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The Good Fight

Chapter Text

Ellie used her crowbar to pry off the bottom plank of wood blocking the doorway and then paused, listening hard. No doubt there were infected in other parts of the abandoned apartment building, but over the last hour or so she’d managed to clear out almost three entire floors. She’d noticed a generator on the roof and had decided that the chance at electricity and a warm bed for a night was worth calling it quits a little early. After getting the generator purring again, she’d followed the electrical cables to apartment 509, clearing out all the infected along the way. For good measure she’d cleared the rest of the floor and the one below it, although there were a few places she’d been unable to reach due to the general disrepair of the building. She was confident that as long as she didn’t throw any crazy parties or decide to take up tap dancing, the infected that remained on the floor below her would have no incentive to seek out a way of reaching her.

Once she was certain that the noise she’d made with her crowbar had not alerted any unwanted visitors, she shoved her backpack through the narrow space she’d created, flattened herself on her belly on the floor, and crawled under after it. The apartment was completely dark and covered with dust. Whoever had set this place up had clearly, for one reason or another, made a deliberate decision to abandon it. There was no sign of a struggle and nothing left out of place, and the previous resident had even decided to board it up before leaving, as though they were hoping to one day return. In the old days Ellie would have tried to maintain optimism that the resident was still alive somewhere, but as a wiser-than-her-years 21-year-old she was able to admit to herself that this was unlikely. The place had been empty for a long time. If the owner was still able to come home, he probably would have already done so by now.

She spent a few minutes looking around, turning on lights as she went, rummaging through drawers and examining all the old world crap that had been left behind. There were a lot of those figurines of fantasy creatures that Joel had once told her people used to play table-top role playing games. Actually, the word he’d used was “nerds.” Nerds used them to play games. Ellie smiled as she remembered trying to convince Joel that they were actually pretty cool, and she’d even secretly swiped one of the figurines - a black dragon that was simply too nifty to let sit unappreciated in an abandoned QZ home. She’d kept it for a long time, sometimes annoying Joel with it at night when they were camped out. Somewhere along the line she’d lost the dragon, although she couldn’t be sure where. There were too many opportunities for things to fall out of her pockets in those days. All she knew was that one night she’d checked for it and it wasn’t there. One more loss in a lifetime of losses. Now she looked closely at all the figurines in her temporary home, but another of the black dragons was not among them. 

In the kitchen she found a can of ravioli and a can opener. She’d noticed a hot plate in the living room so she started to head back that way, but when she turned something caught her eye. A bottle of whiskey was tucked away on the opposite side of the kitchen island. “Nice,” she mumbled as she picked it up and inspected the label. It was a quality malt, a real treat. “Thank you, kind stranger. Don’t mind if I do. Don’t worry, I’ll leave some for you, too, in case you ever come back.”

There were some fancy glasses in a cupboard, but she decided to take a coffee mug instead because it reminded her of Joel. Dina had suggested that she make an effort to do more things that reminded her of him. She hadn’t been pleased that Ellie had decided not to take her guitar from the old house, despite the fact that it would be much harder to play with only three fingers on her left hand. “You let Abby take too much from you, El,” Dina had said. “She took him from you once, but you can’t let her keep taking him for the rest of your life. You need to remember him. Otherwise what was the point of all this?”

What, indeed? Ellie plopped herself down on the couch, turned on the hot plate and set the can on top of it. Then she cracked open the whiskey and poured herself a drink. She kicked off her boots and propped her feet up on the table, cradling the mug as she leaned back and stretched her neck, finally allowing herself to relax. Closing her eyes, she let her head fall against the couch and mentally counted to sixty twice, trying not to focus too much on her rumbling stomach. At the end of the two minutes, she wrapped her damaged left hand up in a cloth and reached out to grab the hot can. With her right hand she took out her switchblade and began stabbing the raviolis with the blade, shoveling the food into her mouth as slowly as she could force herself to do it, which was still probably too fast. Food had been relatively scarce on the road - certainly more scarce than it had been during her time back in Jackson.

With her belly now full of food she set the empty can down on the table and used the cloth around her hand to clean off her knife. The shiny metal glinted in the dim light from the dust-covered lamp on the end table beside her, and she turned it a few times in her palm, remembering…

The ocean was cold around her lower body, the waves lapping against her unnoticed. The sound of Abby’s motorboat faded until it could barely be heard over the ringing in her ears. Her mind was centered around one singular thought: I let her live.

I let her live. I let her live. I let her live I let her live I let her live.

Something primal was rebelling against her own body’s inaction. It screamed for her to get in her boat and chase her prey, the quarry she’d been stalking for what felt like forever. 

But she was so… So… Tired.

She could no longer hear the boat. Even if she wanted to, the chance to chase Abby was gone. It would be as futile as chasing the wind or the waves that lapped all around her. She closed her eyes, tears slipping down her cheeks. Joel’s mangled face flashed against the back of her eyelids, and that primal voice inside her roared. She killed my person. She killed Joel. Why does she get to live while he had to die? 

Ellie wanted to die, too. She was in such pain. She was so… damaged. Her hand felt on fire from the salt of the ocean and there was an odd feeling of imbalance on it - she realized again with a sinking feeling that two of her fingers were gone forever. Energy and life were flowing out of her with every heartbeat. She didn’t think she could move. She didn’t think she wanted to.

Something brushed against her knee and she forced her eyes open again, banishing that horrible image of Joel. With a great effort, she reached under the water with her uninjured right hand and closed it around the handle of her switchblade. A foggy memory of the fight came back to her, of Abby knocking the knife into the ocean. But now here it was, returned to her even though its intended target had evaporated into the unknown distance.

She flipped it open, examining the flashing of light on the blade. How much of her life had been spent with this knife in her hand? How many different people had she cut with it? How many infected?

The wind shifted, carrying the sounds of the fighting in the rattler compound behind her. The prisoners were fighting for their freedom. The rattlers were fighting for… what? Their right to commit cruel atrocities? Why, when the world was already so fucked, did people have to fight each other? Wasn’t the cordyceps enough? Even Ellie, with her immunity, was constantly at risk from the violence of the infected. That was the real enemy. If it wasn’t for the outbreak, none of this would have happened. 

And she could have ended it, if it wasn’t for Joel.

Guilt flooded over her like the ocean around her. Guilt for her immunity, for surviving even as Riley and countless others died. Guilt for failing to save humanity from this plague. Guilt for loving Joel, who had prevented salvation. And, with a sharp pang she suddenly understood that there was guilt for her hatred of Abby, who had every right to be angry with Joel.

Immediately after, she felt guilt over her understanding of the monster who had tortured and murdered Joel, the person in the world who had loved her the most.

She was so confused and so lost and so damaged. And still so very tired.

But… The primal thing inside her grew quiet, and she found she was able to lift herself up out of the waves and onto her feet. She staggered towards the remaining motorboat and tumbled head-first over the side. Aching with pain, she pulled the ripcord and got the motor started.

And when she sailed away from the coastline, it was astonishingly easy to go the opposite direction from where she’d seen Abby and her companion go.

Ellie closed the blade and squeezed it tight in her hand before placing it back in her pocket. Since that day over eighteen months ago she’d not used the blade or any other weapon on any non-infected humans. It hadn’t been easy, and she knew a lot of it was dumb luck, but she’d been careful not to kill anyone she’d come across. At first it had been difficult to resist that savage part of her that wanted to pay back what she was given. Plenty of people had attacked her for trespassing through their territory or for the chance to steal her gear, and her instincts still cried for blood to pay for blood. But every time she was tempted she thought of that day in the ocean, of the sound of Abby’s motorboat fading away, of the pain and exhaustion… And of her sudden understanding for Abby’s rage.

It was hard, and she didn’t want to think of it, but it was the only way. It was the only way to keep that primal thing inside her quiet so she could hear her own rational mind through the din. Control. The key was to stay in control. She didn’t want to go back to that place that had made her lose everything. Dina. JJ. Jesse. Jackson. All of it was gone, all because Ellie couldn’t control the part of herself that roared for blood and vengeance. In the long trip from Santa Barbara back to Jackson, Ellie had tried to convince herself that she could go home again. That she could fit herself back into that life with the woman she loved. That she could be a part of a family again and move on from the war she’d been fighting since she was fourteen years old. It had been the same war the entire time, except until recently she’d been confused about who her enemies were.

Things changed as she got closer. The landmarks she passed became more familiar, and they caused her pain. She returned to the home she’d shared with Dina and JJ, unsurprised to find it empty but for her own personal items. It had been just as easy to leave it all behind as it had been to let Abby go. By the time she passed the Baldwin place, where Joel had been murdered, she knew there was no going home again.

The first thing she did when the astonished Rob and Jim, who were standing guard at the Jackson gate, had opened the doors for her was ask about Dina. That’s when she learned that Dina had been true to her word and moved on. They told her she was probably at her house on the south side, where she lived with JJ and Tucker. “Tucker?” Ellie had asked. She knew him well, had patrolled with him many times. He was a good guy, although not a particularly good shot.

“Yeah,” Jim had said, looking uncomfortable. “They’re like… You know. An item.”

More pain. It seemed the pain was truly going to be the only constant companion she’d ever have in this life.

“Ah,” she’d said simply, feeling numbness come over her like a welcome anesthetic. “The south side, you said?”

“Yeah.”

“Alright, thanks.”

As Ellie turned to leave, Rob asked, “You want us to let Tommy know you’re back?”

“Uh,” said Ellie distractedly, “yeah, sure. Tell him I’ll be by at some point.” She took a few steps away, then paused and added, “Tell him not to come looking for me.”

“You think he’ll listen?”

“No, but tell him anyway.”

“You got it, Ellie. And, uh… Welcome back.”

“Thanks.”

People turned to look as she passed them by. She supposed it was just as well she’d told Rob to let Tommy know she was back. He’d surely have found out anyway. In fact she’d be surprised if Rob got to him first.

She hadn't been given the exact location of Dina’s residence, but she knew it when she saw it. There was a beautiful garden out front, and a playset had been built for JJ on the lawn. The place radiated with Dina’s warmth and levity. Ellie allowed herself a moment to mourn the loss of her family, but only a moment. Then she squared her shoulders and headed up the walkway. She paused in front of the doorway, listening. There was music and laughter inside. She recognized Dina and JJ’s laughter, but she did not recognize the song. Taking a deep breath, she raised her fist and pounded on the door.

It opened a second later to reveal Tucker, still smiling from whatever family moment they had been sharing. But the smile fell off his face when he saw Ellie standing there. “Holy shit,” he said. “Ellie.”

Ellie looked past him to where Dina stood in the middle of the warmly-lit family room, holding JJ in her arms. He was so much bigger now, and Ellie’s heart ached for all the time she’d missed with him. And Dina was… Radiant as always. She stared in disbelief at Ellie in the doorway, stunned into total stillness.

“Hey,” said Ellie.

“When did you get back?” asked Tucker.

“Uh, just now.” Ellie had not looked away from Dina for even one second. All three of them seemed to be frozen solid, unsure what to do or say. 

It was JJ who broke the ice. He turned in Dina’s arms and saw Ellie, and he immediately began to fuss and reach for her. Dina looked at her son and smiled. “That’s right, sweetie, it’s Ellie,” she cooed. “Wanna go say hi?”

Recovering from his shock, Tucker stepped back from the doorway. “I’m sorry, I’m being so rude. Come in, come in.”

Ellie came inside and Tucker shut the door behind her. She went over to Dina, who passed JJ over to her. Feeling him in her arms again was the sweetest sensation that Ellie had experienced in a long, long time. “Hey, my little Potato buddy,” she said around the lump in her throat. “I missed you so much.” She hugged him close and breathed him in, then blew a raspberry into his cheek, causing him to fill the room with the sound of his giggles. “You still like that, huh? How about this?” She held him up in the air and then spun around and he shrieked with joy. Grunting with effort, Ellie lowered him back down to her chest. “Won’t be able to do that much longer, huh?” she commented to Dina. “He’s getting so big.”

“I swear, just yesterday he was the size of a peanut,” said Dina fondly. “He looks like his daddy, don’t you think?”

“Yeah,” Ellie agreed. “But I can see you in there too.” She ran her finger along the side of his face. “He has your jawline. Probably means he’ll be just as stubborn as you.”

“He already is.” Looking over at Tucker, she said, “Hun, will you…?”

Snapping into action, Tucker came over and Ellie let him take JJ from her. “Yeah, I’ll just go put him down so you two can catch up. I’ll, uh… I’ll be upstairs if you need anything.”

Once he had gone, Ellie felt extremely awkward. She scratched her right arm with her damaged left hand, which drew Dina’s eyes to the injury. “Shit, El,” she said, stepping closer and taking her hand. She inspected it for a moment, then looked up to meet Ellie’s eyes. “I guess you probably have some stories, huh?”

“Just a few.”

They came to a wordless agreement and both went outside to sit on the porch. “Are you okay?” Dina asked.

Ellie shrugged. “I guess. It looks like you’re doing pretty good, though.”

“Ellie, you didn’t expect me to wait around for you, did you? I told you-”

“No,” interjected Ellie. “I didn’t expect that at all. I knew when I left that it was over. I’m… I’m glad you’re not alone. Tucker is a good guy.”

Relaxing a little, Dina chuckled. “He is. Can’t shoot for shit, though.”

For the first time in what felt like years, Ellie laughed. “Damn, I thought he’d have improved by now.”

“Nope. Not even a little.” Silence fell again, the night air permeated by the chirping of crickets. “Do you wanna tell me what happened?”

“No,” said Ellie. Then: “Yes. I don’t know. It wasn’t… It didn’t turn out like I expected.”

“Did you find her?” asked Dina quietly.

“I found her. She was right where Tommy said she’d be. But…”

She trailed off, and Dina finished the thought: “You didn’t kill her.”

Ellie shook her head.

“So it’s not over,” said Dina.

“It’s over,” Ellie said firmly. 

Dina crossed her arms over her chest and looked away. “Yeah, like I’d believe that again.”

“It’s the truth.” Ellie stood and leaned on the porch railing. “You should know better than anyone that I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t over.”

“Hm,” was all Dina said in reply. 

Turning to face her, Ellie said, “Look, don’t tell Tommy that I didn’t… That she’s still out there, okay? I don’t want him doing anything stupid. And he needs it, you know? He needs the closure, I think.”

“Yeah, sure. It’s not really my place to tell, anyway.” She stood and joined Ellie at the railing. “What are you gonna do, lie to him about it?”

“That’s the plan, yes,” said Ellie. 

“Mm-kay.”

“What, you don’t approve?”

“It’s none of my business.”

Ellie swallowed and looked away. It used to be your business, she thought. She straightened up from where she’d been leaning against the rail. “Well, I’m gonna get going, I guess.”

“Okay,” said Dina. She followed Ellie to the edge of the porch and watched her head down the walkway. “See you around?”

“Yeah, see you,” replied Ellie without turning back. She waited until she was around the corner to reach up and wipe the tears from her face.

She stayed in Jackson for four days, and each day she went to see Dina at night, talking with her about inconsequential things, about daily life in Jackson, about her travels, about her visit to the farm house. To everyone else it looked like Ellie was settling back into the swing of things, but Ellie could tell that Dina knew better. 

When she showed up at her house on the forth night, she knew Tucker was out on patrol so she let herself in without knocking and dropped her pack on the ground by the door. Dina came out from the kitchen with JJ in her arms, and her eyes immediately fell to the pack, knowing what it meant. She took a deep, steadying breath and said, “I was just about to put him down.”

Ellie stepped forward and reached out for the sleepy boy, who in turn reached out towards her. “May I?”

Dina nodded and let Ellie take him. She carried the boy to his room, absorbing the way he clung to her so tightly. Gently, she placed him down in his bassinet, leaning over to lay a long, loving kiss on his forehead. “Bye, little spud. I love you. Please live a long, happy life, okay? For me,” she whispered, running her fingers through his hair.

She straightened up and turned to see Dina leaning on the doorway watching her. “I would have been happy, you know?” she said quietly. “To see this for the rest of my life.”

“I know,” replied Ellie.

They went to the sitting room and sat on opposite ends of the couch. “Where will you go?” asked Dina.

“Tommy told me about some travelers from the east that passed through a few months back. He said they heard rumors that the Fireflies are regrouping.”

“Where?”

“Um, well… California, actually,” said Ellie awkwardly.

“California,” Dina repeated flatly.

“Yup.”

“Where Abby is.”

“It’s not about that, I swear. It’s just a coincidence. I don’t give a shit about her anymore. I’m done with that. Besides, I don’t even know if she’s still there. She could be long gone by now.”

“Never stopped you before.”

Ellie turned towards her, putting one leg up on the couch. “Dina, I’m telling you the truth.” Seeing that she was still unconvinced, Ellie decided that she had to be honest with her. She couldn’t leave things between them on bad terms again, not when they were never going to see each other again. “Look, there’s something I never told you about Joel. Only Tommy knows this, so I need you to keep it to yourself, okay?”

Studying her intently, Dina nodded. “Okay.”

“When I discovered I was immune, Joel was supposed to bring me to the Fireflies. And he did. And when we got there, the doctors ran some tests, and they determined that… That they could make a vaccine. From me.”

“What?” breathed Dina.

“But… But it would have killed me. And when Joel heard that, he wouldn’t let them do it. He killed them, Dina. He killed them all.”

“Fuck, El!” Dina stood up and began pacing the room.

“That’s why Abby and the others wanted him dead. If it wasn’t for Joel, we could have been saved. All of us.”

Dina continued to pace, so Ellie kept talking.

“He lied to me at first. For a few years, he told me there was no cure. I was unconscious for the whole thing so I didn’t know what happened.”

“And you believed him?”

“No,” Ellie admitted. “I mean, I always had my suspicions. Eventually I got the truth out of him, though. It changed things between us. I always wanted my immunity to mean something, you know? And he took that from me.”

Finally Dina stopped pacing and stood in the middle of the room looking at her. “And now you want to go to the Fireflies, so you can make it right.”

“Essentially. I found a recording at the hospital where this all went down where one of the Fireflies claimed there was no other doctor in the world but the one that Joel killed who could make the vaccine. But I have to try, don’t I? How can I sit here and die of old age in Jackson when there’s even the slightest possibility that I could end this nightmare?” She gestured to the room where she had just put JJ to bed. “How could I live with myself if I didn’t try to make a world where he could grow old in safety? No. I’ll do whatever it takes. This fight against the infected, this is my fight. I can’t keep hiding from it.”

Nodding her understanding, Dina reached up and wiped away the tears that had started to fall. “Okay,” she said, her voice breaking. “Okay.”

After several minutes of silence, Ellie stood and went to the door. She picked up her pack and put it on, then turned back to Dina. “I should go,” she said. 

Dina crossed the room and threw her arms around her shoulders, holding her tightly. “I never stopped loving you, Ellie. You know that, right?”

“I know. And I’ll always love you, Dina. And JJ, too. Leaving you was probably the stupidest thing I ever did.” Ellie pulled back and put her hands on either side of Dina’s face, drinking in the last look she’d ever get. “Die of old age, okay? Both of you. You promise?”

“I promise,” whispered Dina, her breath catching in her throat, knowing now that she could not ask the same promise of Ellie.

Ellie stepped back and slipped the bracelet off her wrist, placed it in Dina’s hands and closed her fingers around it. Then, overwhelmed and wanting very badly to stay, she turned and left the house, closing the door behind her.

A loud bang from the floor below her jolted Ellie out of her memories. She could hear the infected making their pained groanings, and it made her heart race with alarm. But she’d been thorough in her inspection of the building and she was confident that none would be able to reach her, and these rational thoughts served to calm her. She resumed sipping her whiskey, and soon enough the infected had settled down again. By the time she went to bed she was enjoying a pleasant buzz, and she drifted off to sleep thinking of Dina.

