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I'd surely lose myself

Chapter Text

Ellie leaves the farm. She leaves the guitar and she leaves all the memories Dina has left her.

Just for a second she contemplates going back to Jackson, but decides against it. She has failed too many people. She failed Dina by leaving and not even finishing her task and she failed Tommy by letting Abby live.

She can’t go back after everything she has done and everything she hasn’t done. The weight crushing her shoulders is too heavy to let herself attempt to have a normal life and hinder the normal lives of her loved ones with her pain.

So instead she wanders through the forest for hours until she reaches a part where the trees become less clustered. Perhaps that’s the end of the forest. There she finds an old, rusted and smashed car, the front of it rammed through a tree that has started to grow into the car. It’s beyond her how it has gotten here, but she sets up camp in it. She pries open the back door to the car and tosses her backpack inside.

It isn’t too bad. The front part is horribly bent and she couldn’t use the front seat even if she wanted to. There is no skeleton in the driver’s seat so she hopes the owner of the car survived whatever it is that happened. Greenery and roots have started to grow inside the car, almost but not quite reaching the backseat.

The seats are quite comfortable, definitely beating sleeping on the ground.

By the time she cleans up the backseat, night overtakes the calm forest. Ellie lies down in the car and hopes for a dreamless night.

That doesn’t happen. Instead her dreams are riddled with the screams of a man she couldn’t save. A man she couldn’t even avenge.

She wonders how is it all fair. Joel did everything to save her life, no matter how hard it must have been for him. He kept protecting Ellie after Ellie got Tess killed, he went looking for her when David took her. And he killed the fireflies to keep her alive which is what got him killed in the end.

Ellie got him killed in the end.

The next days she tries not to sleep.

It doesn’t really work as she doesn’t have anything else to do, other than hunt. She hunts once every few days, nothing larger than a rabbit because she doesn’t eat all of it anyways. She doesn’t want to waste any more lives.

There is a stream close enough to the car that she doesn’t really have to worry about water either.

Ellie finds herself wishing she brought the guitar with herself even if she can’t play it anymore. She looks down at her left hand, her thumb going over the pads of the remaining two fingers. The guitar callouses are already going away, the smoothness of her fingertips returning. She remembers the pain she went through while they were still developing. How numb her fingers had felt.

She prefers that pain over the pain in her missing ring finger and her pinky.

She contemplates her hand for a long time during these days. Another thing she lost and with it her ability to play the guitar.

She spends a lot of time wondering if Dina could ever forgive her too. Ellie left her even after Dina begged her to stay. Ellie wouldn’t forgive herself. She wouldn’t blame Dina if she couldn’t forgive her either.

Ellie selfishly hopes that Potato doesn’t forget her, but he’s so young that she knows it isn’t possible.

She wonders about Tommy too. Remember that day that he had come to the farm and Ellie had refused to go after Abby. She remembers his justified anger at her. After all Abby took the most from him, destroying his life until nothing was left for him other than the desire for revenge he couldn’t accomplish by himself thanks to her.

Ellie couldn’t stomach the thought of letting Tommy know that not only did she let Abby live, but she also saved her from a slow and torturous death at the stakes.

She couldn’t blame Tommy either if he never forgave her.

But that was all fantasies. Ellie wouldn’t ever be going back to find out what they all think of her.

The next few weeks she almost finds comfort in her dreams. Comfort in the fact that the memory of Joel wouldn’t be lost as long as she has them. They are not all nightmares, some of them are memories of Joel she cherishes. She finds comfort in them because they’re the only time she’s not entirely alone.

She hasn’t touched her journal in so long, longer than ever. It sits at the bottom of her backpack, forgotten.

As more and more days pass Ellie loses count of them. She also loses the energy to go out hunting so she stops. She doesn’t feel hunger anymore so what’s the point really?

She would go out hunting in a few days, just to make sure she doesn’t die of starvation. Or at least that’s what she tells herself.

During those couple of months – couple of months? That doesn’t quite sound right, but she hasn’t been counting so she doesn’t know – she had already made two new holes in her belt so it can keep her jeans around her hips.

During the few days of her break from hunting she adds a new one.

You would've thought that her body would’ve gotten used to her eating as little as she did. After all, in the almost two years since Joel had died she had lost her appetite and eating became a chore that she only did out of necessity.

By the time Ellie decides that it’s time to hunt again she finds out that she’s become very weak and very tired. She picks up her bow and attempts to pull back the string, it works. Mostly. Her hands shake and she’s not sure she’s capable of hitting anything like this.

Maybe she begins to regret throwing out all of her ammunition and leaving her guns except the bow back at the farm. She’s not even sure if she remembers the way back to their- the farm so she can return to get the guns. She didn’t pay attention coming here.

But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.

She sets out to find something to hunt.

She sneaks through the forest looking for any animal. After a while a rabbit jumps out of a nearby bush and Ellie stills. She nocks an arrow, aims and takes a deep breath.

To add to the shakiness of her hands she also feels dizzy and her vision blurs just a little bit. Maybe this was a mistake. Or maybe it was a sign-

The rabbit listens for a second and then begins to chew on something on the ground, completely unaware that it’s life will soon come to an end.

Ellie squeezes her eyes shut for a moment – maybe to clear the blurriness or maybe because she doesn’t want to do this – and lets the arrow loose with shaking hands. The arrow misses it’s mark by quite a lot and the rabbit jumps back in the bush and disappears.

It’s kind of embarrassing really. Ellie likes to pride herself as a very good archer and one of the best shots in Jackson.

She’s not sure if she missed on purpose or not.

Ellie spends the rest of the day looking for more game. She gets a couple of more opportunities, but each time the animals get spooked by her heavy footsteps.

Ellie goes back to camp hungry. More surprisingly feeling that hunger.

The next day she decides to set up traps instead of going out hunting. After spending a couple hours doing that she heads for the nearby water stream to replenish her water supplies. She ends up dumping most of the water on her way back because she doesn’t have the energy to carry it all back.

On the way back from the stream she checks the traps. Nothing has caught. She returns to camp empty handed and drinks some water to fool her stomach into thinking it’s full.

Ellie opens the door of the car and sits on the backseat with her legs hanging out the door. She caresses the straps of the bracelet Dina gave her so long ago. Ellie never took it off and Dina never wanted it back. Ellie is glad she still has it.

She takes her backpack and digs deep inside it, finds the firefly tag that had once belonged to Riley. She clenches her fist around it as tightly as her weak hands allow her and then she puts it around her neck. She hasn’t thought about Riley in a long while, but she always has her tag in her backpack.

She takes out the switchblade in her back pocket and she wonders how she can feel loss for someone she never knew. Everything she has from her mother is this knife and the letter.

The ink already faded out and the edges frayed. The letter has been unreadable for some time now, but Ellie knows every word by heart. But it doesn’t matter anyways, that letter is back at Jackson in a desk drawer in her place.

And finally Ellie digs in her backpack and fishes out Joel’s broken watch.

One time Joel had told her about the story of the watch. How it had been the last gift he had ever gotten from his daughter right before the outbreak had started.

Ellie’s fingers run through the broken glass, feeling the ridges. For a long time she struggles with clasping it around her wrist, on the opposite hand on which Dina’s bracelet sits.

When she finally clasps it she lets herself cry for the first time in a long, long time. She lays back on the seats and closes the door. Then closes her eyes too and lets the sobs wrack her body.

‘If I ever were to lose you, I’d surely lose myself.’

She sings herself to sleep with a hoarse, unused voice, wearing the memories of all the people she lost.

She is all alone.

---

The next morning the traps are still empty.

Ellie decides to go out scavenging. If she’s right then somewhere around here there must be some building that hadn’t been scavenged yet by Jackson’s patrols.

She picks up her bow and slings the backpack over her shoulders. Ellie begins the trek towards the location she believes the buildings are. She walks slowly and in silence, gets winded from just that.

She’s in a bad shape, she knows as much. But she keeps on pushing.

After some time – hours – judging by how high up the sun is she reaches what has to be the town she was looking for. She sighs in relief and heads for the closest building.

She tries to be as light on her feet as she can because she knows if there are any infected around she wouldn’t be able to handle them in her current state.

At least she has plenty of arrows, busying herself with carving them during most of her free time. She’s not sure that they’ll help out, but at least she has them.

Ellie slowly and quietly cracks open the door and slides inside. The place seems empty, from both infected and resources, but that’s how all of those places look like to begin with.

Ellie stills and listens for a long moment. Nothing. Good.

She still tries to be quiet while she steps on the old creaking floorboards. She walks over to the counter of what seems to be some kind of store and opens the drawers one by one. The only thing she finds is an old piece of cloth, she takes it and puts it in her backpack.

She scavenges the rest of the store, but the only other thing she finds is an old plastic bottle that has years of dust layered on top of it. When Ellie picks it up the dust makes her sneeze.

She takes it and places it on the counter, walking as far back as she can to the opposite wall of the store. She takes out her bow and nocks an arrow.

She gets in position and grips the bow harder. Those two missing fingers paired with lack of any strength left in her muscles make it impossibly hard, but she takes a breath and aims.

Her hands shake too much and she doesn’t have enough strength to keep the string pulled back enough so she can line the shot. The bow string slips from her fingers and the arrow is let loose.

The arrow shoots out in an embarrassingly off direction and the fact that it doesn’t even get lodged in the wall makes Ellie cringe at herself. “Fucking A, Ellie.” Her voice comes out extremely rough and she attempts to clear her throat to no avail.

She leaves the arrow on the floor and continues to the next building. She finds some other random crap lying around and she picks some of it up that she deems useful and the rest she leaves there. But no food, no fucking food.

It’s taking her way too long going through the buildings as carefully as she is and if she wants to be able to go back to her camp before nightfall she really has to hurry up. So she throws caution to the wind and begins to rush through them.

All is good and well until she walks through a creaking door and a few moments later hears the horrifying sound of clicks. Just a moment later she notices where it comes from too. Two clickers turn towards the sound and scream their blood curdling screams in unison.

Ellie backs out of the door as the clickers lurch themselves at her. Before she turns around to run she sees more infected coming out of the rooms behind the clickers and she curses loudly.

Ellie runs out and dives behind a rusted car. She can feel the adrenaline rushing through her veins and she hopes that it’s enough to help her fight against these infected. She shrugs off her backpack so she has easier access to the arrows, takes one and ducks out of cover. She shoots it at one of the building's windows to cause a distraction. Thankfully the window is big enough that she doesn’t miss.

The clickers turn towards the sound, but the runners don’t seem as affected by it. Ellie takes another arrow and lets it loose into of the runners’ legs. It makes him drop to the ground, stunned. She knows she has bought herself a couple of priceless seconds so she can take care of the other runner.

Ellie shoots an arrow towards the other runner's chest and then another one which misses and then a third one that lands and that is enough for him to drop to the ground. Ellie runs towards the runner that is still struggling to get up from the ground and stabs him in the skull with her switchblade.

The clickers have by now heard her again and begin to step erratically towards her. Ellie let’s another arrow loose and miraculous the arrow pierces the clicker’s skull. Ellie doesn’t have too much time to celebrate as she reaches behind her back to grab another arrow only to realize she left her backpack by the car.

The last clicker is way too close to her now and she tries to dodge out of its way, but it’s boney, disgusting hands latch onto her shirt and tackle her to the ground. The clicker attempts to hit her, but Ellie shields herself with her arm, she tries to push back, but the clicker is way too heavy. She tries to kick it off of her, but nothing is working.

“Motherfucker!” Ellie attempts to yell, but it comes out a horse whisper.

In that moment, time almost seems to slow down. Ellie doesn’t believe in heaven, but if it were a real place she wonders if Joel is there. She wonders if maybe she will meet him there and tell him that she forgives him. She wants to meet Sarah too and so many other people.

Ellie closes her eyes and waits. A smile that feels wrong graces her cracked lips.

And then a loud piercing sound and a heavy weight dropping on top of her. She feels blood trickle down her face and she somehow knows that it's not hers.

She hears the rhythmic steps of what she suspects is a horse, she turns her head to the side and she’s met with the sight of a pair of horse hooves. So yeah, sure enough it is a horse.

A pair of black boots land with a heavy thud and Ellie realizes she’s not dead.

“Obviously, dumbass,” Ellie laughs at herself.

She’s pretty sure that she’s disappointed about that, but doesn’t have too much time to contemplate as the clickers body is kicked off of her.

The sun is high in the sky and it blinds her eyes, blocking all vision of the person on top of her other than the rifle aimed directly at her face.

“Ellie?” the voice questions and it sounds so familiar and yet so strange and wrong. “Is that you?”

“Shit.” They know her.

The gun is quickly lowered and the person – woman, it’s a woman’s voice – crouches in front of her. A hand is placed on her face and wiped across it, Ellie assumes that’s to get rid of the blood covering it. She flinches away from the touch.

“What are you doing?” another urgent voice questions. “You can’t let your guard down, Cat!”

She hears the sound of another pair of boots coming closer before the name registers in her head.

“Oh, fuck,” Ellie says, but she’s not sure any sound makes it past her lips.

“Ellie, you look like shit,” the woman says.

Ellie refuses to acknowledge that they know each other. This is not how she planned for things to go down.

“I could barely recognize you.”

“Is that Ellie?” the other voice chimes in and Ellie kind of wants to scream. “Holy shit! We thought you were dead.”

“Yeah, thanks guys for saving me,” Ellie says, her voice sounds like how she imagines clickers would sound like if they could talk. “I can go on from here.” Ellie sits up because she’s tired of having to squint up at the sun.

She’s met with the once familiar sight of Cat’s face. It almost feels like another life when they knew each other. When she looks to the side she realizes that she knows the other man too, but can’t quite place his name yet.

Ellie begins to stand up and she would be embarrassed about how much she struggles with it if it weren’t for the fact that she’s in a hurry to get away from them before she has to interact anymore with these people she once knew.

“What are you doing?” the man asks.

Before Ellie has the time to answer – she doesn’t think she would have answered anyway – her vision begins to darken around the edges and she feels her consciousness begin to slip away. She falls to the ground to the sound of frantic chatter that she can’t quite distinguish.

“Don’t take me back.” Those are her last words before the darkness overtakes her entire vision.

---

Ellie wakes up surrounded by softness and warmth. When she cracks a single eye open, because her other one is pressed into her pillow and she doesn’t think that she has enough energy to flip on her back, she sees that she’s in bed in her old place in Jackson.

It takes her a minute to recognize the place because most of her stuff had been moved to the farm she and Dina lived in.

She already begins to plan her escape. She knows they won’t let her go willingly and she’s way too weak to run away for now.

She will have to stay for a while, Ellie realizes with a painful squeeze of her heart. She will have to meet more of the people she has disappointed.

Her throat feels as if she’s swallowed sand. She scans the room quickly to see if there is any water nearby. There is not. She’s way too exhausted to get up and get herself some.

She closes her eye and in what feels like an instant the front door bursts open and Maria barges inside.

“Cat and Robert were right. You really don’t look like yourself,” are Maria’s first words to her. “Hey, Ellie,” she says with a tight lipped smile.

Ellie sits up and props herself against the headboard. She gives a single awkward wave because she doesn’t trust her voice.

Just now Ellie notices that Maria holds a bowl of something in one hand and a bottle of water tucked between her elbow and her body. She takes the single chair in Ellie’s room and drags it over to the side of the bed.

“I’m glad you're back home,” Maria says, she places the bowl on the nightstand and hands Ellie the bottle of water.

Ellie takes it with her left hand and instantly realizes her mistake when Maria’s hand locks on it. Ellie takes a hurried drink from it and prays Maria doesn’t mention the missing fingers.

Sadly she’s not that fortunate. She’s never been.

“What happened?”

“I, umm,” Ellie begins, tears well behind her eyes and she has to take a break from talking if she wants to hold them back.

She doesn’t know how to explain everything she’s been through. Doesn’t even know what exactly it was herself.

After a long pause that’s punctuated by Ellie taking very loud sips she says, still choked up, “I, I failed.” And that’s all she offers.

Maria nods in what Ellie thinks is understanding and she is thankful when Maria doesn’t prod her with anymore questions. “Robert and Cat weren’t lying when they said you almost look like one of the infected.” She looks at the bowl sitting on Ellie’s nightstand and nods towards it. “Eat up, Ellie, it looks like you’ve lost a lot of weight.”

Ellie reaches for the bowl. It’s some kind of soup, she sloshes it around and takes a spoonful. Smells kind of nice. If she wants to get out of Jackson anytime soon she should try and force some of it down.

“Please don’t tell anyone that I’m here,” Ellie begs, staring at her soup. “Especially not Tommy or Dina.”

She doesn’t get an answer and Ellie hopes that it doesn’t mean disagreement.

Maria stands up from the chair, returns it against the desk and heads for the door. “I have some work that needs to be done, but I’ll come check on you later today.” Maria reaches for the handle of the door, she opens it and without turning around she says. “And Ellie, you should take a bath.”

Ellie scoffs, but before she can say anything Maria’s out the door.

She does probably smell pretty vile she recons. Probably doesn’t look much better either. In her defense she had washed herself in the stream almost every time she went there. But not since her hunting break.

Ellie brings her knees up to her chest and hugs them with her arms, holding the bowl in her hands. She brings the spoon to her lips and blows on it then takes a cautionary sip. She scoffs again, it’s not that hot, it’s not even warm.

Ellie chews on the soup for a while, longer than it’s necessary for soup. When she swallows, her throat closes painfully around the food. It’s like her own body doesn’t want the food, like it rejects it, like it knows she doesn’t deserve it.

Ellie pushes herself to keep eating until half the bowl is empty and she feels like if she eats anymore she’ll throw it back up.

She’s going to lie if she pretends that it doesn’t feel good to have her stomach feel full, but she also feels sick and nauseous. Ellie closes her eyes and takes what she assumes is a short nap.

When she wakes up from it she wills herself to stand up on weak legs and head to the bathroom for the shower Maria so mannerly suggested Ellie should take.

Someone’s already taken off her shoes and the socks she just knows were caked in mud and filth. Ellie takes off the watch from her left wrist and gently lays it on the bathroom sink. She doesn’t want to break it anymore than it already is.

She wonders how Joel reacted when he broke the watch. If it wasn’t him that that did it, Ellie’s sure the poor motherfucker that did, paid dearly for it.

It's not like she’ll ever find out. She’ll never get to ask Joel about that story or any other story at all.

Ellie looks up at the ceiling so no tears can fall down her face. When she’s certain that they won’t she returns to undressing herself.

She undoes her belt and tosses it to the floor. Next come the buttons and zipper of her jeans, she doesn’t even have to slide the jeans down her legs because they fall by themselves to pool around her ankles.

Ellie gapes at that, she’s really lost some weight, hasn’t she?

She steps out of the jeans and stares at herself in the mirror. Pulls the shirt over her head and drops it on the floor too. She looks at her own reflection in the mirror that should look familiar, but just doesn’t.

She can see and count each one of her ribs without any trouble at all. Her legs and arms almost look like sticks and she can’t stop the laugh that overtakes her body.

If Joel could only see her like this. He always used to tell her than she should eat more and that she was too skinny. He would probably be so mad.

Ellie laughs until her sides hurt and she has to brace herself against the sink so she doesn’t lose balance. When she gathers herself enough she switches the faucets of the shower on, she tries to get the water the right temperature, but eventually she gives up. She doesn’t care if she gets burned.

