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There is a World Elsewhere

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It was colder than it should have been for that time of year. ‘Course who the fuck knew what anything should have been? The world hadn’t been the way it should have been for a long, long while.

Nothing was the way it should have been.

The storm that had threatened to fall since early that afternoon burst from the midnight sky, beating against the basement window like it was trying to break through.

The basement.

She had a bedroom two floors up, sure, but there was something about it that had always been uncomfortable. She slept in it every now and then, but for years she avoided making it anything that felt like “home”.

Just like this house, “the Hearth”, with which Tommy and Maria had set them up once they’d gotten back to Jackson. Nope, nothing felt like home.

That wasn’t true.

Joel felt like home. Dina felt like home. Even some of the people in the commune felt like home.

But she didn’t even know what “home” was supposed to feel like - so how could she be sure?

She finished tying on her boots, slid her switchblade into the right one, and stood slowly from the small mattress in the corner of the basement. Dina shifted below her, peaceful, silent, sleeping like a baby. Ellie would never know how she did that.

She walked quietly toward the faded bomber jacket that she’d haphazardly tossed onto a chair earlier in her rush to… well… know what? Some shit is just for her and Dina. Don’t pry.

Slipping one arm in, then the other, she zipped the jacket over her hoodie, grabbed her flashlight, and bent down to pick up an old pistol and a sniper rifle, which she strapped across her back.

A low creak came from above her: Joel was in the kitchen.

Ellie sighed inaudibly. It had been a rough few years between them. Sure, she loved him, though she’d never say it. Ew. But what he’d done… and then what he’d said to her before they’d settled back in Jackson with Tommy, Maria, and everyone else… it had been festering in her for years. And Ellie hated to let shit fester.

She picked up a bottle of bourbon from the small desk by the stairs, opening it and taking a drink. It burned the entire way down - she loved that.

She drank again.

“You gonna save some of that for me?” A raspy, soft voice came from across the room. A small smile crawled up Ellie’s face and she turned.

“‘Course, gotta cover that terrible morning breath…” she said.

“Midnight breath,” Dina corrected as Ellie crossed toward her.

“Hi babe,” Ellie crooned, leaning down and burying her face in the dark hair beside Dina’s left ear. She planted a kiss on her earlobe, then placed a few more across some of the freckles on her girlfriend’s soft, brown skin.

“The Watch?” Dina asked, and Ellie nodded.

Another creak echoed from upstairs.

“Does he ever sleep?” Dina asked, looking toward the ceiling.

“Rarely,” Ellie muttered, an edge coating her tone.

“Got some ice with that bourbon, I see,” Dina said, her voice still soft, low, imploring Ellie to talk about what had been on her mind. Dina had watched something eat away at her since she’d met the girl. Ellie had a healthy heaping of sass and sarcasm to her personality, obviously, and a chip on her shoulder the size of North America, but Dina remembered the first week she’d arrived in Jackson. Ellie had barely said two words to anyone, let alone Dina. But Dina rarely needed words to suss out what someone was like. No, she was much more adept at reading what people didn’t say than what they did, and Ellie spoke far more when she didn’t speak than when she was off on one of her rare, but famous, angry rants.

Ellie turned away.

“You’re gonna have to tell him sometime,” Dina said, propping herself up on her elbows.

“Not gonna have to do anything I don’t want to, actually,” Ellie said, turning her back toward Dina.

“So you’d rather just sleep in this basement forever than the bedroom next to his, that it?” Dina was brash, outspoken, but she always had this way of presenting everything like it wasn’t an attack. It was one of the things Ellie liked most about her. But not right now. Right now she felt like she was being manipulated.

“You know that’s not why I don’t sleep up there,” Ellie huffed, indignant, tossing the bottle of bourbon back onto the desk.

“Could have fooled me,” Dina said, using the same tone Ellie so often employed when she was mocking Joel.

“Christ, D, the fuck you want from me? You wake up just to give me shit?” Ellie leaned over onto the desk, her back still to Dina, her voice raised. Ellie rarely truly yelled, it just wasn’t in her generally more subtle, self-conscious demeanor. But she had her moments.

“I’m not giving you shit, baby. I just don’t like watching you eat yourself alive,” Dina said quietly, evenly. It was intimate. Ellie softened. Barely.

“Yeah, well. I gotta go,” she said, pulling her barely shoulder-length brown hair back into a tight bun and walking toward the door to the backyard.

“Be safe,” Dina said, and Ellie turned, her fingers wrapped around the doorknob.

“Yeah,” she said quietly, opening the door and throwing the hood of her hoodie up, stepping into the rain.

Drops beat down so hard that Ellie briefly feared having an eye taken out should one hit her just right. She pulled her hoodie more tightly around her face and began jogging toward the South Tower.

Overnight watches were her favorite. Not that she didn’t enjoy laying next to Dina while the girl slept, but there was something about being outside in the infinite black and silence at night that brought her peace. And if she got a shot or two off at a lone Runner, Clicker, or a group of Hunters or Bandits well, hell, that wasn’t too shabby either.

The “Towers” they’d built on the wall (more of makeshift kinds of hideouts made of scrap metal and ruggedly-chopped wood) would provide some relief from the rain. But it was still going to be cold. Maybe she could build a small fire up there without any smoke attracting too much attention…

Nah, Maria would kill her.

…Maybe it would be worth it.

She jogged around the last corner and began down toward the wall. It was quiet on the streets tonight. Usually a few stragglers were hanging about - playing a game of catch or having a couple drinks. Sometimes some of the kids sneaked out at night for ’target practice’ with their little water guns. Guess nobody wanted to be out in this downpour, though.

But Ellie had always liked the rain, and if no one wanted to join her, well that was fine with her. Not that she didn't like the others in the commune - she was generally happy to strike up conversations with anyone and they were good people... but lately, lately she'd taken to being with herself and her thoughts.

She reached the ladder to the South Tower and started to climb, careful not to slip. She stepped up onto the path on the top of the wall and walked a few steps toward the door to the Tower.

She knocked slowly twice. Then three times. Then waited for two seconds, and knocked twice in quick succession. The peephole on the door opened.

“Oh, hey Ellie,” a friendly, deep voice cut through the storm.

“Open the door, Jesse, it’s fucking cold out here,” Ellie moaned.

“All right, all right, hold your horses,” Jesse said as he unlocked and opened the door, allowing Ellie to step in.

“Thanks,” Ellie huffed, taking her jacket off and shaking it out before dropping it onto the back of a chair.

The Tower wasn’t enormous - it was big enough to fit about five people comfortably, but they rarely put that many up there. Tonight the South Tower had just been Jesse, and it would just be Ellie. A few blankets laid strewn in one of the corners, along with a couple chairs hanging about. The wind and rain was kept out mostly, but there was a slit a couple inches wide that cut through the entire circumference of the Tower walls so the Watchers could, you know, keep watch. There was a small latched door on one of the walls, just big enough to fit an arm through, that led out toward a heavy bell they had to ring if Jackson was ever in trouble. Ellie hoped to never have to use it, but in an Infected Dystopia, she knew her pipe dream was just that and it was only a matter of time.

“Cold out here tonight, huh?” Ellie said, peeking out toward the forests surrounding Jackson.

“Yeah, but it’s been quiet. Wrapped myself in a few blankets. Been fine,” Jesse said, tossing the blankets he’d had wrapped around himself her way.

“Gross, man, I don’t want your B.O. blankets,” Ellie said, letting them fall to the slightly damp floor.

She looked up at Jesse, grinning. He shot her a smile back - Jesse somehow always looked like a little kid when he smiled. He’d somehow retained a boyish charm amidst the devastating apocalypse. Ellie could see what Dina had seen in him. They’d dated for awhile before Dina and Ellie had gotten together, but Jesse had always been cool with Ellie, not like some of the other guys in town. They got a bit cold with Ellie when she and Dina had started… hooking up? Dating? Being “girlfriends”? Ugh, Ellie hated all those weird dating terms. Stupid shit. Honestly.

Ellie had guesses that some of the dudes thought that they were “in line” next to date Dina after Jesse. Stupid mentality, really. Ellie always chuckled a little bit whenever she and Dina walked by any of them. If she was feeling particularly brave, she’d give them a little smile and a wink, too. They weren’t fond of that.

Jesse, though, Jesse had always been cool.

“Earth to Ellie,” Jesse said, snapping his fingers in front of her face. “Ya with me?”

“Oh, yeah,” Ellie said, and coughed. “Sorry.”

“Phew, take a couple shots before coming tonight?” Jesse said, jokingly fanning the air in front of his nose.

“One or two,” Ellie said, smiling.

“Well I wanna gonna ask if you wanted to drink to our stunning health or something before I headed home to bed, but looks like you beat me to it,” Jesse said, holding up a bottle of whiskey. “And Maria’d have my ass if I let you sit up here drunk all night.”

“Oh, our stunning health, huh?” Ellie said.

“Or something,” Jesse grinned.

“Gimme that,” Ellie said, reaching for the bottle. He handed it over. “Or something,” she said, lifting the bottle over her head and taking a swig, then handing it back to Jesse, who followed suit.

“See ya when the sun’s back in the sky, kid,” Jesse said, popping the cork back in the bottle, tossing it in his pocket, and opening the door to the rain.

“Who you callin’ kid, old man?” Ellie said, grinning just slightly.

“Old man? Now you’re just confusing me with Joel,” Jesse said. “I’m not that much older than you.”

“Yeah, don’t you forget it,” Ellie said as Jesse shut the door, the two of them still chuckling.

Ellie grabbed a few blankets from the floor and took a seat on one of the chairs, setting herself up to sit staring out across forest all night. The rain made it difficult to see further than a few feet but she’d manage. She always did.

She took a few quiet, even breaths, happy to be breathing the rainy air and have some time to herself. She absentmindedly traced the tattoo on her right forearm. A nostalgic smile crept up her face: she remembered how pissed Joel had been when she’d showed up back at the Hearth with it. Ellie guessed old habits died hard, even if it had been 25 or so years since the world had even looked like it used to, since anyone would have given two shits about tattoos. She hadn’t even been alive then. Joel had, though.

Her tattoo… it wasn’t just some ink - it wasn’t just something sentimental or a thing she’d done when she was drunk… no, this tattoo covered her five-year-old bite scar, and often Ellie tried to let the tattoo hide her memories along with it. She looked down, her fingers still moving along the outlines of the leaves and the moth, the harsh blacks of the ink clashing perfectly with the different shades of the white and pink of her skin and scar. The whole thing was so ugly and utterly gorgeous at the same time. It’s why she loved it so much.

Joel crossed her mind again and she sighed angrily. Deep down she knew Dina was right, she knew she was going to have to confront Joel about what he’d done four years ago but… dammit she really didn’t want to.

Not because she was afraid of him.

Not because she was afraid of the confrontation.

Not even because she didn’t want to piss him off.

It was because she didn’t want to see his face when she finally told him the truth.

She didn’t want to see his face when she told him that she had known.

She’d known all along. Girl magically born immune to the infection that had ravaged the planet?

She knew.

She knew that four years ago she had been crossing the country with an understanding she wouldn’t wake up from that surgery, but fucking hell, at least it all might have meant something!

She’d known she was going to die. But they were all going to sooner or fucking later.

And Joel had ripped that away from her.

 

A stray tear fell down her cheek as she kicked the sheet-metal wall in front of her, hard. She didn’t know if she was more angry at Joel or the fact that she was sitting in this stupid Tower crying over something four years old.

She didn’t have much time to stew in anything, however, as the deep BONG of another Tower’s bell rang out across the commune.

Jackson was under attack.

“Fuck me,” Ellie whispered, tossing the blankets onto the ground and readying her sniper in her hands.

Chapter Text

The alert was from the North Tower, far as Ellie could tell. Sure the echoing made it difficult to pinpoint exactly from which Tower it had come, but Ellie was willing to stake her life on it having been North. And since she was pretty much doing exactly that, she’d better’ve been fuckin’ right.

Her gut told her that something was in the forest around the South Tower, too, though. She looked out across the trees, making sure this attack wasn’t coming from all sides… but it was silent, so she quelled the voice inside her - she had to go North.

She had a few choices: jump down from the Wall and rush toward the North Tower through town, or run across the Wall to get there.

The Wall might take longer, and make her a more easy moving target, but the path was clearer.

“Think fast,” Ellie whispered to herself as she pulled her jacket on.

A pounding came on her Tower door.

“Ellie! Let’s go!” It was Jesse. Ellie guessed he hadn’t gotten too far toward home before the bell rang out. But he’d come back for her instead of heading straight there? Why?

She ripped the door open and there he was, soaking wet.

“Come on!” he shouted through the rain.

“Do you know what it is?” Ellie asked, following him down the ladder back into Jackson proper.

Guess we’re going this way, she thought.

“Not sure. Hearing it’s a hoard of Clickers, but dunno. Guard up, yeah?” Jesse said.

Gunshots rang from the North Tower.

“Only way I work,” Ellie said, keeping pace with Jesse despite the fact that his legs were longer and strides far bigger.

“How good are you with that thing?” he asked, head motioning toward the sniper rifle in Ellie’s grasp.

“You know how fucking good I am,” she answered. No time for false modesty.

“Maria wants you at the top of Henderson’s-”

“What? No! Fuck that! I’m not hanging back!” Ellie raged through the downpour.

“I don’t have time to argue with you, Ellie,” Jesse began. “Get to the top of Henderson’s and keep us fucking safe,” he finished. He picked up his pace, and Ellie struggled to keep up with him. “Go!” he yelled.

Ellie practically ground to a halt as she split off to the right, heading to the tallest building in the commune. She knew there was more to this than just some “keep us safe” bullshit. Joel hadn’t wanted her on the Watch at all, but Ellie was nothing if not stubborn, and she wanted to be on patrols. And once she had Maria on her side, Joel couldn’t say no. Not that it would have mattered if he did - but it might have made her feel more shitty about it.

She hurried around the back of Henderson’s and leapt off the pavement - grabbing onto the bottom of the fire escape and hauling herself up. She ran up toward the top of the building, slipping now and then from the rain. Once she almost went straight over the edge of one of the railings.

She was a little guilty to think that she might not have minded if she did.

She’d have to unpack that one later.

Making it to the roof, she charged to the edge and set herself up, bringing her eye level with the scope and pointing herself due North.

She could see them beyond the wall. Clickers. Not just a horde. Hordes. Not massive ones, but hordes nonetheless.

She took out a few before she saw Jesse join the others.

“Don’t do anything fuckin’ stupid, now, Jess…” Ellie said to herself.

Jesse lit up a few molotovs and tossed them down in quick succession. They lit up a handful of Clickers but it wasn’t like the soaked ground was going to hold a flame for long.

Chills ran up Ellie’s spine. And yeah, it was cold outside and she was wet, but that wasn’t why. It was that eerie feeling she got when something was wrong. It always felt like, for a fraction of a second, everything was going in slow-motion, or worse, backwards. It was a feeling she knew all too well.

She slowly turned around to face the South Tower, the scope of her sniper remaining eye-level as she spun. It was fucking dark past the Wall, that was for sure. But she’d gotten somewhat good at seeing in the dark, and she’d spent enough time staring out at these forests to know what they should look like. And she certainly knew what they should feel like.

It wasn’t like this.

A shift in the forest, and then something reached out and pulled whatever shifted back behind a tree. Then silence.

Ellie’s eyes widened. These weren’t more mindless Clickers. They were Hunters.

This had been planned. An ambush. Using the Clickers as a distraction. Her gut had been right.

“Mother fuckers,” Ellie said. Gunshots still echoed from the North Tower. She turned, checking on the team. She could see a few of them had jumped down beyond the wall - some of the Watchers really enjoyed a good run for their lives. Adrenaline junkies. Fucking weirdos. Ellie took out three more Clickers for good measure.

She had a few choices - run toward the North Tower for backup, head back South and ring the bell, or head South and stay quiet, get the jump on the Hunters back there.

Ringing the bell might get the attention of the other Watch patrols, but it would blow any element of surprise she might be able to muster if she was able to get back into the South Tower without being seen. There were a few explosives in there, she might be able to take the Hunters out pretty quickly, depending on how many of them there were.

She turned back Southward, looking through her scope again.

Still nothing.

Still massively uneasy.

“Shit,” Ellie whispered, hating having to make the decision. She was good on her feet, even good under pressure, but didn’t mean she fucking liked it.

She jogged toward the fire escape and headed down, running as fast as she could back toward the South Tower once her feet hit the street.

She passed the quiet houses - people probably hiding in their basements and make-shift bunkers. That’s what they were supposed to do if they heard the ring of one of the Tower bells. Even in a world like this, not everyone was necessarily a great fighter. Poor fucks.

Strange to think that the houses were so quiet, and yet each of them housed lives. Ellie still wasn’t used to it. She was used to sprawling blocks of empty buildings, used to being one of a few, or one all by herself. Four years she’d lived in Jackson, and still the amount of people in the commune sometimes took her off-guard.

She could see Dina and Joel’s reaction - she knew they’d both be furious that she was going to the South Tower alone. Dina’s tone echoed in between her ears -

“Alone? Ellie, you went alone?! Are you trying to fucking kill me? Are you trying to fucking kill yourself?

Ellie wasn’t, but it wouldn’t have been the first time she’d heard those words from Dina. Or maybe she was, sometimes she wondered if her impulses led to some kind of fucked up, subconscious death wish. And maybe it had something to do with having made peace with her death before she was even fifteen. But, on the other hand, when it came down to it, when she was staring down the barrel of danger’s gun, she’d always fight to survive. That had to mean something. ‘Course Ellie thought everything meant something.

Her pace slowed as she approached the South Tower. Not that anyone outside the Wall could have heard her over the roar of the rainfall, but it was instinctive. She hurried up the ladder, staying low when she reached the top, crouching until she reached the door to the tower, creaking it open and looking around before stepping inside.

The rain had let up just slightly, enough so that her view of the forest was a little clearer. Not as much as she would have liked... but fuck it, nothing was ever perfect.

One Hunter, couldn’t have been a kid of more than eighteen, darted from behind one of the trees, moving in a crouched zig-zag pattern toward the gate below Ellie.

Poor fucking kid.

Ellie took aim, taking him out easily. Headshot. Dead before he hit the ground.

Ellie was used to seeing death - fuck, death was the biggest part of the world she lived in, even in the utopia they’d tried to create this side of the Wall. No one was immune to death, but she’d be lying if she said it didn’t still sting every time she pulled a trigger - enemy or not. Not that anyone left in this world didn’t have compromised morals, not that anyone’s hands were clean, but some part of Ellie had always struggled with being the one to take someone’s life away.

A little bit of Ellie felt like everyone’s death was her fault, even if she didn’t pull the trigger. After all, she hadn’t provided the cure for the virus… and she could have. But she would never - ever - give power to that thought, let alone say it aloud to anyone. She hardly even knew herself that was part of the guilt she carried.

She stared through the scope at the kid laying dead on the ground; she hadn’t heard a peep from anyone around him. She knew there were more. But how many?

The seconds ticked by, and Ellie grew agitated. They had used this kid as bait - to see if there was anyone in the Tower and how good of a shot they were.

“Dicks,” she muttered to herself, and it stung. Because she, too, had used that tactic before. Moral absolutes were much more difficult to come by in the dystopia, and grey areas were all Ellie knew, all she had ever known. They were the only things she dealt in, when it came down to it.

Gunshots still rang out from the North Tower. Fucking hell there were a lot of Clickers.

There was something wrong with this. Seconds were becoming minutes, and no other Hunters were showing themselves. Of course the Hunters weren’t going to all come rushing from the trees, guns blazing, but only one of them had surfaced thus far? For how long did they think the Clickers were going to keep Jackson distracted? Were there that many of them to keep the Watchers on the ropes for a long while?

And what was worse, Ellie had showed her hand.

She’d done exactly what they wanted. Like she thought before - they’d used the kid as bait, and she’d taken it.

And then several things then happened at once.

A molotov was thrown toward the gate below her. Stupid, that shit wasn’t going to do anything.

Several bullets dug into the wood and metal of the Hideout.

The Hunters were well hidden, Ellie couldn’t see a goddamn one of them. Not so much as a glimpse.

A small, thin can came flying through the Tower’s peep hole strip, hitting the wall across the room from Ellie. She instinctively dove as far away as she could, sure it would explode on impact.

It didn’t.

For a moment, she felt a surge of triumph. Idiot Hunters couldn’t even make a functioning bomb.

Then a powdery smoke started seeping from the top of the can. It didn’t look like smoke from a fire, and it didn’t smell like… fucking anything. Ellie picked up a long plank of wood, her appendages tingling with adrenaline. She reached toward the can and tapped it, once again expecting it to explode. It didn’t. 

Good thing, cuz you’re fucking POKING IT, ELLIE, she chastised herself.

The tingling in her appendages grew, the pins-and-needles in her legs becoming almost painful. Then, suddenly, they went numb.

“Oh fuck,” Ellie whispered, the realization hitting her. This wasn’t adrenaline, and that wasn’t a bomb, or poison, but a paralytic. Her arms, too, were tingling beyond belief. They hadn’t gone numb yet, but she knew she had a few seconds at most.

She pulled her body up the Tower wall, struggling to keep herself up for long enough to unhook the small, latched door that led to the bell. Her right arm was going numb, only reacting to what she was asking it to do about half the time. She willed her hand forward out the small opening, feeling around for the bell’s clapper. She felt something heavy against her hand, moving ever so slightly. That must have been it, but Ellie could barely feel it as her arm fell almost completely numb.

She couldn’t make a fist to grab the clapper.

Hanging onto the wall, she used all her body weight to swing her right arm against the clapper, which hit the wall of the inside of the bell, making a small noise. She did it again, more powerfully, and it sent the GONG across the commune. Something dug into her hand, but she didn’t feel it beyond a slight pressure as her entire body became numb and she fell to the floor of the Tower.

She willed her head to turn so she could look over at her hand, and saw the floor around it growing red with slick, wet blood. She could barely move her neck but craned it enough to see that there was a hole straight through her right palm. She couldn’t feel it - but it was brutal to see. She was lucky her hand hadn't been blown completely off.

Fuck, she thought.

The rain fell heavy on the wood and metal around her, but she could still hear a group of Watchers getting closer to the Tower. They were fucking fast when they needed to be.

She cursed at herself - she hadn’t even gotten to throw any proximity mines down toward the Hunters. All she’d done was take just one of them out.

A CLINK took her attention - another can landed on the ground across the room. She couldn’t move her head anymore but she could shift her eyes just enough to see it, with all kinds of sharp objects sticking out from all sides. She’d seen that before - Joel had taught her how to make those.

And then it exploded.

***

Hours passed. Maybe days. Ellie didn’t know. She’d awoken a few times, so groggy that she couldn’t make out her surroundings, only to fall back unconscious.

Finally the time came when she opened her eyes and could kind of see the room around her. It was the hospital they’d set up in the old bank at the edge of the eastern part of town. Since it was one of the safer places with its thick vaults, Maria had said it would be the best place to house anyone sick or in need of healing. One of her more brilliant plans, in Ellie’s opinion, and considering Maria really had her shit on lockdown, that was saying something.

Angry voices came from outside the room.

“This is why I didn’t want her doing anything like this, Maria,” Joel roared.

“She’s not a kid anymore, Joel, she can make her own decisions-” Maria countered.

“She’s seen enough shit to last anyone six lifetimes! I didn’t risk everything to get her back here to-”

“She’s the best Watcher we have! She was the only one that figured out the Clickers were a diversion! This isn’t just about you, Joel!” Maria’s voice topped even Joel’s, and that mother fucker was loud when he wanted to be.

Silence followed. Ellie knew that silence like an old friend. Heavy, full of the promise of rage, but it was the silence wherein Joel did his best thinking. It was a silence where he knew he might be wrong, but couldn’t say it, because he had been just right enough to blind him. It was the same silence that always descended around anything that had to do with Ellie.

“Where are you going?” Maria’s voice was further away now - Joel must have stormed off. Soon there was nothing but empty quiet.

Ellie lifted her right hand and squeezed her temples, running over her eyes to the bridge of her nose. She felt the soft rub of cotton against her face. Opening her eyes, she found herself staring at her own bandaged hand.

Right. She’d had a bullet go straight through.

The memory of what happened in the Tower came flooding back. But the Watchers must have taken the Hunters down, because there she lay, healing in the commune’s hospital.

The light above her flickered.

A shift came from the chair in the corner and Ellie looked over, seeing Dina hunched uncomfortably in some sort of semi-rolled up position. Still sleeping, though. That girl could sleep anywhere.

A small smile made its way to Ellie’s lips.

Dina shifted again, her eyes opening and falling on Ellie, who was smiling at her. Well, not so much smiling, it looked more like an awkward grimace, but Dina knew it was the best the girl could do under the circumstances.

Dina jumped to her feet.

“Ellie,” she whispered, rushing to the bedside, careful not to touch her in fear of hurting her. “Baby, fuck, are you - how’s the pain?” Her voice was clinical, but Ellie could sense it cracking just beneath the surface.

“Got a hell of a headache,” Ellie moaned, her voice unusually raspy and deep. “And I guess my shooting hand won’t ever be the same,” she said, holding it up as if it was some kind of demented trophy.

“And your legs? Your…” Dina trailed off, seeing the look of confusion on Ellie’s face.

Ellie shifted in the bed, pulling the sheet down and looking at her body. She was bandaged all over in random places.

“Shit…” she said, staring at the damage such a small canister had done to her body. Her hands rushed to her face, a few band-aids here and there but nothing terribly serious. Her fingers roamed down her own neck - bandages galore. Jesus, she was lucky nothing had hit an artery.

“What the fuck were you thinking, heading back to the Tower alone?! Jesse said he told you to stay at the top of Henderson’s,” Dina said, and though all the words should have come together to form an angry attack, they came from deep within Dina’s chest, getting caught in her throat with concern.

“I didn’t think there was enough time to get to the North Tower and then back South before something happened…” Ellie defended, but trailed off at the end, not exactly firm in her belief, seeing Dina’s face crumbling.

“I’m so sorry, Dina, I’m so sorry…” Ellie said quietly.

“No - I - fuck, Ellie, Jesse was sure you were dead when he found you… I… fuck,” Dina’s voice was heavy with fear, tears beginning to fall down her cheeks. She stomped her foot, as if frustrated with her body’s betrayal of emotion.

“They got them, though? The Hunters?” Ellie asked. She couldn’t bring herself to fall into Dina’s fear right then, all she could do was ask about patrol.

Dina fell silent, the room filling with an odd kind of tension.

“Baby, I’m sorry - I didn’t mean to worry you - I wanted to keep Jackson safe - I didn’t know-” Ellie started, her resolve to stay on track about the Hunters quickly falling by the wayside.

“No, I know, I’m not… I wasn’t… shit, Ellie,” Dina said, struggling to find the words. But Ellie sensed a shift in her tone - it wasn’t coated with concern anymore, it was more like she didn’t know how to say what she wanted to say. Or maybe it was that she didn’t want to say it. Seconds ticked by.

“They weren’t Hunters,” Dina finally said. Confusion scrunched around Ellie’s nose. “They were Fireflies, Ellie.”

Chapter Text

Fireflies? Fucking Fireflies? No one had really talked about them since… well since she and Joel had arrived in Jackson. Word was they had disbanded, disappeared into the shadows. Even Tommy and Maria had heard they’d fallen apart.

The monster in Ellie’s chest roared. How dare they give people the hope they had, then disappeared without a word, only to resurface now?

She had looked for them.

Something else she’d never told anyone and never would. She had looked for the Fireflies when she’d settled down in Jackson. Asked around, sometimes taking trips outside the Wall to see if she could find anything. Dina always made jokes about how quiet Ellie had been when she first arrived at the commune, and Ellie played along, mostly cuz Dina was so goddamn cute when she lit up with that story, but Ellie hadn’t been quiet for no reason. She had been focused.

It was like they fell off the fucking planet - most of their graffiti had been covered up, their names stripped from walls and lips alike. Ellie couldn’t find anything about them, except that they were gone… So she stopped looking for the light. But it now seemed the light hadn’t stopped looking for her.

Mother. Fuckers.

Now? Now? When she finally felt like she had anything worth living for? Furthermore, the fuck was left to save? What, they’d create a vaccine (maybe) and go back to… normal? The fuck was normal? This was normal. This was the way the world worked. The way it had always worked for her. No one would go back to some ambiguous normal. The only way out now was through.

Or maybe they weren’t coming for her. Maybe they were coming for Joel. Or maybe it had been a coincidence. As if Ellie believed in those.

“I’m just so happy you’re okay,” Dina whispered, pulling Ellie from her reverie. Ellie scooched over in the bed, making room for Dina. It wasn’t easy, though, the pain meds they had her on were fading and searing pain was starting to set in. She cringed as she moved.

“Hey, hey, stop, be careful,” Dina said, closing the small gap between them immediately.

“I want you to sit,” Ellie said, still trying to move.

“I’ll bring the chair over,” Dina said, turning away, but Ellie’s hand on her arm stopped her movement.

“No. I want you to sit with me,” Ellie whispered, and for a moment, just a moment, it was like a spotlight shone on her vulnerability. She felt small, cold, like a frightened animal or a child that just needed to be held.

“Oh, baby,” Dina said quietly, fitting herself down beside Ellie and taking as much of the girl in her arms as she could without moving her too much.

Ellie laid her head on Dina’s shoulder and closed her eyes. Dina ran her fingers through Ellie’s dirty, half-matted hair, but Ellie knew she didn’t care. A low, soothing tune made its way out of her lips, and Ellie smiled. She loved when Dina hummed for her. Or sang. Or did most things, really.

After a few minutes, Ellie spoke.

“How pissed is Joel?” she asked, opening her eyes and looking up into Dina’s.

“Scale of one to ten?” Dina asked. “Like a twelve.”

“Shit.”

“Not even with you, though. He’s pissed at Maria.” Ellie felt Dina’s fingers leave her hair and run down her arm, making their way to hers and intertwining them.

“Yeah. I heard them earlier,” Ellie said. “You were sleeping.”

“I thought he was going to murder Burch if she didn’t tell him when you were gonna wake up.”

“Sounds like Joel.”

“He stayed here by your bedside with me for days,” Dina mused, planting a soft kiss on top of Ellie’s head.

“Oh yeah? You guys get a lot of bonding time?” Ellie craned her neck and looked up at Dina, who smiled.

“Yeah. He’s such a chatterbox,” she said, leaning down and meeting her lips with Ellie’s.

Then the door opened. Naturally.

In strode Burch, one of the commune’s best (and only) doctors. Ellie couldn’t pinpoint her age, but she had gray streaks in her long black hair and thick wrinkles across her dark skin, plus Ellie knew she had practiced medicine before the virus hit. She had to be at least sixty - but her attitude was ageless. Warm, intelligent, and never talked down to anybody. Even if the kids came to her with just a little cough.

“You’re awake,” she said, smiling. “This one’s barely left your side to pee,” she said, gesturing toward Dina. “You found a good one, Ellie.”

“Yeah, I think she found me,” Ellie said, looking up at Dina. She was sure it was with some kind of lovey-dovey expression that would make her gag to see on anyone else, but with the warm fluttering in her stomach, she couldn’t bring herself to care.

“How are you feeling?” Burch asked, looking over the bandages on Ellie’s body.

“Like a million bucks. Whatever that means,” Ellie sighed, smiling, her old, signature sass coating her voice.

“Well you’ve got some healing to do, but you’ll be okay,” Burch said, smiling back.

“What about this guy? I kinda need him. Whole, preferably,” Ellie said, holding up her right hand.

“Flex and unflex it for me?” Burch said, and Ellie tried to do as she asked. She started to make a fist, but an agonizing pain shot through her palm and the back of her hand.

“Shit!” she cried, stopping the movement, opting just to wiggle some of her fingers instead.

“Let’s get you some more pain medication, shall we? You want some more?” Burch asked, and Ellie looked up at Dina. She didn’t know why, exactly. What, was she expecting Dina to answer for her?

“Ellie?” Dina asked. “You want something for the pain?”

“Is it gonna make me sleepy?” Ellie asked, looking back at Burch.