Morning found her refreshed and ready to move on. She left a note for the previous resident of the apartment thanking him for his hospitality and wishing him good luck, then she climbed back up to the roof and shut off the generator. Then she started the climb down the fire escape to the street below. She’d noticed a cafe a few blocks away the day before that she wanted to check for supplies, and to maybe find some coffee beans because they reminded her of Joel.

She wasn’t far from Catalina Island now, and she was expecting to start running into Fireflies within the next day or two. She had already seen signs of their presence - graffiti on the walls, random stores of supplies, notes from members left for their comrades - although she thought they were probably more like straggling road signs than proof of actual organized Firefly activity. She was still over fifty miles from the coast, according to her map. It seemed unlikely that they would routinely come this far inland. Why would they bother?

Los Angeles was easily her favorite city she’d ever visited. She liked the sunny weather, and the remains of the old world were the best she’d seen since the museum that Joel had taken her to. She wished Joel could have seen Los Angeles. About a week ago she’d turned a corner and found herself in what could only be a collection of movie studios. A dozen different warehouses were packed together in close vicinity, each one housing different wonders of the pre-outbreak world. Rather than press forward immediately she had lingered for two whole days exploring the entire place. 

There had been a movie set of an old western town, another set designed to look like it was underwater, one that was nothing but walls and structures completely covered in green screen, and even one that looked like the inside of a spaceship that she had spent more time in than she cared to admit. Another of the warehouses had been filled with endless rows of props, shelves filled with wardrobes and fake weaponry and rubber body parts and furniture and even huge, lifelike plastic animals. She had spent a pleasurable few hours imagining what she would bring for the folks back in Jackson, if she could. For Tommy, a full set of cowboy clothes, boots and sheriff badge and all. For JJ, a brand new bicycle that rode easier than any that Ellie had ever come across before. For Dina, a mint-condition drum set and actual drumsticks she could use. It brought back the amusing memory of the music shop in Seattle. But thinking of Seattle caused a sour taste in her mouth, and despite the fact that the whole game was imaginary, she picked out a new pretend gift for Dina anyway - an uncomfortably realistic naked rubber man.

But that area of the city was long gone by now, just another stepping stone on Ellie’s long journey. The part of Los Angeles she was walking through now contained more typical city fare - apartments, shops, and office buildings, although none of them scraped the sky the way they did in other cities. She’d spent a day traveling with an older gentleman who was headed in the same general direction as her for a while to reach the highway and go south (Ellie didn’t ask him why he was going that direction because typically travelers didn’t trust people who asked too many personal questions), and he had told her that in the old world they’d been concerned about earthquakes in this part of the country, so they never built their buildings very high. He’d said the area had suffered a massive quake a few years back, which was why so many of the buildings and roads were so torn up. When Ellie asked if that was still a danger he’d said it was, but that there tended to be about a hundred years or so between quakes of that magnitude.

“Well that’s good,” Ellie had said grimly. “I think we’ve got plenty to worry about for the next hundred years already, don’t you?”

As though summoned by her idle recollections, in a very surreal moment, Ellie felt the ground itself shift beneath her feet. At first it was so slight she was sure she’d imagined it because of what she’d just been thinking about. But as she paused in the street it became more powerful, and Ellie put a hand on a nearby car to keep her balance, her heart pounding in her ears. A sudden sharp jolt threw her sideways, and she landed hard on the pavement with a grunt of pain.

It seemed to go on for hours, although in reality she knew it was probably only a few seconds. The noise of it was unbelievable, the air filled with the sounds of metal clanking and rocks grinding against each other. The movement of the earth kicked up dust in the air, and windows all along the streets shattered as the buildings swayed. Ellie shut her eyes tight, curling up in a ball with her hands over her head to protect herself from debris falling off a rooftop above her, unable to scramble away due to the violence of the earthquake.

And then it ended abruptly, and Ellie stood up on shaky legs, breathing hard. “Glad that’s over,” she panted to herself. She brushed off her jeans and looked around. “That fucking guy lied to me, though.” With the event over, Ellie was just about to start walking again when the unmistakable shriek of infected ripped through the eerie post-earthquake silence in the city around her. “Oh, fuck,” said Ellie, turning to see a huge herd of the fuckers running down the street. The earthquake had stirred all the infected in the city into a frenzy, and their cries were coming from all around her. “Oh, FUCK!” she said again, and she took off running as fast as she could, her sheer terror lending her speed. As she ran she could hear the mob behind her, could hear all the infected they passed along their way joining the ranks of the horde. 

Ellie took a sharp pivot into a back alley, overturning a large garbage can in the hopes of slowing the herd down. She leapt over some wooden crates and kept going, and a few seconds later she heard the crates smash as the infected trampled right through them as though they didn’t even exist. The alleyway opened up onto a larger street, and she could see still more infected climbing out of windows, spilling out onto the streets at the sound of their ilk’s stampede. “Fuck!” Ellie yelled, pulling out her gun and firing wildly as she ran, killing any infected that got in her way. “Fuck fuck fuck fuck!”

Her luck ran out as she passed a convenience store. Two runners leapt out and flanked her, and a third appeared out of nowhere to throw itself to the ground in front of her. Ellie jumped, but it wasn’t soon enough and her foot impacted its side, sending her tumbling to the ground. Panicked, Ellie rolled to her back and held her gun out in front of her, shooting into the oncoming mob, but she was soon overcome and they fell upon her. She brought her hands up to protect her face as one landed heavily on top of her, and she felt teeth sink into her left shoulder.

They began clawing at her clothes and pounding on her body, trying to get their nails into her and rip her apart. Ellie could feel herself blacking out, the life seeping out of her from all her wounds. 

But just like the earthquake, the attack stopped abruptly. Something down the street had caught the infected’s attention, and they stood to charge towards it, instead. Ellie used the opportunity to scoot her body backwards and sit up against a car, lifting her gun to start shooting again. The sounds of gunfire filled the air, and it took the confused and injured Ellie a second to realize it wasn’t coming from her own gun because she was out of bullets. Wiping blood away from her eyes, she leaned forward to look around the edge of the car to see a group of four people wearing army fatigues coming down the street. One was pushing a cart with a mounted machine gun along the road towards the infected, and another was sitting behind the gun spraying non-stop bullets into the crowd of infected. The third soldier was liberally throwing molotov cocktails, and the fourth was expertly using a traditional hand-held machine gun with impressive accuracy.

Ellie leaned back against the car and took a deep breath, knowing she was saved but struggling to maintain consciousness. Everything hurt, and she could tell the bite mark on her shoulder was flowing blood freely. She closed her eyes and concentrated on her breathing.

A voice came to her as though she was underwater. Someone was running down the street towards her, although Ellie couldn’t muster the strength to turn her head and look. In fact she couldn’t even open her eyes. “Hey,” the voice said, and Ellie could hear that the soldier was coming around the car towards her. “Hey, you still with us?” Then the footsteps skidded to a stop, and the voice said: “Holy shit.”

Ellie forced her eyes open to confirm what she had already realized was true.

It was Abby.

“It’s you,” said Abby breathlessly in a bizarre moment of deja vu.

Ellie closed her eyes again and burst into helpless laughter, which only stopped when she could no longer fight back the enclosing darkness of blessed unconsciousness.

Chapter Text

“Alright, I think we’re clear. Good work, team,” said Patrick, jumping off of his seat behind the machine gun. 

“Holy shit, guys!” said Brandy, surveying the bloody mess that lay before them. “This has got to be a new base-wide record, right?”

“Let’s find out,” said Patrick as he unholstered his pistol and cocked it back. “We’ll break it up into quarters and count while we pick off the stragglers. Where’s Abby?”

“She went to check the civie,” Brian answered, pointing to the car where they’d seen the infected attacking someone. “I’ll go see if she needs any help. There’s no way that girl didn’t get bit and you know how she doesn’t like to handle that.”

“None of us do,” Patrick replied gruffly. He turned and headed off to carefully pick his way through the piles of corpses, counting under his breath and shooting any that were still moving.

Brian jogged down the street and went around the car, finding Abby standing there stiffly, staring with wide eyes at the badly-injured civilian. Coming to stand beside her, his eyes immediately landed on the heavily-bleeding bite mark. “Shit,” he said. “She’s bit. Why don’t you go help with cleanup. I’ll take care of this.” He pulled out his sidearm and reloaded it. When Abby didn’t move, he prompted her with, “Go on, Abby. With a bite that deep she doesn’t have a lot of time.” Still, though, Abby did not move. She simply continued to stare at the unconscious girl as though she hadn’t even heard him. Now annoyed, Brian said, “Alright, fine. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” And he pointed his gun at the girl’s head. Before he could pull the trigger, Abby grabbed his arm and twisted his wrist, causing him to drop the weapon. It happened so fast he’d barely even seen her move. “What the fuck, Abby?”

“Don’t shoot her,” said Abby, her voice rough and raspy. “I know her.”

“Look at that bite mark, dude. I’m sorry if she’s your friend, but she’s fucking infected,” said Brian angrily.

“She’s not,” Abby insisted. “She’s immune.”

Brian stared at her in disbelief. “Come again?”

“I’m telling you, she’s immune! We need to get her bandaged up and back to base right now or she’ll die.” Saying this out loud brought back Abby’s ability to move, and she removed her backpack and knelt down next to Ellie to rummage for her first aid kit.

“You have got to be fucking kidding me, Abby. You want to bring an infected back to base? Do you want to get us all kicked out of the Fireflies?”

The disagreement had caught the attention of the other members of their group, and they came over to see what was going on. “Everything okay over here?” asked Patrick.

“Abby’s lost her god damn mind,” snapped Brian. “This girl has one of the deepest bites I’ve ever seen, and she’s spouting nonsense about immunity!”

Without looking up from her work bandaging up Ellie, Abby said, “It’s the truth. She’s immune.”

“Okay,” drawled Patrick slowly. “Let’s pretend for a second it’s even possible for a person to be immune. How do you know that this girl is?”

“I know her,” repeated Abby. After finishing with the worst of Ellie’s wounds, she sat back on her heels and looked up at her squad-mates. “You guys know I was posted at Salt Lake, right?”

“Yeah,” said Patrick.

“My dad ran the outpost. He was a doctor. Well one day this girl showed up with an old bite mark on her arm and no sign of infection. They ran some tests and determined it’s true. My dad was hoping to be able to use her to develop a vaccine, but…” She trailed off, looking back down at Ellie and wondering how much to divulge. After a second she concluded simply: “It didn’t work out.”

A stunned silence followed this story, and Abby went back to work while the others exchanged glances with each other. “And you’re sure this is the same girl?” Brandy asked hesitantly.

With a humorless chuckle, Abby said, “Positive.” When she looked up again she could tell they were still unsure. She sighed and got to her feet. “Look, you’re right,” she said to Brian. “This bite is very deep. And I’ve never personally seen her resist infection before, so maybe the whole thing isn’t true.” Although she didn’t say it out loud, Abby didn’t believe that. Her own father had been absolutely certain of the veracity of Ellie’s claims, and she trusted her father’s intellect. “Why don’t you and Brandy go get a truck from the checkpoint and come back here to pick us up. That should take you at least an hour, which should be plenty of time for the infection to set in. If she’s infected by then, we’ll kill her. If she’s not, we’re bringing her to the base. Does that work for you?”

“I can’t believe this shit,” muttered Brian. He threw up his hands in defeat. “Fine. Whatever.”

“Good,” said Abby shortly, again kneeling down at Ellie’s side. “Get going, then. And be quick about it. She’s lost a lot of blood. If she’s gonna make it she needs real medical attention soon.”

“Alright,” said Brandy. “Be careful.”

“You too,” replied Abby.

As Brian and Brandy headed off up the street towards the coastline, Abby returned to her task of looking after Ellie. When Patrick came to sit on Ellie’s other side to assist, Abby gave him a grateful smile. “So she’s a friend of yours?” he asked as he began disinfecting a wound on Ellie’s thigh.

“Definitely not,” said Abby flatly.

“But you know her?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay… So that means you two had either a fight or a one night stand. Personally I'm banking on the latter.”

Abby laughed and reached across Ellie to slap his shoulder. “Shut up,” she said. “You know I don’t do that.”

“Au contraire, my friend. I’d venture to say you love a good fight more than most.”

With a smirk, Abby said, “Well, we all love what we’re good at, right?”

“Ooh, you’re one saucy girl, aren’t you?”

The minutes ticked by slowly as they waited for the others, both straining their ears to listen for their friends returning with the truck. They could still hear the occasional sounds of infected in the city around them, though they seemed to be mostly calmed down after the earthquake. To be safe Patrick patrolled the area with his rifle in hand, making sure nothing got the jump on them. While he did that, Abby sat with her back against a lamp post with her rifle laying across her lap, ostensibly watching Ellie for any sign of infection, but in reality dwelling on this unsettling turn of events.

What was Ellie doing here? Abby had truly believed that after their last encounter she would never see her again. Ellie had finally seemed ready to put the whole thing behind her and move on, much like Abby had done three years ago in that theater in Seattle. The memory of that night still filled her with so much grief and shame. She’d killed two people without even a thought. She’d held a knife to the throat of a pregnant woman and wanted so badly to cut her open. Thank god Lev had been there to stop her. A lifetime of favors could never repay him for what his presence in her life had done for her. He had saved her soul. She loved that kid with a fierceness she could never express in words. All she could do was hope to convey it in her actions.

She wished Ellie would wake up so she could understand what was going on. If Ellie was here to fight again, Abby wanted no part of it. Clearly there was something about this girl that wouldn’t let her drop it, and Abby pitied her for it. Her own thirst for vengeance after Joel Miller had killed her father had fundamentally changed the core of her being - it had acted as a poison, siphoning off all the good things in life bit by bit. And when she’d finally gotten the revenge she’d sought for so long, she’d been dismayed to discover that it hadn’t been the antidote she’d expected. She’d still lived in darkness, angry and selfish and destructive. It was only after meeting Lev that she’d found her way back to the light. 

Now things were so good for her, better than they’d been in years. She loved her life with the Fireflies - she loved the work she was doing, she loved the people she was doing it with, and she loved watching Lev flourish in this place, fitting in with those around him and living as the boy he’d always known himself to be. 

No, there was no way she would let Ellie fuck this up for them. If she got even a whiff of an inkling that Ellie was here to perpetuate the terrible cycle of violence they’d found themselves caught up in, Abby would tell the rest of the Fireflies to put her in handcuffs and drive her as far from Los Angeles as they could and leave her there. And if she had to keep doing that every time Ellie showed up, she would. Abby was over it. 

When they heard the truck approaching, Abby stood and walked out to the middle of the road to meet it, and Patrick came over to join her. Brandy stopped the truck in front of them and she and Brian both climbed out. “Still alive?” Brandy asked.

“Yeah,” replied Abby.

“Infected?”

“No.”

“Okay,” said Brandy. She glanced over at Brian. “Grab the stretcher. Let’s get her on the truck.”

They brought over the stretcher to where Ellie was still slumped against the car. It was one of the old world models, scavenged from an abandoned ambulance under a parking garage. It took them a minute to figure out how to get the girl onto it without worsening her injuries, but eventually they managed to slide her body onto the yellow transport board with handholds on it that would allow the four of them to safely move her onto the stretcher.

As they were buckling her in, Ellie started to come around. She moaned with pain, her brow furrowed. Brian looked alarmed, as though he expected her to start biting at any moment, but Brandy was more compassionate. “Don’t worry, uh…” She looked up at Abby. “What’s her name?”

Abby swallowed. She’d never said the girl’s name out loud before, and only knew it because she’d heard the sniper she’d so cavalierly shot in the head use it in the theater. “It’s Ellie,” she said to Brandy, and the name felt like sand in her mouth.

If Brandy noticed her hesitation, she did not comment. Instead she leaned over Ellie and continued: “Don’t worry, Ellie. We’re going to take good care of you.”

Blinking up at them through dazed green eyes, Ellie managed, “Fireflies?”

“Yes, we’re Fireflies,” Brandy answered.

As Abby leaned over Ellie’s body to tighten one of the straps on the transport board, she noticed Ellie’s eyes trail to the dog tags that dangled off her neck as she worked. “You too?” Ellie asked.

“Yeah,” said Abby without looking at her.

“Fuck,” Ellie said, and Abby had to bite back a smile. 

“Couldn’t have put it better myself.”

Ellie was too busy gritting her teeth against pain while they lifted her onto the stretcher and then rolled the stretcher onto the back of the truck to say anything else. Feeling somehow responsible for her, Abby grabbed Ellie’s backpack and climbed up on the truck bed after her, sitting on one of the benches along the side. She took her rifle off her shoulder and checked that it was loaded as Patrick climbed onto the other side and did the same. Brandy and Brian went to sit in the cab, and then they got underway back towards the checkpoint. No one said anything for the first five miles, with Abby and Patrick keeping a watchful eye on the city around them. Then Ellie spoke in a quiet voice: “You guys got any water?”

Patrick looked to Abby, but could tell by her expression that she wanted him to handle this. “Yeah,” he said, pulling out his canteen. “Nice and slow, alright?” He assisted Ellie in lifting her head enough to take a few sips, then gently lowered her back down.

“Thanks,” Ellie said.

Darkness was starting to fall as they reached the safety of the checkpoint. The gate guards opened up for them at Patrick’s wave, and they continued on towards the medical tent. They parked in front of it and Abby and Patrick hopped off the truck. Patrick went in the tent to grab a medic, but Abby walked around to the open driver’s side window to speak with Brandy. “Go radio the base,” she said quietly. “Get them to put Liz on a private frequency and tell her what we’re bringing in. But make sure you speak directly to her, alright? We don’t want the whole base buzzing about this. We need to at least attempt to have a little discretion.”

“You got it, Abs,” said Brandy, and she got out and started jogging over to the communications tent.

By the time Abby returned to the bed of the truck, the head medic Margie had already climbed up and begun inspecting Ellie. She and Patrick were both hovering over the girl, speaking to her quietly. “And how long ago did this happen?” Margie was asking. She had ever-so-slightly uncovered the bite wound to take a look at it without exposing it to everyone else in the area.

“A little over an hour,” Patrick replied. “Just after the earthquake.”

“And you feel no signs of infection,” said Margie to Ellie. “No fever, no hunger, no pain in your eyes?”

“No,” Ellie responded. “Well, I mean, I’m always hungry. I feel pain everywhere else, but not my eyes. I swear, I’m immune.” In a very weird moment, she found herself looking to Abby for backup.

“It’s true,” Abby chimed in grudgingly. “My dad confirmed it, before he died.”

Margie knew perfectly well who Abby’s father had been, and she was immediately convinced. “Okay,” she said, and she turned to climb down off the truck, Abby and Patrick following closely behind. She led them back into the tent and over to a secluded corner where they would not be overheard. “I can’t treat her here. She needs to be taken to the base,” she said bluntly.

“Is she going to die?” Patrick asked.

“I doubt it,” Margie replied. “But if I unwrap that bite wound with all these people around, we’re going to have a riot. Here.” She took a set of keys out of her pocket and handed it to Abby. “Go directly to the coast and take the medic boat back to the island. Be quick about it, and don’t stop for anyone or anything. If anyone tries to stop you, tell them it’s a medical emergency and you’re taking her to base on my orders. Got that?”

“Got it,” said Abby, dropping the keys into her pocket. “I already sent Brandy to radio Liz and let her know what’s incoming.”

“On a private frequency, I hope,” said Margie dryly.

“Obviously.”

“Good. Leave immediately. I’m going to radio the base in an hour. If you’re not back by then, I’ll have all four of you assigned to latrine duty until the day you die, you hear me?”

“Jesus,” said Patrick, reaching out to grip one of Abby’s arms and pulling her towards the entrance of the tent. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

They were relieved to see that Brandy was already back at the truck when they returned. “Liz is going to meet us at the beach,” she informed them. 

“Then it’s time to go. Chop chop, people,” said Patrick.

After resuming their positions in the truck, they set off down the road towards the coast as fast as they safely could. “Where are we going?” Ellie asked them.