She steps out of her underwear, she hasn’t worn a bra in a long time so she's ready for the shower. When she steps under the water it's way too hot and it burns into her skin. It feels good.

The water that flows down the drain is dark, almost black. All of that dirt falling off her skin makes her fell lighter somehow and she sighs in relief.

---

Maria comes over again when the sun has already set, to bring her food and offer silent company. Ellie is sure that she’s waiting for some kind of explanation of what has happened or where she has been, but Ellie can’t offer anything right now and Maria doesn’t push her.

Before she leaves she tells Ellie that someone else will bring her food tomorrow because she’s busy.

Ellie feels like a bother because people have to take care of her.

Chapter Text

The next day it’s Cat who shows up at her door to bring her food for the entire day.

Cat seems apprehensive and a little bit awkward. “I’m glad that you’re okay,” she says, then brings her hands in front of her body and taps her pinky and ring finger. “Or at least most of you is okay.”

That brings a very small smile on Ellie’s face. Ellie has missed her. “Ha ha, very funny,” Ellie deadpans.

“But really, I’m glad that you’re back.” Cat steps forward a little bit, but then seems to think better of it and stops.

“It won’t be for long.”

“Oh,” Cat says and then an awkward silence stretches until Cat bids her goodbye and leaves.

Ellie’s glad that it’s Cat Maria sent. She’s one of the only three people that Ellie’s aware know that she’s back in town and she doesn’t want anyone else to find out.

Ellie spends her entire day looking though the stuff that she left behind in the place she once called home.

First she sits at her desk. There are a bunch of her pencils there, most of them are broken or have been sharpened so much that only a little stump is left. Ellie absentmindedly begins to twirl one of the bigger pencils while she goes through the drawers.

The first one is absolutely empty. She then opens the other one and the first thing she finds there is a stack of blank paper. She picks the papers up and places them on top of the desk. There are more papers beneath them, but these ones are not blank. They are covered with Dina’s face, her eyes, her lips.

Ellie can’t help but smile a little bit at that find. She drops the pen she had been twirling and takes the papers carefully out of the drawer. She flips through each one of the drawings, the memories of when she drew them are clear in her mind and she longs for those simple times when she had nothing else to worry about other than Dina finding out about Ellie’s crush.

Ellie remembers how she had been so scared to draw Dina because she feared that somehow the other girl would find out and think that it’s weird. She also remembers the itch she had felt to just keep drawing and drawing until she could get Dina’s beautiful face just right. Which she still hasn’t managed.

Ellie smiles at the memory that pops up next. She remembers how sometimes she would scrunch up her drawings of Dina and rip them to pieces before throwing them in the trash because she was too embarrassed of herself.

Ellie still got just a little bit embarrassed when she drew or painted Dina at the farm. That embarrassment always got quickly extinguished by Dina’s loving encouragements.

For the first time in a while she gets that urge to draw again. And she could. She’s got papers and she’s got pencils, no matter how broken they are she can sharpen them and she can draw.

Her mood instantly drops when she gets to the last drawing. It’s of Joel. He’s old and he’s smiling. His eyes lack that spark that Ellie could never quite capture.

Ellie flips over the drawing, returning it to the stack and returns them in the drawer, slamming it shut.

She picks up the pencil in her left hand and attempts to spin it only for it to drop out of her hand and clatter to the floor when her two missing fingers have to take over with the motions, but can’t. Ellie springs up from the chair, her heart is beating against her ribs, her ears ring and her breathing is coming in in short, shallow breaths.

She begins to place around the room in a pointless attempt to calm herself down.

---

By the time the evening arrives Ellie feels restless and trapped in the room. She waits until the sun sets completely and she knows the streets of Jackson will be empty so she can slip out of her old place without having to meet anyone.

The clean air helps with the headache she hadn’t even noticed and she wanders through the less frequented streets of Jackson.

She feels more energetic already so she plans on leaving in the next couple of days. It’s the last days of fall and the weather is already turning cold. She can feel it in the way the chilly wind leaves her shivering and crossing her arms across her chest to keep in the warmth.

She barely has any clothes left here in Jackson and none of them are suitable for winter. That means she would have to go back to the farm and have to face everything she so easily threw away not that long ago.

She wanders aimlessly through the streets so she’s more than surprised when her feet have led her to the porch of Joel’s house. Ellie remembers the first time she had visited after Joel’s death.

At the thought she chokes up and rubs at the corners of her eyes.

She remembers the countless flowers left by residents of Jackson that had been placed all over the front porch. Those are absent right now and Ellie feels anger bubble up deep inside her.

They’re all forgetting him.

She climbs up the steps of the porch, memories of their last conversation flashing behind her eyes. Ellie thinks about what would have happened if she hadn’t decided to come talk to him after the dance.

She almost hadn’t come, she hadn’t had the nerve to face him after being so unnecessarily mean to him for no fucking reason. Just because he had wanted to protect her, but back then his protectiveness had only angered and annoyed her. In this very moment she would give anything to even hear one of his annoying lectures again.

She had mustered the nerve to come over at the very last moment, just as she was going home. She feels immense guilt at the prospect of her last words to him being what she said at the dance.

She doesn’t even remember what they were anymore, but she knows those words hurt him deeply. They were meant to do just that. Ellie regrets spending so much time resenting him.

Her hand reaches for the handle of the front door on its own, she rests her hand there, not making any move. Ellie almost expects to see him there in the kitchen, making his shitty coffee. Or on the old, but yet preserved couch drinking his smelly coffee. Or upstairs carving another piece of wood probably thinking about coffee.

Ellie takes a deep breath and pushes the handle.

It’s locked.

She takes a step back and off the porch. She looks around until she finds and picks up a medium sized rock that’s surprisingly pretty heavy. Ellie walks up to one of the windows, then smashes the rock into the glass. The glass shatters with a loud noise that she hopes no one hears. She pushes away most of the pieces of glass from the window sill and squeezes through.

She feels a sharp pain in her hand and when she looks at it there is a piece of glass stuck in her palm. Ellie rolls her eyes at herself.

“Good job at cleaning these out, dickhead.”

Ellie grabs the piece of glass where it’s sticking out of her palm and pulls it out, wincing at the jolt of pain. Blood begins to pour out of the new wound and it starts dripping down the back of her hand and on the floor.

Ellie moves to the kitchen, the way so engraved in her mind, she doesn’t even realize her feet are leading her there. She drops the piece of glass in the empty sink and moves to open the drawer where she knows Joel used to keep his towels. And sure enough there they are. Ellie takes one and wraps it around her palm, hopefully the bleeding will stop before the towel is soaked through. With this taken care of Ellie takes a look around.

The house looks just like it did when she had last visited it so long ago when she and Dina left for Seattle. Just a lot more dusty, like no one has lived here for months.

No one has lived here for years.

Ellie’s gaze drops to her newly injured hand, she presses her thumb to the center of her palm feeling the pain that comes from it.

Her feet lead her up the stairs and to Joel’s endless collection of guitars. Why have that many when you just need one? Her fingers itch to play something, but she knows she can’t do that anymore.

Ellie sighs deeply and continues to his bedroom. There are a couple of pictures on one of the dressers and Ellie slowly makes her way up to it. Her heart feels like it’s going to beat it’s way out of her chest, she places her hand where her heart must be to feel it’s relentless fight. She continues forward.

The first picture is the one Tommy had given her at the dam so many years ago. A young Joel and Sarah smile up at her and Ellie’s fingers unconsciously reach for the broken watch that now sits on her wrist. Ellie’s lips twitch to form a smile, that she doesn’t quite manage, as if she’s forgotten how to smile.

The other picture is of her and Joel at the Jackson stables with her horse Shimmer. Ellie remembers that day when Joel had led her to the stables, not letting her know why. He had always loved to surprise her with anything and everything he knew Ellie would love.

For a while he had led her through the stables, making her tell him which horses she liked the best. They pet them, brushed their manes and gave them carrots and apples. And then out of no where he had told her she could choose any of the horses for herself, except for those that already had owners. Ellie had been ecstatic to say the least.

“Now choose wisely, kiddo,” he had told her. “This is the horse you'll bond with for life.”

It hadn’t been that hard of a choice for Ellie, who had chosen Shimmer in a heartbeat.

Joel had told her that he was glad the horse had been already named because Ellie’s knack for naming horses wasn’t all that great. Ellie had been offended at that which had only made Joel laugh and ruffle her hair.

That picture had been taken just before Ellie had tried to hop on the horse by Tommy who had tagged alone. Ellie picks up the framed picture whishing she could go back. She whishes she didn’t know what Joel did in that hospital, that Tommy didn’t hate her and that Joel was still alive.

She returns the picture on the dresser, leaving three bloodied fingerprints on the frame.

Ellie shivers and she realizes that the house is actually almost as cold as it is outside. With the newly broken window and the fact that the house probably hasn’t been heated since Joel died, Ellie isn’t surprised.

She’s cold and exhausted and maybe a little bit hungry.

Ellie enters Joel’s closet and takes one of his favorite patterned flannels off a hanger. She puts it on over her t-shirt and hugs her arms around herself. Ellie walks up to the bare bed and lays down.

She buries her face in the collar of Joel’s flannel. It doesn’t smell like him anymore. It smells of dust.

Ellie’s eyes water and she chokes down a sob.

He’ll never get to meet JJ, he won’t get to grow even older. He won’t tell her anymore stories of the old world.

He's gone and she’ll never get to forgive him.

Joel’s gone.

Ellie’s sobbing, her tears flowing freely and soaking the flannel.

For the first time since Seattle she sleeps through the night without nightmares.

---

Ellie wakes up late. The sun has long since raised and if Ellie had to guess it's about 10am.

She enters the bathroom on the second floor, stares at herself in the mirror's reflection. She looks really, really bad. Her eyes are puffy and red and her hair’s much longer than she likes to keep it and it's very messy.

Ellie removes the towel that's wrapped around her hand. It’s stuck to the wound and peeling it off hurts like a motherfucker. When it’s done she leaves it on the sink, the blood hasn’t dried enough yet so it stains the pristine white of it.

The wound has stopped bleeding, but it probably needs stitches. She’ll fix it up when she goes back to her place. If there are any sewing or medical supplies back there.

This sucks.

She really doesn’t want anyone to find out about any of this and most of all she doesn’t want to bother Maria more than she already has.

She washes her face, but it doesn’t fix the puffiness of her eyes. She looks like she has been crying which isn’t all that surprising considering that she has.

Ellie heads downstairs to the kitchen and looks through all of the drawers and cupboards. Most of the cutlery, bowls and plates are still there, but there is no food at all. Which isn’t all that surprising either, the surprising thing, though, is that there is a half-empty tin can with coffee.

Ellie takes a sniff. Yeah, still smells like shit.

She fills up a pot off water and brings it up to a boil. She makes sure that the water is enough for a single cup of coffee because she doesn’t want to waste any of the ground up coffee. Then she adds some of it in the pot, what she assumes is enough and lets it boil for a bit. She hopes that’s the right way to make it.

If Joel could see her right now he’d probably kill her for disrespecting his precious coffee. He had tried to get her to drink and appreciate it more than once, each time being left disappointed by her 'poor palate'.

When she assumes that it’s done she takes it off the heat and pours it in Joel’s favorite mug. The heavy smell is already making her head hurt, but she brings it to her lips and blows on it. Then takes a sip that burns her tongue and makes her grimace at the taste.

“Yeah, perfect.”

At that moment she hears a click and after a second a creak as the front door opens.

Ellie freezes.

Footsteps slowly get louder as the person gets closer to the kitchen. Ellie leaves the mug on the counter and turns toward the doorway, waiting.

After a moment that stretches to eternity, Dina walks through. She stops so suddenly, it looks like her feet get rooted to the floor and her jaw falls open. Her surprise lasts only for a moment before she turns around and begins to storm out just as quickly as she had shown.

Ellie doesn’t have time to feel surprised she just runs after her. “Dina!” When Ellie reaches her, she places her hand on Dina’s arm so she can get a chance to try and explain herself. “I-“

Dina flinches away from the touch and Ellie lets go in a heartbeat. “Ever thought about letting me know that you’re here? That you’re fucking alive?” She pushes at Ellie’s shoulder, making her take a step back.

“I haven’t been here for long.” Ellie tries to explain. She can see the justified anger in Dina’s eyes, but she’s afraid that if she keeps looking she’ll see the disappointment and the hurt too. Her eyes drop to the floor. She tucks her left hand in the back pocket of her jeans, she doesn’t want Dina to see that.

“So that’s your excuse?” Dina chuckles humorlessly. “I waited for a month in the farm, all alone. Having to take care of JJ and the animals by myself.”

Ellie keeps quiet, her gaze locked on the floor boards. She doesn’t blame Dina for leaving if that’s what she means. She doesn’t voice it though.

“I’ve waited to know whether you’re alive or not for five fucking months!” Her voice begins to raise now and she pushes at Ellie’s shoulder again.

Five months. She’s been gone for five months. That doesn’t feel right. It feels like it’s been years and just mere days at the same time.

“And you don’t even think about letting me now you’re here. Were you even planning to tell me?”

Ellie feels tears begin to burn in the back of her eyes. “I-“ her voice breaks so she tries again, “I was planning to leave before you found out,” Ellie whispers because she doesn’t trust her voice.

Dina doesn't respond, she’s breathing heavily and Ellie thinks that maybe Dina didn’t hear her. She dares to look up just as Dina's palm connects with her cheek in a slap.

Yeah, she deserves that. Ellie’s hand instinctively reaches for the side of her face, but she only realizes that it’s her left hand when Dina’s gaze drops from her eyes to lock on it.

“I’m not even going to ask.” A single tear runs down her cheek and Dina angrily brushes it away with the back of her hand.

Yet again she turns around and walks away. She stops at the door and says, “Maria is looking for you, you should probably let her know that you’re okay.” She gestures to the small pool of half dried blood by the window. “If that’s yours you should get wherever it came from checked out.”

And then she walks away for good, leaving Ellie frozen on her spot, her hand still holding her cheek.

That’s not how she was supposed to find out.

---

Ellie doesn’t get too far on the way back to her place. The first group of people she walks by immediately close around her, making it hard to breathe.

She can’t hear what they’re saying. Her ears ring and all of them are talking at the same time and her brain can’t make sense of any of it. They begin to lead her somewhere and she lets them.

She doesn’t know what’s happening, but she doesn’t care either.

They’re asking her questions she's pretty sure, but she just can’t register what they’re saying. They look worried. They shouldn’t be. She’s a monster and no one should give a fuck about her.

Ellie let’s them lead her wherever they want to. Apparently that is the main gates of the city. There the bigger part of the group breaks away and heads closer to the gates, leaving Ellie with just two people on each side of her. She could probably walk away from them.

She doesn’t.

After some time a horse gallops toward them. Ellie recognizes the rider as Maria. When she reaches a close enough distance she dismounts the horse and leaves it in the middle of the street. The horse’s hooves dig into the dirt and he neighs, waiting for his owner.

Ellie can see that Maria’s saying something, but she can’t focus to make out any of the words. Maria stops in front of Ellie and she gestures for the two people next to them to leave. She takes Ellie’s face in her hands and the coldness of her palms grounds Ellie a little bit.

“Ellie?” Maria asks and this time Ellie can hear and understand the words. “Ellie? Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Ellie manages to say, her voice sounds rough to her own ears and just now she realizes that she has been crying the entire time.

Maria drops Ellie’s face and instead wraps her hand around Ellie’s forearm and leads her to the stables and away from prying eyes.

“Is this blood yours?” Maria asks.

“I, uhh.” Ellie looks down at herself, there are dried blood spots on her shirt and on Joel’s flannel and she has blood stuck under her fingernails that just wouldn’t go away when she washed her hands. “Yeah, I guess it’s mine.” When Ellie sees concern appear in Maria’s eyes she hurries to clarify, “It’s just from my hand.” She lifts it up to show her.

“Ellie, that is deep. You have to go get stitches.”

“I know,” Ellie nods, her head dropping to stare at her shoes. She hates the concern. She doesn’t deserve it.

“Where were you?” Maria asks.

Ellie frowns. “I went to Joel’s house,” she says, doesn’t understand why it matters. She probably shouldn’t have broken that window and instead looked for Maria to get the key.

“Ellie,” Maria says and Ellie dares to look up. She’s shaking her head, her hands on her hips. “You can’t run off like this. I was worried you decided to leave.”

Ellie’s frown only deepens. Were all these people out to look for her? Was that why Dina had found her in Joel’s house? Maria looked like she was preparing to leave the town. Was that because of Ellie?

“Were you guys looking for me?” Ellie asks dumbly.

“I know you and your friends had a way to sneak out of town and I thought that you used it to leave. I’m glad I was wrong.”

“Oh.” That’s all Ellie can manage. She didn’t want to worry people or be a burden and that’s exactly what she ended up doing. “I’m sorry.”

“You can’t leave town right now. If it weren’t for Cat and Robert you would’ve been dead right now.”

Maybe she whishes she were dead. She doesn’t say it, pursing her lips.

“You shouldn’t leave at all.”

“I can’t stay.”

“Yes, you can.” Maria begins to walk away from the stables only to stop and gesture at Ellie to follow her. “Let’s go get that hand of yours stitched up.”

Ellie ends up convincing Maria to let her go to the doctor by herself because after all she still remembers where that is. She knows Maria has a lot of work to do, running an entire town the size of Jackson is hard work even without having to take care of Ellie’s inconsiderate ass.

She feels terrible about what happened. How a big chunk of the town had to look for her because she didn’t think about warning Maria or someone else. That makes her want to leave town even more.

She just wants to disappear.

Ellie reaches Jackson’s makeshift hospital that has three entire doctors to take care of the entire population and Ellie can now waste their supplies and their time. When she enters the place is empty of any sick or injured people waiting for their turn.

Ellie is made to wait a few minutes until her usual doctor comes out of her office and when she sees Ellie she’s very surprised. So, at least not the entire town knows about her return, which is sure to change very soon.

The doctor takes Ellie into her office and stitches up her palm while she asks a thousand question to which Ellie responds with as little words as possible. When she finishes up the stitches she tells Ellie that the location of her injury is not ideal and breaking the stitches would be very easy. The doctor tells Ellie that she has to be very careful.

She doesn’t let Ellie go after that, insisting on a full examination. This very quickly reminds Ellie why she never liked doctors.

She makes Ellie get into one of those hospital gowns that make her feel extremely uncomfortable. Ellie complies and lets the doctor examine each and everyone of her new scars and healing wounds.

Thankfully the new bite on Ellie’s left hand had healed without any of the scarring her first one healed with. That made it look like a regular bite that the doctor just glanced over without a comment.

That was unlike what she got about all her other injuries. Those included a lot of disapproving looks and shakes of the doctor's head. Another thousand questions came with that. ‘Does that hurt?’, 'How about this?’ and all sorts of other stuff.

By the end of the examination the doctor tells her that all of her injuries have healed very nicely, but the scars would stay for life. Ellie doesn’t care about scars.

She tells Ellie that the only thing she’s worried about is the missing fingers. That they haven’t been stitched up and taken care of too well, but the process of healing is already at a very late stage and there was nothing they could do about it. That the pain is likely very severe and it would last for a very long time.

