass.

She digs herself out enough to make out the Infected’s frame in front of her, between her and Dina, who’s looking at it with bewildered eyes, her gun hanging limply down her side – useless.

The infected turns to her, an easy prey that offers no resistance whatsoever. Only then does she notice something wrong about that Runner. It behaves exactly the same way any other Runner she has seen before does – erratically, violently, unpredictably – but something doesn’t feel right about this one. It’s not the right height, it’s a good two feet shorter than the average Infected and much tinier in bulk too.

“Ellie, it’s a little girl,” Dina hisses, eyes trained on the creature trying to regain its senses from the strength of the impact. It is wearing a torn, stained, polka-dotted dress, with only one Velcro sandal left attached on one of its feet, and, apart from the bloodshot eyes, blood-curling screams and rotten teeth, it looks every bit like a regular little girl.

“It’s a Runner!” Ellie reminds her, struggling to wiggle out of her predicament. “Just shoot it!”

Still, Dina doesn’t move, but the Runner does. It starts running toward Ellie, still having half the room to cross, and Ellie braces for the impact. “Dina!”

It never comes.

The gunshot echoes within the walls of the room instead, followed by the thud of a body hitting the floor.

Dina is standing in the exact same spot with her weapon raised at eye-level in a shaky hand.

On the floor, the dead Infected girl twitches a few times, a bullet lodged in its neck, and then stills. Ellie takes a closer look – she must’ve been only 7 or 8 when she turned, and recently too, by the state of her body and the outward signs of infection. How scared must that little girl have been when she realized she was losing control of her body, her own brain… She can’t imagine how terrifying it must’ve been for her.

She has never seen an Infected person that young, ever. Not with Joel, not since arriving in Jackson. It’s heartbreaking.

She feels the planks move and spots Dina digging her out of the rubble. “Thanks,” Ellie mumbles as her friend offers her hand to pull her to her feet. “Let’s go home before anymore of them show up, the gunshot probably attracted a whole bunch of those things.”

The two girls run most of the trip back to Jackson, silent except for quick commands and checks, running through mud fields and little creeks instead of going around them. They look like shit, and Tommy sends them straight home as soon as they deliver their haul – a half-empty unidentified pill bottle, three shotgun shells and a small bottle of rubbing alcohol.

“Do you mind if I take a shower at your place?” Ellie asks when they reach the familiar house that her friend calls home.

“Not if I get to shower first,” comes Dina’s reply. She’s already halfway to her bathroom, flinging her shirt over her head and somewhere behind her couch.

“Deal,” Ellie replies, closing the front door behind her at the same time as Dina slams hers shut. She’s careful of taking her shoes off before she can drag mud all over the house.

The water starts running and Ellie sits cross-legged on the mat by the door, not daring to touch anything with her muddy, dusty and, quite frankly, smelly clothes.

Dina has done a nice job decorating her place with rugs and carpets and colourful drapes framing her windows. It feels homey, and Dina, Jesse, Simon, Lily and herself found themselves spending more and more of their time here instead of anywhere else, especially Jesse, who basically moved in, and Ellie, who preferred Dina’s company to Joel’s silent grumpy one by a long-shot most of the time.

She doesn’t see Jesse’s boots anywhere near the door – usually, she’ll trip over them at least once every time she comes over. Where the hell is he anyway? Oh, right, he’s pulling a double shift on watchtower 3 tonight.

It takes her legs falling asleep under her weight for Ellie to realize Dina has been in the bathroom with the water running for an unusually long time. “Dina? You okay in there?”

Her calls go unanswered – there is no sound coming from the other side of the door except for the sound of the running water from the shower.

“Dina!” She knocks on the door a few more times, more insistent now. Still radio-silence from the other side. “Dina!”

Maybe she fell. Maybe she’s unconscious. Maybe she doesn’t hear you over the sounds of the water?

“Dina, if you don’t answer I’m going to come in!” Ellie shouts, pounding on the door now. “Oh, screw this.”

She pushes the door just enough so she can peek her head around it. While she expected the room to be foggy – she knows how much Dina enjoys hot showers, especially after a three-day patrol in the cold Wyoming wilderness in the middle of February – it is just the way she’d expect to find it if it was unoccupied, running water notwithstanding. There is no condensation on the mirror above the sink, indicating that it is not a hot shower Dina is taking.

Dina never takes cold showers.

“Dina?” Ellie asks again. She takes a hesitant step onto the tiled floor of the bathroom, her whole body tensed, then another, and another, until she’s standing next to the shower curtain with her fingers curled around the edge. Her heart is pounding against her chest. “Dina, come on. If you’re messing with me, it’s a really awful prank.”

Ellie pulls the curtain back.

Dina is seated on the bare floor of her tub-shower combo, her knees pressed against her chest and her arms wrapped around them. The stream of water coming from the showerhead is falling on top of her head and her hair is clinging to her skin like dark colored snakes. She’s shaking, and Ellie can just make out the faintest hint of goosebumps on her arms and legs, and along her neck, and down where her ribs meet the curves of her…

Williams, you fucking perv, get a grip.  

“Dina?” she asks, as slow and low as humanly possible, her cheeks burning.

Her head snaps up suddenly, and the only thing Ellie sees in them is absolute terror, unlike anything she’s ever seen before. “I killed her,” Dina whispers. Ellie doesn’t think it is meant for her as much as it is a statement that she is repeating to herself. “I killed a little girl.”

Her eyes, wide with panic, are staring at the tile wall, ignoring her like Ellie didn’t just peek around the shower curtain while she was inside it. Her breaths are short and quick, and her whole body is shaking.

Fuck it.

Ellie steps inside the shower, the blast of freezing cold water shocking her as it hits her back. She crouches in front of her friend and even though she is physically between Dina and the spot she had been staring at, it’s like she isn’t here. Her friend is staring right through her.

“I killed her. She came at you, and I shot her. I shot a kid. I shot a fucking kid.”

“Ellie.” The voice sounds muffled, from another room almost. Certainly not close to her in any way. “Ellie, look at me.”

Joel holds her shaking hands between his, and she sees the campfire, and her panicked face reflected in his eyes. She sees his hands on hers, but it doesn’t seem real, she can’t feel them. What she does feel is the machete handle gripped tight between her fingers, becoming slick with blood and her hands slipping ever closer to the blade with every hit. The blade cuts her palms and fingers, she can physically feel the skin splitting open. She feels every impact of the weapon against his face, bones crushing under the blade, every drop of blood splattering her skin and mixing with her own rage-and-fear-fueled tears.

“Ellie, look at me. Listen to my voice. You’re safe. David’s dead. We’re not in Colorado anymore.”

Gradually, she’s slipping back into reality, and the feeling of blood on her hands becomes more distant as the feeling of Joel’s calloused hands on hers becomes real.

“You’re safe, now, baby girl.”

It doesn’t feel like it in the slightest.  

The water hammers down her back, painfully reminding her of the fresh bruises that cover her skin there, but at least it is shielding most of Dina’s face from the assault of little droplets.

“Dina, are you having a panic attack?”

She sits with her legs folded under her, never taking her eyes off Dina – close enough to touch her if she wants to, but far enough not to startle her.

Although Ellie is blocking most of it with her back, the water is still falling over both of them and the drops are trickling down Dina’s skin, down where Ellie makes a superhuman effort not to look. “I.. I don’t know,” Dina stammers. Her breathing gets even more erratic, but now her eyes are trained on hers instead of staring into space.

“Have you ever felt like this before?” Dina shakes her head no at Ellie’s question. Some of what she thought were drops of water rolling down her cheeks are actually tears, the younger girl notices once she scoots a little closer to her.

“Tell me what you need,” Ellie says, inching just a little closer to her once more, within reach if Dina needs it. She’s not going to get any closer before the other girl makes a move, or gives her a sign, or something. Her being here, in her shower, while she is showering, is probably enough uninvited invasion of privacy for the rest of their lives.

“I don’t know. Ellie, I can’t make it go away, she’s going to come back for us… I, I don’t…” she trails off, her voice shaky.

“Okay, just… focus on breathing. In and out,” Ellie stammers. Helping someone with a physically demanding task, or even shooting down a Runner as it is about to sink its teeth into someone, that’s something she can do. Apparently, helping someone deal with things she cannot see – things that don’t exist for her – isn’t part of her skillset.

She exaggerates her own breathing, taking deep and slow breaths that Dina can follow. “I know you’re scared now, but it’ll go away. I promise.”

“What if it doesn’t?” Dina manages to ask. Her nails are digging into the skin of her knees where she is gripping them too tight. She knows it is pointless to try to pry them away while Dina is this wound up. “I just keep seeing her coming at you, and I don’t want to shoot her, but I have to, but….”

“Okay, okay,” Ellie stops her from spiralling even deeper into her own panic. “You made the right call, it was her or me. You had no choice.” Dina shows no change of behaviour whatsoever. You’re way better at going through a panic attack than you are at helping someone through one.

“It’s okay. It’s okay to feel scared, but there is no danger here right now,” Ellie reassures her as best as she can, putting her hands over hers like Joel’s done to her before, hoping it’ll bring her focus back to the present, and not the horrible reality her brain is subjecting her to. “It’s just you and me. No one else.”

“I don’t know what’s real anymore.” She sees Dina’s fingers loosen ever-so-slightly around her knees, and she takes advantage of that brief moment to lace her fingers through hers, giving Dina’s hands a soft squeeze.

“That’s okay. Let’s try something. Name five things you can see.”

“What?”

“It can be anything, anything you can see, right now, right here.”

There is a moment of silence and Ellie fears she’ll have to resort to something else to calm Dina down, but the older girl stars naming things in a quiet, almost imperceptible voice. “I see the bar of soap,” she starts. “Shampoo. The curtain. The towel. The drain.”

“Great,” Ellie continues. “Now, name four things you can feel.”

“The tiles. The water. The cold. My hair.”

“Good. Three things you can hear.”

“The water hitting the shower curtain. The fan… Your voice.”

“Keep going, you’re doing great. Two things you can smell.”

“Flowers. Mud.”

Ellie’s shirt was soaked in mud, since she hadn’t yet changed out of her patrol clothes before jumping in the shower, and the wet fabric only enhances the swampy smell emanating from her.  

“One thing you can taste.”

Dina’s voice is quiet when she answers. “Salt.”

Her own tears.

“You’re doing great, I’m so proud of you. Can you try breathing again? Slow breaths, that’s it. You’re doing so good, just focus on right now.”

“I can’t breathe,” Dina wheezes.

“Can you focus on one thing?” Dina shakes her head no at Ellie’s question.

What the hell do I do now?

She thinks back to a time not too far away, when Joel had asked her to count the windows on the façade of an old hotel, to distract her. It had worked, after a while, and her attack had subsided not too long after. But there are no windows inside the shower of Dina’s bathroom, and the only visible thing she can count would be the tiles on the wall, but they’re so big she’d be done in seconds…

Ellie brings one of Dina’s hand to her own chest in a last-ditch effort, over the spot where her too-fast heartbeat is erratically trying to pound its way out of her ribcage, trying her best to ignore the way her stomach flutters when the tips of Dina’s fingers brush against her exposed collarbone. “Then just… count. Count my heartbeats.”

Ellie doesn’t know how long it takes for Dina to stop breathing so heavily, but eventually she calms down enough to stop digging her nails into her right palm, still holding her, and when her friend finally locks eyes with her, it’s like she’s seeing her for the first time since Ellie barged in her shower.

Her features are weary, and Ellie can tell how tired Dina is just by the way the shaking in her limbs changed from terrified to exhausted. Ellie finally exhales a breath she didn’t know she had been holding in that whole time, and only then did it finally dawn on her just how impossibly close they have become, how by pulling Dina’s hand all the way to her chest to count her heartbeats, had revealed even more naked skin to her than she had seen in the first place. Her knees are no longer being held against her chest, and her eyes wander down for the briefest second.

Ellie’s cheeks burn and her eyes snap back up to Dina’s face, where it is safe to look. “Do you want me to go?” she mumbles, cheeks red and hot in contrast to the cold water still hitting her back mercilessly. It’s so numb now from the freezing temperature that she can’t feel the pain of her bruises being beaten by a steady stream of droplets anymore.

“Not yet.”

Dina pulls her in to wrap her arms around her and Ellie breathes in the scent of the flowery shampoo that she hasn’t quite washed out of her hair yet as the older girl nestles her head against her shoulder.

Ellie is torn between holding her as close and as tight as possible and trying to hold the naked girl at a distance before she goes absolutely insane.

Dina’s arms are wrapped tightly around Ellie’s neck, her face pressed against Ellie’s shoulder, and Ellie does her best to rub the shivering girl’s back to bring some warmth back to the cold, soft skin. She’s all-too aware of Dina’s body pressing into her, of the way her skin feels soft under her hands and exactly how easy it would be for her eyes to wander right now. She keeps them shut.

They end up staying like this for what seems like both an eternity and the fraction of an instant, before Dina breaks their embrace and Ellie ducks out of the shower, cold and wet and straining against her now water-heavy clothes.

“Do you mind if I borrow some clothes before going home?” Ellie asks, purposely looking down at her feet to give Dina some sort of privacy as she wraps her towel around her body.

“Sure.”

Ellie steps out of the bathroom to end up face to face with Mona, Dina’s mom, standing in the middle of the living room with a bowl of what looks to be some sort of stew cradled against her chest. It always startles Ellie whenever she comes face-to-face with the middle-aged version of Dina – they’re so physically similar it is almost scary, but where Dina is bubbly and friendly and affectionate, her mother is distant and cold. At least in Ellie’s experience.

Her eyes travel from Ellie’s drenched clothes, dripping all over the carpet, and then stop somewhere behind the 16-year-old – Ellie doesn’t have to turn around to know Dina is behind her, only clad in a simple white towel. The older woman’s eyes flicker to the couch, where her daughter’s trademark black long-sleeved shirt lays discarded on the floor beside it.

“Ellie.”

She also doesn’t need to have mind-reading abilities to know what Mona is thinking right about now. Her pursed lips and the scathing look she throws her way are enough to let her know it is time to abandon ship before it sinks, or in this case, before she gets dragged into an argument she has no intention of participating in. The woman’s dislike of her and her “bad influence” on her daughter are widely known around Jackson – she seems incapable of accepting that her 18-year-old girl can make questionable choices all on her own with no help whatsoever. If she only knew how many times it was Dina dragging Ellie along to take part in whatever stupid activity her mind had cooked up…

After seeing her come out of the bathroom while her daughter was getting out of the shower, it was highly unlikely that her opinion of the tattooed and hardened teenaged girl would change any time soon.

“Mona,” Ellie greets, not expecting an answer back, flying by her and grabbing her shoes on her way out the door, all thoughts of borrowing clothes left behind in that bathroom. She doesn’t stop to put them on before stepping out into the snow-covered streets, running the whole way home in the freezing February night.

***

When she finally makes it home, after what seems to her like a never-ending walk, she still hasn’t been able to shake the image of a very wet and naked Dina.

She’s your best friend.