“Yeah, it’ll knock you out for a bit.”

“No,” Ellie said, turning back to look at Dina. “I’m good, thanks.”

Burch smiled again and moved toward the door.

“I’ll let you rest some more. Your hand should be all right. It won’t be too pretty, but it should work pretty close to how it used to once it heals,” Burch said.

“Won’t be too pretty, huh? Well it’ll match the rest of me just fine,” Ellie said, in that self-deprecating tone the commune had come to know so well. Burch shook her head, chuckling, and closed the door behind her.

“I think you’re fucking devastating,” Dina said, snuggling herself down so she was fully laying next to Ellie, who turned and met her gaze.

“In more ways than one,” Ellie said, and kissed her again.

Suddenly the door opened.

“Fucking hell,” Ellie whispered to herself. Would anyone in this goddamn hospital let her kiss her fucking girlfriend for more than three seconds?

Tommy ran into the room, huffing heavily. Maria was a few seconds behind.

“Tommy! I said she’s not-” Maria stopped just behind Tommy when she saw Ellie laying with Dina. “Awake… Ellie, you’re awake,” she said.

“Just a bit ago,” Ellie said, all her walls suddenly back up. This seemed important. And whenever something was important, that usually meant someone got hurt.

“How are you? Are you all right?” Maria asked, moving Tommy aside and stepping inside.

“I’ll be fine. What is it?” Ellie asked, straight to business.

“It’s-” Tommy began, but Maria cut him off.

“I said not now, Tommy,” she whispered sternly.

“She has a right to know,” he whispered back.

“Guys, I’m six feet away. I can hear you even if you whisper,” Ellie said flatly. Tommy and Maria looked at one another, a heavy tension between them. “Well?” Ellie asked, waiting not-so-patiently for someone to tell her why the fuck they’d burst in.

“Get a few more hours of rest. We’ll tell ya when ya wake up,” Tommy mumbled, slightly defeated, but saying it from a place of genuine concern instead of frustration with Maria.

“We’re glad you’re safe, Ellie,” Maria said, reaching for the doorknob. “And good work. Your alert might have saved Jackson.” She nodded as she pulled the door closed behind her and Tommy.

“Rest? How the fuck am I supposed to rest now, when there’s obviously something I need to know?” Ellie sighed angrily. She turned back to Dina. “Do you know what it is? Is it Jesse, is he okay?” Ellie’s mind was off and running with any number of scenarios. Sometimes, if it went too fast, it was likely to spin out of control.

“Jesse’s fine. And no, I don’t know what they’re talking about,” Dina said, staring off toward the door, just a smidge of an edge in her voice, like she was angry that she hadn’t been let in on what Tommy and Maria were talking about. Ellie knew the feeling.

Ellie yawned as a wave of exhaustion cascaded over her. Sure she’d been sleeping most of the past… however many days. …How many days had it been?… but she was still tired.

“You sure you don’t want any meds?” Dina asked. “It might make sleeping easier. I can go get Burch,” she continued, beginning to climb off the bed.

“Don’t you go anywhere,” Ellie said, reaching for Dina and pulling her back down. She cringed a little, but tried not to let it show. Ellie instinctively rolled over just slightly, trying to take Dina in her arms and cradle her.

“Uh uh,” Dina said, gingerly pushing her back over. “No big spoon for you. That’s my job right now,” she finished, and Ellie moved back - not truly laying completely on her side, that would have stung like hell, but she was in-between enough to feel like Dina’s little spoon. Dina usually wanted to be the big spoon, but in the rare occasions that Ellie let that happen, the vulnerability was generally too much for her. Dina usually just let Ellie be the big spoon.

 

A pale, young man of maybe twenty-four escorted an even paler, smaller woman, possibly younger than him, down a dark alley. Both of them were in dark jackets, dark pants, and dark shoes. They spoke in muffled whispers, and every now and then turned to look behind them, checking to see if anything was there.

The first time they turned, Ellie had nearly bumped right into them. She hadn’t known why she was following them in the first place, actually, it just seemed like the right thing to do. When the guy and the girl didn’t notice her, that was when she realized she must have been in a dream.

The guy and girl continued down the alley, which quickly opened up into a street. On the edge of a quarantine zone, according to the signs.

Ellie looked around, wondering where they were. It looked vaguely like Boston, but she didn’t remember this particular zone. Huh.

The night was quiet, and Ellie could see the small patrol team up ahead, watching the zone boundary.

They’re trying to sneak the fuck out, Ellie thought. Well if they aren’t my kind of people.

They waited silently until the floodlight had passed, then hurried toward another alley on the other side of the road. Ellie hurried after them, a nervous tingling running through her body. She didn’t know why, though, it wasn’t like anything was going to get her if she got caught in the floodlight.

They hurried down the alley, which opened into a larger back street. Ellie finally started to make out what they were whispering to each other -

“I’m gonna need you to make a run for the tunnel once we pass this, okay?” the young man said quietly, a calm sort of encouragement in his voice. “And if anything, anything happens to me, you keep fucking going, okay?” His encouragement was turning into a resolve.

The woman looked at him, steely determination in her eyes.

“I won’t stop for anything. You can be fucking sure of it,” she said, features hard.

Oh I like you, Ellie thought.

The man squeezed the woman’s shoulder. It didn’t seem romantic, but there was some kind of deep love there regardless.

“How touching,” a low voice came from the shadows, and a man stepped out from one of the other alleys, gun in hand.

The young man whipped toward him, gun in his hand, too.

As if anyone would go around without one.

“Now, now, Henley, you really gonna start a fire fight tonight?” the man from the shadows asked calmly.

“Depends,” the guy with the girl, this ‘Henley’, said, equally as calm.

“Just let us have the girl, and nobody gets hurt,” shadow man said.

“‘The girl’ has a name, shit stain,” the woman said, turning, a knife in her hands.

Ellie recognized that switchblade.

Wait a minute…

“You don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, Anna,” shadow man chuckled.

No fucking way. No fucking way, Ellie thought.

“I think you underestimate how good I am with this thing. And how fast I can move,” Anna said stoically.

“How fast you moving these days, in your condition?” shadow man said, gesturing toward her torso. Ellie couldn’t see under the large coat the woman wore, but she knew what he meant. Anna was pregnant.

With me, Ellie thought.

“You really wanna find out?” Anna asked, her eyes blazing. Ellie hadn’t seen her face before, but upon looking at her now, she could see the resemblance. Mostly in the way Anna held herself: her stubborn stance, the fire in her voice, the anger in her eyes… Ellie had her eyes.

“You weren’t trying to sneak her out, were you, Henley?” the shadow man asked, still keeping his tone disturbingly calm. “Cuz you know we ain’t gonna let that happen,” he continued. “That thing is too valuable,” he finished, pointing toward Anna’s hidden pregnant belly.

“Five years of experiments, you haven’t been able to make a child immune to the virus yet, what makes you think she’s any different?” Henley asked.

“She, is it? Oh how sweet,” shadow man mocked. “You have a name picked out yet, Anna? Wouldn’t want our number system getting in the way of your sentimentality.”

“I don’t even like kids, shit brick, I just happen to like you fucks even less,” Anna said, matter of factly.

“We fucks? Aw now, what would Marlene say?” shadow man asked, feigning hurt at Anna’s words.

“She’d say Anna’s a stubborn fuck and not to listen to a damn thing you say,” a low voice came from the alley behind Henley and Anna. Shadow man raised his gun toward the voice. Marlene stepped out from the alley.

“CLICKERS!”

The cry came from one of the soldiers back in the street. Gunshots followed, then a series of other voices:

“Shit, there’s so many-”

“-Runners from the South!-”

“-Where the fuck did they come from?”

“Shit,” Marlene whispered. “It’s your lucky day, Jerry, maybe a Clicker’ll get ya and not one of us,” Marlene said. Shadow man Jerry opened his mouth to say something. “Shut the fuck up. Henley, stay behind Anna, I’ll stay in front. Jerry, just… fuck off.”

“Your days are numbered, Marlene,” Jerry snarled.

“That number’s hell of a lot higher than yours,” Marlene said, and turned toward the alley. “Right, stay behind me, we’ve gotta make sure the street is clear.”

Henley, Anna, and Marlene started down the alley, stalking slowly so as not to attract attention.

“Runners to the East!” someone called.

“Shit, this is bad,” Anna whispered.

“Shh, shh,” Marlene said, stopping suddenly, her voice barely above a whisper. Two Clickers stumbled toward the alley. Marlene reached into her jacket slowly, pulling out a makeshift silencer and attaching it to her pistol. She shot the Clickers quickly, easily, and they fell to the ground, twitching.

Marlene held up her hand, waiting a few seconds to move. When nothing followed the Clickers, she continued moving, Henley and Anna behind her.

Ellie knew this was a dream, she’s figured it out pretty quickly, but the detail was astonishing. She crept along behind them.

“Careful now,” Marlene said, “we’re gonna be up against Infected, and these FEDRA fuckers, but luckily none of them is a particularly good shot,” she finished. “Can you run, Anna?”

“I’m good,” Anna replied gruffly.

Marlene held up her fingers: 3, 2, 1… and they ran.

And then Ellie was suddenly inside a basement. It was dirty, dank, dark, and screams were coming from the corner. She moved closer.

“He was behind me, Marlene, he got shot and I - ah - FUCK!” It was Anna, screaming in agony. As Ellie got closer, she could see her mother (Jesus, her mother) was laying on an old mattress, in labor, legs splayed open-

Oh fuck that’s more of her than I ever needed to see, Ellie thought, looking away. She caught a glimpse of something before she did that made her do a double take - Anna had been bitten. Right calf - a huge chunk of her leg was missing.

“Fuck - ah - Marlene, you have to go -”

“It’s only been a few hours, Anna, we have more time,” Marlene said calmly.

“My head is killing me, everything’s killing me,” Anna screamed. “Marlene, go, just give me my gun and go!” Anna yelled.

“I’m not leaving,” Marlene said, calm but firm.

“It’s too late, she’s been Infected, too, just leave us to die, Marlene, fucking GO!” Anna roared, again screaming in agony.

The lights fell completely black around Ellie for a moment and then came back up. There was light coming through the basement windows, too. It was morning. Marlene was holding a baby in a blanket. She was holding Ellie in a blanket.

“See? Not Infected,” Marlene said, looking down at Anna, who hadn’t yet turned. “She’s got your eyes, Anna,” she said, holding Ellie out to Anna, who refused to take her. “Hold her.”

Anna shook her head emphatically.

“You’re not going to turn while you’re holding her. Just take her, Anna,” Marlene insisted, holding baby Ellie out to Anna. Anna laid still for a moment, then reached out for her.

“Ellie…” she said quietly.

Ellie looked away. She couldn’t watch. She didn’t want to see anymore.

But behind her was a similar scene - Anna laying on the mattress, Marlene pulling a backpack onto her back and picking up baby Ellie from a smattering of blankets.

“You’ll give them to her when she’s old enough?” Anna asked weakly. Ellie could tell she was fading. The Infection was setting in.

“I give you my word,” Marlene said, not meeting Anna’s gaze. She walked toward the stairs. Anna sat up on the mattress and cocked her gun. Marlene looked back.

“Don’t worry, I’ll wait until you leave,” Anna said, her voice shaking, but her hand firm.

“You’re a stubborn shit, Anna, but goddammit if you weren’t the fucking best of us,” Marlene said quietly. She turned to Anna. “You don’t have to, you know, I could-”

“I don’t want that on your conscience,” Anna said, her voice final.

“I could only ever see it as a kindness,” Marlene whispered, her eyes locked with Anna’s. A tear fell from her cheek. She sniffled, setting her jaw. Anna closed her eyes, wet with tears, but none fell. She nodded.

Marlene lifted her gun toward Anna and a BANG echoed through the basement as Ellie’s eyes flew open in her hospital bed in Jackson.

Chapter Text

Ellie felt like all she wanted to do was scream and run from the hospital, from Jackson, into the forest and just. Fucking. Scream.

But she couldn’t move. Her body was searing, aching, from having shot up so quickly from the dream. She blinked, staring at the bright lights in the room.

What. The fuck.

She didn’t know what to make of it. Any of it.

She wasn’t surprised that her mom had been bitten. It’s not like she didn’t know that she was dead.

But that fucking conversation in the alley, the stuff about the experiments and the kids and the numbers and shit… they were experimenting on more than monkeys? That early in the virus? Even when Ellie and Joel had gone to Colorado, all the information they’d found was on monkeys. There was nothing on human fetuses.

‘Course Ellie hadn’t loved them experimenting on monkeys, either. They were cute!

She’d been a fucking experiment? An EXPERIMENT? Did they put her in her mother against her will? Had Anna ever even wanted to take part in whatever it was?

Ellie knew Anna didn’t really like kids that much, she’d made her peace with that, but making her peace with the idea that her mom… no. She wasn’t going any further with that.

“Ellie?” Dina whispered, her arms softly wrapping themselves around Ellie, careful not to put any pressure anywhere. She entwined their fingers together.

“Weird dream,” Ellie said. Understatement. “Fuck, my head.” She slowly pulled herself away from Dina, gingerly bending to stand. Shit, whatever had dug into her abs had gone deep. They burned. She slowly lumbered toward the door.

“Ellie, I’m not sure you should-” Dina’s voice came softly from behind her.

“-I’m okay. I just need some air,” Ellie said. “I’m not a fucking child,” she finished, on edge.

“I didn’t say you were,” Dina said firmly. They’d had this conversation before. “I was going to say I’m not sure you should go without anything on your feet.”

Ellie turned and couldn’t help it, she gave Dina a little grin and a chuckle. It wasn’t Dina’s fault she felt like a shit spectacular.

“Did you really think I was going to try and keep you from doing something you wanted to do?” Dina asked. “I know better than that.” She stood from the bed and crossed the room, picking up Ellie’s boots.

“Here,” Dina said, bending down to help so Ellie wouldn’t have to. “Do you want to talk about it?” Dina asked as she tied the laces. Ellie stared down, unsure. “Let me rephrase that. When you’d like to talk about it, I’m here,” Dina said.

“I know, babe. Walk with me?” Ellie asked, holding her hand out, her tone soft. Dina was the only one that could really do that: pull her back when she was… spinning.

“I know you didn’t think I’d let you go alone,” Dina said, smiling, standing and taking Ellie’s hand. “You let me know if it hurts too much.”

“It always hurts too much,” Ellie said, her voice far away. But she didn’t mean the wounds from the attack.

 

The evening air was still clear and crisp from the storm, and Ellie was relieved to feel it on her skin as they stepped into the fading sunlight. Burch hadn’t been thrilled that Ellie wanted to take a walk, but Dina said it would be quick. Dina - how was she so goddamn good with people?

“You have contemplation face,” Dina said as they strode down the street. It was quiet on this side of town. It hadn’t been built up as much as the rest of the commune - another one of Maria’s ideas. Keep the hospital in a part of town that looked less populated - might keep people from attacking there first if there was ever a breach through the Wall.

Four years in and there’d never been one.

“How long was I out?” Ellie asked, wanting so badly to go out past the Wall and sit in the forest with Dina, look out over Jackson and the mountains… That view never failed to knock the air straight from her lungs.

“Two and a half days,” Dina said, squeezing Ellie’s hand just slightly, as though telling her it was two and a half days too long.

It was hard for Ellie to walk, every step was aches and agony, but she’d rather that than lying down. She’d rather have the pain than nothing. Feeling nothing was, by far, the worst thing Ellie could feel.

She felt it in her dreams. Sometimes she’d wake on that table in Salt Lake but she couldn’t move - just a numb, paralyzed body. Her brain would play out what happened, a new way each time… after all, she hadn’t seen it. She just knew Joel had saved her. “Saved” her.

A crack in the pavement popped out of nowhere - Ellie swore it came out of thin air - and her boot caught on it, sending her body flying forward.

She caught herself before falling face first toward the ground, and Dina instinctively grabbed her arm - a little too hard - to keep her up.

“Fuck!” Ellie shouted, her voice echoing through the street, pain shooting across… everywhere.

“Shit! Sorry!” Dina said, pulling her hands away. A red stain grew steadily across the bandage  on Ellie’s left bicep. She said nothing. “El? Ellie, you okay?” Dina asked once Ellie got her footing back underneath her.

“Fine,” Ellie muttered, looking down at the bandage on her arm. She lifted up her shirt to check on her abs that were now screaming so much it was astounding they weren’t themselves making noise. But those stitches had stayed intact. Fucking thankfully. “‘Least I didn’t eat shit.” There was a hint of humor in her voice.

“Eh, no one would have seen,” Dina said with a smirk.

You would have seen.”

“Yeah but lucky for you, I think clumsy is sexy,” Dina said, winking, her voice low.

“Clumsy? Uh, I am highly dextrous, thank you very much. These feet outrun Infected fucks, these fingers strum a damn fine guitar… This body can do things you can’t imagine,” Ellie said, her tone light despite her pain.

“Oh I’ve imagined the things I would do to your body,” Dina whispered, a glint in her eye. Ellie blushed.

“I think you’ve done more than imagine that stuff,” Ellie said, laughing a little. Her smile turned into a cringe. “Shit. Laughing - not good,” she said, strained.

“We should get you back - your stitches…” Dina said, a bit sheepish.

“Noooo…” Ellie whined. “Just a little bit longer. Please?” She gave Dina her best puppy-dog eyes, or as Dina liked to call them-

“Don’t give me your extortion eyes,” Dina said, looking away dramatically. “They don’t work here.”

“Oh, oh really?” Ellie stepped in front of Dina, who turned away. She repeated the movement, same look still on her face. “You can’t hide from me, or my extortion eyes.”

“Ah ha, so you admit that’s what they are,” Dina said, as if she’d caught Ellie in the act.

“Hey, gotta use everything in my arsenal,” Ellie said, shrugging, stepping closer to Dina and taking both her hands.

“So you need an arsenal to talk to me now, is that it?” Dina whispered, her face inches from Ellie’s.

“I don’t think you know how scary you are,” Ellie matched Dina’s quiet, once again her vulnerability shining through.

“Oh, El, you really haven’t met yourself, have you?” Dina said, reverence in her tone and her gaze. Ellie’s eyes scrunched with confusion.

“Yeah okay.”

“You’re not the only one who gets to be scared of shit,” Dina said. “You think it was easy watching you unconscious for days? Cut up from face to foot?”

Ellie lowered her gaze to the ground, kicking around a whole lot of nothing in an attempt to distract from the squirming in her stomach.

“We were all scared,” Dina continued. “Me, Maria, Tommy, Jesse, Joel…”

“Where is that old turd anyway?” Ellie said in a desperate attempt to change the subject. This was all just… to heavy for right now.

“Ellie, why are you so mad at him? I know something is up, you know I do, and I’m gonna keep bothering you-”

“Yeah I know you are,” Ellie said, stepping back from Dina. “I know. I’m not… Dina, I can’t right now.”

“I’m not trying to push you,” Dina said.

“Well you are,” Ellie said, dropping any humor her voice once had. “You’re right. We should get back, get me stitched up again.” She turned and began walking toward the hospital. Her statement probably would have had much more finality if she had been able to walk properly. As it stood, she was doing more of a slow, limping getaway than anything else.

Great.

Dina shook her head and walked up next to Ellie, holding her hand out. After a moment, Ellie intertwined their fingers.

“You know I love you, right?” Dina asked, both she and Ellie looking straight ahead, unable to meet the other’s gaze.

I know. Why, though?

After a few moments, Dina glanced over at Ellie, who was still staring straight ahead. Dina looked past her toward an old, derelict park - another piece of the area they had intentionally left a little dilapidated. Ellie looked at her as Dina’s expression shifted into curiosity.

“Is that…?” Dina asked, eyes fixed on the park.

“What?” Ellie asked, following Dina’s gaze.

“I swear it’s… come on…” Dina said, walking toward the broken gate.

“What are you doing?” Ellie asked, letting Dina pull her along.

Dina stepped into the park, Ellie behind her. It was small - a rusted swingset on one side, a tiny kid’s carousel on the other.

“Oh, that’s it, I was right,” Dina said, walking toward the carousel.

“About…?” Ellie asked.

“Oh about how this carousel was where I decided that I loved you.” Dina hopped onto the backs of one of the four little horses that surely were brightly colored at one point but now looked kind of like sad, muted zombie ponies.

“Pfft, yeah right,” Ellie said.

“Yeah I am right,” Dina said. “It was the night Cat broke up with you.”

“You were still with Jesse!” Ellie picked at the saddle of the tiny horse behind Dina’s. She didn’t think she could manage to get  into a proper sitting position on one of these without most of her body screaming.

“I know. But it was so public… and loud, and I could tell you just wanted to leave so…” Dina began.

“Yeah so you came over, told Cat to fuck off, pulled me away, and we came here. I remember.”

“Mmhmm. We built a little fire over there, you cried and-”

“-I did not cry,” Ellie said incredulously.

“Babe, you cried, it’s fine, we all cry,” Dina said. “So anyway you wept like a little kid,” she embellished, smiling. “And something in me decided I never wanted to see you like that again. That no one should ever make you feel that way.”

“You never told me that,” Ellie said quietly.

“And then you played that song for me and fuck, El, I was a goner.”


Burch had been less than thrilled that within minutes of being outside Ellie had pulled her stitches but really, what could anyone expect?

Burch stitched her back up and then offered to bring Dina and Ellie some dinner.

“Oh I forgot the big potluck was tonight,” Ellie groaned, then caught herself. “Jesus there’s something I never thought I’d say.”

“We’d love anything you bring us, Burch, thank you,” Dina said, offering the older woman a smile.

“Will you tell Joel to get his ass over to this part of town if you see him?” Ellie asked, and Burch smiled, nodding.

“Don’t get into too much trouble while I’m gone. Nina and Charlie are here to watch over you and the others. Let them know if you need anything,” Burch finished, closing the door.

“The others?” Ellie asked, turning toward Dina. “Like, others hurt from the attack? How many?” She was All-Business Ellie again. Funny how easy it was for that side of her to take over.

“Only four, and they’re all okay. You were hurt the worst by far. Maria wasn’t kidding when she said your alert saved Jackson, El. I was at the North Tower-”

“-you went to the Tower?”

“I heard the alert. Night off’s only a night off if there isn’t a massive attack.”

“True.”

Dina continued on, telling Ellie that the Clickers at the North Tower had been something, but considering how many there were, they’d taken a lot of them down pretty quickly. Jesse had herded them together as closely as possible and lit them up. Some of the traps Dina had set a few days before took a number of them out, too. She was particularly proud of that. Ellie couldn’t help but grin at that one. Dina was cute when she bragged.

The Fireflies had been another story. The attack had been well-planned, but none of them had actually gotten past the gate. One of Jackson’s good Watchers had been hit with some of the shrapnel from the bomb that had gotten Ellie, he’d been close to the Tower door when it went off. He was far better off than Ellie was, though. A few of the others were hit with stray bullets but it was like the Fireflies didn’t actually want to get into Jackson. Dina and Maria must have thought that Ellie calling attention to the South Tower was what saved Jackson. But Ellie knew better.

“So they were sending a message?” Ellie asked, her wheels turning.

“Don’t know,” Dina said, but her eyes didn’t meet Ellie’s.

“What aren’t you telling me?” Ellie asked. Dina didn’t say anything for a moment. “Dina…” Ellie pushed. Tell me what the fuck happened, she finished in her head.

“Maria said they found something painted on the South Gate the next morning…” Dina didn’t continue.

“And?” Ellie asked. “You can’t just stop there.”

“It said, ‘her light won’t save you.’”

Ellie was out the door so fast she pulled yet another (massive) set of stitches on her lower right abdomen when she’d launched up from bed. She swallowed the pain.

“Ellie,” Dina started, coming up behind her when she was barely one step out her hospital room door. She crossed in front of Ellie and could see the blood already staining Ellie’s shirt. “El, whoa, stop, you’re tearing yourself up-”

“Why didn’t anyone say anything?” Ellie said, unable to care that she’d pulled stitches. Again.

Her light won’t save you.

So they were coming after Joel. Fuck, maybe they were coming after the whole goddamn town. They hadn’t disbanded - they’d been looking for her. Just like she had so long ago looked for them. But this time, they weren’t trying to work together. How could she have been so reckless, running around trying to find them years ago? She probably led them right to her and they’d just been biding their time, waiting for the right moment…

“El, stop walking, you’re bleeding pretty badly-” Dina’s concern cut through Ellie’s running thoughts.

“Why didn’t anyone tell me?” Ellie repeated, still moving toward the front door of the hospital.

“Why would we tell you? You’ve been unconscious. Ellie, stop moving, you’re making it worse-”

“-I have to know! I have to know when I’m putting people in-” A wave of nausea overtook Ellie. A wooziness hit her like a truck to the face. “Fuck,” she said as she collapsed to the floor.

“Ellie!” Dina caught her before she hit the ground. Ellie heard her calling out for Nina and Charlie before she passed out.

 

Ellie woke on a cold, metal slab. Faint beeping seeped into her ears. She could feel the oxygen mask tightly around her nose and mouth. But it was cold. Too cold. A bitter wind beat against her skin. She opened her eyes: she was in the middle of the main street of Jackson. Only it was empty. Dark. Snow was kicking up around her from the slight wind. The strumming of a guitar echoed through the air toward her, as if the breeze was carrying it toward her on purpose.

She sat up, pulling off the oxygen mask, looking around to see from where the music was coming. She walked down past the town’s main bar, past the playground the kids so often ran around in, and headed down toward the stables. The music grew louder the closer she got. She knew this one, it was the one Joel had first taught her when he was teaching her how to play.

The old door creaked as she opened it, but the barn itself was silent expect for the strumming of the guitar. It hadn’t faltered, hadn’t quieted when she stepped in. This was weird, none of the horses were inside. Ellie walked toward the ladder leading to the hayloft.

“Joel?” she asked, but was met with nothing but more strumming. “Okay, I’m coming up,” she said, climbing the ladder. The music began to fade the closer she got to the top, and by the time she’d pulled herself to a standing position, it was completely, eerily silent. Joel sat by the front of the loft, right below a small window high on the wall. Despite they grey outside, a little sliver of light shone in on him, just him, as if he was the only thing worth illuminating in the barn. His back was turned to Ellie, but she could see he was holding his guitar.

“Don’t stop on my account, ya geezer,” Ellie said, her voice shaking just a little bit. She was trying to be optimistic, but something about all this was fucking weird and creepy. Joel didn’t move. He didn’t acknowledge her at all. “Joel?” she asked as she got closer. Still nothing.

She slowly stalked around the front of him and two things hit her at once: one, he had a Firefly symbol carved into his right cheek, bleeding heavily onto the hay. Why hadn’t she noticed the blood before? But the second thing was what pulled the gasp from her lips:

“Joel, no, Joel, come on, no,” Ellie said, bending down in front of him. His eyes were open, almost completely vacant, and there was an enormous bite on his collarbone, and the infection had spread across his chest and into his face. There was a sign pinned to his shirt: “Her light won’t save you.”

Joel coughed.

“Joel, Joel, no, Joel…” Ellie said, her hands shaking, her voice coming apart.

“…I’m…sorry, kiddo…” Joel gurgled out, and then everything went dark.

Chapter Text

Ellie shot up in the hospital bed, a faint cry making its way out of her lips. Dina was sitting by her bedside, bent over onto the bed, using her arms as a pillow. Sleeping soundly. Like fucking always.

Ellie looked down at the backs of her shaking hands. Everything was shaking. Joel. Infected. Jesus it had been so real.

Ellie lifted her shirt gently, seeing the fresh bandages over her abs. Sheesh, she really did a fucking number on them. Her pain tolerance was wildly high - but tears were still stinging her eyes as she lowered her shirt. They weren’t from the pain, not the pain in her abdomen, anyway, but she wanted to let herself think that.

She looked out the door toward the hallway - she could tell some light was streaming through the far-off windows - she mut have slept all night. Damn, that was rare for her, even when she was injured.

How many Fireflies were left out there? Were they as big as they once were? And had they known that she was the one in the Tower that night? Was it a targeted attack? Were they coming back? And what if they got their hands on Ellie and Joel? Would they kill them? Would they just kill him and keep Ellie in some cage in a lab? Worse, now all of Jackson was in fucking danger.

Ellie turned and looked at Dina. Dina would be in danger, too. No fucking way Ellie was having that.

“Are you watching me sleep like a creepy creeper?” Dina whispered without moving. Ellie said nothing, but reached out and traced her fingers along Dina’s back. “Mmmm,” Dina hummed. “I like when you do that.”

“I know,” Ellie said.

She wanted so badly to tell Dina everything - her immunity, why the Firefly message was so fucking scary, why she was mad at Joel… but every time they were even close to any of those topics, all Ellie’s walls went up, her throat grew dry, and anger bubbled deep in her belly.

How were fucking infected less scary than any of this shit?

“I’m starving,” Ellie mused, suddenly feeling like the Firefly message and anything with Joel would have to wait.

Fucking Joel. Thanks for coming to see me, ya dick.

“You think I can sneak you out of here and take you to breakfast without Burch losing her shit?” Dina asked, turning her gaze to Ellie’s and giving her a grin and a wink.

Ellie’s eyes lit up. She liked nothing so much as a good challenge that broke the rules.

Unfortunately for Ellie’s rebellious side, Burch was fine with letting them go eat. She insisted Ellie stop by later for a check-in, but she said that if everything looked okay, Ellie might be able to spend the night in her own bed that night. Or, at least, on the mattress in her and Joel’s basement. But fuck semantics.

Breakfast was uncomfortable at best. Everyone was starting. Ellie didn’t like being on display.

Joel wasn’t in the mess hall, but that wasn’t surprising, he usually preferred to be alone. He was probably at home, or out on patrol.

“El, I have patrol with Jesse soon,” Dina said as they finished up their meal. Ellie would never fail to be surprised by the quality of the food in Jackson. It was better than anything she’d ever eaten in Boston, and certainly better than anything she and Joel had wrangled up on their cross-country trip a few years ago. But she had to admit, she did kind of miss hunting rabbits. She’d have to see if Dina wanted to go with her sometime soon. She kept promising she’d teach her how to shoot better with a bow and arrow. It wasn’t one of Dina’s strengths, but luckily, it was one of Ellie’s - and Ellie always liked the opportunity to show-off to her. Dina knocked her from her comfort zone so often and it was nice to turn the tables once in awhile.

“El?” Dina asked, picking up her plate and reaching for Ellie’s.

“Hm?” Ellie mused.

“I have patrol. I can ask Maria to swap if you-”

“-No. Don’t do that. You should go. I’ll be fine,” Ellie said, letting Dina take the plate from in front of her.

As they stepped out into the morning a few minutes later, Dina offered Ellie a quick kiss and they parted ways, Ellie watching her go for a minute.

Ellie turned and started walking toward the South Tower. It was still painful to walk, but Burch had offered her a few pills for the pain, ones that wouldn’t knock her off her feet, and while she didn’t want to take them because of her capital P Pride, Dina had convinced her.

Glad she did, she thought as she walked through town.

Kids were playing in the street, and a few were playing on the wooden playground Tommy and Joel had erected two years ago in a little park just down the road.

Sometimes Ellie couldn’t believe they’d made it here, that they’d set up some kind of life, that they didn’t spend every waking second worried a Bloater was around every corner.

The patrols had even become almost nauseatingly routine. Almost. They had several routes they took, all securing areas around Jackson, and there were usually a handful of infected stragglers running around.

Ellie waved to a few people as she walked, but more the most part, she kept to herself. As she neared the Tower, she could see a few Watchers up on the wall, pacing back and forth, all holding scoped rifles. It seemed quiet today. That was… something. Two of them looked down and saw her.

“Well fuck, if it isn’t Jackson’s finest,” Chad, a short, stocky guy of about twenty-eight called down. His patrol partner Willy, tall, lanky, Ellie’s age, gave Ellie a great “whoop!” as she approached.

“All right, keep it in your pants, fellas,” Ellie said, smiling up at them.

“Not trying to come back to patrols so soon, are you? Maria’s never gonna go for that,” Willy called down.

“Just came to see the Firefly graffiti, Willy, don’t worry. I’m not gonna whoop your ass with that rifle today,” Ellie joked.