The severe pain Ellie knew about already, but the fact that it would last was new information.

“How did you lose them?” the doctor asks.

Ellie can tell that she has wanted to ask that for a while. “Someone bit them off.” She doesn’t want to share that, but she can’t escape the conversation either.

The doctor nods and continues on as if this was just a regular question. She looks through some drawers and takes out a pill bottle, she hands it to Ellie and tells her that those are vitamins that will help bring her appetite back.

She then lets Ellie get dressed and lets her go.

Ellie quickly runs away from the hospital. She takes all the streets she knows are less populated and returns to her place. She’s never leaving it.

Well, except for when she's ready to leave town.

Chapter Text

Turns out Ellie breaks her promise to never leave her place again.

It’s not the first promise she’s broken.

She doesn’t want to burden anyone by having them bring her food every day so she makes a deal with Maria. She'll get her own food three times a day and she’ll eat all of it too so no one has to check on her.

That’s another promise she only half breaks. Most of the time she only gets herself breakfast and dinner and she can’t eat all of it either.

The vitamins don’t help with bringing her appetite back. Maybe that’s because she has only remembered to take them twice in the two weeks she’s had them. She doesn’t eat a lot, but she can feel herself gaining back some weight and she already feels stronger.

She will leave soon.

Ellie asks Maria for the key to Joel’s house, even though Dina had unlocked it when she found Ellie. She sheepishly tells Maria that she’s broken a window, but Maria’s not mad which somehow makes Ellie feel even worse.

Ellie spends every day the same. She wakes up very early then takes a shower and leaves for Joel’s house while the town is still peacefully asleep. Her goal of avoiding as many people as possible is still on.

Then she makes herself a cup of coffee and sits on the porch while she drinks every last drop. The coffee sucks, but it somehow makes her feel closer to Joel so she keeps drinking it every morning. She spends a lot of time looking at the guitars all over the house, she longs to play something.

Ellie doesn’t really regret going to Santa Barbara. She knows she would've never gotten over her desire for revenge. She thought killing Abby would help her, but she realized that it would only make her feel worse.

She misses her fingers though. And she misses Dina and their baby.

She would go through Joel's other stuff too. One day she found where Joel kept his blocks of wood for carving and she attempted to carve something by herself.

It didn’t really work and Ellie ended up breaking one of the stitches on her palm before giving up. She didn’t want another visit to the hospital.

While she had went through his bookshelves she found a thin book titled 'Space for dummies'. Ellie had dropped it on the floor, her hands shaking.

Joel did everything and anything for her. Even this.

When Ellie had calmed down she opened the book, Joel had highlighted some paragraphs that he had deemed important. The pages were worn and Ellie couldn’t tell whether that was because Joel had read it a lot or simply because he wasn’t the first owner.

After waiting in Joel’s house until most regular people have had their breakfasts Ellie would leave for the center of Jackson to get her breakfast. Waiting until so late meant she didn’t have much of a choice in what she would eat, but that was okay. She wasn’t much of a picky eater these days.

After that she would head back to her place and sometimes she would attempt to draw and other times she would pace around the small room for hours. She drew animals and Dina, but her favorite thing to draw was the places she had visited on her journey to Santa Barba.

Ellie whishes she could show Dina these drawings and tell her that they don’t capture the real beauty those places hold. Ellie whishes she could tell her that she will lead her and their baby there someday to show them and let them listen to the calming sound of waves crushing into rocks.

Most of the days Ellie would skip lunch because people’s schedules for that were much more unpredictable. Then she would wait for dinner time and go earlier than everyone.

Ellie’s carefully crafted plan for avoiding people wasn’t perfect. She couldn’t escape from prying eyes and prying words. She gave those people as little information as possible before giving some excuse so she could run away.

It is the second week and the second day Ellie is back in Jackson. This time she doesn’t forget to count.

Ellie had just returned to her place and was preparing to eat her dry sandwich when she hears commotion just outside.

Ellie frowns, trying to hear what’s going on.

“I can’t believe you’ve tried to hide her from me for two entire weeks,” one voice says and it makes Ellie’s heart beat faster. That’s Tommy, it sounds just like him and yet Ellie hopes it’s not him. She stands up from her bed and waits, frozen on her spot.

After a few seconds the door bursts open, Tommy hobbling in, Maria close behind him.

“I swear to God, Tommy, if you don’t turn around right this second and leave!” Maria threatens, she walks up in front of him, blocking his view of Ellie.

“No, I need to know.” Tommy pushes Maria aside and closes in on Ellie.

Ellie feels cornered, she has no where to run. Her breathing quickens and the ringing in her ears raises.

“Tommy, leave!” Maria continues.

“No, it’s okay,” Ellie hears herself say, the voice doesn’t feel like it’s coming out of her mouth.

Maria turns to face Ellie for the first time since they stormed in. “Ellie, you don’t have to do this,” her voice turns gentle, a stark contrast to the yelling that had been aimed at Tommy just seconds earlier.

“I have to.” And she does. Tommy needs closure so he can move on, she can offer him at least that if she can’t give him the thing he really desires. “Maria, you can leave.”

“Ellie-“

“It’s okay.” I’ve got this. No, she doesn’t have anything. She feels like she’s dying and the thought of Tommy’s disappointment makes her want to run away.

Maria leaves then, giving Ellie one last look, that’s probably supposed to mean 'Say the word and I’m kicking his ass out.’ before she closes the door and leaves.

Tommy brings the chair at the desk next to Ellie’s bed and sits down. The way he struggles to this simple thing makes Ellie feel sick.

“Tell me, Ellie,” he begins. “Did you find her?”

Ellie sits down too and she doesn’t respond for a while. She can see the confusion in Tommy’s eyes begin to turn to concern and she already knows that he suspects the worst.

She could lie to him. Tell him that she looked for Abby for months before she had to give up. Or better yet, she can tell him that she found her, tortured her so she could feel what Joel had felt and then she killed her and spat on her corpse as her friend had done to Joel.

But she can’t tell him that. She doesn’t want to lie anymore and Tommy deserves to know the truth.

So Ellie says, “I did.” Tommy’s eyes immediately light up with hope. “I found her. She was taken by a group of slavers, they kept her there for months.”

Tommy smiles at the words and it makes Ellie’s stomach twist uncomfortably.

“I found out that she had tried to escape and they had tied her to something they called 'the pillars'. I had a hard time finding her, she looked so different. Her hair was cut and she had lost a lot of weight. I cut her down from the pillar she was tied to.” Ellie tries her best to just tell the story and not go back to that place.

Tommy looks at her intensely, waiting for the ending of the story. Now is the time she’s about to disappoint him and she can’t bear to look at him. She drops her eyes to her fiddling hands in her lap.

“I was so lost in my own head that I couldn’t do anything. I watched her untie this kid and she picked him up and walked away. I could only follow. She led me to two boats and placed the kid in one and that’s when I broke out of my own head. I attacked her and she refused to fight back so I held my switchblade to the kids throat and forced her to fight.” Her voice cracks at this point so clears her throat and continues, “Anyway, I ended up holding her head underwater and then she somehow got ahold of my fingers and she bit them off.” Ellie's thumb goes over the edges of her missing fingers. “Then I pushed her head back underwater.”

Ellie looks up now. Tommy's clinging to every word, his eyes shine and he’s breathing heavy as if he’s experiencing it with her.

“You drowned her,” he concludes.

“I- no, I didn’t.” I couldn’t. “I let her go.”

“What?” Tommy asks. “This isn’t the time for jokes.” He looks like his waiting for the punchline of one of Ellie’s stupid jokes.

“I’m not kidding. I let her go.”

“Why?” Tommy yells, he stands up from the chair so suddenly that it’s sent crushing to the floor. The sounds makes Ellie jump. “When you close your eyes do you not see Joel’s bloodied head? Do you not hear him scream when you’re trying to sleep?”

“I do,” her voice is quiet, she can’t bear looking at him.

“Then why did you let her live?”

“Because I couldn’t do it. Okay?” Ellie’s voice raises just a little bit. “I had just held a knife to the throat of an unconscious child. I just couldn’t fucking do it and be okay with myself!”

She couldn’t add taking away this kids last chance of survival to the already endless list of fucked up things she’s done. He couldn’t have survived on his own, there was no way. And she couldn’t kill Abby like that, it felt sadistic and it made her feel sick to even think about it.

“You mean the throat of the child that shot me and made me a cripple? The child that shot Dina? That child?”

Ellie looks away. “What’s the point of it all if by the end I became as bad she is?”

Tommy’s face scrunches up in disgust. “Joel would be so disappointed in you! He did everything for you and you couldn’t do this one fucking thing!” he spits out every word with burning vitriol. The fact that he’s right make the words hurt even more.

“Tommy, you need to let go,” Ellie tries. She wants to help him. “You can’t hold onto this anger forever. It will burn you up from inside. You can make it up to Maria and you can return to having a normal life. Please.”

“I could’ve had a normal life if you had killed the fucking bitch!” Tommy screams.

At this moment Maria bursts through the door. “That’s enough!” She walks up to Tommy and tries to push him back toward the door. “Leave her alone.”

“You disrespect Joel, Ellie, you’re a fucking coward,” he continues, but let’s Maria push him away. “If he knew how you would’ve turned out he wouldn’t have bothered with you.” He’s out the door now, he spits out his last words to her, “You’re a disgrace.”

Maria closes the door behind them and Ellie curls up on her bed, she can hear them argue outside, their voices progressively getting quieter. She only lets the tears flow when she can’t hear them anymore.

She feels broken and yet somehow lighter too.

---

After her conversation with Tommy Ellie decides that she should talk with Dina too. It takes her three days to get the nerve to visit the other girl.

She wants to apologize before she leaves. That’s the least she can do. And this is her last chance to do it. She should give closure to Dina too, she owes her that much.

Ellie decides to go to the place where Dina used to live before. She’s pretty sure that Dina wouldn’t be living there anymore because that place was almost as small as Ellie’s, the only difference being that it had a small kitchen too.

Ellie had used to visit Dina with the excuse of wanting homemade food. That wasn’t really the case as Dina used to be a pretty terrible cook back then and Ellie had just wanted to spend more time with her. Dina's cooking skills had thankfully vastly improved since they had moved to the farm. That was good because Ellie’s cooking was on par with Joel’s and her biggest accomplishment in the kitchen was slightly burned toast and if they had to depend on her cooking it would’ve been a disaster.

Ellie decides to go there anyway, she heads out at about 7pm. She supposes that if Dina’s working she would be back home by then.

Ellie doesn’t have to try and avoid the more packed streets because Dina’s place is on the edge of town and there aren’t many people there anyway. When Ellie reaches it, it looks like no one is home, all the lights are off and no sound comes out.

Ellie walks up to a window, curtains cover them and Ellie tries to peak through unsuccessfully. She's sure she looks like some creep so she quickly scans her surroundings to make sure no one is nearby. Thankfully no one is.

Ellie steels herself, takes a calming breath and knocks on the front door.

When no one opens she's surprised to feel relief. Ellie shakes her head at herself, she’s just wasting time. Purposefully and yet somehow unconsciously.

She decides that her best course of action is to find Maria and inquire about Dina’s whereabouts.

Ellie’s next destination is the town hall. She’s not sure about Maria's schedule, but she gets the hunch that she would still be working and if she’s not Ellie will visit her house next.

When Ellie arrives she’s told to wait. It's already taking her a lot of time and Ellie worries that by the time she finds Dina it would be very late and she would be intruding.

After about 15 minutes Maria comes out to find her, a warm, welcoming smile on her face. “Hey, Ellie.”

Ellie stands up from the chair she had been sitting on. “Uh, hi.”

“I hope you don’t mind if we talk on the way out?”

“Yeah, yeah sure,” Ellie says and she holds the door open for Maria so they can step outside. “I wanted to ask you something if that’s okay?”

“I’m all ears,” Maria says as she’s walking in presumably the direction of her house.

“I was wondering if you knew where Dina lives now?” Ellie asks, she feels awkward doing so.

Maria is the person that arranges people’s housing so it’s a given that she knows.

“Oh, of course!” Maria says, a bit too much of an excitement in her voice. “I’m glad you girls are finally going to talk.”

Then she explains in detail exactly where the house is located and how it looks like. Apparently it’s a two story white building with a porch and a small backyard surrounded by a light blue fence.

“I wanted to apologize about what happened with Tommy the other day,” Maria says after. “He had no right to do or say any of those things.”

“It’s okay,” Ellie says. “It’s not your fault. It’s not like you’re in charge of Tommy. Also I kinda deserved that.”

At that Maria suddenly stops and faces Ellie, placing a hand on her shoulder to stop her. “You did not deserve any of that, Ellie. Do you hear me?”

“Yeah,” Ellie says, but she doesn’t really mean it.

“Good.” Maria pats her shoulder and drops her hand.

“I also wanted to talk to you about something else,” Ellie tries to change the subject of the conversation.

“What’s on your mind?” Maria asks and continues walking, Ellie following after.

“I feel a lot better,” Ellie begins. “I think I can leave by tomorrow.”

“Let’s talk about this a bit more before you make that decision. I really think that’s it’s best if you stay here.”

“I’ve already made up my mind. I’m ready to leave.” The sun has already completely set and the only thing illuminating the now empty streets are the lights set up around the town. “Maria, I really gotta run if I want to talk with Dina.”

“Okay, but we talk about this tomorrow, before you make such hasty decisions.”

“Sure,” Ellie says and then waves Maria a goodbye as their paths separate.

Her heart beats fast in her chest as she gets closer and closer to Dina’s house. It doesn’t beat with the usual anxiousness and fear, but instead with nervousness. It somehow feels nice.

Dina has every right to slam the door in her face and to never talk to her again, but Ellie knows her and she doesn’t think that that will happen. At least seeing her one last time is good enough. Ellie has longed to hear her voice too.

Ellie reaches what has to be the right house and she stops frozen in front of the door, her hand extended in front of her. The lights are on this time and the house is peacefully quiet.

Ellie knocks.

“Coming!” comes Dina’s voice from the other side of the door.

Ellie feels like she’s about to die. This was a mistake.

In a moment, before Ellie has the chance to run away, Dina opens the door.

“Hi,” Ellie stutters out.

Dina looks just as ethereal as ever, her hair in pulled up in a bun and she’s dressed in a simple patterned button up shirt and a pair of added blue jeans.

As soon as she sees Ellie her usual easy smile drops and her lips pursue, her face devoid of any emotion. “What do you want,” she asks, her hand on the frame of the door, ready to close it at any given moment.

“I was wondering if we can talk?” Ellie keeps her left hand behind herself, she knows that there is no point in keeping it hidden anymore, but something in her, maybe shame, pushes her to do it.

“What do you want to talk about?” Dina asks in a way that Ellie isn’t used to hear directed at her. She’s sudden and sounds annoyed and maybe bored, like she want to get rid of Ellie as quickly as possible.

“Just about stuff, you know, I want to apologize,” Ellie rambles.

“Well?” Dina closes the door just a little bit more. “Go one.”

“Oh.” Ellie shuffles a little bit. “I was hoping I could come in.”

“That’s not gonna happen,” Dina says, she glances back inside the house probably keeping an eye on JJ.

“I was hoping to see our baby too. If that’s alright?” Ellie tries to peek inside as inconspicuously as possible. He’s probably grown so much.

“Ellie,” Dina sighs. “You lost the right to call him that when you left us. He’s not your baby anymore.”

“Oh, right. Of course.” Ellie’s cheeks redden at that and she shuffles on her feet again. “It just slipped out,” Ellie tries to explain herself. Dina looks angry now and Ellie's starting to feel bad.

She has lost them both.

Dina doesn’t say anything after that, she just waits. The door closing just a little bit more. Her time is running out.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry for leaving. I’m sorry for everything, for keeping you up every night because of my nightmares, for making JJ cry whenever I had a panic attack. I’m so sorry, Dina,” Ellie gets all of it out in one breath, trying not to waste any precious time. Her eyes dart over Dina’s face, looking for anything.

‘I love you and JJ so much and I want you to forgive me for leaving. I want you to forgive me for all the terrible things I’ve done.’ Ellie want to tell this to Dina, she wants to scream it. But she can’t, she doesn’t deserve forgiveness.

“Why now?” There is something in Dina’s eyes now, something that twinkles. Maybe hope? “You had two weeks to come here so why now?”

“I’m leaving tomorrow,” Ellie states simply. And just like that the spark in Dina’s eyes fades.

Dina laughs, but it’s humorless and cold. “Okay.”

“Okay?”

“You come here to apologize only to leave. Again,” Dina accuses her. “What do you want from me? Do you want me to beg you to stay, because I won’t do that again.”

“No, I didn’t come here for that.” Then there is a high pitched cry coming from inside the house. It must be JJ. Dina turns to look inside again and this time the door is slammed in her face. “I just wanted to say sorry,” Ellie says to no one in particular, not getting the chance to explain herself.

Ellie stares at the door until the baby’s cries get quieter and quieter and then completely stop.

She leaves then, wandering through the streets of Jackson, trying to keep her tears in. She only returns to her place when her feet have gone numb from the exertion and the cold.

She only gets a couple of hours of sleep before the sun raises.

After her conversation with Tommy she had felt better and she thought that talking with Dina would accomplish the same.

It didn’t.

Now Ellie's sure that she has to leave. There is nothing here for her anymore and she doesn’t want to hurt the people she loves anymore than she already has.

Chapter Text

Ellie leaves.

The first thing she does the morning after she talks with Dina is look for Maria. She had promised to talk with her before leaving and after all she couldn’t leave without getting the go ahead from her. The gates to the town open only when Maria says so.

Maria spent a lot of time trying to convince Ellie that she shouldn’t leave, but in the end when Ellie wouldn’t budge Maria asked her to at least go to the farm. Ellie had agreed. She wasn’t sure if that was a lie or not. The farm held way too many memories that Ellie once cherished, but would now just remind her of what she could never have again.

Maria had also insisted she go out with the next patrol because the surrounding areas of the town were just getting more and more dangerous.

So that’s why Ellie now sits on a crate near the gates of the town, her backpack is filled with supplies, food and a pistol that Maria had also insisted she take. The backpack is heavy, weighting Ellie down. It reminds her of her time in Seattle and Santa Barbara.

Ellie sits and she waits. The patrol is soon to head out. She plays with her switchblade absentmindedly as she stares at the gates. This would be the last time she’s seeing them.

Sure enough, two riders leading a third horse stop in front of her. Cat and Robert.

Just her fucking luck.

Ellie stands up quickly, pushing the blade of her switchblade into the handle and tucking it in her jeans pocket. “I suppose I’m heading out with you guys?”

“You are,” Robert says, he jumps off his horse, holding the reigns of the third horse in hand. He pats the animal and hands the reins to Ellie. “Maria is giving you this one so you can return home faster when you’re ready.”

“I’m not returning so I didn’t need the horse,” Ellie tries, she already knows that it’s a losing battle. Maria is doing too much for her.

“You say that now, but when you change your mind you’ll be grateful.” Robert drops the reins when Ellie doesn’t take them and he returns to his horse. “Let’s go!”

Ellie hesitantly takes the reins and mounts the horse. “What’s his name?” Ellie asks, keeping pace with the other two.

“Snow,” Robert calls out.