“The island. That’s where our main base is,” Patrick told her.

Surprised, Ellie said, “We’re traveling that far in the dark?”

“It’s safe. We’ve cleared the whole area.”

“What? You’re telling me you guys have killed all the infected in a fifty mile area?”

Patrick shrugged. “What can I say? We’ve been busy.”

As they continued on, Ellie lapsed back into silence, wishing she wasn’t strapped into the stretcher so she could see what the city looked like. If they really had managed to purge the entire route of infected, it would probably be quite a sight to see. And she could hear that there was activity happening all around them everywhere they went. It seemed that the Fireflies were more functional and effective than any other organized group she’d ever come across - at least, in terms of the fight against the infected. Two hours ago she would have been excited to be here, to be a part of whatever was happening here. But now, because of one tiny detail, she was re-thinking her decision to come here.

She found herself wanting to look at Abby, wondering what was going on inside her mind. Abby was resolutely not looking at her, so there were plenty of opportunities to steal a glance. Ellie thought again of what Abby had said to the medic: My dad confirmed it, before he died. That could only mean one thing: Abby’s father had probably been part of the team at that hospital in Salt Lake City. 

And it probably also meant that Joel had killed him.

For a moment she was back on that beach in Santa Barbara, feeling the ocean lapping around her. She remembered how understanding had come over her for Abby’s rage, how it had opened her mind to the possibility of moving on from this dark chapter of her life.

Now she realized she’d only had one tiny piece of the puzzle that was Abby. And what this new piece revealed was that Abby, like Ellie, struggled with that primal beast that demanded vengeance. What she had understood on the beach had generated a philosophical empathy, an acceptance of a viewpoint and an opinion that she could imagine someone else taking. But what this new revelation gave her was far more personal, for Ellie herself had lived through it. It was the same thing that had led her to Seattle, and to the total destruction of the life she’d known before.

If there is a god, he’s one sick fuck for throwing us together again, thought Ellie. She closed her eyes and forced herself to think of something else for the rest of the ride.

They arrived at the beach in hardly any time at all, and the four Fireflies transported Ellie to a speedboat docked there that had a big red plus sign painted on the side. Abby took up the steering wheel before anyone else could, desperately needing to put distance between herself and Ellie. The ride in the truck had been extremely uncomfortable for her. She regretted mentioning her father in front of Ellie, and she was certain that the incredibly personal piece of information had been heard loud and clear. If Ellie had even half a brain, she would be able to figure out the whole story from just that one sentence.

At the island Abby pulled the boat up to the docks, killed the engine and jumped across the gap to the wooden planks to tie the boat off. As she finished with that she heard someone calling her name, and she turned just in time to catch an armful of Lev. “Abby!” he cried into her chest, squeezing her tightly. “I was so worried! The earthquake was so big, and then I heard them saying your squad was coming in on the medical boat!” He pulled away from her and turned to look, seeing immediately that the other members of the squad were okay, too. “What’s going on?”

“I sure wish I knew,” replied Abby with a sigh.

The rest of her squad and a few nearby base soldiers were helping to unload the stretcher from the boat. Lev took a step closer, staring in disbelief. “Is that…?” His hand began creeping towards his sidearm.

Abby reached out and put her hand over his, gently moving it away from the gun. “Don’t,” she said softly. “It’s okay.”

“She killed Owen and Mel! And she tried to kill you,” he said angrily. “Twice.”

“And she might try it a third time. But Lev, I tried to kill her, too.”

“Only because she made you.”

“Doesn’t matter. It still happened. And don’t forget, I killed her friends, too.” Abby watched as the soldiers brought Ellie over to Liz, who was standing on the beach watching the scene as it unfolded. “Look, I gotta get over there. Go to the barracks. We’ll talk about this later, alright?” She ruffled his hair affectionately and then jogged off down the docks, rejoining her squad on the beach. “Chief,” she said by way of greeting.

“Welcome back, soldier. I hear you’ve brought me something interesting.” Liz nodded brusquely to her and then turned her attention to Ellie as she was wheeled closer. The buckles that strapped her in had been removed and the Chief reached out to offer her hand. “I’m Chief Elizabeth Starling, but most people just call me Liz. I run this base.”

Hesitantly, wondering if she was making a mistake, Ellie took her hand and shook it. “I’m Ellie.”

“You got a last name, Ellie?”

There was a long pause as Ellie searched the Chief’s eyes, then she said: “Miller.”

Abby’s stomach lurched and she turned away. In her mind’s eye she saw the bashed-in skull of Joel Miller, and heard Ellie’s agonizing pleas for her to stop. The darkness of that night had haunted Abby’s dreams for months, and hearing that name brought it all back in a rush. She knew that Joel was not really Ellie’s father, but clearly Ellie had loved him as though he was, and this made Abby relate to her in a way she’d never quite done before. Knowing this made her realize that Ellie’s hatred for her must be just as strong as hers had been for Joel. That was why Ellie had tracked her halfway across the country to seek her revenge - just as Abby had done for Joel. And Abby could also relate to the desire to claim someone who you weren’t related to by blood but who you loved as if you were as a family member; everyone here on base thought that Lev was her brother. So, all things considered, she and Ellie had a lot more in common than she’d thought.

Over the ringing in her ears she was vaguely aware that Liz was speaking again. “It’s good to meet you, Ellie Miller. We’re going to get you fixed up, alright? My best medic is ready for you in the hospital wing. You three, will you please take her there for me?” She looked at Patrick, Brian and Brandy in turn.

“You got it, Liz,” replied Patrick, and they set off with Ellie’s stretcher.

“You’ll come with me. We have a lot to talk about,” Liz said to Abby, who nodded.

Only once before had Abby made this walk beside the Chief: The night she and Lev had first arrived here. Abby cast her mind back to it as they went, remembering…

Firefly soldiers had seen their approach and were waiting for them on the beach, rifles in hand and pointed at them. Had she not been carrying Lev at the time, Abby would have put her hands up. As it was, the best she could do was say: “We’re not here to fight.”

“Who are you?” demanded one of the soldiers.

“My name is Abby Anderson. I contacted you from Santa Barbara a few months ago. My father was Dr. Jerry Anderson. He ran the Salt Lake outpost before it fell. And this is…” Abby hesitated, then made a snap decision. “This is my brother, Lev.”

The soldiers seemed undecided on what to do about her. One of them turned to another and said, “Go get the Chief and bring her down here.”

“Please,” Abby interjected desperately, “take my brother with you. He needs help. I don’t think he has a lot of time.”

The soldier who had given the order nodded to the other, who shouldered his rifle and took Lev from Abby’s arms. “Abby,” Lev groaned weakly.

“It’s okay, kiddo,” Abby assured him, running her hand through his hair. “We’re gonna be okay.”

“I don’t want to leave you.”

“You’re not. I’m coming right behind you, okay? I promise.” She looked at the soldier and nodded, and he turned and started heading up the trail to the tall, round building in the distance.

A tense wait followed and Abby had felt herself swaying on her feet with her sheer exhaustion. Everything that had happened to her in the past two months had taken a lot out of her, and the fight with Ellie had taken whatever was left. But she held steady and remained upright, unwilling to show any kind of weakness. 

Eventually Liz had shown up and stood before Abby, sizing her up. But all she said was, “Come,” and started walking up a different trail they’d taken Lev on without checking to make sure Abby was following.

Abby did follow her, all the way up to the top of the Catalina Casino and into an office with a large mahogany desk. Liz sat behind it and gestured for Abby to take a seat across from her. “You took a lot longer to get here than we thought you would,” Liz said. “We thought you were dead.”

“We ran into some trouble. Got captured by a militia group in Santa Barbara.”

“The rattlers,” Liz supplied. “We know of them. Rumor has it their camp was destroyed by escaped prisoners just a few days ago. Your doing?”

“Not at all. I was tied to a stake and left for dead on the beach at the time.” 

Liz raised an eyebrow in question. “Then how did you escape?”

“Um, dumb luck,” Abby lied swiftly. “Guess they fucked up tying the knot. I was able to wiggle my hands out.”

“Hm,” grunted Liz, and Abby could tell she didn’t believe her. “Well, we’re glad you’re here now. I knew your father. He was a brilliant man. I was sorry to hear what happened to him, and to the rest of your outpost. You have my condolences.”

Looking down at her bare, dirty feet, Abby mumbled: “Thanks.”

Liz leaned over the desk, studying her intently. “Only thing is, Jerry Anderson didn’t have a son.”

Abby shook her head. “No, he didn’t. But I’d prefer it if that could be kept quiet. Lev means the world to me, and he’s young and vulnerable. If people think we’re related it might keep them from messing with him.”

“I see no reason why anyone else has to know.”

“Thank you.”

The Chief gave her a brief nod, then asked, “Is it your intention to join us?”

“Yes, absolutely.” Abby looked around the room and noticed a map of southern California on a table nearby. Mustering her energy, she stood and went over to take a look. “Is this what you’ve been working on?”

Joining her at the table, Liz pointed to a highlighted spot on the map. “We’ve cleared everything inside this circle.”

“What do you mean by ‘cleared?’ Killed all the living infected?”

“And disposed of all the spores. It’s slow work. Some buildings can be salvaged, some cannot. Buildings that cannot be saved are burned down in controlled fires. Buildings that can, we remove the fungus and burn it elsewhere.”

“That really works?”

“It does,” Liz said. “In this area of the city there are many places where you no longer need a gas mask to go inside. They’re completely safe for human habitation. If we can’t purge the infection via a vaccine like your father hoped, then we’ll have to do it the hard way - clicker by clicker, room by room, city by city.”

Impressed by the audacity of the Fireflies to take on such a monumental task, Abby ran her finger over the map and imagined what it must be like to walk through a city with nothing to fear. “I want to help. You’ll let me join?”

With the very first smile Abby had seen from her on her lips, Liz said, “As if I’d say no to the daughter of Dr. Jerry Anderson. Come on. You look like you’re about to pass out. Let’s find you and your brother a hot meal and some warm beds.”

Now Abby followed the Chief on the exact same route they’d taken that night a year and a half ago and sat down in the exact same chair as she had the last time. “Alright,” said Liz as she took her seat behind the desk. “Start talking, Anderson.”

“What do you want to know about?”

“Tell you what,” said Liz. “How about you start at the very beginning, and I’ll let you know when I want you to stop.”

Chapter Text

The group of Fireflies who were escorting Ellie to the hospital wing encountered a problem when the stretcher wouldn’t fit through the doorway of the room that Doc wanted them to put her in. “Grab a wheelchair from room thirteen,” said Doc to Brian, who turned to fulfill the request.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” snapped Ellie irritably, sitting up and climbing off the stretcher. The others watched in disbelief as she hobbled over to the bed and collapsed into it. “There. Problem fucking solved. Now will you please give me something for the god damn pain?”

Patrick had to quickly stifle his laughter. Right then and there he knew that he and Ellie were going to get along just fine.

“Are we really sure she's not infected?” Brandy asked him under her breath, and he snorted with renewed smothered laughter.

Doc didn’t seem quite as amused, but he was used to having cranky patients and Ellie’s attitude didn’t scare him away. In fact he was so curious about this girl that he’d want to treat her even if she was pointing a gun at his head. He addressed the three soldiers who’d brought her here and said, “I can take it from here. You all can clear out.”

“You heard the man,” said Patrick. “Let’s go post our kill count on the board.”

“Oh, shit!” exclaimed Brian as they left the wing. “I forgot about that! Man, everyone is going to flip.”

Once they were gone, Doc entered Ellie’s room and closed the door behind him. “Hello, Ellie. I’m Doctor Baker, but most folks just call me Doc.”

“Nice to meet you,” said Ellie sedately. “Sorry for being snippy before. It’s been a pretty weird day.”

“You may snip all you like. It doesn’t offend me,” said Doc absently as he prepared an injection. “Give me your arm. It’s for the pain.”

He injected the drugs, and the relief was instant. Ellie let out a long sigh and laid back against her pillow. “Thanks, I really needed that.”

“An understatement if I ever heard one, by the looks of you. Most soldiers would be crying for their mothers if they’d been in the state you’re in.”

Ellie shrugged. “I’ve had worse.”

“Yes, well, let’s get you cleaned up and checked out, shall we?”

An hour later Ellie felt like a brand new person. Doc had sewn up all her wounds and a couple of medical aides - who were sworn to secrecy about the bite mark and Ellie’s immunity - had helped her bathe. She hadn’t felt this good since she’d left Jackson. Her only problem now was her hunger and her sheer exhaustion. A hot dinner of baked beans and grilled meat was brought in for her, and she scarfed it down in record time. Not long after that she dropped off into a deep, healing, dreamless sleep.

When she awoke she knew immediately that she was not alone in the room. It was pitch dark but for a shaft of moonlight that was coming in between the curtains, and Ellie sat up as she recognized the scarred boy sitting on a chair in the corner, just watching her.

“You must be pretty sneaky to get in here without waking me,” she commented casually. “Is that what you do for the Fireflies?”

Ignoring this, Lev asked: “Why are you here?”

“Why are you here?” countered Ellie.

Lev didn’t answer. He just continued staring at her.

Ellie rolled her eyes and reached over for her water cup on the bedside table, draining the whole thing before answering. “I’m here to fight zombies, not Abby, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“I don’t have to be worried about it. She’d kick your ass.”

“You’re probably right,” admitted Ellie. “Noticed she put all that muscle back on since the last time I saw you guys.”

“There’s a gym here. She can lift more than most of the men.”

“So if she's such a badass, why do you care if I decide I want to fight her again?”

As though the answer was obvious, Lev said, “Because she doesn’t want to fight you. She doesn’t like to fight anyone, except for the infected. Well, and in the boxing tournaments. She likes those. But real fights - bad fights. She doesn’t want to do them anymore. So if that’s what you want, I’ll stop you. I won’t let you hurt her again.”

Some feeling was bubbling in the pit of Ellie’s stomach, and it took her a second to place it. Shame, she realized. She was ashamed of the way she had acted in the past. It made her feel like a miserable piece of shit to think that this kid saw her as a threat. “I’m not here to fight her, I promise,” she said contritely. “I came here to join the Fireflies. I had no idea you guys would be here too.”

“Are you still going to join now that you know we’re here?”

“Damn, right to the point, huh?” hissed Ellie. “You are one astute fucking kid. I can see why she keeps you around.”

A light blush came over Lev’s cheeks, and Ellie grinned at him. “I’m not a kid,” he said.

“You’re what, fifteen?” When Lev nodded, Ellie continued: “When I was fifteen I was still a kid, so that makes you one, too.”

“But I bet you didn’t like having people call you that, right? They say you should treat others the way you want to be treated.”

“Fuck!” said Ellie, shaking her head. “You’re unbelievable. Alright, fine, I won’t call you that. It’s good we’re getting this out of the way now, because the answer is yes, I’m still staying. You two being here doesn’t mean I’m going to leave.”

“We’re not leaving either. And we were here first, so we’ve got dibs.”

“None of us has to leave. We’ll just have to figure out a way to live in each others’ general vicinity and hope we don’t get put together for any missions.”

Lev didn’t think that sounded very sustainable in the long run, but he nodded anyway. He stood to leave, but paused with his hand on the doorknob. “She saved your life yesterday, you know.”

“Yeah, I kinda noticed that. It was hard to miss the sound of machine-gun fire, and the fact that all the infected who were attacking me suddenly died.”

“I’m not talking about that,” said Lev seriously. “Afterwards, when the others saw you were bitten, they were going to shoot you. But Abby stopped them because she knew you were immune. If she wanted you dead, you’d be dead.” He looked Ellie directly in the eye and said, “But she doesn’t want that, because that’s not who she is, no matter what you might think.” And with that, he turned and slipped out the door, leaving Ellie alone with her thoughts.

She spent one more full day isolated in the hospital wing. Doc claimed it was because he thought she needed the rest, but Ellie suspected the real reason was that they wanted to confirm that she really wasn’t going to show any signs of infection. The medical team ran some tests on her, the same tests she could remember getting the last time she’d been in the care of a Firefly medical team. They took samples of her blood, swabs of the inside of her mouth, and put her in an uncomfortably small tube that they explained was an MRI machine that they’d salvaged from a hospital up near San Francisco. They told her it would take pictures of her brain.

Around midday on day three she heard Abby talking with the doctor in his office and crept out of her room to eavesdrop through a crack in the doorway. From what it sounded like, Abby had been spending most of the discussion trying to distance herself from Ellie.

“I really don't know very much,” she heard Abby insist. “It was a long time ago, and I wasn’t a part of the medical team. I was barely even a soldier back then.”

“So these scans mean nothing to you?” asked Liz, who Ellie couldn’t see from where she was crouched. “They don’t jog your memory at all?”

“No,” said Abby. “I’m sorry. I can’t help you.” She stood and looked to where Liz must be sitting. “Lev’s leaving for patrol in an hour and I’d like to say goodbye before then. Can I go?”

“Yeah,” said Liz, defeated. “Yes. You’re dismissed.”

Ellie backed away from the door and returned to stand just outside her own room. When Abby exited the office they briefly made eye contact, and somehow Ellie knew, just knew, that Abby had been lying. She did remember learning about Ellie’s immunity in that hospital in Salt Lake City. Part of Ellie wanted to ask her why she’d lied, but Abby turned and swiftly left before Ellie could even open her mouth.

Behind the closed office door she could hear that Liz and Doc were still talking. As a fourteen-year-old in St. Mary’s Hospital, there had been many times where adults talked about her in hushed tones, pointing at pictures of her insides but keeping everything a secret from her. Now, all these years later, Ellie wasn’t going to let that happen again. If she was going to walk into this again, she was going to do it with open eyes and on her own terms. Squaring her shoulders, she opened the office door without knocking and stepped inside. Ignoring the surprised looks of the two people sitting there, Ellie looked around and noticed a bowl of caramel candies on the doctor’s desk. “Ooooh, don’t mind if I do,” she said, plopping into a chair and kicking her feet up onto the desk. She picked up the bowl and laid it on her stomach, unwrapped a piece of candy, and popped it in her mouth. When neither Doc or Liz said anything, she raised her eyebrows and said, “Oh, I’m sorry. Was this a private conversation about me, or is anyone welcome to join?”

It shattered the tense air, and Liz laughed and shook her head. “Yes, of course you can join. We were just discussing your condition.”

“I gathered. So you’ll talk to her about me,” she jerked her thumb over her shoulder in the direction Abby had just gone, “but not me.”

“We were going to fill you in when we knew more,” said Liz.

“How about you fill me in when you know anything, alright? I’m not fourteen any more. It’s my body, my immunity. I want to be kept in the loop. The minute you start keeping shit from me, I’m gone. You got that?”

“Yes,” said Liz. “Of course. I’m sorry. We Fireflies are so used to operating in secrecy, it’s a hard habit to let go. But we are trying. So, Doc, why don’t you tell Ellie what we know so far?”

Clearing his throat, Doc picked up a folder and handed it to Ellie, who opened it and began examining its contents. “Unfortunately, there’s not much to tell. You have the cordyceps in your bloodstream, we think at elevated levels at the moment due to your recent severe bite. As far as we can tell, this mass here at the base of your brain stem,” he leaned across the desk to point to the scan they had taken in the MRI, “is working as some sort of plug, keeping the fungus from reaching your brain. From past experimentation, we know that the fungus’s usual method of activity is to take route in the brain where it will then sprout and spread, winding its tendrils through the brain matter until it has covered enough area to completely control its host, piloting it like a puppeteer using a marionette.”

Looking up from the scan, Ellie gave the doctor an affronted look. “Dude,” she said, “you’re a fucking weirdo.”

Liz chuckled. “That’s Doc for you. He’s never been once to mince his words.”

After a second, Ellie shrugged and said, “Alright. I can dig it. What else do you know, Doctor Strange?”