The water, dripping down her face, along her neck, past her shoulders and…

She was having a panic attack.

Her own drenched clothes clinging to her like a second skin, Dina hugging her, her body pressed against hers leaving no curves, no edges to the imagination, separated only by the soaked fabric of her t-shirt and by god does she want that out of the way…

This was just a friend helping a friend out, nothing more.

Dina’s mom staring at her like it was possible to burn someone alive by just looking at them, outraged by what she though had happened in that bathroom.

I fucking wish something would have happened… No! She’s not into you like that. Don’t put yourself through this.

Ellie doesn’t even bother to take her shoes off as she swings the front door open, making Joel jump up from where he was snoozing on the couch. “Good God, Ellie, where’s the fire?” She sees Joel looking at her from the corner of her eyes. “And why the hell are you wet? It’s goddamn freezing outside!”

She answers none of his questions, all her brain power focused on keeping the images from earlier from overtaking her, and locks herself in the bathroom, basically jumping out of her wet and cold clothes and into the shower, shutting the glass door behind her with way more force than necessary.

The scalding water raining down on her head helps a little, warming her up slowly. The tiles in front of her are cold and wet under her hands and in the blink of an eye, it’s not the shampoo rack that stands between her and the wall, but Dina. Soaked, naked, beautiful Dina.

Ellie closes her eyes, thinking it might help drive the fantasy away. It doesn’t. It makes it worse – or, you know, better.

Now she’s seeing her again, intense chocolate brown eyes looking up at her, little droplets of water running down her face, along her cheekbones, getting stuck on her lips before falling and Ellie just wants to catch them as they fall… or, you know, before they fall off… with her own lips.

“Stop it,” Ellie mumbles to herself. “Don’t go there, dude.”

She opens her eyes again, but it is no use. Opened or closed, her eyes keep seeing her, all of her – pinned between her own body and the wall, with that water still running wild along her skin, imagines her fingertips brushing against her breasts, down along her stomach, even further down…   

She presses her forehead to the cold tiles of the shower. Part of her is doing it to cool her heated skin, but an even bigger part is doing it to convince her stupid brain that she’s completely alone in the shower.

 “Just give in” the imaginary Dina in her head whispers in her ear, goosebumps appearing on her skin at the mere idea of the imaginary scenario taking place. “No one has to know – I’m not even real.”

Ellie feels warm all over, warm and tingly in places that have no business feeling like this at the thought of her best friend. Her fingernails dig into her palms from her fists bunching together to keep her hands from brushing against herself – she knows if she does that, her stupid, hormone-filled brain will pretend it is Dina’s exploring her body, not hers.

The more she tries to push the fantasy away, the more the fake Dina her brain made up insists, leaning up to whisper tantalizing things in her ear, things that make her heart skip a beat and her blood rush to her cheeks, neck and chest in embarrassment. The creation of her mind presses herself flush against her body, and she can almost feel the way Dina’s soft skin would feel against her scar-covered own.

This isn’t real. You’re only thinking of her like this because you just saw her naked. This doesn’t mean shit.

Ellie looks up at the showerhead, shakily breathing out. Her hands drop from their place against the wall, hanging lifelessly at her sides, not daring to go anywhere else.

You helped me feel better,” the imaginary Dina whispers, her voice low and teasing. “Let me return the favour, make you feel good.”

Ellie’s fingers lock behind her neck as she closes her eyes, holds her breath and lets the water cascade down her face. She’s painfully aware of the droplets running down her skin, and of the fact that she semi-unconsciously shifted her body so the stream of water massages her in a more… intimate way then before.

“Let this happen, Freckles.”

She feels fingers brush against her breasts, then down along her stomach and then tracing the contour of her hipbones. She realizes they’re hers.

“Sweet Fuck,” she exhales as she desperately tries to convince herself to keep her hands still, her voice almost a growl, barely audible with the rushing sound of the water around her.

Ellie stops fighting it.

She can feel her face burn when she finally leaves the bathroom, a while later, wrapped in layers upon layers of towels as if it would hide her from Joel’s sight. It doesn’t and Ellie can tell by the way he pointedly refuses to make eye-contact that he has at least some notion of what went on in that bathroom only minutes ago. Never in her life has she been less grateful for his abnormally good hearing.

Ellie always thought she was a quiet girl when it came to doing that – sleeping in bunkbeds, back in Boston, with at least one roommate and paper-thin walls, meant having to be discreet if she wanted to avoid being teased endlessly by her classmates. Since her room in Jackson is just above Joel’s, she always did her best to avoid making any noise at all on the rare occasions she felt like doing a little more than flipping through the pages of the old Playboy magazines she had found in one the cardboard boxes that had been left in their shed by the original occupants.  

By the looks of things, she hadn’t been as quiet this time as she usually was so careful to be. 

She doesn’t touch more than two of the steps leading up to her room in her eagerness to escape the most awkward situation she has ever been in, by far. 

Later that night, when she is so close to falling asleep, she hears her window slide open, hears light footsteps approaching carefully, accompanied by a familiar flowery scent she knows all too well. She’s too sleepy to protest when she feels Dina’s body slide under the covers and seek warmth against her.

“I don’t want to be alone tonight,” Dina whispers in the dark, her breath tickling Ellie’s cheek. She feels the warmth of a naked thigh against her own and her eyes snap open, heart racing as her mind goes into overdrive.

She can’t keep the images of hers and Dina’s – the fake one, obviously – activities in the shower from intruding back into her head. She feels her cheeks burn at the thought of Dina, the real Dina, so close to her, barely dressed, pressing her body against hers with absolutely no idea that Ellie had been touching herself to a very similar scenario not too long before. Her cheeks burn in shame and her heart races. She’s fully awake now.

“Thank you. For everything.”

“It was nothing,” Ellie mumbles. If you knew what I’ve done after that, you wouldn’t be thanking me.

Dina wraps one of her legs around hers, setting her head down on Ellie’s shoulder and swinging her arm over her, her hand resting against her collarbone and her fingers searching behind the collar of her shirt for the metal chain holding Riley’s tags. She plays with them absentmindedly, rolling them between her fingers, brushing her thumb on the engraved surface bearing the name Riley Abel, followed by the number 00129. She never asked Ellie about Riley anymore, not after the younger girl’s sharp response of “I don’t want to talk about it” after one too many curious questions. On some level, she’s sure her friend knows that when she feels like sharing her memories of her dead friend, she’ll be the first to know, but for now, it’s easier not to share anything – because that would mean having to explain why she’s not alive anymore.

Ellie looks over Dina’s head to her dresser, where her friend’s pants, boots, coat and sweater have been haphazardly strewn over the array of comic books, drawings and folded clothes. She feels hot skin on hers, soft skin, burning through the material of her pajama pants and oversized sleeping t-shirt.

“How did you know what to say?”

Ellie stares at the ceiling, trying her best not to think of the way Dina’s forearm is resting on her chest, of the way every brush of her fingers against her skin as she plays with the necklace makes her feel like she’s on fire, or how her breath tickles her ear and sends shivers down her spine much like she fantasized it would, earlier.

“That’s what Joel used to say, when I had one. More or less.” She doesn’t like to reflect on those dark moments when nothing made sense to her anymore than she absolutely has to. Dina is still looking at her with expectant eyes, her answer apparently unsatisfying. “I didn’t have a lot of them, maybe three or four, two winters ago, and none since then. Everytime, it would take something different to get me through it – sometimes he’d have me count things, have me tell him my favorite memory when I was a little kid, or just describe what was around me… whatever worked at the moment.”

“How did yours feel?”

She ponders the question. “Like I was about to die,” Ellie whispers in answer, remembering the way her heart would hammer against her chest so hard she thought she was having a heart attack, how the pressure would build up within her skull to the point where she thought her head would implode or that she’d turn deaf forever… Mostly, she remembers how she felt like the world was about to end.

Dina nestles her face into the crook of her neck and presses the rest of her body along Ellie’s side – she’s sure the older girl can feel her heart skipping a beat at the sudden movement, or at least hear the hitch in her breath. If she does, she doesn’t show any indication of it, not when she first snuggles against her and not when Ellie caves in and wraps her arms around Dina’s waist. She can feel warm soft skin under her fingers where her top rode up her hips, and she’s just itching to sneak her hands under the fabric to find out if all of her is equally enjoyable to the touch.

It doesn’t take long for Dina to fall asleep, obvious to the internal battle taking place next to her, her breathing deepening and a slight snoring sound making its way to Ellie’s ears.

It’s not possible to get a crush on your best friend… not twice, especially not with two different best friends.

But even as she thinks it, prays to whatever powerful deity might or might not be listening, she knows it is no use. Although it feels similar to what she felt with Riley, back when she realized she meant more to her than just a friend, it also feels different. This is more intense than anything she has felt before, it’s all consuming and she doesn’t know how she’ll ever think of anything else but Dina.

She’s falling for her best friend, hard. Again. “I’m so screwed,” she whispers to herself in the darkness, careful not to wake the snoring girl beside her. “I’m so royally screwed.”

Chapter Text

“So you’re telling me,” Dina starts, her feet propped up on Ellie’s mattress, “that you’ve never seen a movie. In 16 years.”

She’s staring at Ellie from her spot on the floor, her head resting on one of Ellie’s balled-up flannel shirts that had been laying on the floor for God-only-knew how long before it had been repurposed as a makeshift pillow. For once, her hair is loose, and it forms a halo of dark brown curls around her face. Dina almost never lets it loose, only when she is indoors and has absolutely nothing on her agenda for the rest of the day, which is the case now. “That nest of hair can and will attract wildlife, do you really want people to start calling me bird lady?” Ellie remembers her saying when she had asked her why she always pulled her hair up whenever she went outside, though she has to admit that the mental image of Dina with a flock of birds flying around her is hilarious in itself.

“I’ve seen movies,” Ellie argues, mockingly outraged. Dina raises a disbelieving eyebrow at her. “Okay, I’ve seen parts of some movies, never was around for the full thing, but it counts!”

Dina leans up on her elbows to get a better look at Ellie, involuntarily giving the younger girl a plunging view down the front of her shirt, which is already way too loose for Ellie’s peace of mind anyway. If the older girl noticed the quick glance down at her breasts, she thankfully doesn’t comment on it – Ellie would probably spontaneously combust if she ever noticed.

It’s been harder and harder to stop thinking about Dina ever since what Ellie had come to call the Shower Incident. By allowing her brain to imagine Dina’s hands on her body as she had been pleasuring herself in the – very – relative intimacy of her own shower, Ellie had hoped that it would help get the images of her naked friend out of her head long enough for her to regain some of her senses, at least. It did quite the opposite, actually – instead of harnessing the fantasies running wild within her imagination, it was like a she had opened a gate that she was unable to close now. Fucking hormones, man. That’s all this is. Fucking hell.

In the time it took for Ellie to somewhat shake the image of Dina’s cleavage out of her head – and the subsequent memories of actually, unwillingly, catching a glimpse of it – she has climbed up on the bed and stolen Ellie’s comic out of her hands. Not that she had put up much of a fight to keep it within her grasp, really.

She throws it behind her, somewhere close to her dresser, and leans over Ellie’s still form. “What do you mean?”

“What?” Ellie’s throat feels unusually dry, she’s painfully aware of the walls behind her and on her right side stopping her retreat and of Dina’s hands on the mattress on each side of her hips. She’s so close she can feel the tickle of her breath against the skin of her cheek everytime she exhales, the warmth radiating from her body like it isn’t still bloody freezing outside still.

And her brain is as non-functional as it can be without actually being dead.

“The movies, dumbass. What do you mean, you’ve only seen parts of movies?” Dina continues, unshaken by the whole situation. Ellie wonders how she can be so comfortable being so close to people while she just wants to sink deeper into the mattress.

The words tumble out of Ellie’s mouth as if Dina had just broken the dam holding back her words and sentences. “Back in Boston, the staff at the military school used to hold these movie nights, or whatever they called it, and they’d haul up all the kids into the yard and project it on the widest wall of the building. Always ended up being barred from going for one reason or another, mostly shit the people in charge made up because I pissed off someone I shouldn’t have or punched some annoying kid, so I had to sneak in to see anything. They’d always catch me, though, and I’d get locked in my room until the next morning.”

“That’s awful,” Dina breathes out. “Tell you what, how about we watch one together? There’s some old tapes in the old church basement, and I’m pretty sure there’s something to play them on somewhere in this town.”

“Do you even know how those work?”

“No, but I’m sure my mom does, or Joel… I’m sure we don’t need to be scientists to figure it out.” Dina’s eyebrow is raised as it always is when she’s teasing someone, and her eyes are trained on Ellie’s, waiting for an answer that’s stuck somewhere between the younger girl’s brain and her mouth. “

“I could ask Chuck, seems like the type of shit he’d know about,” she mumbles, almost to herself, but it doesn’t go unnoticed by Dina. The beaming smile she gives her makes her stomach do fucking somersaults, or makes her feel like there’s butterflies fluttering about in her chest, or whatever. She isn’t sure what she feels, but it sure as hell isn’t the way she used to feel whenever she made Dina smile like that. Not before, anyway.

“So it’s a date, Freckles?”

Ellie almost chokes on thin air at the suggestions. Figure of speech, dumbass. Not an actual date. Get a fucking hold of yourself. Ellie is just about to answer, having finally managed to regain the use of her tongue, when a light tap on the window makes her jump out of her own skin and painfully bump her forehead against Dina’s.

“What the actual fuck! Simon?”

Of course, no one bothers to use the goddamned front door like normal people, especially not the goofy idiot currently precariously perched atop the windowsill trying not to fall into the bushes below as he tries – and spectacularly fails – to figure out how to open the window from the outside. She imagines her friends’ reluctance to enter her house in a conventional way has nothing to do with the usual customs of entering other people’s residences, and everything to do with the perpetually grumpy man also living there.

Dina bounces to her feet quicker than Ellie can calm her thundering heart, almost cat-like in her movements, more graceful in simply getting off of her bed than Ellie could ever hope to be on her best day. It isn’t exactly warm in her room – she blames the tiny gap where the window doesn’t shut all the way anymore – but she knows her body should not be feeling this cold at the loss of the girl who had been radiating heat above her barely a second ago.

She slides the windowpane up, letting the blonde-haired teenager hanging on for dear life to the windowsill stumble inside with a thud.

Fuck. So much for not waking up Joel. If Dina’s near-constant chatter hadn’t managed to rise him from his slumber, the falling body hitting the floor right above his head certainly had.

Simon bounces off the ground and brushes off his pants, grinning from ear to ear. He’s wearing his favourite, terrible flowery snap-button red and orange shirt, with only the two lowest buttons snapped. He is bare-chested underneath, like it isn’t bloody freezing outside still. “You ladies having a sleep-over without me? How rude of you.”

Ellie rolls her eyes at her friend’s antics, and choice of attire, sinking even deeper into the mattress, while Dina chuckles quietly next to Simon.

“Weren’t you having a sleep-over of your own already?” Dina teases. The raised eyebrow is back, ridges appearing on her forehead and the corner of her lips curling up into the barest hint of a smirk.