It makes sense, his coat is a beautiful white, little black specks cover his rear legs. She pats him and says quietly, “Hi there, Snow.”

Ellie still misses Shimmer.

She guesses Snow will be her new friend from now on. Maybe it isn’t such a bad thing that Maria’s giving him to her. He can keep her company.

The gates open before them and the guys on watch yell after their retreating forms, “Good luck and stay safe, guys!”

They ride through the clearing around the town and Ellie chances one last look back as they ride out of sight of the town. She has left those gates countless times, this is the last time.

Ellie turns back around, keeping her eyes steadily on the horizon. They ride mostly in silence with Robert trying to strike up conversations every once in a while. Ellie tries to do the polite thing and keep a conversation going, but in the end her replies end up being short and curt so she slows her horse down and rides a bit behind them instead.

After a long silence after they have entered the forest Cat falls back as well, riding shoulder to shoulder with Ellie. “Why are you leaving?” she asks. She’s always been straight to the point, no chit-chat.

Ellie ponders the question. The truth is too long and complicated to explain. “It just feels right,” she settles on and that’s not exactly a lie so it’s good enough for an answer.

Cat had been unusually silent until now, almost not acknowledging Ellie’s presence beyond a simple nod in her direction when they first met up at the gates. Their romantic relationship had ended in a mutually agreed on breakup. Or at least that’s what they had called it, Ellie knows she hurt Cat, but they had stayed friends. She used to be Ellie’s only other real friend other than Jesse and Dina. With Jesse gone and Dina hating her, she has no one other than her.

Cat slows down a bit more, Ellie follows her lead until Robert is out of hearing range. “I know you well, Ellie, maybe a little bit too well and I can see what you’re doing.”

Cat doesn’t know her anymore. No one does. “Well, what am I doing?” Ellie asks harshly. She is tired of people messing in her life, even if they mean well.

“I don’t know if you know this, but Tommy has been having drinking problems for a while now, maybe half a year.” Half a year, that’s around the time when Ellie went to Santa Barbara. “He spends a lot of time in the bars, drinking until he’s blackout drunk, talking about his problems to anyone who will listen,” Cat says and Ellie waits for it to make sense. “The last couple of days rumors started to spread through town.” Cat pauses, then looks at Ellie. “Rumors about you, started by him.”

“Oh,” is all Ellie says. She already knows what it’s about so she’s not going to ask. He’s been telling them Ellie’s story about Santa Barbara.

“I don’t know what’s true and what’s not. You know how rumors spread in town.”

Life in Jackson was pretty boring and people’s favorite kind of entertainment was gossiping. Stories often changed as people added in their own details. The more the stories traveled, the more 'entertaining' they become.

“Fucking Tommy,” Ellie mutters to herself.

“I know what you’re doing,” Cat continues. “You’re trying to punish yourself or get yourself killed. You don’t deserve that, Ellie.”

Ellie laughs humorlessly. The only thing she deserves is to rot alone in the forest. “If you knew about the things I’ve done you wouldn’t be saying that.”

“So tell me, go ahead. We’ve all done terrible things to survive, but that’s just how the world is now so get over yourself.” Ellie had forgotten how 'I'm not taking any of your bullshit' Cat was. “If you don’t come back, I guess I’ll have to save your ass again someday.”

“You don’t understand.”

“So help me then.”

Before Ellie can decide whether she wants to confide in Cat or just say something sarcastic, something rolls up on the ground in front of their horses. Ellie’s eyes follow it. And then another one and another one flies in from the tree line landing around the horses. And then they explode, coating the area in thick smoke that makes it impossible to see.

Smoke bombs.

Ellie coughs, the smoke entering her lungs makes her throat burn when she tries to breathe. Her horse rears up and sends Ellie crushing on the uneven ground. Rocks dig into her back and the pain causes her vision to darken around the corners. Her last breath is pushed out of her lungs and just as the smoke begins to clear out Ellie can see people rushing out of bushes and from behind trees.

They are being ambushed.

Ellie stands up quickly and a bit unsteady. She can see that Cat is still on her horse, pulling out her rifle to aim, but before she can shoot a gunshots rings and blood bursts form her horse’s neck. The animal lets out a sorrowful shriek before collapsing to the ground. Cat somehow manages to jump off the horse before he can crash her, dropping her rifle in the progress.

Robert is already on the ground, taking cover behind a tree while his horse runs away down the path, Ellie’s horse close behind.

A man, twice Ellie’s size jumps out from behind a tree and attempts to tackle Ellie. Ellie easily dodges him, pulling back her fist and striking him in the stomach hard enough that he grunts and doubles over. Ellie punches him again, this time in the face and dodges his next clumsy strike. He is left stumbling forward with Ellie behind him, she kicks him behind the knee and he drops to the ground.

Ellie walks up in front of him, he's on his hands and knees. Ellie knees him in the face, making him fall on his back. Gunshots ring around her and the hunter is already standing up so she gets on top of him and hits him in the face again and again. His nose is bloody, blood running down his face and each hit smears that sticky, warm blood across Ellie’s knuckles.

Suddenly she can feel waves lapping at her waist, the cold water soaking her to her bones. And then it’s Abby’s face that’s beneath her, she’s fighting for her life, trying to get above the surface of the water to take a breath. And then she bites on Ellie’s fingers, the pain makes Ellie’s eyes water and she screams in agony.

Ellie watches her own fingers fall in the water in horror.

She’s pulled back from the flashback when a fist connects with her jaw and then again and again. Now Ellie is the one pressed into the ground and the hunter is the one pummeling her face. After a particularly hard hit against her cheekbone, the hunter takes a few seconds to regain his balance. That gives Ellie enough time to spot the pistol on the ground next to her.

It’s right next to her backpack which must have fallen off the horse.

Ellie reaches for the gun and miraculously it’s close enough that she can grab it. She brings it to the hunter’s forehead and his eyes widen in realization of what’s next.

Ellie looks him dead in the eye, her vision is blurry from the tears that have apparently been flowing from her eyes and soaking her hairline.

Ellie’s hand shakes and she can’t pull the trigger.

The hunter breaks out of his daze and knocks the pistol out of her hand. He picks it up and hits her with the handle until Ellie’s vision fades.

---

Ellie wakes up.

She can taste blood in the back of her throat and when she tries to move her hands, she feels rough material rub at the skin on her wrists. Her back presses into the bark of a tree, and she realizes she’s tied to it. Her hands are behind her back and around the tree.

There is chatter around her and the sound of flowing water. She opens her eyes. Or eye, her left one is swollen shut.

It's dark out now, two men argue a couple of trees away from her. Ellie moves very slowly, trying to listen to their conversation without alerting anyone to the fact that she’s awake.

She focuses and listens.

“This is all your fault,” the man in a faded red hoodie says. “Joe and William will bleed out if we don’t get medical supplies soon. All because of your fucking ‘perfect’ plan.” The man puts air quotes around the word.

The other man with slicked back dark hair replies, “It was either this or starve during winter. We sacrificed the few to the save the many.” If Ellie has to guess that man is their leader.

The man in the hoodie laughs. “The few? Joe and William are shot and Zack is beaten to a pulp. How are we going to trade the hostages with just 4 healthy people?”

“Are you questioning me?” The leader closes in on the other guy. “Because if I remember correctly just this morning you were all for the plan.”

“Fine, but if we all die it’s gonna be your fault.” The guy with the hoodie begins to walk away then.

“I don’t know about you, but I prefer to die fighting, rather than to spend the winter freezing my ass off in some broken down house eating rats.” he yells after him.

“It’s not like you’re the one fighting, is it?” the hoodie guy grumbles as he walks away, Ellie only hears him because he’s heading her way.

She quickly shuts her eye and hopes he doesn’t notice her. After that she listens to them prepare to bed down for the night. They leave one guy to watch over Ellie, Cat and Robert.

The night is restless. The quiet is filled with the moans and whimpers of the shot men and the others yelling at them to shut up.

At one point the guy that’s supposed to watch them nods off. Ellie takes this opportunity to search for Cat and Robert. She twists to look behind herself and sure enough they are tied to two trees behind her. It’s dark, but Ellie tries her best to scan them from injuries. It looks like there is blood running down both of their faces, but Ellie can’t spot any other serious injuries.

Ellie can’t feel the switchblade in her back pocket. Even if she did, she doesn’t know if she would’ve been able to reach it. So she spends the rest of the night trying to thin the rope by rubbing it against the bark of the tree. It hurts a lot, but this is her fault so she’s going to get them out.

---

At some point before dawn Ellie can hear shuffling from behind her. When she turns around, she can see that Cat is awake.

“Rob, Robert,” Cat whispers, when there is no response, she attempts to kick him with the toe of her boot, he’s too far away. It looks like the idiot hunters are at least smart enough to tie them far away from each other. Or it’s just a coincidence. “For fucks sake.”

“Cat,” Ellie whispers, attempting to catch her attention. “Are you okay?”

Cat turns toward Ellie. There is relief in the way her shoulders drop. “I’m as good as I can be when tied to a tree. You look like shit though.”

Ellie ignores that, of course she looks like shit, the entire left side of her face is probably swollen and bruised. “Is Robert okay?”

“I don’t know, but judging by the fact that his tied to a tree then I think he’s at least still alive.”

“They want to trade us for supplies so I don’t think that they will kill us,” Ellie explains.

“So first the infected and now hunters too. This is perfect.” Cat closes her eyes and lets her head fall back against the tree.

“There are just seven guys and three of them are injured.” Ellie then explains quickly what she had heard during the conversation of those two hunters. “I think that if we free ourselves, we can handle them?” Three against four. The odds sound pretty good to Ellie.

“I don’t know, Ellie. These ropes seem pretty sturdy.”

“I’ve got this,” Ellie says and continues to rub the rope against the bark. She thinks that it’s starting to fray, but her wrists feel like they're on fire. “I got us in this and I’m getting us out.”

“Let’s say you do free yourself. How are you going to then untie us both without a knife and without anyone noticing?” Cat questions. “Or do you plan to just deal with all of them by yourself?”

Ellie isn’t sure that she could kill them all or even kill just one. After she failed at shooting the hunter earlier that day, she’s not sure about anything.

“Well, do you have a better plan?”

“Yes,” Cat says. “We wait.”

“I can’t wait,” Ellie counters and begins to work away at the rope more furiously.

“If what you’re saying is true, our chances of survival are very high, but if you try to escape and they catch you then they will kill you. Drop whatever this is and wait.”

“Well, maybe if you hadn’t saved me then we wouldn’t be in this position!” Ellie angrily whisper yells. She doesn’t know what possesses her to say that.

“Do you not realize that we would’ve still taken this route even if you weren’t with us,” Cat whisper yells back. “Not everything is about you, Ellie! Get that through your thick skull.”

Ellie huffs. “Fuck you!”

Cat huffs back, probably rolls her eyes. “Now, shut up before we attract their attention.”

Ellie shuts up, silently fuming. They don’t talk after that and after some time Robert wakes up too. Ellie listens to Cat and him have a hushed conversation. She doesn’t catch everything, but she knows that Cat's explaining their current situation.

Ellie’s still trying to fray the rope. She’s sure that Cat can see her, but she doesn’t say anything.

The sun rises and with it so do the hunters. One of them wakes up first and he kicks the other ones awake. When they see that the guy that was supposed to watch them is asleep, they yell at him and push him off the log he’s sitting on.

“You’re lucky they are still tied to the fucking trees!” the leader yells.

They go through Ellie's backpack taking out the supplies and splitting the food between themselves. “I can’t believe the other two horses ran away.” They talk, then take care of the injured. At one point the leader guy walks up to them. He calls over the guy that’s still wearing his red hoodie from yesterday.

“Take one of them and lead them to the town to negotiate,” the leader says.

“Why me?” The hoodie guy sounds scared. “What if they shoot me?”

“They aren’t gonna shoot you, Luke.” He puts his hand on the red hoodie guy's – Luke’s shoulder and he says, “You’re gonna take one of these fuckers as a hostage and then you tell them that if they shoot you, we’ll shoot the other two.”

Luke nods a bit hesitantly. “Which one do I take?”

“Take the skinny chick. Zack says she had the chance to shoot him, but she couldn’t do it,” another guy quips. “She’s harmless.” Ellie’s blood boils at the words.

Luke walks up behind the tree, taking out Ellie’s switchblade from his pocket.

Motherfucker.

“Holy shit.” He cuts the rope and lifts Ellie up by her elbow, Ellie’s entire body screams out in pain. “Look at her wrists. She has been trying to escape.”

He’s distracted and Ellie uses the opportunity to elbow him in the stomach. He bends over in pain and Ellie swipes his feet from under him. She dives down to take her switchblade, but one of the hunters kicks the knife out of her grasp.

They press her face against the dirt and tie her hands behind her back. Someone kicks her in the ribs until she has a hard time breathing. She’s pretty sure she feels something crack.

“Okay, that’s enough. She has to be able to walk.”

They lift her up by her arms again and their leader is a few feet in front of her. “You just lead him.” He points at the guy on her right. “Through the shortest and safest path to your town. Don’t try anything because we will shoot your friends.” He smiles. “Just walk back home, easy as that.”

Ellie spits blood at his feet.

He grimaces at that and walks away.

“Ellie, do as he’s saying,” Cat says from behind her as they walk Ellie out of their camp.

---

Ellie walks through the forest quietly. The Luke guy is keeping his distance behind her and she knows his holding a pistol.

She could wait for an opportunity to attack him or create one herself. She could pretend to trip on a root or a rock and wait for him to get close before she attacks. She thinks that she can take him, but she doesn’t want to risk it.

Ellie’s entire body hurts, her back from the fall off the horse, her face is swollen and she’s seeing a bit blurry because of her swollen shut eye. Now her ribs hurt too, she has trouble breathing. The rope is tied too tightly around her wrists and each slight movement burns her skin.

Ellie takes the shortest and safest path, just as she was told. Soon they’re about to enter the clearing around Jackson.

Luke tells her to stop at the end of the tree line. She can sense his nervousness in the way his voice shakes and the way sweat drips down his forehead even though the weather is cold and they haven’t been walking too fast.

“Don’t try anything,” he says.

He puts a hand on Ellie’s shoulder and the barrel of the pistol against the back of her head. He uses her as shield and yet he keeps his distance away from her.

They walk into the clearing. After a while Ellie’s ears ring as a shot is fired. For a short moment Ellie is very confused. The ringing in her right ear is almost deafening so it must have been shot right next to her, but she doesn’t feel dead.

Ellie ducks her head and the hunter pushes the gun back against her skull. He shot to get the attention of the people at the fence, Ellie realizes.

It seems to work as Ellie sees the gleams of scopes from the watch towers. The hunter keeps walking, pushing Ellie forward too. He cowers behind her smaller frame and Ellie knows that there are people accurate enough to blow his brains out without hurting her.

She hopes they don’t.

“Who are you?” someone yells from the watch towers, the voice is quiet because of how far they are. “What do you want?”

“We got your people!” the hunter yells back, but his hand on her shoulder is shaking. “I want to talk with whoever’s in charge!”

He stops in the middle of the clearing, not too close, but not too far either.

“You fucking idiot,” Ellie mutters.

If they had just came to Jackson in peace Maria would've given them whatever supplies the town could spare. Probably would’ve let them join the town too.

“The fuck did you say?” He pushes the pistol harder against Ellie’s head, she could probably disarm him. She doesn’t “Keep your mouth shut.”

Ellie waits. In just five minutes the gates begin to creak open, before they can open all the way three riders ride out.

It’s Maria and two of the watch tower guards holding rifles, but not aiming. Maria dismounts her horse and drops on the ground with a heavy thud of her boots. The other two men stay on their horses.

Maria’s gaze lingers for a long moment on Ellie, Ellie looks away, she’s feeling judged. “What is this?” she asks. Her eyes keep darting, from the hunter, to the gun, back to Ellie. She’s probably wondering what the hell Ellie’s done again to get herself in this situation.

“We have three of your people,” the hunter says, he’s voice is shaky now too. Ellie doesn’t understand why they sent him when he obviously can’t handle this.

“What do you want?” Her eyes scan the surrounding forest, afraid that this might be an ambush.

“We want food, water, warm clothing, medicine, we want horses,” he begins, “and we want guns, ammo.”

Ellie scoffs. That earns her a shove, his grip on her shoulder tightening to keep her in place.

“I can’t give you guns, everything else can be arranged,” Maria explains to him.

“If you don’t give us what we want we'll shoot up the hostages,” he threatens to kill so easily.

Maybe it’s better that they didn’t come to Jackson peacefully. Ellie would hate for such people to join their town.

“They’re just seven people, three of them are injur-“ Ellie says as fast as she can, not getting to finish her sentence as the butt of the pistol connects with the side of her head.

Ellie loses her balance, tumbling to the ground. Her vision darkens around the corners for a moment. Ellie very faintly hears clicks as the safety switches on multiple guns are turned off. The fall knocks the air out of her already bruised ribs.

“Don’t do that,” Maria warns the hunter, she lifts a hand up in a 'wait' gesture to tell the guards to not fire.

“Fuck,” Ellie groans, her mouth filling up with blood. Ellie spits it out, the blood soaking into dirt.

“If you shoot me the other two die,” the hunter threatens again. Ellie's tired of listening to his bullshit.

“No one is shooting,” Maria placates. “Just don’t hit her.”

“I wouldn’t have had to hit her if she kept her fucking mouth shut!” he yells. He grabs Ellie by the jacket and hoists her up, once again cowering behind her.

He cuts the rope around Ellie’s wrists. “Bring us the supplies tomorrow, on the location marked on this map.” He waves a map around and then pushes it in Ellie’s hands, still keeping his distance from her. “Or if you don’t, I guess she can lose a couple more fingers, no?”

Ellie bites the inside of her cheek to stop herself from saying anything. She’s probably biting hard enough to draw blood but because she can still taste copper she couldn’t tell.

“Give her the map,” the hunter orders, his pistol still aimed at Ellie. “No sudden movements.”

Ellie begins to walk, stumbling on the first steps. She reaches her hand to the side of her head where he had hit her. When she retracts her fingers, they’re covered with blood.

She has to walk for a bit until she reaches Maria so she looks over the map. It’s of Jackson’s surroundings, the landmarks familiar to Ellie. There is a black, thick circle drawn in sharpie around an old farm Ellie was once tasked with clearing out of infected.

Ellie tries to pinpoint where the hunters had set camp. She remembers hearing water and she’s sure that she's gone on patrols in this area. She presses her still bloody fingertip in the area where she thinks the camp is and hopes that Maria understands.

The hunters didn’t keep good watch during the night and Ellie’s sure that if a couple people attacked during the night no one from their side would get harmed.

When Ellie reaches Maria, her finger lingers on the spot she marked as she hands it to Maria. She hopes that Maria will notice, but her eyes are too focused on Ellie. She gives her a once over, her eyes lingering on Ellie’s raw and bloodied wrists and on her face. Ellie’s most visible injuries.

Her brow furrows and her lips pursue. Ellie’s sure that Maria wants to say something, but she keeps quite to not anger the hunter.

Ellie tries to give her a smile as if to say that she’s okay. She doesn’t know if that works either.

Ellie walks back slowly again, stopping a few feet away from the hunter.