“That’s it,” Doc said. “That’s everything. We think Dr. Anderson, the head surgeon at St. Mary’s, might have known more since this was his area of expertise, and that’s why we called Abby in here.”

“He was her father?” Ellie asked hesitantly.

“Yes,” Liz said. “He was killed in the attack on the scheduled day of surgery.”

So Ellie had been right. Joel had killed Abby’s father.

Suddenly nauseous and restless, Ellie stood and wandered around the office, picking things up and then putting them back down just so she could have something to do with her hands. “Did she remember anything?” she asked, even though she knew the answer, trying to fill the silence.

“No,” Doc answered. 

“I apologize for consulting with her before you,” Liz said. “But we had to try. She was elsewhere in the building keeping guard that day, so she wasn’t in the attack, but she was posted there for several months beforehand with her father. We were hoping he might have shared something with her that might be helpful to us.”

Slowly, Ellie turned to face Liz. She swallowed hard before asking: “She was there? That day in Salt Lake City?”

“Yes,” Liz said. 

Dropping her gaze, Ellie returned to her seat and said, “Okay. Well, what’s next? And please tell me it doesn’t involve keeping me here another day.”

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Doc assured her. “I would like to run blood tests on you daily, though. I suspect that over time the concentration of cordyceps in your bloodstream will lessen as the fungus continues to fail to take root in your brain and dies.”

“Gross, so I’ll have dead fungus in my body?”

“In theory, yes.”

“Just kinda…” Ellie waved her hand vaguely. “Floating around in there?”

“It’ll be ejected somehow. There’s no indication that it is accumulating in your liver, which means it is likely being properly filtered out and removed, the most feasible way being via your urine. In fact, we should take urine samples too, and fecal samples would be…”

“OKAY,” said Ellie loudly, standing up again. “I think we’re done here.”

“I agree,” said Liz, eyes twinkling with amusement. “Why don’t I take you on a tour of the base and I’ll show you where you’ll be staying?”

“Yeah, sure, whatever, sounds great, just get me the fuck out of here.”

They left Doc in his office. “Grab your stuff,” Liz said, jerking her head towards Ellie’s room. “I’ll wait here.”

As Ellie had been provided with new clothes (typical proto-military fare, cargo pants and a grey t-shirt), she hadn’t had any reason to unpack very many of her things. She tossed her journal, knife and handgun in her backpack, swung the pack over her shoulder, and went back out to Liz. “Lead the way,” she said, gesturing to the door.

The hospital wing was part of the Catalina Casino, taking up about half of the ground floor. “This is our main building,” Liz explained. “Down there is the cafeteria. Let’s start there.”

Even from the entrance to the hospital ward Ellie could hear the chatter of many voices. Liz pushed open the large double doors and let Ellie walk ahead of her. There must have been at least fifty people in there, talking, laughing, eating and playing cards at long metal tables. At one table a group was gathered around a middle-aged bearded man playing a guitar, and for a split second Ellie flashed back to that night on Joel’s front porch, walking up to him in the nighttime winter cold as he plucked at the strings, coffee mug steaming beside him. Ellie froze in her tracks, feeling the cold from that night prickling at her skin. “You alright?” Liz asked when she noticed Ellie had stopped.

“Yeah, sorry,” she said, shaking herself out of the memory. “Just… thought I saw someone I knew.”

An understanding look came over Liz’s face, and Ellie had the sudden feeling that she knew everything. She knew about Jackson and Joel, and she knew about Seattle. “Happens to me all the time,” Liz said kindly. “I think we all have those moments, sometimes. I know a lot of us here do.”

“Yeah,” said Ellie.

“But that’s why they’re all here, Ellie. This plague has taken a lot from all of us. Even the violence that occurs between men is a symptom of the infection.”

“I know,” Ellie said quietly. “I get that now.”

“And so does she,” said Liz, nodding towards a table on the other side of the room. Ellie looked over and saw Abby sitting with the other soldiers who had come to her rescue back in LA. Abby didn’t seem to know she was there - she was wrapped up in a game of cards, laughing at something one of her opponents had said. As Ellie watched, Abby playfully punched the girl sitting next to her in the arm, and Ellie was overcome with the memory of their fights, remembering just how hard that girl could hit when she wanted to.

Disgusted, Ellie turned away and slung her backpack more securely up her shoulder, using the same hand that Abby had bitten two fingers off of. “What’s next?” she demanded of Liz, eager to move on.

Liz chuckled and shook her head. “So similar.” She motioned for Ellie to follow, saying, “Come on. I’ll show you the rec room.”

More soldiers were crowded in the noisy rec room, but most of the noise wasn’t coming from them. People were seated in front of machines that glowed and made dinging and whirring noises, and some of them were playing irritating music. Other soldiers were sitting at card tables, playing poker and black jack and betting with plastic chips. “What is going on here?” Ellie asked, mystified.

“In the old world, this whole building was like this. People would come here to gamble on these machines. When the Fireflies took this island as our base we got rid of all the other machines, leaving only these ones. They’re a massive power suck so we only make them available for a few hours a week, but the soldiers love them. You’re welcome to play a round if you like. I’ll even spot you your first coin.”

“Nah,” said Ellie, turning away. “Maybe later. What else you guys got here?”

They toured the rest of the base: the armory, the shooting ranges, the obstacle course for trainees, the trading post and the place that Liz referred to as the Spiritual Center. “We have a church, a mosque, and a synagogue, and they each run services every week. The doors are always open for prayer if you’re so inclined,” Liz explained.

Ellie stared at the synagogue, awash in painful memories of Dina. “Cool,” she said shortly, turning away from it. “Not really my scene, though.”

Finally Liz took her to the barracks. There were six different buildings - two for single men, two for single women, and two for families. Liz directed her to building four and brought her to a room with two sets of bunk beds in it. “You’ll have it to yourself for a while,” she said, standing in the doorway and watching Ellie as she set her pack down. “If we ever reach a point where we need the beds for new recruits, you’ll be given the opportunity to select your roommates, or we can place you at random if you prefer. And at any point if you decide you want to move, we’ll try our best to accommodate you. All you have to do is go to Personnel at the top of the casino and put in a request.”

“Does… Abby live here too? In this building?” asked Ellie hesitantly.

“No,” said Liz. “She shares a room with her brother Lev in one of the family buildings. Alright?”

“Okay,” said Ellie, relieved.

Liz stepped more fully into the room and shut the door. “Ellie,” she said firmly, and Ellie had no choice but to look at her. “Are we going to have a problem here?”

“No,” said Ellie far too quickly. Then, louder and with more conviction: “No. It’s fine. I’m fine.”

“Good.” Liz reached into the pocket of her cargo pants and fished out a set of dog tags. “Then welcome aboard, Ellie Miller. Glad to have you with us.”

Taking the necklace with quiet reverence, Ellie looked at the circular bit of metal which had been imprinted with the Firefly symbol on one side, and on the other:

ELLIE MILLER

      01322

She ran her thumb over the name “Miller,” feeling the ridges on every letter against her skin. “Thanks,” she said softly. “Glad to be here.”

And as soon as she said it, she knew it was true.

“Dinner is served until midnight. I recommend getting something to eat and getting some rest. We’ll talk about your squad assignment in the morning.”

“Squad assignment?” Ellie asked.

“Oh yes,” said Liz emphatically, chuckling as she turned to leave. “We’ve got some work for you, soldier.”

After leaving Ellie, Liz headed back to the cafeteria where she’d seen Abby earlier. Fortunately Abby was still there, and Liz walked over and placed a hand on her shoulder to get her attention. “Hey, Liz,” said Abby, sounding a little worried.

“Got a minute?”

“Uh, yeah, sure.” Abby swung her leg over the bench and stood, looking back at her squadmates, who were all watching curiously. “My hand was shit anyway. I fold. Catch you guys later, alright?”

“Later,” said Patrick.

Abby followed Liz out of the cafeteria, once again being led towards the office on the top floor. “Three private conversations with the Chief in two days? I don’t know if I should consider myself lucky or cursed,” she said drolly.

“I think you’ll have made a decision about that by the time we’re done here today.”

“Fuck, that doesn’t sound good,” groaned Abby, and Liz laughed.

When they were seated in the office, Liz jumped right into it with: “I’m re-assigning your entire squad. I’m sending you to Section Zero.”

The bottom dropped out of Abby’s stomach. “W-what?” she stammered. She started to say something else, but Liz held up her hand to stop her.

“And you’re going to take Ellie with you.”

“Oh, fuck off!” yelled Abby, jumping up out of her chair. “No fucking way I’m doing that!”

“I’ve made my decision, Abby, and it’s final.”

“Were you not listening to anything I told you last time? Did you not hear anything I said? That girl and I do not get along!”

“I heard every word,” said Liz calmly. “I heard you say you’ve put it behind you, and I heard her say the exact same thing not ten minutes ago.”

“Yeah, I put it behind me and moved on in the opposite direction of her. I can’t move away from it if I’m standing right next to it in fucking Section Zero!”

“Ellie is the only one who can do it, and I can’t have the whole base knowing about her immunity. Your squad already knows, and I know I can count on you four to keep it quiet.”

“So send the rest of the god damn squad, then! But re-assign me. I won’t say a word, I swear. You know I won’t.”

“Abby, you’re the best soldier I have. I need you in that section. I’ve been thinking of assigning you there for months, but I didn’t want to throw you into that meat grinder without having good reason to believe you had an actual shot at coming back in one piece. Now we have that shot. Ellie is the answer to our prayers.”

Furious, Abby slammed her fists on Liz’s desk so hard that everything on its surface rattled and hollered: “SHE RUINED MY FUCKING LIFE!”

A loud, ringing silence followed this outburst while Abby closed her eyes and tried to get her temper under control. Then she continued at more reasonable volume: “She ruined my life, Liz. She killed… Everyone I cared about. Everyone I loved, except for Lev. And now… Now you expect me to trust her? To rely on her? To fight at her side in the most dangerous place on the entire planet?”

“I do.”

“That is such fucking bullshit , Liz.”

“It’s not,” Liz said forcefully. “Listen to me, Abby. Do you want to get rid of the infection?”

Abby turned away, reaching up with one hand to rub her eyes before the tears building there could fall. “Of course I do.”

“That’s what you came here to do, right? To help us make your father’s dream a reality.”

“Don’t do that,” said Abby warningly. “Don’t you dare bring him into this. He has nothing to do with it.”

“He has everything to do with it! Don’t you see? He wanted to use this girl’s miraculous immunity to save us all. We have an opportunity here to do the same thing. If we get into Section Zero, and it turns out to be what we think it is, then we’ll have a real shot at finding a way out of this nightmare - and not just here. Everywhere. Isn’t that what he wanted?”

Abby said nothing, just stood there facing away, trying to concentrate on her breathing the way Lev had taught her to do whenever she could feel the anger just under the surface boiling like lava in her veins.

“I’m not just sending you because you’re a good soldier, Abby. I’m sending you because I think that, if Ellie gets down there and she finds the answers we need, you’re going to wish you had gone, too.”

“I don’t give a shit about getting credit, if that’s what you’re implying,” said Abby coldly.

“Not credit, no. But it’s a way of honoring your father, who came closer than anyone else in the entire world to saving all of humanity. You can finish what he started - carry on his legacy. It’s a way of keeping him alive. Do you understand?”

Abby was still for a long moment, then she gave a humorless laugh, shook her head and said: “I understand… That you are a manipulative, heartless bitch.” She walked to the door and put her hand on the doorknob. “Fine. I’ll do it. Congratulations, your plan worked.” Then she left as quickly as she could, slamming the door behind her.

Chapter Text

Morning found Ellie sitting cross legged on top of her bed, her journal open in front of her. Resting on the crease of the journal was her new dog tag. With great care and meticulous attention to detail, she sketched both sides of the tag - her name, her number and the Firefly insignia. She’d had trouble falling asleep last night, spending hours laying on her back in bed, one hand behind her head and the other raised up in the air with the dog tag hanging from its grip. She’d carefully examined the way the light from the moon hit it as it spun in a slow circle - it was far less reflective than the switchblade she’d been studying in the same way just a few nights ago.

Just as she was finishing her drawing there was a knock on her door, so she put the chain around her neck and went to answer it. It was the girl who’d been part of the group that had rescued her after the earthquake. This was the first time Ellie had really taken a look at her, and she realized now that she was quite young, probably no older than sixteen. “Good morning,” she said pleasantly.

“Morning,” Ellie replied.

“Are you feeling better? Your wounds were pretty bad.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Ellie, as though she’d forgotten she’d even been injured. “It was no big deal. I’m fine now.”

“Good, I’m glad to hear it. Liz sent me to come get you and bring you up to the office. Do you need a minute to get ready?”

“No, I can go now. Let me just put my boots on.”

Once they had started off down the hallway together, the girl offered Ellie her hand. “I’m Brandy, by the way.”

Ellie took her hand and shook it. “Ellie.”

“And the two knucklehead dudes in my squad are Patrick and Brian.”

“Brian was the grumpy one, right? The one who kept looking at me like I was gonna start clicking at any moment?”

Brandy laughed. “Yes indeed. That’s Brian. He can be an ass but I swear he’s a nice guy.”

“I’ll take your word for it.” Truthfully Ellie was hoping not to have too many opportunities to get to know the members of Abby’s squad because it would lessen the possibility of having to talk to Abby. The fact that Brandy had been the one to come get her was a bad sign, though. She had hoped that having Abby be the first one to find her in LA wouldn’t lead to the two of them having to work together by default, but it looked as though that’s exactly what was going to happen. 

She and Brandy walked past the training grounds. When she’d come here with Liz the day before there hadn’t been anyone out there, but there were a few squads running drills now. Ellie watched them as they walked, noticing that all the drills seemed to involve a minimum of two soldiers. “You guys don’t run any single-man drills?” she asked Brandy.

“We do, but Firefly training puts a lot of emphasis on teamwork. No one does anything alone. All the squads have to have an even number of people because out in the field we work on the buddy system. In my squad Brian is usually my buddy, and Patrick usually works with Abby, but really we’re all interchangeable. It doesn’t matter who you go with as long as you always have somebody with you.”

“That’s pretty smart,” commented Ellie. “I know from traveling experience it’s usually nice to have someone watching your back.”

“Have you traveled a lot?”

“Holy shit, have I ever,” said Ellie, and Brandy laughed.

“I’m from the area. I’ve never been outside southern California before. You’ll have to tell me some stories some time.”

“Yeah, maybe,” said Ellie in a noncommittal tone. 

They arrived at Liz’s office and Brandy tapped on the door. “Come in,” Liz called. “Good. Ellie, welcome. Why don’t you take a seat?”

Ellie looked around the office, her heart sinking as her suspicions were confirmed. Brain and Patrick were already seated there, and leaning against the back wall with her arms crossed over her chest was Abby. She looked absolutely livid. “No, I don’t think I will sit down,” Ellie said bluntly. “If you’re about to assign me to this squad, then I think it’s time for me to go.” She glanced at Brandy and added, “No offense.” And she turned to leave.

“Ellie, wait,” said Liz quickly, standing and crossing the room to put a hand on her shoulder. “Please at least hear me out before you say no. If you hear what I have to say and you still want to slam the door in my face afterwards, then fine. But there is a matter of the deepest importance we need to discuss - something we desperately need you to do.”

Pointing at Abby, Ellie said, “If it involves doing it with her, the answer is no. She killed my friends.”

“And you killed hers,” countered Liz. “But even so, Abby has already agreed to do the mission with you because she knows how important it is.”

When Ellie looked at Abby, she found that Abby was still glaring out the window beside her. “Is that true?” Ellie demanded.

“Yeah,” said Abby, looking as though it caused her physical pain to say it.

“Fucking god damn it,” swore Ellie. To Liz, she said, “This mission had better involve a way of getting rid of the entire fucking plague, because I won’t work with her for anything less.”

“We’ll talk about it,” Liz assured her, guiding her gently towards an empty chair. “Please, sit.”

Ellie plopped into the seat and crossed her arms, much the same way Abby was doing. “So talk,” she snapped.

“Just one more minute. We’re waiting on our sixth.”

“Sixth?” Patrick asked. “Who else is joining?”

There came a soft knock on the door, and then Lev let himself in. “Hey,” he said nervously. “Sorry I’m late.”

With a speed that shocked everyone, Abby lunged across the room and grabbed the front of Liz’s shirt, balling the material up in her fist. With an animalistic yell, she forcefully pushed Liz’s back against the wall and pinned her there. “You BITCH!” she shouted in Liz’s face, emphasizing her words with another slam against the wall before pressing her entire forearm against Liz’s chest. “You fucking BITCH! There is NO WAY I’m letting you do this to him!” 

“Abby!” yelled Brandy. “Don’t!”

Patrick and Brian both leapt up and took hold of Abby’s arms, bodily pulling her away from Liz. “Get off me!” she snarled, struggling as hard as she could against them. “Get the FUCK off me!”

“Abby, stop!” Lev’s voice rang clearly over the commotion in the room as he went over to Abby and put his body between hers and the Chief’s. “STOP! I volunteered! It was my choice to go!”

“So what did you do, fucking manipulate him, too? Tell him I was going? Tell him she was coming too?” Abby jerked her head in Ellie’s direction since her arms were still being held by Patrick and Brian.

“Yes, that’s exactly what I told him: The truth,” said Liz breathlessly as she rubbed her chest where Abby’s arm had been pressed against it and leaned against her desk for support. “I offered him the spot, I told him exactly where he’d be going and with who, and he said yes a hell of a lot faster than you did.”

“Of course he did, because I’m going! If you’d had Lev as a selling point for me you wouldn’t have had to try so fucking hard, would you? He may have made the choice, but you’re the one who offered it to him,” said Abby. She finally stopped struggling against her captors, saying, “Enough. That’s enough. I won’t do it again.” They let her go, and she stepped forward to pull Lev into her arms, tucking his head against her chest. “You’re so stupid, Lev. You’re so fucking stupid.”

“You’re even stupider if you thought I was gonna let you do this alone.”

Abby chuckled into his short, fluffy hair, but when she spoke it was clear she was holding back tears. “Yeah, I guess I am.” She kissed his forehead and then released him, turning to face the Chief. “I’m sorry. I still think you’re a piece of shit, but I shouldn’t have attacked you.”

“No, you shouldn’t have. And if you ever attack me again I’ll have you escorted off the island and give orders to have you shot on sight if you try to return.”

“If I ever attack you again it’ll be because I decided it was time for me to leave anyway,” said Abby, narrowing her eyes at her. “So really, the ball’s in your court.” She turned and went back to the corner of the office she’d been in before, shooting a quick glance at Ellie as she brushed past her. Ellie’s face revealed nothing of her thoughts, but Abby didn’t much care to know them anyway.

As the room settled down again, Ellie was a little off-kilter after the events of the last minute. It was obvious that Abby cared deeply for Lev, although that wasn’t news to her. That kind of fierce protectiveness, Ellie had seen it many times before - in Joel. Joel had made it his purpose in life to look after her the way Abby was looking after Lev. It made Ellie feel deeply disturbed to see Joel in the face of his murderer. 

“That was an exciting waste of my time,” she said irritably, suddenly desperate to get out of this office and far away from Abby. “What’s the mission that everyone’s so worked up about?”

Liz sat down behind her desk and took a deep breath, mentally putting that unpleasant encounter behind her. “As you know, the Fireflies have been spending our time gradually purging the city, making our way inland. We kill all the infected and we remove all the spores. To the outside world, that’s our main purpose, and it is. But we have been working on something else, too.” She reached down and opened a drawer, removed a folded-up map, and slid it across the desk towards Ellie, who reached out and took it. “We’ve been looking at old newspapers, talking to people who were around during the outbreak, and sending teams out on scouting missions, and we think we’ve finally tracked down the location of Spore Zero.”

“Spore Zero?” Ellie repeated.

“The very first infectious cordyceps spore to ever exist,” Liz clarified. 