Simon rubs the back of his neck nervously before answering. “Let’s just say that Lily’s dad had evening plans that did not involve me.”

“Sucks to be you,” Ellie chimes in, “but what the hell are you doing here in the middle of the night?”

“Always the polite hostess, I see.”

“Fuck you, you almost gave me a heart-attack in my own house. You’re lucky I didn’t push you out of that window.”

Ellie knows her threat isn’t taken seriously by either of her improvised guests.

“You know I would have come back as a ghost to haunt you for eternity,” Simon smiles, sitting cross-legged on the rug beside her bed. “I’m just waiting here for their movie to end and then I’m going back over… Hopefully it’ll be worth the delay.”

Simon wiggles his eyebrows in what he no doubt intended to be a suggestive way, but his goofy smile and general awkwardness make it come across as more of a joke than anything else.

“That’s enough Simon for one night,” Dina declares, swinging a leg out of the still open window. “Jesse should be home by now, anyway.”

Home.

It wasn’t a secret to anyone in Jackson that the two of them spent more time together than apart, these days, only spending time on their own when their respective assignments required it. Most days, they could be found gravitating around the other, or touching in some way, whether it was Jesse’s fingers brushing against Dina’s thigh as they were listening to Leonard’s dispatch of additional tasks to be accomplished during the week, or Dina leaning against his chest at bonfires, or just holding hands as they walked about the town. They made a cute couple.

It also escaped none of the gossiping hens in the settlement that no one had been seen leaving or entering the house that Jesse occupied in weeks, the residence staying dark and still as ever.

Neither of them had said anything about it, but Ellie knew. Jesse was at Dina’s house all the time now, and a bunch of his stuff had appeared in various spots as if overnight. If she’d had to guess, she thought he had moved in just after the whole shower ordeal, back in February.

She was happy for them, really, so she didn’t understand the sudden urge to ask Dina to stay the night instead of going back to her boyfriend.

What the hell is going with you, Williams?

“Dina?”

The words had slipped out of her mouth before she could hold them back – or even figure out the words that would follow her name, for that matter. The older girl turns around, one leg out of the window and her hands pulling her hair into its usual bun before escaping into the night. With her arms up like this, her shirt was riding up her hips, exposing her skin up to her bellybutton and making Ellie lose whatever train of thought she had had before. “Yeah, Freckles?”

Ellie blinks herself back into the present. Dina is looking at her expectedly, moving to grab her jacket in one hand and hang on to the exterior side of the house with the other.

“Be safe.”

Dina cocks her head to the side in disbelief. “What are you, my mom?”

Ellie chucks one of her socks at her from across the room in annoyance, but her smile betrays her. “Screw you, I hope you fall and break your leg on the way down.”

Dina blows her a kiss and winks as she slips and closes the window behind her. “That’s more like it,” the older girl whispers as it slides shut, and then she disappears into the night.

Her eyes are still trained on the now-shut window when Simon groans loudly from his spot on the floor. “The hell’s wrong with you now?”

He motions toward the window with his head. “She’s going to have so much more sex than me tonight,” he laments, and Ellie doesn’t know what to reply to that. Taking her silence as confusion, Simon carries on. “Jesse’s been on patrol for like, a week and a half, you know she’s so going to jump his bones the second she gets home. She’ll probably wait for him to take a shower though. Or maybe, they’ll do it in the shower!”

I get it,” Ellie hisses, cutting him off before he can. “No need to paint me a picture.”

Shower… Nope, not the time to remember that. Ellie shakes her head – she doesn’t think there will ever be a right time to remember that.

“Aren’t you curious though? He’s always so serious and moody, I bet he’s…”

He’s speaking louder now, excited as he is to be annoying her, and he never sees her remaining sock fly toward his face until it hit him square in the nose.

“Oh my sweet lord, Ellie, your feet stink!”

“Would you shut the fuck up? Joel will hear your stupid ass. Hell, Lily’s dad will hear you from across the street if you keep this up!”

Simon pays no mind to her warnings, choosing instead to pretend to suffocate from the smell of her socks – admittedly, spending the day with her feet in puddles of water did nothing to help her case.

He is in the process of pretending to choke to death, kicking his legs and fake thrashing around, when his foot hits something under her bed and he stills. “What’s that, a box? What are you hiding under your bed, Ellie?”

He reaches under the bedframe and pulls out the old, worn-out carboard box that she had found months ago in the toolshed behind their house. She can feel the heat spreading to her whole face as she realizes he intends to open the box, and she remembers what it contains.

“Don’t you dare! Simon!”

The words come out more like a squeal than the intimidating growl that she intended, but it only spurs Simon on further. He flips the lid off the box, yelping as he ducks to avoid Ellie’s fist connecting with his face. “Ellie, you naughty, naughty girl!”

“Give that back!”

“Okay!” He throws the first magazine in her face, the front-page image of a very minimally dressed woman in an equally suggestive position hitting her forehead. If she wasn’t so mortified, she’d laugh at the insanity of the whole situation.

Simon takes the second one and flips through it, whistling appreciatively at the sight before him. “Which one’s your favourite? I like this one!”

“I will strangle you, you dick!”

“Shhhh, your old man will hear you.”

She pounces on Simon, the box of dirty magazines he had been holding tipping over and spilling its content all over the floor. The more he laughs at her attempts to wrestle the one magazine he has rolled-up in one hand, arm extended to keep it out of her reach, the more furious she becomes, and soon enough, she has him pinned under her, one leg on either side of his hips, straddling him to keep Simon in place. He’s still holding the collar of her shirt to keep her at a distance when the door to her bedroom flies open and crashes against the wall with a deafening sound.

Her head snaps up so fast she fears she might have permanently damaged her neck.

Scratch that. She fears Joel’s stare will burn a hole through Simon.

Ellie glances down at Simon’s frozen form, still trapped under her. At some point during their scuffle, the last snap-buttons came undone on his shirt, and it hangs loosely on either side of his chest.

Oh, fucking hell.

She knows what this must look like to Joel – their faces are flushed, his shirt is undone, her hands are on his chest and his hand is tugging at the collar of her t-shirt. There’s also the tapestry of dirty magazines littering the floor to add to the picture, which she is sure isn’t a pretty one.

“Best be on your way, kid.”

Simon scrambles to his feet and Ellie is unceremoniously thrown to the ground as he rises. “Joel, this isn’t what it looks like, we…”

Joel shoots her a look and she closes her mouth. No point in trying to convince him of the truth now, not when he was this closed off.

Behind her, Simon is fumbling with the latch on the window, his shirt still flying about. “For fuck’s sake, just use the front door already,” Joel hisses through clenched teeth. “I already know you’re here.”

“Mr. Miller, I…” Simon mumbles as he passes him by, Joel making no move to step aside so he has to flatten himself against the wall to go through the doorway.

“You’re lucky I didn’t shoot you, don’t push that luck.”

“Joel!”

Simon bolts down the stairs. “Goodnight, then,” he shouts on his way out.

For a while, they just stare each other down, Ellie sitting on the bare floor amongst the array of magazines – no point in hiding them now – and Joel standing motionless in the doorway.

“Did you have to be such a dick to him?” she finally asks. She rises from the floor to sit on her bed instead.

Joel raises his eyebrows. “To the guy sneaking into my house in the middle of the night?”

“It’s like, 9, old man.”

“I’m sorry, is this a discussion of the right hour to have boys climb up the window up to your room?”

“We were just…” Ellie starts, but Joel cuts her off before she can finish her sentence.

“I don’t want to know about what you were doing!”

“We weren’t doing anything!”

“Don’t give two shits about it either way!”

Joel seems to realize they are screaming and he takes a deep breath, his eyes just slightly rolling back into their sockets in annoyance. He’s dressed, but she can tell he threw something on hastily, and probably in the dark too. His feet are bare, and the pages of the magazines stick to one of his heels when he walks over to her desk chair.

“I thought he was seeing the girl across the street,” Joel finally grumbles. His eyes glance down at the issue he stepped on and glances back up just as quickly, looking as uneasy as Ellie has ever seen him.

She fidgets with the chain on her neck, a habit of hers when she’s confronted with uncomfortable situations, almost like touching Riley’s tags reassures her, as weird as it may seem.

“He is. This,” she gestures to the general state of the room, “is not what it looks like. I promise.”

Joel looks at her, silent, his equivalent of a demand to continue her explanation.

“He found the magazines under my bed,” Ellie shrugs. This is the only explanation she gives, and it really is a testimony of how far they’ve come that he nods, almost imperceptibly. He doesn’t need her to say it to understand that she had been fighting with him.

Joel clears his throat. “Good,” he starts, and then his gaze flickers back to the open magazines at his feet and he clears his throat once more. “Thought I’d escape this conversation if I never brought it up, but I guess it wouldn’t be right to hide under a rock forever.”

Ellie’s heart skips a beat. Oh no.

“I realise you probably never talked about this, and believe me I don’t want to do this, but, you know… You’re 16 now, and it’s normal to get curious.”

Oh no.

“I know you kissed what’s-his-name,” he starts, and she can see him fidgeting with one of the nails that lay discarded on their kitchen table – more of a storage surface than dining area, if she was being totally honest. Every word that comes out of his mouth looks like it physically pains him.

“Simon,” Ellie provides. Now would have been a great time to shut up, dumbass.

“I don’t give two shits what his name is,” Joel interrupts, his face as red as a ripe tomato. “And I can’t say I’m happy about it, but you can’t stay a kid forever and…”

“I was 14 when we met each other, I don’t think I qualified as a kid even then,” Ellie mumbles, eyes downcast and cheeks burning. Just because she doesn’t dare to look him in the eye as he speaks doesn’t mean he stops his speech.

“Like I said, a kid. And would you shut up? Faster I can get it out of the way, faster we can go our own way and pretend this conversation didn’t happen.”

“Or we could just not have this conversation at all.”

Joel scoffs. “We’re talking about this.” Joel stops for a moment, thinking.” No, better yet, I do the talking, and you do the listening.”

His words tumble out of his mouth at an alarming rate, as if he was in a hurry to get this over with.

Ellie throws herself on her bed, face down into her pillow, and groans. “Just kill me now.”

She doesn’t see him anymore, and that helps forget them embarrassment for a little while. His silence also helps.

Man, Dina would laugh at her until she turned blue if she saw them right now.

Joel reluctantly throws himself into a straight-to-the-point explanation, almost clinical in its descriptions of human reproduction. Ellie lets him talk, though she is mortified beyond belief by the whole situation and keeps her head firmly pressed into her pillow. This is nothing new, but hearing it come from Joel makes her cringe.

“If it had been before the outbreak, I’d have told you to keep condoms around – boys really can’t be trusted to think with anything other than their dick, better think for them – but… you know. Better than nothing if you manage to find some, anyway.”

He quiets and, Ellie think it is over, but no such luck.

“You got all that?”

Ellie finally looks up to see him as red as she’s ever seen him. “Which part, the one where you traumatized me or the one where you made me want to throw myself out the window?”

“Would you take this seriously, dumbass? It’s all fun and games until nine months down the road there is a baby trying to push itself out of you.”

She could have shut up, then. She could have answered “I’ll be careful” or even simply “I understand”, but no, her dumbass brain stopped working for a split second, look enough to give Joel her first reply of the night that wasn’t sarcastic.

“I think me getting pregnant is the least of your worries,” she blurts out and Joel sighs.

“Which part of it wasn’t clear? It’s like math – man plus woman plus sex equals high chances of baby-making.”

No. Not man plus woman.

“If you really want to add this up like a math problem, then you have the wrong equation.”

He looks at her like she has grown a second, or even a third head, but then his hard mask is back and he scoffs. “Well then, by all means, correct it.”

Ellie’s heart is beating so hard against her ribcage that’s she’s sure he can hear it hammering away. Hell, she’s sure he can see it pounding if he really paid attention, with how hard it is beating.

Is this really how you’re going to tell him?

Ellie sits down on her mattress, facing him, and for once tonight he is waiting for her to speak before making a move.

When is it ever a good time to slip a casual “by the way, I’m gay” into a conversation, anyway?

He’s looking at her steadily, calmly, but part of her wants to climb down that window and live as a runaway for the rest of her days.

What if he sees it the same way these close-minded fuckers do?

Her tongue feels too big in her mouth and fidgets with the hem of her shirt with shaky fingers while trying to find the best words to express her thoughts.

Just tell him.

He’s still waiting.

Tell him.

She doesn’t hear anything, nothing beside a faint ringing in her ear and her beating heart.

Do it.

“It’s actually woman plus woman plus sex equals no chances of baby-making,” she says, barely above a whisper.

But he hears. Joel always hears everything, and she can see the confusion on his face, the shock.

“Oh,” he says, shifting in his seat. “Wait, what?”

“You’re giving me the wrong safe-sex talk, you old moron.”

“Oh.”

Joel gets up, walks to her door and she’s thinking he’s going to leave, but he turns right back around to come back to her and let himself fall beside her on the bed.

“How long have you known?” he asks, and she breathes a sigh of relief at the realisation that he hadn’t turned away. He wouldn’t turn his back on her because of who she was, like the true father she had come to see him as.

She thinks back to Riley, to kissing in dark corners of the Military School when no one was looking. “A while.”

Joel squeezes her thigh. “And you’re sure?”

She slaps him in the chest, playfully. “How sure are you that you don’t like men?”

“Point taken,” he chuckles. “Forget the whole contraception part of that talk, then.”

“I will try my best to.”

Joel’s eyes are trained on her face, observing her every reaction, taking in the slightest twitches of her face. “The rest of it stands, you know. You still don’t need to do anything you don’t feel ready to, no still means no, you still make sure your partner is comfortable with whatever you guys are doing, and for the love of God, make sure I never catch you.”

“Got it,” she whispers, nodding. To say she felt lighter after revealing that part of herself to Joel – to anyone, really – would be an understatement, and she can’t help the grin that stretches her lips.

She could not say how exactly, but one moment she was holding the fabric of her shirt between her fingers and the next, she was wrapped up in strong arms with her face pressed against Joel’s chest.

“This doesn’t change a thing for me, you know that?” he whispers in her hair, one his hands holding the back of her neck and the other one resting against her back. “You’re still my baby girl, and I still love you. No matter what.”

She feels the tears threaten to spill, so she brings her arms around Joel’s neck and holds him even tighter than he is holding her.

“No matter what,” she repeats, and she feels him nod in response.

When they untangle, Joel helps her put the magazines back in the box, safely under her bed. There is still one in his hand when he rises to his feet, but when she reaches for it, he pulls it away.

“I’m keeping this one,” he announces on his way out the door.

“Joel!”

Chapter Text

The whiskey burns Ellie’s throat as it goes down.

She probably shouldn’t have poured herself a second drink, but here she is, one sip away from seeing the bottom of her glass once more. The taste lingers on her lips and tongue, and she can still feel the warmth of the alcohol coursing through her.

Really, she shouldn’t drink the night before a patrol, bur she can’t find it in her to care about it now.