“Are the other two okay?” Maria asks. The hunter responds in agreement. “Make sure it stays that way or you won’t be getting anything.”

“As long as you keep your end of the deal everyone will be fine.” The hunter begins to slowly step away, still facing the town. He gestures with his gun for Ellie to follow. “Don’t follow us or they all die.”

He keeps repeating that and it makes Ellie’s blood boil. She wishes she could do something, but she doesn’t want to put anyone’s life in danger.

Now that her hands are free, she loosens the cut rope from around her wrists. Her skin burns as it rubs against her raw skin, as she takes it off. As soon as the two cut pieces drop to the ground, she immediately feels a little bit better.

The hunter keeps walking backwards, stumbling every few steps. He only turns around once they enter the forest, he orders Ellie to the front and makes her lead him back to the camp. Ellie wonders if he’s forgotten the way.

He doesn’t tie her hands back up and she’s grateful for at least that. He’s probably scared of getting too close to her.

Ellie’s head spins as she walks, constantly losing her balance. The hit to her head must’ve been really hard.

They eventually make it back to the camp. It takes them the rest of the day to return. The other hunters welcome back their friend anxiously, asking every question about how the negotiations had gone.

Ellie quickly gets tied back to her tree. They tie her better this time, not wanting to chance her trying to escape again. They loop ropes around her shoulders and chest too.

Her friends look happy to see her okay. “I’m glad that at least once in your life you didn’t do something stupid, Ellie,” Cat tells her. It’s more of an insult than a compliment, but that’s how it’s always been with her.

“Yeah,” she responds.

The hunters cook whatever they've hunted during the day. They eat that and the rest of the food that had been in Ellie’s backpack and the saddlebags of the horse they killed. They don’t give anything to their hostages. Not even water.

Ellie’s used to it so it doesn’t bother her too much, even though her mouth is as dry as it gets. The coppery taste of blood persistent on her tongue. Her head feels like it will crack open from the pain, giving her terrible nausea. She couldn’t eat even if she wanted to.

But Robert and Cat don’t look as good though. Hopefully this entire thing is resolved before they all starve.

At one-point, Ellie hears them talk about how the two shot men have died. Some of the hunters want revenge, the only thing stopping them is their leader. Apparently the only one that knows what his doing.

Ellie can’t try to escape anymore so she leans her head against the rough bark of the tree and closes her eyes. She falls asleep soon, too exhausted from the trip to town and back, and the entire sleepless night.

---

Ellie wakes up to someone gently patting her cheek awake. She opens her eyes, the left one now slightly less swollen, making it possible for her to see less blurry. It's Cat, crouching in front of her, holding a knife. Ellie scans their surroundings, seeing a few more people she recognizes from Jackson.

Maria’s gotten her clue.

Robert has been cut down too, it looks like he trips over something, falling onto the ground. The sound he makes as he drops to the ground is not loud, but it’s not quiet either and Ellie quickly looks toward the hunters. The guy that’s supposed to be keeping watch stirs awake, the moon light illuminates his face, his eyes widening in surprise and then in fear. He jumps to his feet and screams. He ducks behind the tree he had been slumping against and then all hell breaks loose.

Cat urges Ellie back behind a tree. Gunshots ring all around her as she hides. She’s glad that she doesn’t have a gun because she’s not sure she can use it.

Ellie watches in horror as Robert is shot in the leg. Cat immediately jumping out of cover to drag him out of sight. Nothing hits them.

The gunfight stretches on to what feels like an eternity. Finally, Ellie hears the hunters yell that they should retreat. Some of the rescue team go after them, two of them stay with Ellie, Robert and Cat.

---

Ellie gets up on a horse with Cat. Robert with one guy whose name Ellie just can’t remember.

The horse jostles her as he gallops, making her want to throw up.

Ellie passes out on the way back to Jackson.

Chapter Text

Ellie wakes up in her bed in Jackson.

She’s never been so grateful for that. Maria had wanted to send her to the hospital instead. Ellie had argued that she didn’t need to stay in there, she only had a concussion and a couple of broken ribs. She’s had much worse.

Maria had somehow agreed, letting her go back to her own place after a very long visit to the doctor that was definitely unnecessary.

Ellie stretches, raising her arms above her head. That’s a mistake as her chest expands with a deep inhale that hurts her cracked ribs. She groans in pain and clutches at her side.

“Fucking shit,” Ellie grumbles. She opens her eyes, ready for a new day of being stuck in this room.

Ellie's heart skips a beat when she sees Dina sitting in a chair next to her bed. She would rub at her eyes to make sure she’s not dreaming, but that would hurt way too much.

Instead Ellie frowns, her mouth opening and then closing. She doesn’t know what to say. Has Dina been here a while? Did she watch Ellie sleep? Is she even real?

“Uh, hi?”

Dina doesn’t respond, her mouth opens, then she thinks better of what she wanted to say and pursues her lips.

Ellie feels like she’s in some weird dream or an alternate reality because this just doesn’t make any sense. She has to say something so of course the stupidest fucking thing slips past her lips. “How can I help you?” Ellie cringes at herself.

Real fucking smooth.

Ellie hasn’t felt this awkward and self conscious in front of Dina in a long time. She’s not sure why Dina’s here. After their last conversation Ellie was sure that Dina wouldn’t ever want to speak with her or see her.

“Hey,” Dina finally says and Ellie let’s out a sigh of relief. Her eyes are hard on Ellie and yet somehow uncertain.

“I’m very confused right now,” Ellie admits, she pulls her blanket up as she sits up, covering herself. She’s wearing just a tank top and she doesn’t know why, but Dina seeing her like this doesn’t feel right.

She keeps her left hand beneath the blanket.

“You slept in,” Dina remarks. “That’s unusual.”

“Uh, I guess.” Ellie glances at the clock on her bedside table. It’s 8:34 am. She did oversleep.

Probably because of the concussion.

Ellie fidgets with a loose strand on her blanket and she waits for Dina to say something. She doesn’t dare to look at Dina and instead her gaze locks on her fidgeting fingers.

“So, you did leave.” Dina states.

“I did.”

“But you’re back.”

“Yes.”

“Because of the hunter attack.”

Ellie nods, bringing her knees up to her chest.

“Are you going to leave again?” Dina asks her, her voice shakes a little bit. Ellie’s sure it wouldn’t be noticeable to anyone but her.

“Two of the hunters ran away and they’re still somewhere in the woods.” One of them taking Ellie’s knife with him. Thankfully at least her backpack has been retrieved, the pin Joel had given her on her birthday still with Ellie. “So I can’t exactly leave right now, but I will leave as soon as I can,” Ellie reassures her, she chances a glance at Dina, the other girls gaze is also locked in her lap.

Maria won’t let her go while there is danger outside the fence. Ellie could sneak out of town and then try to sneak out to the forest without anyone of the guards seeing, but to be completely honest she’s tired and she’s in a lot of pain.

“You’re hurt.”

“I’ve had worse,” Ellie forces out a laugh, trying to lighten up the mood.

Dina doesn’t even smile.

Dina stands up from the chair, she looks at Ellie. Tears shine in her eyes that Ellie whishes she couldn’t see. “If that’s how you want it to be then fine. Goodbye,” she says, but doesn’t move any further. She stands there, frozen in place and stares Ellie down.

Ellie stares back. She doesn’t know what to say, what to do. She just wants to the right thing, but she doesn’t know what that is. She’s so scared that by staying she’ll hurt Dina again. She’s scared that by staying she’ll lie to Dina about who she’s become.

Is that what Dina wants from her? To stay?

“Why do you want to leave?” Dina asks, no, begs. “She’s dead.”

“She’s not dead,” Ellie corrects her.

“So you’re going after her again?” A single tear rolls down Dina’s cheek and Ellie looks away again. She doesn’t want to hurt Dina anymore and yet she keeps doing it. The only way Ellie’s sure she won’t her hurt her is by leaving.

“No,” Ellie whispers, tears forming in her own eyes. Ellie takes a deep breath to calm herself. It only makes her wince when her chest expands too much.

“Then why are you leaving?”

“Because I have to,” is all Ellie offers her. She blinks slowly and tries to keep the tears at bay.

“What do you mean?” Dina demands. She takes a very small, hesitant step forward.

Ellie just shrugs. The loose piece of the blanket she had been playing with tears out.

“Talk to me, Ellie, for one fucking time in your life.”

Ellie looks up now that she has nothing to fidget with. Dina’s hands are fisted at her sides, her eyes fierce and Ellie once again remembers why she loves the other girl so much.

Dina won’t give up.

“If I tell you, you would hate me,” she admits her biggest secret, her biggest fear for the first time out loud.

Dina keeps looking at her, resilient. Another angry tear rolls down her cheek. It’s left ignored. “I already hate you, El.”

The nickname paired with the words force Ellie’s heart into a painfully pang. “Oh.” Ellie wipes at the corner of her eye with the blanket, hopes Dina doesn’t notice. “You do.” She takes a shuddering breath and feels her heart shatter into a million pieces.

After a very long moment of silence Dina says, “I wish I did. Then all of this would’ve been so much easier.”

Ellie chokes down a sob, coughs to try and cover it up. “Okay.” She’s not sure which one is worse.

“Tell me why you want to leave,” Dina demands. “I deserve at least that much.”

Ellie stays quiet, chews on her bottom lip until she figures out how to say it. “Because I’m a monster,” she admits, the words a whisper.

“What?” Dina sits down next to Ellie. “You’re not a monster.” She frowns, confused.

“Dina,” Ellie begins. “I’ve told you about some of the things I’ve done and you don’t even know half of them.”

Now with Dina sitting in front of her it’s so much harder to look away. Ellie wants to reach out and touch her, hold her hand. She needs reassurance from Dina.

“Tell me.” Dina’s so sure of her words, but Ellie is scared of Dina knowing. Ellie’s sure that Dina will regret asking once Ellie tells her. She’s scared that once JJ grows up she'll tell him about Ellie and he will grow to hate her too.

Ellie hesitates, stays quiet for a long while.

“I know you tend to overthink everything so please let me be the judge of that.” Dina’s hands splay on the blanket at her sides, fingers twitching to reach out.

Ellie doesn’t know where to begin. Her entire life is comprised of terrible things that she had to do just to survive.

Ellie wants to tell her everything, she’s tired of keeping secrets. Some enforced by Joel’s cautiousness, other by her own fear of being seen as a monster.

Deep down Ellie craves the forgiveness of the girl she loves. All the other people that can grant her that are dead, either by her own hand or by Abby's. Dina is the only person hurt by Ellie who’s still alive.

Dina is a fair, honest person and if by the end of it she sees Ellie as the monster she is, Ellie will accept that.

She doesn’t know what to start with, so she starts from the beginning. “I told you about how I got bit and about how my friend got bit too,” Ellie starts with to make sure that Dina still remembers. Dina nods. “I didn’t tell you that when she turned I couldn’t shoot her. She made me promise that I would do it if she turned first and she promised to the same for me.”

She remembers how when Riley had turned she had attacked Ellie and instead of shooting, Ellie had ran away. She had clutched the pistol in her shaking hands, hiding in different stores in the mall, her heart in her throat. She had waited and waited for her own turn to lose her mind, just like Riley had said, but it never came.

The thought that Riley could still be somewhere in that mall makes her feel sick. She hopes that the FEDRA soldiers from the quarantine zone eventually decided to clear it out.

That was the first terrible thing that Ellie had ever done. The first promise she broke and her first regret.

“You shouldn’t blame yourself for that,” Dina tells her. “You were just a kid.”

Ellie isn’t sure that she would be able to do it now either and she’s not a kid anymore.

Ellie laughs humorlessly. “Well, as you know that’s not the worst I’ve done.” But it’s something that still eats away at her consciousness. It should’ve been her and not Riley. “I’ve told you about David too, but I haven’t told you about how I killed him.”

“Ellie, he deserved it,” Dina says. Her fingers twitch at her side and she moves her hand on top of Ellie’s knee, gives it a gentle squeeze. “If anything you made the world a little bit better by doing it.”

Ellie never told her about how she did it because she was terrified that Dina would think that she’s a monster. Now that Ellie has truly became one she needs Dina to understand it too, to see that Ellie doesn’t deserve to stay.

“Dina, I took his machete and I hit him in the head over and over again. I- I think it felt good in that moment.” But not the moments or years after that. All the times Ellie woke up screaming from nightmares in which David’s brain leaked to the floor of that burning building. “His- his face-“ Ellie chokes up before she can finish the sentence.

She fears that she has always been a monster and Seattle just unlocked that in her. She fears that she can still do those terrible things if pushed hard enough.

“Ellie, that’s… that’s-“

Ellie interrupts her by raising her right hand. “Don’t.”

“No, that was self defense.” Dina squeezes Ellie’s knee. Ellie doesn’t deserve that gentleness and it makes her stomach twist uncomfortably. “That doesn’t make you a monster, you were defending yourself from one.”

“Maybe not, but what I did in Seattle does.”

“No-” Dina tries.

“It does. Seattle wasn’t self defense.”

“Ellie,” Dina begins, a small, but sad smile tugging at the corners of her lips. “It might’ve been cute when you interrupted me before, but it’s not anymore.”

Ellie nods and thinks about how she’s supposed to say the next thing.

“I tortured Nora-“

This time Dina is the one to interrupt her. “You already told me that and I still think that you did what you had to. She was our last lead.”

“You weren’t there, Dina,” Ellie’s voice shakes as she speaks. She holds back her tears as good as she can, but her voice betrays her. “You didn’t hear her scream and beg for her life. You didn’t have her blood splatter all over you as you kept hitting and hitting-“

“Ellie.” Dina gently takes Ellie’s face in her hands, her thumb smoothing out the now permanent furrow in her brow. “She did that to herself by coming here to help kill Joel. You told me what kind of things she told you about him. I can’t say that I wouldn’t have done the same if I had my sister’s killers and they were saying those same things .” Her thumbs wipe away the stray tears that run down Ellie’s cheeks. And Ellie finally gives in and lets them flow freely. “You regret doing it and you wouldn’t do it again. That’s what matters.

Dina tells her the things Ellie tells herself at night so she can sleep and somehow when it’s Dina who says it, Ellie let’s herself believe it.

Dina’s hand on her cheek feels good and she lets herself lean in just a little bit. Ellie closes her eyes, two new tears sliding down her cheeks. She doesn’t understand why Dina’s doing this, why does she care about Ellie, why is she listening to her?

It doesn’t matter. Soon she will leave when she finds out about the other things that Ellie has done.

“When Jesse and I were going to the aquarium,” Ellie begins, she never told Dina about this. “We heard the wolfs talk about a sniper. Both of us knew without a doubt that they were talking about Tommy. And yet when Jesse wanted to go after him I refused, insisted that it might not be him. I knew it was him and yet I was ready to risk his life and Jesse’s so I can get my revenge.”

When Ellie finishes speaking she lets herself stare in Dina’s deep brown eyes. Ellie expects to find disgust or hatred, but she only finds disappointment.

“I was ready to let them both die so I could get to her,” Ellie repeats. “I just wasn’t thinking straight in that moment, I was so blinded by revenge. I would never have forgiven myself if anything had happened to either of them then.”

Ellie’s gaze darts between Dina’s eyes as she waits for her to say something. Her hands are warm and soft where their movement stills against Ellie’s cheeks.

“Please say something,” Ellie begs her.

“I don’t know what to say, Ellie,” Dina admits. “I have to think about it.”

“I understand.” Ellie nods. She expects Dina to pull her hands away so she doesn’t know why it hurts so much when she does. The fact that she never told Dina about that has been eating away at her ever since Seattle. “Not a day goes by where I don’t regret everything I did in Seattle.”

Dina looks away from her and Ellie clenches her jaw to stop herself from sobbing.

Ellie hesitates about continuing, she’s so scared and yet she needs to share those secrets because the weight of them is crushing her. She craves forgiveness, because maybe if she receives it then she could try to move on.

Ellie doesn’t want Dina to take her back. She knows that leaving her family was wrong and she knows that it’s wrong of her to want them to take her back as if she had done nothing.

She just whishes, craves, to be told she’s not a monster.

“When I got to the aquarium all alone, I found two of Abby’s friends instead.”

“Tommy and Jesse told me how they found you,” Dina says.

“Did they tell you that I murder them?”

“They did. They also told me that you were crying on the way back, repeating that they attacked you and you didn’t have a choice.”

Ellie shakes her head. At that moment she did think that she had no choice, but maybe she could have tried to knock them out. Try to restrain them instead of killing them.

“Did they tell you that the girl was pregnant?”

At this Dina stills, she stays quiet for a long moment. The only thing Ellie hears in the small room is the heartbeat in her own ears.

“No, they did not,” Dina finally settles to say. She looks at Ellie, searches her face. “You knew she was pregnant and you still killed her?”

Ellie shakes her head quickly. It doesn’t make her less of a murderer, but she didn’t know. “I didn’t know, I swear. She was wearing this big jacket that covered her stomach. But, Dina, she was so very pregnant.” Ellie sobs, her hands shake and she wants to reach out and hold Dina’s hand. She wants to be consoled and yet she’s the murderer. And yet everything’s her fault. “I killed a little baby, Dina.”

Ellie can’t cover up her sobs and cries anymore so she doesn’t even try. She just stares in the eyes of the girl she loves and waits for her judgment.

That whole thing is like a blur in Ellie’s mind. She vaguely remembers pointing her gun at them and then taking out the map and making them point at it just like Joel had thought her. She knows that there is no way it would've worked because they were both next to each other and they would’ve seen where the other one pointed, but at that point she was so far lost in her own head. She had just wanted all of it to be over as soon as possible.

“Why didn’t you tell me any of this?” Dina asks. Ellie might be imagining it, but she thinks that Dina shifts a little farther away from Ellie on the bed.

“I was scared that you would hate me,” Ellie says, sniffling. “I was scared that you would think that I’m a monster.”

“Then why are you telling me now?”

“I’m tired of hiding things. It just makes everything harder. You know that feeling when you’re lying to someone you don’t want to lie to?” Ellie waits for Dina to nod and the she continues, “I had it the entire time we were at the farm, I still have it. I want it gone even if it means that I’ll lose you forever.”

“Then tell me what happened when you left. Tell me what happened to your hand.”

The remainder of her fingers unconsciously twitch where they’re hidden under the blanket.

“I, uh, found Abby.” Ellie brushes her tears away, selfishly wishing Dina would do it instead. “And then I let her go.”

“What do you mean?” Dina asks, confused. “Why?”

“Because I went too far, Dina. I held a knife to a kids throat to make her fight me,” Ellie subconscious runs her thumb over the stumps where her pinky and ring finger once were. “The worst thing is that I don’t know if I would’ve gone through with it if she had refused.”

Ellie watches as Dina swallows. She can almost see her think. “This is a lot.” Dina rubs at her eyes. Ellie imagines that it’s because she’s tired of all of this, that she’s tired of Ellie.

Ellie leans her chin on her knees and looks at her. This might be the last time she sees Dina before Dina decides that Ellie isn’t worth it.

“I know.”

“Tell me the whole story.”

So Ellie does. She tells her about her journey to Santa Barbara, she skips over the beautiful beaches and the calming ocean, now is not the time for this part of the story. (She still whishes she would get to tell Dina that part someday.) She tells her how she found the boat and then the Rattlers, she skips over the part where she got caught in one of their traps. She doesn’t want to worry Dina.