“I’m getting better with it!” Willy said, his boyish side coming out.

“Open the gate, Jordan, let the lady see,” Chad said, giving Ellie what she thought might be a wink, but he was too far up for her to really see. He and Willy continued their watch.

Jordan pulled the gate’s door open, grunting as he did. It swung forward and Ellie whistled when her eyes fell on the message. It was huge.

How had the Fireflies managed to paint this the night of the attack?

A chill ran down Ellie’s spinne at the sight of it. The red paint was thick, dark, and in the sunlight, shone on the wood and stone like blood.

“Not exactly subtle, are they?” Jordan asked.

“Not a word I’d use for the Fireflies, no,” Ellie said, her eyes glued to the message.

She suddenly felt nauseous. Maybe she shouldn’t have eaten so much at breakfast. A flash of her nightmare from the night before crossed her mind and she faltered, her feet almost coming out from underneath her. A steady hand from Jordan kept her up.

“Whoa, Ellie, you okay?” he asked.

No. She wasn’t. She was fucking dizzy.

“Yeah, fine, thanks,” Ellie said, shaking her head and rubbing the bridge of her nose. “Probably just… too much air after being in that hospital for a few days.”

“You want someone to walk with you?”

“I’m good. Thanks,” Ellie said, then turned and started walking home.

Her mind wandered to her last two dreams as she made her way toward her and Joel’s. She hoped he’d be there so she could give him shit for not coming to see her when she was conscious. She’d have to come up with a good jab -

Getting too old to remember who I am? Heh, she thought, he’ll fucking hate that one.

She thought about seeing her mother in her dream the other night. Seeing herself wrapped in a blanket, so tiny, so helpless… she heard Marlene’s gunshot echoing… it had felt so real. Was that really how it happened? Had her dream been real, or just a dream?

Joel coughing and saying, “I’m sorry, kiddo,” reverberated in her head. She shivered.

Ellie felt a surge of anger. How had he been bitten? Why would he hide out in the barn? Then she realized it had been a dream. She was angry with Joel for something Dream Joel did. She rolled her eyes at herself.

But the fact of the matter was, she was mad at Joel. Not for being bitten, that wasn’t even real, but for so many other things. He’d been overprotective when she started on patrols, he was always on Maria’s case about it. He’d lost his temper with Cat after she broke up with Ellie. Hell, he’d lost his temper when she started dating Ellie; in an embarrassing display Ellie wasn’t likely to soon forget, he’d asked her “what her intentions were” before their first date. And he’d lied to her about the Fireflies, about her immunity, and about saving her. He didn’t understand what that meant to her.

No one understood.

A small breeze kicked some dirt into her nostrils and she coughed, her abs screaming as she did.

Fucking stitches.

When she arrived home, she automatically entered through the basement door. It was second nature by this point. Maybe she should decorate a little down here. Dina had sneakily hung a couple of Ellie’s sketches up one night, and Ellie begrudgingly left them. But looking at them now - it was kind of nice having them there.

One was of Shimmer, her horse. There was one of Joel sitting on the porch playing guitar, one of Dina before they’d gotten together…

“Man, you were really obsessed with me, huh?” Dina had said the first time she saw it. Ellie’s cheeks burned even now at how embarrassed she’d been.

She walked up the stairs into the main part of the house. It was simple, not decorated too finely or too much, but that was Joel. There were some things of sentimental value around: pictures of him and Ellie, him and Tommy, the photo of he and Sarah in her soccer uniform. Joel looked so different in that photo. Ellie would have liked to know that Joel. She saw glimpses of him now and again, but it might have been cool to really have gotten to know him. Another life. Jackson was making him just a little softer. Or maybe it was Ellie.

Maybe both.

“Joel?” Ellie asked, waiting a few seconds for an answer. None came. “Are you hear, ya old fart?” she called. But nothing but her own voice echoed back to her.

Huh.

Maybe he was on patrol? Or at Tommy’s?

He wasn’t at Tommy’s. No one was, in fact. But Ellie let herself in regardless. Hey, they had given her a key for a reason. Not like she was gonna steal their shit.

Ellie walked around, looking for Tommy and Maria. Dammit, why was no one around? She wanted to talk about the fucking Firefly message and everybody was MIA. Were they having a meeting about it somewhere without her?

What had the message meant? Obviously it was about her, there was no doubt about that. But they hadn’t been back since the attack - at least not that Ellie had heard.

And what was it Tommy had so badly wanted to tell her?

Why the fuck was everyone being so secretive?

Ellie walked into Tommy and Maria’s little sitting room - it always took Ellie by surprise how homey their house was. They didn’t seem the type. But she guessed plenty of people had a lot of shit going on beneath the surface. She sure as hell did.

The small table in front of the couch that Tommy had crafted was there - it wasn’t the best he’d ever done, but Maria always said she liked to keep it around. A corner of it was gnawed and chewed from when their dog Bear had been a puppy. Bear - even he wasn’t around.

A small parchment of paper was sticking out of one of the table drawers.

Ellie really shouldn’t have reached out and removed it, it wasn’t hers to touch, but something told her that she should. And Ellie wasn’t one to ignore a gut instinct.

She recognized the chicken scratch immediately: it was Joel’s.

 

Tommy -

Got a lead on the Fireflies. I’m not letting them pull this shit again.

I don’t want them near Jackson or Ellie.

Do not tell her where I’ve gone.

Do not let her come after me.

-Joel

 

Mother. Fucking. Joel.

 

Ellie ran to the stables in record time, ignoring any pain the careless choice brought on. As she flew through the doors, her lungs ached for air. A few people had called to her on her way there, but she’d ignored them. She whipped down the aisle - one of the blacksmiths was fixing one of the training ponies’ shoes, a few of her fellow patrollers were getting ready to head out, but no Maria, and no Tommy.

Fucking dammit.

“Where’s Tommy?” Ellie demanded, pulling Billy, a stocky guy a few years older than her to the side.

“Uh…” Billy stuttered.

“Where the fuck is Tommy, Billy?” Ellie asked again.

“On patrol with Joel,” he said.

“The fuck you just say?” Ellie spat, her eyes blazing. Was everyone told to lie to her?

“He’s on patrol with Joel,” Billy repeated.

“Who told you to say that? Tommy? Maria?” Ellie’s voice was rising. Joel had to be a fucking fool to go after the Fireflies alone. He didn’t know how many there were. And what the hell was he going to do when he found them? Talk?

The whole stable was looking at them now. Not that there were too many people there, but still.

“El.” She recognized the voice coming softly from behind her. “Take it easy, why don’t we go for a walk?”

Ellie whipped around. Fucking Cat.

“I don’t want to go for a fucking walk. I want to know where Tommy is.” Ellie was breathing heavily now, unable to contain herself. Cat reached toward her. “Don’t fucking touch me,” Ellie said, backing away.

“Ellie,” Cat began, like she was trying to soothe a skittish animal. Her eyes looked up at Billy, like she was afraid Ellie might pounce.

“Does anybody know where Tommy is?” Ellie’s voice echoed through the barn. A couple of the horses huffed, as if angry she’d pulled them from sleep. No one said anything. “Fucking useless,” she huffed, pushing past Billy and rushing out the back of the barn.

“Ellie, wait!” Cat called, running after her.

Ellie rolled her eyes. She didn’t want to talk to Cat, she didn’t want to do anything with her ex right now.

“Fuck off, Cat,” Ellie spat, not looking at her, keeping her feet moving one in front of the other.

“Prickly today,” Cat said with that sassy edge she employed so often. Ellie used to find it endearing. Now it was just annoying.

“Oh bite me,” Ellie said, whipping around.

“Don’t think I’m allowed anymore.” A smirk made its way across Cat’s face. It made Ellie rage.

“That’s not funny.”

“No but when Maria gets wind of the scene you just pulled inside, it’ll be hilarious.” There was no vengeful acidity to her tone, in fact she said it with the kind of sincere adoration she used to use when Ellie did something she found charming.

“Good, at least maybe then I’ll be able to find her,” Ellie said, whipping back around and continuing to walk.

“He’s at Tipsy’s,” Cat called after her. Ellie spun around.

“What?”

“Tommy. He’s at Tipsy’s. Maria’s probably there, too,” Cat repeated.

“Thanks,” Ellie said, some of her anger deflating. Were she and Cat having a… semi-civil interaction? That was new.

“Well, I ain’t all bad,” Cat said, leaving the comment in the air before turning around and heading back to the stables.

Ellie turned and made her way toward Tipsy’s. Her run to the stables was catching up with her, her body ached, her wounds burning. But it couldn’t top the rage she felt that they hadn’t told her the other night that Joel left. That’s what Tommy had wanted to tell her, and he fucking should have.

She walked into the bar, mostly empty since it was only just cresting into afternoon, and looked around. Tommy and Maria were nowhere to be seen. But that didn’t matter, she knew where they were. Seth had a basement here, they used it as a headquarters of sorts, a meeting space if something particularly heated or scary was going on in Jackson. Ellie walked around the bar toward the door.

“Whoa, where you going, kid?” Seth said, appearing in the doorway and almost running smack into Ellie.

“Outta my way, Seth,” Ellie said, looking past him toward the back room where a set of stairs sat on the other side.

“My house, my rules,” he said calmly. Ellie hated Seth. He’d always been shitty to her and Dina.  Dick.

Ellie didn’t have time for this - she didn’t want to get into a shouting match with Seth.

“Let me by,” Ellie said flatly, her patience already far too thin. “Please,” she added, equal parts sugar and vitriol. Shitty as Seth was, he sighed and dropped his tough-guy act.

“Siddown, kid, have a drink,” he said, tossing an old rag over his shoulder and reaching for a bottle of bourbon.

“Sit down, kid. Have a drink,” he repeated, more slowly but imbued with more urgency. Ellie didn’t like this. He handed her a glass, but she didn’t sit. In one fell swoop, she gulped the entire thing.

Fuck that burns.

She dropped the glass on the bar, staring up at Seth. He chuckled, impressed.

“Maria asks, you sneaked down all on your own, all right?” he said.

“Sure,” Ellie said, already making her way across the room toward the stairs.

 

Voices were muffled as she descended. She took the note from her pocket in preparation. She heard a quiet huff. She knew that frustration: Tommy. She slowed to a halt, concealed, listening.

“He makes his own decisions, Tommy,” Maria’s voice was low and ominous, resolved in its commentary.

“He’ll get himself killed. He ain’t as spry as he used to be,” Tommy countered. He must have been planning to go after Joel.

All fucking without me.

“Neither are you,” Maria said pointedly.

“And Ellie?” a familiar voice said. What the fuck? Dina had said she had patrol with Jesse! “If you think she’s not-”

Dina was interrupted by Ellie showing her face.

“Hi,” she said, looking around at them, the two letters loaded with the weight of betrayal. She held up the note. “Was anyone gonna tell me about this shit?”

Chapter Text

Ellie’s skin was burning, the tension in the basement thick and hot.

“Ellie,” Dina began, but Ellie ignored her, striding over to the table and tossing the note down. Maria and Tommy stared at her.

“He fucking left and you wait to tell me?” Ellie asked, blazing.

“I got a lot of people to keep safe,” Maria said, her voice slathered with the holier-than-thou tone she used when speaking of being a leader.

“Bullshit,” Ellie spat. “The Fireflies come here, paint shit about me on our Wall, and I hear about it from Dina?” Maria shot a glance in Dina’s direction. “Look at me,” Ellie growled toward Maria.

Ellie was sure Dina must be confused at this point; unless Maria or Tommy told her about Ellie’s immunity. But she didn’t care. She didn’t care one way or another if Dina was in this conversation at this point, she was pissed.

“Where did he go?” Ellie asked.

“I ain’t sure-” Tommy said.

“-Fuck that. He said don’t tell me where he’s going. Where did he go?” Ellie asked again. No one said anything. “Where’d he fucking go?” Ellie was nearly yelling now.

“Ellie-” Dina began again, stepping toward her.

“-Fuck you, you told me you had patrol-”

“-I did, let me-”

“-I don’t want to fucking hear it.”

Enough,” Maria said, her tone so sharp Ellie and Dina stopped arguing immediately. “You’re right. We should have told you. I was worried you’d rush off and hurt yourself further,” she continued calmly.

“When did he leave?” Ellie said, and a cascading fear began to overtake her anger. What she’d overheard Tommy say was right: Joel wasn’t as spry as he used to be. He wasn’t an old fogey yet, despite Ellie’s love to tease him about that, but going alone was fucking stupid.

“Day before yesterday,” Tommy grunted quietly.

“A two day fucking headstart?!” The rage was returning to Ellie’s chest. “Nobody’s gone after him?”

Tommy stepped forward as if going to put a hand on Ellie’s shoulder. She slapped it away. Behind Tommy, she caught a glimpse of a map hanging on the wall. She hadn’t seen it down here before. A few places along the western coast of the country were marked, along with a couple of lines drawn: routes, probably.

A sudden calm fell over Ellie. She turned to Maria and Tommy.

“I get it,” she said, backing up, her hands in the air in some kind of retreat. “You know what, I get it. You’re right. I was unconscious,” she said, genuine.  “I have to get back to Burch for a check-up,” she finished, turning and walking up the stairs and out of Tipsy’s.

Dina sighed, following.

“Ellie,” she began calmly, as she jogged out the front door behind Ellie.

“Did they tell you? Did you know?” Ellie asked, not looking over.

“No,” Dina said defiantly. “I went to the stables to meet up with Jesse and Maria had swapped my patrol. She took me to Tipsy’s,” Dina said. “But thank you for assuming I’d been lying to you,” she finished, an edge to her voice.

Ellie stopped. Fucking hell, Dina was right. Ellie was so ready to assume Dina had been lying to her, betraying her. She wondered if she’d ever get over that - it was an instinct so deep she forgot to use her judgment sometimes.

“I saw you eyeing that map,” Dina said, holding up a small silver key. “I swiped Seth’s extra key. We can double-back tonight and take it,” she said, a twinkle in her eye. Holy fuck she was sexy.

“They really aren’t going to send anyone?” Ellie asked, hurt, surprised.

“Tommy said he and Jesse were ready to leave as soon as he saw the note, but they’re the best patrol guys we have,” Dina said, then added, “besides you and me.” She winked. “Maria was worried it would leave Jackson too vulnerable.”

“So we pack up,” Ellie said.

“Reading my mind,” Dina said.

“What do we do until tonight?” Ellie whispered, looking around, making sure no one was listening.

“I can think of a few things,” Dina said, taking Ellie’s hand lazily in hers.

“Oh yeah?” Ellie asked, a mischievous grin forming on her face.

“Yeah. You’ve got some making up to do,” Dina whispered, her voice low and seductive. She leaned in, her lips grazing Ellie’s left ear. Ellie shivered. “And you can start with actually going to that check-up,” Dina finished, then pulled away, raising her eyebrows.

God fucking dammit.

“Okay,” Ellie said, drawing out the vowels in deflation from what Dina’s lips on her ear had promised.

“Oh, we can do that, too,” Dina said, offering Ellie a wry smile as the two strode off toward the hospital.


Ellie sat on a chair in the basement, staring down at Dina, who always fell to sleep about a minute and a half after sex. She watched the tranquil rise and fall of her chest, wondering how in the fuck she’d gotten so lucky as to have her. Sometimes it felt hopeful, peaceful… other times, Ellie felt like an imposter. Like one day she’d wake up and Dina would be gone, having realized everything beneath Ellie’s surface was rusted and derelict. Like she was all killer fungus underneath.

You fucking are.

She shifted her gaze to her readied backpack, sitting quietly on the ground beside her. Dina had insisted they get everything ready to go immediately after getting back from Ellie’s check-up. She was so good at stuff like that.

Ellie turned to the table behind her where her journal sat open. She stared down at the sketch of her mother she’d finished just moments before. She wondered if that had been what she really looked like or if it had just been her dream brain.

A KNOCK echoed loudly from the front door upstairs. Dina shifted on the mattress, but didn’t wake. Ellie looked toward the ceiling for a minute before getting up, pulling on her tank top, and walking up the stairs from the basement. Another KNOCK came as she approached the door.

“Hold your horses, I’m coming,” she mumbled.

She opened the door to see Maria standing there, waiting. All Ellie’s walls flew up.

“Yeah?” she asked.

“Can I come in?” Maria asked.

“Dunno, can you?” Ellie countered. They stood there staring at each other for a minute before Ellie opened the door fully and stepped aside, allowing Maria entrance.

“You wanna gimme back Seth’s key?” Maria asked as she stepped in. Ellie’s face didn’t move. “I know you took it.”

“Dunno what you’re talking about,” Ellie said cooly.

“Ellie,” Maria sighed quietly, reaching into her pocket and taking out the map that had been hanging in the basement of Tipsy’s and tossing it onto Joel’s coffee table. Ellie softened. “Guessing Dina’s going with you?” Maria asked.

“Did you think she’d let me go alone?” Ellie asked, and Maria smiled.

“I like that one,” she said, then looked around the small den area. Joel’s guitar lay against the window, the glow from the moon hitting it just right. “Joel took one of the horses. Reckon you should, too, or you’ll never catch him,” Maria said, not looking at Ellie. Ellie watched her carefully, for the first time taking in how weary the woman seemed. Leading Jackson couldn’t be easy. Not in this world.

“Thanks,” Ellie said, at a loss for anything more. She reached into her pocket, taking out the extra key to Tipsy’s and handed it over to Maria, who took it, nodding.

“Well, I won’t overstay my welcome,” Maria said, turning back toward the door. She looked over at Ellie. “Don’t be too hard on him. That man loves you like you’re his blood,” she finished, then opened the door and left Ellie standing in the aftermath of the comment.

She didn’t think about the bond she had with Joel a lot - and somehow she also thought about it all the time. It was the whole reason she was still alive… however she felt about that aside.

Ellie picked up the map from the table, happy it was going to be easier to get out of Jackson than she thought. Not that she didn’t have a plan, but the journey was likely to be perilous enough. The least they could get would be starting off on the right foot.

She walked back down into the basement, taking in the sight of Dina sleeping on the mattress on the floor. Like Joel’s guitar, there was a perfect stream of moonlight coming in from one of the windows, bathing her in soft blue light.

Dina hadn’t pried yet about the meaning of the Firefly message, though Ellie knew it was something constantly on the top of her tongue. She was going to have to tell her - hell, Dina was taking this trip with her. She deserved to fucking know.

Would she still want to go if Ellie told her? What if she got mad or something? Felt like Ellie had been lying to her? She had been lying to her. She’d been lying to everyone except Joel, Tommy, and Maria. She had to tell her before they left.

Fuck.

Ellie sighed as she packed her journal into her backpack. She took it everywhere - it gave her peace, being able to have a space that was just hers. She settled it in among the pills and kits Dina had taken from the hospital while Burch was checking up on Ellie. They’d be apologizing for that when they got back.

A flash of the Infected Joel from her nightmare flew across her mind and she faltered, leaning against the table for support. Nothing would be worse than that - him getting infected after saving the one person whose death could cure him. A shiver ran down her spine at the thought.

She stepped over to the mattress and laid down softly next to Dina, brushing some of the hair that fell across her face behind her ear. Dina stirred and woke, her bright, brown eyes a little foggy from sleep. She smiled groggily at Ellie.

“Hey babe,” Ellie whispered quietly.

“Hey yourself,” Dina whispered back. “Is it time?” she asked.

“We’ve got a few minutes,” Ellie said.

“Mmmm, good,” Dina hummed, turning over and pulling Ellie’s arm over her so Ellie was cradling her torso.

What a perfect fucking moment. And Ellie was going to have to ruin it. She let a few minutes pass, tracing kisses long the back of Dina’s neck.

“I can hear your brain,” Dina whispered from in front of Ellie.

“Sorry,” Ellie hummed.

Dina turned around so she was facing Ellie again.

“What is it?” she asked quietly. Ellie didn’t know how to begin, where to begin. “I’m coming with you, if that’s what this is about,” Dina said, her face steady in its resolve.

“Maybe not,” Ellie whispered, her voice low. Suddenly she felt all her walls crumbling, as they so often did with Dina. How did she do that? She inhaled sharply, her body betraying the attempt to keep everything steady. Dina’s face scrunched with confusion.

“Ellie…” she whispered, pulling her even closer, meeting their foreheads together.

Ellie took a deep breath, so deep she was almost dizzy.

“Remember when I first got to Jackson and didn’t talk much?” Ellie said, trying to keep it together. Dina nodded, waiting patiently for Ellie to continue. “It wasn’t… I mean I wasn’t shy or anything… Joel and I had…” Ellie couldn’t quite put the words together to fully form her thoughts.

“Tommy said you two had it rough getting here,” Dina said. Ellie sat up on the mattress, facing her back to Dina. Maybe it would be easier if she didn’t have to look at her.

Like a coward.

“You have no idea,” Ellie said, her voice beginning to crack. And then, it all came spilling out. She told Dina everything: how Joel had been hired to smuggle her out of the city, how they’d crossed the country, how they’d gotten on each others’ nerves for so long before getting close, Tess, Marlene, Henry and Sam, taking care of impaled Joel, the cannibals, St. Mary’s… everything.

“I wanted to find the Fireflies so badly when I got back. I wanted to know what happened, what Joel had done. I couldn’t talk to him for… I think he thought I was sick,” Ellie said, half of her thoughts coming out not fully formed. “Then he started teaching me guitar, and it dulled the pain,” she continued, a few tears having made their way down her face now. Dina hadn’t said anything, not even when Ellie said that she was immune.

“How did - how did you find out you were immune?” Dina eventually asked in a tone Ellie hadn’t heard before. It was slow, low, cautious, like each word didn’t make sense on its own but they all came together to form a burning question.

Ellie turned to Dina for the first time since she’d started talking and she saw a world written there on the girl’s face. But it wasn’t what Ellie thought she would look like - it wasn’t fear, or someone cowering away, it was a look of reverence.

Ellie held out her right arm, her fingers running along her tattoo.

“I was bitten when I was fourteen, a few weeks before I met Joel. I kept waiting to die, waiting for the infection, y’know? Sometimes I still do,” Ellie said, her eyes fixed on the tattoo. “But Joel wouldn’t let that happen. Not even…”

Not even to save the entire fucking human race, she finished in her head. Not even to let my life mean something.

She grew silent, the consequence of his action hitting her like it hadn’t for a long time.

“Jesus, Ellie,” Dina whispered, wrapping her arms around Ellie’s torso and laying her chin on her shoulder.

“I looked for them at first,” Ellie continued, her voice almost squeaking. “But when there was nothing, I stopped. I probably lead them right fucking to us, and now he’s…” She couldn’t finish it. It wasn’t like he was dead. Hell, Joel could take care of himself. But going looking for them now, walking right into their camp or their settlement or whatever the fuck they called it, it would be like suicide for him. Didn’t he know that?

“Up,” Dina cooed, moving around Ellie and kneeling in front of her. She slowly helped her to her feet.

Ellie still moved gingerly, her body still trying desperately to heal itself from the attack. Ellie stood, not moving, head bowed, as Dina grabbed her pack and double-checked that she had everything.

“I’m still so fucking angry.” If she’d said it any lower, Dina would have missed it. Maybe she wanted her to.

“Your life means something to me,” Dina said, matching Ellie’s whisper, as if she’d read Ellie’s mind earlier. She probably had.

It filled Ellie with a sad kind of adoration. Dina wasn’t running, she wasn’t second guessing leaving with Ellie. She hadn’t even glanced twice at Ellie having lied about her immunity all these years. Wasn’t that enough? Couldn’t her life in Jackson be enough? Why did she have to save the whole fucking world? Why was she still so fucking mad at Joel?

“Hey, give him shit when we get him back to Jackson in one piece, okay?” Dina said, suddenly in front of Ellie. She hadn’t even seen her move, she was lost so far in her own head.

“You’re not mad,” Ellie said. It wasn’t even a question. “I thought you’d be scared. Run away or something,” she finished, the shame clear in her voice.

“Aw come on, it takes more than that to scare me,” Dina said lightly, but there was a hint of gravity that shone through. “Come here.” She took Ellie’s cheek in her hand, pulling Ellie’s eyes up to meet her gaze.

Fucking Christ was she lucky.

“You ready?” Dina asked. Ellie nodded, holding Dina’s hand to her cheek for just a second before dropping it and stepping over to her bag.

“Let’s go,” Ellie said, sniffling, doing her best to shake off the conversation.

 

The horses were quiet in the stables, and Dina and Ellie matched their silence as they tacked Shimmer up.

“Gonna be a long one, girl,” Ellie said as they lead her from the barn. She lifted her leg to put her foot in the stirrup, but her abs screamed in retaliation.

“Shit,” she huffed, grabbing at her stitches.

“Here,” Dina said, offering her a leg up.

Ellie steadied herself on Shimmer’s back and helped Dina settle behind the saddle.

Minutes later the West Gate was opening for them. Maria really was allowing them to leave. Ellie still couldn’t believe it.

 

And then they rode off into the darkness of the night, leaving Jackson behind.

Chapter Text

Days passed, then a week, then more, and more, as they traveled north and west. The map had been marked with a few places in Washington, one in Oregon called Portland, and then some down the coast of California. Ellie could only hope Joel had the same information and was taking the same routes.

Their days were filled with travel, a few scuffles with groupings of Infected, but all-in-all they had been lucky thus far.

And it is gonna run out. Ellie heard the echo of Joel’s voice in her mind. He’d said it to her when they were first traveling across the country together.

Nights were quiet: they set up camp and took turns letting the other sleep, one taking watch to make sure no soldiers, Hunters, or Infected stumbled upon their spots.

The National Forests they passed through were Ellie’s favorite parts. Not because she liked the scenery, though that wasn’t half bad to look at, but because of how Dina lit up over them. Soon they had passed straight through Idaho into Washington. Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia were all marked on the map, but Ellie quietly, desperately hoped they’d find Joel before they had to enter any of the big cities. Cities meant people. People meant soldiers, or worse. So many factions had popped up after the Outbreak, she’d learned about some of them back in Boston. None of them were particularly fucking friendly.

When they camped at night, Ellie always felt a twinge of regret that she hadn’t been able to bring her guitar - it would have been nice to serenade Dina while they watched the smoke from their small fires climb up into the sky. Sometimes she’d sing with no accompaniment, but she hated doing that. The guitar made her feel safe, like there was something between her and the outside world.

They found a small camp just past Dayton with a couple traps set up around it. Joel’s traps - or at least they looked like them. It revitalized Ellie - he must have been on the same route they were. Dammit when she got her hands on him…

Her body was healing well, too, despite the beating it sometimes took when they were hiding and crawling around, taking down clusters of Infected. They hadn’t hit that many hordes, and only had one or two close calls so far. They’d gotten so good on Patrol that it had become second nature. Ellie was never sure how to feel about that. Sure they were fucks and there was nothing left inside of them but fungus but… that same fungus had grown in her, too. Weird.

Despite them taking turns at night, Ellie rarely slept. Sometimes Dina would check on her and she would pretend, so Dina could have peace of mind, but sleeping wasn’t one of Ellie’s strong suits. She’d just see her mom again, or Joel infected. And she fucking hated bad dreams.

After another few days, Joel’s trail had gone cold. They hadn’t found another camp and the newfound hope Ellie had gotten outside Dayton began to wane.

They stopped through a couple of the small towns - picking up resources where and when they could. But fuck, shit was scarce. Most of the buildings and houses had been picked over years ago, decades ago. It made Ellie appreciate what they had back in Jackson.

On a particularly rainy night, they decided to take shelter in an old music shop just off route 90. They’d mostly stayed off main roads since Wyoming, but 90 would take them straight through the last National Park before Seattle and into the city’s heart itself. After barricading the doors and windows several times over, Ellie found Dina sorting through a box of old records. There was a faded note taped to the side of the box: DO NOT DISPLAY UNTIL 10/11/13.

Fuck, that was after Outbreak Day. It would always be weird to see glimpses of how the world turned pre-Infection. A store waiting to display a record, people asking about it, maybe lining up for it… bizarre.

“Whatchya doin’?” Ellie asked quietly, bending down next to Dina and rubbing her back. She’d been sick and pale the last day and a half or so, but she’d trudged on like the fucking trooper she was.

“Snooping,” Dina said with a small grin, but she looked fucking exhausted. Maybe Ellie would let her sleep in the next morning. They had to find Joel but… fuck, Dina looked like she was about to pass out. “Look,” Dina said, handing Ellie one of the records.

They were all the same: a black, white, and red cover. It was an eye with a lightning bolt through it, and two others on the side. “PEARL JAM - LIGHTNING BOLT”.

“Oh shit,” Ellie said, taking the one Dina handed her and turning it over, seeing the song list on the back. FUTURE DAYS was number 12, the last song on the album. The first song Joel had played for her on guitar.

He’d been so shy but so excited about it. Tommy had salvaged Joel’s guitar from Texas when he’d gone back years ago, and he’d given it to him when Joel and Ellie first moved into Jackson.

She could still hear the chords and his deep, gruff tone-

 

“If I ever were to lose you

I'd surely lose myself

Everything I have found here

I've not found by myself

Try and sometimes you'll succeed

To make this man of me

All of my stolen missing parts

I've no need for anymore

 

I believe

And I believe 'cause I can see

Our future days

Days of you and me…”

 

Like a fucking tool, Ellie had said, “well that didn’t suck,” when he finished. But Joel loved it. She did, too.

 

Joel. Fuck.

 

“Where’d you go?” Dina asked, pulling Ellie from her thoughts like she so often did.

“Hm?” Ellie said, coming back to Earth. “Oh. This album. The first time Joel played for me…” She trailed off, her fingers tracing the back of the album cover like it was some kind of holy effigy.

“Here,” Dina said, taking the one in her hands and unzipping Ellie’s backpack, placing it inside. “Something for when we find him,” she finished.

Ellie turned around, smiling. Goddammit Dina always knew just what to do. Joel would lose his fucking shit.

“I have a surprise for you,” Dina said, pulling Ellie to standing.

“Is it a dinosaur?!” Ellie said with a grin.

Every time,” Dina laughed. “When has it ever been a dinosaur?”

“When Joel took me to that museum it was,” Ellie said, her sass-game as strong as ever.

“It’s better than a dinosaur,” Dina whispered, leaning in.

“Pfft,” Ellie huffed. “Good luck.”

“I promise.”

Dina took Ellie’s hand and led her toward the back.

“Stay here, Shimmer,” Ellie said with mock sternness. Shimmer huffed and shook her head as if to say “where the fuck would I go?” Ellie grinned as Dina continued to pull her past a few offices.

“Hold on,” Dina said, stopping, and ushering Ellie ahead of her. Ellie looked back at her. “Go on,” she said, and Ellie stepped inside the back room.

There was a big pullout couch that Dina had already done her best to make into a bed while Ellie had been securing the store. There were even some dusty pillows and blankets on it. A real fucking bed would be nice for a night, a good change of pace from the dirt they’d found themselves curled up on since leaving Jackson.

On top of the pullout was an old guitar case.

“Surprise,” Dina whispered from behind her, wrapping her arms around Ellie’s torso and kissing the back of her neck. “I found it behind the register,” she continued quietly.

“Dina…” Ellie sighed, walking toward the case and popping the locks, pulling the top open to reveal a well-preserved guitar, its wood a deep red in color.

Tears sprang to Ellie’s eyes. Joel would love this place. She sniffled, reaching out and running her hands along the neck of the guitar.

“Oh, shit, I’m so stupid,” Dina stuttered, immediately backtracking upon seeing the look on Ellie’s face. “I shouldn’t have… fuck…” she continued.

“Fuck you, this is perfect,” Ellie said, her voice low. Dina stopped her panic.

Ellie picked up the guitar slowly, savoring the weight of it in her hands, the sound the strings made against her fingers…

Dina sat down on a chair opposite the couch. Ellie sat on the edge.

“Play for me?” Dina asked, and Ellie smiled, taking a few minutes to tune the guitar.

And then she did.

It was like everything outside of them fell away. No worries, no cares, like they were the same two girls that had sat in that park the night Cat broke up with Ellie and she’d played for Dina. Her voice was soft, raspy, and maybe she wasn’t the greatest singer but who in the fuck cared about that?