She had been on more than a dozen patrols since her first one, months ago, and none of them had ended nearly as horribly as that one had. Might’ve had something to do with Joel arranging for her to always be paired with him after that – he said it was to train her right, but she knew it was really to keep an eye on her.

She never would have guessed, almost three years ago when they met, that her reluctant travel companion would turn out to be such a mother hen.

Tomorrow, she was heading on patrol with Leonard, Maria’s mother and the reason Jackson was still standing, 23 years after the Outbreak when so many other cities and settlements had fallen to Infected or Hunters. They were supposed to map out two new patrol routes, and Joel was all-set to lead the first team, comprised of Chuck, a man named John and – on his first ever patrol assignment – Simon.

Tommy had wanted to hear none of Joel’s bullshit when he had made the announcement, and the only thing that had made her old man grumble a little less was the fact that she would be under Leonard’s watchful eyes the whole time.

And Jesse’s and Dina’s, if they managed to keep their hands off each other long enough to actually do their jobs.

If Dina managed to keep her hands to herself, to be honest. Jesse would put his head to the task, and Dina would spend her time teasing him relentlessly until he’d give in to whatever she wanted him to do. For all his calm and collected and thought-out exterior, she had Jesse wrapped around her little finger.

She had everyone wrapped around her little finger, really.

“I’ll bet your old man will throw me off a cliff before our second night out,” Simon breathes out as he sinks deeper into the couch next to her.

Ellie’s tears her gaze away from her almost finished drink to look at her ever-smiling, albeit pale-faced, friend. He looks tensed, even if he tries his best to hide it behind his usual banter and jokes.

Too bad she sees right through him.

“If you keep talking that much he’ll probably punch you twenty minutes in,” Ellie snickers, playfully elbowing him in the ribs. “Lighten up, Simon. You’ll be with Joel and Chuck, it’ll be okay.”

Simon gives her a sideway smile, before glancing behind her and quickly diverting his eyes. “Yeah, there is no chance of Chuck and your scary old man doing that unexpectedly, so I guess I got that going for me.”

Ellie looks in the direction he just looked away from, just in time to see Dina kissing her way up Jesse’s neck in a corner of her own kitchen, where the refrigerator was partly shielding them from view of their guests in the living room. Doesn’t mean Ellie couldn’t figure out what exactly Dina was trying to get Jesse to do.

Dina barely had any boundaries when sober, and what little she had then were as good as gone when she had a few drinks too many, like tonight.

“Get a room, you two!” Simon hollers beside her, and Jesse jumps up in surprise, his ears turning bright red at being caught. Dina doesn’t stop what she’s doing – she’s reached his ear, now, Ellie notices despite doing her best not to see anything. The older girl raises her middle finger in Simon’s general direction. “Good God, I never thought I’d say that, but I’m actually happy I’m hanging out with your babysitter instead of these two tomorrow. Sucks to be you, Williams.”

Ellie downs the last of her whiskey. Yeah, sucks to be me.

Jesse untangles himself from Dina’s grasp long enough to notice Simon and her quietly getting up and putting their jackets on. “Going home?”

Ellie raises an eyebrow, but it’s Simon who answers in her place. “Nah, we’re just going to run a few miles around Jackson, you know, as practice for tomorrow,” he says slowly, his face completely neutral, and Ellie doesn’t know if it’s his dead-serious expression or the fact that Jesse has virtually no sense of sarcasm whatsoever, but he looks almost outraged at the idea.

“We should all go to bed to be well rested for tomorrow,” he says, slipping back into patrol leader mode. “We can’t afford to get lazy because we didn’t get enough sleep.”

Dina snakes her arms around his chest from where she is pressed against his back. “I’m not sleepy,” she whispers loudly in the way drunk people try to be quiet sometimes, and she and Simon know this conversation isn’t meant for their ears.

Ellie can’t tie her shoes soon enough.

“We’re leaving at dawn tomorrow, just go to bed, already.”

There is a brief silence before Dina replies. “Oh, I’ll go to bed, but I don’t intend to sleep.”

They hear Dina pull Jesse into her bedroom more than they see her. Her usual quietness disappears like her boundaries when she drinks. She’s sure neither of them notice their guests slipping out of the house.

“She looked hornier than usual,” Simon remarks when they are out of earshot, and Ellie nearly stumbles over the last step on Dina’s porch.

“She’s always like that when she drinks.”

Simon shakes his head. “Not that much. Think she’s pregnant yet?”

Ellie learned a long a time ago to ignore his wild comments and theories – most of the time, they aimed to get one of them to react, or implied that someone was either pregnant or had gotten someone else pregnant. Half the time, it was both.

She bites her initial answer back and kicks a rock out of her way.

“You are way too invested in your friends’ love lives,” she finally declares when her silence becomes too long.

“Sex lives,” he corrects. He has this glint in his eyes, like he’s about to say something incredibly stupid. “The details are way crunchier.”

“Perv,” Ellie scoffs, elbowing him in the ribs once again. At this rate, he’s sure to find a bruise there tomorrow morning.

Simon hits her right back. “Prude.”

“Whatever, fuck you.” The smile on her lips betray her amusement.

It’s nice having Simon around, balancing out Jesse’s overall gloominess and Dina’s disregard for social standards of personal space and invasions of privacy, especially that Dina is using that lack of boundaries regarding physical contacts to make Jesse not-so-sullen all the time.

It’s a good thing Simon is an entertaining distraction.

The closer they get to Simon’s place, the quieter he becomes, and by the time he climbs up his porch steps, he has gone completely quiet. How stressed out must he be? He hasn’t made a single inappropriate comment since… well, seven houses ago.

“Hey, Simon!” she calls out as an afterthought. He’s already one leg inside his home, and she’s already in front of the next empty house on his street. “I’m sure everything will be fine tomorrow. Chuck and Joel have done this hundreds of times, and nothing’s ever happened to John on a patrol round. No reason for it to change just because you’re joining them.”

He nods, but he doesn’t make a move to go further inside just yet, and so, Ellie stills too. “What is it like? Fighting the Infected?”

She decides not to ask why he doesn’t know the answer – the idea that the 17-year-old teenager he had been then had managed to get to Jackson, in the middle of the fucking Wyoming wilderness, without once coming face to face with Infected somewhere along the way is almost unbelievable. But then again, she’s immune to CBI, who is she to judge the credibility of someone journey?

She thinks about her answer before giving it out, weighing the words before saying them slowly.

“Like you’re running out of time,” she finally says, truthfully. “Like one single wrong move you make will be your last one.”

He nods. She can see his jaw clench and unclench, repeatedly. He wants to say something, but for once in his life, he doesn’t seem to find any words to express what’s going on inside that head of his.

“You’ll be fine,” she repeats, as reassuringly as she can. It feels weirdly unsettling to try to be the comforting one – that’s Dina’s job, not hers, and she can think of a thousand reasons why it should remain that way. “Joel will make sure of that.”

Simon cracks a smile, finally. If she hadn’t already been staring at him, she would’ve missed it, with the darkness and distance and all.

Ellie turns on her heels, fully intending to go straight to bed, but she can’t resist one last jab at Simon. “Unless he remembers that you’re the guy he caught fooling around with his daughter in her room.”

The fact that she can see Simon pale even though it is pitch-dark outside is hilarious.

Man, I wish someone else could see his face right now.

“But nothing happened!”

“Have fun convincing him of that. By the way, he knows we’ve kissed before.”

“That happened months ago!”

“Joel does have a tendency to get his timelines mixed up.”

“You’ll tell him it meant nothing, won’t you? Ellie? Ellie!”

It’s way more fun letting him think about the grumpy old man possibly holding a grudge than to inform him that yes, Joel does know of the exact nature of the one innocent kiss they shared.

She wraps her arms around herself, the wind making the evening air colder than it was before, and she’s shivering by the time she stumbles inside her house.

Joel is coming out of the bathroom when she comes in, hair wet and barefoot but otherwise dressed. It is so long now that he has to tuck it behind his ears to keep it out of his eyes, like Tommy does. With their hair styled in a similar fashion – if it could even be called that – and Tommy having, for all intents and purposes, given up on shaving since the birth of his son, the two brothers looked terrifyingly alike. Maria always said that watching Joel was like catching a glimpse of a future version of her husband. For now, though, Tommy’s hair is still mostly light brown, albeit now with a few strands of grey hair shooting through his hair and beard, whereas his brother’s is more salt and pepper than its original dark brown.

“It’s late,” Joel says, his equivalent of a greeting.

“I’m aware,” is Ellie’s only reply, and she takes a moment to observe the man that she has come to consider as a father. He is nearing his mid-fifties now, but if you didn’t know his exact age, you’d think he was much older. The wrinkles on his face were getting deeper, and it seemed new ones were appearing on his face almost weekly now, and though he would never say it, she saw how exhausted he looked when he came back from patrol, more so than she remembers from their travels together.

“You really should do something about that hair of yours,” she finally mutters. She’s been staring at him, and he’s been staring right back, and she has no intention of getting herself into a silent battle to see who could keep this up the longest. “It looks like you tried to sew an old mop to your head.”

Joel glares at her from his spot in the doorway, but Ellie only smiles as she sinks into the couch with a sigh to untie her shoes. “Would you also like me to comb and blow-dry it?” he asks grumpily under his breath.

“Only if you aspire to be the prettiest bearded girl in the village.”

Joel huffs as a response, but instead of leaving the room as he always does when she decides to make him the butt of her jokes for no apparent reason, he sits down on the coffee table in front of her. It bends dangerously when he puts his full weight on the surface, but just as it has for almost two years, it withstands the increased pressure on its poorly assembled structure.

He leans forward, but he waits until she has safely thrown both her shoes behind her by the door to speak. “Stick to the maps. Don’t stray from where you’re supposed to go, don’t do anything stupid.”

“Joel…”

“If anything goes wrong, you get your ass back here and you don’t look back.”

“It’s going to be…”

“Keep your weapons in reach at all times.”

“Joel!” Ellie has to almost yell out his name for him to stop the flood of safety recommendations tumbling out of his mouth. He stills, lips parted slightly in preparation of the next piece of advice he had been about to bore her with. “I know all that shit. I’ll be careful.”

Joel’s eyes are disbelieving.

“Okay, I’ll try to be careful, how’s that?”

He nods.

She knows he has a hard time letting go of this idea that he has to protect her, that he has to keep her out of trouble. Frankly, she’s not sure anyone can, but he’s done his best so far. She doesn’t pretend to know what goes on in that stubborn head of his, but if she had to guess, she’d say he is starting to realize that he can’t keep treating her like a little girl, that he can’t keep her out of harm’s way himself forever.

That his body will give out at one point, and then he won’t be able to.

And when that happens, he has to trust that she’ll take care of herself. Without him.

“I promise I’ll be careful, and when I come back, I’ll get to say I told you so,” Ellie pledges. “And I’ll be as annoying as ever.”

Joel gets up, nodding. “That’ll push me into an early grave.”

“Wouldn’t it be a timely grave, old man?”

“I’d head up, if I were you. I won’t be waking your ass up tomorrow morning if you wake up late.”

Ellie snickers. Normally, she’d prop her feet up on the coffee table just to piss him off, but not tonight. “Hey, Joel?”

Joel stops, his hand on the handle of his bedroom door. Ellie doesn’t wait for him to turn around – knows he probably won’t, anyway.

“Don’t give Simon too much trouble, alright?”

His back is to her, and the only light in the room is coming from the bathroom, but she can swear she sees the corner of his lips rise up in a grin and the wrinkles near his eyes become more defined in amusement.

He disappears into his room without giving an answer.

It takes a while for Ellie to fall asleep that night.

***

Contrary to what he had said the night before, Joel did make an appearance to wake her up – more accurately, unceremoniously shoved her out of bed – and Ellie had never been more glad to have chosen to wear a ratty old t-shirt to bed the night before instead of sleeping mostly naked as she had recently taken to with the return of the warmer weather. Just as soon as he had done it, he went back downstairs and slammed the front door shut as he left the house. Not a word was spoken between them.

Truly, he was the most brutal and unpleasant alarm clock the world had ever seen.

By the time she runs over to the south gate, Joel, Leonard, Jesse, Dina, Chuck, Simon and John are all there already, inventorying the contents of their backpacks and going over maps one final time before the two groups’ departures.

Chuck sticks out like a sore thumb in the middle of the huddle. He’s surrounded by people dressed in various shades of grey, brown, tan, black and other unremarkable colors, with hair ranging from black to dirty blonde – although the matter of Simon’s hair being qualified as dirty blonde or very light brown is still up for debate between Dina and Lily – but here he stands, with bright red hair that looks ablaze in the soft light of the rising sun.

“Your hair is blinding me, big guy,” Ellie teases as she passes him by on her way. “Maybe put a hat on that?”

“How else is your old man going to spot me when I get lost in the woods?”

“Fair enough.”

Joel is keeping busy, methodically inventorying the contents of his backpack, rearranging items so some of them are more easily reached in case of emergency, and Jesse is doing the same, eyeing the older man out of the corner of his eyes when Joel isn’t looking his way. Aw, Jesse’s trying to copy Joel. That’s almost cute.

Leonard is trying to find a specific frequency on the talkie in his hand, backpack ready to go and set at his feet, and John is drinking “tea” out of a metal canteen. Funny how his morning tea suspiciously smells of whiskey, everytime she’s close enough to smell it. Very mysterious. As long as it doesn’t impair him in any way, who gives a fuck?

“Took your sweet time, sleeping beauty,” Dina called out as she stuffed a canteen of water into her pack, along with warmer clothes and a small blanket to sleep on.

“I’m told good things come to those who wait,” Ellie snickers. She shoves a hand down the back pocket of her jeans – yeah, her switchblade is still there, waiting patiently to be used. “I assume you’ve had a restful night of sleep?”

Dina finally turns to her and the dark bags under her eyes are impressive, to say the least, but she has a permanent smile plastered on her lips. “Do you really want me to answer that?”

“Nope!” Ellie drops her pack to the ground and starts her last check to make sure she has everything she needs for the next four days. “You bunch of horny rabbits have no self-control.”

That last part about the rabbits was said under her breath and was never meant to be heard by anyone but herself, but Dina inches closer until she’s kneeling right next to her, so close that Ellie can smell her shampoo and feel the warmth she radiates through her clothes. “Self-control is overrated, Freckles. Let loose a little, have some fun, you might like it.” 

You might like it.

“Fuck you.”

“I’m good, thanks,” she says, winking, and Ellie realises she’s looking behind her, where Jesse is standing looking over at them, face red with embarrassment – over what exactly, Ellie isn’t sure. When he moves to go back to whatever it was he had been doing before he had started paying attention to their conversation, his hair falls away from where it usually covers his neck and reveals a bunch of hickeys on his skin.

Ellie pretends she didn’t see them.