Ellie tells her about the slaves and Dina stops her there, something shines in her eyes.

“You set them free?” she asks.

“Uh, yeah. It was mostly by accident and one of them wanted to shoot me after.” Ellie doesn’t tells her why he had wanted to shoot. Again, she doesn’t want to worry her. “I’m pretty sure that most of them died fighting the rest of the Rattlers.” Ellie knows that she would rather die fighting than be kept in a cage. She hopes those slaves thought the same.

“But you gave them a chance to fight back. That’s what matters,” Dina interjects, she scoots back on the bed and crosses her legs in front of herself so she can sit on it facing Ellie.

“But what if they died after that,” Ellie questions. “I could’ve gone with them to help instead of- instead of what I did.”

Dina thinks for a moment. “You could've, I guess.” She thinks for a long moment and then, “What happened with Abby?”

Ellie tells her about that too, about the fight and the kid and how she held a knife to his throat. That is one of Ellie’s biggest regrets, one of her biggest shames.

“Why did you let her go?” Dina asks when Ellie finishes the story.

“I just couldn’t do it.” I hoped she would be the one to kill me instead.

By the time Ellie had reached her she was exhausted to the bone, weary. The only thing she wanted was for everything to be over. Up until that point to her that meant one of them dying.

“Why not?” Dina keeps pushing.

“I already told you. It didn’t feel right.” Ellie taps her knee with her fingers. She doesn’t know whether she should say the next part. “I didn’t want to become a monster. It felt like if I did that, there would be no going back,” Ellie whispers, her cheek propped on her knees. “Do you think that I’m a monster?”

The next words that come out of Dina’s mouth, Ellie has waited for for an eternity. They can break her or they can give her hope.

Ellie looks up at Dina. She searches her face hopefully. Dina doesn’t seem angry or disgusted and that makes Ellie’s heart slow down it’s torturous fight in her chest.

“I know you, Ellie, I know that deep down you’re a good, loving woman that went down a dark path. It’s up to you whether you want to continue down it or if you want to change.” Dina’s eyes are gentle as she looks at Ellie, her fingers brush back a stray piece of hair behind Ellie’s ear, it makes Ellie’s heart skip beat.

“Do you want me to leave?” Ellie asks.

Dina’s hand falls away from Ellie’s face and Ellie already misses the contact. But not for long, her hand instead covers Ellie’s and she squeezes it tightly. “I don’t want you to leave. In fact I won’t let you leave even if you wanted to, you keep getting yourself hurt and I can’t handle seeing that.”

“Yeah?” Ellie questions, there’s hope that blossoms in her chest.

“Yeah.” Dina smiles a little bit. She’s beautiful. “I’ll lock you in this room if I have to.”

“Well, that wouldn’t stop me.”

“Then I will tie you to the bed too.”

“That wouldn’t stop me either.” And it wouldn’t, Ellie can still feel the burning sensation where the rope had rubbed against her wrists.

Dina’s expression becomes somber then. “If you really want to leave, then you should tell me.” Her thumb stops rubbing soothing circles on the skin of Ellie’s hand. “I won’t let you hurt me again.”

Ellie shakes her head. “I don’t want to hurt you ever again,” Ellie admits. “I’m sorry that I did it so many times, Dina.”

“You should be sorry,” Dina says, her touch a constant against Ellie’s skin. “If JJ was old enough to remember you, I could never forgive you.”

The touch and Dina’s kind words cloud Ellie's mind and her eyes drop to Dina’s lips. Dina doesn’t hate Ellie even after she knows everything and she’s so close. Ellie could just lean in a little bit and close the rest of the distance between them. Ellie hasn’t touched another person like that, or even at all in such a long time and she craves it.

So Ellie gives in to her desire, she takes out her hand from beneath Dina’s and places it on the other girl’s cheek, steadying herself as she leans in.

Dina turns her face to the side before Ellie can kiss her and stops Ellie from moving any further with a hand on her chest. “You mistake this for something that it’s not.” She pushes Ellie further back until she’s back to her original distance away from Dina. “I have not forgiven you.”

“Oh, I’m really sorry,” Ellie says, her hand quickly falls away from Dina’s cheek. She runs her hands down her face.

She’s so stupid.

“Fuck,” Ellie whispers to herself. “I don’t know why I did that. I’m sorry.” She looks up at Dina. Ellie’s expecting her to be angry and storm out of the room, but there is no anger in her expression and she’s still sitting calmly on Ellie’s bed.

“It’s okay, just don’t do it again,” Dina tells her. She takes Ellie’s left hand in both of hers and drags it down to her lap. “You didn’t tell me what happened to your hand.”

“Oh, yeah,” Ellie stammers. She really doesn’t want to tell that story. Both because she doesn’t want to worry Dina and because she doesn’t want to relive it. “They just, umm, they kinda fell off?” Ellie winces. “Fuck.”

“Ellie.” Dina looks up from their hands. “I thought we were making progress with you talking to me.” Her fingers are gentle as they smooth over Ellie’s palm, moving closer and closer to the missing fingers.

“Yeah, right.” Ellie’s hand twitches in Dina’s grasp. “When I fought Abby, she bit them off. And they did fall off, so you know, I wasn’t lying.”

“She bit them off?” Dina asks, her lips curling in disgust for a brief moment. “Fucking animal.”

Dina touches the rough mutilated flesh of what remains there and Ellie instinctively pulls her hand away, hiding it with her other hand.

“Did I hurt you?” Dina asks worriedly.

“No, you did not,” Ellie hurries to explain. It just feels weird and wrong for Dina to see that. The evidence of how broken Ellie truly is.

“Does it hurt?” she asks next.

Ellie shrugs. “Sometimes.” She doesn’t want to tell her that it hurts a lot. “And sometimes it’s almost like I can feel them there, but then I look down and they're still gone.” Ellie looks at her hand and tries to flex all her fingers. It feels like the missing ones should flex too, but they just aren’t there anymore.

“I’m sorry,” Dina says, her voice nothing more than a whisper.

“Don’t be. I did this to myself.” Both figuratively and literally she had done this to herself.

Memories of infection setting in her fingers flash through her mind. Of fever that had left her incoherent, of fever that just wouldn’t go away. Memories of how she had to take her own knife and cut at her own fingers, of how many times she had passed out from the pain and the shock before realizing that the knife was too dull to cut through the bone.

Ellie squeezes her eyes shut and shakes her head to get out the memories. She doesn’t want to remember anymore of those nightmarish weeks after her fight with Abby.

“You did.” Dina’s brows pinch together and she scoots closer to Ellie. “Oh, Ellie, you shouldn’t have left.” She takes Ellie’s hand again and kisses her palm, careful not to touch anywhere near her fingers.

Ellie shrugs, a strand of hair falling in front of her eyes. Before she can tuck it away, Dina does it for her.

Ellie’s heart is beating so harshly inside of her chest. She doesn’t know what to make of this conversation. Ellie’s so tired of running and of being alone. Maybe she should stay, she already promised Dina that so it would only make sense.

“You need a haircut,” Dina states.

“Yeah, I was thinking about cutting it.”

“No, don’t do it.” Dina touches the ends of Ellie’s hair. “I’ll do it for you sometime. Okay?”

Ellie can see that Dina wants to say something else too. She knows that Dina didn’t like the haircut Ellie had given herself when she couldn’t sleep one night. She had went to their bathroom and cut her hair herself. Dina had looked very disappointed in the morning, but had tried to play it off.

Ellie will take that as an opportunity to be in Dina’s company even if for the other girl it’s just so Ellie doesn’t ruin her hair again.

“Okay,” Ellie nods. “Dina, I want to tell you everything about Joel too. The real reason we met, why he was killed.”

With Joel gone no one was here to stop her from sharing every single thing that she had to lie about. Ellie doesn’t know why she never told Dina about that while they were in the farm, but all those lies and secrets only weight her down and she needs to finally feel free.

Dina frowns. “You knew why they killed him and you hid that too?” Dina asks in disbelief, she glances to the side of Ellie and to her nightstand, and at clock that sits there. “I’m late for my shift, but I want you to know that I’m very angry with you.” Dina stands up from the bed and almost runs out of the door. “You’re telling me that some other time.”

Ellie watches her leave with a strange feeling in her chest. She falls back on the bed and let’s out the breath she had been holding ever since she left the farm.

Chapter Text

Ellie spends the majority of her days in bed, sleeping. It feels like she has slept more in those few days than all the time combined after that eventful day of the patrol almost 2 years ago.

She should get concussions more often, she concludes.

Soon, Ellie feels good enough that she can get up from bed for more than breakfast and dinner. Joel’s house in not too far away, so she returns to her previous routine of going there every morning, hanging out around his stuff and drinking shit coffee.

She stops bothering with trying to avoid as many people as possible. Every person in town probably knows that she’s back, after the hunter attack and the rumors that Tommy has started.

People stare and whisper when she passes through. Ellie’s used to it. It’s almost as bad as when Cat and her had gone public with their relationship so many years ago.

The only difference is that back then Ellie didn’t feel shame.

---

One day, Ellie decides to visit Robert at the hospital. She feels at least partially responsible for what happened to him and she knows Cat would be hurt deeply if anything were to happen to him.

For the entire time Ellie has known Cat, Robert has been there for her, acting like an older brother. It had gotten to the point where when he found out that Cat and Ellie were dating, he had given Ellie 'the talk', threatening to break every bone in her body if she hurt Cat. He had almost made good on his word when they had broken up, but thankfully Cat had found them and stopped everything before it even had the chance to start.

Robert had agreed that trying to kick a teenagers ass wasn’t the best idea after Cat had intervened. Instead Ellie had gotten away with just a very firm suggestion that she should stay away from Cat. She had kept her promise for probably less than half a month.

Ellie finds Robert’s hospital room easy enough. Cat is there too, she sits on a chair next to his bed and reads to him from a book. With Robert occasionally complaining that getting shot in the leg doesn’t mean that he has suddenly lost the ability to read.

Hanging out with them feels nice. Easy. Ellie finds herself enjoying the company and the conversations for the first time in a long while.

---

Ellie wishes she brought her comics back with her from the farm. Her days are boring and she feels useless.

Dina doesn’t visit her again and Ellie wonders whether she should visit her instead. She doesn’t want to just show up unannounced and she’s pretty sure that Dina still doesn’t want her to see JJ so she decides against it.

Or maybe, Ellie went too far when she tried to kiss Dina and now the other girl doesn’t want to see her again. It only makes sense. Why else wouldn’t Dina visit her again?

She beats herself over their conversation a lot. She goes over it in her head over and over again, trying to remember every stupid thing she said and every stupid thing she did.

---

Finally, Ellie decides to find Maria and ask to be assigned to a job. She doesn’t want to just take from the town without giving anything back. That’s not how things work. She also wants to subtly ask Maria about the shifts that Dina takes. Maybe Ellie could try to visit Dina and pretend she was just walking by.

Ellie shakes her head at herself. As if that would ever work. Dina would see right through her, all the fumbling, the blushing and the ramblings would give her away in an instant.

Ellie checks in the town hall first, there they tell her that Maria is at the stables. So Ellie heads there.

Sure enough Ellie finds her. She’s talking with a few of the stable hands and a few of the guards.

Ellie hangs back as she waits for Maria to finish her conversation. She catches some of the things they say and connects the dots.

Maria wants them to go out and look for the horses that ran away during the attack. She warns the patrol group to be very careful because the hunters haven’t been caught yet.

Maria wishes the group of people around her good luck and sends them out the gates.

She turns around and she smiles warmly as she spots Ellie. “It’s good to see you out and about.”

“Yeah,” Ellie says, feeling weird that Maria continues to give a shit about her. “Do you have some time to talk?”

“If this is about you wanting to leave then no.” The smile on Maria’s face drops as she leans on one of the hitch posts close to Ellie. “We haven’t found the hunters yet and we’re sure that they want retribution.”

“No, it’s not that,” Ellie reassures. “I was actually wondering if you could assign me to a job?”

She stares at the gates as they close behind the group patrol, or more accurately the search party. Ellie thinks about how this could be the last time they cross the threshold of the town. She thinks about the countless dangers outside. The hunters, the infected. If only they were immune too.

Ellie looks away, focuses on Maria.

Maria frowns, she looks over Ellie’s bruised face. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that you want to do that, but I think that you should rest a bit more before you start working.”

“I’m fine and I think that having something to do will be good for me.” Ellie shuffles on her feet, self conscious about everything she’s doing.

Maria searches Ellie’s face for a long moment, looking for something. Ellie looks away under the scrutiny.

“I’m not assigning you to patrol duty yet,” she says.

“I don’t want that,” Ellie says a bit too quickly, doesn’t even think about it. When she had been younger, patrols used to be her dream job. Now she’s not sure she’s even up to the task.

“Then what do you want?” Maria leans further on the hitching post, looking at Ellie quizzically.

“Anything,” Ellie says and scratches her forearm, thinks about it, then adds, “Just not anything to do with farming.”

At their farm Ellie didn’t mind the farming. They had a little bit from everything and that didn’t exhaust her as much as the farming in Jackson, where she had to repeat the same motions over and over again for hours.

Taking care of vegetables for just two people, JJ wasn’t old enough to eat any hard food back then, wasn’t as tedious and mind numbing as taking care of vegetables for an entire town was.

Maria thinks for a long moment. “Noah needs help with the sheep and I know you and Dina took care of some at your farm. How does that sound?”

“Sounds good.” Sheep sound good, great even. Ellie needs some simplicity, something to keep her mind off things.

Back at the farm they used to have a lot of sheep. They used to send the excess wool, which was almost all of it, back to Jackson in return for gas for their generator and other supplies that they couldn’t get by themselves.

Sheep milk tasted gross though. But not to Dina who used to drink the gross, sheep smelling milk and chase Ellie around the house, attempting to kiss her with the taste still heavy on her tongue. JJ used to laugh at them in his baby chair. Ellie wasn’t sure he even knew what was going on, but apparently he used to find it all very amusing.

It was gross, but Ellie misses those moments with her entire being. She would drink a gallon of sheep milk every morning if it means she could have JJ and Dina back.

“It’s going to be hard work and you’re still hurt. Are you sure you’re up to it?” Maria asks, worry clear in her voice. “You can start with shorter work days.”

“No, it’s fine,” Ellie says. “I’ve got it.”

“Oh, don’t be so sure about that.” Maria laughs lightly and then continues, “Noah is a stubborn old man who thinks that he doesn’t need any help. You’ll have to deal with him just as much as with the sheep. I'll introduce you to him tomorrow.”

Ellie nods. She knows a lot of the people in town, but she’s never heard about this Noah. She hopes he won’t be too much trouble.

With this done, she has one other thing to ask about.

“I, uh-“ Ellie digs the toe of her sneaker into the dirt and adjusts her ponytail. She lets out her question in a breath, “Do you know what job assignments Dina’s taking?”

Ellie hopes that Maria doesn’t think that she’s trying to stalk Dina or something. It is kind of true, but not in a creepy way.

Is there a way to not creepily stalk someone?

She hopes that Dina wouldn’t mind.

“Sure.” Maria nods. “When something electronic breaks down, she’s helping out with that. Otherwise most of the days she’s on watch duty.” Maria’s gaze breaks off of Ellie and to the side.

When Ellie follows it, she’s met with the sight of Dina by one of the watch towers. She’s talking with a couple other guards, one of them must be saying something funny because Dina laughs. Ellie barely hears her laugh, but she can imagine the sound clearly in her head. The way she throws her head back with it makes Ellie’s lips tug up in a smile too.

But then Dina’s turning around and in a moment she finds Ellie and her eyes lock with hers, her easy smile falling off her face. Ellie curses under her breath as she watches Dina walk over.

“Maria,” Dina greets when she’s close enough, her gaze turns to Ellie and she gives her a gentle smile. “Ellie.”

“Hi.” Ellie tucks her left hand in the pocket of her hoodie. “I didn’t come here to, um, bother you. I came here to talk with Maria,” Ellie hurries to explain, gesturing with her free hand toward Maria.

To the side of them Maria scoffs and begins to walk away. “Yeah, right. I’ll leave you two to talk.” Ellie hears Maria grumble as she heads back in town.

Ellie glares at her as she walks by. Isn’t Maria supposed to be on her side?

“Okay,” Dina drawls out, she raises up on her toes and then falls back on her heels, her own hands in the pockets of her jacket.

“Yeah.”

“Yeah.”

They stare at each other as they wait for the other to say something. Anything.

Not having things to talk about was never a problem with them and when there was silence, it used to be a comfortable one. Unlike the one that is stretching out right now. Ellie could not feel any more awkward.

“I did lie actually,” Ellie admits, saying the first thing that comes to her mind to end the silence.

“What?” Dina frowns and looks after Maria’s retreating form. It almost looks like she’s waiting for help from her and Ellie would laugh if she were capable of doing it.

“I wasn’t here just to talk with Maria. Actually I was, but I did ask her about you too.” Ellie doesn’t want to fall back into the habit of lying to Dina and hiding stuff from her. No matter how small those things are or how bad she’s about to embarrass herself.

“Okay?”

They keep a respectable distance between each other, so respectable that Ellie has to strain her ears to hear what Dina’s telling her.

“Are you mad?”

“I didn’t think that I’m supposed to be mad?” Dina takes her hands out of her pockets and rubs her arms, the air coming out of her lungs fogged up in the cold air.

“Oh, okay.” Ellie takes a couple small steps toward Dina, wishing she could wrap her arms around her and share her warmth. “How about when you visited me at my place? Are you mad about then?”

“No?” Dina sounds utterly confused.

“Then why didn’t you come look for me so I can tell you the rest.”

Dina sighs deeply, looks off in the distance. She doesn’t say anything for a long moment and then, “Being a single mother is not easy. I barely have any free time.”

The words make guilt bubble deep inside of Ellie.

She shouldn’t have left. She should’ve been there with her family, helping them as much as she could.

Then she remembers that her presence there was mostly just a burden. With all of her panic attacks and sleepless nights.

There was no right choice.

“I- I’m sorry.”

“I have to take JJ from the daycare so if you’ll excuse me,” Dina says and Ellie feels like she did the wrong thing.

Ellie knows that she has missed his first birthday. He can probably walk and talk now and Ellie didn’t get to see his first step and hear his first word. She feels immensely guilty about that too.

“Can I see him?” Ellie stutters out, hopeful for something she knows she doesn’t deserve.

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea.” Dina tugs the sleeves of her jacket over her fingers and wipes at the corner of her eye with it.

Oh, she’s crying.

Ellie’s gaze drops to the ground. Maybe if she pretends she didn’t see it, then it won’t be real. “I understand,” she murmurs, her voice rough with emotion.

Out of the corner of her eye Ellie sees Dina begins to walk away. Ellie wonders what she can do to stop her. She comes up short.

“Fuck,” Ellie whispers to herself. This sucks so fucking bad and worst of all is that Ellie doesn’t know how to fix it, doesn’t even know if there is a way.

If Joel just hadn’t died. If he had just gotten up like Ellie had begged him to. If he had saved the day like he always did. Then none of this would be happening.

But instead he had died just as things in her life were starting to look up. Just as she was ready to try to forgive him.