 

“We're talking away

I don't know what

I'm to say I'll say it anyway

Today's another day to find you

Shying away

I'll be coming for your love, okay?

 

Take on me

Take me on

I'll be gone

In a day or two

 

So needless to say

I'm odds and ends

But I'll be stumbling away

Slowly learning that life is okay

Say after me

It's no better to be safe than sorry

 

Take on me

Take me on

I'll be gone

In a day or two…”

 

The final chords hung in the air as Ellie finished and looked up at Dina. Fuck if she wasn’t the single finest sight Ellie had ever seen.

“Told you I was a goner,” Dina said. “You shoulda kissed me in the park that night.”

“I was sad,” Ellie said, but knew Dina was right. She’d wanted to.

“Yeah, yeah,” Dina said, standing and walking over to Ellie. “Excuses.”

“You have two lips,” Ellie teased.

“I’m so glad you’ve finally learned to count,” Dina teased back.

“Yeah. All the way to ten,” Ellie said. “But then I run outta fingers.”

 

The night proved quiet, and Ellie was grateful to have just a couple silent hours wrapped around a sleeping Dina.

After a bit, she shifted quietly in the bed, careful not to wake her girlfriend.

Girlfriend.

What a weird word. It felt like she was so much more than that, like there wasn’t really even a word for it.

She stood, picking up her backpack and sitting down at the small desk by the pullout.

She sifted through her bag and pulled out her journal, staring down at her last entry, made just a few hours before:

 

I keep seeing Joel infected. That bite - like his skin was starting to rot from the inside out. Dina’s so optimistic, like we’re just gonna find him and bring him home. Home - like it’s not wherever she is. Home - like she can see something I can’t.

I have this feeling - it makes my skin hurt, my fingers twitch - whenever she says his name. I have to find him.

 

I see him you

Like a silent sunset

Breaking down through

The blinding light

 

Fighting fear darkness

Is easier when

You can see in it

 

I can’t see

I can’t see you anymore

 

She finished the sketch she had been working on of his face. Had he always had this many wrinkles?

The tink-tink of the rain fell softly against the building, as if offering a soothing ambience despite the wild world to which it now fell. She wondered if it was raining wherever Joel was. It had to be - they couldn’t be far off now. She hoped he was warm and dry.

And fucking safe.

 

The morning came, still overcast, but the rain had let up to an occasional drizzle. Ellie had gotten a few hours of sleep but had been awake for some time now, making sure they had everything packed up, getting Shimmer ready for the day; she’d even managed to sneak out and get a wild rabbit not far from the store. She could build a small fire in the main storefront, enough to cook them some breakfast. The windows were well barricaded but some of them had been broken, there was enough air that the smoke wouldn’t be too much of a problem.

She took Dina’s flip-top lighter from her bag - Dina referred to it as… something… it started with a “Z”, maybe? Zillo? No, that wasn’t it. Zeppo?

Eh, whatever.

As Ellie began to cook her catch, Shimmer nuzzled her hair.

“I know, girl, you can eat when we go back outside,” Ellie said, stroking her nose.

“That smells good,” Dina’s voice came from the doorway to the back of the store. Ellie looked up. Dina looked refreshed, but still pale. Ellie really hoped she wasn’t getting sick. “Where did you get that?” Dina asked, gesturing toward the cooking rabbit meat.

“Caught it behind the store just a bit ago,” Ellie said, and Dina’s face shifted into a frown.

“You went out alone?” she asked. “Ellie…”

“It was fine. I was careful,” Ellie said. “It’s quiet.”

“You should have woken me,” Dina said softly. It wasn’t an accusation, it wasn’t angry, it was more… concerned?

“I wanted to let you sleep,” Ellie said, gesturing for Dina to sit down next to her. She did. “Are you okay? You don’t look so hot.”

“Just what a girl wants to hear,” Dina said with a smile.

“I’m serious,” Ellie pushed. “You feeling okay?”

Dina insisted that she was, but she was also more quiet and contemplative than usual as they ate their breakfast. After putting the small fire out, grabbing their stuff, and letting Shimmer graze for a few minutes, they started back on their path to Seattle.

They’d likely make it to Seattle that day, barring anything unexpected happening.

‘Course when did anything expected happen?

Once they reached the National Forest, the sun was high in the sky and they had 100 miles or so left until they made it into the city. The anxious anticipation in Ellie was growing with every step Shimmer took.

Onward they continued, taking turns telling stupid jokes, but Ellie could not only sense her own distance, but Dina’s, too.

The air began to shift as afternoon slowly fell into evening and they grew ever closer to their destination. Had to be 20 miles from Seattle proper by that point.

So, so close.

And that was when it fucking happened.

 

The woods had been eerily quiet - even the teeming animal life they’d heard in the other National Forests seemed to be missing here. Ellie was about to say it worried her when an arrow flew through the air and stuck itself in Shimmer’s neck, sending her careening off the path they were riding and falling to the ground.

“Shimmer! Shit!” Ellie said as she brushed herself off, quickly looking down at Shimmer, who was unlikely to recover from such a wound. “Fuck…” she said. “Dina, you okay?” It felt like it was all happening in slow motion, but it must have been a couple seconds, tops.

Dina grabbed her hand, saying nothing, and pulled her toward a muddy, downhill drop. They slid down, as silently as such an act allowed. Ellie definitely felt that one.

Above, they could hear people moving through the trees, calling to one another about the horse, and how the riders had to be around there somewhere.

“Fuck,” Ellie muttered, barely even a whisper. They quickly hid themselves among the foliage. Ellie’s bow was already positioned in her hands. She watched as a dirty guy in a black jacket peeked down from where she and Dina had just come.

“I think they slid down here,” she heard him say. Another voice followed.

“Forget it, they won’t get far without that horse.”

“What if there are more with them?”

“I don’t want to be in these woods all night, just fucking leave it.”

“Fine. You tell Isaac we didn’t get all the stragglers…”

The voices started to fade as they moved away from the drop, then disappeared completely.

Not Shimmer, Ellie’s mind mused. She’d been Ellie’s faithful Patrol buddy ever since she’d started doing Patrols and taking Watches.

The sound of retching made Ellie turn. Dina was throwing up among the trees, as quietly as she could.

“Dina,” Ellie whispered, moving closer and rubbing her back.

A few more seconds of retching followed, and then she settled.

“Shit,” Dina said. “That was close.”

“You okay to keep moving? I don’t think these fucking woods are safe anymore,” Ellie said.

“They were safe?” Dina said, a tense kind of sass in her tone.

“Come on,” Ellie said, helping Dina to a full standing position and beginning to move as quietly as possible through the forest.

The sun had fully set by then, and it was fucking dark. In the other forests, they had made use of their flashlights when they felt safe enough, but there was no way they’d draw attention to themselves like that here.

They were so fucking close to Seattle, and without Shimmer, it would make it all that much harder to catch up to Joel. Stopping now until the sun came up would cost them so much time, but Ellie couldn’t see six inches in front of her face.

A rotting smell filled her nostrils, and just as she was about to comment on it, she tripped over something and fell face first to the forest floor.

“Shit,” she grunted, looking around to make sure no one was running over to find the source of the sound. But the forest was silent except for Dina’s quiet “Ellie!”

Ellie moaned and turned around, standing.

“Fucking rocks,” she mused, but took it back when Dina flipped her lighter open, the faint glow illuminating what Ellie had tripped over: a horse. A dead horse. Joel’s dead horse.

It had the “J” brand Jackson had on the hindquarters of all its horses. But that wasn’t the only one it had. Someone had branded it with what looked like the face of a wolf and the Firefly symbol above the “J”.

“What the fuck?” Ellie wondered aloud, staring at the brands.

“Ellie…” Dina said, opening the saddle bag and pulling out a piece of paper. She read what was on it and grew, if possible, even paler than she already was.

She must be sick.

She dropped the scrap of paper before Ellie could take it, and once again retched, throwing up all over the forst floor.

“Dina,” Ellie said, moving toward her.

“I’m fine,” Dina said between retchings. “It’s just… the smell…”

Ellie fumbled around for a second for Dina’s lighter. She’d dropped it at her feet when she started to get sick. Ellie got her fingers around it and lit it up again, reaching for the piece of paper.

She moved the flame towards it and read:

“Come for him and he dies.”

Fucking Christ.

Chapter Text

They had him. They already had him. And they were doing fuck knows what to him.

Ellie’s hands shook, her entire body vibrating, as everything grew numb.

She didn’t even realize she was screaming until Dina was pulling her away from Joel’s horse saying… something… Ellie couldn’t hear her between the ringing in her ears and the sound of her own cry.

“Ellie, Ellie!” Dina’s voice finally came through. “Be quiet!”

The ringing stopped. Mostly. She choked the scream in her throat. She felt Dina’s hand holding onto hers, but it was like the arm wasn’t attached to her.

Dina held the lighter ahead of her, looking toward something.

“I think there’s something here. Come on,” she whispered, and Ellie let herself be dragged, her feet seeming to move on their own.

They fucking had him.

Dina pulled her up over a rock and through a small opening into a little cave area. Her hand was still clinging to Ellie’s. For the first time, Ellie realized her hand wasn’t the only one shaking. Dina’s was, too. And it was cold. Fucking freezing.

“Dina, your hands…” Ellie said, and it sounded stunted, like her throat was still wary of making noise. It didn’t even sound like her voice.

“It’s okay, just a little flu or something,” Dina said, and Ellie’s hand was on her forehead immediately.

“Fuck you’re burning up,” Ellie said, grabbing her backpack off her back and pulling out a small vial of antibiotics.

“No, those are yours, you still need-”

“-Shut up. It’s for both of us,” Ellie said, shushing her. She pulled out a syringe and doused it with alcohol. “Gimme your arm,” Ellie said, and Dina hesitated. “Babe I need your arm.” Dina still didn’t move.

“I don’t like needles,” she said quietly.

“I’ve seen you slit an Infected’s throat clear open without a twitch, and you’re scared of needles?” Ellie said, some of the life returning to her.

“We all have our shit,” Dina said, holding out her arm and looking away.

“I’ll make it quick,” Ellie said, rolling up Dina’s sleeve, dumping some alcohol on her arm, and jabbing the needle in. She drained the syringe and pulled it out. “All done,” she said quietly, bending down and offering a kiss on the injection spot. She rolled the sleeve back down. Dina was still shivering.

“Here,” Ellie said, taking off her coat and wrapping it around Dina.

“Ellie, it’s cold.”

“I don’t need it. I’m fine,” Ellie said, though Dina was right, it was a bit chilly. She needed the coat more than Ellie did, though.

Ellie stared down at the note that had been left on Joel’s horse. The same Firefly and wolf symbols were drawn under the message.

“What the fuck are we gonna do?” Ellie asked. “How do we know they didn’t already kill him? What if he’s tied up and they’re gonna cut him into tiny pieces? I’ve seen what some of these factions do, Dina, it’s not-”

“Ellie, hey, come back to me, don’t spin out,” Dina cooed quietly, and Ellie’s heart rate settled. “It’s okay. I know. I’ve seen what they can do, too.” Dina held Ellie’s cheeks in her hand.

“Right. Your sister,” Ellie said quietly. “I’m a dick.”

“You’re not a dick. You’re scared. I am, too,” Dina whispered. “What do you think that is?” she asked, pointing at the sketch of the wolf.

“Dunno. Never seen it before,” Ellie said. “Maybe some of the factions are merging. Maybe they paired with the Fireflies.”

“Or the Fireflies got pulled into them,” Dina said, an ominous undertone sneaking through.

“Maybe,” Ellie said. She stood, walking over to the small crevice they’d squeezed through to get inside the cave.

“Don’t even think about it. We made a lot of noise back there,” Dina said.

“We. How sweet. I believe I made all the noise and you hauled our asses outta there,” Ellie said, turning around. “Thanks for that, by the way.”

“It was selfish. I kinda like ya,” Dina said, offering a wink.

“Don’t flirt when you’re sick,” Ellie said.

“Afraid I might throw up on you?”

“That, and you sound like a dying squirrel,” Ellie said with a small grin.

“Sexy,” Dina said.

“Didn’t know you were into that sorta thing.”

“You don’t know a lot of things.”

“Oh yeah? Like what?” Ellie asked, taking a seat across from Dina.

“Liiiike sometimes I think about us running away from Jackson and finding a little farmhouse,” Dina said, and Ellie could see a small blush in her cheeks. That was new.

“Like with sheep and cows and shit?” Ellie asked. “Oooo, and a dog? Little pups,” Ellie said, her voice growing low like it did whenever she was talking about something she thought was cute.

“All that, yeah,” Dina said. “We could have an extra room for Joel when he comes to visit…”

“If we find him,” Ellie said, the foreboding in her gut returning.

“When,” Dina corrected.

“So we keep going,” Ellie said.

“Was there even a question of turning back?” Dina asked.

“No,” Ellie said.

“RUN!” A woman’s voice echoed from the forest.

Ellie was on her feet immediately, peeking back out through the crevice. A young woman carrying a lit torch ran by, followed by a teenage boy with a shaved head and a woman that was, Jesus, she was jacked.

“Infected!” the woman screamed again.

Screams and clicks came from behind the three people that ran past, as well as a massive, grunting, gurgling sound Ellie had never heard before. Like a Bloater on steroids.

“Fuck,” Ellie said, grabbing her backpack and weapons. “Fuck, Dina,” she whispered. Ellie readied an explosive arrow in her bow.

“Ellie, be careful-” Dina whispered.

“-I know, I know,” Ellie said back.

A giant glob of an Infected roared past, knocking the giant rock in front of the cave away.

Jesus that fucking thing was strong.

Ellie dove out of the way.

Fuck, now they were completely exposed.

“Dina, Dina, run,” Ellie said, getting on her feet and charging out of the cave. It was fucking dark outside. Fuck this was terrifying.

Ellie heard Dina breathing heavily behind her as they ran. They followed the torch a ways ahead of them. Maybe it wasn’t smart… but it wasn’t fucking smart to be running around in the dark, either.

Infected surrounded them.

Gunshots blazed in the night, Infected gurgling and drowning in their own blood as they fell. Ellie let off a shot from her arrow, which exploded when it hit the big fucking guy.

“What the fuck is that?” Ellie yelled, breathy, as they ran. It charged after them. She readied another arrow in her bow.

“Lev!” the young woman screamed when an Infected jumped the boy. They were close enough to them now that Ellie could make them out. The young woman and the boy were wearing some kind of brown, hooded jackets, and Guns McGee over there was in a sleeveless shirt and dark, somewhat baggy cargo pants and boots. She looked vaguely military.

Fuck me.

Dina let two shots off at the Infected on top of the boy and it slumped over, letting the boy up so they could all keep running.

“Fucking Shambler!” Guns yelled, and Ellie turned, shooting another explosive arrow at the giant infected fuck near her.

It exploded, sending Ellie flying.

Shit, that was stupid, her body had just started healing from the last fucking explosion.

“Fuck!” Dina shouted, but Ellie couldn’t see her. She couldn’t see anything. Her head was pounding, ears were ringing, the world was black with deeper black around the edges.

Something jumped on top of her, clicking away.

Fucking Clickers.

Ellie ripped her switchblade from her pocket and dug it into the side of the Clicker’s head.

“Get off me!” she yelled, and suddenly it was pulled from her, and she was being picked up and tossed onto her feet like she was a rag doll.

“You good?” Guns said, and Ellie huffed loudly, groaning. “Let’s go,” she said, rushing off to meet up with her other two companions that were among the light.

“You’re okay!” Dina shouted as they got closer while she shot the hordes of Infected coming their way.

“We gotta get outta here,” Guns said, and the girl with the torch suddenly swayed in her stance and fell over.

“Yara!” the boy cried.

“Okay, okay,” Guns said, rushing over. “Careful of her arm,” she said as the boy helped her pick  up this Yara. “Let’s go. Go!” she shouted as the Infected started to close in again.

They took off.

The torch had fallen to the forest floor, and Ellie kicked it toward a horde of oncoming Infected, tossing a molotov along with it. Another explosion - this one massive.

She turned and joined the running group. They ran. And ran. Ran until their lungs almost gave out and the forest opened into a stretch of overgrown road covered with rusted old cars where a huge wall and gate surrounded an old QZ. Seattle. They’d made it.

The groanings of Infected were far off now, the explosions must have confused them.

Ellie took as much of a breath as her heaving chest would allow. She could feel the places on her body that had been burned when she’d shot that… what had Guns called it… a Shambler? Fuck.

“Inside, we have to get inside,” Guns said to the boy. She was still carrying the girl. Ellie and Dina glanced at each other. Tension was growing in Ellie’s chest. She didn’t know these people. But they had just fought together, and the woman had risked her ass to get the Clicker off Ellie, and she was traveling with these two kids…

“Lev, help me with this,” Guns groaned. She was trying to get a door to a make-shift trailer open, but couldn’t do it with the young woman unconscious in her arms. The boy didn’t seem to be able to get it either.

Ellie ran forward.

“I got it, I got it,” she said, pushing them aside and ramming the door a few times to get it open.  Guns and the boy rushed in, laying the younger woman, Yara was it? Down on an old, dusty couch.

Dina walked up behind Ellie. The two looked at each other, silently agreeing on what they had to do.

“Well, uh,” Ellie began, but then Guns rolled Yara’s sleeve up, and Ellie’s stomach retched. Her arm was… fucked. “Jesus,” Ellie said.

“Shut the door,” Guns growled. “Don’t want the Wolves coming in.” Dina shut the door.

“Wolves?” Ellie asked.

“Aren’t you… a Wolf?” The boy, she thought Guns had called him ‘Lev’, asked Guns.

“I am. Was. I used to be a lot of things,” Guns said, staring down at Yara’s arm.

Wolves. The sketch. She was one of them. The hair on the back of Ellie’s neck stood on end.

“Thank you,” Guns said toward Ellie and Dina, then looked at Lev. “And you two.”

Ellie was confused: they didn’t know each other? Had they all just run into one another in a wood filled with Infected? How had this girl’s arm been fucking shattered?

“That’s gonna have to come off,” Dina whispered.

“How do you know?” Guns asked protectively.

“I don’t know much - but I’ve had some medical training.” She had? Ellie didn’t know that. “I couldn’t do it or anything, but that arm won’t survive.”

Ellie’s mind was spinning. She didn’t want this teenage girl to die, but she also didn’t want to get too cozy with Guns over there. Not now that she knew she was a Wolf or whatever. But she also couldn’t let her know she was looking for Joel. Fuck.

“Here,” Ellie said in a quiet, soothing tone. She reached into her bag and took out one of the small bags of pills, one of the bottles of antibiotics, and a syringe, handing them off to Guns. “Not much, but if you have to…” Cut it the hell off, she finished in her head.

Ellie was starting to feel dizzy: her body was burning from the explosion, but she didn’t want to stay here. It felt too dangerous with this Wolf. Ex-Wolf. Whatever the fuck she was. “You all good?” she asked.

“I know where to take her,” Guns said.

“Okay. Good luck,” Ellie said, then turned toward Dina. They silently exchanged minuscule nods. Dina opened the door and they stepped out of the trailer.

“Wait,” Guns said. “Lev, stay here. Wait!” Guns rushed after them, closing the door behind her. “These aren’t from around here,” she said, holding up the supplies Ellie had given her. “Where are you from?”

“I don’t play well with others,” Ellie said coolly.

“Me either,” Guns said.

“Back East. Ran with the Fireflies for awhile,” Ellie said after a moment.

“Fireflies?” Guns asked, intrigue in her tone.

“Not for a long time. They fell apart, ya know?” Ellie said, looking for an in.

“So they did,” Guns said. They looked at each other for what seemed like forever. There was something underneath her comment, a hint, just a hint, of loss. Had she been a Firefly? Was she still a Firefly? That was all Ellie needed.

“Take care of them,” Ellie said eventually, gesturing toward the trailer.

“Take care of you,” Guns said, gesturing toward Ellie’s wounds.

“I’m good,” Ellie said, turning toward Dina. She didn’t look back as she added, “thanks for pulling that Clicker off me,” into the night.

“Thanks for the medicine.”

“Yeah.”

And that was that. Guns turned and walked back into the trailer.

“Ellie, what the hell was that?” Dina said, her voice barely even a whisper.

“We’re gonna track 'em,” Ellie said, glancing over at Dina.

It wouldn’t be easy, that was for fucking sure, but it was the best they had.

They quietly found another trailer a few cars up, and Ellie hoped Guns hadn’t seen them go inside. Though she didn’t know their plan, so really who the fuck cared?

Dina gingerly helped Ellie out of her shirt, which was burned and singed and more of a rag at that point.

The full pain hit Ellie hard.

“Fuck,” she sighed, looking down at herself. Her body had become a kind of paint-by-numbers for multiple different kinds of wounds.

“Here,” Dina said, offering Ellie two of the pills. Ellie took them and swallowed them dry. Dina cleaned the burns and pulled a chunk of arrow from Ellie’s shoulder - it must have ricocheted off that Shambler and dug into her. Shit, she hadn’t even felt that one.

“You did a good thing, giving them some supplies,” Dina mused as she worked.

“She was just a kid. Wolf lady aside, that girl’s arm was fucked,” Ellie said. “Hey how come you never told me you had medical training?” Ellie asked.

“I dunno. Guess it never came up,” Dina said, finishing patching Ellie. “You should rest, you need it.”

“I can’t sleep. You should sleep. You’re sick,” Ellie said.

“I didn’t say you had to sleep, I said rest,” Dina said.

This may have been a good idea if the sound of whistling didn’t come from outside, followed by the shattering of glass. Not in their trailer, but one that wasn’t far off.

“In there!” someone shouted. Ellie ran to the window, staying hidden as much as possible but peeking out. The woman that had shouted was promptly silenced by an arrow to her neck. That Lev was good with his bow, even Ellie could barely see her silhouette in the darkness of the night.

“Come on,” Ellie grunted in frustration. Could they get two fucking seconds of peace?

Bullets and arrows flew through the air from both sides. Ellie watched as the door to the other trailer opened and Lev stepped out, shooting arrows into the night. He was followed by Guns, once again holding Yara.

“It’s the apostate!” someone yelled from the shadows.

What?

“Shit,” Dina whispered, as if in understanding. “I think Seattle’s run by more than one faction.”

“Abby, come on!” Lev yelled from outside, and Guns followed.

Abby. Ellie turned, staying low, and moved toward the door.

“What are you doing?” Dina whispered.

“We have to follow them-”

“-Ellie, fuck no, it’s too dangerous-”

“-we can’t lose them!”

“We can’t track them if we’re dead!” Dina hissed. Fuck. She was right.

Ellie peeked back up and watched as Lev, Abby, and Yara disappeared into the west. At least that was something. Whistling followed the group of three, and after a few minutes, it was silent again.

“Fuck Seattle,” she whispered. “What’s an apostate?” she asked, turning to Dina.

“It’s… it’s like someone that denounces a religion,” Dina said.

Great, now they were dealing with religious fanatics, too?

Dina retched, moving quickly toward a dusty trash bin on the floor. She threw up into it. Ellie was at her side immediately.

“You’re still burning up,” she said, holding her hand to Dina’s forehead.

“You just gave me antibiotics,” Dina said in between fits. “It’s medicine, not magic.” She threw up again.

Ellie helped her onto the small mattress in the trailer after a few minutes. If she didn’t get better soon… the city was going to be tough if she was sick. It would have been fucking tough if they were both at peak health - and it wasn’t like Ellie’s body was in the best shape of its life, either. But turning back also wasn’t an option. They weren’t half a day’s jaunt from Jackson.

Ellie let Dina rest for a few hours, until the sky began to turn a brighter blue and the sheer darkness of the night started to fade.

She laid down next to Dina and brushed some hair behind her ear. Dina stirred.

“Hey,” she said quietly.

“Hey babe,” Ellie said. “We gotta go,” she continued, the apology clear in her tone.

“Yeah,” Dina said, sitting up. Ellie held her palm to Dina’s forehead.

“Still hot,” Ellie muttered.

“Now who’s flirting?” Dina asked, a tired smile on her face. She held her arm out. “Get it over with,” she said.

Ellie pulled some antibiotics from her backpack and a syringe, repeating what she had done the night before.

They readied their gear and with a small squeeze of Dina’s hand, Ellie opened the door to the trailer and they stepped out.

The sun was starting to come over the horizon. Fuck, it had been… a night.

They headed west along the wall, which was graffitied into oblivion with that wolf picture and the letters WLF. They ran into little trouble getting past one of the west gates, which was a bit disconcerting, but Ellie thanked whatever had been on their side as they passed through a second, inner gate and into Seattle proper.

It looked like soldiers had bombed the hell out of it after Outbreak Day. Overgrown to shit, buildings falling apart, streets blasted up…

Fuck.

Chapter Text

Ellie didn’t know what she expected of Seattle, but it wasn’t this. The area they’d entered looked like no one had stepped foot there since Outbreak Day.

“Jesus,” Ellie said as they walked along the decimated streets. They strode in silence for awhile, Ellie looking over every now and again at Dina to make sure she looked okay. Still pale, but she didn’t look like she might lose her stomach at any minute anymore.

“I’ve been wondering,” Dina began. “Why would they leave that note on Joel’s horse? How did they know for sure we’d find it?”

“What are you thinking?” Ellie asked. She knew there was something more to what Dina was saying.

“What if it wasn’t for us? What if it was for Joel? Or what if he found it and it has nothing to do with any of us?”

“Maybe…” Ellie said, looking off into the city. “But I don’t think so.”

“Ellie,” Dina said, putting out an arm to stop them walking. She sighed, looking over and pulling Ellie into a quiet, abandoned coffee shop. “All he was thinking about when he saved you was you.

“You don’t get it.”

“Then talk to me,” Dina said. Ellie really didn’t want to fucking do this right now. They needed to find that group they’d run into last night. Or just find Joel without them. Something.

Ellie sighed.

“It’s like… so I have this thing that nobody else got, and I can’t share it.” She kicked at the ground beneath her, sending a small rock flying. “I can’t get infected! But if I had to watch Joel, or, or you… and I could have done something, and now I can’t. Dina it is so lonely and I’m so scared all the time,” Ellie finished, the fear pouring out of her. Fuck. This wasn’t… uuuuuugh she didn’t want to do this right now.

A sudden flash of a memory skidded across her mind.

 

It was months ago, she and Joel had been paired up for Patrol. Rare for them. They had been riding along in silence, having come across no Infected.

“So…” Joel had coughed, a little awkwardly. “This, uh, this you and Dina thing,” he said casually, but the question was anything but casual.

Ellie’s cheeks had burned.

“Yeah…” she said.

“And Cat?”

“Joel, that was like a million years ago.” Ellie rolled her eyes. “But I see how you’d remember, you were around then,” she added with a snicker. “Cuz you’re old.”

“I got it,” he said flatly. “Just,” then he cleared his throat, a fatherly air falling around him. “I just like Dina, is all. Think she’s good for you.”

In Joel Speak, that was practically a “marry that girl right now”. Ellie had wanted to say something, anything. ‘Thank you’ or ‘Yeah, she is’ or something, but throaty screams cut their conversation short.

That was the day Joel nearly got bitten. He’d never once, in all the time she’d known him, come quite so close. One of them had pulled him off his horse, and his gun had flown from his hands.

Ellie could remember the icy fear that tore through her as she’d turned Shimmer around, fighting to kill more of the horde that were surrounding her and Joel. But he wasn’t getting up - the Infected was on top of him.

Ellie would never forget as she watched him throw a hand up, forcing the face of the Infected away. His fingers had gotten caught in its mouth.

And Ellie got a perfect headshot just as it was about to chew Joel’s fingers off.

 

“Ellie?” Dina asked, and Ellie jumped at the hand on her shoulder. “Whoa, whoa,” Dina said, as if soothing a spooked animal.

“Sorry, I…” Ellie trailed off, then coughed.

“It’s not your job to save the world,” Dina whispered, taking Ellie’s hand.

“Yeah. Not anymore,” Ellie whispered, looking away.

“Not ever,” Dina insisted. “You don’t get to blame yourself for something he did.”

Dammit Dina. Ellie knew she’d been blaming herself for Joel’s choice but did she have to call it out so bluntly? Make Ellie feel so fucking vulnerable?

“Something, selfishly, I’m glad he did,” Dina continued. “What would I do without you?” she asked.

“Probably not be sick in Seattle, that’s for fucking sure,” Ellie joked.

“Yeah but I need a little excitement now and then,” Dina said, winking.

Ellie looked up at the wall behind Dina and for the first time since they entered the building, she noticed the huge graffitied painting there. It looked like… fuck, it looked like some weird gladiator ring: a huge audience looking over a single person, with a bunch of what seemed to be crudely drawn Infected surrounding them.

Jesus fuck.

“Holy shit,” Ellie said, moving closer.

Dina turned and her eyes fell on the scene too.

“That’s disgusting,” Dina said. “You don’t think…”

“That people are fucked up enough to do something like this? Yeah, I do,” Ellie said. “Let’s hope I’m wrong and this is just…”

“Artistic expression?” Dina finished.

“Something like that,” Ellie said.

They looked around the shop for any supplies, but mostly came up empty. It had been picked clean, except for a map Dina found crumpled in the hands of a long-dead corpse in the room behind the counter. The sight and stench brought on another of her vomiting fits - all water and bile.

They needed to eat. They hadn’t really since the rabbit, and Dina’s body needed at least something to help her fight this flu. Though after the sight of the corpse and the subsequent sick, neither of them was particularly hungry.

Ellie surveyed the map after Dina’s stomach settled. It looked like the person had started to section off areas of the city - there was a circle around the stadium with the letters WLF next to it, as well as some other WLF locations: a hospital, a TV or radio station, Ellie couldn’t tell which, a couple of other unmarked areas, another hospital a little east with marked by an H with a circle around it…

Man, they really had taken over the city. She wondered where this religious group came into play.

After looking over the map, they stepped back outside and continued walking. It was so eerily quiet.

“Do you think the stadium is their main base?” Dina asked, her eyes moving all around the vast city that engulfed them.

“Kinda seems it,” Ellie said, her eyes following Dina’s.

“Careful!” Dina shrieked, and Ellie snapped her attention to her immediate surroundings: she was about to step right into a tripwire.

“Fuuuuck,” Ellie drawled, moving around it. Seattle was just getting better and better.

They watched their steps carefully as they moved through the city. It was huge. They ran into a couple of random Infected, but other than that, hadn’t seen another person since they entered through the gate.

Most of the marked locations seemed further off, though, like maybe they’d just left this part of the city to rot.

As they got deeper into the city, the graffiti became thicker. There was old stuff, covered up Firefly symbols, things like FUCK FEDRA or GIVE US OUR RATIONS, but there was newer looking stuff, too: more WLF stuff along fresh Firefly symbols, and a few colorful paintings of a woman with sayings like FEEL HER LOVE, SHE FREES, and ONLY THROUGH DARKNESS CAN WE SEE LIGHT.

Jeeeesus.

“Fuck, Dina, how are we going to do this?” Ellie whispered quietly when they’d seen so many of the messages her mind was growing dizzy with all of it.

“I think we start by finding a place like the Library,” Dina said.

“What?” Ellie asked, eyebrows coming together in confusion.

“The Library,” Dina repeated. “The Creek Trails. Like a base for us. A place we can plan. And meet up if we get separated,” she finished.

“I don’t plan on getting separated,” Ellie said.

“Yeah, how often do things go according to plan?” Dina asked.

“Fuck, Sassy, okay,” Ellie said.

Dina pointed toward a domed building not far from where they were. As they got closer, Dina realized it was a synagogue, and began to tell Ellie some stories of how her sister used to drag her to them weekly.

Huh. Ellie didn’t know Dina was religious.

“I am and I’m not. I pray sometimes. It calms me. And I like knowing that being a survivor is literally in my blood,” Dina said as they walked around the building, trying to find a way in.

“So do you like… believe in a higher power and all that?” Ellie asked, trying not to sound like she was scoffing. She was genuinely interested to know.

“I don’t know. I just know sometimes it’s nice to release everything to something bigger.”