Looking at the map, Ellie could see that part of it was circled. It was near the center of the continent of South America, close to a city called Porto Velho in Brazil. “Cool,” said Ellie flippantly, folding the map back up and tossing it onto the desk. “And why should I care about that?”

“Because the cordyceps infection has not remained constant through the years. As time goes on it changes, evolves. Any time we see a new strain of the infection, it gets farther and farther from its original form. This is a problem because even if we develop a vaccine from one strain, it’s possible that a different strain could still cause more infections. What we need is the very first strain. If we had that, we would be able to develop a vaccine against the whole species.”

Confused, Ellie said, “Using me, too?”

“No, no,” said Liz quickly. “If we had the original strain, we wouldn’t need you for the vaccine. You see, the remarkable thing about your immunity is that it’s - for lack of a better word - physical. Somehow, after you were bit, your body figured out a way to mutate the fungus into a growth that essentially plugs up the fungus’s path to your brain. We suspect that Dr. Anderson’s intention with your operation was to remove the clump at the base of your brain stem and figure out what triggered it. We don’t know if it was a hormone, or an enzyme, or even divine intervention. All we know is that it works.

“But we also know,” continued Liz, “that we are able to create a vaccine that helps the human body’s auto-immune system to fight off the infection, but it’s still not enough. Eventually the fungus wins the battle in the end. But if we had the original spores, we could give our immune systems the exact weapon it needs to fight off the fungus and win, over and over again, with each and every different strain.”

Ellie took a moment to process this, turning it over in her mind. “And you have doctors… or scientists or pharmacists or whatever, who could do this?”

“Yes, several. There are immunologists down in South America doing preliminary research and experimentation already. But there’s only so much they can do without the samples they need.”

“Then go get the samples.”

“Obviously we would if we could, Ellie. But remember, this is where the outbreak started,” said Liz, tapping the spot on the map. “That means the spores have existed there for longer than they have anywhere else in the entire world. The infected that roam there… defy description. The air is like swimming in spores. Regular gas masks are useless - we have fewer than a dozen sets of military-grade equipment that are capable of protecting humans who enter this zone. And, at a certain point, the masks fail. The spores are so thick that they clog up the filters and the person wearing the mask suffocates.”

“Jesus,” said Ellie, thinking that that sounded like one of the worst possible ways to die. She wondered if, at the end, the soldiers would choose to rip off their masks and breathe in the spores just to draw breath again, or if they would simply let themselves suffocate to death. She shivered and put the thought behind her. “What about sending someone in with like, scuba gear or a space suit? You could give them their own oxygen supply, right? I’ve seen it in movies.”

“And what happens when they run into an infected? They wouldn’t be able to get away fast enough. No, the mission requires stealth and speed.”

“Or maybe a real big gun,” Ellie suggested.

Liz reached into her desk again and pulled out a stack of pictures. “These are the best images we have of the infected in that area. It’s impossible to get a clear picture - all that interference you see is the spore cloud.”

The pictures were so grainy that it was difficult to understand what she was looking at. All Ellie could see was the outline of a house, which she could only differentiate due to it being a darker shade than everything around it. “I don’t see anything,” she said. “Help me out.”

It was Patrick who leaned over to assist, having already seen these pictures before. He took the picture and traced the house with his finger. “It’s this.”

“That’s a house, dude.”

Patrick just looked at her and shook his head.

Ellie sank back into her chair, feeling suddenly weak. “Oh.” Then: “How did it get so big?”

“The infected merge together after some time,” explained Liz. “This one infected was likely more than twenty individual people at the start of the outbreak.”

“No fucking way,” said Ellie.

For the first time since the fight, Abby spoke up. “It’s true,” she said, and Ellie turned around in her chair to look at her. “I fought one infected that was once several different people in the basement of the hospital in Seattle.” Then she huffed and resumed glaring out the window, adding, “While you were a few floors up murdering Nora.”

Liz rose and opened the door to her office. “Leave,” she commanded Abby. 

Pushing away from the wall, Abby gave her a sarcastic salute as she walked by. “Aye aye, Captain.”

As Ellie turned back around she saw Lev frowning at his fists where he had them clenched in his lap. He kept looking at the door as though he was trying to decide whether to follow Abby or not. But ultimately he decided to stay, and Ellie guessed it was probably because he knew Abby would want to know what was eventually decided in this meeting. 

Refocusing on the matter at hand, Ellie put down the picture she hadn’t realized she was still holding. “So how would this work?” she asked. “The six of us would travel down to South America together, and then they wait around while I go swimming in spores to pick a few mushrooms?”

“Essentially,” answered Liz. “They will be able to come in the cloud with you, up to a point. But I won’t deny that the last part will be you alone.”

“Lucky me,” muttered Ellie. “Sure glad I’m immune.”

“You should be,” shot back Liz. “Most people would kill for a gift like yours.”

Ashamed of her little outburst, Ellie said, “I know. I know. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful or whatever. It’s just… I don’t know about this. I mean, you’re talking about months on the road, with Abby of all people, so I can to get to a place where the infected are the size of a fucking house. It doesn’t exactly sound like a vacation.” She paused, turning the task over in her mind. Finally, she looked up at Liz and asked the big question: “How sure is this?”

“At least as sure as your surgery would have been, if not more so.”

Ellie blew out a long, deep breath. “When would we go?”

“Summer is the best time to travel that way, so in about a month. Until then you will all need to train as a unit.” Liz looked at everyone in the room. “You hear me? You need to be a cohesive squad by the time you head south.”

“The person who really needs to hear that isn’t in the room right now,” commented Brian.

“Trust me, she’ll hear it loud and clear, as many times as she needs to so it gets through that thick skull.”

“I’ll help,” said Lev quietly. “I can help with that.”

“You sure?” Ellie asked wryly. “Because I don’t get the impression that you like me very much either.”

“I don’t.” Lev got to his feet and set his jaw in determination. “But I like the infected even less. May I please be dismissed now, Chief?”

“You may. Go talk some sense into that hotheaded sister of yours.”

Lev slipped out of the room and immediately started up the stairway nearby. He knew exactly where he would find Abby. Ever since the sky bridge Abby had been trying to conquer her fear of heights, and upon arriving in Avalon she had taken to sitting up on the roof of the casino any time she needed to be alone. “But,” she’d told Lev, “you can always come find me. I never want to be alone from you.”

At the time he’d pretended to be confused about her phrasing to mask just how much it had pleased him to hear that. Aside from Yara, he’d never loved anyone as much as he loved Abby. She was his safe person, someone he could always count on. She was his family.

And now she was in pain, and they were both about to go on a suicide mission, and the only thing in the world he wanted to do was find her and sit beside her on the roof of the Catalina Casino.

On the top floor of the building he found an open window which led to a fire escape, so he ducked outside and started climbing. And there at the top, standing tall and proud on the roof in the mid-morning sun, was Abby.

“I’m mad at you,” she said without turning around.

“I’m mad at you, too,” Lev replied. “And I have a better reason for it.”

“You do, do you? Let’s hear it.”

He walked over to stand beside her, both of them looking out over the Pacific ocean - of which, thanks to Abby, he was no longer afraid. “What exactly was your plan?” he asked. “You were going to take this mission and then what? Leave me here?”

Finally, she looked down at him. “You have a good life here.”

“It would be shit without you.”

“You’d be fine.”

“Stop trying to tell me how I feel,” he snapped. “You don’t know. And how were you gonna let me find out? Were you gonna leave in the middle of the night without telling me where you were going?”

“Lev, you were out on a mission! I just accepted it yesterday. How was I supposed to tell you before now? And by the way, how did you find out?”

“Liz sent for me. The scouts caught up around section three and brought me back.”

Infuriated all over again, Abby clenched her teeth and her fists and said, “Of course she did.”

“Stop that,” Lev said, slapping her hand so that she unclenched it. “She wasn’t trying to manipulate me. She knew I would want to go with you.”

“Doesn’t mean she should let you.”

“Well I’m glad she offered. I don’t trust that girl.”

Abby laughed sardonically. “That’s good news, since you’re going on a dangerous mission with her.”

“I’m going with you. She’s just… Along for the ride.”

This time Abby’s laugh was more sincere. “Okay, fine,” she said. “Neither of us wants the other to go, but we’re both going. I can live with that. Can you?”

“Yeah,” said Lev. “But I’m still mad you were gonna leave me behind.”

“I’m sorry. It’s just… This mission is important, you know? It’s everything we’ve been working towards. I couldn’t say no.”

“I get it, Abby. I really do. It’s just too bad we gotta bring that girl.”

“She said yes, huh?”

“Not yet, but she will.”

Abby let out a long, slow sigh, and then said: “Good.”

“Good?”

“Yeah, it’s good. We can’t do it without her.” She looked down at Lev and said, “We need to protect her.”

Lev looked at her as though she had completely lost her mind.

“I’m serious, Lev. If anything happens to her, we’re fucked. And by ‘we’ I mean, like,” she waved her arm in a sweeping gesture at the horizon, “all of mankind. Humans will go extinct without that vaccine. It’s our only hope.” Then, as though it pained her greatly, she concluded, “Ellie is our only hope.”

After considering this for a long moment, Lev commented: “Yikes.”

“Yeah,” Abby agreed. “It’s very yikes.”

“Why…” Lev paused to reconsider, then forged on with his question. “Why did she come to Seattle? What did you do to her?”

When he looked up, he saw that Abby was staring at him with that dark expression she wore whenever this topic came up. He had asked before, but Abby had only told him it was “bad.” The last time he had tried had been when he woke up in the Firefly hospital with no recollection of how they had gotten off those pillars on the rattlers’ beach. When Abby had informed him that the girl who’d killed Owen and Mel had come for her again, he’d thought she was making it up. But once he’d realized she was serious, he had wanted to know what Abby could possibly have done to make someone hate her so fiercely for such a long time.

“I was different before I met you,” she’d told him. “Let’s just say that if she had killed me, I’d have deserved it. But she didn’t. I think she’s finished with it now, so there’s no need for you to know.”

But that was no longer true, and they both knew it. If the three of them were going to be working together, Lev needed to know what had happened. Abby was silent for so long that Lev was sure she was trying to figure out some way to put him off the subject again. Instead, she looked away and said, “If I tell you, you’re going to think of me differently afterwards.”

“Abby, I’ve seen you snap necks with your bare hands and I still love you.”

“This is different.”

Abby,” Lev said firmly, and Abby met his eyes. “You have to trust me. Whatever it is, it won’t change anything.”

Abby sighed. “Okay,” she said. “Okay. Sit down.”

She sat down next to him and told him the whole sordid tale, beginning with Salt Lake City and ending with Jackson. She told him about how she'd shot Joel in the leg and forced Mel to tourniquet it so that she could brutally torture him for hours. Then she explained how Ellie had burst in and begged her to stop, and how she hadn't listened. Instead, she had killed him right before her eyes.

"And then we knocked her out and left," she concluded.

Tears were slipping down Abby’s face and she hastily wiped them away. She focused on the sound of seagulls in the air as she waited for Lev to say something. When he did finally speak, it was to do the same thing he always did - cut right to the point. “Do you wish you hadn’t done it?” he asked quietly.

“I wish I hadn’t done it like that. I wish she hadn’t been there. I regret allowing myself to become a monster. But do I regret killing Joel? No.”

But the way she said it made Lev feel as though she might be lying about that - maybe even lying to herself about it. “Ellie let you live,” he pointed out. “Joel killed your father, so you killed Joel. Joel was a father figure for Ellie, and you killed him. But she didn’t kill you.”

The parallel had occurred to Abby before, but she’d never been sure what to make of it. “Maybe she’s just a bigger person than me,” she said.

“I doubt it. You walked away that night in the theater.”

“Not before killing her friends though.”

“Oh yeah, you did do that.” Lev frowned. “What a fucking mess,” he said.

The comment caught Abby off guard, and she let out a bark of laughter. “I’d say that’s putting it pretty mildly.” Gradually the smile faded off her face and she asked: “So do you think I’m a monster now?”

“No,” Lev assured her. “I think you were a monster then, but not now.”

“It’s always inside me, though. I’m still capable of that kind of… That kind of rage.”

“But you don’t give in to it.”

“I mean, I just attacked Liz.”

“That was different. You were protecting me.”

Unlike with Joel, who I intentionally sought out and brutally tortured before killing him, thought Abby. Out loud she said, “Are we okay?”

“Yeah,” said Lev. “We’re okay.”

“Thank you,” said Abby sincerely. “Can I give you a hug?”

Instead of replying, Lev got to his feet, pulled her up too, and stepped into her arms. She squeezed him tight, and as always he marveled at the feeling of safety he got from her solid strength. It didn’t matter where she went, he would always follow her, because she was his home. His safe place.

For some reason he thought of Ellie at that moment. Had Joel been her safe place, the way Abby was his?

And did she even have a safe place now?

Chapter Text

Early the next morning, Abby dressed and slipped out of the room before Lev woke up. The base was always quiet at this hour, and most mornings it was her favorite time to go for a run around the island, or hit the gym in the casino. But today she had other plans. Talking with Lev on the rooftop had done a lot to clear her mind, to re-center herself in the peaceful, stable mental place she’d been in before Ellie had showed up in LA. Ever since then she’d been losing control more, acting the way she’d acted before she’d met Lev, and it scared her. She didn’t want to slip down that path again.

So she decided to do what she always did: Face the problem head-on.

A friend in the clerical section had given her the room number. Another friend in the cafeteria had given her the pastry. And some stupid book in the library had given her the idea.

She encountered a few people she knew in the hallways of building four, and she greeted them politely without stopping to chat. When she was standing in front of the door she was looking for, she paused, took a deep breath, rolled her shoulders, and then knocked.

The first thing Ellie did when she opened the door and saw Abby standing there was take an involuntary step backwards. Abby could tell that she immediately regretted the show of fear. “Fuck are you doing here?” Ellie asked coldly in an attempt to cover her reaction. “Am I late?”

“No, it’s… It’s early. Really early, actually,” stammered Abby. “And somehow I only just realized you were probably sleeping, and this was stupid. I’ll go.” Feeling like a complete idiot, she turned to leave.

“What is this?” said Ellie incredulously, stopping Abby in her tracks. “Are you seriously trying to make some kind of social call right now? Like we’re friends?” She noticed what Abby was holding in her hand. “Did you… Did you bring me a pastry?”

Abby looked down at the wrapped-up almond square she’d gotten from the cafeteria. “Um, yeah?”

For a long moment, Ellie just stared at her. Then she said: “You killed Joel. Right in front of me. I don’t want your fucking brownie.”

“Yeah, and you killed my pregnant friend and the guy I was in love with. Did you forget about that? You took things from me, too,” shot back Abby. “And it’s a fucking almond square, not a brownie, so just fucking take it!” She shoved the wrapped pastry into Ellie’s hands. 

Ellie looked at it, then looked back at Abby. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“A lot, actually,” said Abby. She ran her hand over her the top of her head, taking comfort in the familiarity of the feeling of her slowly-regrowing braid before forging on with the distinctly uncomfortable conversation. “Look, we need to figure this thing out.” She motioned back and forth between the two of them. “There’s no way we’re going to survive Section Zero if every time we’re near each other, all we do is fight about all the shit we did to each other. So I’m here to offer you a truce. As long as we’re on the same squad, no more talking about Jackson, and no more talking about Seattle. From here on out, we’re starting fresh.”

“You are unbelievable,” Ellie said. “You can’t just sweep that kind of history under the rug.”

“Well we have to try, don’t we? Otherwise this mission is doomed before we’ve even started training. Like it or not we’re stuck together, and I don’t know about you but I’d feel a lot better knowing that you have my back down there rather than trying to stab me in it.”

“And how do I know I can trust you to hold up your end of the bargain?”

“Ellie,” Abby said, deliberately calling her by her name for the very first time, “I haven’t wanted to fight you for a long, long time. You know this. I told you so on the beach, remember? It was over for me after the theater. I’m done.”

Thinking back to that night on the beach, Ellie remembered holding her switchblade to Lev’s neck, forcing Abby to fight her. She was ashamed that she’d done that. And she was even more ashamed that she hadn’t been bluffing. That was exactly the kind of thing that Ellie had been trying to stop doing. She didn’t want to be that person anymore, a person who is slave to their darkest impulses. Her whole reason for coming here was to regain control over herself, to retake her own destiny. She wanted to stop letting herself contribute to the active shittyness of the world and instead try and make it better. This mission was her way of doing that, and she couldn't do the mission alone. Abby was right - they needed each other, and they needed to be able to be civil with one another, because this was about something bigger and more important than their shared history.

She raised her eyes to Abby’s and said, “Okay. A truce, then. No more fighting. No more talking about the past.” She reached out her hand, and Abby shook it. Her grip was firm, her palms calloused. “But this doesn’t mean I’m going to forget what you did.”

“I’m not asking you to,” said Abby. “See you at breakfast.”

Then she turned and left without another word, leaving Ellie standing blinking in her doorway. Finally she shook her head and closed the door, going to sit at her desk where her journal was lying open. She picked up her pen.

Abby came to see me to offer a “truce.” No more mention of our past should be made. I get why she did that. We have a mission and we need to work together. Fine. I can deal. I get it.

What I don’t get is… Why the almond square????

Ellie unwrapped the pastry and sniffed it, wondering if it was poisoned. Slowly, she lifted it to her lips and took a tiny bite. Then she took a bigger one, and before she knew it it was gone. She added a line to her journal:

God damn it, the stupid thing was delicious.

As she rose and began preparing for her day, she continued to wonder about that almond square. Was it some kind of peace offering? If so, it was a stupid one. One little pastry wasn’t going to bridge the ocean-sized gap between them. Was Abby trying to be funny? Did she even have a sense of humor? 

Only when she was walking down to the cafeteria for breakfast did it occur to her that she was obsessing over Abby and that almond square the same way she used to obsess over every little thing Dina had done before they’d gotten together. The realization filled her with extreme revulsion, and she easily moved on at once.

One perk of being a Firefly was that soldiers got to pick their own squad names. Since Abby’s squad had gotten two new members, Liz decided they should pick out a new name as well. So that became their first order of business once all six of them were seated around at the breakfast table together.

“What was your name before?” asked Ellie as she blew on a spoonful of porridge to cool it down.

“Squad FAAFO,” said Brandy.

“Huh?”

“FAAFO. F - A - A - F - O,” Brian said. “Fuck Around And Find Out.”

Ellie laughed. “Nice. I like it.”

“Abby thought of it,” Brian told her.

“Oh,” said Ellie, glancing at Abby, who was sitting as far away from her as possible. “Well, it’s funny. Didn’t know you had the ability to be funny. Thought all you could do was scowl.”

“And fight,” Abby added helpfully.

“That’s true. Can’t forget that.”

Their squadmates looked back and forth between the two of them in shock. “Wow,” said Patrick. “That could almost pass for a civilized conversation you two just had.”

“Shut up,” said Abby, holding back her smile. She was pleased her plan had worked so well. When she’d gotten back to the room and told Lev what she’d done, he had been really proud of her for being the first to take that step. That’s how she knew she’d done the right thing. In many ways, he was her moral compass.

“Alright, so… New name. Who’s got suggestions?” Brian asked.

“Well, we’re off to hunt for spores, so how about… The Fungus Among-us,” said Ellie, and Patrick choked on his juice and began coughing. Brian reached over and slapped him on the back.

“Ugh, that’s so gross,” complained Brandy. “Pass.”

“Or… The Spore the Merrier,” said Ellie.

“Oh my god.” Patrick was still coughing, laughing in between each heave.

“Or… Cordyceptic Shock.”

“I actually like that one,” Abby grudgingly admitted.

“How are you coming up with these so fast?” said Brian, incredulous.

Abby had noticed that Lev was pointedly looking down at the table, sitting stock-still as though he was concentrating on something very hard. She leaned down very close to his ear and murmured: “You can laugh at her jokes if you want. I promise it won’t offend me.”

He shook his head stiffly, and Abby chuckled at him. Lev was nothing if not loyal.