She would’ve never let things get like this between her and Dina back then, but now it's beyond her control, because of the stupid fucking PTSD and the stupid fucking guilt. She wants to be who she used to be before, because that’s who Dina deserves. She doesn’t deserve this shell Ellie has become.

Dina stops just as she passes Ellie by, waits there a couple of endless seconds. Then she turns around and walks back in front of Ellie.

“JJ’s grandparents are going to look after him this Friday,” she says. “Do you want to come over so I can give you that haircut?”

“Yes, of course,” Ellie says, maybe a little bit too fast, a little bit too excitedly. Dina is trying. She’s trying and Ellie doesn’t know what to do. Then she realizes that she doesn’t actually know when Friday is, she hasn’t been keeping track. “When is that?”

“What?” Dina laughs suddenly, lightly and Ellie finds that she doesn’t really mind the fact that Dina’s laughing at her if she’s laughing at all. “Friday?”

Ellie nods and tries to smile back.

“Today is Tuesday so in three days. You should come over after my shift ends.”

“I will.”

And just like that Dina leaves. Ellie’s left watching her as she walks away, taking the short walk to where the daycare is. Ellie waits where she is for a long while, she waits until she’s sure that Dina would be far enough away that they won’t accidentally stumble into each other.

Ellie goes back to her place after that.

Three days isn’t that much, right?

---

Turns out that three days are actually a lot when she’s looking forward to something.

It’s the middle of the night, the very early morning of Wednesday and Ellie just can’t fall asleep. Not because of her usual nightmares, but because of the excitement and anxiety that plagues her thoughts about her impending meeting with Dina.

Is Dina inviting her as a friend or is she trying to rekindle their relationship? Or maybe she just wants to be polite and give Ellie a haircut?

It doesn’t feel like just that, but Ellie has never been able to read this kind of situations too well.

Ellie groans and turns on her side for the millionth time tonight.

It doesn’t matter why Dina’s inviting her. It only matters that she is, that she’s hopefully giving Ellie a chance to be back in her life. That should be enough for Ellie.

Or it’s just a haircut.

“For fucks sake.” Ellie flips over on her back and stares at the ceiling. “Why am I like this?” she asks the darkness, but no response comes through.

Ellie tries to go to sleep again, but instead she ends up tossing and turning for what feels like an eternity. She looks at the alarm clock on her bedside table and it’s just 3am still. It feels like it was 2am three hours ago.

You’d think she would’ve gotten used to not being able to sleep by now.

Tomorrow, or more accurately today, is going to be her first day back to work and that’s bound to be exhausting with all of her injuries. At least the stitches on her palm had been removed the last time she went to the hospital so she doesn’t have to worry about breaking them.

Ellie contemplates sliding her hand under the waistband of her pants and touching herself. That used to always work for her when she was younger and couldn’t sleep.

Ellie doesn’t know if it’ll work this time. She had never tried to touch herself when she couldn’t sleep because of the nightmares. She didn’t think it would help. Maybe she didn’t think she deserved to sleep. But it’s different this time, this time she can’t fall asleep because of her thoughts that are too loud in her head.

Ellie knows that she'll think of Dina if she touches herself. It’s inevitable.

She wonders if Dina would mind.

Back in the farm Ellie had shared with Dina that she used to touch herself and think of her when they were younger and not dating yet. Dina didn’t mind back then and on the contrary, she had been ecstatic and she had asked Ellie to do it again in front of her.

After some going back and forth on whether she should do it, Ellie decides that Dina wouldn’t mind.

So she flips on her back, she bites her lip and slides her sweatpants and underwear off her hips in one swift motion. She lets them hang off one of her ankles as she spreads her legs a little bit under the blanket.

Ellie drags her hand through her folds, dips just the tip of her finger inside herself. She’s not wet yet so she closes her eyes and thinks of Dina, swipes her fingers against her clit.

She thinks about Dina’s eyes, her smiles and her teasing words when she used to have Ellie underneath her. How smoothly her hands had slid on Ellie’s body, setting her skin ablaze along their teasing paths. How loving her kisses had been-

And then Ellie’s crying, thinking about how she might not have that ever again because she had been stupid enough to leave.

She presses her face into her pillow, letting her tears soak in the material.

She ends up falling asleep at some point, lulled to sleep by her own sobs.

---

Her eyes are puffy and red when she meets Maria.

Maria doesn’t mention it.

She leads Ellie to the very edge of town, to an average sized white house right next to a big field surrounded with waist high fences.

There are a lot of sheep on the field, grazing on whatever grass hasn’t died due to the cold. And an old looking man lugging around large hay bales.

“That’s Noah,” Maria remarks, pointing him out in the field. “The other guy that used to help him with the sheep died recently and ever since then Noah refuses to let anyone else help him. The work is too hard for a man of his age so that’s where you come in. You already know how to look after sheep and don’t require any training from him.”

Maria walks them over to the gate in the fence. She opens it and lets Ellie pass first. “You think you can handle it?”

“Yeah.” Ellie shrugs. She needs something to busy her hands with and this seems like the perfect thing.

As soon as they get close enough, Noah notices them. His expression immediately drops into a scowl. He looks over at Ellie and gives her an even dirtier look. He stops his work and watches them as they get closer.

“Hello, Noah, “ Maria greets him as they stop in front of him. She gestures toward Ellie at her side. “This is Ellie, she’s going to be helping you from now on.”

“Hello,” Ellie says as she steps forward, extending her right hand out for a handshake.

Noah looks at it disdainfully and then looks at Maria, completely ignoring Ellie. “I told you that I don’t need help.”

Ellie lets her arm drop back to her side when it becomes painfully obvious that Noah won’t return the handshake. She glances back at Maria, waiting for guidance.

She’s really not looking for a fight.

Maria sighs deeply, her hands on her hips. “You can’t handle all of the sheep on your own during winter.”

“I sure can,” Noah says, getting back to work. He takes out a knife out of a holster on his hip and begins to cut the ropes holding the hay bales together.

Maria takes Ellie to the side. She massages her temples, clearly tired of everything. “You let me know if he causes too much trouble.”

“Of course.” Ellie nods.

It’s beyond her how Maria is capable of handling everyone’s bullshit with so much grace. With the way the town keeps constantly growing, Ellie’s not sure if Maria has any free time at all.

“Take care, kid,” Maria says and smiles at her warmly, almost managing to hide how tired she really is.

She begins to walk away and Ellie watches her until she reaches the gate.

Ellie turns around and walks over to Noah slowly, wasting as much time as she can. “Look, I don’t what’s your deal, but I’m just here to help,” Ellie attempts.

“I don’t need help,” the man says, not even looking away from the hay.

This close Ellie can see just how old he really is. She sees the wrinkles around his eyes and on his forehead, the way his skin sags on his neck. He’s one of the oldest people Ellie has ever seen. Definitely much older than Joel.

Ellie wishes Joel could grow that old. She wishes he could get to meet JJ. He would probably carve him all kinds of toys, maybe even a small guitar so he could teach him how to play it as soon as his hands grew large enough.

Ellie smiles just a little bit at that fantasy, her eyes watering. She sniffles and wipes her nose on the back of her hand.

“I’ll find the hay on my own,” Ellie says, she waits for a moment to see if Noah would decide to share that location.

He doesn’t so Ellie heads over to the barn. It doesn’t take her too long to find it, as hay does tend to be quite large.

She grabs one, the strings that keep it together digging into the skin of her fingers. It’s harder to keep it balanced with just three fingers on her left hand, but Ellie manages.

She brings it over to the sheep just as Noah is heading back for another one. He glances at her with disdain and then pretends like he doesn’t see her.

There are a lot of sheep. Much more than back at the farm. Naming them all is going to be hard work. How is Ellie going to come up with enough names and remember who is who?

Ellie’s pretty sure Noah wouldn’t have thought about naming any of them so she's not going to bother with asking.

Ellie crouches in front of one of the sheep and lets it eat hay out of her hand. “Your name is gonna be Cauliflower.” Ellie pats the sheep with her free hand. “It suits you, don’t you think?”

The sheep doesn’t respond, which is quite rude in Ellie’s opinion, and just continues to chew on the hay.

Chapter Text

Working keeps Ellie’s hands and her mind busy. She doesn’t feel as useless as before.

Working takes her mind off most of her worries.

Except for one.

Her meeting with Dina.

She gets herself a calendar and crosses out the days with a pencil.

All her other stuff is in the farm.

She’s so excited about it and so anxious too. Time seems to crawl and it only stresses Ellie out more.

She tries not to think about Dina, but of course it doesn’t work. Every night she’s left tossing and turning instead of sleeping.

One night as Ellie stares at the ceiling she realizes that for the first time in a long while her sleeplessness is not caused by her deeds in Seattle and Santa Barbara, or Joel’s death.

---

Finally, Friday comes and work stretches on to infinity. When she finally gets back to her place it’s late. Definitely later than when Dina’s shift ends.

Ellie smells like sheep so she takes a quick, but thorough shower, making sure to scrub herself clean. When she’s done she wraps a towel around herself and stares in the mirror.

She doesn’t like to look at herself anymore, but she wants to make sure that she looks presentable.

Her hair is a wet mess, way too long for her liking. Her face is gaunt and she’s very thin even though she’s gained some weight back. She doesn’t look like herself.

When she compares herself to the smiling girl in the old pictures, she almost doesn’t see any resemblance. She doesn’t look like herself and she doesn’t feel like herself anymore.

Ellie looks away from the mirror and scratches at her neck. She heads for her dresser and carefully chooses clothes from her very limited options.

Most of her clothes are still back at the farm. Ellie doesn’t think that she's capable of going back to get them.

She doesn’t know if it’s right of her, but she want to impress Dina. So Ellie chooses a black pair of jeans, a simple t-shirt and a flannel.

It's not all that impressive, but she knows that Dina used to like those clothes on her.

She puts them on and they hang loose on her frame. Ellie takes the time to carefully brush her hair and she looks herself over in the bathroom mirror again.

She looks okay… ish.

“She won’t be able to resist me.” Ellie’s laughing before the words can even come out of her mouth. “Yeah, right. I don’t even look like myself.” Ellie stares at the unfamiliar reflection staring back. “I’m not myself. I'm not the girl she fell in love with anymore. Why would she ever want me back?”

Ellie kicks her socked foot on the tiled floor of the bathroom.

“And I’m going insane now,” Ellie scoffs at her reflection. “I’m talking to myself.”

Ellie shuts her mouth and tries not to talk again. She takes the hair tie off her wrist and ties her hair in a low bun. After that she runs out of the bathroom and out the front door.

She’s already late, but she tries not to sprint and instead she just walks briskly. The cold November air makes her shiver and Ellie realizes that she forgot to take a jacket. If Dina were next to her she would tell Ellie that she’s way too reckless for her own good.

The thought makes Ellie smile.

She gets in front of Dina’s door and knocks, realizing too late that she’s out of breath. She could’ve waited a little bit before knocking so her breath could even out. It’s too late for that as Dina opens the door.

She looks like a goddess with her hair up in a ponytail and her simple button up shirt and faded jeans, while Ellie’s probably a little bit red in the face, sweaty and out of breath.

“Hey,” Ellie says, giving a small smile.

“Hi.” Dina’s hand is on the door and she opens it wider so Ellie can step in. “I kind of thought that you wouldn’t come,” she admits, relief in her eyes.

“Work went a little late,” Ellie explains, staring at her shoes. “I hope that’s okay?”

Dina closes the door after Ellie walks in. She stares at Ellie, eyes searching her face as they stay by the door. Too close to each other, intimate yet somehow distant.

“Um,” Ellie begins, but she trails off, doesn’t know what to say.

“I made dinner. I know that you probably don’t eat much, but if you want?” She gestures toward where Ellie supposes the kitchen is.

“Yes, of course,” Ellie hurries to say, thankful that there is something to do so she doesn’t have to deal with the awkwardness between them.

Ellie follows Dina, she tries to take in as much of the interior of the house as she can. It looks homey, somehow even more so than the farm had. There are framed drawings on the walls in the hallway, drawings no doubt made with unsteady baby hands. Most of them don’t look like anything at all, just splotches of colors.

Ellie feels pride nonetheless.

The plates are already served on the table and Dina sits in a chair in front of one. Ellie follows her lead and settles in the chair next to her.

“It’s cold,” Dina lets Ellie know, she picks up her fork and pokes at the meal. She frowns at the food as if she can warm it up with just her stare.

“That’s my fault.” Ellie stares at her plate as she speaks.

She stabs some of the steamed vegetables with her fork and takes her first bite. She chews slowly, carefully.

It smells and tastes amazing. It reminds Ellie of their time back in the farm. Ellie still has trouble eating, but it doesn’t quite feel as if she’s swallowing sand anymore.

“So… you’re back to working?” Dina’s voice is hesitant as she speaks, yet there is an edge to it.

“Yeah.”

Dina hums thoughtfully, trying to hide the edge in her voice unsuccessfully. Her grip on her fork is firm, her knuckles have turned white. “Patrol?”

Ellie shakes her head. “No, I’m helping out at the sheep farm.”

Dina’s grip on her fork relaxes and she lets out a breath. “That’s good.” She takes her first bite of the food. “Do you like it?” she asks around a mouthful.

“It’s familiar. I like that,” Ellie says. “But the guy that runs the farm is really rude. He doesn’t talk to me, he acts as if I’m not even there.”

“What’s his deal?” Dina asks.

“I wish I knew.”

Ellie doesn’t care all that much about it, but it’s a bit annoying. The good thing is that he doesn’t bother her or judge her. She’s pretty sure that Noah doesn’t even know any of the rumors going around the town about her.

That she likes.

Ellie places her left hand on the table. She needs to get used to other people seeing it. To Dina seeing it.

Her fingers twitch with the urge to hide them under the table. Ellie doesn’t notice exactly when, but Dina’s free hand is placed on the table next to her own. Ellie feels like Dina’s waiting for something.

She tries not to look at their almost touching hands, pretends like she doesn’t see them. From her peripheral vision she sees Dina’s hand move until they’re almost touching. Ellie's pretty sure that she’s imagining it, but she can almost feel the warmth radiating from Dina’s hand.

Ellie releases a shaky breath, just now realizing that she’s been holding it. She moves her hand just a little bit closer until their fingers touch.

Ellie dares to look up and Dina’s smiling at her softly, encouragingly. And that’s all it takes for Ellie to place her hand on top of Dina’s and to squeeze it gently.

It feels nice. Familiar. As if nothing’s changed.

Except for Ellie's fingers.

Ellie wonders if it’s weird for Dina to feel the tender and irregular skin of her missing fingers. If it’s weird how they aren’t there anymore.

Because it is weird for Ellie. How she can't feel Dina’s hand where she’s supposed to.

But Dina’s just smiling at her for a long moment and then her gaze breaks away so she can keep eating. Ellie looks away too, letting herself enjoy the feeling of Dina’s skin on her own.

They keep the slightly awkward small talk going as they finish their meals. Ellie forces herself to eat everything, she wants Dina to know that she’s trying to get better.

When they finish, Ellie drops her utensils in the plate and takes it so she can bring it at the sink. Dina takes it out of her hands and gives Ellie a warning look when she’s about to protest. Dina drops both of their plates in the sink and turns back to Ellie.

She doesn’t say anything as she wordlessly walks up to Ellie, takes her hand and tugs on it until Ellie stands up. She leads Ellie in the living room. She drops Ellie’s hand and goes back to the kitchen.

Ellie’s left standing in the middle of the room, not knowing what to do with herself. She scans the room. On the bookshelf she can see the colorful covers of what must be children's books next to thicker more colorless books. There are countless strewn papers and crayons all over the coffee table.

There are fresh flowers on the table next to the TV. There are pictures on the walls and on every empty surface, the old ones they had back at the farm joined by countless new ones.

Shit.

The living room is filled with life and Ellie wishes she could be a part of it.

Ellie wonders whether she should sit down on the couch as she waits for Dina, but before she can decide Dina comes back. She’s dragging a chair and has a towel thrown over her shoulder.

She puts the chair next to Ellie and says, “Remove the flannel.”

Ellie frowns, but she doesn’t ask and takes it off. She folds it in two and tries to drape it over the back of the chair. Dina takes it from her hands before she can and tosses it back on the couch.

“Sit.”

Ellie sits down quietly and fidgets with her fingers in her lap. She hates this nervous habit, hates how it always reminds her of her missing fingers.

Dina takes the towel off her shoulder and moves behind Ellie. She drapes it around her neck and ties it off at the front. Not too tightly.

Oh, the haircut. Right.

“You didn’t like the haircut I gave myself, did you?” Ellie asks, smiling just a little bit. She knows Dina hadn’t liked it, but she could never get her to admit to it.

“It was okay,” Dina says, continuing to stick to her words. She takes Ellie’s hair out of the bun, snapping the hair tie around her wrist.

Ellie scoffs.

“Okay, fine. I didn’t like it. Is that what you want to hear?” Dina says, her voice playfully exasperated.

“Yes,” Ellie says. “Thank you.”

She finally won this. It feels good to always be right. It also feels good to know that they can still joke around, it gives Ellie hope that things can go back to normal.

Dina’s fingers thread though Ellie’s still damp hair, brushing it out. Ellie sighs into the touch and leans back just a little bit, hopes Dina doesn’t notice.

“The usual length, right?” Dina asks.

Ellie nods.

“Don’t move so I don’t mess up,” Dina tells her.

Ellie nods again and Dina taps her shoulder reproachfully, grips it. “Ellie, stay still.”

“Yep,” Ellie says, almost nods again. “Got it.”

“Good.” Dina brushes through her hair again, this time with a brush and begins to cut.

Ellie becomes restless in the quiet of the room, she wants to say something, but she doesn’t know what. She fidgets with her fingers, pulls at them anxiously and listens to the sound the scissor makes as it cuts her hair.

“How-“ Ellie stops, clears her throat when her voice comes out as just a whisper. “How have you been?”

The question feels mundane, casual. It feels weird to ask Dina that. She doesn’t think that she has the right to that information. She hopes that Dina’s doing good, prays for it.

Dina doesn’t say anything for a long while and just as Ellie thinks that she will ignore the question, Dina says, “I'm managing.”

Ellie nods and Dina pauses her motions, but doesn’t berate her for moving again.

Ellie doesn’t expect Dina to offer anything else. She doesn’t know how else to start a conversation so she’s ready to accept the stifling silence that seems to be the new normal for them.

“I don’t think that there is a word to describe how being left with a baby all alone on a farm in the wilderness feels like,” Dina begins, resuming the movement of her hands. The scissor continues to snip. “Thinking that the woman you love is dead and having to leave your home because you can’t take care of it anymore.”

“I-“

“No, let me finish.” Ellie shuts her mouth and waits, listens. “Then just as you begin to make peace with it she shows up again and doesn’t even let you know that she’s alive. You have to find out by yourself when the entire town goes on alert because, apparently, she’s gone missing.”

“Fuck,” Ellie mumbles in a shuddering breath, quiet enough that Dina probably doesn’t hear. She sniffles, glad she can’t see Dina’s face.

That’s not how she had intended for Dina to find out. In hindsight her plan of leaving before Dina could find out hadn’t been that great either.