Out of the corner of her eyes, she spots Simon awkwardly going up to Joel and asking to see the map in the politest way Ellie had ever heard him address anyone. Joel only stares him down, his eyes unreadable, until he nods at him in acknowledgement. “Dipshit Von Bucket,” he greets, and Ellie has to bite the inside of her cheek to avoid laughing out loud at Simon’s panicked expression. Clearly, he wasn’t expecting the older man to remember their first encounter, or the nickname he had come up with for the boy who had dumped a bucket filled to the brim with dirty water on his head.

“Aren’t we over this? That happened nearly a year ago…” Simon asks, but it comes out as more of a whine than anything else.

Whining – not the best way to get on Joel’s good side.

Joel smirks slightly, almost imperceptible under the thickness of his grey beard. “Lord Dipshit Von Bucket, if you insist.”

Simon turns to Jesse, sitting next to him and studying patrol records attentively. “At least it has a ring to it,” he mumbles under his breath when he is sure Joel can’t hear him. Jesse never even looks up from his observation.

Before long, the two parties split up – Joel’s is headed south, and Leonard’s is going west.

“Let’s get this show on the road, peeps,” Chuck calls out. He looks out of place

Peeps,” Ellie repeats. “Seriously, man?”

Chuck hoists his backpack, which rattles like a bunch of nails in a tin can, over his shoulder. “It was a very common expression back in my days. Short for people?” When no one reacts, he shakes his head. “Bunch of uncultured swine.”

“Admit it, Chucky, you’re just old!”

Honestly, Ellie is pleasantly surprised to find that the scathing look Chuck throws her way doesn’t set her on fire right where she stands. “Old enough to know you’re a little shit,” he spits back, and Ellie chuckles. Man, he is such a child stuck into a grown man’s body sometimes.

Chuck steps out of Jackson, leaving the safety of the high walls behind without looking back, followed closely by John and, trailing a few steps behind, Simon, who takes a moment to stare up at the watchtower they just passed and take in the sight of Jackson.

She wants to tell him to be careful. She wants to tell him to be safe.

She doesn’t. Man, I’m the worst friend ever.

She grabs her own pack and starts toward the path leading west into the treeline, as Dina practically bounces down the dirt road like fucking Snow White in the forest.

“Jesse,” she hears Joel mutter behind her, and she turns around to see her friend approach the older man. “Keep her out of trouble, will you?”

Jesse nods, Ellie rolls her eyes. She’s going to be 17 next week, and still, he acts as if she needs protecting, as if she didn’t manage to survive up to 14 all by herself.

“I meant it, boy – anything happens to her, anything, and I’ll hold your stupid ass personally responsible for that,” Joel threatens.

“I’ll make sure she comes back in one piece.”

“Cut the kid a break, Joel,” Leonard intervenes, shoving Jesse toward her and Dina so they can get a move on. “He’s more careful than you, this one.”

“Not sure about that,” Joel mutters, but he nods one last time in Ellie’s direction – an unspoken “Be safe” – and turns to where his unit has all but disappeared behind a curve in the exterior walls. Soon, he rounds the corner and she can’t see him anymore.

The rising sun filters through the newly grown spring leaves on the nearby trees, they are surrounded by the sounds of the birds awakening all around them and she’s been outside the walls for a grand total of three minutes and her shoes are already soaked through with the morning dew lingering on the overgrown patches of grass.

This is shaping up to be a wonderful day.

“Let’s get a move on, you kids!”

***

Ellie thought patrol rounds with Joel were the most boring thing in the world – boy, oh boy, was she wrong.

Nothing in the world could ever compete with the agony of the absolute silence that Leonard expected – and forcefully demanded when she and Dina had failed to comply, about 10 minutes after they’d left the settlement.

It leaves the four of them to walk in silence, like weird a funeral procession made up of armed mute monks.

Leonard walks ahead, map in hand, taking the time to mark down all the spots that would be suitable for setting up camp along the newly established patrol route as he goes. Jesse walks a few steps behind him, to his left, while Dina is behind him on the right. The no-talking rule is never broken, but the looks the couple exchange speak for themselves, and Ellie does her best to look anywhere else.

They come across no Hunters, no Infected, only spooked rabbits and the likes.

They only stop when the sun is just about to set, at a little clearing near a rocky mountainside and an even smaller creek. Only then does Leonard relent a bit on his sound-of-silence-only rule, allowing whispered conversations to take place. They still have three days to go, and sweet lord does Ellie miss Joel’s grumpy complaining – at least she could talk to herself aloud, if nothing else.

Sometime after they started setting up camp, Dina and Jesse disappear deeper into the forest to fetch wood for the fire. When they show up again, they don’t have any more wood than they left with. Ellie pretends not to know exactly what they were doing during their absence. No one looks this satisfied after coming back empty handed from collecting sticks and branches to start a fire.

She’s trying her best to ignore the whispers exchanged between her two friends when Leonard sits next to her next to the fire for warmth. It might be April, and it might be warm during the day, but it still gets cold during the nights. The older man rubs his hands together before bringing them close to the flames. The barrel of the riffle he had been holding, placed safely on his lap, must have been freezing his fingers. Leonard breaks the silence, and Ellie realises that she hasn’t heard his voice in hours. “No one has seen any Infected, or other hostiles in these parts for years – not that I’ve been made aware of, anyway – but when you talk, you get distracted, and when you’re distracted, you get careless, and…”

“Carelessness gets you killed,” Ellie recites, like the memorized prayers she’s heard some of the older soldiers mumble under their breaths before hopping on the military trucks that were supposed to bring them to their outside duty posts – most of them didn’t make it back. “I know.”

Leonard analyzes her, his eyes as neutral as can ben. “I’ve never said that to you.”

“No, but you’ve said it to Joel, and he’s just about painted it on my bedroom door so I’d remember it.”

Maria’s dad surveys the surroundings, from the little creek to the mountainside, and lingering on the treeline where there is nothing to see except for the new spring leaves and the occasional raccoon or rodent passing by. “Doesn’t look like you need the reminder too much, from what I know.”

Ellie scoffs. Images of her first patrol invade her mind – blood, pain, fear, death – and she has to block them out again, otherwise she knows she won’t get to sleep at all tonight. “Trouble just keeps finding me, I guess, it makes no difference if I’m careful or not.”

She thinks she saw the ghost of a smile dance on his lips, but when she looks a second time to confirm her suspicions, she sees only the usual tight line of his mouth. Must have been the fire playing tricks on me.

The night itself is uneventful, at best, painfully boring at worst. They eat the sorry excuse of a meal they managed to scrape together – some sort of thick stew, with whatever meat was on that squirrel Leonard caught added to it. Not even the tiny bites of meat can salvage it, but they all eat it until there is nothing left, and then they roll their blankets down on the cold, hard ground by the fire. Ellie hopes sleeps comes easy to her, partly because she believes she’ll go batshit insane if she has to keep whispering for one more minute – partly because in her dreams, at least, she doesn’t have to see Jesse and Dina undress each other with their eyes.

Jesse takes the first watch, then Leonard takes the second, she takes the third and Dina takes the last. Dina snuggles against her, wrapped in her own blanket, for added warmth while Jesse stands guard nearby, until her boyfriend settles into his own improvised bed and she rolls over to his side, leaving Ellie to curl up into a ball inside her ratty old blanket to keep her own body heat from escaping into the night. It takes a while for her to get to sleep after that.

When she finally drifts off, it is only for a little while – an hour, maybe an hour and a half at most – before Leonard silently shakes her awake for her watch. She feels numb from the cold, but this is no different than the numerous nights she spent freezing her ass off on one of the watchtowers, wondering if someone would find her frozen on her seat after sunrise.

It leaves her with way too much time to let her mind wander. She doesn’t like where it takes her, but she can’t help but let her thoughts drift off, every once in a while. There really isn’t much to distract her out here.

And so, she allows her imagination to run free. She pictures a version of reality she knows will never exist, a world she can only dare imagine in the darkness of the night, when she’s all alone in her bedroom. She imagines how it would feel, to be the one Dina is looking at with such love in her eyes. To be the one she shamelessly shoves into a wall to kiss senseless, not caring in the slightest if anyone sees them.

To be the one holding on to Dina as she sleeps, with her wild curls getting into her face and her legs tangled with her.

Ellie knows she should stop fantasizing about things that will never happen, but she can’t. Besides, it’s not like she’s hurting anyone important – only herself.

Watch shifts are much shorter on patrol rounds than on the walls surrounding Jackson, and so she’s quite surprised when Dina wakes, on her own, and basically orders her back to sleep. How that girl always manages to know the exact time without ever having to use a watch or an alarm clock is a mystery to Ellie, who would probably sleep through a fucking tornado if given the chance.

Even as she wraps herself in the warmth of her blanket, she can’t find sleep again. She gives up trying after a long time of tossing and turning, opting instead to pack her stuff and to get the fire going again. 

She feels more than she sees Dina’s gaze burning a hole through her back as she works, moving some sticks around, using one to pile the embers in one spot, adding dry birch bark and other small twigs until she sees the tiny flames she had been expecting lick at the kindling. Ellie smiles, blowing unto the fire until she deems it big enough to take on a life of its own without her help.

She hears her unspoken question as Dina’s eyes keep flicking to her when she isn’t looking. Why aren’t you sleeping? You need your rest as much as we do, don’t you? She can almost hear Dina’s voice saying those words, but still, her friend keeps silent. Maybe she figured out Ellie would lie if she asked why she wasn’t sleeping. Maybe she didn’t really want to know. Not that it mattered in any way.

They move out soon after, and the next days goes by exactly like the third. They find a clearing next to a frail-looking cabin and set up camp there for the night. They make sure to stay outside, on Leonard’s recommendation – it’s harder to be taken by surprise if you can see your surroundings, he says.

The sun is setting when they finally get to sit down and eat.

She pretends she has to pee so she can escape the two lovebirds making googly eyes at each other over the dying fire, and frankly, to have a few minutes by herself.

As Ellie walks back to their camp from the relatively isolated space in the woods she had found, she hears it, clear as ever, sending shivers down her spine – the high-pitched shriek of a clicker, followed by the demented yells of Runners and very human shouts.

She doesn’t think, she just runs as fast as her legs will carry her. The branches slap her face, chest and arms, but still, she doesn’t slow down, not until she gets close enough to the commotion to see first-hand the extent of the monstrous pile of shit they just stepped in.

Jesse’s trying his best to fend of a Clicker, one hand furiously rummaging through the contents of his pack and the other wielding a heavy branch like a sword, as Dina keeps pelting it with sticks and stones in the hope that it’ll get its attention long enough for Jesse to grab whatever weapon he is looking for and fire it.

She doesn’t get to see if their plan works out.

A Runner leaps at her from her right side and it is because of instincts alone that Ellie manages to flatten herself to the ground fast enough to keep the monstrosity from tearing her head clean off her shoulders. She barely registers that her chin hits one of the logs they had been using to sit on the previous night before she’s upright again, wildly looking around to figure out where the next attack is coming from.

“You fucker!” Ellie seethes through clenched teeth, spitting out a mouthful of blood. She has no clue as to where she is bleeding from. If you don’t find a way to make it out of this alive, it won’t matter anyway. “Oh, shit!”

The Infected is coming at her again, fast, too fast for her liking. Its shrieks make Ellie’s blood run cold, and the eyes… she’s always found their eyes – bloodshot, wild, evil, if she’d had to say – to be the most bone chilling thing about those fucking monsters. The fraction it takes for her to make that observation is almost the end of her.

She grabs the thing’s legs as it collides into her and hauls herself up to her feet as quick as she can without letting go of the decomposing limbs within her grasp. The Infected yells – a sound coming straight from the depths of Hell, if there even was one – and crashes headfirst into the ground, its arms flailing about in an attempt to grab her. Ellie dodges the hands and kicks him in the head, not waiting for it to come back up, sending it sprawling backwards in the mud. She’s pretty sure the Runner left part of its skull on the ground and some flesh stuck to one of her shoes, but she doesn’t investigate further. There isn’t enough time for that.

Her attack gives her a few precious fractions of a second to reach behind her. Her hand closes around the familiar handle of her switchblade and she clicks it open, awaiting the thing’s inevitable comeback with her feet firmly planted in the ground and her weapon held high in front of her.

“Come on, you lazy fuck!” she shouts, her voice half-stuck in her throat. The Runner can’t understand her, she knows, but it feels good to voice her pretend confidence, like pretending she has a handle on the situation will make it true.

 “Leonard!” Jesse shouts, and she hears a gunshot, and the only thing she sees one of the walls of the wooden cabin collapsing on itself, sending the roof sliding down on the older man and the Infected he was fighting off. She doesn’t see him rise from the rubble before she plunges her knife inside the eye of the Infected that was still relentlessly trying to sink its rotten teeth into her flesh. She stabs once, twice, three, four, five times, until she loses count and the creatures is only a silent, twitching heap of limbs at her feet.

The heavy thud of a body hitting the ground behind her makes her glance back for a second, just as she bends down to retrieve her weapon from the thing’s head.

Dina is pinned under one of the Infected – where the fuck are they all coming from? – holding a thick branch in front of her and using it as a chew toy she sticks in the Runner’s mouth to keep its jaws from closing around one of her limbs.

As with most things having anything to do with Dina, Ellie doesn’t think before she acts. It’s like her body does not belong to her, like her limbs aren’t her own, possessed by some unseen force of nature.

Or whatever.

The next thing she knows, she’s running toward her, her knife still buried deep inside the skull of the Infected she had been stabbing, forgotten behind her. She hears only Dina’s grunts and labored breathing as she struggles to keep the Infected at arm’s length, sees only the snapping jaws closing relentlessly over the stick, gradually eating it away like some kind of undead beaver until it looks so thin she thinks it might snap at any moment.

And then Ellie crashes into it so hard it makes her head spin, and they both tumble into the mud, rolling about until she doesn’t know which way is up and which way is down. She feels stones and sticks dig into her back, her ribs, thighs, hips, everywhere, and she’s punching it wherever her fists can reach, and the parts of the Runner that she can’t reach with her hands, she does her best to try to kick.

“Ow, fuck!” Ellie screams. They just rolled into the dying fire, if the smoke that fills her lungs is any indication. She doesn’t feel the burn, only the squirming, screaming Infected trying to wiggle out of her grasp.

She’s not letting go. She can’t.

She won’t.

The Runner’s breath stinks of death, of rotten flesh, and its saliva is dripping in Ellie’s face. Despite her best efforts, the Infected is hitting her just as hard she’s hitting it, and the force with which one of its limbs – its knee, maybe? – connects with her stomach knocks the wind out of her. Its screeching never relents, its fingernails dig into her face and neck as it scratches at her desperately,

Ellie’s head hits something, hard, and she feels her grip loosen from the shock just slightly – and then the Infected falls over her, lifeless.

It’s at that point that she realises she doesn’t hear shit besides a ringing in her head, when she pushes the body off her and sees Dina standing over her, a broken thick branch in her hands.

The other half of her makeshift weapon is buried deep into the Runner’s mouth and coming out of the back of its head.

Dina leaps over her to the pile of rubble where the old cabin had been standing just minutes ago. All that remains now is a bunch of planks and debris, and the corpses of two Infected.