“Release everything.” Ellie echoed, tasting the words in her mouth, but they seemed foreign. She’d never really known what it was like to release… anything.

After half an hour of searching, they still couldn’t find a way in. The doors and windows were barricaded to all hell, and for good reason. At one point, Ellie heard a chorus of growls and clicks coming from inside.

“Yeah, maybe not so much,” she said, turning to Dina, whose face revealed that she agreed.

They continued up the street, every step closer to the WLF hub. They’d agreed to try and stay as far back as they could while also not creating half a day’s walk to get to where they were going. They wanted to find a middle ground, and it still seemed like where they were had little, if any, human inhabitants.

“What about that?” Ellie asked, pointing toward a desolate theater.

“A theater? Risky, there are a lot of ways in,” Dina said.

“Yeah but I bet there’s a ton of old equipment in there. We might be able to make a radio, tune into the Wolf frequency,” Ellie said.

“Oh, you can build a radio?” Dina asked with a smirk.

“I can barely build a sandwich,” Ellie said.

“But you can build a hellish bomb,” Dina countered.

“Well we all have our own special skills,” Ellie said with a small grin. Boy was she fucking glad Dina was with her. Boy was she fucking lucky.

Dina was right, there were a lot of ways into the theater. It was huge. But it was also quiet. No Infected, no people. Talk about being lucky.

Dina practically fell over onto one of the couches in the lobby once they found their way in. Ellie walked over slowly, kneeling down, feeling her forehead once again.

“Hmm, a little cooler,” she said, but Dina was still clammy.

“How are you? Your burns…” Dina began.

“I’m fine,” Ellie said, but as she stood back up, she groaned.

“Yes clearly,” Dina joked. Ellie made a face and pulled out the map.

“Okay so if we’re here,” her fingers danced around the general area where the theater was located on the map, then moved toward the WLF places the map’s original holder had marked. “Not bad,” she mused, pocketing the map again. “I’m gonna make sure this place is locked down,” she said.

“I’ll help,” Dina said, beginning to stand.

“Babe, stay there,” Ellie began.

“I’m sick, not useless,” Dina said.

They spent the next hour making sure any possible way into the theater was barricaded. Dina even found some long-range walkie talkies in a room on the third floor. A little bit of this and a little bit of that, and Dina had them working again.

“Okay, is there anything you’re not good at?” Ellie asked, taking one of the walkies and beginning to flip through the channels. “Really, at this point it’s embarrassing.”

“I think you’re the one that likes to remind me I’m, how do you put it, ‘shit with a bow’,” Dina said, also flipping channels on the walkie she held.

“Yeah. You really are,” Ellie said, flipping to another channel and suddenly some chatter appeared.

“Walker, go to 7,” a voice came through.

“Switching,” another came. Ellie followed suit, switching the walkie to channel 7. “Go ahead,” the second voice continued.

“Isaac says bring her back in one piece, he has a surprise for her.”

“She’s harboring two Scars-”

“-He says he found that smuggler a few days ago. He’s keeping him at The Halo. Thinks we can bring her back around with the promise of revenge.”

“He’s too soft on her.”

“Just bring her back. ALIVE.”

“And if she doesn’t want to come?”

“Find a fucking way, Walker. By tonight, or she’ll miss the show. Back to 9.”

Then the voices went silent. Ellie and Dina looked at one another. The show?

The map was in Ellie’s hands lightning quick, her eyes scanning for this “Halo”. Nothing of the sort seemed to be marked there. Fuck.

Good news was, Joel was still alive. Bad news? Everything else.

“How are you feeling?” Ellie asked, pulling her backpack off and sifting through some of her stuff. Making sure she had everything she needed.

“A little better,” Dina said.

“Better as in could go headfirst into a warzone or better as in you don’t feel like you’ll throw up every fifteen minutes?” Ellie asked, zipping her pack up and tossing it on her back. Dina didn’t say anything for a fraction of a second. “Stay here,” Ellie said before Dina could say anything.

“Ellie, not alone,” Dina said.

“I’ll be careful, I promise. I’ll find him and get him back here. Don’t answer the door for anybody,” Ellie said as she stepped from the room. Dina followed.

Ellie walked down the stairs toward the first level.

“Barricade it behind me,” she said, turning toward Dina, who was holding all her stuff.

“I’m coming,” Dina said, her resolve firm. Ellie stopped walking. She put her hand on Dina’s forehead, and then moved it down to cup her cheek.

“You don’t have anything to prove. You don’t owe me anything,” Ellie said quietly.

“It’s not about owing you anything, El, that’s not how relationships work,” Dina said, placing her hand on top of Ellie’s, which was still on her cheek. Ellie considered.

“You start to feel like shit-”

“-I’ll find a way back safely,” Dina finished.

Ellie walked out the front door, and Dina barricaded it behind her. Ellie waited while Dina went around the theater and snuck out through a window which she re-barricaded once outside. They’d be able to move that between the two of them when they came back later. Ellie watched as she hopped from the fire escape. She pulled out the map as Dina jogged over.

“Where are you thinking?” Dina asked, following Ellie’s eyes as they scanned across the paper.

“Not the stadium, too risky. And it’d be stupid to keep prisoners there if that’s their main hub…” she said, more for the sake of thinking out loud than anything else. “Wish I knew what this fucking Halo thing was…” she mused.

“What about this?” Dina asked, pointing to the area slightly more east that seemed to be separate from most of the other WLF stuff, the H with a circle around it. Ellie studied it.

“I thought that was a hospital,” she said, looking more closely.

“Me too, but they already have the one close to the stadium,” Dina said, pointing.

“Huh,” Ellie said. “Good eye, babe.”

They still had a good number of hours before nightfall, which was lucky because it might take a bit to get to where they were going. There wasn’t really a straight shot through the city - too many streets and buildings were demolished for there to be an easy way of getting to this H.

The further they walked, the more Ellie hoped Dina wouldn’t have to turn back - they’d boosted and pulled each other up multiple times, she’d never make it back on her own.

After they’d be walking for a couple hours, an arrow narrowly whizzed by Ellie, followed by a series of whistles.

“Fuck,” Ellie huffed, grabbing Dina and careening off down an alley, eyes darting for anywhere they could go.

“Up. Up there,” Dina said, pointing above them. She was right - if they could get the ladder on the fire escape down, they could climb up high enough to… fuck it looked like it was clear all the way up the building to the roof. “Grab it,” Dina said, and Ellie steadied herself in Dina’s grasp as Dina boosted her up with ease. She kicked the bottom of the ladder down as she hurried up it, the whistles growing louder and closer.

“Let’s go, let’s go,” Ellie hissed, pulling Dina up once she herself had made it off the ladder. Dina climbed onto the fire escape and Ellie pulled a pin on the side of the ladder, kicking it until the rusty metal unfused and the ladder fell to the ground. Loud as fuck, sure, but it would make it harder to catch them.

They flew up the stairs, one flight, two, three, four, five, more, Ellie growing dizzier with each subsequent set. Finally, they made it to the roof. They could still hear whistles below, but it didn’t sound like any had followed them.

“Fuck me,” Ellie said, dropping herself onto the roof and catching her breath. Dina kneeled next to her.

“Ellie,” she began.

“One second, one second, lemme catch my breath,” Ellie coughed.

“No, your neck,” Dina said, reaching down toward the side of Ellie’s neck. Ellie got there first. It was warm, sticky, wet… “Shit,” Dina said, grabbing the rag of a shirt Ellie had lost in combat the night before from her bag and holding it to Ellie’s neck.

“I didn’t even feel that,” Ellie said.

“It’s not too deep. Should be okay,” Dina said, holding pressure against the rag. “It’ll probably leave a gnarly scar, but…”

“But you think scars are sexy, right?” Ellie said, only really half-joking.

“Lucky for you,” Dina said, laughing with a hint of concern. “Here, hold that,” she said, and Ellie took the rag from her. Dina sneaked over to the edge of the building and looked down. Nothing shot up at them. “I think we’re good,” she said to herself. “How far are we?” she asked without turning around, then grew eerily still.

“A few miles,” Ellie said, moving toward Dina. “Shouldn’t take long. The sun’ll probably be going down when we get there.” She was close to Dina now, and Dina still hadn’t turned back to her. “What?” she asked as she made it alongside her.

“Look,” Dina said, pointing to something off in the distance that wasn’t far but… it wasn’t close, either.

It was hard to make out completely from where they were, but upon seeing it, Ellie knew that was where they needed to go. She couldn’t totally see the figure that was tied to the… god, she couldn’t even fucking bring herself to fully take in what she was looking at.

It was Joel. She didn’t need to recognize him, he was too far away anyway, but the feeling in her gut was enough.

“Let’s fucking go,” Ellie said, tearing her eyes from the sight and hurrying across the roof.

Chapter Text

The next building was close enough that they could make the jump, but that was as far as they could go up so high.

Ellie’s blood was on fire, her skin barely able to contain the inferno.

These fucking people. This fucking city. Everyone’s a fucking… fuck.

They were going to have to climb down from the top of the building, which worried Ellie. The closer they got to the ground, the less she’d be able to see Joel out there, all alone, strung up on a fucking pole. The less she’d be able to see anyone getting up close to him. No way did they tie him up and just leave him there. He was too… ugh, she struggled to even get the thought through her brain, but he was too “valuable” to them.

Just as that thought crossed her mind, she saw what looked to be a caravan of vehicles in the distance, headed East.

Meet ya there, fuckers, Ellie thought, seeing nothing but red.

“Ellie, here,” Dina said. She hadn’t said anything since the top of the previous building, and even now her voice was low, cautious, concentrated. Ellie knew she was waiting for her to say something, but Ellie was afraid if she opened her mouth, all that would come from it would be a guttural scream, primal and raw. It would choke the life out of her if she let it.

And she wasn’t gonna fucking let it.

Ellie walked over to Dina, toward what looked like some kind of hatch in the roof. Dina had already pulled it open, and there was a ladder leading down toward a mesh, metal landing. They didn’t know what was inside, but this was their best way off the roof.

Ellie didn’t like going feet-first into a place she couldn’t see, so she put her face through the open hatch first and listened. Nothing.

She took a deep breath through her nose and started down the ladder one-handed, her other hand still holding the rag to her neck. She let the breath go when her feet landed on the metal with no arrows or bullets being sent her way. Dina followed. They were in an old, giant supply closet. Of course nothing left was of much use.

It must have been some old office building, because as they walked through, they passed cubicles and old, dusty computers, whiteboards with shit still scribbled all over them, file cabinets galore… Ellie could imagine how loud and bustling it must have been pre-Outbreak Day.

When they reached the second floor, they found three bodies lined up against a wall, each with three arrows sticking out of their chests. They were partially rotted, the stench nearly unbearable.

Above them, written in what could only have been their blood, were the words NOW THEY ARE FREE.

Fucking hell.

Ellie moved toward them, pulling out the arrows and tossing them into her backpack. Supplies were supplies, after all.

They moved down to the first level and out the doors into the street, moving low and quickly. Ellie couldn’t see exactly where they were heading anymore, there was too much in the way, but it was like the path had burned itself onto the back of her eyelids. She could get there with her eyes closed.

“There’s a caravan moving toward us,” Ellie finally said.

“I saw them,” Dina said. “How do you wanna play this?”

“Quietly as possible for as long as we can, then boom,” Ellie whispered.

Fucking boom.

Finally, as the sun was beginning to set, the streets emptied into the small clearing - it looked like they were among a graveyard of dilapidated smaller shops - they’re walls and ceilings nothing more than rubble, with grass overgrowing every which way.

And there it was. It was a giant. Fucking. Cage. Barbed wire all around, and a low buzz filled the air. It was fucking electrified.

And there he was. Joel. Strung up on a pole in the middle of it. Several Infected were in there with him, all attached to chains which dug into the ground, keeping them just out of reach of the pole.

Fucking wretched.

They were still about 250 feet out, and the caravans had already parked, people getting out left and right. Fuck there were a lot of them.

A thicker, older man with a limp pushed a familiar figure toward the cage. Abby.

There was a line of rusted cars and vans about 75 feet from the cage. Ellie and Dina silently stalked toward them, keeping out of sight. Ellie felt like she was going to be sick. She could hear bits of conversation now.

“Is that him?”

“I hear Isaac’s guys got him without Abby.”

“I thought that attack was her idea?”

“Yeah, but apparently she backed out.”

“I don’t buy that. That fucker took her dad. And robbed us of so much more.”

“Just what I heard.”

Ellie’s stomach dropped into her feet. Joel had killed Abby’s father? Mother fucking fuck this was getting complicated.

“Welcome to The Halo,” the thick, older man said through a megaphone. People cheered. They fucking cheered. Ellie felt a hand on hers, and thankfully Dina grabbed her, because her feet had already started moving and would have blown their cover.

“Abby,” the man said through the megaphone. She didn’t move. “Looks like maybe she needs a little encouragement,” he mocked, and the group began whooping, cheering, some of them shouting the things Joel had done - “He killed Jerry!” “Fucked up the chance for a cure!” “You got this, Abby!”

The thicker man whistled and Ellie watched as a woman turned off a generator.  The man opened the gate. He pushed Abby until she was just inside of it. The Infected eyed her, but she was just out of their reach as well. The man shoved a metal pipe into Abby’s hand, then kicked the back of her knees so she fell to the ground.

Then he closed the gate behind her and whistled again, and the electricity flew once more.

“Jesus Christ,” Ellie whispered, barely enough to be heard.

“You begged for this, Abby,” the man said through the megaphone. “Day after day training, night after night in my office, planning. Now you look as if I’ve kicked your puppy,” the man said. “He killed your father.”

Ellie saw Abby’s grip on the pipe become stronger.

She stood.

“We need to take out the generator and Abby at the same time,” Ellie whispered quickly to Dina, who nodded. “And blow a hole in that fucking fence,” she finished. “Silently.”

“I’m shit with a bow,” Dina said, “and I don’t have a silencer.”

“It doesn’t have to be a headshot. Just get her on the ground,” Ellie said, taking out her own bow. “Here,” she said, helping Dina get hers in her hands.

She was fucking shaking.

“Babe I need you to take a breath,” Ellie said, oddly soothing despite the fact that she herself was also vibrating uncontrollably. “And aim high. Gravity’ll pull the arrow down.”

They looked back up and Abby was close to Joel now, the pipe being held by a death grip.

“Did you really think there would be no consequence for harboring Scars?” the man said into the megaphone, and Abby turned to him, confused.

Dina and Ellie took aim.

“Let ‘em go, boys,” the man suddenly shouted through the megaphone, and the Infected were freed.

“Fuck,” Ellie said, quickly shooting the generator which flickered and died. Dina’s arrow was already shooting through the air and had hit Abby in the leg. She screamed but didn’t go down. Which, strangely, Ellie was grateful for, because the Infected were more interested in her. She was fighting them off with the pipe one by one.

She was… impressive. That is, if Ellie had time to be impressed right then.

“Scars!” someone in the audience shouted, and people started to move, taking cover, looking around.

“Bomb, backpack,” Ellie said, turning her back toward Dina. Dina pulled one out and handed it over. Ellie took the quickest glance up over the car and got a general idea of where to throw it and hurled it through the air.

An explosion followed seconds later.

Fucking bulls-eye. She’d blown a hole through the fence.

Ellie and Dina watched as the Infected charged from the cage toward the people outside. There was screaming, running, and the man with the megaphone was shouting orders.

Abby was still in the cage fighting off Infected.

Joel was still strung up, but by some fucking luck, he hadn’t been attacked yet. Probably because he wasn’t moving.

If Ellie shot him down, would he be able to run, or would he just collapse?

He was fucking Joel. He could run.

“It came from over there!” someone shouted. Fuck, guess the time for quiet was over. Well, she had thrown a bomb.

With lighting speed, Ellie shot two arrows from her bow, one at the restraints on Joel’s feet, and then toward the ones on his hands. He fell to the ground.

“Behind the cars!” someone else screamed. Gunshots blazed as the WLF tried to take out the Infected, and feet began running toward them.

Ellie and Dina dove into the tall grass, pulling themselves as fast as they could from the cars and toward a few freestanding walls that might provide, at least some, cover.

Don’t fucking get him, don’t fucking get him… Ellie repeated, like some kind of holy chant.

“Grab him!” another voice came, and then it turned into a gargle as Dina and Ellie watched an Infected come up behind the WLF soldier and attack.

“They’re not here!” a woman shouted from the cars.

Good. No one had seen them sneak off.

Abby was still fighting off Infected in the cage, she hadn’t managed to get herself out yet. She was limping something fierce. Fucking good, she could match that old fuck she’d come there with. But she was also keeping Joel alive for as long as she distracted the Infected.

Ellie readied another arrow in her bow, but one from somewhere else was shot through the Infected’s head first. Ellie turned to Dina, but she wasn’t holding her bow. There was another non-WLF out there. Those kids Abby had been helping? Ellie didn’t have time to ponder it: Joel still hadn’t gotten up.

“Get up. Joel, get up,” Ellie whispered, pleading, as if he could hear her. She took another bomb from her backpack and threw it toward some of the cars from the caravan. They erupted in flames, pieces of metal flying off, doors crashing to the ground.

It was mayhem.

Good. That was what they needed.

And then it happened.

Joel was finally getting to standing when an Infected pulled him toward the ground, climbing on top of him.

“Fuck, fuck,” Ellie said, readying her bow, trying to get a clear shot. But the mayhem was making it difficult.

“There!” she heard someone yell, and suddenly gunshots were flying at her and Dina.

Ellie and Dina ran toward a burned out building, sending bullets and arrows flying and, a molotov, because Ellie couldn’t resist a good explosion.

Joel was now fighting the fuck out of that Infected. They grappled, messy, Joel flipping the Infected over so he was on top, and then the Infected doing the same.

The flash of Ellie’s memory of that Infected on top of Joel from that time on patrol almost incapacitated her.

Something unexpected happened: Abby walked up behind the Infected, whose face was so close to Joel’s shoulder he was almost biting into it, and she shot it in the head. It fell.

Then she aimed her gun at Joel.

Ellie, against any kind of logical judgment, ran from the burnt out building, toward all the mayhem, toward Joel.

But Abby wasn’t shooting. Her hand was shaking. Everything was shaking. But it was like she couldn’t move.

“ABBY!” the thicker man yelled, and it ignited something in Abby. She looked at him, then back at Joel. She readied her aim again.

An arrow shot through the thicker man’s shoulder. Fuck that kid was good with a bow, wherever he was hiding.

Ellie felt a bullet rip through her shoulder and she cried out, the pain only making her legs pump faster toward Joel. Abby still hadn’t pulled the trigger, and Ellie was so close.

She tore her knife from her pocket and dug it into Abby’s forearm - she couldn’t really reach any higher without jumping on her.

It was the distraction she needed. Abby screamed, turning, and Ellie grabbed the arrow in her leg, broke it in half, and dig the other half into her side. She fell.

Ellie grabbed Joel, who was unsteady but could stand, and hauled him away. Gunshots chased them. People chased them.

Ellie could hear Dina behind them, sending gunshots right back.

The air was filled with cries and screams, orders coming from the Head Douche, but they ran and kept running. Dina threw a couple of smoke bombs for good measure.

Fuck alive, they were going to make it.

Frustrated voices became further away, screams that they couldn’t find them. Joel began to falter on his feet.

“No, Joel, come on, we have to keep going,” Ellie said, but his weight was becoming too much. He was starting to buckle. “Dina…” Ellie said, and Dina was at his other side immediately.

“Ellie…” he said quietly, his voice far away.

“In here,” Dina said, pulling them into an alley and through a backdoor of… oh who gave a shit what the fuck this building was?

Ellie laid Joel down on the floor and Dina kept her gun ready, looking around for any Infected or WLF. After a few seconds, realizing they were alone, Dina threw up in a corner.

Well, she had made it this far.

Ellie rifled through her bag for something for Joel to eat. He must have been famished. It would be okay. It was going to be okay.

“You fucking scared the shit out of me, Joel,” Ellie said, but she’d never felt a relief so sweet. “Don’t you ever fucking run off like that!” she hissed at him.

“Okay kiddo,” Joel said quietly, coughing, but there was something off about his tone. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“Oh you’re gonna be,” Ellie said. “You owe me so bad when we get home.”

He shook his head and reached his hand up toward her.

“No, I’m sorry,” he said, and he practically had tears in his eyes. “I’ve missed you, baby girl,” he whispered.

“I’m gonna get you some food,” Ellie said, his emotional outburst too much. She went back to rifling through her backpack. His hand on hers stopped her.

“I know you wish I’d left ya there, in Salt Lake,” he said quietly. “I shoulda known you knew.”

“Oh fuck you, no, we’re not doing this right now. Let me yell at you when we get home,” Ellie said, not looking at him, trying to continue her search. Jesus fuck where was her food?!

“I ain’t going home, kiddo,” he said, and it was so low, so pained, so tired, that Ellie almost passed the fuck out from the weight of it. She turned to him.

His hand reached toward his shoulder, his bloody… shoulder… he’d been shot. The look in his eyes could have written a book the size of… some long fucking book.

It was the same bullet that had gone through the head of the Infected. And it had gone straight into Joel.

Abby saved him, and Abby damned him all at fucking once.

Ellie went numb.

Chapter Text

No. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, Ellie’s brain repeated, over and over, her fingers still fishing for food that seemed to mean nothing now. Joel tried to say something, Dina tried to say something, but Ellie couldn’t hear.

“Ellie, your shoulder,” Dina repeated.

“I don’t care,” Ellie said. She couldn’t look at anyone.

Then Joel pushed his flannel shirt aside. The wound was already sending the virus through his blood - rotting him from the inside.

Ellie’s fingers finally wrapped around a small homemade granola bar encased in paper. She took it out of her bag and threw it at Joel.

“No, fuck you,” Ellie said to him, unable to feel a goddamn thing. “Eat that. Get up.”

“Ellie,” he whispered calmly. He was so fucking calm.

That was what did it. That’s what let it loose.

“Fuck you!” she shouted. “You’re not dying in this shitty shop, in this shitty city, because of those mother fucking fucks,” she spat. “Get up, Joel.”

“Standin’ or layin’, I’m still dyin’, kiddo,” Joel grunted. He unwrapped the granola bar and took a bite. “Mmm, Maria always made the best ones,” he mused.

What the fuck?

“What are you doing?” Ellie asked. She couldn’t have categorized the flood of emotions coursing through her if she tried.

“Eatin’,” Joel said.

“So that’s fucking it?” she asked, her whole body shaking. “Eat, die, rot, next,” Ellie said casually.

“Ellie…” Dina whispered.

“No,” Ellie said. “Fuck that. I’m not… doing this…” she said through gritted teeth.

“Yeah you’ve been dealt a shitty hand, here,” Joel said, apology dripping from his lips.

“Fuck you! You dealt it!” Ellie raged. “If you had… if I…”

“You already saved me, baby girl,” he said quietly.

“Don’t gimme that shit.” But as words stumbled from her lips, she could feel herself cracking.

“Don’t make me yell atchya, now,” Joel said. “And don’t get me sentimental. Ain’t my style,” he continued. “Y’all just leave a gun and go.”

“Don’t move,” Ellie said to Dina, who wasn’t moving anyway. “I can fix it.”

She took out her switchblade and amidst objections, she ran the blade along her palm, slicing it open. She threw herself next to Joel and held it to his wound.

“Ellie…” Joel said, but didn’t move to touch her.

“No, no, it might work,” she said, desperate for anything at this point.

“Ellie,” Joel repeated.

“You don’t know!” Ellie’s voice cracked.

“Ellie,” Joel said a third time, whispering, placing his hand on top of hers.

“Joel…” she squeaked out.

It felt like it did all those years ago, when she’d had to take care of him after he was impaled at UEC. Except this time it was so, so much worse.

“No,” Ellie said firmly, coming back into herself. “We have time.” She stood and walked over to the (basically non-existant) door.

“What are you doing?” Dina asked, walking over to Ellie.

“Some of them are Fireflies. Or were Fireflies. Or whatever the fuck,” Ellie said. “Someone has to know about the vaccine.”

“Ellie they will shoot you before you get close,” Joel said, still on the floor.

“They needed me once,” she said, defiant. Then she faltered on her feet.

“Okay, you’re not going anywhere,” Dina said, catching Ellie before she was completely on the floor. “We need to patch you up.”

“No,” Ellie managed, and squirmed so much she fell from Dina’s grasp. She landed on the ground: dirty, messy, grass pushing up through cracks in the concrete and growing all around them. Nature was such a fucking force. She stared at the blades of grass. She could feel blood running down her arm, and her palm was slick with crimson.

Her skin was buzzing, but only with anticipation of what would happen when she handed herself over to the Fireflies. The WLF. Fucking whatever.

“Ellie, come on,” Dina said, helping Ellie to her feet and sitting her in an old, musty booth a few feet from Joel.

“I ain’t lettin’ you walk in there,” Joel said when Ellie’s eyes seemed to refocus.

“Tough shit,” she said quickly.

“Ellie,” he said in that tone she knew all too well. “There is no cure.”

“That’s bullshit. You lied to me,” Ellie said.

“I did. But not about that.”

“They have doctors,” Ellie said, then looked at Dina. “Abby knew where to take that girl.”

“You saw what they did to Abby,” Dina said, trying to get a look at the wound in Ellie’s shoulder. “They probably killed that girl.” Dina’s voice was distant. Ellie put her hand on Dina’s, stopping her work.

“What?” Ellie asked.

“I don’t want to watch you die,” Dina said quietly. Ellie’s blood ran cold. No. But. She… she had to try and save Joel. Even if it killed her. Right? That was… that was what everything had been about. Maybe it could save more people! Maybe if she handed herself over… they had the doctors, someone must have known how to manufacture something. It… this… this was bigger than any of them…

“You won’t have to,” Joel said, and it pulled Ellie from her thoughts. She and Dina turned toward him.

Ellie had left her backpack next to Joel. She’d fucking left her fucking backpack there… fucking amateur mistake, Ellie!

There was a gun in his hand. He was rounding it on himself.

“Joel, no, Joel, please no…” Ellie said, throwing her body down toward him.

Joel pushed his shirt to the side again. It was bad. The skin was bubbling, veins filling with black, shit already forming.

“You hang onto that one, now,” he said, tilting his head toward Dina. “I think she might like ya.”

“Please don’t,” Ellie pleaded.

“There ain’t time,” Joel said. “Goddamn, if you weren’t the best thing I did these past twenty-five years,” he finished.

“Joel, I will hate you,” Ellie said, trying desperately to hold back her tears, begging for anything that would give her just a few more fucking minutes with him.

“Yeah,” he said calmly. “It’s all right, kiddo.”

 

The shot would reverberate in her head the rest of her life. He’d wanted her to leave, but she refused. She’d said if he was going to fucking do it, he had to do it in front of her.

 

She’d never felt a night so different. She couldn’t remember what happened right after, but suddenly she was outside, her backpack on her back, Dina standing beside her.

It could have even been a beautiful night, under different circumstances. The stars were bright, the air was crisp… yeah, in another world, Dina probably would have made Ellie pull out her Walkman and they would have shared the earbuds while they danced in the street. Or, well, while Dina danced and Ellie kind of awkwardly swayed.

Ellie felt like she would never dance again. Never look at the stars. Never taste the air. Even the slight breeze was painful, like a thousand small pins sticking into every inch of her skin.

Time was stripped of any meaning. Ellie moved, one foot in front of the other, like she had weights chained to her legs. Her chest hurt, physically hurt, as if a fist was clenching around everything in her torso.

Maybe if they’d been faster, getting to Seattle, this never would have happened. Maybe if Ellie had killed Abby the second she was put in that cage. Maybe if she’d killed every one of those disgusting fucks that went to the Halo to watch some gross cage match. She couldn’t imagine having something like that back in Jackson. Instead of the kids watching a movie on a Friday night, they went to the local cage to watch someone get torn to shreds by an Infected. Behave, children, don’t end up like this fucking guy.

Ellie went through the motions of getting them back to the theater, but nothing felt like it had shape or meaning anymore. She knew how dead her eyes must have looked. She caught Dina looking over a few times, making sure… what… that Ellie wasn’t going to lose her mind and just sprint off in another direction, screaming?

She couldn’t be mad at Dina. She wanted to be. She wanted to crack and yell and let loose and… but she couldn’t.

She could still feel blood running down her arm. Right. She’d been shot. She kept forgetting. Didn’t fucking matter much now, did it?

Oh. She had yelled at Dina. Pieces of the moments after Joel shot himself started to come back. Dina had… she’d wanted to stitch Ellie up, but not there. She didn’t want to make Ellie sit in there with Joel’s body. His body. Not even him anymore. He could’ve been sleeping, but Ellie knew better. And death always looked just a little bit different than sleep. A little more hollow, and somehow a little more peaceful.

Dina had repeated a few times that she wanted to find somewhere to stitch Ellie up, and when she’d pulled Ellie toward some… Ellie didn’t even know what, she wasn’t paying attention, it must have been somewhere Dina thought would be safe… Ellie had snapped.

“I don’t want you to touch my fucking shoulder!” she’d yelled.

Dina had said nothing, and they’d continued walking.

Maybe she shouldn’t have yelled? Whatever. It had felt good.

They made it back to the theater and got inside. Dina left her in the room where they’d found the walkie talkies, just for a minute. She was going to get… something… what had she said?

Fucking Abby. Fucking Abby shooting that Infected and getting Joel. Had she meant to do that? The man with the limp had said Joel killed her father. Maybe she’d wanted to get Joel with that bullet.

Ellie’s whole body shook, and she retched, throwing up in the corner of the room. She didn’t even make it into the old trash bin that was within reach.

Tommy would never forgive her for getting so close to Joel and letting him die. She’d never forgive herself. She retched again, bile coming in waves, choking her. Her eyes stung with hot tears, her lungs kicking for breath. Finally she fell back, heaving, air punching into her body.

She reached for one of the walkie talkies and turned it on. For a moment, there was nothing. Then quick voices started speaking;

 

“14, haven’t seen her.”

“At 2 either.”

“I saw her headed west with that kid, forty minutes ago.”

“Did you go after her?”

“We’re en route.”

West. I can manage that.

Ellie flicked the walkie talkie off.

 

“Hey,” a low, quiet voice came from the corridor. Dina. Normally it would fill Ellie with all the right things: warmth, butterflies, comfort… but it didn’t do anything. Ellie closed her eyes and her head fell. “Hey, come on,” Dina said, moving toward Ellie and putting something down next to her.

Ellie felt Dina’s fingers on her shirt, pulling it over her shoulders and revealing her white t-shirt underneath. It was filthy, bloody, dirty… but so was everything she owned. So was she.

“Up,” Dina said softly, slowly, gingerly removing the t-shirt to reveal Ellie’s precarious wounds. There were so fucking many at this point, at different stages of healing. Dina sighed. “This is gonna sting,” she whispered, then placed a wet rag on Ellie’s shoulder.

It did fucking sting. And Ellie was grateful for it. It almost felt fucking good.

The wound was through-and-through, so Dina wouldn’t have to do any fingering around to pull a bullet out.

“You get sick, babe?” Dina asked, eyeing the mess in the corner.

“Mmm,” was all Ellie could manage.

Dina worked silently, diligently, to stitch Ellie up. Ellie refused any of the pain pills that Burch had given them back in Jackson. They still had a few, but Ellie wouldn’t take them. She barely wanted Dina to inject her with an antibiotic, but eventually gave in. It didn’t take long for Dina to finish the stitches. Then she wrapped Ellie’s palm, too, from her self-inflicted switchblade slice.

“You should eat something,” Dina said when she finished.

“Not hungry,” Ellie murmured.

“You should eat,” Dina repeated.

“Okay,” Ellie said, unable to fight.

Dina took out some crackers and a small jar of fruit from her bag. Ellie tried to take them from her, but she was shaking so hard she dropped them onto the ground.

“Fuck!” Ellie exclaimed, heat rising in her. She thrashed out her arms and legs, and then pulled them all in closely, sitting up into a tiny ball on the floor, legs to her chest, her forehead on her knees.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Dina cooed, picking up the food and sitting herself in front of Ellie. “Come on,” she coaxed.