At the other end of the table, Ellie was still rattling them off, and Patrick was in tears with laughter. “Spores Explorers,” said Ellie. “Mushroom Marauders. The Mushroom Caps.” She snapped her fingers over the table. “Come on, guys, I’ve come up with like a hundred of these. Pull your fucking weight, will ya? I thought Fireflies are supposed to work in teams.”

“Infected In-shmected,” suggested Brian.

“Fuck the Fungus,” said Brandy.

“Or Fight the Fungus,” Abby said.

Everyone stopped and looked at her. “That’s good, right?” Patrick asked the group at large. “Fight the Fungus? FTF for short?”

Brandy nodded. “It’s simple and to the point.”

“Keeps the focus on the real enemy,” said Ellie.

Abby nudged Lev lightly. “What do you think?”

“I like it,” he said.

“So that’s it then? We’re all in agreement?” Brian looked around as everyone nodded. “Alright then, we are officially Squad Fight the Fungus. Nice one, Abby.”

“I can’t take all the credit - Brandy thought of two thirds of it.”

Waving the comment away, Brandy said, “By the time we’re at the end of our mission and we help them make that vaccine, no one’s even going to remember who thought of the name.”

“I’ll drink to that,” said Abby, and she clinked her juice cup against Brandy’s before taking a swig.

Squad Fight the Fungus had its first training session after breakfast. It was held on the opposite end of the island, where a large, hilly, rocky area had been sectioned off with a wooden fence. The trainer was a man named Pedro who, by his own description, “don’t take shit from no one.” He had them line up single file and walked up and down the line, looking at each of them as though sizing them up. “You and you,” he pointed to Abby and Patrick. “Team one. You and you.” This time Brandy and Brian. “Team two. You and you.” Ellie and Lev. “Team three. This exercise is simple. Battle royal. Last team standing wins. You’ll use the paintball guns on that table over there. They are all empty. Ammo is hidden throughout the battlegrounds. Each team will enter from a different corner. Then you’ll try to kill each other. Any questions?”

Everyone shook their heads.

“Good. Grab your guns. Team two, go that way and enter the area from the first gate you come across. Team three, go the other way and enter from the first gate you come across. Good luck.”

Ellie picked up one of the paintball guns and inspected it, making sure she understood how it worked. By the time she looked up and searched for Lev, she discovered that he had already started walking off in the direction of the gate without her. She sighed and rolled her eyes. “So it’s gonna be like that, huh? Well, not if I can help it,” she muttered to herself. She already had one huge Abby-shaped problem in the squad. She wasn’t about to let Lev become a problem, too. Making a decision, she broke into a jog to catch up with him. “Alright, so what’s the plan?” she asked once she was walking by his side.

Surprised, Lev said, “What?”

“You’ve been a Firefly longer, right? I figure I should probably follow your lead.”

“Um, okay,” he said. “What can you do?”

“Run, jump, hide. You know… The works. I’m pretty well-rounded. Whatever strategy you wanna use, I’m on board.”

They paused outside the gate, Lev putting his hand on it while they talked. “I’m a scout,” he said. “Scouts are stealthy. That’s what I’m good at.”

“Alright,” said Ellie with a smile. “Let’s do it.”

Lev opened the gate and they entered the arena. “Let’s look for ammo.”

“Should we split up?”

After a moment’s hesitation, Lev decided, “No. We’ll stick together for now.”

They set off into the rocky terrain. Knowing that there was only a limited amount of time for conversation before they were within earshot of the other teams, Ellie decided to try and get on his good graces as fast as possible. “I thought you were really brave in Liz’s office the other day, standing up to Abby when she was all worked up like that,” she said casually.

Brave?” repeated Lev incredulously. “You think I’m scared of her?”

“Well, aren’t you?”

He stopped walking and glared at her angrily. “Of course not. What a stupid question to ask.” He shook his head and continued on. “You really don’t know the first thing about her, do you?”

Ellie had quickly realized her mistake and now worked to correct her path of inquiry. Lev, she realized, would always be in Abby’s corner. The way to get to him would be to ask about things he liked, and so far the only thing she knew for sure he liked… was Abby. “You guys have traveled together for a long time, huh?”

“Yes. We met not long before you killed-” He cut himself off abruptly. “Uh, before all that stuff in the aquarium and the theater. Sorry. I know about the truce, and I’ll follow it, too, if you will.”

“Deal,” said Ellie quickly. “I was in Seattle, Lev. I know about the Scars.”

“Seraphites,” Lev corrected her.

“Seraphites. Sorry. But I know what it was like in that city. I know that Abby is not really your sister.”

“No,” said Lev quietly. “She just told everyone she was.”

“Why?”

“To protect me.”

“Doesn’t look like you need any protection to me. You act like you can take care of yourself.”

Ignoring this, Lev asked, “You won’t say anything, will you? We like it this way.”

“Nah, I won’t say anything. I don’t care. I was just curious.”

They came upon a group of rocks that seemed to be deliberately arranged in a U shape. Lev put his hand out to stop Ellie and then walked around it. “Ammo here,” he said, coming back with two bags of paintballs. He tossed one to Ellie and they loaded their guns. “Okay. Let’s go this way.” He pointed to the west, and Ellie nodded. “If we come at team two from this direction, the sun will be in their eyes.”

“Smart,” said Ellie, impressed. “I guess the Fireflies do teach you a thing or two, huh?”

Lev couldn’t quite hide his flattered blush. “Shh,” he said. “Quiet now. They should be around here somewhere.”

And sure enough, a few minutes later they heard Brian’s voice. “...All the ammo caches. We’ll need a lot of shots to take Abby out, she’s so fucking fast,” he was saying.

“Not a bad idea,” Brandy replied. “You got any idea what Ellie can do? Feels strange having an unknown element on the squad.”

“I got no fucking clue,” said Brian. “If we were infected looking for our next bite I’d say we were fucked. Otherwise, she’s a completely unknown element.”

They were now close enough for Lev and Ellie to figure out exactly where they were. They crouched together behind a large rock, checking their guns to make sure they were properly loaded. Lev peeked out to look at Brandy and Brian, seeing that they were about to pass between two large rocks - a perfect place for an ambush. “We can take them both at the same time. You can go...” he whispered, but when he turned to look at Ellie she was gone, already creeping off to the spot he had been about to direct her to. “Right there,” he finished to himself. “You can go right there.” He watched as Ellie got into position and then looked to him for a signal. He held up three fingers and put them down one at a time, and when he was making a fist they both jumped out and opened fire, pelting Brian and Brandy with bullets.

“Ha ha! Fuck yeah!” cried Ellie triumphantly, holding her gun up in the air. “Two down, two to go! Gimme a high five, partner!” She held her hand up and Lev slapped it, grinning ear to ear. Then she turned and pointed at their two paint-covered squad-mates. “How’s that for an unknown element, ya nerds? That’s how it’s done!”

“Ugh,” groaned Brandy, wiping paint off her face. “Okay, you got us. Great. But do you really have to gloat like that?”

“Fuck yeah I do!” laughed Ellie. “We kicked your ass!” She noticed that Lev was laughing, too, and she felt an unexpected rush of pleasure at the sound. Making JJ laugh had been one of her favorite things in the world. Lev was a lot older than JJ, but underneath that tough, sage exterior, he was still just a kid. “Come on, Lev,” she said. “Let’s go kill your sister.” When he looked at her in alarm, she added: “In the game, of course. I promise I won’t kill her for real.”

“Like you even could,” he muttered, following her in the direction of team one. Ellie hung back a second, allowing him to catch up and keep pace beside her. “You won’t, will you? Try to kill Abby again?”

Ellie shook her head. “I won’t. I mean, I hate her guts and I probably always will, but I don’t want her dead anymore, either. What you said that night, about her not being a monster? Well I’m done being one, too.”

With a curt nod, Lev said, “Good.” They walked along in silence for a while, coming across another weapons cache and reloading their guns. Afterward, Lev mustered up his courage and said, “Can I ask you something?”

“Shoot,” said Ellie, keeping a watchful eye on her surroundings.

“Do you have any family?”

The question hit Ellie hard, and she was swept up in a crashing wave of nostalgia and grief for the life she’d had back in Wyoming. She missed Dina and JJ so much it hurt. Every single night she laid in bed thinking of them, regretting her stupidity for leaving them to hunt for Abby again. She heard Dina’s tearful voice from that night in her mind: We've got a family. She doesn’t get to be more important than that. But it hadn’t made any difference. She’d still gone. And by the time she realized that killing Abby wasn’t going to solve all her problems, it was too late - she’d already lost them for good.

So she simply answered: “Not anymore.”

“Did… Did Abby kill them all?”

“No,” replied Ellie. “No, I managed to lose them all by myself.”

Something made a cracking noise nearby, as though someone had stepped on a twig. Instantly, Lev and Ellie ducked into some nearby bushes and held their breath, listening hard. Lev reached over and tapped on Ellie’s shoulder to get her attention and nodded towards a nearby boulder. Then he tapped his own chest and pointed up at the trees. When she nodded at him, he put his paintball gun’s strap over his shoulder and scrambled up the tree they were sitting under.

Ellie had understood exactly what he meant. She crept around the boulder he had indicated and tucked herself away in the shadows, waiting.

A minute later Lev silently dropped down from a nearby tree and motioned for her to follow him. They moved slowly, not making a single sound. It wasn’t long before Lev reached out an arm to stop Ellie, put one finger over his lips to signal for complete silence, then pushed aside a branch in front of them to reveal Abby and Patrick, both facing away from them as they crouched in wait. The two of them had positioned themselves where Ellie and Lev would have been walking had one of the others not made a noise and given themselves away.

“Oh, good work, Lev. This is too good,” breathed Ellie, grinning wickedly. She raised her paintball gun and took careful aim, making sure that Lev was ready, too. They nodded at each other, then started shooting.

Abby jumped up in shock and grabbed the back of her pants as a paintball hit her right in the ass. “What the fuck!” she yelled.

Lev was laughing so hard it was a miracle he managed to hit Patrick with any of the shots he fired. “It wasn’t me!” he gasped between peals of laughter. “I swear it wasn’t me!”

“Yeah, I didn’t think it was you!” Abby raised her paintball gun and began shooting at Ellie, who leapt behind a rock to avoid the bullets. “You’re fucking dead, bitch!”

Cackling mischievously, Ellie popped up over top of the rock to shoot at her. “Come and get it, asshole!” She took off running, and Abby gave chase. It immediately became apparent to Ellie that running had been the wrong choice, because Abby was a lot faster than her. She was quickly overtaken, and Abby wrapped one arm around her midriff and tackled her to the ground. Being physically stronger and heavier than Ellie, Abby wrestled her until she was straddling Ellie’s waist, and she pointed her paintball gun right in her face.

It was at that moment that they both came to their senses, and they stared at each other, breathing hard.

Quickly, Abby got off her. “Sorry,” she said, and then she turned and jogged off towards the entrance to the arena.

Ellie lay on her back in the dirt for a bit longer, staring up at the sky and wondering how it was possible that she had just been having fun with the person who had murdered two of her best friends. She reached up and covered her face with a groan.

A shadow fell over her and she opened her eyes to see Patrick standing over her. “You good?” he asked.

“Dude, everything is so fucked up right now,” whined Ellie.

“I meant, like, physically.”

Ellie rolled her eyes and allowed Patrick to help her get to her feet. “Where’s Lev?”

“Went after Abby, of course,” replied Patrick. 

“Great,” sighed Ellie. She hoped she hadn’t just managed to fuck up all the progress she’d made with him today. “Looks like we won. Time to head back, I guess.”

They set off together, Ellie kicking stones along the ground in front of her as she went. “You want my advice?” Patrick asked.

“Not really.”

“Too bad. I’m giving it to you anyway. Go easy on yourself, okay? I don’t know exactly what went down between you two before, but it can’t be so bad that you guys can’t be friends right?”

“Oh boy do you ever have less than zero idea what you’re talking about,” said Ellie expansively. “It absolutely is that bad.”

“Look,” said Patrick, “the way I see it, we are at war right now, and shit happens in war that would never happen in normal times. The infection changes everything. It’s the clean versus the infected, and everyone that’s clean needs to be on the same side. So whatever you guys did to each other, you need to learn to forgive.”

“Easier said than done.”

“Yeah, but you don’t strike me as the kind of girl who gives up when something is hard. I know Abby isn’t.”

They were the last two to get back to the starting point of the arena. After a brief rundown of the exercise where Pedro yelled at the two losing teams for the things they did wrong and gave an appraisal of everything Ellie and Lev did right, the group was dismissed. Ellie saw Lev speaking quietly to Abby, and it looked as though he was trying to encourage her to do something. It seemed to work, because Abby approached her and said, “Ellie, you mind hanging back for a sec?”

“Sure,” she said. 

“I just, uh… I just wanted to apologize properly, for attacking you like that. The exercise was over and that was uncalled for.”

Ellie was so confused by this, she hardly knew where to start. “Uncalled for? I shot you in the ass with a paintball gun!” All of a sudden she caught on to what Abby was really saying. “Wait,” she said, “were you attacking me for real?”

Abby didn’t answer, just looked at her.

“I thought… I mean, that was fun, right? At least, I thought it was fun.”

Now that she thought about it, Abby had been having fun. But the fact that it was with Ellie made the whole thing very confusing. “Yeah,” she admitted. “Yeah, I guess it was.”

“Did you have any intent to actually hurt me?” Ellie asked.

“No,” answered Abby quickly. “Not really. Mostly I just kinda wanted to shoot you in the face with a paintball.”

“Which would have been hilarious, by the way.”

“Yeah, it would have been,” said Abby, the corner of her lips quirking in a tiny little smile. 

“Then what are you apologizing for?”

“I don’t know. All we’ve ever done is fight. I just didn’t want you to get the wrong idea.”

“Well, I didn’t,” Ellie assured her. “I did, however, suffer a brief existential crisis over the fact that I was having a pretty good time with the person who I hate most in the entire world.”

Abby nodded. “Yeah that’s definitely fucking me up a little, too. But…” She shrugged. “I’m just gonna roll with it. See you around.” And, in the manner Ellie was starting to become accustomed to, she turned and left before Ellie could formulate a coherent response.

Shaking her head, Ellie picked up her backpack from where she’d dropped it at the beginning of training, pulled out her journal and a pen, and flipped to the page she’d last been writing in.

“I’m just gonna roll with it”???? The FUCK does that mean???

Still turning this over in her mind, Ellie went back to the barracks to shower and change into clean clothes. She’d been with the Fireflies for a week now, and she had to admit that it was great to be back in civilization. It had taken her several months to get here, and in that time she’d rarely slept in the same place twice. But this was like being back in Jackson: A warm bed, readily accessible food, and running water for a shower. All the Fireflies were responsible for their own laundry, but they were provided the clothes. It was nice. Ellie hadn’t realized just how much strain the constant fear and danger when traveling put on her. Now that she was surrounded by people and the basic comforts of everyday life, it was easier to feel optimistic and happy about her situation.

Plus there was the fact that she’d been handed another opportunity to make her immunity mean something. That was something she thought she’d lost forever. But knowing she could make a difference, that she could help end the suffering for so many… Yeah, that was a good feeling.

So all and all she was pretty pleased with how things were going and where she was at. She only wished she hadn’t fucked everything up so badly along the way here.

After cleaning herself up she went to the cafeteria for dinner. The line at the food counter was long, but she was excited to see that the person standing at the very end of it just so happened to be Lev. She hurried over so she could be next to him. “Hey, partner,” she said cheerfully. “You left so quick after training I never got a chance to get my victory high five!” She held up her hand for him to slap.

But he did not slap it. In fact he hadn’t yet even acknowledged her presence. He was standing very stiffly while staring at the ground, and the tips of his ears were bright pink. “Hey,” Ellie said, concerned. “What’s wrong?”

He shook his head quickly and mumbled, “Nothing.”

Ellie looked around at all the people around them. The line was so long that it was wrapped around a dividing ribbon, so there were people standing a little bit in front of them who were facing them directly. Two of the guys ahead of them were shooting not-so-subtle looks at Lev and whispering to each other. The line moved a little, which brought the two people close enough for Ellie to hear what they were saying. 

“I heard he has both,” said one of the soldiers.

“No, he’s just a girl. I heard it from my friend who’s a scout. She said she saw the bandages under his shirt to hide his tits, the little freak,” said the other, and they both broke into smothered giggles.

Ellie immediately understood what they were talking about, and she saw red. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been this furious. Without even thinking about it, she ducked under the separating rope, cocked her fist, and decked one of the soldiers directly on the nose, shattering it with a satisfying crunch. In another split second she had swept the other soldier’s feet out from under him, dumping him heavily on the concrete floor. “Fucking assholes!” she said as she followed him down and pinned the soldier to the ground with a knee on his chest. “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size, you pathetic piece of shit!”

“What the fuck!” said the soldier that Ellie had punched, his voice nasal and his hands over his face. “You broke my nose, you fucking bitch!”

"Yeah? Well maybe next time you’ll keep it in your own fucking business, huh?” snarled Ellie.

By this time everyone else in the area had backed away, although Ellie didn’t notice since she was otherwise occupied. Lev had slipped away in the commotion, vanishing into the crowd. Just as Ellie was about to start wailing on the guy she had pinned, she heard someone say, “That’s enough! Break it up, soldiers!” Then someone came over and yanked her off the soldier, pulling her away from him. She struggled against her captor for a moment, but when the soldier scrambled to his feet and put some distance between them, she stopped. “What the fuck is going on over here?”

“We were just talking, and then this bitch attacks us outta nowhere!” said the soldier with the broken nose.

“Those fuckers know what they said,” said Ellie angrily, not wanting them to repeat what they had been talking about in front of the crowd that had gathered. “And if they’re smart, they’ll know not to say it again.”

Liz appeared and pushed her way through the crowd, surprised to see that it was Ellie who’d been involved with the fight. “Alright, all three of you, to my office. Now,” she said sternly.

“What about my nose?”

“Fuck your nose,” said Liz, and she turned and strode towards the double doors, clearly expecting them to follow.

It was late at night by the time Ellie got back to her room - she’d been assigned one day of latrine duty for punishment. The other two had been given a day as well, although Ellie suspected that Liz had secretly been on her side because they’d been assigned Burrito Day latrine duty. 

Because of the incident she hadn’t gotten a chance to eat dinner, and the cafeteria was already closed. She was rummaging around in her backpack looking for her trail mix when there was a knock on the door. “Aw man, what now?” she groaned, completely exhausted. She dragged herself to the door and opened it to find Abby standing there with a brown paper bag in hand. 

Ellie had never seen her wear an expression quite like the one she was wearing now. She was scowling, but not the way she usually did. It was darker than usual, but there was something strangely warm about it, too, like it was not directed at her. Like she was commiserating with the anger that had spurred Ellie to attack those guys in the cafeteria. “I heard what you did, and Lev told me why you did it,” she said. “If it had been me, they’d both be dead. But what you did was good enough. I know you missed dinner, so here.” She held out the bag, and Ellie took it. And then she looked Ellie directly in the eye and said: “Thank you.”

There was such sincerity in the way she said it that Ellie didn’t think she’d known the meaning of the word gratitude until that moment. “You’re welcome,” she replied, feeling weirdly light-headed.

Abby gave her a brief nod, then did that thing where she abruptly walked away. But this time, Ellie stopped her before she was gone. “Abby,” she said quickly, taking a step out into the hallway to catch her. When Abby paused in her tracks and turned to her again, she asked, “What was that, this morning? With the almond square.”

“What do you mean, ‘what was that?’”

“I mean, why did you bring it?”

Looking truly, genuinely confused, Abby said, “It was a gesture. I was trying to be nice. What the fuck else would it be?”

“I dunno, poison?”

Abby rolled her eyes and resumed walking away. 

Chapter Text

“You about ready to go?” Abby asked Lev, standing by the door to their room with her bag slung over her shoulder, waiting for him to finish packing his stuff.