By the time Ellie drags herself to her knees, still trying to catch her breath, the world has stopped spinning so much, and Dina and Jesse have pulled Leonard from the rubble. He’s unconscious, bleeding heavily from the left side of his head.

She looks around. She counts one dead Clicker, and five other dead Infected lying about camp.

“Ellie?” Her head snaps up at the sound. By the look on her face, it’s not the first time Dina has been calling out her name, but she hadn’t heard it before. Her breaths are fast and shallow, but her eyes are steady when Dina looks her over.

Nurse Dina, back on duty.

“You’re hurt,” she states simply, looking at her leg. Ellie looks down too, and the pain hits all at once.

Her left pant leg has been ripped out from her knee down, exposing her injured leg. The skin on her shin is almost entirely burnt, angry red with white spots near her ankle where she probably rolled over the embers of the fire. It looks shiny, and she can feel her heartbeat down in her leg, and sweet fuck does it hurt like a bitch.

There is blood everywhere on her, so much that it can’t possibly be all hers. She feels it drip down her face, and she touches the bridge of her nose tentatively where she thinks it is coming from. She barely suppresses a hiss of pain – the skin there is split open across her nose on the left side, level with her eyes, and her nose definitely feels swollen.

She stops her evaluation of her physical state there. She doesn’t have to confirm it for her to know that her skin is covered in scratches, and she’ll most likely find a bunch of tender bruises on herself come tomorrow morning.

“I’m fine,” Ellie mumbles, looking over at Jesse and Leonard. The older man is still lying motionless on the damp muddy ground; the younger one is trying to bandage his head and asses the gravity of the injury. “You should take a look at Lenny, he needs it more than me.”

Dina doesn’t listen. She pulls the flaps of burnt cloth away from her leg, grimacing as she kneels in front of Ellie to get a better look at her injury. Ellie refuses to let even the slightest grunt of pain escape her lips as she feels what’s left of her pants come away with some of her burnt flesh.

“Like hell I am. Jesse is already taking care of it.” She looks over the burn once more. “We have to get you out of the mud. Can you stand?”

“I think so.”

Her leg is stiff and hurts like a bitch – as does the rest of her body, if she’s being honest with herself – but it should hold her weight, at least until she gets to sit down on one of the logs.

With Dina’s help, she rises to her feet, her legs shaking under her and threatening to give out. Must’ve hit my head harder than I thought. Fuck.

Dina slings one of Ellie’s arms over her own shoulders to steady her and to relieve some of the weight off her injured leg until they can figure out the extent of the burn.

They’re less than a few steps away from the log she meant to sit on when Ellie hears the familiar sound of a gun being reloaded, and her heart skips a beat. The sound is coming from directly behind them – Jesse. Her eyes widen, looking all around to see what could have prompted him to reload, but she sees nothing. The fallen Infected are still lying unmoving, the rest of the woods are as still as she’s ever seen them and the birds are still chirping. There is nothing out of the ordinary to be seen.

“What the hell’s going on, Jesse?” Dina hisses, looking around just as wildly as Ellie is.

She feels the adrenaline rush back into her bloodstream, and she can’t feel the pain in her leg anymore, or anywhere else for that matter, only the thundering beat of her own heart and her wheezing breaths.

They manage to turn around to face Jesse, untangling themselves from one another and reaching for weapons, any weapons – in Dina’s case, it is a stick, and in Ellie’s, it’s her bare fists – she doubts she can injure herself more than she already is.

Jesse is standing tall over Leonard’s body, his face devoid of any emotion and his handgun aimed at something behind them. Ellie looks back in confusion – still, she sees no threat of any kind in the direction her friend is staring so intensely at.

“What the fuck did you see? Jesse!” she whispers, mindful of attracting unwanted visitors.

Jesse’s face stays neutral, but his shaking hand betrays him. “Dina, come over here.”

And then it dawns on her.

Jesse isn’t aiming at anything behind them. There is no Infected hiding in the woods, waiting to pounce on them at the first occasion, no Hunter waiting for them to lower their guard so they can slaughter them and riffle through their meager belongings. No.

His weapon is trained on her.

As Dina walks toward him, she stays very still. Jesse is notoriously cautious in his use of weapons – he never even loads his unless he is on watch duty or on patrol – so whatever it is that made him draw it now, she wouldn’t put it past him to shoot her if she made any unexpected movements. She raises her arms in surrender, exhales slowly, shakily, and hopes to whatever god might or might not exists that his finger doesn’t slip on the trigger.

What the hell’s going on? Why is he doing this? Every catastrophe scenario runs through her mind, from him secretly working for the Fireflies and handing her over to them, to him having completely lost his shit.

She’s fucking terrified. There is nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide – her own gun is in her backpack by the fire, out of reach, and her knife is still plunged deep within the Runner’s skull. It’s close enough that she thinks maybe she can reach it before Jesse fires, but then what? She’s pretty damn accurate when it comes to throwing knives but there’s no way she’ll be able to do it before the bullet leaves his gun. The best outcome would be to take him down with her.

Her eyes flicker to the shining edge of the blade glistening in the setting sun, and Jesse inches his finger ever closer to the trigger. “Don’t even think about it.” His voice is like pure ice.  

“What are you doing?” Dina breaks the tense silence, her eyes going wildly back and forth between her boyfriend and Ellie, both of them staring at each other as if the first one to move would combust where they stood. “Jesse, put the gun down!”

He shakes his head but stays otherwise still as a statue.

“At least tell me why,” Ellie breathes out. Her heart is beating so hard she has trouble hearing anything besides it. “If you’re going to shoot me, I deserve to know why.”

His weapon wavers slightly, and his eyes shift down to her injured leg. “You’re Infected.”

Ellie’s heart skips a beat. Her arm is still covered, and still tattooed, there is no way he saw the scars hidden under the ink.

“That’s a burn, Jesse, what the hell did you knock your head on?” Ellie spits out, taking one more look at the injury on her leg when she notices where his line of sight ends. “And aim your fucking gun away from my face!”

“Jesse, put the gun down, please,” Dina pleads. “It’s just a burn, I looked at it myself.”

He shakes his head once more, but lowers the weapon ever-so-slightly, nonetheless. It now aims at her chest, and Ellie can breathe a little easily. “Back of your leg,” he says simply.

Ellie’s hand flies there.

And comes away bloody.

It is no easy task to try to look at her own calf, but she manages it. There is no mistaking the half-moon shaped teeth-marks she finds there, not when she’s seen them on her own skin once before, and on other people way more than she’d like.

Twice. I got fucking bitten twice. Who the fuck gets bitten twice?

“I want to see,” Dina states as it becomes clear from Ellie’s own shaken expression that Jesse wasn’t lying about what he had seen. Neither she nor Jesse try to stop her as she kneels behind Ellie. Her fingertips ghost over the bite, brushing against the skin around it, trembling. “Shit. Oh, shit.

She can’t look at her friend, can’t bear to see the resignation she’ll surely find in her eyes, so she keeps her eyes trained on Jesse’s emotionless ones.

“How?” Jesse asks. It is an order, not a request.

Ellie takes a deep breath before answering, her throat suddenly much drier than it had been seconds ago. Flashbacks of her struggle with the Infected, of flailing limbs and rolling around and punching and kicking come back to her, but she can’t pinpoint exactly when its teeth had sunken deep enough into her flesh to break the skin.

She has to fight the urge to tell Jesse to fuck off, that it’s none of his business, but angering him is not the way to go about now.

“I can’t recall,” she says through gritted teeth.

“Are we even sure it’s an Infected bite?” Dina asks, her voice wavering only slightly over the words. She’s grasping at straws, looking for an explanation where there are none other than the one Jesse had provided.

“Unless one of you guys has a cannibalism fetish…” Ellie starts, but Dina interrupts her.

“Stop screwing around Freckles, this isn’t a game!” She’s half-way between Jesse and Ellie, looking at both of them with disbelief in her eyes. “Jesse, put your gun down!”

“We can’t take her back to Jackson,” he says simply, and the matter-of-factly way he has to approach this makes Ellie wonder if this isn’t the first time he’s had to shoot someone that had been bitten before they could turn. “It’s a mercy.”

“That’s not a mercy, that’s an execution!” Dina roars in outrage.

She understands, really, she does. She’s seen what the progression of the infection did to people, turned them into shells of what they were before. She remembers Riley, slowly losing touch with reality as her fever kept steadily rising, until she had tried to tear her to pieces. She had been unrecognizable, eyes bloodshot, and drooling, and screeching until she could hear her voice get hoarse. Sometimes, Ellie wishes she could have had the guts to pull the trigger before she turned.

Only she wouldn’t be turning.

Shit, shit, shit, shit.

Jesse’s seemingly completely detached behaviour, which he was no doubts trying to convince himself was real and not made-up for the sake of the situation, makes much more sense, now that she thinks about it. It would be easier to pretend he didn’t feel any emotion for her than to face having to shoot one of his closest friends.

Heaven knows she’s aware of how hard that is, and how impossible of a choice trying to decide between a few hours of denial – before the Infection inevitably takes over – or the lifetime guilt of having pulled the trigger is.

“I won’t run away,” Ellie starts, making sure to keep her hands in Jesse’s line of sight. “I’m not turning, you’ve got to believe that.”

“Don’t think you’ve got much of a choice, Ellie.”

He slipped by saying her name, she sees it in his eyes, in the wavering of the gun he’s holding, and in the color draining from his face. No matter how much he may have wanted to distance himself, he couldn’t do it completely.

Her heart is still pounding. Now would be her only window to reach for her own knife while Jesse’s guard was down.

Don’t tell anyone, she hears Joel’s voice repeat in her head. Whatever happens, you can’t tell people you were bitten, they’ll shoot you on the spot or trade you to the Fireflies.

She doesn’t think Joel accounted for her being bitten a second time in his safety recommendations.

Promise me, Kiddo.

I promise.

She had nothing to lose, here. Either Jesse was going to shoot her, or they’d think she was crazy, and shoot her anyway.

Or they would believe her, and she might live a little while longer.

“I’m immune.”

The gun lowers a fraction of an inch in shock. “What?”

“I’m immune,” Ellie repeats, louder this time. “I was bitten before, and I didn’t turn. No reason for me to turn now.”

“No one’s immune.”

Jesse’s eyes are hard, his voice is steady and the weapon aiming at her face again.

“I am!” Ellie scrambles. He doesn’t believe me. I’m going to die here. “Fucking hell, I can prove it!”

“Jesse, for fuck’s sake, put the gun down!” Dina shouts. She steps in front of Ellie, blocking Jesse’s line of fire.

He blinks suddenly as she does, shaken. “Move out of the way.”

“And what are you going to do, shoot me?”

He gulps, and she knows Dina struck a nerve. He could never open fire on his girlfriend, and Ellie never thought she’d ever be grateful for his inability to refuse Dina anything, but she is now. She takes one step toward him, then another, then another, until her hand lands softly on top of his weapon, pushing it down until it points at the ground now.

Ellie starts breathing again, and she realises she had been holding her breath for a while.

“Just let her explain,” Dina says, softly, in the soothing voice Ellie sometimes heard her use when she had to treat some of the kids at the clinic, just before she reset their arm, or stitched them up, even.

“You believe her?” The only movement from Jesse is the twitch in the muscles of his jaw.

Dina smiles, but there is no joy in her eyes, only sadness and quiet resignation. “I’d like to.”

Better start explaining now before he changes his mind.

“Three years ago, I was living in Boston,” Ellie’s voice trembles, betraying for the first time how terrified she is. Dying while fighting, she could deal with – hell, she’d come awfully close on more occasions than she could count – but this, waiting around to see if she would be executed by her own friends or not, and die alone in the woods with no one on her side… it was so much worse. “I was at a Military Prep School, and I had this friend, Riley, who joined the Fireflies. We snuck out of the school in the middle of the night to go to a mall and we were attacked. Both of us were bitten, but I never turned.”

Jesse and Dina are looking at each other in disbelief. Ellie knows how it sounds – desperate, like she’s making up this story to gain a few more precious minutes.

It’s exactly like it sounds, then.

“I’m going to roll up my sleeve,” Ellie warns, wary of Jesse’s gun still too close to him for her liking. “I don’t have any weapons on me. My knife is in this fucker’s head, and my gun is in my backpack by the other fucker.”

Jesse nods, but his pinky finger drums against the bottom of the handle in nervousness a few times. Dina watches intently, silent. She’s still standing between the two of them, though if she did it consciously or not is still up for debate.

Ellie undoes the single button on the right cuff of her flannel shirt with practiced movements, reminiscent of a time when she was hiding her forearm all day and eager to come home to finally let her skin breathe. Back then, she couldn’t wait to undo that button. Now, she’d rather be doing anything else.

She feels the sleeve loosen around her arm. Jesse and Dina are staring at her, watching her every movement closely. Ellie’s staring right back at them.

She doesn’t need to see what’s on her skin, she already knows the secret her tattoo holds.

As she slowly rolls her sleeve up, the tattoo comes into full view – first the pointy end of the fern leaves, starting at the base of her thumb and always visible on her wrist, then the rest of the leaves, running along the length of her forearm, and, finally, the moth taking up all the space right under her elbow, obscuring any visible sign of the bite concealed underneath.

Chuck really did some exceptional work on her arm, but for the very first time, Ellie wishes he was a little less talented with needles and ink, because to the unfamiliar eye, it looks like a regular tattoo.

To Jesse’s and Dina’s eyes, it looks like a regular tattoo, and she needs it to back-up her claim.

“You won’t see shit from all the way over there,” Ellie explains. She’s trying her best to keep her voice steady and to keep her hands from shaking too much. She doesn’t think they notice it.

Jesse hand twitches, but he remains immobile with the gun firmly pointed at the ground.

She’s grateful for that. It’s the small things…

Dina takes a step forward, toward her, and then she’s right in front of her, one hand gently holding on to her wrist and the fingers from the other brushing against her skin, light as feathers.

“Show me.”

Ellie does. She guides the fingers all the way up to the moth inked on her skin, until they brush against the wings, and the raised teeth marks that blend in so seamlessly with the design. “Holly shit,” Dina breathes out.

Her fingers are exploring on their own now, feeling for the thicker skin of the scars, running along the bite, trailing off and then coming back. She’s mapping out the bite, like she can’t quite believe it is there.

“I didn’t have the tattoo when I got to Jackson. That’s why I was always wearing long-sleeves, until I asked Chuck to cover it up last year.”

She doesn’t know what she expected to see when her gaze crossed paths with Dina’s, but it certainly wasn’t betrayal.

“You didn’t tell us,” Dina says. Ellie can’t tell if it is a question or a statement.

“Joel said it was too much of a risk to tell anyone.” It’s an apology, by Ellie’s standards, but it isn’t enough, not nearly enough for two years of keeping her condition a secret from even her closest friends.

There are no words that Ellie knows that would express what she meant to say.