Ellie looked up, and then slowly let Dina feed her. She was letting Dina fucking feed her. How fucking useless could she possibly be? Couldn’t save Joel, couldn’t even put fucking crackers in between her own fucking lips.

She silently let Dina keep feeding her. At one point, she reached out and, hands shaking, took the jar of fruit from Dina. Dina let her have it.

“Y-You need…” Ellie said, not really able to form full sentences. She held out the jar toward Dina and took out a small strawberry, placing it near her lips. Dina ate it.

“Thanks, babe,” Dina said, offering a small smile amidst chewing.

Then Ellie launched herself at Dina, ferocious, primal, carnal. Their lips collided in a messy kiss. Ellie felt dizzy, drunk, and fuck, oh fuck it was so much better than all the nothing. She clung to Dina.

Dina pulled away, coming up for air.

“Whoa, whoa,” she said. “Ellie.”

Ellie met her eyes, so brown, so full. Would her eyes ever look that full again? What did they look like now? She leaned in again to kiss Dina. Dina pulled away.

“What?” Ellie said.

“Ellie…” Dina began, her tone polite, concerned.

“Please, Dina, please.” Ellie was almost fucking crying. Her fingers danced on Dina’s shirt, grasping for anything, like she was drowning and begging for rope.

Dina leaned forward and their foreheads met. Ellie closed her eyes, the dam threatening to break, but it wouldn’t come. It couldn’t. Ellie wouldn’t let it. It was all she wanted, but she wouldn’t let it come.

Dina kissed her forehead, and then picked up the stuff around them. She stood.

Ellie whimpered up at her. Fucking whimpered.

Fucking Christ, Ellie, get your goddamn shit together.

Dina threw her backpack onto her back, then held Ellie’s by one of its straps down by her side. She bent down and helped Ellie to her feet. She intertwined their fingers and slowly led them down the stairs and into the back of the theater.

Was it this big before? It felt like it was taking forever.

Dina walked them into one of the old green rooms where there was a big, squishy… was that supposed to be a couch? What was that? Well whatever it was, it was in the middle of the room. Dina slowly placed their bags onto the floor and helped lay Ellie down. There was a smaller couch across the room, and Dina moved toward it.

Ellie turned, again fucking whimpering, and reached toward Dina.

“I’ll be right there, El,” Dina said, grabbing a few of the dusty old pillows and one of the blankets from the smaller couch.

She walked back over to Ellie and put a pillow under her head, then placed a pillow down for herself.

She laid down next to Ellie, pulling the blanket over both of them, and then carefully, so fucking carefully, she wrapped an arm around Ellie and placed the gentlest of kisses at the base of Ellie’s neck.

If Ellie had been able to feel anything, fuck, that probably would have felt perfect.

Chapter Text

Ellie stood in front of the pillar in the center of The Halo’s cage. It stood tall, barren, like it was mocking her. Bodies of dead Infected laid around her, still tethered to spikes in the ground.

The rain was icy, painful, wicked as it poured from a dark, ominous sky.

The smell of burning rubber filled her nostrils: the WLF caravan was in flames some ways off, the light of the fire casting a gross, orange tinge over everything.

Where was Dina?

“Ellie,” her soft voice called, as if on cue. It came from behind Ellie, but it sounded far away.

She turned - Dina was far away, but close enough that Ellie could make out that it was her.

She started walking toward her, but it was like, with every step, Ellie was somehow further and further from Dina.

“Come on, El,” Dina said, a teasing kind of exasperation in her tone. But Ellie couldn’t get to her. She was moving, or, it felt like she was…

But then she turned and she was the same distance from the pillar that she had been before.

Instead she turned and walked toward the street: empty, cold, like a hush had fallen over the entire city.

And then she was in front of the place where Joel had…

Ellie peeked her head inside.

There he was, lying on the ground. He was trying to crawl toward a pistol, but he couldn’t get there.

His grunts were strained, his voice cracking.

Ellie walked in, slowly moving toward Joel. He looked up at her, then continued to reach for the pistol.

Ellie stepped on his hand.

She reached toward the gun, and as her fingers wrapped around it, another hand softly covered hers. It was bigger than her own hand, stronger.

Ellie looked up to see Abby, who helped her lift the gun, then silently situated herself behind Ellie. Ellie felt the hands on hers guiding the barrel so it faced Joel.

 

The BANG woke Ellie with a start. Her chest constricted, heart beating so fast it threatened to pop out of her skin. Dina’s arm was still wrapped around her, and Ellie could feel the simple, even rise and fall of Dina’s chest on her back.

Ellie felt like she was exploding in her skin, like the flesh was wrapped too tightly around her bones and muscles and she needed to get free. She slowly inched from underneath Dina’s arm and sat up, reaching toward her bag and taking out her journal.

I hate you. She wrote. Then again. And again. Until the words didn’t make sense anymore. Until she didn’t even know who the fuck they were for.

It must have started raining at some point while they were sleeping, but the drum of the water on the roof wasn’t loud enough to drown out her thoughts.

The more her mind replayed what had happened, the more she thought about Abby. She had planned the attack on Jackson. And then someone had said she backed out. Why?

Ellie put her journal back in her bag and fished around for Joel’s old, broken watch. She slowly pulled it out, hands shaking. Her fingers traced along the cracked glass of the face. She hated that they had left Joel’s body there. Maybe they should have taken him. Burnt him. Buried him. Something.

Maybe he was with Sarah now. If Ellie believed in that kinda shit.

But she didn’t - the hole in her chest told her that much.

Dina shifted behind Ellie, muttering quietly in her sleep. She shifted again and Ellie turned. Dina’s back arched just slightly, and a low… was that a moan?… escaped her lips. Ellie’s eyebrow arched, and a sudden wave of guilt crashed over her. Dina had had to watch Joel shoot himself, too. Dina had had to get them back to the theater. Dina had had to wash Ellie up, clean her wounds, and fucking feed her.

How did she do it? Go on walking, talking, smiling, loving, after what had happened to Talia? Dina talked so openly about her sister - less so about what had happened to her, but she lit up whenever she told stories of whatever shenanigans they got up to when Dina was younger.

Maybe she was just stronger. A better person.

Maybe. Try, is.

Ellie didn’t know how she could be so angry and so sad all at once. She was still pissed at Joel for what he’d done. He had chosen for her life to mean less. He had chosen, in the end, not to let her fight for him. His choice, his choice, his choice… never hers.

But losing him hurt all the same.

Fucking WLF. Fucking Seattle. Fucking Abby. Fucking that whole group of people. They didn’t even give him a chance at a fair fight.

The fuck was she supposed to do now? Pack up and go back to Jackson? Live with this squirming, cavernous chasm that felt like it was devouring her from the inside out?

How could someone that was so hellbent on saving two kids be a part of a group like the WLF? Or maybe she should be asking how someone in that group could give two shits about saving kids.

What Ellie wouldn’t do for fifteen minutes alone with any of those fuckers.

They all deserved to burn. Maybe they deserved to not have a vaccine, or a cure.

Maybe we all deserve to fucking burn.

How had Fireflies become a group like that? Weren’t they supposed to be all “look for the light” and shit?

“Fuck you and your light,” Ellie mumbled.

“Well good morning to you, too,” Dina’s sleepy voice murmured from behind her, and for the smallest fraction of a second, Ellie felt… something. Less alone? But as quick as it was there, that chasm inside her swallowed it.

“It’s still dark,” Ellie said quietly, trying to inject some kind of animation into her voice. But even she could tell she sounded robotic.

“Yeah,” Dina said, starting to sit up. “Ellie, you’re shaking,” she continued, and Ellie could feel Dina’s eyes roaming over her back, watching as her body, unable to still, betrayed her.

“Just cold,” Ellie whispered.

“Well Jesus put something on,” Dina said, hopping up and grabbing Ellie’s jacket. She crawled back behind Ellie. “Come on, let’s warm you up,” she said, holding the jacket out, waiting for Ellie to lift her arms.

Ellie turned, placing her hand on Dina’s and slowly pushing it down. She shook her head.

“It helps,” she said simply. She didn’t want to be warm or comfortable.

“You don’t have to do this to yourself,” Dina said, placing the jacket down and snuggling close to Ellie, leaning her head on her shoulder, careful not to jostle where Ellie had been shot.

“It helps,” Ellie repeated, then reached for Dina’s hand and the other girl intertwined their fingers. Ellie could’t look at her, but the squeeze of the hand Dina gave her told her that was okay.

“I wanna make them pay,” Ellie said slowly, her voice filled with pain and rage and aguish, grounding out from a raw place at the base of her throat. It reverberated in her chest.

“I know,” Dina whispered, offering Ellie a soft kiss on her shoulder.

“No, they don’t get to do that shit.” Ellie’s voice was still low, but it felt like a roar. The numbness in her chest was starting to thaw: a quiet, violent, fevered fury taking its place. How many people had they done that to? How many Joels?

“You go, I go,” Dina said, sitting back.

“Yeah?” Ellie said, turning toward her.

“Yeah,” she said, final, resolute.

Ellie couldn’t bring her lips to smile, it was like she forgot how. Instead, she closed her eyes and bowed her head.

“Did you take your antibiotic?” Ellie asked after a minute, reaching for her bag, wondering why the fuck that was the thing she asked.

“Yeah. Before we ate,” Dina said, her tone light, a little confused, as if Ellie should have known.

“Oh. Didn’t notice,” Ellie whispered, her eyes down, her hands fidgeting in her lap.

“Too bad,” Dina sighed. “You woulda been proud. Did it without squirming and everything.”

Ellie felt a sudden lightness flow through her. The quickest spark of sarcasm. It felt… well, it almost felt like it used to.

“Aw fuck, I like it when you squirm,” she said, meeting Dina’s eyes.

“I’m aware.”

The air was soft between them, lighter somehow than it had been in… fuck, in what felt like forever. Had it only been a couple days since she played guiar for Dina in that music shop? Fuck. She looked away from Dina again.

“Dina?” Ellie asked after a few seconds of silence.

“Hm?”

“Can we… before we, um, before we fuck up the WLF, can we bury him or something? I don’t want him rotting there…” she said, trailing off, thinking of all the corpses she’d seen over the years - in buildings, on patrols, just… rotting. Forgotten. Alone.

“Whatever you need, babe,” Dina whispered quietly, and she draped her legs on either side of Ellie, pushing her chest into Ellie’s back and wrapping lazy arms around her stomach.

“What were you dreaming about?” Ellie asked quietly.

“Oh no, was I talking again?” Dina asked, burying her face in Ellie’s shoulder.

“Talking isn’t the word I’d use,” Ellie said.

“Oh shit,” Dina groaned, her voice muffled by Ellie’s shirt.

“Hey, no,” Ellie said quietly. “I think it’s cute.” Dina slowly lifted her eyes toward Ellie’s. “Was it me? It was me, wasn’t it?” she asked, her voice husky, coated with a casual confidence and just a hint of the same momentary joy she’d felt before.

“Ugh,” Dina huffed. Ellie raised her eyebrows.

“Was it better than a six?” Ellie asked, harkening back to something Dina had said after they’d had their first kiss. Dina asked Ellie to rate it, fucking rate their kiss, and then proceeded to tell Ellie it had been a six for her. A fucking six. It got Ellie worked up thinking of it even now.

“I’m never living that down,” Dina said.

“Nope,” Ellie said.

“Yes it was you. Just because I’m too good of a person not to take advantage of certain situations doesn’t mean that you pouncing on me didn’t get me… um… riled,” Dina confessed, coughing a bit on the last word.

Fuck. Ellie hadn’t even thought of that. She’d been so lost, so confused, so hungry… she hadn’t even been thinking about Dina. Some fucking girlfriend she was.

Guilt crashed over her, and it seemed that that chasm that was momentarily satiated hollowed her out again, the fervent fury building once more.

“Hey, hey, no,” Dina said, pulling Ellie even closer to her and nuzzling her nose in her hair. “I want you. Every part of you. Even when it’s hard,” she whispered.

But I don’t deserve that. Ellie had said it in her head so many times. She didn’t. She was living a life on borrowed time now - it wasn’t a life she was supposed to have. She’d felt that ever since she’d woken up in that backseat before she and Joel got back to Jackson. She never talked about it - who could understand? - but it was always there, gnawing, grating, reminding her that she would never live up to what her life could have been no matter what.

Ellie turned, and instead of pouncing, she placed a slow, timid, gentle kiss on Dina’s lips. It was never awkward anymore, not like it had been when they first got together. They didn’t have to stumble around each other’s bodies and lips like they used to, they knew them like well-worn maps. The kiss slowly grew, and Ellie fully turned herself so she could slowly ease Dina’s body back on the… really what the fuck was this thing? Was it supposed to be a couch?

Dina was so warm beneath her, Ellie finally realizing just how cold her body was in comparison.

Christ that’s a fucking metaphor. Hit me over the head with it.

Ellie’s lips left Dina’s, tracing kisses along her jawline and down her neck. Dina arched underneath her.

Ellie stopped, lifting her head so she could look at her girlfriend who had traipsed from Jackson to fucking Seattle with her.

“Is this okay?” she whispered, and Dina nodded.

Ellie leaned down, softly capturing Dina’s lips in hers and… well… know what? Some shit is just for her and Dina. Don’t pry.

 

The morning came, but no break to the storm with it. Rain still fell heavily on the roof as Ellie stirred, having actually gotten a few hours of sleep. But before she even opened her eyes, the first thing she saw, burned into the inside of her eyelids, was her own hands on a pistol, Abby’s hovering over her skin, guiding her to shoot Joel in the head. Just like from her dream the night before. The gunshot echoed in-between her ears.

“Ngh,” Ellie groaned, sitting up as her chest began to constrict and airflow got caught in her throat. She closed her eyes, trying to focus, but she couldn’t unsee her dream. Her eyes flew back open. Her groaning became louder. Dina was already kneeling in front of her. When had that happened?

“El, Ellie?” Dina said, low, calm, steady.

“I k-I killed him,” Ellie stuttered, huffing, groaning loudly, trying to force air in and out of her body. “It was - I was there - and - Abby - and it was -”

“Shh, shh, shh,” Dina cooed. “You’re in the theater. You’re with me. Can you tell me where you are, babe?” Dina asked, slowly coaxing Ellie’s eyes to meet hers.

“The - the -” Ellie tried to get it out. “The theater,” she finally said, as if she had to pull it from some kind of thick swamp.

“Yup, that’s right,” Dina said, keeping Ellie’s eyes on hers.

They got ready a little more slowly that morning. Ellie’s appendages and fingers didn’t quite want to do what she was asking them to, but she was managing. She watched as Dina gave herself another shot of antibiotics (and she was right, she didn’t squirm), and gave Ellie some, too.

Ellie’s shoulder was burning like fucking hell, but she didn’t want to take any of the pain pills. Dina checked and re-wrapped Ellie’s shoulder.

“Can you carry that?” Dina asked as Ellie pulled her backpack on and held back a scream when the strap came down on her wound.

“Yup. Totally good,” she grunted.

“Are you sure you want to do this today?” Dina asked. “We could wait. We have the radios, we could stay back and plan and do it-”

“I wanna do it today. I don’t want his body ripped apart by a pack of Clickers,” Ellie said quietly.

“Okay,” Dina said, and the two re-barricaded the theater and walked off into the rain, back to the shop where Joel’s body was laying silent, empty, alone.

Chapter Text

They took the same route they had the day before, getting to the area around The Halo.

Ellie expected it to hurt. She expected some kind of full-body resistance to kick in at some point.

But Ellie always expected shit, and it so rarely ended up how she thought it would.

Because sure, the anxiety rushing through her blood, the tingling on her skin, the buzzing in her ears... It was all there. But so was Dina, who whistled a lazy tune every now and then or hummed casually as they walked, but Ellie knew it was anything but casual. She did it to pull Ellie out of whatever spiral she would inevitably fall into anytime there was too much silence.

Jesus she knew Ellie so fucking well.

There was a calm to the rain, like even the sky, the city, were mourning the loss of Joel. The streets were quiet, no WLF, no religious zealots, no Infected… just Dina and Ellie. Dina and Ellie and a ghost.

The fall of drops diminished as they continued, and had almost completely stopped by the time they turned onto the street they were looking for.

“You want me to go first?” Dina asked as they approached the shop where they had left Joel. Ellie shook her head.

“I wanna do it,” she said, letting out a heavy breath as she stepped through the corridor and into hell.

She pulled her hood from her head - maybe it was because they would be dry inside, or maybe it was out of reverence for Joel. She didn’t really know.

Her stride was slow, a little unsteady, as she walked back past the booths toward the place Joel had taken his final breath - she remembered the sight of his body slumped, his back plastered against a counter. So fucking pathetic, so undeserving of such a shit end.

We all get shit ends, she thought as she steeled her resolve, placing her hand on the final booth before the counter began. One more step and she would see… it again. His body. Not him.

The thought crushed her and brought her a kind of peace all at once.

The first thing she saw when she turned was the floor and all its rubble, stained with blood, her eyes moving past his body, not even taking it in. So much blood, pooled there, like a dark crimson stain all over… everything.

And then she let herself see the body.

It was pale. Still. Stiller still than stone, and about the same grey she would expect if she had carved his effigy in granite.

Fucking Joel.

I fucking hate you.

He looked so small there, laying on the ground. This was the man a group of people had traveled hundreds of miles to leave a message for. The man they’d taken and bound to a pole because they were so afraid of him. The man that had plowed through a hospital of people with her in his arms. A man that knew the world before the Outbreak. A man that had committed unspeakable acts, some of which he wouldn’t tell Ellie. Now he never would.

The man who’d taken her meaning from her, yet who’d given her a second chance at life.

And the man whose patient hands (and ears) had taught her guitar. The man who’d traded his entire, meager but entire, supply of coffee to get an old casette tape of the Apollo 11 launch for her sixteenth birthday. The man who’d told her Dina would be lucky to have her. How could one person be so many things?

It was surreal, as they dragged him from the store and out the back, toward a large clustering of trees. They couldn’t bury him, they had no shovels, Ellie had known that even when she asked the night before. But they could burn his body. The ground was soaking, sure, but they would find a way.

They gathered some wet kindling, some of it even a little dry from the dense clusters of leaves above. They scattered the twigs around his body, and then Ellie took her backpack from her shoulders and opened it up. She reached in, her fingers finding the record Dina had put in there just a few long days before. Pulling it out, she laid it on top of his chest, leaving her palm atop it for just a second.

Standing silently, she turned to see Dina holding a bottle toward her.

“What’s this?” Ellie asked, taking it and looking at the label. “Shit,” she sighed. It was an unopened bottle of whiskey.

“Found it at the theater,” Dina whispered.

“Joel would fucking love this,” Ellie said, still staring. “He pretended to hate teaching me about whiskey.” She kind of laughed. That felt good. “Said I was too young to appreciate it. Dick,” she said as she opened the top. She took a sip.

Fuck that’s strong.

She almost coughed but swallowed instead. She handed the bottle back to Dina, who did the same.

Ellie took the whiskey back and turned toward Joel, pouring it over him.

“He’d be pissed, ‘kiddo, don’t be wastin’ that, now,’” Ellie said, shaking her head. “Well fuck you, old man,” she chuckled sadly. Her lip quivered as she tossed the empty bottle onto the ground.

A low song filled her ears. It was in another language. Hebrew, maybe. Dina was singing.

Ellie reached her hand behind her, and a small metal object was placed in her palm. She looked down - this was it.

She flicked the lighter open, the flame coming to life. She held it toward Joel’s body and it lit up like… well like a corpse doused with alcohol.

She stepped back toward Dina, toward her singing voice, and Dina took her hand.

All the promises at sundown, I meant them like the rest… Ellie thought, squeezing Dina’s hand tightly as they watched the pyre take Joel away.

 

“Are you trying to kill me?!” Ellie cried, her arms and legs flailing, splashing water all around.

“It ain’t that deep, you can touch the bottom if you need to,” Joel said, humor in his tone. “Just move your arms, slowly, get settled, there ya go,” Joel said as Ellie stopped flailing and kept herself afloat in a much calmer manner. “Gettin’ the hang of it already.”

“You’re still a dick.”

Joel chuckled at that. Oh that chuckle was infuriating sometimes.

“Now, push your body forward. Move your arms like this,” Joel said, moving through the shallow water. Ellie mimicked and found herself swimming far less gracefully, but fucking swimming nonetheless. Fucking swimming!

“I’m meeting Cat in an hour. I’m gonna be soaked!” Ellie sighed, but she couldn’t deny the swell of pride that filled her chest. She was fucking swimming!

“Oh I’ll getchya back in time to get ready for your date,” Joel said, hitting the last word just so.

“S’not a date,” Ellie huffed.

“Ellie, I know two things.”

“Oh a whole two?” Ellie sassed.

One, you’re swimmin’,” Joel began, a fatherly edge to his tone. “And two, you got a date tonight with that girl.”

Ellie blushed thinking about it. Cat had been touching her more recently, accidentally bumping her or sitting extra close to her on movie nights. But that didn’t… that wasn’t… was it?!

“I make you speechless? ’S a first,” Joel said.

“Shut up,” Ellie murmured.

“Should I get out the ol’ shotgun? Give her a talkin’ to?” Joel said, egging Ellie on.

“Over my dead fucking body,” Ellie said. Joel chuckled.

“Take it easy, I ain’t gonna do nothin’,” he said. “You’re gettin’ the hang of this, though,” he continued, moving about the water as Ellie followed. “You’ll be lappin’ me in no time,” he finished.

There had been so many moments where Joel felt like her protector, where she’d known he cared about her, where she’d seen flashes of what he must have been like with Sarah, but this was the first time she ever thought about him like a real dad. Not teaching her how to use a rifle, not running in to comfort her after she straight mauled a dude’s face with a machete, not choosing her life over so many others… but this moment. Swimming together. Having an awkward talk about dating. It was an almost out-of-body experience. Ellie never thought she’d get such a clear picture of what the world must have felt like before the Outbreak - but it must have been like that.

 

For the record, it had been a date. And Ellie had been awkward the entire time, and then she and Cat didn’t start actually dating for about another year. Of course.

 

The flames began to die. Dina’s hand was still warm in hers, strong, like it was tethering Ellie to the very soil on which she stood. The charred remains in front of them no longer resembled Joel, and while Ellie would have loved to bring him back to Jackson and bury him in the cemetery in town, that wasn’t an option. But this had been something, at least. And it seemed that something, in this shitstain of a city, was far more than nothing.

“Okay,” Ellie said quietly, her chest boiling with hot rage at the thought of what they were now setting off to do.

“Okay,” Dina echoed, turning with Ellie and walking away from the dying of the fire.

The faces of the people she’d seen at The Halo would be burned into her memory until her final breath, but all they had to go off was a slightly marked-up map, and the names WLF and “Abby”.

Wasn’t much.

But it was a start.

They weren’t so fucking stupid as to march into the main stadium area, that would be suicide, and though Ellie may have been okay with rushing some kind of compound and taking out as many as she could, she wasn’t about to risk Dina like that. No fucking way.

The rain began to fall again. A dank city for a dank time.

“It’s like Seattle wanted us to burn him,” Dina mused as the drops began to fall at a steady pace. “Like it cleared up just for that.”

“Yeah,” Ellie said, and even she could tell her voice sounded distant.

They cleared some Infected from a small bookshop a few miles from where they’d burned Joel. They still hadn’t seen any WLF soldiers.

Dina tried to get Ellie to eat, and Ellie took a few nibbles, but she just wasn’t hungry. She knew her hipbones were jutting out slightly more than they usually did, and her jeans fit a little more loosely than they used to, but all she could see was Joel tied to that pillar, Abby shooting the Infected on top of him, Joel shooting himself in the head, Joel’s body burning in the woods… it was enough to make anyone sick to their stomach. Dina didn’t push, but Ellie knew she would if she continued eating, or not eating, like this.

They listened to the radios for awhile. Abby was AWOL (again), and apparently someone named Isaac was rounding up a Nora, a Mel, a Manny, and some other people to find her. Ellie wondered if the man with the limp was Isaac. What a piece of shit. He’d encouraged Abby, orchestrated getting her to The Halo, egged her on.

Yeah I’d run the fuck away from you, too, dick, Ellie thought.

There wasn’t much more chatter coming out. They were planning some attack on some island that was a couple days out, but there was little information beyond that.

“We get one of them alone, I bet we could get some answers,” Dina said as she switched off the radios.

“Five minutes and my knife’s all I’d need,” Ellie said, her voice rough and ragged. Dina said nothing. “What?” Ellie asked, sensing the tension in the air. Dina shook her head.

“Nothing,” she said, but continued after a second. “You interrogated people before?”

“Joel told me a thing or two about it,” Ellie said. “He and Tommy used to have a system. Get two of ‘em together, work them against each other,” she continued. “They’d usually kill them when they were done.”

“Fuck,” Dina sighed.

“Yeah,” Ellie said. “You don’t have to… be there for that, if you don’t want to.”

“Afraid you’ll scare me off?” Dina said, and Ellie met her eyes.

Yes.

“Just… giving you options,” Ellie said, dropping her eyes again.

“You’re my option,” Dina said. “Oh fuck,” she then sighed after a moment, a little chuckle to her voice. Ellie looked up: Dina had turned away and had a book in her hands. Ellie looked up at the shelf - most of the covers were half-naked women with strategically placed sheets wrapped around them.

“Is that…?” Ellie began.

“It’s porn,” Dina said, turning back around, still holding onto the book in her hands.

‘They just had this shit sitting around on shelves in the Old World?” Ellie asked, reaching for a book and flipping through it.

Jesus. That’s graphic, she thought, quickly skimming a passage. She tried to imagine someone writing this stuff, and a small blush made its way to her cheeks. This stuff was… vulnerable, intimate, Ellie had a hard enough time sometimes just being with Dina… but someone writing it down…? She got it, she understood why, not like she’d never jerked off before, but this kind of stuff was just for her and Dina. The idea of, of being on display like this - all her insecurities and vulnerabilities and the quiet moments; even if it was just words, even if it wasn’t real - it was bizarre, to her.

“S’ kinda hot,” Dina mused, and Ellie’s head snapped up.

“You think so?”

“Yeah, I mean, the longing gazes, the quiet passion, it’s sexy,” Dina said, snapping the cover of the book closed and motioning to put it in her backpack.

The book in Ellie’s hands suddenly felt heavy, awkward, like she’d never held a fucking book before.

“Oh calm down, you’re sexy, too,” Dina said with a little wink. Ellie blushed again. “Ellie you can’t blush like that, we have places to be and it’s distracting,” Dina sighed, feigning annoyance.

“I know what you’re doing,” Ellie said. Trying to fill the void with something other than rage and pain.

“Is it working?” Dina asked, her eyes perusing the shelves.

“It’s not not working,” Ellie said.

“Man, I’m good,” Dina said, a little twinge of arrogance in her voice. Ellie hated when she did that. And also kind of loved it. Mostly loved it.

“All right,” Ellie said flatly. “Let’s get outta here before your head grows so big I have to carry it around Seattle.”

“Mm, such a flirt,” Dina said, a twinkle in her eye as she turned, leaning forward and placing a small kiss on Ellie’s lips.

“Oh I’m serious,” Ellie whispered as they parted.

“Why’s he got us all the way out here? Fuckin’ waste,” a voice came from outside the shop.

“Shit,” Ellie whispered, pulling Dina down toward the ground so they could move toward a well-covered window.

“He wants that smuggler and those two fucking girls, man, I dunno,” another voice came.

“Fuckin’ stupid. That smuggler’s as good as dead. You saw the state he was in,” the first voice mumbled.

“Think Isaac’s figured out that Abby’s with Owen yet?” the second voice asked.

“Must’ve. He ain’t fuckin’ stupid, they always sneak off together,” the first voice said. “Ugh, it’s fuckin’ cold. I’d rather be on Nora’s team than doing this,” the first voice finished.

“Packing up that hospital? No fuckin’ way. I’d take this any day,” the second voice scoffed.

Then the voices began to fade as they moved further down the street.

Owen. It wasn’t much, but it was another name. Ellie pulled out the map and wrote “Owen” by “Nora, Mel, Manny”. And they’d said something about packing up the hospital.

Ellie and Dina looked at one another, small nods of their heads signaling that they both knew what they were doing next.

It wasn’t exactly close - it would probably take them awhile to get there - but the hospital looked like it was their best bet. All Ellie could do was hope they’d still be there when she and Dina arrived.

They weren’t.

Well, that wasn’t true, they were, but they were leaving in a small caravan of military-grade vehicles.

Ellie and Dina hurried over to hide in the long grass by an empty white medical tent.

“These are the last two, let’s go, I don’t wanna be here all day!” a thin but fit woman called from the front door, holding it open. Ellie recognized her. She had been at The Halo. Two men walked out carrying two large crates.

“Fine, fuck, not like this shit is light,” one of the guys said.

“Nora,” someone drawled. Ellie turned to see a big dude stepping out of one of the trucks and walking over to the woman. Nora. “You wanna ride with me?”

“Fuck off, Travers, I got my bike,” Nora said.

“Heart-breaker,” he said, dramatically holding his hand over his heart.

“Yeah, yeah,” Nora said, walking toward a motorcycle. ‘Sorry, she’s just sexier than you.” She pulled a helmet on. “You guys go ahead. I’ll take the rear,” she shouted toward the big dude as the two guys finished packing the boxes into the trucks. Big dude nodded, getting into a truck and starting it up.

Ellie and Dina slowly moved toward the trucks and Nora, careful to not be spotted.

The trucks were on the road a few seconds tops before a series of arrows took the truck in front out, which made the truck behind it crash straight into it. A molotov flew from somewhere, lighting the trucks up.

Nora swore and swerved out of the way as Ellie saw more arrows flying toward the bike.

“Fuuuuuck,” Ellie huffed. She needed someone alive.

She and Dina kept low as they moved toward Nora, who was pulling her bike up and looking around, gun ready in her hand.

“It’s the fucking girls!” someone shouted from Ellie’s left. She turned to see one of the dudes that had been carrying crates crawling out of one of the burning cars. A bullet was out of her gun before he could say anything else, flying right through his head.

Dick.

The arrows momentarily stopped. Whoever had been shooting must have lost their sight-line for Nora, who’d slid with her bike down an alley. But Ellie could still see her.

She got back on her bike and Ellie took aim. She had to be careful, she didn’t want to kill her, she needed her.

Nora came bounding from the alley on her bike, headed back toward the hospital, and Ellie shot the tire, which blew and sent Nora careening down a ramp toward what must have once been the hospital’s underground parking garage.

Ellie and Dina hurried toward it, watching as Nora tried desperately to control the bike. When she couldn’t, she jumped off right before it crashed into an old police car, exploding as it did.

Ellie hurried down toward Nora.

And so it fucking began.

Chapter Text

Ellie slowed as she neared the woman on the ground, who was removing her helmet. She had some gnarly road rash up one side of her body, and Ellie could see something metal from the police car explosion had dug itself up under her ribs. She strained to get herself into a sitting position.

“Nora, yeah?” Ellie asked, even though she already knew the answer.

Nora’s eyes flew to Ellie’s face, a look of recognition dawning across her features.

“You’re-“

“With that smuggler,” Ellie said before she could finish. “Yeah. Was,” she said.”Where was all that shit headed?” she asked, gesturing back toward the road and bending down toward Nora. Nora reached for the gun holster on her hip. Ellie shot her in the hand.

“Fuck!” Nora cried.

“The caravan,” Ellie said, less calmly this time, the rage beginning to take over. Nora laughed.

“Yeah right,” she said.

“Okay, how about the guy with the limp?” Ellie said, pulling her switchblade and holding it out toward Nora’s neck.

“Isaac? You’d never get near him,” Nora said.

“All right. Easier one. Abby,” Ellie said, dragging the blade along Nora’s collarbone and slicing her skin just enough that a bright red trail of blood followed. Nora grunted, the chuckled.

“Even harder to track down than Isaac,” she said simply.

“How long you think you’ll last with that?” Ellie asked, pointing toward the metal sticking out of Nora’s side. “I’ve heard it’s not quick. Sort of a shit way to go,” she said.