“Yeah,” he said. He tossed one last roll of clean socks into his bag and then snapped it shut. “Let’s go.”

“You’re forgetting something,” Abby teased, moving to block his path to the door. When he gave her a puzzled look, she pointed at his bedside table, where his gun belt and sidearm were laying. 

Lev let out an annoyed sigh and grabbed it, threading it awkwardly around his waist. “I miss my bow. I will never get used to these stupid things.”

“Well, bring that, too. Show these Fireflies a thing or two.” She watched him struggling with the belt, amused. “Here, let me help you with that.”

But Lev backed out of her range. “No! I have to learn this. Okay, through both loops… Separate the loops… Then… Got it!” He pulled the belt to tighten it, giving Abby a pleased grin. 

“Well done. Now you’re all set to shoot some bad guys,” Abby said, and they finally left the room. “How are you feeling about all this?”

“Nervous,” Lev admitted. “Three days is a long time.”

“Yeah, but the real thing is gonna be more like three months, so it’s good that we’re doing this. There’s no way to know for sure how everyone’s going to get along, but at least we’ll start getting a better idea of how all this is going to shake out.”

Squad Fight the Fungus was on its way to the mainland to complete its first multi-day assignment. Their task was to go approximately ten miles past the farthest checkpoint and completely clear all the infected out of a five-mile zone. It would be three days with just the six of them, and they would have to rely on each other as a team to accomplish the job.

Abby was an experienced traveler. She had gone all over the country with her father and the Fireflies, plus there had been the long, grueling trip to Seattle after the outpost at Salt Lake City had fallen. And all of those trips had been with a relatively sizable group. So all things considered, she was feeling pretty good about the three-day excursion, especially since things with Ellie had been fine for the last two weeks. They weren’t exactly friendly with each other, but they had managed to muddle through all their training exercises without fighting at all. In fact they had discovered that, weirdly enough, they were oddly compatible in the field. When Pedro had paired them up for the deathmatch arena, they had won easily. They’d barely even needed to exchange any words. Their fighting and movement styles were so similar, whenever they’d come across another person the answers were obvious to both of them. Ellie had been pleased with their win, but needless to say, she did not request any victory high fives.

She liked Lev, though, and Lev liked her - although he tried to pretend he didn’t for Abby’s sake. At first it had stung a little to see them getting along, but she found she wasn’t capable of maintaining negative emotions about something that was making him happy. Ellie made him laugh. She listened to him, she respected him, and she had stuck up for him. How could Abby possibly justify begrudging him for a relationship like that? For liking someone who treated him well? It was impossible. So she let it go. 

It helped that his growing friendship with her would serve him well in the months to come. If there was one thing Abby could definitely appreciate about Ellie, it was that she was exceedingly capable in the field. She was the only other person on the team who she had no qualms about him going off alone with. It would be difficult for Abby to trust the other squad members to look after him, but she knew she’d have to suck it up and get used to it - for the sake of the mission.

The whole squad was already waiting at the docks, ready to hop on a boat to the mainland. When they joined the group, Ellie reached out and ruffled Lev’s hair. “Getting a little shaggy there, bud,” she teased him, and he blushed. “Looks good though.”

“I don’t like it,” he said. “Abby’s gonna cut it when we get back.”

“She cuts your hair for you? Wow. That’s sweet.”

“Yeah I’m a regular old fucking ball of sunshine,” deadpanned Abby.

As the whole group climbed onto the boat, Abby reflected on the brief display of normalcy they’d just had. At times like that, a future where she could have a genuine friendship with Ellie seemed possible. But then in the next moment she’d see a puddle of blood on the floor of the aquarium and the face of the man it belonged to, and she’d shake herself out of it. Ellie had killed Owen, and it would be an insult to his memory to forget about that.

But… Hadn’t Owen also believed in forgiveness?

The thought made Abby’s head spin. Would he still have advocated forgiveness if he had known that Abby would one day be considering the notion in connection with his murderer?

I’m not considering it, Abby stubbornly told herself. Not at all.

But she continued to turn the topic over and over in her mind the entire ride across the water anyway.

On the mainland they picked up a truck and set off into the deeper parts of the city. Brain drove and Ellie sat shotgun, looking curiously around at the completely safe streets. “Wild to think that there’s no spores anywhere in this area,” she commented.

“Yup,” agreed Brian. “I been with Fireflies almost a year now and it still blows me away.”

“It’s gotta be dangerous, though, right? Removing the spores? What if your mask fails or breaks on you while you’re tearing up all those huge clumps?”

“It has happened to soldiers before, but that’s a risk you gotta take. The work we’re doing is work worth doing. It’s not easy, but somebody’s gotta do it,” said Brian.

Ellie smiled, appreciating his dedication. “Fight the Fungus, right?”

“All fuckin’ day,” he agreed.

On the bed of the truck, Patrick was sitting next to Abby with his arm draped casually over the side of the car. He was giving Abby a strange look, as though he was trying to decide whether or not to say something. “Something on my face?” she asked, annoyed.

“Just your beautiful smile, baby girl,” he replied smoothly.

Abby, who was not smiling in the least, said: “Spit it out.”

He sighed. “I’m thinking of asking Ellie out. Would you be super mad at me?”

“Why would I be mad?”

“I dunno. Because she’s your arch-nemesis or whatever? My loyalty lies with you. If you don’t want me to do it, I won’t.”

“I appreciate that, but as long as it doesn’t mess with the team dynamics I really don’t give a shit,” said Abby. “Have at it.”

Patrick swung his arm around her shoulders in an affectionate gesture. “You’re the best, Abs.”

Rolling her eyes, Abby said, “Only when you’re getting your way.”

When they reached their destination, they parked the truck and did a quick sweep of the area to make sure no infected would take them by surprise. Abby didn’t find any in the building she and Lev checked out, but across the street she could hear gunfire. When everything nearby had been cleared out, they set about the task of choosing a place to call home for the next three days, somewhere for everyone to come back to at the end of the day. They decided on an abandoned furniture store because there were plenty of soft places for everyone to sleep.

With that finished, they broke up into teams by drawing names out of a hat. Ellie ended up with Patrick and Brandy with Lev, leaving Abby with Brian. As he and Ellie left for the street they were assigned to cover, Patrick threw Abby a wink over his shoulder. She shook her head before putting everything else out of her mind, setting her entire focus on the task before her.

She and Brian ended up being the first people back after clearing their section, so they started working on chores like preparing dinner and setting up a latrine. Abby tried not to think about Lev being out there with Brandy, but she was undeniably worried about it. Her fears were laid to rest when the two of them returned a short time later.

When Ellie and Patrick returned, Abby raised an eyebrow in silent question to Patrick, and he shook his head and dragged his finger across his throat in a slitting gesture. Abby took this to mean he’d been shot down, and she couldn’t help but laugh. Historically Patrick was very good at picking up women. In fact Abby couldn’t remember a time when he’d ever been told “no” before, aside from herself of course. He'd asked her out shortly after she and Lev had arrived in Avalon, but she'd firmly shot him down. To his credit he had accepted it and moved on right away, but she could tell she had wounded his pride. She was sure that no matter how polite Ellie had been, Patrick’s ego was still bruised regardless.

Everyone gave status reports and made notes in the mission file to indicate how much more work there was to be done in the sector. They were only doing a preliminary sweep of the area to kill the living infected. Another team would come in after them to clear out any spores they found. When all their chores had been finished and everyone had had dinner, they picked out places to sleep and went to bed.

The next morning, Abby drew Ellie’s name from the hat and the two of them went off into the city together. Abby had thought their day would be filled with stony silence, but to her surprise, Ellie initiated a conversation almost right away. “Your boyfriend asked me out yesterday,” she said casually as they strolled down the street.

“Who, Patrick?” Abby asked. They had reached their assigned area so she went to the door of the first building they came across and tried it. It was open, so they both turned their flashlights on and went inside. It was a bank with a wide-open floor plan. 

“Yeah,” Ellie said, opening the door to an office and peeking inside. “I said no, but I thought you should know.”

“First of all, he’s not my boyfriend. Second of all, I already knew he was gonna do it.”

“Oh, sorry. My bad. Just thought you guys seemed pretty close.”

“Buddy system,” Abby said by way of explanation. “We’re just friends.”

“Okay.” Ellie opened the door to the back room. “I think that's it for this building, except for the vault. Should we try and blow it open?”

“Nah,” said Abby, pulling a small notebook and a pen from her pocket and jotting something down. “We’ll let the second crew take care of it. Come on. Next building.”

“Yes ma'am,” said Ellie sarcastically. “Lead on.”

“Thanks, I will.”

A bakery was next, and this time they could hear a few infected upstairs. They crept up there quietly and dispatched them with no issues. Afterwards Abby said, “Wait, you didn’t say no to Patrick because you thought we were together, did you?”

“Hell no,” said Ellie. “On the contrary, I’d relish the opportunity to fuck up your relationship.”

“Ouch,” Abby said as she rummaged through a drawer looking for anything useful. “So what’s the problem? Not that you’d trust my judgement about it, but I swear he’s a good guy.”

Ellie had found an old rolling pin and was nonchalantly rolling it across the counter as she waited for Abby to finish looking around. “I don’t doubt it,” she said, “but it’s the ‘guy’ part I can’t really get past.” She surreptitiously watched Abby carefully to get a read on her reaction, but it didn’t seem to phase her at all.

“Ah,” said Abby. “Yep, that’ll do it. Tough luck for Patrick.”

“Dude never even had a chance.” Ellie couldn’t help but feel appreciative for the ease with which Abby had handled this bit of personal information. In retrospect she wasn’t sure why she was surprised, considering how close she was with Lev.

As though reading her thoughts, Abby asked: “Is that why you punched those guys in the cafeteria? Because you’re both unusual?”

“Fuck no,” said Ellie. “I could be the world’s biggest cock fan and I still would’ve beaten the everloving shit out of those assholes.”

Abby chuckled. “What’s a ‘cock fan?’”

“It’s… I mean, it’s a fan made out of cocks, obviously.” She pulled her journal out of her bag and made a quick sketch. It was a fan, but instead of blades it had penises. “Like this.” She walked over and held the drawing up for Abby to see.

Abby had been busy looking around behind the counter and hadn’t noticed that Ellie was doodling in her journal. When she saw the drawing it caught her so off-guard that she let out a genuine, throaty laugh. “Wow,” she said. “Your knowledge of male anatomy is pretty bad.”

“Considering I like girls, I choose to feel proud of that.”

They moved on to the next building. There were some runners on the top floor that they took out easily, and then they split up to check all the rooms. “Everything good on your side?” Abby asked when they met back up in the main room.

“I got two really old clickers but no sign of spores,” Ellie told her. “I’m thinking this place must have a basement somewhere.”

“Let’s look around.” 

“Yes, let’s.”

It took them a little searching, but they found a door on the outside of the building that led to an underground room. Abby looked through the window, using her hand to block the light so she could see inside. “Yep, we got spores. Masks on,” she said, reaching behind her to unclip hers from her backpack.

“Really, dude?” Ellie said flatly.

Abby looked at her curiously as she finished affixing her gas mask. “You’re not going to wear one?”

“Why the fuck would I?” She pointed to herself. “Immune, remember?”

“Obviously I remember,” said Abby irritably. “I just think it’s weird to tempt fate like that.”

“You’re ridiculous.” Ellie brushed past her and opened the door, waltzing right on into the spore-filled air. She deliberately took a long, deep, exaggerated breath in, then let it out, spreading her arms out wide and turning to Abby. “See? Immune.”

Without warning, Abby leapt forward and tackled Ellie to the ground, just in time for the acid that a bloater had fired at her to soar over their heads. “What about that? Are you immune to that?” Abby asked, jumping to her feet and swinging her shotgun off her shoulder and into her hands. 

Ellie rolled into a crouch, pulling her own gun. “Nope. No I am not,” she said, and then conversation became impossible over the sound of their gunfire. 

They both knew what to do without having to confer with each other. They went to separate edges of the room and took turns drawing the massive, slow beast’s attention, effectively keeping it away from each other. There were a few more close calls with acid, one of which involved Abby having to dive underneath a nearby pool table, but they managed to kill the bloater without any issues. “Well that was easy,” said Abby as she was catching her breath. “It’s nice to have a competent partner.”

“I’m sorry, what was that?” Ellie said.

“Fuck off. You heard me.”

“Was that a compliment I just heard?”

“I fucking hate you. You know that, right?”

“I mean, that’s kinda the defining thing about this fucked up relationship we have, so… Yeah, I know that.” Ellie shouldered her rifle and brushed the dirt and spores off her clothes. “Thanks for the save, by the way.”

“You got it.” She watched through her gas mask as Ellie wandered around the basement checking for anything they’d missed, completely unbothered by the tiny particles in the air around her. It struck Abby as so odd to see someone walking around in the spores without a mask. She’d seen Ellie get bitten and have nothing happen, but this felt different - more immediate. This was… A miracle. “Why do you think you’re immune?” she asked Ellie, unable to resist her curiosity.

Ellie looked at her then with such sadness that even without knowing the exact reason for it, Abby’s heart ached. “I wish I knew,” she said. “But at this point I think I probably never will. I’m not special. I’m not a hero. All I know is that I have this gift that so many would love to have, and I’m just stuck here trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do with it. Because if I don’t do anything with it… Then what’s the fucking point?”

Abby nodded, looking down at the dead bloater on the ground. “This fucking world is so incredibly fucked up.” She shook her head, then looked back at Ellie. “I don’t want to add to that anymore. You know?”

And she could tell just by the expression on Ellie’s face: She did know.

“Come on,” Abby said. “We’ve still got six more buildings to hit today.”

The next building had a doorway that had been blocked by an overturned metal filing cabinet. Ellie tried to push it out of the way, throwing her whole weight at it, but it wouldn’t budge an inch. “Fuck,” she said, frustrated.

“Stand aside, puny weakling,” said Abby, cracking her knuckles. She braced her shoulder against the cabinet and pushed, and slowly it gave way. Abby continued to push until it was standing upright again, leaving the door completely accessible. “Maybe I’m not immune to the spores, but there’s no fucking way I’d let a stupid filing cabinet beat me,” she teased arrogantly.

“Yeah, okay. We can’t all be chiseled from stone, alright? There’s no need to be so smug about it.”

“Umm, I actually think I have every need to be smug about it? So...”

“Shut up,” laughed Ellie. She opened the door, and they both laughed when they saw it was just a broom closet. “Well, that was a complete waste of time.”

“Not for me. I got to show off my muscles.”

“In front of me. Who is already perfectly aware of how strong you are, so again I say: Waste of time.”

A smile quirked at the corner of Abby’s mouth. “That’s fair.”

They stopped for lunch after they finished the next building, sitting up on the roof and looking out at the ruined city before them. Nothing was moving except for in the far distance, where a plume of smoke from a controlled burn by the Fireflies could be seen wafting up into the sky. “Can you even imagine what this place must have been like before?” Ellie asked.

“Nope,” said Abby shamelessly. “I’ve never really been big on the whole ‘imagination’ thing. Besides, I prefer to think about what it’ll be like once the Fireflies are done with it.”

“That is so annoying and practical. I hate that answer, honestly.”

Abby shrugged. “Sorry.”

Rolling her eyes, Ellie took out her journal again and began to sketch the city skyline underneath the ‘cock fan.’ When she looked up several minutes later she noticed that Abby was watching her. “What?”

Shaking her head, Abby said, “Nothing.”

“Okay, weirdo.”

“Yeah, I’m the weird one. For sure.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Abby reached out and tapped on the drawing of the cock fan. Then she looked at Ellie with an expression that clearly said: Need I say more?

“Okay, well, don’t put your grubby fingerprints on my journal,” said Ellie, huddling over her journal to protect it.

They resumed the hunt a short time later. Their next building was a toy store, and after they had cleared a couple of infected from it they spent some time looking around. At one table Abby paused and picked out a stuffed shark, smiled, and tucked it away in her bag. When Ellie gave her a questioning look, Abby informed her: “Lev likes sharks.”

“He’s a little old for stuffed animals, isn’t he?”

“He’ll like it when I tell him the story behind it.” In fact the shark was identical to the one Yara had picked out for him in the aquarium the day she died, but that they’d never gotten the chance to give him. Abby had no particular inclination to share this with Ellie though, so she didn’t elaborate further. And Ellie, to her credit, didn’t ask.

Their last couple of buildings went well. There was one more opportunity for Abby to stare at Ellie as she breathed in spores. She couldn’t quite place why she found herself unable to look away from that sight. It spurred some deep emotion in her, something rich and resonant. When Ellie caught her staring, she asked: “What does it feel like? Breathing them in?”

Ellie shrugged. “It doesn’t feel like anything. It’s like breathing earthy-flavored dust.”

“You can taste it?”

“A little, yeah,” said Ellie. “Why are you so curious about this?”

“Ellie,” Abby said, and she chose her next words carefully, “I don’t think you realize how… extraordinary you are.”

“The fuck are you talking about?”

Taking a step closer to her, Abby said, “I have watched people breath spores before, and what those people turned into was something so nightmarish that I honestly don’t want to picture it ever again. But you’re standing there, and you’re just… You. Unchanged. Unbothered. I know you said you don’t think you’re heroic, but I have to tell you, as someone who is not immune, to see you like this…  It is so…” She trailed off, searching for the right word. Finally she concluded: “Empowering.”

“Oh,” said Ellie, caught off guard by this proclamation. “Never heard that before.”

“I find that extremely difficult to believe.”

“Not a lot of people knew before I came here. And the people who did know certainly didn’t have that reaction.”

Abby didn’t say anything for a minute, and then she said, “Then I’m glad I told you, because I really can’t understand how anyone would see this and think anything else. And I believe it’s important that you know that.”

“It’s important for me to know that everyone is thinking it, or that you specifically think it?” Ellie asked, squinting at her.

After another notably long pause, Abby answered: “Both.”

They ended up being the last group back to the furniture store. After everyone had gone to bed, Abby lay on her back on a couch with her hands behind her head, but she couldn’t seem to fall asleep. She kept thinking about Ellie walking through the spores in that dank basement, trying to put a name to the feeling it had invoked. On the couch right across from hers, Lev turned in his sleep so that his blanket came partially off. Abby stretched out her arm and carefully placed it back on him, then watched the way his shoulders rose and fell as he breathed. So much of her life had been spent doing the wrong thing. It wasn’t until these last two years with Lev that she’d felt totally at peace with herself, had stopped doubting every single step she took. Her purpose was to protect him from a world that was doing its very best to kill him.

Again she remembered Ellie and those spores, and that’s when she realized that the feeling it was giving her was hope. Ellie represented the hopes of a future where safety wouldn’t have to come from being able to defend yourself against danger; instead, safety would be the norm, and danger would be the exception.

She tried to picture what that would feel like - to be able to go about her business without having a gun strapped to her hip, or a gas mask in her backpack. It was extremely difficult to imagine, especially for someone like her, who had never been known for being particularly imaginative. Eventually she gave up trying. But she felt invigorated by the very idea - restless, even. That was why she couldn’t fall asleep. 

She got up and crept outside without waking the others, then climbed the fire escape to go sit on the roof. The building was only one story, not tall enough to trigger her acrophobia, so she had no trouble with the climb.

When she got to the top, she was surprised to see that Ellie was already up there sitting cross-legged on the roof, her back facing the fire escape. Hearing something behind her, Ellie instinctively grabbed her gun and pointed it at Abby, who held up her hands. “Woah there,” she said. “It’s just me.”

“Jesus,” Ellie said, lowering her gun. “What the fuck were you thinking, sneaking up on me like that?”

“Sneaking up on you? You’re sitting with your back to the ladder. What else was I supposed to do?”

“Sing the whole way up, or something,” said Ellie. “What are you doing up here, anyway?”

“Needed some air. What are you doing up here?” Abby asked, walking over and plopping herself down next to her.