She meant to say sorry. She meant to say that she never should have kept that from them, when all they’d both ever done was trust her, and share their stories with her, even the painful parts. She thinks back to the time when Jesse told her what happened to his family, to the endless hours Dina spent seated on the cold ceramic tiles of the clinic when Joel had been injured, rubbing soothing circles on her back and whispering reassuring words into her ear until she fell asleep.

They had deserved to know her, and she had denied them that.

For someone who used to never stop talking, she’s gotten awful at finding the right words to say to people.

So she doesn’t try.

“You didn’t tell me,” Dina continues, and the words hurt more than the hits she took today or the burn on her leg. “You told Chuck, but you didn’t tell me.”

“I had to,” Ellie offers, though she knows any excuse she gives is pointless. “He had to see the bite to tattoo over it.”

For a while, none of them move.

“How do you know it’ll be the same?” Jesses asks.

Dina’s fingers fall from her arm, and Ellie swears she’s never felt so far away from her friends.

“I don’t,” she answers, truthfully. “I was bitten three years ago, and I’m still doing okay. I don’t know why I’m immune, or if the Infection is just waiting for the right moment to show its ugly face, but I have had no symptoms since I was bitten.”

She looks at Dina.

“I have to believe that I’ll stay immune forever,” Ellie adds, almost as an afterthought. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”

Jesse finally puts the gun back in his holster.

***

Just because her friend decided against shooting her on the spot didn’t mean he trusted her not to turn in her sleep. She should have known, really.

Which is why she found herself chained to a tree, in the dark.

They had tended to Leonard’s head wound as best as they could, but there was no sign the old man would regain consciousness anytime soon. Dina might be skilled in the first aid department, but he needed far better treatment than she could provide. They decided the best course of action was to fashion a makeshift stretcher, to head back to the settlement and hope the old man would not pass away before then. Still, night was falling, and only fools traveled the treacherous wilderness that surrounded them after nightfall.

She pretends to sleep, just so she doesn’t have to face distrusting eyes anymore, but there is no such thing as resting where the rough bark digs into her back and her legs are cramping up from being unused and unmoving for so long. Dina and Jesse are huddled by the fire for warmth, next to where they laid their patrol leader and did their best to make Leonard comfortable.

For a while – minutes, hours, Ellie couldn’t say – the couple made no sounds. No talking, no whispering, not even a cough or a sneeze broke the relative quietness of the Wyoming wilderness. The fire crackles away, dying slowly.

She’s just starting to nod off when Dina’s soft voice startles her.

“If I hadn’t convinced you not to, would you have done it?”

Jesse doesn’t answer right away. Instead, she hears him coax the fire back to life. “She wasn’t safe, she was bitten,” his voice rings out in the night, even if it is barely above a whisper. “It was the only logical thing to do.”

“You’re not answering. Would you have given her a chance to explain? Would you have believed her?”

“No. Is that what you want to hear? I would have shot her.”

There is a long pause.

“Oh, Jesse,” Dina breathes out, so low Ellie has trouble making out the individual words. “That was never what I wanted to hear.”

Ellie doesn’t see her, but she hears Dina take her blanket and set it on the other side of the fire, away from where Jesse is keeping a careful watch on her.

The metal of the chain is like ice on the skin of her wrists.

***

It took a day of using all the shortcuts they knew to get back to Jackson.

Just before they arrived, Dina had wrapped Ellie’s flannel shirt around her leg to hide the bite, although she still walked with a limp. No one at the clinic was surprised when she refused to be treated there, when they brought Leonard in. After all, she never accepted treatment unless it was a matter of life or death.

Dina usually came by to patch her up later, when word got to her that Ellie had injured herself in one way or another, but not this time. This time, Ellie wrapped her legs in bandages herself.

A few days later, when Joel finally made his way home, dirty and visibly tired – but overall unharmed – he found Ellie seated in his favourite chair at the kitchen table, with her leg all bandaged and elevated. She remembers what she told him the night before they parted.

I promise I’ll be careful, and when I come back, I’ll get to say I told you so.

He remembers too. “Where’s that I told you so you promised me?”

He meant it as a joke, she knows it, but she feels her jaw clench and her fists grip the seat of her chair. “Not this time.”

It was so far from fine.

One of her best friends had wanted to shoot her, the other one had refused to even talk to her since the ordeal, and the man she had come to consider as a grandfather figure was lying unconscious in one of the beds of the clinic.

Joel never asked questions.

He just poured them both a glass of the good whiskey he kept hidden in his bedroom and redid the bandages on her leg.  

Three days later, word got to her that Leonard had woken up, but that the impact of the collapsing cabin had done some nerve damage. The whole left side of his face was paralyzed, and he would probably never speak fluidly again.

Her leg healed, and she went back to watch shifts with Chuck. Like she had predicted, the bite on her calf turned into an angry red scar, and, when it was healed, it was covered in another tattoo – a wolf’s head, snarling, its bared fangs somewhat aligned with the teeth marks on her skin so that one would have to look really closely at them to tell the difference.

She had to use her 17th birthday as a way of convincing him to tattoo her again without telling Joel, but he had outdone himself once more.

Life in Jackson carried on as if nothing had happened, for the most part.

No one really knew when it had happened, but by the time May rolled around, the gossiping hens around town all agreed – while Jesse’s house had been sitting empty and dark for months, he went back to it every night now, and no one ever saw anyone else but him cross the threshold.

In some other world, she thinks some part of herself would have been happy not to have to deal with their public displays of affection anymore.

She’s pretty sure that part of herself stayed in that forest.

Chapter Text

“Anything else to report?”

Ellie shakes her head. “Nope. No sign of Infected or humans anywhere on the route.”

Tommy nods as he scribbles down Ellie’s comments on the map spread out on the table in front of him, next to the spot she had pointed at. There was an old house there, overrun with moss and climbing plants and weeds and some other shit she couldn’t even begin to try to identify, but it also had an old military-style bunker built underneath it that could be used as a safe-house or a shelter on patrols or supply runs. She had stumbled upon it with Chuck on their last patrol, and since it was almost time to switch up their routes again – Tommy was careful not to use the same ones for too long – they had reported the discovery back to him as soon as they had returned.

Tommy looks like he’s aged five years since his father-in-law’s injury. With Leonard out of order, and Maria caring for her father as he recovers, trying to keep Mikey from crawling all over the place and eight months into a difficult second pregnancy, he had taken on all the duties the older man had been handling before. That included coordinating all the patrol rounds, and keeping track of the food supplies and the repairs on the walls and around town, in addition to his own tasks of supervising the operation of the hydroelectric plant and organizing the watch shifts. In short, Joel’s brother hardly ever went home anymore and scarcely slept at all. His bloodshot eyes have dark circles under them and she sees him massage his temples more often than she’s ever seen him before – headaches, if she had to guess, though she never heard him complain about it. Effectively being in charge of everything around Jackson was not agreeing with him in any way.

Of course, Joel had tried to take some of the load off his shoulders, but the younger brother had blatantly refused the offer, at least at first. She was beginning to think their pride was a family trait rather than an individual one. It took a lot of coaxing, and arguing, on Joel’s part to convince him to let him help, if, and only if, Leonard still wasn’t back on his feet by the time Maria gave birth.

There’s about a 50/50 chance of Tommy doing as he pleases anyway, Ellie thinks.

When it becomes clear that he is deep in thought and has no more questions for her, Ellie turns on her heels and slips out the door as quietly as she can. After six days of sleeping on the hard ground with only her ratty old blanket to keep the roots and rocks from digging into her back, and never shutting her eyes for more than a few hours of restless sleep, she’s just about to shoot the next person that delays her reunion with her shower and her soft bed.

“Ellie?”

She freezes with one foot out the door. Ellie barely manages to hold back a groan of exasperation from escaping her lips, but she can’t stop the eye-roll she does almost as a habit. Apparently, she hadn’t been quiet enough. “Yeah?”

Tommy walks around his table, leaving the mess of homemade maps and jumbled up piles of hastily scribbled notes behind.

“It’s your first patrol since…”

“Since Leonard got injured,” Ellie cuts him, impatient. “Yeah, I’m aware. What about it?”

Tommy raises an eyebrow at her sudden snappiness, but otherwise doesn’t react to it. Guess he got used to it by now.

“You okay? Lots of difficult patrols in very little time.”

Just put the gun down!

You told Chuck, but you didn’t tell me.

She wasn’t safe, she was bitten.

Ellie blinks herself out of her memories. “Just peachy.”

“Joel’s worried about you,” Tommy continues, grabbing a hold of her wrist as she turns to try to leave once more. “We all are.”

Ellie wiggles her arm free of her uncle’s grasp. “I’m fine.”

She isn’t, not by a long shot, but he doesn’t need to know that. No one does.

That night, she doesn’t bother putting on her sleeping t-shirt and shorts before falling into bed, little droplets of water from her shower still rolling down her skin.

She’s asleep before her head hits the pillow.

***

Ellie wipes the sweat off her brow with the backside of her hand, and the motion leaves a smudge of dirt in its place instead. The mid-June sun is unapologetically burning the skin of her face, shoulders and arms, and there is not even some semblance of wind to attenuate the suffocating heat.

Worst of all, it had been raining the night before, so much so that she and Chuck found themselves up to their ankles in smelly mud – and quite frankly, quite a bit of cow shit, though Ellie prefers not to think about it too much – as they slave away under the scathing sun, trying to repair one of the fences surrounding the farmlands on the south side of town. Seemingly never-ending pastures stood in place of the decrepit houses that had occupied the place until they had torn them down last year. Only the concrete foundations remained now.

Before that, the livestock had been kept in enclosed farmlands outside the gates, but an onslaught of coyote attacks that had killed nearly half of the animals had forced Leonard to find a better housing solution. Since no one used any the residences on the south side of the settlement, as they had all been heavily water-damaged in the time between the Outbreak and Leonard deciding to settle a community, it had been turned into pastures where cows and goats and sheep and horses roamed about freely.

Fixing the fences is repetitive work, and so, as she gets into the rhythm of the task, her mind inevitably wanders away.

Ellie had imagined telling her friends about her bite more times than she was able to count, or even remember. Mostly in the dead of the night, when she could not sleep, or those nights where she would wake up in cold sweat as she dreamt that she was back at that mall in Boston. Back with Riley – happy, hopeful, until she inevitably turned as Ellie watched, helplessly. Back when everything was so much simpler.

Those nights, she’d stare up at the ceiling until the birds started singing outside her window and the first shy rays of sunlight broke through the darkness of the night. She’d spend hours letting her mind wander, and it went everywhere she did not allow it to go during any other moment.

How different her life would have been if she had never been bitten. If Riley had been the one immune and not her. If Marlene hadn’t been injured in the Boston QZ, if she’d never been entrusted into Joel’s care, if he had died somewhere along the way.

How different it would be now if she’d only trusted her friends enough to tell them the truth.

It was much too late to change any of it now, she knew.

Dina hadn’t talked to her at all since their return from patrol, seven weeks ago, and neither had Jesse. Simon was still blissfully unaware of anything, putting any tensions he felt between his three friends on Jesse and Dina’s recent break-up, and Ellie being caught in the middle of it.

Those nights, alone in the dark, she wishes she could go back in time and do it all differently.

She would tell Dina the truth the moment the older girl stepped foot in the library looking for that book on gardening. She would tell Jesse as soon as he walked through the door of the old Church where she had first seen him, she’d tell Simon during their first conversation, under that tree.

Hell, she’d walk through the gates of Jackson screaming it at the top of her lungs if she could, caution be damned.

Anything would be better than being ignored by two of the people she cared most about it this fucked up world.

“Heads up!”

By the time Ellie looks up, the pebble has already hit her square in the middle of the forehead. It doesn’t hurt, just annoys her, and effectively snaps her out of her reverie.

Her eyes find Chuck, some twenty feet away from her, crouched down near one of the crooked fence poles he was in the process of straightening. His face is apologetic, like he can’t believe he just threw a fucking rock at a seventeen-year-old’s face. “What the fuck was that for?”

“What the fuck’s wrong with your reflexes?” he asks in return without missing a beat, his blue eyes looking at her in concern, half-hidden behind the thick frame of his glasses. “Two months ago a goddamn worm couldn’t have crawled past you without you knowing, and now I warn you I’m going to throw a rock at your face, and you let it hit you right in between your eyes!”

He looks at her face as if it is the first time he is seeing it and, much like the first time he’s stared at her this way, Ellie feels more like he’s looking through her than at her.

“Fuck off, Chuck.”

Ellie brushes the dirt from her knees. Chuck keeps silent as she rises to her feet, but she feels his gaze burn into her back while she gives her section of the fence a good shake to make sure it is sturdy enough. When she starts ripping nails out of the damp wood of the next damaged section, the tattooed man finally goes back to work without speaking the question she knows he had been itching to ask.

She doesn’t fool herself into thinking she can escape his curiosity much longer, but she’s glad for his silence, however long it’ll last.

The sun burns her exposed shoulders where she rolled the sleeves of her shirt until it looked like a tank top, and she knows it’ll sting come tomorrow morning, but for now anything that diminishes the blistering heat they are subjected to sounds good to her.

She’s almost done with her last section, the sun high in the sky and her stomach growling in hunger, when she hears Chuck stop working behind her. She doesn’t have to turn around to know he’s observing her. “Just spit it out already.”

If Chuck is startled, he doesn’t show it. “What happened on that patrol?”

She had told him only the essential when she had asked him to do her second tattoo to cover up her newest bite – that the four of them had gotten into a fight with a bunch of Infected, that Leonard had been injured and that she had been bitten again. He must’ve deduced by her brooding expression that he wouldn’t get any more information from her the night she asked for the tattoo, and he never asked about it over the two sessions it took to get the wolf design from his workbook’s pages to her skin.

“Fucker bit me,” Ellie said simply. She shoves her tools in the red toolbox by Chuck’s feet, ready to leave, but he makes no move to head back to his house.

He looks at her expectantly. “I knew that, smartass.”

“What more do you want then?”

“For you to stop sulking all the time would be a good start,” he says, his words devoid of any animosity despite the accusing nature of the words.

“I’m not sulking.”

“And I’m six foot two.”

“Screw you.”

She shuts the toolbox’s lid and grabs the handle after making sure that they left none of their borrowed equipment behind, annoyed as all hell.

Between stumbling into bed for a few hours of deep, dreamless sleep and then getting up at the ass crack of dawn to head out to the pastures before it got too hot in the fields, her patience is growing thinner by the second.

“Ellie.”

She feels the fleeting touch of Chuck’s hand on her shoulder applying just enough pressure to let her know he wants her to stay, but not enough to make her feel trapped or startle her. Not that it takes much to startle her lately, anyway.

He’s standing an arm’s length away, in the shade from the lone birch tree standing tall and proud. His skin is red, and sweaty, as is hers, and the bags under his eyes rival her own. Suddenly, she feels awful for snapping at him for no reason – he’s probably just as exhausted as she is.

“What?”