“Not as shitty as your friend, I bet,” Nora said, the challenge in her eyes blazing. Ellie drove the knife into Nora’s thigh. Nora screamed.

“Where is Abby?”

“I’m not telling you shit about her.”

“I’m not real patient, Nora,” Ellie said, and even she could feel the burning in her eyes. It was all over: her blood, her skin, like every part of her was on fire.

Nora’s head dropped, and the tension in her body loosened, like she was going to say something. Then she looked up at Ellie and spit.

“He damned us. Got what he fucking deserved,” she said.

Before Ellie could react, the helmet collided with the side of her head. Nora had fucking hit her.

They wrestled on the ground - fuck, for someone with metal sticking out from her ribs, Nora was strong. Nora tried to bring the helmet down onto Ellie’s face again, but she stopped it with her forearm. Still hurt like hell though.

Ellie heard a clicking noise to their left, followed by a grunted “shit”, then Nora was knocked from above Ellie, and she turned to see it was now Dina and Nora that were wrestling.

Ellie moved to stand and stumbled, her vision blurry and her head pounding. Fuck that hit to the head had done a number on her.

A load ROAR came from behind the barricade of cars below them. Each of their heads momentarily raised, looking toward the blocked entrance to the garage.

Then Ellie heard Dina scream.

She had no time to react, however, as one of the cars acting as part of the barricade exploded and a woman in a gas mask came barreling through the flames, followed closely by the biggest fucking Infected Ellie had ever seen.

It was disgusting. Massive. Appendages hanging off it, bodies of other Infected.

What the fuck is that ??

Fucking Christ it was like something Ellie would see in one of her comics - only it was real. And huge. And running toward her and the woman that came from the parking garage. The woman. Ellie didn’t need to see her face through the mask - her ripped body was enough. Fucking Abby.

Ellie was on her feet in milliseconds. Abby had turned around, shooting everything she had at the monster Infected. Its roar was deafening.

Ellie could hear Dina groaning, but she couldn’t see her. Where the fuck was she?

Ellie moved up the ramp, the need to survive surpassing anything else in the moment. But where… where the fuck was Dina?

Ellie readied an explosive arrow in her bow and shot the Infected right in the face. The explosion was astronomical - sending pieces of Infected appendages flying, along with a thick, green cloud of acid. She couldn’t see much beyond it, but she could hear the fucking screams.

An explosive blast filled her ears and something else hit the Infected, then the sound of a shotgun click echoed in the air. Explosive fucking shells?!

Where the fuck is Dina?!

There was so much adrenaline and panic in Ellie that she thought she might explode - too much for her ot think about, her brain was pulled in too many different directions…

“Nora!” Abby’s voice cried from beyond the cloud of acid. “No! Fuck!”

The monster Infected rushed through the cloud of acid and Ellie readied another arrow - and before she could shoot, another shotgun blast sent the Infected to its knees, sizzling, crumbling, burning, melting… Jesus it was fucking disgusting.

“Dina?!” Ellie cried, her voice finally coming back to her. “Dina?!”

“Abby! We have to go! They’re coming!” a voice cried from somewhere behind Ellie.

The loud rev of a motorcycle filled her ears, and from around the acid cloud, which was quickly dissipating, Abby rode the motorcycle on only its back wheel up the ramp toward the voice. How the fuck was that possible? That police car had exploded. Ellie turned to see the boy with the bow… Lev, was it?

Abby landed the front of the motorcycle down and pulled Lev on, less than gracefully - something dropped from his pocket, and took off on the bike with a deflated front wheel, zigzagging awkwardly down the street.

“Fuck!” Ellie yelled, pulled between following Abby and finding Dina.

Dina’s voice came from behind a car, a loud groaning of her name.

“Dina!” Ellie shouted, Abby momentarily forgotten as she rushed toward the sound of Dina's voice.

She rounded to car to see Dina on the ground, blood pooling around her.

“Ellie,” Dina huffed. “Jesus you’re okay,” she finished.

“Shit, Dina, what, where is it?” Ellie said, dropping to the pavement at Dina’s side. It didn’t look like she’d been burnt by any of the acid - that was fucking lucky.

“It’s-it’s my Achilles. She fucking sliced it,” Dina said, reaching down toward her leg. “That thing is disgusting,” she said, almost laughing, looking over at the monster Infected.

“You’re telling me,” Ellie said, reaching toward the bottom of Dina’s pant leg and trying to pull it up to see the damage. Dina winced. “I know, I know,” Ellie said, gently pulling the bottom of Dina’s jeans up to see a clean slice through the back of her leather boots. Shit. Blood flowed freely from the wound.

A groaning came from across the ramp. Ellie turned.

“Go, it’s fine,” Dina whispered. Ellie looked at her carefully, then moved toward Nora. She was covered with acid burns, barely moving. Barely even breathing. One of the Infected that hung off the body of the monster Infected must have gotten a good bite in, too, because her leg was gnarled with teeth marks.

“Some friend,” Ellie said. “Leaving you here to die.”

“She thought I was dead,” Nora gurgled out. Still stubborn. Nora tried to take a deep breath but couldn’t. A pained whine made its way out of her lips. Christ, what a sight. Ellie felt… well, fuck, she felt a little badly.

“I can make it stop,” Ellie said, almost whispering. Almost soothingly. Almost.

“It’ll stop on its own.” Nora said, meeting Ellie’s eyes. Ellie briefly wondered about the world behind those eyes before the words actually sunk in.

Ellie belt down, her fingers wrapping around the metal piece sticking out of Nora’s side and she twisted. Nora groaned in agony. Then she grabbed a particularly raw part of Nora’s arm and squeezed. The cry from Nora’s lips was animalistic, pained, pathetic. Ellie saw the moment Nora’s eyes switched from stubborn to almost delusional. The place when pain is so heavy it verges on becoming numb. The place where you’ll say almost anything, and won’t realized you’ve said it.

“Abby,” Ellie said simply, squeezing just a tad harder.

“The… there’s an… an aquarium…” Nora squeaked out.

Ellie stood and began walking back toward Dina.

“Please…” Nora groaned. Ellie turned back. “Please…” she repeated. She didn’t want to become one of the Infected.

“You fucking deserve it,” Ellie said, her voice raw, cold, and harsh.

“Ellie…” Dina’s voice came from behind her, not more than a whisper. A plea.

Ellie lifted her pistol and shot Nora in the head. The groaning stopped.

Ellie turned and moved toward Dina once again, kneeling down next to her. She tried to look at the slice on Dina’s ankle again, but her hands were shaking. Jesus Christ, what had she done? The roar of engines started to be audible in the distance.

“Ellie we can’t stay here, you heard what he said. They’re coming,” Dina said.

“We have to fix you up-“ Ellie started.

“We can’t do it here!” Dina said.

“Okay, fuck,” Ellie said, her brain whirring. Could she carry Dina? “Can you stand?” she asked, wrapping one of Dina’s arms around her shoulder and trying to pull her up. Dina cried out when both her feet hit the pavement. “Okay, okay, you’re gonna have to… hop…” Ellie said. “Hold on tight.”

They made their way to the top of the ramp, engines getting closer and closer every second.

“What is that?” Dina asked, looking toward something on the ground. Ellie turned: it was the thing that had fallen from Lev’s pocket. It was a… stuffed shark? Ellie leaned Dina onto one of the dormant cars on the street and picked it up, shoving it in her backpack, then had Dina back leaning on her in a number of seconds. Gunshots started coming their way.

“Fuck, fuck,” Ellie huffed as they stumbled their way across the street. “Okay, fuck this,” Ellie said, and she quickly, kind of awkwardly, swung Dina so that she was holding her in her arms. Ellie was strong but this… fuck, this wasn’t going to be easy. She groaned under the weight of the other girl.

“Ellie-“ Dina began.

“-I got it. I got it,” Ellie huffed in concentration. There was a long stretch of thick, overgrown grass on the other side of a white medical tent. They could make it. Ellie moved quickly as she could, Dina’s arms wrapped tightly around her. As they rounded the tent, Ellie unceremoniously dropped them both into the grass.

“Oof, sorry,” Ellie whispered as they fell.

Making their way out of the general zone of the hospital area was difficult at best. The couple of WLF vehicles had pulled up, a bunch of the soldiers yelling about the accident, Nora’s body, and the massive Infected on the ramp. They fanned out, looking for stragglers, and Ellie took out a couple of them with her bow, but she was running low on arrows, and the more she took out, the more they were going to notice that they were, you know, missing people.

Ellie and Dina crawled along the overgrown grass, as far as the patch would allow. It led them to a sizable drop where the road had been blown away. But if they got down there, they’d have some decent cover for a stretch, maybe long enough to lose these fucks.

“Babe, this is gonna hurt,” Ellie said, taking her pistol out of its holster and shoving the gun in her backpack. “Open your mouth,” she whispered, and put the leather in-between Dina’s teeth as she positioned them so they could half-jump, half-slide down into the ravine.

Dina’s scream was muffled by the holster, but Ellie knew how agonizing it was. Dina’s eyes were filling with hot tears.

“It’s okay, it’s okay, we’re down,” Ellie whispered as they landed at the bottom in the mud. It had hurt like hell for Ellie, too, but not compared to Dina. They crawled along the ravine for what seemed like forever. The sun was starting to set. That was good, though, the shadows would provide them more cover.

Ellie had wanted, more than once, to move off into the basement of one of the buildings around them, but Dina insisted they push on back toward the theater. She was growing paler by the second, but her stubbornness rivaled even Ellie’s, and she wouldn’t let them stop.

“You have to at least wrap it,” Ellie said at one point when Dina seemed to be moving even more sluggishly, and was starting to seem delirious. By that point, they were covered with mud, and Ellie knew that they would be lucky to get the wound properly cleaned later so it wouldn’t get infected. Dina stopped, nodding, and Ellie went to work.

She pulled Dina’s boot down and cleaned the deep slice as well as she could while she quickly wrapped an old shirt around her ankle. It wasn’t great, but it was something. She gingerly re-fit the boot onto Dina’s ankle - maybe it would provide enough pressure with the bandage to help curb the bleeding.

It did the job well enough to get them back to the theater, but Ellie could tell that Dina was well past wiped when they arrived. Ellie hopped up the fire escape as quickly as she could to get them back inside, and she noticed something on the roof she hadn’t seen before: several metal barrels collecting rainwater, with somewhat shoddy piping going through the roof. They’d created some version of running water.

Ellie headed down to the front door to help Dina inside, and she had her in their little green room about ten minutes later. She tossed the pillows and blankets off their makeshift bed and gingerly set Dina down on top of it.

“I’ll be back in a few minutes,” Ellie said.

“Ellie,” Dina whispered.

“You’ll like it, promise,” Ellie said, then left the room.

She searched around the backstage area for some kind of metal bucket or something, and came across something that would work well enough: a large metal pail. She could put that over a fire and it would be all right.

She wandered to where the pipes from the roof filtered in and filled the bucket up with cold rainwater. Cracking a window open, she began gathering some papers and old scraps of wood, then lit a small fire. Yeah maybe not the best idea inside but whatever. It wouldn’t be burning long.

As the fire crackled and the water grew warmer, Ellie’s wind wandered to what had happened that day. For the first time, the magnitude of what she’d done really hit her. She’d tortured someone. Not just killed them, but made their final moments a living fucking hell for information. Her stomach grew sour. She’d seen red; she’d been so laser-focused… Jesus, just remembering it… she couldn’t even recognize herself. She knew Joel had done stuff like that but, fuck… and she rushed to the window and threw up all over the roof. Her body shook as she wiped her mouth and turned back to the fire. Let the water heat up, get down to Dina, clean her up, that was her focus. That was the only focus. Then to the aquarium for Abby, then… the fucking WLF.

Don’t look back, Ellie. It’ll kill you.

After a number of minutes, steam was steadily rising from the pail. Ellie grabbed an old rag from a corner of the room and pulled the water off the fire, then put the flames out and shut the window. She hurried down to Dina, who was huddled on the “bed”, all her filthy clothes still on, her boots still strapped to her feet, shivering.

“Dina,” Ellie whispered, kneeling down next to Dina, whose brown eyes opened and fell on Ellie.

She slowly sat up and Ellie took off her boots. The bandage was wet and crimson. Ellie wet a rag.

“This is gonna sting,” she whispered, bringing it down onto Dina’s wound. Dina flinched and cringed. “Sorry, babe,” Ellie said.

“No, no, it feels… it actually feels kind of good,” Dina said. “Where did you find hot water?”

“I have my ways,” Ellie said mysteriously.

“You built a fire upstairs, didn’t you?” Dina guessed, a little flatly. Ellie knew if Dina had the energy, there would be a little smirk on her face.

“You’ll never know,” Ellie said as she continued to clean Dina’s ankle. When she’d finished, she slowly coaxed Dina out of her clothes so that she could clean up the rest of her. She worked in silence, the air different around them: heavier, tense, exhausted. Dina sighed every now and then, the warm water must have been a welcome relief. When she was finished, Ellie helped her into some dry clothes and re-bandaged her ankle.

When she was done, she sat back onto the floor, laying her back against the side of the couch.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Dina whispered, lowering herself so she sat next to Ellie. Ellie suddenly felt like she had tunnel vision: seeing Joel’s dead eyes staring up at her, Nora’s dead eyes… her body began to shake and she shook her head.

“Okay, come on,” Dina whispered, her hands steady on Ellie’s jacket.

“What are you doing?” Ellie asked, her voice low.

“You need to get cleaned up, too,” Dina said as she slowly removed Ellie’s coat.

Ellie let Dina work, but there was an aching feeling that she didn’t want to be clean. That she couldn’t be. That no matter what she did, how hard she scrubbed, she’d never be fucking clean again.

Chapter Text

Ellie could hear the simple rise and fall of Dina’s chest behind her. Her journal was open in front of her, a sketch of Joel’s hands playing his guitar on the page.

 

“I suck,” Ellie huffed, dropping her head onto the body of the guitar that sat across her lap.

Joel chuckled from in front of her.

“I did too, when I started,” he said.

“You still suck,” Ellie murmured.

“Thanks, kiddo,” Joel said as Ellie looked up. Her fingers were aching and she couldn’t get any of the chords down. How did Joel do this so easily?

“You wanna head back? I know you got your movie night with Cat,” he said casually, but Ellie knew there was more to it.

“I guess,” Ellie said, handing the guitar back to Joel and reaching to grab her backpack. They’d found a small, old coffee shopin a town outside the settlement and sometimes went there just to talk, or have a guitar lesson. Ellie figured it was so no one had to listen to her awful playing. Except Joel.

“So you two are like… like a thing, huh?” he asked.

“Kind of. I dunno,” Ellie said, shuffling her feet.

“And you’re uh, you’re being safe-“

“-Joel!”

“I’m just makin’ sure-“

“-Uuuugh you’re the worst,” Ellie said, her cheeks blushing. Joel stood and grabbed his backpack, pulling it on and situating the guitar across his back, too. They started out toward their horses, which were grazing on some overgrown grass outside.

“We haven’t even, like, done that yet or anything,” Ellie said, her voice low.

Joel handed Shimmer’s reins off to Ellie.

“Well there ain’t no rush,” he said simply.

“I know,” Ellie said. “It’s just… I mean we’ve kissed and she didn’t turn or anything, but…”

“Oh,” Joel said, suddenly understanding what Ellie was getting at. Ellie blushed again, not just because they were definitely not at all talking about sex, but because she suddenly felt vulnerable about the secret they had been keeping about her condition for so long. “Have you… told her?”

“No!” Ellie said, a bit loudly. “No,” she lowered her voice.

“Good,” Joel said, mounting his horse. Ellie did the same.

 

I can’t let anything else happen to Dina. Today at the hospital, I almost went after Abby without getting her. What the fuck was I thinking? Something feels off with us. Maybe I fucked this up.

Nora said the aquarium.

 

Veins of rust

Red Brown with blood

You were dead before

I killed you

 

Ellie set her pen down on the table, turning back and looking at Dina. Fuck. She wasn’t going to be going anywhere any time soon. Her ankle was fucked. Ellie reached into her bag and pulled out the stuffed shark that Lev had dropped. She looked at the tag - it was from the aquarium. How many people were holed up there? Just Abby, Lev, and the other girl? More?

Who cares? a voice inside her said.

Not Ellie. She didn’t give a fuck how many of them were there. Dina would hate that.

There were so many things Ellie wanted to ask Dina. About her sister, about her family, about how the could still be so bright and vibrant after everything she had seen… but the words could never make their way out of her lips. Why was it so hard to talk to her? Why was it so hard to say the things in her head? Why did she feel so alone when Dina had been with her every step of the way?

She’d fought an Infected alongside Abby again. Fuck, if only she knew what was going to happen when they’d met that first time in the woods.

Woulda slit her throat right there.

Would you? She had those kids with her. She saved you.

Shut up, Ellie.

You shut up, Ellie.

Ellie sighed, closing her journal and placing it, along with the shark, back into her backpack. Her fingers closed the zipper and wrapped around the straps. She stayed there, still, for a number of seconds.

Joel’s grunt from being shot at The Halo resounded in her head. She saw his steady hand as he held the pistol to his temple in the shop. She closed her eyes, desperate to drive the memories from her head, but all it did was make it worse - she felt like she had tunnel vision, like her body was stuck to the chair in which she sat. She groaned, low, sighing heavily as the flames from the pyre played across her eyelids, as Nora’s pleas echoed, as the sound of the motorcycle filled her ears.

Her vision was red when she opened her eyes.

She picked up her backpack and moved toward the door.

“Are you kidding?” a voice came from behind her. Ellie stopped, but couldn’t bring herself to turn. “Without fucking waking me?”

Ellie was silent, but her whole body shook.

“Say something,” Dina said, the typical warmth in her voice gone.

“Go back to sleep,” Ellie said, frustrated that those seemed to be the only words she was capable of saying. She could tell she sounded cold and detached, angry, even.

“You could look at me when you’re blowing me off,” Dina said, the edge to her voice razor thin.

“I can’t.” Ellie said, strained.

“What?”

Look at you. Love you. Live like this.

Ellie gripped her backpack more tightly in her fist. She hadn’t even gotten it onto her back yet.

“Ellie. Look at me.” Dina’s voice was softer now. Ellie let out the breath she was holding and turned. She couldn’t make it the whole way round, but she turned enough to see Dina.

No, Ellie might never really know what home felt like, but dammit if Dina wasn’t fucking close.

“It hurts, Dina,” Ellie said quietly.

“I know,” Dina said, but neither of them moved. “Wait for the sun,” she continued. Ellie stood, thinking.

“Okay,” she said finally, then turned and walked up the stairs. Dina didn’t follow.

 

The glass on her cheek felt warm and wet. Ellie stirred, finding her face pushed up against the window, a bit of drool coating the corner of her mouth. She must have fallen asleep against the glass. The sun was rising.

The aquarium.

Ellie picked up her backpack and descended the stairs. The door to the green room was cracked open. She silently pushed it open a hair more, to see Dina giving herself a shot of antibiotics. It didn’t even seem to phase her anymore as she dug the needle into her skin and drained the syringe.

That was weirdly kind of sexy.

“How are you feeling?” Ellie asked quietly, opening the door more and walking into the room, albeit a bit awkwardly, her head low.

“Better,” Dina said. Ellie could tell she had replaced the bandage on her ankle as well.

Fuck. Ellie should have done that.

“Good,” Ellie said, a small, tired smile crossing her lips. “I shouldn’t’ve…” she started.

“No. You shouldn’t,” Dina said. “And I shouldn’t have attacked you.”

“You were right to,” Ellie said, sitting down. Dina scooted closer to her.

“I was worried,” Dina whispered.

“I know,” Ellie said.

Dina took a breath and switched topics.

“I was thinking - I can stay and track them from here.”

“And I go to the aquarium,” Ellie said.

“Yeah,” Dina said.

“How’s the ankle?” Ellie asked, trying to hold onto some semblance of their normal conversation.

“Hurts. But I’ll manage,” Dina said nonchalantly.

“Take the pills,” Ellie offered, reaching for her backpack.

“I’ll be fine,” Dina said, holding a hand out and stopping Ellie’s hand.

“Take them,” Ellie said, reaching into her bag and pulling them out.

“Have you eaten?” Dina asked.

“I’ll eat on the way,” Ellie said, brushing the question off.

“Ellie,” Dina said, pushing. Heat built behind Ellie’s eyes. She didn’t even know why. She pushed it down.

“I’ll be back tonight,” Ellie said.

 

While they hadn’t spent much time chatting on the road ever since… The Halo, Ellie still missed her counterpart as she left the theater and looked to her map to get her to the aquarium.

As she walked, she wondered what the WLF’s home base at the stadium looked like. Did they have kids, too, like Jackson? Farms, horses, friends?

Don’t think about it too hard, Ellie, she thought to herself. But part of her couldn’t help it. It was just there.

Dina would know she had been lying about eating later when she got back, but she couldn’t eat.

Clouds loomed heavily on the horizon - it was gonna fucking rain. Again. Jesus this city was fucking wet. Ellie could feel that her body was tired - exhausted, even - but the fire in her blood was as hot as it could be. It pushed her forward, moving her feet one in front of the other.

A great, overgrown, sprawling park came into view a few miles from the aquarium. Ellie quickly looked around - maybe she could go around it? She had a bad feeling about it. But it was so fucking big… it would add so much time to go around.

A chorus of whistles seemed to fill the air and Ellie immediately crouched. But nothing came her way. Her eyes darted back and forth - what the fuck were they saying to each other? The whistling put her on edge.

A hand gripped hers from behind and she whipped around, her switchblade already open in her hand. Another hand was up blocking her attack immediately.

“Whoa, fuck,” Jesse said. “Sorry, shouldn’t’ve surprised you, I guess.”

“Fuck, Jesse,” Ellie sighed.

“Come on,” he said, pulling her off, though Ellie wanted to say more. What was he doing there? Had he really followed them from Jackson? Jesus, he had traveled by himself from Jackson?

Jesse pulled her around to a dark corner of the park.

“Do you know who these guys are?” he asked as if he’d just seen Ellie yesterday.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” Ellie whispered, almost spitting out the words.

“I left two days after you and Dina,” Jesse said, his eyes looking around. “Tommy wanted to come, too, but Maria wouldn’t let him. Said she’d leave him if he left,” he finished.

“Fuck,” Ellie said.

“Where’s Dina?” he asked.

“Somewhere safe,” Ellie said, and his eyes seemed to look straight through her.

“Why isn’t she here?” he asked.

Shit.

“She’s fine. She got hurt. But she’s fine,” Ellie said.

“This city is fucked,” he said.

“Yeah,” Ellie said.

“Any news on Joel?” Jesse asked, and the hole in Ellie’s heart seemed to double in size. The question knocked the air from her lungs. She looked down at the grass beneath her feet. “Hey. It’s okay. We’ll find him,” Jesse said, and his voice was so quiet, so soothing, so kind, that Ellie would have done anything to believe it. She would have done anything to not have to tell him the truth.

“No,” Ellie whispered. “No.”

Jesse’s face scrunched with confusion, and then the understanding settled on each and every one of his features. It couldn’t have been more than a few seconds, but to Ellie, it felt like forever. She could have filled her journal with sketches of each of the stages of his understanding.

Ellie fiddled with her fingers, picking at her nails. She nodded.

“Shit,” Jesse said. “Was it these whistlers or that militia group?”

Ellie’s eyes shot up to meet his. He really had seen a lot of Seattle since he arrived.

“Militia. The WLF,” Ellie whispered, her voice barely able to make sound.

“Shit,” Jessie said again. “I’ve heard about them. Kinda thought they were some kind of creepy fairy tale.”

Ellie didn’t want to talk anymore. She turned and began walking through the park, careful of anyone that could be around. Jesse hurried to catch up with her, and she was grateful that he seemed to take the hint that she couldn’t talk about anything. He’d always been good at reading people.

“Jesus,” she heard him say, and she looked up at a clump of trees that were growing closely together. Strung up were four bodies, all disemboweled.

Ellie’s stomach churned, heat boiling across her entire torso and vomit shot from her mouth. As soon as it had, she heard a whistle in the close distance, and an arrow fly right by her ear.

Fuuuuuuuck.

She and Jesse hit the ground, crawling through the mud and grass, an all-too-common occurence for her in Seattle by this point. A group of seven or so people wearing those brown, hooded jackets she had seen on Lev and the girl with the shattered arm.

She heard a shifting behind her, and as she turned, she felt a thick arm snake around her neck. Her switchblade dug into the flesh in seconds, followed by a groan, but the grip didn’t falter. Ellie could feel her windpipe cracking, her body fighting for air. Her legs flailed uselessly as she thrashed in effort to get away, pounding against the body holding her from behind. But her strength was waning, and dark spots were filling her vision.

 

Ellie woke on a cold, metal stretcher. She was alone in a hospital room, an oxygen mask attached to her face. She couldn’t move anything but her head for a moment, and she looked around to see a small Firefly symbol on one of the walls. She knew this place. She’d never seen it, but that didn’t matter. It was in her very DNA.

A hand softly removed the mask from Ellie’s face, and she turned to see… holy shit.

“What the fuck?” Ellie whispered, her voice hoarse. She gazed up into Anna’s face - she looked exactly the same as she did in Ellie’s other dream. Like she hadn’t aged a day.

Well, she fuckin’ hasn’t.

Anna chuckled.

“You got your mouth from me,” she said quietly, soothingly, like Ellie could only imagine how a mother would speak to their child.

“What are you doing here?” Ellie asked, starting to sit up on the stretcher.

“What are you doing here, Ellie?” she asked.

Suddenly the door crashed open and Joel ran inside.

“Ellie? Ellie!” he screamed.

“Joel?!” Ellie said, nearly jumping from the stretcher. But he didn’t acknowledge her. Blood pooled on his shirt, right where he’d been shot.

“Ellie,” he whispered almost inaudibly.

Ellie looked down to see a pistol in her hands. Panic flooded her veins and she dropped it to the floor. It went off with a great, echoing BANG and when she looked up, Joel was falling to the ground, a hole in his head.

“Joel? No, Joel?!” Ellie’s voice cracked as she caught him in her arms and fell with him to the floor. She turned and looked at Anna, who hadn’t moved.

“What are you doing, Ellie?” she asked, as if Ellie was re-stringing her guitar and Anna was curious about it.

 

A raindrop on Ellie’s cheek woke her, her eyes opening slowly to see a long field of grain or corn or some kind of crop in front of her. She tried to lift an arm to wipe her face, but she couldn’t. She was bound. Suddenly she could feel the solid pole that ran all along the back of her legs and up her back. She was completely bound.

Her breathing became more labored as she turned to see Jesse, who was also bound to a pole. Beyond the field of crops were several wooden buildings, each lit by torches. Ellie couldn’t even count how many people in the brown, hooded coats were moving around the fields and huts.

Fuck.

Chapter Text

Jesse was still unconscious. If, somehow, they were able to get out of this, she wasn’t going to be able to carry him. He was gonna have to wake up before they did anything.

Don’t attract attention, Ellie, don’t-

“Hey, look at that, one’s awake,” a voice said.

Shit.

Ellie turned toward the single path that seemed to snake around through everything and saw a man and two women, each in those stupid fucking brown, hooded jackets.

“Wolves. You’re gonna get what’s coming to you,” the man said, moving toward Ellie and Jesse.

Ellie spit at him, and a sharp sting crossed her face as he smacked her. His two friends flanked around behind him.

“You tied me to a pole. Really need your friends?” Ellie scoffed. “Little bitch.”

“Your words can’t hurt us here.”

“Untie me. See what my fists can do,” Ellie said, a small grin on her face. The sky seemed to open above them and rain started to fall. Because of course it fucking did. Mother. Fucking. Seattle.

“Wolves shouldn’t be in that park,” the man said calmly.

“Do I look like a fucking Wolf to you?” Ellie asked, her eyes meeting his.

“You are unclean,” he said, still calm.

“Yeah no shit, this city fucking reeks,” Ellie scoffed again. The man smiled serenely at her and stepped toward Jesse. He pulled up Jesse’s shirt and dragged a knife lazily along his lower abdomen.

“I don’t think your friend would appreciate your mouth,” he said.

“Leave him alone,” Ellie spat.

The woman stepped forward and lifted Ellie’s shirt, dragging a knife along her abdomen as well. Shit that blade was cold. Ellie struggled against her restraints.

“I’m gonna fucking cut you,” she said, and the woman applied just an ounce more pressure to her skin. It was starting to fucking hurt.

Ellie’s fingers fumbled around the pole behind her, and she felt something sharp sticking out of it. A screw? A splintered piece of wood? She didn’t fucking care, it might sever the rope.

Then an alarm rang in the distance, and screams began to fill the air. Loud whistles came.

The three people in front of her looked at each other, and then looked at Ellie and Jesse. They seemed a little disappointed.

Sorry, fucks, you’ll just have to murder me another time, Ellie thought as they began whistling back. She could see their brains working and then they nodded to each other. They looked back at her and Jessie.

The man stepped back in front of her and spat on her face.

“Fuck you, too,” Ellie said.

The three people in hooded jackets then rushed off toward whatever madness must have been occurring, and Ellie went to work on the rope binding her. 

“Jesse,” she whispered, as if that was going to wake him. No such luck as of yet. Screams and gunshots flooded the air, along with explosions in the distance. They seemed to be coming from further back, wherever the fuck that was. Ellie felt so turned around she was growing dizzy. How were they going to find their way out of here? Where were they?

She felt the rope start to fray and worked more frantically. She could crane her head enough to barely see out of her periphery: people seemed to be running in the opposite direction she was facing, toward more of the buildings. In front of her was thick forest. That didn’t feel too safe, but maybe the cover of trees would prove better than running in the direction of bullets. At least that seemed somewhat sound.

Fucking somewhat.

Suddenly whatever she was using to cut her hands free dislodged itself from the pole.

“Shit,” Ellie groaned. That had been her fucking way out.  The rain fell steadily now, but she could just make out what sounded like some sort of shifting in the forest ahead. A few seconds later, she could just barely see two figures moving through the trees. They were stealthy as they could be, and they stopped behind a tree. They must not have been a part of the hooded jacket group here. Ellie waited - what the fuck else could she do? - for something else to come.

A groan came from beside her. Jesse.

Ellie turned, and Jesse slowly moved his head, then his fingers twitched. The grew more tense as he started to regain his bearings, realizing he didn’t have full use of his appendages. Ellie could tell his breathing was growing more restricted in his chest.

“Hey, Jesse,” Ellie said, and his eyes turned to meet hers. “They’re distracted. It’s okay,” she tried to soothe.

“What the fuck?” Jesse asked, still pulling at his bindings.

“Listen, I dunno where the fuck we are, but we gotta get outta here,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said, his tone laced with an unspoken obviously.

Whoever was moving in the forest ahead of them shifted again, and they just barely stepped into the light. There were two of them, and they seemed to be focused on the buildings behind Ellie and Jesse.

They were a man, fairly handsome, if Ellie was into that sort of thing, and a woman in a big, puffy jacket. Ellie had been right, they weren’t with these fucks in the brown, hooded coats.

They were fucking Wolves.

They stepped more into the light, and they weren’t far off now, maybe 15 feet at most. Ellie recognized them. They had been at The Halo on the day. But a strange feeling filled Ellie’s chest as she remembered that the man had seemed to stay out of the way of the rest of the crowd, almost trying to stay hidden. And he’d shot one of the Infected when the hell started to break loose. Huh.

“Psst, hey,” Ellie whispered loudly in their direction. Jesse’s eyes widened and he turned to meet her gaze. She shrugged as much as her bindings would allow.

It may have been unbelievably stupid, but it was the only idea she had.

Two heads turned toward them, and it was like the two people finally actually took note of these two young people strapped to wooden poles.

Use your fuckin’ eyes, guys, come on.

They stared at Ellie and Jesse curiously, then the man stepped toward them, and the woman followed. Ellie noticed small patches on their clothes. Small wolf patches covered… were those old Firefly patches?

The man removed a large knife from a holster on his leg and looked for a split second like he was going to threaten them. But then he cut Jesse free, and then Ellie.