“And when you find her she’s bloodied and gaunt, just like you had imagined her in all of your nightmares, but this time it’s real and she’s alive. And then she leaves again, and then she’s back, hurt even worse, but she’s not yours for you to take care of anymore.” Dina’s voice is even as she speaks. Ellie wonders how she does that, how she sounds so calm and collected when Ellie has hurt her so much and so deep.

“But you have a toddler to take care of so you can’t have a breakdown like a normal person would. So, yeah, I’m managing.”

“Well, fuck. I didn’t mean to hurt you again when I left, you know that right? ” Ellie admits when it becomes apparent that Dina won’t say anything else.

Ellie wants to apologize, but doesn’t know how to do it. It doesn’t feel like a simple 'I'm sorry' is enough. She doesn’t think that Dina will accept just that.

“Maybe you should’ve asked me what I wanted, dummy” Dina removes the towel from Ellie’s shoulders and walks up in front of her. She says, “It’s done.”

“Fuck,” Ellie breathes out, she drops her head in her hands, elbows propped on her thighs. She should’ve asked Dina. “I’m a fucking idiot.”

“You are,” Dina agrees. “Ever since we were kids. I thought you would grow out of it, but instead it only got worse.” There’s that teasing lilt in her voice, but Ellie can’t bring herself to laugh. “I guess it’s my fault that I’ve always been into the idiots.”

Ellie whishes she could go back in time like in one of her comic books so she can fix everything, but things could never be that easy.

Dina leaves again then, Ellie doesn’t see it, but she hears the footsteps slowly getting quieter as she exits the room. Ellie’s grateful that she’s left alone to compose herself. She sniffles again and wipes under her cheeks.

She’s tired of crying.

Dina comes back too soon for Ellie’s liking. This time she carries a broom and shoos Ellie off the chair, moves it away.

“Let me do that,” Ellie insist, extending her hand so she can take the broom.

“You go look at yourself in the mirror.” Dina moves the broom out of her grasp and begins to sweep the floor. “There’s a mirror in the hallway.”

Ellie obliges begrudgingly and walks out of the living room. The mirror is easy enough to find and she steps in front of it. For a long moment she stands there, staring at her shoes because she can’t bare to look at herself.

Ellie plays with the bracelet tied around her left wrist and looks up as she takes a calming breath. Her hair is cut just like she used to have it before. The bruises on her face are a lighter color now, they’re almost gone, but there is no blood on her face or on her hands. No weight of a gun in her grip, no cold steel pressing into her skin.

She looks a little bit more like she remembers herself and a little bit less like the monster she fears she has become.

Hair strands fall in front of her eyes and Ellie tucks them behind her ear, the hair falls back after a moment. She can’t look at herself anymore so she drops her gaze.

The hair tie is still with Dina, Ellie hasn’t thought about bringing another one.

She goes back in the living room.

“I look-” She shakes her head, begins again. “It looks good. Thanks.”

Dina smiles as she finishes sweeping the floor. “You’re welcome.”

Dina leaves again then. She returns fast, this time she’s empty handed.

Ellie’s still standing at the doorway of the living room, Dina stops close to the couch. The space between them feels like an endless chasm.

Dina snaps the hair tie around her wrist and she stays still, quiet.

“Can I have the hair tie?” Ellie asks, slowly stepping closer, almost afraid that Dina will say no.

“Yeah, of course.” Dina removes it from her wrist and extends it toward Ellie.

“Thanks,” Ellie says as she takes it, their hands brushing.

Dina’s eyes linger on Ellie’s hand after she takes the hair tie. Ellie still has bandages around both of her wrists and she just now realizes what that might look like.

Dina’s seen them before and she hasn’t asked so Ellie really hopes it’s not that. She hopes that Dina doesn’t think that Ellie would ever do something like that.

“You still have my bracelet,” Dina says, surprise in her voice.

“Oh.” Ellie’s fingers touch the strap of the bracelet, sliding to the clasp. “Do you want it back?” Ellie really doesn’t want to give it back, it’s the only thing she has that reminds her of Dina, but if Dina wants it she'll have to part with it.

Ellie struggles with undoing the clasp. She blames it on her missing fingers.

“No, I’m just happy you kept it,” Dina says, but Ellie has already undone the clasp. “I’m glad it kept you safe.”

Ellie nods. The bracelet is sitting limp in her palm and Ellie frowns at it. She tries to tie it back, but she ends up dropping it on the floor.

She bends down to pick it up, suddenly very angry at herself. She fights off angry tears as the clasp fights back in her sweaty grip.

Dina’s suddenly there, much closer than she was. “Can I?” she asks, extending her hand close to Ellie’s, but not touching.

Ellie doesn’t say anything as she hands Dina the bracelet, afraid that Dina is just going to take it back. Ellie offers her arm to Dina and the girl gently and swiftly clasps the bracelet around Ellie’s tattooed wrist.

“Thank you,” Ellie says, staring at the bracelet.

Dina’s hand lingers, her fingers tracing up the inky lines and up the uneven skin of her burn mark. Her hand wraps around Ellie’s elbow and she tugs gently, waits for Ellie to follow her to the couch. Dina sits down on one side, Ellie sits down on the other.

The couch is wide.

Ellie puts her hair up, the motions so ingrained in her brain she doesn’t even have to think about it.

Ellie plays with the bracelet around her wrist. She can feel Dina’s gaze on the side of her head, but she can’t look up.

“I- I hate this,” Ellie finally says when the silence has gotten too much. Her voice is shaky.

“What do you hate?” Dina asks softly and Ellie feels like Dina could understand anything.

Why did she never try to do this? Talk to Dina.

“Whatever is going on between us.” Ellie brings her knee up on the couch so her body is angled toward Dina. She doesn’t look up. “It’s like we’re strangers.”

“We are not strangers, Ellie, we could never be.”

“Then what’s this?” Ellie gestures erratically between the two of them. “This silence?”

“You left. Things can’t be the same and that’s okay.”

Ellie doesn’t think that things being different is okay. Different means that she can’t hold Dina, that she can’t kiss her or wake up next to her.

That’s not okay.

“I’m not the same either. You know that, right?” Ellie looks up finally because she can’t bear to look at her hand anymore, the physical proof of how different she is now.

Ellie’s met with understanding eyes. “I know. You haven’t been the same for a long while.”

“I want to be who I used to be before,” Ellie says. “Do you- do you think I can be?”

“That’s up to you, Ellie,” Dina tells her.

She’s so far away and Ellie wants her to shuffle closer and take Ellie’s hand in hers. Do something, anything.

“What if I can’t go back to that? Do you think-“ Ellie's voice cracks, she clears her throat, tries again. “Do you think you can still…” love me.

Ellie doesn’t say that. She doesn’t have the strength, she doesn’t want to know the answer because it can break her. The only thing that she has left is her hope that someday she could have Dina and JJ again. And she doesn’t even deserve that.

“I think,” Dina begins when it becomes obvious that Ellie won’t finish her sentence. “That if you try hard enough you can get better.”

“Okay.” Ellie nods to herself. That’s not what she asked, but she will take it. If Dina believes it then so does Ellie.

Ellie wants to forget the bad and to only keep the good memories. She doesn’t want to have nightmares anymore, she wants to have dreams of a hopeful future with Dina by her side.

If only it were that easy, but she will try. For Dina and for herself.

“How is JJ,” Ellie attempts. She isn’t asking to meet him or anything like that so she hopes Dina is willing to offer at least some information. “Is he healthy?”

“He is,” Dina says, she must be thinking about her son because her face lights up. “He’s so smart and he’s growing up so quickly,” Dina gushes. “Oh, and he just made his first step last week!”

“That’s good.” Ellie attempts to sound enthusiastic, but her voice sounds dull even to her own ears. She’s disappointed that she didn’t get to see that. “Has he started talking too?” she asks a bit bitterly.

“Not yet,” Dina says and Ellie's relieved. “But I’m not worried. He keeps babbling and I can just feel that he’s going to start talking very soon.”

Maybe she’ll get to be there for his first word.

Ellie just nods, she’s afraid that if she speaks Dina will hear the sadness in her voice. Dina keeps talking about JJ then. She tells Ellie about all the friends that he’s made in the daycare. She says how she thinks coming back to Jackson was good for him and how she’ll maybe go back to the farm for her 'retirement'.

“He’s taking after you,” Dina says, smiling slightly. “He really likes to draw.”

“I can see that,” Ellie says, she glances toward the coffee table and carefully touches the corner of one of the drawings as if afraid that her touch will destroy it. “I hope I can teach him someday.”

Dina looks to the side then, her smile dropping. She doesn’t say anything for a long while.

“Did he miss me?” Ellie asks. “When I left.”

Dina's hand grips the armrest, knuckles turning white. “He did. He cried a lot in the following weeks after you left. You weren’t there to sing him to sleep. I tried to sing to him instead, but he just kept crying and looking for you.”

“Oh,” is all Ellie manages to say. She regrets asking, would rather not know the pain she caused both of them.

Uncomfortable silence stretches again, spreading through the air like thick fog that makes it hard to breathe.

It’s getting late and Ellie fears that Dina will want her to leave soon. Ellie still hasn’t done what she came here to do. She needs to tell Dina the truth so she can finally be free of the weight that was enforced on her.

“Joel and I didn’t meet while we were trying to run away from the quarantine zone,” Ellie begins, her heart beats fast in her chest. Joel had told her to never tell anyone the truth and that had been so engraved in her brain that she feels like if she shares it, the entire world will explode. “He was paid by the Fireflies to transport me to them, so they can make a vaccine.”

Dina looks at her then, her eyes drop to Ellie’s forearm, covered by her moth tattoo. She concentrates then, her brow furrowing with it.

Ellie can almost see the gears turn in her head. She’s probably trying to connect the dots.

“A vaccine?” Dina asks.

“As you can see that didn’t work out.”

Ellie talks for a long time then. She tells Dina everything. About Marlene and how Ellie’s mom used to be friends with her, how Ellie never got to find out more about her mom other than the letter. About Tess and how she died because of Ellie, how the first drop off turned out to be a dead end and Joel had reluctantly agreed to keep looking for the Fireflies.

She tells Dina about Bill's town, about how she got to drive a car there. About Pittsburgh, about Henry and Sam and how they died. She tells Dina about how they met Tommy and Maria at the dam, about how Joel had wanted to get rid of her and how Ellie had ran away.

About the university Tommy had sent them to and how Joel had started to warm up to her and share more about his life. Ellie quickly tells her about how Joel had gotten hurt and about the cannibals. Dina knows that part already.

Dina listens attentively, asking questions and trying to convince Ellie that those deaths are not on her.

Ellie tells Dina about how they had reached Salt Lake City, about how she had almost drowned and when she had woken up she had been in the back of a car, wearing a hospital gown. She tells Dina about Joel’s lie and how they reached Jackson.

“I could never get over it. The lie. Years later I ran away from town.” Dina must remember that, how Ellie had just disappeared for one week with no explanation. “I went back to the hospital. It was empty, there was no one there. All I found was some files and a recorder, saying that the Fireflies were dismantling and the only person that could make the vaccine was dead.”

“Joel found me then and he finally told me the truth. That to make the vaccine they would have to kill me. I used to stay awake at night imagining every possible scenario about what might have happened back then, but I had never imagined that, that he could kill so many people to keep me alive without even asking what I wanted. He took my choice, my purpose.”

Dina hasn’t said a word since Ellie started talking about the hospital.

“That’s why things were weird between Joel and me.”

“And why you acted weird too?” Dina asks.

“I guess so, yeah.”

For a couple of months after Ellie had came back from Salt Lake City she had ignored all of her friends, always finding some reason to not hang out with them. She had spent all of her free time sitting on the roof of an abandoned house near the fence around the town, playing her guitar. She had hated how playing it was the only thing that could comfort her and yet remind her of Joel so much.

She would give anything to be able to play again.

Ellie had pretended like those two months never happened. Ignored all of Dina’s questions until they had eventually stopped.

“Was he right?” Ellie asks. “That I shouldn’t tell anyone.” Ellie is scared that Dina doesn’t believe her or that she’s mad that there is no vaccine because of her and Joel.

“If Joel hadn’t done that then I would’ve never met you,” Dina says slowly, thoughtfully. “I’m glad he did it.”

Ellie frowns, her eyes scanning Dina’s face. “But if you never met me you could’ve been happier in a world without the fear of getting infected… and with Jesse.”

Ellie can’t help but wonder sometimes if Dina would’ve went back to Jesse if he hadn’t been killed. With the way she had been worrying about him when he had arrived at the theater in Seattle and Dina’s pregnancy, Ellie hadn’t been sure that Dina would still want to be with her.

Ellie had asked Dina that question many times. Each time Dina had said that she would always choose Ellie, no matter what.

Ellie believed her, but every time that little voice in the back of her head kept telling her that it wasn’t true.

“How do you know that they would’ve succeeded in making a vaccine,” Dina asks. “You know that many groups have tried to make one, but they all failed?”

“That’s because they didn’t have me,” Ellie’s quick to say.

“Ellie, those things are not certain. You can’t just know for sure that you’ll make a vaccine.”

Ellie shakes her head, stares at her lap. “No, that’s not…” Ellie trails off, she’s never thought about things like this.

Surely if they were going to kill her they were certain that they could make a vaccine?

“So,” Dina begins cautiously when Ellie doesn’t speak for a long moment, too lost in her thoughts. “It was the remaining Fireflies that killed Joel, weren’t they?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, I gathered as much.”

“On the recorder I found in Salt Lake City.” Ellie touches the moth on her forearm. When lost in darkness look for the light. Just like moths do. Who would’ve though that the Fireflies turned out to be the darkness? “They said that they wanted to look for me and Joel. I guess- I guess they finally found us. They must've tortured Joel to find out where I am. They didn’t take me with them so that means Joel didn’t tell them anything.”

Dina shuffles closer, her hand lingers near Ellie’s knee, but she doesn’t touch her.

“They killed him because of me.” Ellie nods to herself, sure in her words.

“Oh, Ellie.” Dina’s fingers tap beneath Ellie’s chin. “Look at me, babe.” Ellie lifts her eyes, looks at Dina’s gentle and understanding eyes. “You can’t blame yourself for that. It’s not your fault, do you hear me?”

Ellie shakes her head. “It is though. So many people have died because of me.”

“No, Ellie. You can’t do this. You can’t blame yourself for every bad thing that has ever happened.”

She can blame herself, she’s done it for a long time now. But Ellie doesn’t want to argue with Dina so she just nods.

“You know, I actually promised Joel that I would try to forgive him the night before he…” Ellie trails off, she doesn’t want to say the words. “I’ll never get to do that now.”

Dina’s eyes search Ellie’s face. Dina looks so sad, that’s one of the reasons Ellie loves her so much – how much she feels for other people.

“I’m sorry,” she says.

“I don’t want to remember the bad things about him anymore. When I think about Joel I want to remember the good, not the pain.”

“I want that for you too, El. It’s good that you want it.”

“You think so?”

Dina nods and Ellie glances out the window, swallows harshly. It’s late, the sky is pitch black and Ellie can’t make out anything outside.

She should probably go, Dina probably wants her to go. The only problem is that Ellie doesn’t want to, this could very well be the last time Ellie sees her and she can’t think about that.

“It’s late,”, Ellie remarks, she watches Dina closely.

She glances out the window too then. “It is.” She yawns and that’s all Ellie needs to know.

“I have to go.” Today is very likely one of the only days Dina can go to bed early and not have to worry about the cries of a baby during the night.

“Oh, okay.” To Ellie it seems that Dina’s expression drops, but she thinks that she’s imagining it, she must be. There is no other explanation.

Ellie gets up, her legs are a little bit sore from sitting in the same position for so long. Dina stands up too and she leads Ellie to the hallway and then to the front door.

She opens the door wide, leans on it as she waits. “Goodnight, Ellie.”

“Goodnight,” Ellie says, she lingers in the doorway facing Dina.

She doesn’t know what she wants to, but it’s not this. It’s not leaving.

Dina’s eyes linger on her. She thinks that she can see longing in them, in the way her eyes dart around Ellie’s face. She knows that that’s reflected in her own eyes.

“Can I hug you?” Dina asks so suddenly.

Ellie frowns, weirded out by the fact that she had even asked that. Personal space was never something in Dina’s vocabulary and Ellie doubted that it would be added there now.

She shakes herself out of her confusions as the words spur Ellie into action. That’s all she’s wanted to do for so long, she’s not going to wait any longer. She steps closer to Dina. “Of course,” Ellie says, as she wraps her arms around Dina’s waist hesitantly, slowly. “You don’t have to ask that.”

Ellie sighs into the hug, her shoulders dropping in relief that she still gets to do this.

Dina’s hands hang at her side and for a moment Ellie thinks she’s done something wrong. Dina breathes out a shuddering breath and buries her face in the crook of Ellie’s neck.

Ellie brings her body as close as she can to her own. She lets herself enjoy it, she hasn’t had much physical contact with the girl she loves for almost half a year and it feels good.

If it’s the last time Ellie gets to hug her then she’ll savor it, remember it.

Ellie makes a note of everything. How good and familiar Dina’s hair smells, how soft the fabric of her shirt feels in Ellie’s grasp. How her hands grasp at Ellie’s shoulders almost desperately, like she doesn’t want to let Ellie go.

Ellie lets herself imagine that Dina still wants her.

“I just- last time when I held your hand… when I touched your fingers, you flinched away from me. You’ve never done that,” Dina explains softly against her neck, hesitantly, her breath warm against Ellie’s skin. “And I didn’t realize it until much later. I’m sorry, I should’ve asked.”

Oh.

So that’s why Dina kept hesitating whenever she wanted to reach out for Ellie the entire evening.

“It’s okay. You don’t have to ask,” Ellie reassures, presses her face into Dina’s hair, breathes her in. She tries to hug her even closer, but that’s not possible.

Time passes and Dina doesn’t let go and if anything, her hold on Ellie only gets firmer. “I’ve missed you so much,” Dina whispers and her hold tightens impossibly. Ellie can feel warm tears on the skin of her neck.

“I’ve missed you too.” Ellie wills herself not to cry.

Eventually Dina's hands drop, Ellie's do too, reluctantly.

“Ellie,” Dina whispers, she’s so close to Ellie. “I don’t give a fuck about a vaccine, all I care about is you.” The words are intimate, meant just for Ellie.

Ellie’s left speechless. She’s always thought that if someone found out about the vaccine they would hate her.

Dina takes a step back and Ellie’s left alone in the doorway before she can process what she’s been told.

Dina begins to close the door so Ellie walks out, she turns around to wave, watching as the door closes shut.

The lights go off in a moment.

---

When Ellie leaves she doesn’t head to her place. Instead she heads for Joel’s house. She makes herself a cup of coffee and leans on the railing of the porch, thinking about the last conversation she ever had with him.

She hopes that it was enough for Joel. She knows it wasn’t for her.

“I think it’s funny how I’m in a similar position with Dina now,” Ellie says, frowning at the wood of the railing.

She deserves to be in it.

“I’m sorry, Joel.”

She doesn’t drink all of the coffee because, first, it still tastes like shit. Second, she won’t be able to go to sleep, not that she would be able to at all, but she doesn’t want to make it worse. And third, because it’s really fucking cold.

Ellie only leaves when she’s gotten so cold that she can’t stop shivering.

She should’ve brought warmer clothes. Or at least not forgot her flannel at Dina’s house.