“I don’t know what happened on that patrol,” Chuck starts. She’s about to give him the same answer as before, but he holds up his hand to stop her and she bites the words back, even though she strongly considers turning right the fuck back to where she was headed and storming off. “And if you don’t want to tell me, that’s fine. But god fucking damn it, get your shit in order. You three are driving me insane with your cold-shouldering and your brooding.”

She wants to yell at him. What she does with her time is none of his fucking business, but her mind can’t decide between shouting or straight up punching his glasses in, so she just stays there frozen with her lips slightly parted in an unspoken tirade instead.

He pays no mind to the seething look she sends his way, or the way her fist shakes against her thigh as he takes the toolbox from her grasp – though if the tremor in her fingers is from anger or confusion or sadness, she couldn’t say. Somehow, she thinks she feels all of those emotions at once, all the time.

It’s horrible.

“I don’t know how,” she finally says.

Chuck leans against the fence post, leaning the toolbox against his leg. “Do you want my advice?”

She nods. Not for the first time, she notices him rubbing at the date tattooed on his wrist, much in the same way she strokes the moth and fern leaves inked on her arm. No, she realises with a start, not like my tattoo – like Riley’s tags.

His fingers brush the inked date the same way her fingers brush against the cold metal that rests against her chest, close to her heart. Like a man lost in the memories of happier times, long passed but never forgotten.

Like a man whose life had crumbled before his eyes, and who needed a constant reminder of who he used to be.

Like someone who could never quite let go of the past.

Much like her.

“Put aside your pride. It’s not going to help you in this shit world, but friendship is, and whatever it is you did, it’s not worth being alone and angry.” His fingers swipe over the numbers one last time before he shoves his hands deep into his pockets. “Trust me. You don’t want to wake up one day and realise you’ve missed your chance to take it back before its too late.”

Chuck might be standing in front of her, all flaming hair and blue eyes, but it’s Dina’s voice she hears in her head.

You didn’t tell us.

She feels awful all over again.

Because it’s true – she consciously decided to keep part of who she was from her friends.

Because she can’t see either Dina or Jesse talking to her anytime soon. She knows if it was the other way around, she’d have a hard time getting past it.

Because she doesn’t know how to show them how sorry she is.

Ellie bites her lips so hard she tastes the blood on her tongue.

“I don’t think I’d be able to forgive myself for what I did.”

Her confession is barely over a whisper.

Chuck hears it as clearly as if she’d been screaming at the top of her lungs.

“It doesn’t matter if you can’t, it only matters that the people you care about do, don’t you think?”

“What if they can’t?”

Chuck’s fingers twitch in his pocket, and Ellie can only assume it’s because they’re itching to go back to his tattoo.

“Then at least you’ll get to sleep knowing you’ve done all you can to make it right,” he says. His eyes are focused on something behind her, something she can’t see. “I think that’s better than wondering for the rest of your life if you could have done some things differently.”

***

She can’t sleep.

It’s the dead of night, the whole community is silent, asleep, and she can’t find a way to drift off.

Chuck’s words are still ringing in her ears, like a song stuck in her head, repeating itself over and over again until she can’t think of anything else.

They’re all she hears as she rolls out of bed and puts on a clean set of clothes. They’re her only company as her feet drag her all the way across town to the familiar house with the blue door and windowsills, moving like a shadow in a ghost town.

She’s never done this before. It’s always been Dina seeking her out in the middle of the night, never her, but it’s been weeks without so much as a greeting and the radio silence is slowly eating at her.

She can’t take it anymore.

Ellie knocks on the door. Once, twice, three times, until she sees the soft light of the lamp on Dina’s bedside table shine faintly behind the closed curtains signaling that she’s awake now. Her heart is pounding against her ribcage, but her mind is empty, save for Chuck’s words of advice, and when the front door swings open to reveal a disheveled Dina rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, she still hasn’t decided what she’s going to say.

For a moment, all she sees in the girl’s eyes is worry, most likely over what catastrophe brought her all the way over here in the middle of the night.

Then it is replaced with her newfound blank expression she’s never seen her use with anyone else before and it feels as though her breath has been knocked out of her.

“Ellie.”

Her voice is cold and hard and it sounds almost foreign to Ellie’s ears, like it’s not really her friend talking but a stranger.

“Hi,” she breathes out, unable to say anything else that would make sense right now.

Dina leans against the doorframe, her face blank. “What are you doing here?”

“I want to talk.”

The words come out of her mouth just fine, but she feels as if her tongue is twice its normal size in her mouth.

“I don’t.”

It’s only Ellie’s quick reflexes that keep the door from slamming shut in her face. That, and her feet sliding between the frame and the panel at the last second.

“Just hear me out, please!” Ellie pleads. Dina’s holding the door shut, so she can’t see her face, but she can imagine the look of annoyance painted on her features. She’s seen it enough times directed at someone else, but never her.

“I don’t owe you anything.”

“But I do,” she says, ignoring the throbbing in her foot from where it is still trapped, afraid she’ll be left talking to a piece of wood in the middle of the night if she moves it. “I owe you an apology, at least. A real one.”

The pressure on her foot loosens a little and she can’t help but think this is the closest she’ll get to an invitation to speak tonight.

There is a silence the other side of the door.

“You never apologize to people,” Dina says, sounding genuinely surprised, and it feels so good to hear something other than disdain or plain dislike that Ellie almost forgets to speak.

Almost.

“I’ve never felt like I’ve had a reason to before.”

The door creaks open and Dina appears behind it. Her arms are crossed over her chest and her eyes are trained on hers, demanding the apology she was just promised.

Ellie’s not going to waste her chance.

The words spill out of her mouth like the dam that had been holding them back for weeks just burst from the pressure.

“I fucked up. I should have known better than to keep things from you and Jesse, and I should have trusted you more. I’m so, so sorry for what I did.”

The only answer from Dina is silence. Behind Ellie, the crickets chirping in the distance is louder than usual, or maybe it’s just that her silence is just that more deafening.

“I never meant to make you feel like I didn’t trust you,” she continues, her voice hushed and shaky. “You’re one of the people I trust most in this world. It’s just that I didn’t want to get close to anyone when I first got here, and then we became friends and I wanted to tell you but I didn’t know how. And the more time went by, the more guilty I felt for keeping it from you. I didn’t know how to bring it up after all this time without you resenting me.”

Dina’s arms fall to her sides, sliding into the back pockets of the jeans shorts she probably just threw on to answer the door, and her face softens just the slightest bit, so Ellie continues, knowing she has her full attention now and might never get it like this again.

“I was afraid of you rejecting me for being Infected, and it was easier to pretend I was just like everyone than to face that possibility.”

“Aren’t you afraid of someone hearing you?”

Dina’s voice stops her before she can jump back into her speech, as does the realisation that she’s been stating loudly her Infected status for all of Dina’s neighbours to hear, in the dead of the night when there is no sound loud enough to drown out her voice.

“Yes,” she answers simply, truthfully, “but I’m tired of hiding it, and if that’s what it takes for you to talk to me again, then I’ll shout it from the rooftops in a heartbeat.”

Dina looks at her like she’s grown a third head. The moon is reflected in her eyes, a small dot of light in her otherwise dark irises, and she still has marks on her face from her pillow.

She has no right to be that beautiful and that mad at her at the same time.

“I’m not asking for that,” she starts, and Ellie might be mistaken, but she thinks she hears the tiniest hint of annoyance in her voice. Still, even if it is, it’s the first time she’s expressed an emotion other than disdain or indifference for her in seven weeks, and she’ll take it any day. “I’m asking for you to put yourself in my shoes. I thought we were close enough for you to tell me shit like this, but apparently, we weren’t. How do you think that felt, Ellie?”

“I’m sorry.”

“I don’t care how sorry you are,” she spits out, and the fiery Dina she knows is back with a vengeance. The older girl grabs the collar of her flannel shirt and pulls her inside, closing the door so hard it makes the very walls of her home shake as Ellie stumbles in her living room. Then Dina turns back around, and Ellie takes a step back. Maybe being dragged inside wasn’t such a good thing after all.

Ellie’s throat tightens at the sound of her nickname.

Dina steps forward and she crosses her arms over her chest once more. It could be the fact that her hair looks like she got struck by lightening, or the fact that her eyes are just about to burn her alive where she stands, but Ellie’s afraid.

She’s afraid of what she’ll say, afraid of what she’ll do, but most of all, she’s afraid of losing their friendship over this. At least, if it all goes to shit now, she’ll know where she stands, as opposed to the uncertainty she’s been stuck in for the past weeks.

“It hurt. How do I know you won’t do it again? How many more secrets are you keeping to yourself, Freckles?”

Ellie gulps. Too many.

“I don’t want to hide things from you anymore,” Ellie says, and it comes out as more of a plea than a statement. “Whatever it is you want to know, just ask me.”

It was the wrong thing to say, apparently. Dina explodes. “Do you think it makes everything better? That you telling me things now will erase the fact that you kept the fact that you are fucking immune from me for two fucking years? It’s not that easy!”

She punctuates every sentence by shoving her backwards until the back of Ellie’s knees hit the couch and she falls backwards into the cushions. She’s left to stare up at her friend from her spot while she figures out what to do.

“Then tell me how to fix this, because I have no fucking idea what to do anymore!” Ellie didn’t mean to yell, but it takes Dina by surprise long enough for her to keep going before she gets a chance to scream at her some more. “I tried giving you your space, I tried apologizing, and it’s getting nowhere, and I’m miserable! So please, please, tell me what to do.”

Dina’s voice is ice cold when she answers – Ellie almost wishes she’d start shouting again.

You’re miserable?” she seethes, her jaw clenched. “What about me? Do you think I’m enjoying this?”

She paces the length of her living room as she speaks, her eyes pointedly not looking at her as she does so.

“Of course not, I…”

“Just be quiet, will you?”

Ellie’s mouth stills, half-formed words still on her lips, but she keeps quiet.

Dina stops her pacing to face her. “I’m just as miserable as you are. If you hadn’t kept that bite mark from us, Jesse wouldn’t have tried to shoot you. And I wouldn’t have broken up with him over it.”

“You broke up with him because he tried to shoot me?” Ellie asks, all previous agreement of keeping her mouth shut already forgotten.

“That, and other things. We had a different way of seeing things, and it just wouldn’t have worked out. The shooting you thing was just the last straw.”

They stare at each other in silence. Dina’s breathing hard, like all the yelling had used all the air her lungs could hold, and Ellie’s fidgeting with the chain of the Firefly tags on her neck. Her hands are shaking. Outside, the crickets are still chirping, their song unchanged after the shouting match they had just witnessed.

“What do you want to know?” Ellie asks again, softer this time. “I know it won’t make any of what happened better, but I don’t want to feel like I’m hiding things anymore.”

Dina nods. She sits on the rug in front of the couch, cross-legged with her hands resting on her thighs. “Who’s Joel? He’s not really your dad, is he?”

Ellie shakes her head. “Some guy the leader of the Fireflies trusted enough to smuggle me out of Boston, after I was bitten. She got injured, and she needed someone to take me outside of the city walls to the Capitol building so one of her teams could pick me up and bring me to Salt Lake City. When we got there, her team had been shot, and we’ve been travelling together ever since. Joel thought it would be safer for people to think we were related than to let them ask questions about how we came across each other.”

“Not such a stupid thing to do,” Dina comments, bringing her knees up to her chin. “Why do you hate winter so much?”

Ellie gulps. Even with Joel, she tries to avoid speaking of what happened in the time she had to care for them both as much as possible. Can’t go back on that being honest thing now.

“So?”

“Joel got impaled on a rebar,” Ellie whispers. “I had to make sure we survived, because he was unconscious and feverish for weeks. I met this guy, David, when I was out hunting. He offered me shelter and traded me the deer in exchange for antibiotics. I was stupid enough to trust him, and it backfired. He kept me prisoner at his camp, that’s when I learned who him and his guys truly were – cannibals. Tried to kill me, but I got him first. Everytime I see snow, I see that ski resort. I see his stupid, dead face.”

Just saying his name leaves a horrible taste in her mouth. Even though it’s a very, very basic rundown of what transpired then, Dina doesn’t press the issue further. Ellie’s hands are still shaking and she can’t get them to stop.

“Who’s Riley?”

“My friend from back in Boston who got bitten. You already know that.”

“I meant, who was Riley? You told me he died, but you’re still wearing his tags to this day. Must have been someone special for you to hang on to that through everything.”

She seems to have calmed down a bit. It makes Ellie feel more peaceful than she has in weeks.

Maybe that’s why she corrects her this time.

“She.”

“What?”

Ellie looks into Dina’s confused eyes. There’s no way to back up now, but she wouldn’t even if she could. She said she was going to be honest and answer all the questions Dina had.

“Riley was a girl,” she confesses, waiting for a reaction of some kind. It never comes.

Dina simply looks at her, head cocked to the side. “That’s why you never used any pronouns when talking about her.”

“Yeah. You assumed she was a guy at that party, when we were playing that drinking game, and I never bothered to correct you. I should have.”

The older girl is pensive, her chin resting on her knees and her eyes going back and forth over the features of Ellie’s face. “You like girls.”

“Yep.”

“Is it only girls?”

“I’d say dicks aren’t really my thing, so yeah.”

Dina cringes. “So that date I set you up on with Simon…”

Ellie smiles. “Would have worked out much better if he had boobs and a vagina, I assume.”  

They talk for a while longer. More accurately, Ellie speaks, and Dina mostly listens, which is a complete reversal of their usual roles.

The sun is rising when Dina sends her away.

Chuck was right. At least now, she can sleep, because whatever happens now, she’ll have done all in her power to fix things with Dina.

***

She doesn’t see Dina at all over the next week, nor does she see Jesse anywhere during that time.

One day, she’s sitting on her usual chair, at her usual spot on the watchtower, when she hears someone climbing up the ladder behind her. She doesn’t turn around. “You sure that ladder can support you weight?”

“You’re hurting my feelings, Freckles.”

That gets her to turn around so fast it makes her head spin, because it isn’t Chuck’s booming voice coming from behind her, but Dina’s soft one.

She’s just standing there near the ladder, a basket at her feet and a riffle slung over her shoulder. Her hair is up in its usual bun, with a few runaway strands escaping the confines of the hairband and coming down in soft curls to frame her flushed face.

With the last rays of the setting sun fading away behind her, she looks like one of those Greek goddesses that she read about, if they owned firearms and cowboy boots.

“I took Chuck’s shift tonight,” she says as if it was an everyday thing. She sits on the empty chair beside Ellie’s, whose mouth is still hanging open. “Are you hungry? I brought leftovers.”

She pulls out a sandwich wrapped in tinfoil out of the basket and hands it to Ellie, who accepts gratefully. They eat in silence, staring at the tree line and, occasionally, each other when the other one isn’t looking.

“I’d wait until Jesse comes to you to apologize,” Dina advises through a mouthful of chicken. “He does things at his own pace, and this really fucked him up good. Might take a while.”

Ellie nods vigorously. “And us? Does this mean we’re okay?”

“Not yet,” Dina says, staring out into the wilderness as night sets around them. “But we’ll be.”

That’s all Ellie needs to hear for now.