Ellie rubbed her wrists as he looked her up and down.

“You look familiar,” he said. “New recruit?”

Jesse whispered something under his breath, but luckily it wasn’t loud enough to do any damage.

“Yeah,” Ellie said without thinking.

“Get out while you still can,” he said, and then turned back to the woman he was with, as if they were sharing a silent agreement.

Look at that. Even Wolves hate the Wolves.

Someone whistled from one of the buildings and Ellie turned to see someone in the grass, aiming an arrow their way. She pushed the man out of the way and grabbed the silenced pistol out of another holster on his hip. Ellie aimed and shot the figure in the brown coat before they could let the arrow go.

The man turned toward Ellie, surprised.

“Sorry,” she said, holding the gun back out to him. “Reflex.”

“Don’t be, you’re a great shot,” the woman said. “I’m Mel. This is Owen.”

Ellie spotted her and Jesse’s backpacks leaned up against the fence on the other side of the little enclosure they stood inside. These stupid fucks - why’d they hide their shit so close?

Don’t ask questions, Ellie. Just be thankful.

“I’m Riley. This us, uh, Sam,” Ellie said, the lie falling from her lips a little awkwardly, but Mel and Owen didn’t seem to notice.

“Where’d you two come from?” Owen asked, following Ellie and Jesse as they walked to their bags and picked them up, staying low as they could so the grass and the corn could cover their four moving bodies.

“Back East,” Ellie said. “Used to run with the Fireflies. Heard some ended up here.”

“Well I’ll be damned,” Owen said. “We were on the Salt Lake crew.” He gestured to himself and Mel.

Ellie stiffened. That’s why she looked familiar to him. He’d… he’d fucking been there when… holy shit.

“Damn,” Ellie said as casually as she could manage. “I heard some shit went down there.”

“That’s one way of putting it,” Mel whispered.

Ellie’s brain was working double-time, and she could tell Jesse’s was, too, with how quiet he was being. Not that he was ever a giant chatterbox, but he generally had something to say. She knew they couldn’t really trust these two. Not if they ran with a group that strung up people and fed them to Infected. Not if they had been a part of that attack on Jackson. But maybe they could lead her to Abby, and to the man with the limp. Or maybe they should just get the fuck away from this infested area, meet back up with Dina, and start again in the morning.

“They’re moving further inland. Isaac’s made a fucking mess out of this,” Owen whispered to Mel. “How’d you two get here before anybody else?” Owen asked, looking a little suspiciously at Ellie and Jesse. Ellie’s mind grabbed onto Isaac’s name - he was the man with the limp. She pressed on, carefully, cooly.

“We didn’t. We were grabbed before we left the city,” Ellie said. Damn, these lies were pouring out of her. Well, they weren’t lies, really, they were just… other versions of truths.

It was then that Ellie noticed the backpack on Mel’s back. It was fairly unassuming, except there was a small red cross stitched on it. She was a medic. Damn, Dina could really use that. And maybe, just maybe, if she could split these two up, she could get some information out of the woman about Abby and Isaac.

“You said something,” Ellie said. “Get out while we still can. So what do you have in this fight?”

“Pfft, nothing,” Owen said. “Not here for that. We’re looking for someone.”

You’re looking for someone,” Mel whispered, and it was icy. Ellie would’ve had to have been stupid not to notice that. “I’m just here in case your dumb ass gets hurt.”

“I thought you were a doctor,” Jesse chimed in. He’d noticed the cross on her backpack, too.

“If we stay here much longer, they’re gonna notice us, Owen,” Mel said, concern in her voice.

“Yeah,” he said, his eyes scanning the scene ahead. “Okay.” He made a move to leave.

“Wait,” Ellie said, voice low, but it was enough to get them both to turn. “We could use a doctor.”

 

It hadn’t been terribly easy, splitting them up. And though Jesse hadn’t let himself falter, Ellie knew he was pissed that Dina was hurt more than Ellie had let on - hurt enough to need a doctor. Ellie had preyed on Mel’s humanity - and it seemed the woman had some left, despite being present at The Halo. People were odd creatures.

She’d heard of someone hurt and wanted to help. Owen had been hesitant - they had argued in hushed voices about what their misson was, and Ellie couldn’t make out much of it. But she had heard Mel mention that she would meet back up with him, for him to wait for her. Then he had said he wouldn’t rush off to Santa Barbara without her. Then she’d left with Ellie and Jesse.

Ellie was floored.

But she was fucking grateful.

They made their way back through the forest in the rain. The muddy ground was slippery, but at least the water kept the leaves from being too crunchy or loud. Though it didn’t really seem like anyone was among the trees anyway. As the forest gave way to the shore, Ellie craned her head and saw why: diagonally behind them, boats were docked along a shore a ways off, and buildings were on fire. It looked like something out of a nightmare hellscape.

“Fuck,” Ellie whispered under her breath.

“Yeah,” Mel said. “I can’t wait to be rid of this city.”

“Right. Santa Barbara,” Ellie pried lightly. Mel looked at her, surprised. “You were quiet, but I was two feet away. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna tell. I’m not a snitch.”

“Your friend. What happened?” Mel asked, changing the subject.

“Achilles. Got sliced,” Ellie said, and Jesse glared down at her from above Mel’s head.

“Oof, not fun,” Mel said.

“And your friend? Risking his ass back there to find someone? Must be special,” Ellie said.

“Love of his life,” Mel said. It was sad, how she said it, resigned.

Huh.

They stole a small boat from the shore and rowed back toward the city. It was rough going, the current stormy and brewing because of the rain. They weren’t far from the city when lightning cracked above them, thunder booming, and a wave came at them from the side, toppling the boat.

Water surrounded Ellie - it was so dark she could barely see, salt from the water stinging her eyes. She kicked, arms thrusting through the water, struggling to surface. She did - with just enough time to get a breath before another wave smacked her, knocking her under. Her eyes scanned the water for Mel or Jesse, but it was no use: she would barely see in front of her face. She pushed onward underneath the water, willing her body to make it to the shore, hoping she was even going the right fucking way. Every so often she came up for air, and twice she was knocked away by waves. The third time she surfaced, she called out for Jesse and Mel. Someone answered her, but she couldn’t hear where it came from.

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, she thought as she swam on. Salt was filling her lungs, her nostrils - yeah, she could swim, but this was a whole other fucking thing.

After what felt like an eternity, she made it to some craggy rocks. As she threw her hands up, trying to grab anything, a hand met hers and began to pull. Then another set of hands joined it. They pulled her onto the rock and she breathed heavily, her body flopping down on the soaked stone. Not like it fucking mattered, she was drenched, too.

Jesse and Mel looked down at her.

“Lucky your old man finally taught you to swim,” Jesse said, and then his face fell.

“Yeah,” Ellie grunted, wounds from Joel stinging anew. As if they’d ever fucking stopped.

“Come on,” Mel said. “My bag’s soaked. So’s everything in it. But we can go in here for some supplies.” She turned and began climbing some of the rocks.

Jesse helped Ellie to her feet, apology from his earlier comment about Joel alive in his eyes.

“S’fine,” Ellie said, climbing up behind Mel. She hoped wherever Mel was taking them that it wasn’t into the wolves’ den.

As they made it to the top of the rocks and Ellie looked up at the building in front of her, a surge of emotion flooded her chest. It was anger, fear, hope, triumph… it was too much to take in.

They were standing in front of the Aquarium.

Holy fucking shit. It all hit her at once.

Owen was… he was looking for Abby.

And Ellie had just run in the other fucking direction.

Chapter Text

To be fair, it had been Ellie’s idea in the first place to run in the other fucking direction from the camp that had bound her up, and if Owen was trying to find Abby and Mel was going to meet up with him after she took care of Dina… well Ellie might get what she needed out of this all-around.

“You gotta be patient, baby girl.” Joel’s voice echoed in her mind. Sure, he’d mostly said it about learning guitar chords, but Ellie had always been a little quicker into running into any fray than Joel was, much to his dismay. “You take care of yours first, an’ let the world worry ‘bout the rest.”

 

The aquarium was homey, in a way, string lights hung up, decorations all around, a black-board hanging with Mel’s, Owen’s, and Abby’s names on it, keeping score of something or other. It didn’t look like a place a lot of people came. It must have been out-of-bounds, or off-the-map in some way for the WLF.

There was a Firefly pendant on the counter inside the dingy back room where it looked like they must have done some kind of make-shift medical procedures.

“Yeah, he keeps that thing around,” Mel said from behind Ellie. Ellie turned the pendant over: it was Owen’s. “He’s got a lot more hope than the rest of us,” she finished, a little more quietly.

Ellie didn’t want to know - she didn’t want to know about these people, about who they were - she didn’t want to see the decisions they made when they weren’t binding people to poles as Infected bait.

Dina would ask about Owen. She would ask about Mel. She probably would have consoled her when she mentioned that Owen was in love with Abby. Dina employed a natural softness Ellie was scared to have. Ellie didn’t understand how it didn’t break her.

Dina was better by far than Ellie; sometimes, late at night, when Dina was sleeping, Ellie would stare at her like she was a fucking superhero that should have been immortalized on one of her trading cards. She shouldered the memory of Talia every day, every second, and Ellie couldn’t even bring herself to sketch Joel’s eyes in her journal.

“We lose you?” Mel asked, hoisting a bag onto her shoulders. Ellie must have been lost in thought.

“Nope that just happens sometimes,” Jesse said, a little humor in his voice. “She disappears.”

“Shut up,” Ellie grunted, but a small smile played its way up one corner of her lips.

“Where we headed?” Mel asked.

“A theater in the city. I know the way,” Ellie said.

“Is it far?” Mel asked.

“It’s not close,” Ellie said, shrugging a bit.

“Okay,” Mel said, and then she whistled. Ellie immediately took a fighting stance, hairs standing on every inch of her skin, as if ready for an ambush.

A big German Shepherd came bounding in, rushing straight up to Mel, tail wagging.

“Hi, girl,” Mel said, bending over a bit and giving the dog a fluff of the ears.

Extra protection, I guess, Ellie thought.

 

They took a small motorboat from the shore, the water still rough and choppy from the storm. But this boat had a little more heft to it, and it stayed on course for as far as they could take it, until they reached the part of the city that hadn’t yet been overtaken by flooding.

Besides the rain and thunder, the city was eerily quiet. Everyone must have been back at that camp or whatever it was. Jesus this city was a fucking mess. Ellie had half a mind to forget everything and just go the fuck back to Jackson.

You can’t, something deep inside her said. Joel’s lifeless eyes filled her thoughts. Yeah. She fucking couldn’t.

Alice trotted alongside them as they moved down the streets. She even sniffed out a pocket of Infected, which were taken down easily by Ellie, Jesse, and Mel.

Shit. She’s better than our dog’s in Jackson, Ellie thought, looking down at the dog, whose name she’d learned was Alice, after they killed the final Clicker.

“Are there a lot of old Fireflies here?” Ellie asked, trying to sound as casual as possible, though the question was almost burning a hole in her chest.

“Fair bunch. But Owen’s the only one hanging on. Abby did, for a long time. She even… she went after a girl. The girl. You know-“

“-the one from Salt Lake?” Ellie asked, and she could feel Jesse’s eyes on her.

“Yeah,” Mel said.

It felt like the bones in Ellie’s hands swelled. She made a fist and shook it out. Not here. Not now.

Alice turned and looked at her.

Fucking dogs can always sense shit.

But she didn’t do anything.

“You guys are pretty out of the way,” Mel said as they approached the theater. “How’d you get all the way over here?”

“Pack of those hooded fucks,” Ellie said, hoping that the fact that she didn’t know who they were wouldn’t make Mel any more suspicious than she seemed to be becoming. The woman laughed a bit.

“Never heard anyone call Scars that before,” she said.

“It’s got a ring,” Jesse said.

Ellie held a fist up to knock on the front door of the theater as they got closer. She hoped Dina was nearby and that they wouldn’t have to scale the fire escape to get inside. She didn’t want Mel to see all their notes on the WLF - it would set her off for sure.

Ellie knocked.

A few moments passed.

She lifted her fist and knocked again.

“It’s me,” she said, loudly enough to be heard but not so loud that she was echoing in the street. A shifting behind the door followed, and then it opened.

Dina. Jesus, seeing her was always like the air was given back to Ellie’s lungs.

“You’re safe,” Dina said, pulling Ellie into a hug. Ellie would have given anything to lose herself in that, but she couldn’t. Dina stiffened in her arms.

“Oh my god,” Dina said, and Ellie knew her eyes had fallen on Jesse. “And…”

“Mel,” Mel said. “And Alice,” she finished, gesturing toward the dog.

“Let’s get inside,” Ellie said, fully pulling away from Dina and stepping into the theater. Jesse, Mel, and Alice followed.

After a briefly awkward introduction where Ellie was grateful that Dina picked up what was going on pretty quickly (Hot and smart? Fucking shit, Ellie, have you told yourself how lucky you are today?), Mel was tending to Dina’s cut Achilles. Even Mel flinched when she saw it.

It wasn’t a pretty sight, and it seemed to be swollen. As Mel pulled the bandage fully away from the sticky flesh, Dina looked away and grunted.

Ellie was at Dina’s side immediately.

“Fuck, why didn’t you say it was worse?” Ellie asked, staring at the wound.

“I didn’t want you to worry,” Dina said, following it up with a pained, sassy smile.

“I fucking worry,” Ellie said.

“Shit,” Dina said, and then retched. “I need the-“

“-Got it,” Ellie said, grabbing a nearby bucket and lifting it to Dina’s mouth. She threw up into it. Alice looked up from her spot on the floor.

“Squeamish?” Mel asked, pulling items from her bag and starting to clean Dina’s ankle.

“Sick,” Dina said, in between retchings. Jesse’s eyes were on Ellie again. She looked at him - not fucking now, Jesse. But he wouldn’t have dared.

“Sam, can you…?” Ellie said, and Jesse took the bucket from her. She felt Dina’s eyes on her when she called him ‘Sam’. “Thanks. I’m gonna grab you a drink,” she said gently to Dina, and then rushed off.

“The strong stuff,” she heard Dina call from behind her, and despite herself, Ellie cracked a small grin. Fucking Dina.

Ellie ran into the green room where they had most of their stuff, and grabbed a water bottle. Some of Dina’s notes and the walkie talkie were sitting there. Mostly it was stuff about the WLF - and she saw Isaac written there along what seemed to be a plan of attack, some stuff about Abby, Owen, and the Scars… she had really been listening to everything since Ellie left. There was a small open notebook there, too, and Ellie couldn’t help but see it.

Huh. She didn’t know Dina kept a journal.

 

Tal,

You’d love Seattle. Not the crazy fucks that populate it, but the city. And the rain! Tal, the rain. It makes me miss you.

I wish you could have met Ellie. You’d fucking love her.

She’s special, Talia. Makes my heart stop special. It’s kind of gross, actually. But I know you’d love it.

I know she wants to ask more about you, but she doesn’t know how. I promise I’ll tell her all about you when she’s ready. I think she would have loved you, too.

If you meet a guy named Joel up there, be good to him. He’s a little gruff, and pretty quiet, but he was everything to Ellie.

I want to fix it. I don’t know how.

 

An ache filled Ellie’s chest. An ache for Joel, an ache for Dina… her eyes stung with hot tears.

“Fuck,” she grunted, pushing it away.

She turned and rushed back to the front of the theater. Dina was still throwing up into the bucket.

“You sure you’re not pregnant?” Mel asked, her tone light.

“Hm, lemme ask my girlfriend,” Dina said, then retched again. After a second, she looked up at the approaching Ellie. “Babe, did you get me pregnant?”

“Definitely,” Ellie said, taking the bucket back from Jesse and holding out the bottle of water to Dina, who feigned a pout.

“I said the strong stuff,” she moped. Ellie took out two of the pills Burch had given them before leaving Jackson. “That doesn’t count,” Dina groaned.

Mel had finished cleaning the wound and it was already looking slightly better. She pulled out a small container and smeared some kind of thin green sludge onto Dina’s ankle. She sighed.

“Holy shit,” she said. “What is that?”

“My own concoction,” Mel said, pride in her voice. “A bunch of herbs, some salt water, antiseptic, and a numbing agent,” she finished, and then wrapped Dina’s ankle again. “I’ll check it again in a couple hours,” she said.

“You want to stay here that long?” Ellie asked.

“They’ll wait. They’d be lucky to be back in a few hours, anyway. And she shouldn’t be moving too much with that.” She pointed to Dina’s ankle. “There’s time,” Mel finished.

“How’s your shoulder, babe?” Dina asked Ellie, and Mel turned toward her.

“One of the Scars get you?” she asked, already taking out supplies to help Ellie.

Ellie couldn’t help but wonder about the woman. She wanted to help so so badly. She was a fucking Firefly through and through. And Ellie was going to ruin her. All of them.

You’re disgusting. A walking fucking tragedy.

Shut the fuck up.

“Riley?” Mel asked, and Dina’s eyes once again fell in Ellie.

“I got shot. It’ll be fine. Someone already took care of me,” Ellie said, a little gruffly. She didn’t want to get closer to Mel. She didn’t want her to touch her shoulder, or put any of her magic stuff on it - though it probably would have felt good for the ache to stop.

Ache won’t ever stop, El. Don’t fucking kid yourself.

“Well take this,” Mel said, holding the small container out to Ellie. “Seriously, I have plenty.”

Ellie didn’t take it. She looked at the ground, angry, frustrated, confused. She could feel her cheeks flushing in annoyance and overly-stimulated emotion. Suddenly she needed to be anywhere but the middle of the theater’s lobby.

“I’m… no…” Ellie said, refusing the take the container and turning to start across the lobby.

“Riley,” she heard Dina say, and it was strange to hear her say Riley’s name. A whole new flood of emotion overtook her. Fucking hell, could she calm down for eight fucking seconds?

Dina sighed, grunting.

“Careful,” Ellie heard Mel say. “It’s medicine, not magic. It’s still gonna be rough to put any weight on it.”

Fuck, Ellie thought, turning around.

“Shit, babe, don’t walk on it,” she said, rushing back toward Dina.

“Don’t run away when someone’s trying to help you,” Dina said, her eyes meeting Ellie’s. They were blazing. “Sam,” she said, turning toward Jesse. “Why don’t you and our new friends take a look around? I want to take a walk with my girlfriend,” Dina said. Ellie stiffened.

“You’re not walking,” she said firmly.

“So carry me,” Dina said, the challenge alive in her eyes. Ellie rolled hers and positioned herself to pick Dina up. “Wait, I wasn’t serious-“

“-ya get what ya ask for,” Ellie said, taking Dina’s weight in her arms and picking her up fully. Dina’s arms wrapped around her neck. Ellie would have loved doing this back in Jackson - carrying Dina somewhere, carrying her to bed, feeling her weight, her arms draped across her shoulders… but something about it here felt hollow. Distant. It was necessity, nothing more.

Ellie fucking hated it.

It wasn’t how it should have been.

‘Course who the fuck knew what anything should have been?

Ellie moved them toward the propped-open door to the theater as Jesse and Mel started off toward another room, Alice trotting behind.

Ellie walked she and Dina inside the theater, using her foot to pull the door shut behind them.

“Ellie,” Dina whispered in Ellie’s ear, her lips so close that Ellie could feel her breath.

“Not here,” Ellie whispered back, moving them toward the back, toward the green room. When they were finally settled, Ellie told Dina what had happened using as few words as possible. Her brain couldn’t form full thoughts, her emotions still tumbling around inside her.

“Jesus. We walked right into a turf war,” Dina said when Ellie was finished.

“Yeah,” Ellie said quietly, looking off at… fucking nothing in particular. A few moments of silence passed. “Dina?” Ellie asked, her voice still low. Dina waited for the rest. “Thank you. For singing to Joel. I think… I think he really would have liked it,” Ellie finished, her voice so low it was barely audible. And she was pretty sure it cracked somewhere in there.

“Oh, Ellie,” Dina said gently, laying her head on Ellie’s shoulder.

“Do you think Talia hears you?” Ellie asked, turning to look at Dina. “I saw your note. Sorry,” she said, a little sheepishly.

“I don’t know. No. Maybe,” Dina said slowly. “But it helps.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

 

But later that night, when Ellie tried to sketch Joel’s face again in her journal, she still couldn’t draw his eyes.

Chapter Text

Of all the nightmares Ellie had had over the years about the shit dystopia she lived in, she never once dreamt that she was Infected. She’d had a dream about almost everyone she knew at some point being Infected, but never once did her mind dare to venture into the territory of she herself being sick. Maybe she couldn’t imagine it. Maybe her body couldn’t bring itself to imagine something she knew was impossible. Strange, considering how many impossible things she imagined every single fucking minute.

Being immune would be something she felt guilt about the rest of her life. Stupid, really. Not like it was her fucking fault she couldn’t get Infected.

But it wasn’t like she’d done anything to deserve it, either.

She didn’t sleep a wink that night.

Wandering around the theater, she took in old concert and play posters, found a set list for Sick Habit (siiiiiick), and generally tried to imagine what the theater must have been like packed with people.

Bet the energy was electric.

Alice had started following her around at some point. Ellie wondered if the dog could sense her intentions. Dogs always could, right? But she seemed friendly. They even played a couple rounds of fetch with an old stuffed animal Ellie found backstage. It was ratty and dusty, couldn’t have tasted too good, but Alice didn’t seem to mind. The floor creaked below her as they walked. It reminded her of how it used to sound when Joel walked around in the kitchen when she was in the basement…

 

Footsteps upstairs stirred her awake. Her back ached just a little bit - eventually she should probably think about taking the mattress from the floor and put something underneath it.

Joel must have been above her making food. What time was it? Late morning? Early afternoon?

Her journal laid open next to her. She must have fallen asleep writing in it. Again. She didn’t have wall duty or patrol today, so maybe she should go upstairs and try to eat with Joel? Would it be awkward?

It seemed like so much was weird between them now. That nagging conversation that Ellie had to have with him felt like it hung over them any time they spoke. And what was worse, is that he didn’t even know. Did he feel the tension she felt? He never said anything.

She sighed, slapping her palm down on her forehead.

And suddenly the night before came crashing down on top of her.

Cat broke up with her. Fucking broke up with her. In Seth’s fucking bar. On her eighteenth fucking birthday.

Ellie had never been huge on birthdays but that didn’t mean it didn’t suck to be broken up with on her birthday.

It had been so fucking stupid, too. Cat had given her a key to her house in Jackson. She wanted Ellie to move in. Ellie liked her house… okay it was a basement at Joel’s but it was hers. She liked having something that was hers. She didn’t want to leave. Weird, considering she hadn’t overly decorated it or anything, and that Joel had stopped asking her why she didn’t want to sleep in her actual room. They’d even been talking about fixing up the old garage out back so that Ellie could move in there. They hadn’t gotten around to it, and probably wouldn’t for awhile, if ever, but… she didn’t want to move in with Cat.

Maybe she shouldn’t have blatantly said that. It had been kind of fucking blunt. But she didn’t want to bullshit around with some “I’m not ready” crap when she knew it was because she liked her basement.

Maybe it didn’t have to do with basements versus houses at all.

Maybe that maybe was a ‘definitely’.

Ellie sighed again, but then a small twinge of a smile found its way to her lips.

Dina had really saved her ass last night.

She could still hear Dina’s angry “fuck off, Cat,” in her head, feel the warmth of Dina’s hand wrapping around hers and pulling her out of the bar…

It had all been so overwhelming that when they finally made their way to the little carousel in that little park in the more desolate part of town, Ellie had flopped herself down and kind of, well, cried.

Fucking cried.

Super sexy, Ellie.

Dina… hadn’t really seemed to mind, though. She’d been really sweet about it. Dina was good with that stuff. With people. Ellie always kind of had a chip on her shoulder, usually sassing people before anything else. Tongue as sharp as her switchblade and an attitude to match, but she’d be lying if she said she didn’t have nagging demons, if she said she didn’t have a softness she rarely let others see.

She’d had her guitar with her at the bar and thus had it with her in the little, desolate park. Ellie had slowly become more comfortable playing it in front of people, despite the fact that she generally considered her music to be just hers.

But last night she had played for Dina.

They’d sat together once Ellie had regained control of her breathing and talked. About Cat, about Jesse, about patrol, about Jackson, and of course about space and dinosaurs and the meaning of the universe. And when Dina asked Ellie to play her something… how the fuck could Ellie say no? More than that, she didn’t want to say no.

They stayed up so late that they watched the sun crest over the horizon together. Ellie would have given anything to kiss Dina then. Anything. But she was too scared.

Ellie would have expected to be a grumpy piece of shit that day, but there was an elation in her chest, a lightness, something she so rarely got the opportunity to feel…

 

Alice scurried ahead of her as something moved in the shadows of the theater. Ellie stiffened, coming back to herself, but when a rat scampered across the backstage area with Alice chasing after it, she snickered.

“There you are,” a soothing, concerned tone echoed from behind her. She turned around to see Dina, hobbling slightly, walking toward her.

“You should be sleeping," Ellie said, every protective bone in her body suddenly growing sharp as a razor.

“So should you,” Dina countered.

“Mind’s too busy,” Ellie said, turning back around toward Alice and the rat.

“That woman… Mel…” Dina said, as if it was a question that she didn’t finish.

“She helped us. She wanted to help you,” Ellie said, seeing that Dina had stepped up to her out of the corner of her eye. She turned.

“So…”

“So what?”

“Maybe they’re not all bad.”

Ellie had thought it, but she didn’t want to. All her defenses flew up.

“So that makes up for what they did?” The bite in her tone was obvious.

“No. But they didn’t all do that,” Dina said, reaching a slow hand toward Ellie’s shoulder.

“I keep seeing him. Over and over. I just wanna carve it out,” Ellie said softly as Dina’s hand squeezed her.

“I know.”

“How is it?” Ellie asked, quickly pivoting, looking down at Dina’s ankle.

“Feels better,” Dina said, letting Ellie get away with changing the subject. 

“Good,” Ellie said, then whistled toward Alice. “Come on, girl, enough rat chasing for tonight,” she said, and Alice turned and promptly began trotting toward them.

“She likes you,” Dina said.

“Well that makes one ‘a you,” Ellie said, a small smirk on her lips.

“Ouch,” Dina said, but she took Ellie’s hand lazily as they walked back toward the lobby instead of their little room. Ellie still couldn’t sleep, she didn’t know if she ever would again, but having Dina next to her on the couch, with Alice laying down by them, felt… good, and yet somehow hollow - a haunting ache in her chest that would never cease.

 

Morning came and with it, an air of concern surrounding Mel. Her pacing footsteps pulled Ellie from her and Dina’s reverie around dawn. Mel took the time to re-wrap Dina’s wound, claiming it looked a hell of a lot better than it had the night before. Dina even seemed to be able to put a little more weight on it.

Maybe that shit is magic… Ellie thought.

“I have to go back,” Mel said, standing as soon as she was done.

“Now? I thought you said there was time,” Ellie said, standing up along with Mel.

“They got back,” Mel said, and Ellie could see her fiddling with a small radio that stuck out from her pocket. “They have our leader, Isaac, he got hurt, Owen’s afraid he won’t make it back to base…”

Ellie’s stomach dropped into her feet, and she could tell Dina sensed it. Even Jesse seemed to sense it.

Fucking Isaac. At the aquarium. Right the fuck now. And they. THEY. She must be talking about Owen and Abby.

“Babe, you think you can make it? You want to stay?” Ellie asked, turning toward Dina.

“Fuck no, I’m coming,” Dina said, standing - a bit gingerly, but far stronger than she even had in the theater just a few hours before. “Let us get our stuff?” Dina said to Mel, and Mel nodded. “Come on,” Dina said to Ellie, a certain tone to her voice. Ellie followed her from the lobby.

“A bunch of them could be there, Ellie, an ambush” Dina said as they walked toward the little back room they had been calling home for days.

“You didn’t see the place. It’s not a base or anything… it’s… it’s like this,” Ellie said, gesturing around. Dina looked around, saying nothing. “Dina, they’re leaving. Owen, Abby, Mel, they’re leaving. I don’t get another shot at this.”

Dina sighed.

“Okay,” she said simply, and they began packing their things.

 

Mel knew the layout of the city well - and what was more, she knew the routes to take to avoid the “Scars“. Ellie could feel the adrenaline rushing through her veins, her skin was tingling with it. Anticipation built in her throat, but she tried to stay calm as they moved. She focused on Dina, making sure she was all right. But she was keeping up with them, and had barely even winced so much as once in the whole time they had been moving. She knew where pockets of Infected roamed, the patrol routes of the Scars, and those of the WLF - though there weren’t many Scars and WLF out. The casualties from whatever attack had happened the night before must have been massive.

Fucking Seattle, Ellie thought.

“…Riley?” Mel’s voice pulled Ellie from her thoughts. She looked up to see Mel and Jesse had crossed to the other side of the street. She’d momentarily forgotten she’d given herself that code-name.

“Oh. Sorry,” Ellie said as Dina eyed her a little suspiciously and crossed the street along with her. Ellie’s skin felt like it was going to explode. Every step was closer. Every moment nearer to getting the last looks on Joel’s face out of her mind - how small he’d seemed then. And they fucking did that to him. Her teeth ground together in her mouth.

 

A mile from the aquarium.

So close.

Half a mile.

So fucking close.

The bodies of two WLF soldiers were strewn on the side of the road, two arrows in each of their chest’s. Ellie heard Mel swear under her breath as she looked down at them.

“I hope your death was swift,” Mel murmured quietly over their bodies.

Huh.

“Let’s keep moving,” Mel said, standing back up and continuing toward the aquarium. Dina looked at Ellie out the corner of her eye.

The aquarium seemed to loom taller than it had the night before as they approached. Maybe it was what was coming, maybe Ellie hadn’t been paying attention last night, or maybe it was Jesse and Dina’s eyes on her as they got closer.

They moved around the back toward an open door. It was as dark and dank as it had been the night before, and they began to hear voices as they moved through the back rooms. Finally, Ellie could make out what they were saying:

“You called her?!”

“I thought she could save him. The walkies work all over the city-“

“That’s not what I mean- we brought him here to hide him, not to save him-“

“We have to go, they’re gonna come for us- so stupid, Abby-“

“Don’t gimme that shit-“

“You shot him!”

“HE KILLED HER!”

The voices echoed, words mixing together and jumping on top of each other as Ellie, Dina, Jesse, Mel, and Alice moved toward two large doors with a big, red crab painted on them. Alice whined and looked up at Mel.

“It’s okay, girl,” Mel cooed quietly.

One of the doors was cracked open just slightly, and Mel opened it slowly. It didn’t seem as though the people on the other side took any notice.

“I’m so tired, Owen,” the woman said, her braid long down her back, and her muscles seemed somehow smaller in her vulnerability. Abby.

Owen wrapped his arms around her and pulled her into a hug.

“It’ll be okay,” he said. “We’re leaving. Getting the fuck out of this city.” He pulled away and took her face in his hands. Ellie watched the horrified look on Mel’s face.

“Abby, it’s okay,” Owen repeated.

There was a boy a ways behind them, Lev, the boy that had been with Abby when Dina and Ellie had run into them in the woods and again at the hospital. He was dirty, blood covering his hooded jacket. Abby and Owen were bloody, too. And Isaac’s body laid on the ground, motionless, eyes open, dead.

“Abby,” Owen said quietly, and brought her lips to his. They met in a quiet kiss.

Ellie didn’t know what to do, what to feel: part of her was pissed on Mel’s behalf, this was fucked up. Part of her wanted to cheer that Abby had killed the fuck that had had a hand in Joel’s death. Part of her wanted to run toward Abby and dig her switchblade straight into her neck for being even a little responsible for Joel getting bitten…

“What the fuck is this?” Mel said, as if her voice had finally found its way out of her throat. Owen and Abby jumped apart.

“Mel,” Owen said, surprise and shame in his voice.

“Shit,” Abby said quietly.

“Yeah. Shit,” Mel said. “Fuck you. What is this?” she asked.

“It’s not-“ Owen began, stepping away from Abby.

“Not that. This,” Mel said, pointing to Isaac’s body. “What did you do?”