For reply Ellie held up her journal where she had been working on a sketch of the moon, which was unusually bright and clear in the night sky. It was so clear that Abby could actually see some of the ridges and contours of the surface. Looking down at Ellie’s sketch, she was impressed with its accuracy. She was about to compliment it, but then all of a sudden Owen’s face appeared in her mind.

Only then did it occur to think: What in the world had she been doing today? She’d spent the entire day with someone who hated her, who had wronged her, who she had wronged, and it had just felt… Normal. It felt fine. Even sitting next to her now, in the middle of the night, unarmed, wearing her fucking pajamas, she felt… okay. 

Ellie must have been having similar thoughts, because she put her pencil behind her ear and closed her journal, holding onto it tightly on her lap. “Today was weird, right?” she said.

“Really weird,” Abby agreed.

There was a long silence as Ellie stared off into the distance, chewing on her bottom lip. Then she looked over at Abby and said, “You just wanna roll with it?”

“Yeah,” said Abby. “I can if you can.”

Ellie swallowed hard, as though she was trying to keep from throwing up. “I can,” she said hoarsely. Then she stood and hopped down off the roof, forgoing the fire escape entirely.

Chapter Text

“If somehow the Lord gave me a second chance at that moment… I would do it all over again.”

Ellie awoke and opened her eyes without moving, Joel’s voice still ringing in her ears. She could remember every syllable, every hint of his southern twang. It had been a long time since she’d dreamed of him, and it still hurt terribly. But at least she had finally stopped dreaming of that night in the Baldwin place, that narrow staircase, that room full of strangers, and the feeling of helplessness as she watched Abby swing that golf club for the final blow.

Abby had done that. The same Abby who Ellie had been training with for the last month. The same Abby she joked around with at mealtime. The same Abby who she would be entrusting to fight at her side for the foreseeable future in a long journey to the most dangerous place on Earth.

“What are you doing, Ellie?” she asked herself out loud in her empty room.

It was the day before Squad Fight the Fungus was setting out to do the thing its name promised. Tomorrow the large sailboat that the Fireflies had fixed up for their journey would set sail, bringing them as far south as they needed to go to be able to cross the continent of South America towards their destination. Ellie was having a lot of conflicting emotions about it. Part of her was filled with dread. There would be danger, hunger, pain, fear. All of the things that came with travel in this fucked up world would surely be present on this trip.

But she was also excited to get going. She’d been a wanderer for so much of her life, she never felt completely comfortable staying in the same place for long. Even Jackson had been difficult sometimes, with its large social gatherings and constant drama that went along with them. At least in Jackson there had been nature all around for when she needed to get away, but the same could not be said about Avalon. Lately the base had begun feeling a little claustrophobic to her. She’d never been a very good sleeper, and so she’d taken to wandering around at night, looking for quiet, private places to sit and journal. The base was never totally silent, but there were always fewer people around at night and in the early mornings. She’d noticed that Abby, too, could frequently be found around the base at unusual hours, usually at the gym or in the library. Sometimes they’d nod at each other in passing, but Abby seemed to need the time alone just as much as Ellie did.

As she thought about the upcoming trip, she acknowledged the fact that she was glad she was going with a group - her group. The squad had grown close over the last month. It was to be expected, she supposed, when you spent upwards of twelve hours a day with the same people. Ellie liked them all, in their own way. Patrick was easy-going and confident, with a swagger that made him fun to mess around with. Brian could be prickly but he was dedicated and skilled. Brandy was young and sheltered, but she always loved learning new things. Lev was becoming one of Ellie’s favorite people, quiet and serious but still just a kid underneath. And he was endlessly loyal to Abby. He loved her unconditionally.

And Abby loved him right back. It was actually… sweet

Just as she had that day in Liz’s office, Abby continued to remind Ellie of Joel - not because of that night in Jackson, but because of her endless capacity for love.

Abby, like Joel, loved with her entire being. What Ellie had learned about her since coming here was that, for Abby, there was nothing more important than Lev’s well-being. Just like how, for Joel, Ellie had been the only thing that mattered.

If somehow the Lord gave me a second chance at that moment…

Sitting up in bed, Ellie rubbed a hand over her face to wipe those thoughts from her mind. Instead she turned her attention to the chores she still needed to do on base before they could set sail. She got out of bed and picked up her backpack, swung it over her shoulder, and headed to the hospital ward for her last round of testing with Doc. His hypothesis about the fungus from her recent bite had been correct - Ellie’s body had been gradually purging all traces of the infection via her urine. The whole thing grossed Ellie out so much that all she could do was laugh about it. When she found Doc in his office, she greeted him with: “Good morning! Would you like to join me for a fresh cup of pee?”

The corners of Doc’s mouth quirked up in a smile that he was attempting to hide. “Oh, Ellie,” he said wistfully. “I will miss your spirited banter.”

“And I’ll miss you failing to hit a vein with your needle three times before finally getting it right.”

She finished with her tests and said farewell to him, thinking that if they ever saw each other again it would be a miracle.

The next place she needed to go was the rec center to return some art supplies she had borrowed. She couldn’t take them with her to South America and it would be a shame to let them go to waste. The fact that there even was a rec center in the Firefly base had been a surprise to her, but as she spent more time there she realized that the Fireflies were less of a military operation and more like a community - sort of like Jackson. Many soldiers had families with small children, so they had to be watched while their parents were busy with Firefly business. After she had dropped off her extra paint she wandered the hallways for a bit, killing time before her whole squad had a meeting with Liz in her office.

As she turned down one hallway she heard the sound of childrens’ laughter, and then one kid ran out of a classroom, cackling mischievously. From the open doorway, chasing after the child, emerged Abby of all people. Ellie resisted the urge to rub her eyes to make sure she wasn’t seeing things, but no, it was really Abby, smiling and laughing right along with the other kids who were in the classroom she’d just come out of. Abby ran after the fleeing child in the hallway, grabbed him around the waist and scooped him up easily, the little boy shrieking with joy the entire time. She balanced him on her hip, then looked up and spotted Ellie further down the hallway. “Hey,” she said, a little breathless from the effort of chasing and picking up the kid. 

“Hey,” Ellie replied dumbly. “What’s going on here?”

“Uh,” said Abby, glancing back at the classroom. “Come see.” She gestured for Ellie to follow and went back to the classroom. The little boy in her arms kept his eyes on Ellie as she stepped inside, but when Abby set him down he immediately went to rejoin his friends. There were about a dozen other kids in the room, all seated around large tables that were covered in art supplies. “Alright, you little goobers. Back to work!” Abby called. The students giggled at the word goobers, but they listened to the command and set themselves back to the art projects they were working on, talking and laughing amongst themselves. Abby came to stand beside Ellie near the front of the room. “I try to cover a couple of hours here twice a week or so, when the training schedule permits,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard for them to get people to watch ‘em and I like doing it.”

“You do?”

Abby smiled. “What, you think I’m such a raging bitch I can’t like kids?”

“I mean… Yeah?”

“Well you’re wrong. About the liking kids thing, that is. Not the raging bitch thing.” One of the kids raised her hand, trying to get Abby’s attention. “Be right back,” she said, and she left Ellie to attend to the child. 

Ellie watched in stunned silence as the monster who’d murdered Joel interfaced with the child, smiling kindly as she assisted in cutting a shape out of a piece of construction paper with child-safe scissors. The part that was especially odd was that all the kids clearly liked her. While she was nearby, they all clamored to show her what they were working on, and Abby listened to each one, complimenting them and praising their work. When she was finally able to extricate herself and return to Ellie, she had acquired a smudge of paint on her cheek from one of the kids accidentally putting his finger on her face in his excitement to show her what he’d painted. “You got a little something,” Ellie said, using her own face to model where the smudge was.

“Thanks,” said Abby, and she wiped it off with the sleeve of her t-shirt. “Someone should be here soon to take over for me and then I’ll head over to Liz’s office. You don’t have to wait if you don’t want.”

“I’ll wait,” said Ellie. The whole scene was so strange to her, she wanted to see more. “You’re good with them,” she commented.

“Kids are easy to get along with. It’s adults I sometimes have trouble with.” 

Ellie could relate. JJ had been so much simpler than even Dina had been sometimes. 

“Those little drawings you do in your journal,” Abby said, “they’re really good.”

“Is that why you kept staring at them?” Ellie teased.

“Yeah, actually,” Abby answered frankly. “I mean, the cock fan was stupid, but the one you were doing of the city and the one of the moon. I liked them.”

“How dare you. That cock fan was a masterpiece.”

“Are you always this bad at accepting compliments, or that just with me because you don’t care about my opinion?” 

Ellie sighed. “Sorry. I’m trying to be better.” She stood up straighter, then said, in a very clear and deliberate way: “Thank you, Abby. I appreciate that.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Although, for the record, I did like the cock fan.”

With an amused smile, Abby admitted, “So did I.”

“I’ll frame it for you. You can hang it in your cabin on the boat.”

“I’d hate to put you out like that.”

“Oh Abby, I insist.”

Another soldier came in to replace Abby, so she and Ellie began walking to the casino for the meeting with Liz. “How did you learn to draw like that?” Abby asked as they fell into step beside one another.

“I dunno,” said Ellie. “It’s just something I’ve always done. I’m sure if you practiced you’d get good at it too.”

“I doubt that,” laughed Abby. “I’ve never been known for my artistry. Cutting shapes out for the kids - that’s basically my limit. I’ve actually never even known anyone who was good at that kind of thing.”

“Really?” Ellie had been wondering why Abby seemed so curious about the drawings, and this explained it. It was simply a foreign concept to her, evidently.

“Nope,” Abby said. “I guess I’ve always been surrounded by the military type. Not a lot of room for imagination in that.”

“There were always a lot of artists in Jackson. Musicians, too. I used to play guitar before…” Ellie held up her left hand and wiggled her finger stumps.

“Oh,” said Abby, looking away quickly. “Fuck.”

Then she didn’t say anything else for the rest of the walk, and Ellie followed her lead.

When they got to Liz’s office the rest of the squad were already there waiting. “Good afternoon,” said Liz when they entered the room.

“Hey,” Ellie said, plopping herself down in one of the empty chairs. Abby stayed on her feet, leaning against the same corner she always did with her arms crossed. Ellie could tell by her immediate attitude shift that she was still pissed off at Liz. 

“Now that we’re all here, we can begin.”

For the next hour, they all went over the plan again for the final time. They covered the sailing trip, which would take at least a month. Their landing point would be Lima, Peru, and from there they would go east to reach the city of Porto Velho, where the cacao crops had developed the first spores of the cordyceps infection which went on to cause the downfall of civilization. Ellie had been very dismayed to learn that chocolate had been the traitor. “I’ll never look at a brownie the same way again,” she’d said gravely when she first learned about it.

“You will find our outpost roughly twenty miles west of Porto Velho, right here.” Liz pointed to the spot on the map. “When you reach it, the operatives there will provide you with further instructions and the gear you will need to follow them. At some point prior to reaching the outpost you will enter the spore cloud, so you must wear your gas masks at all times past that point, even when sleeping. You will be provided special masks with an adapter for water containers that can be used without taking your mask off, as well as packs of energy gel that can be sucked through the tube on the mask for food.”

“Blech,” Patrick said. “I hate that shit.”

“If you would prefer to eat something solid, you are welcome to remove your mask and eat all the cordyceps in the area,” said Liz flatly.

“Nope, I’m good,” said Patrick quickly. “Bring on the packs of goop.”

“The military gear you will be provided is very heavy,” continued Liz, “and your progress through this area will be slow. You need to be mentally prepared to deal with at least a week under those conditions, but it could possibly be longer. That all depends on how quickly you locate the farm and how easily you are able to assess the fungus in the area to figure out the precise location of its genesis.”

The squad’s month of training had included a class on information gathered by Firefly researchers about growth patterns of the cordyceps. Each of them had learned how to spot the oldest spores in any given area based on color, density and size. 

“How close will us non-immune people be able to get to Spore Zero?” asked Abby.

“We can’t say for sure,” Liz replied. “Could be as close as five miles, or it could be as far as twenty. You will need to keep a close eye on your oxygen meters and pull back before you begin to suffocate.”

“Stop if you can’t breathe. Got it,” said Abby. “Very helpful, Liz.”

Ignoring this, Liz moved on to the next item of business. “You will be provided weapons for dealing with the infected, but it is highly recommended that you do not engage them,” she said.

“Is there a plan for dealing with them?” Brian asked. “I mean, someone’s gotta kill ‘em eventually, right?”

“Someone will, yes,” Liz agreed. “But not you six. You are to avoid them at any cost. Your mission is far more important than killing those beasts. Our people at the Velho outpost are working on a solution.”

Remembering the hulking form in the photograph she’d seen, Ellie wondered what could possibly be done about something that size. She didn’t know what the rest of the group was thinking, but she fully intended to stay well the fuck away from those infected. 

Liz said her name, which drew her attention back to the meeting. “The spores in that area are thick. You will be provided a face cover too, but obviously it won’t be as heavy as the military gear - in fact it will be intentionally light to prevent suffocation.”

Ellie opened her mouth to ask a question, but she was surprised when Abby asked it first. “Why does she even need any at all? She can breathe the spores. I’ve seen it.”

“For her comfort,” replied Liz crisply, looking down at a stack of papers on her desk. “It will be unpleasant to breathe in the area, even for one who is immune.”

This made sense to Ellie, and she glanced over at Abby to see how she was reacting. Abby caught her eye and gave her a barely perceptible shake of the head, and Ellie understood what she was trying to say: She’s lying.

“You sure that’s why?” Ellie pressed. “Don’t forget that little deal we made, Liz. If you know something, you have to tell me or I’m out.”

Raising her gaze and looking right at her, Liz said firmly: “I assure you, there’s nothing.”

“There’d better not be,” said Ellie. She looked over at Abby to check in, but she had resumed glaring out the window, her body tense, her jaw set. Clearly Liz’s placation had not impressed her in the least.

“Now, once you have found Spore Zero, you are to gather as much of it as you can and place in the airtight, unbreakable containers that you will be provided at the outpost. And then after that, all you’ll have to do is come home,” concluded Liz.

“To a hero’s welcome, I hope,” said Patrick smugly.

Liz smiled. “Oh yes, I think when the time comes, we will certainly be able to throw something like that together for you.” She stood up, and everyone else followed suit. “This mission won’t be easy. It will be long, and it will be painful. But you are doing the greatest service for mankind. All our lives are depending on you six. I want every single one of you to return to us safe and sound. Is that understood?”

“Yes ma’am,” Squad FTF replied.

“And remember, when you’re lost in the darkness…”

“Look for the light.”

“Look hard for it, soldiers, until you find it.” She nodded at them all and said: “Dismissed.”

Patrick had requested a hero’s welcome that afternoon, but he had requested a hero’s farewell the day he learned of their assignment, and the rest of the base had listened. There was a big party in the squad’s honor that was happening in both the cafeteria and the rec room. Some people were playing live music and a dance floor had been set up. Alcohol had been secretly brewed and bottled by some crafty soldiers somewhere in the cleared out part of Los Angeles in anticipation, and Ellie snagged herself a beer as she surveyed the celebration. None of the other soldiers on the base knew of her immunity. They knew that this particular Section Zero assignment was somehow special, though, because usually only seasoned soldiers were sent there. Ellie had only been a Firefly for a month, and yet she was being sent there. It didn’t take much for them to figure out that something unusual was happening.

No one bothered her too much during the party, and she liked it that way. She stuck to a side wall and sipped her beer, her mind still on the mission. Eventually the noise began to give her a headache, and she decided to grab a second beer and go for a walk.

Her feet carried her to the dock where the large boat that would be her home for the next month was tied up, bobbing peacefully in the waves. As she got closer to it, she noticed a familiar outline of a person up on the deck, leaning against the railway at the bow. Ellie hesitated, but then decided to climb up onto the boat and went to stand beside Abby. 

Abby was also holding a beer bottle as she casually slouched against the railing, and she raised it in greeting as Ellie approached. “Hey,” she said.

“Whatcha doing out here? Any sane person would stay far the fuck away from this thing, considering we’re about to be stuck on it for weeks,” said Ellie.

Abby chuckled. “I like boats.” She took a swig from her bottle, then added, “My dad had one when I was growing up. We would live in it for long stretches of time when the infected herds were migrating through our area.”

“Where was that?” Ellie asked. Abby had never said anything about her past before, so all Ellie knew was that at some point she and her father had wound up with the Fireflies in Salt Lake City. Since there were no major bodies of water near there, it was safe to assume she must have grown up elsewhere.

“In Oregon, a town called Beaver.”

Ellie choked on a sip of beer and started coughing and laughing. “Beaver?

“Fuck you, man,” laughed Abby. “See if I ever share anything personal with you again. Now I know you’ll just laugh at it.”

“No, I mean, it sounds like a really, really nice place. Kinda place I could really dive right into, you know?”

“Jesus fucking Christ, Ellie.”

“Alright, alright. I’m sorry.” She waved her hand in a go on gesture. “Tell me more about boat life. I’ve never been on a big one like this, and certainly not for such a long time. What can I expect?”

“It’s interesting,” said Abby. “You’ll feel trapped and liberated at the same time. Every part of your living space is so compact, and yet you’re surrounded by this immense open area, with nothing around you as far as you can see in every direction.”

“I think I’m gonna go stir crazy, cooped up in this thing.”

But Abby shook her head. “I wouldn’t worry about it. I think you’ll find that the ocean has a way of keeping you occupied. My dad used to say you can see your whole life playing out in the waves, if you look hard enough.”

Ellie watched her as she said this, and her expression was so soft as she spoke - warm, with a true smile on her lips. She’s thinking about her dad, Ellie thought. She realized then that Abby had loved her father the same way she loved Lev: Completely, and with everything she had. That’s why her hatred and anger had led her to hunt down Joel. That much love can cause people to do things they wouldn’t normally do. In Abby’s case, it had brought her to that room in Jackson. And in Joel’s case, it had brought him to carry the unconscious Ellie out of a hospital full of dead and dying Fireflies.

"If somehow the Lord gave me a second chance at that moment… I would do it all over again."

And if he did do it all over again, he’d kill Abby’s father again, and Abby would kill him again. Nothing would change. This was the way it had to be, the way it always would be. And nothing either one of them did could change it.

“Abby,” she said. “There’s something I want you to know, alright? And it’s breaking the truce, but it’s like the thing you said to me about breathing the spores. It’s important for you to know.”

“Is it going to make me want to throw you over the side of this boat?” asked Abby reluctantly.

“I don’t think so.”

“...Okay. Just say it.”

Clutching her beer bottle tightly in her hands, Ellie said: “When I came to find you that last time in Santa Barbara, that wasn’t really about you. I was…” She waved her hand vaguely at her own head. “I was fucked up in my mind, and things got so hard. I had a lot of shit to work out about Joel, and I thought the solution was to kill you. I thought it would fix whatever was broken in my head. But when I found you, and you were so… Emaciated. I mean, I have no idea what happened to you in that camp but-”

“Move on,” Abby said warningly, clenching her fist around the railing of the boat. “I’m not going to talk about that with you.”

“I know,” said Ellie quickly. “And I don’t want you to. I’m just trying to say that I should have figured out sooner that I needed to work out my own shit instead of dragging you into it, especially when a fight was obviously the last thing you needed or wanted. The bottom line is that it was wrong of me to pick a fight with you that day, and I’m sorry. I really am.”

A long silence followed this, and Ellie waited nervously for Abby to speak. Finally, Abby sighed and said, “Well, you did cut me down. If it wasn’t for you showing up when you did, Lev and I would both be dead. Plus I did…” She jutted her chin at Ellie’s left hand, where she had bitten off two fingers during the fight. “That.”

Ellie held the hand out in front of her, frowning at it. “Yeah. That kinda sucks. Like I said, I can’t play guitar very well any more. But it’s my fault for forcing you to fight. I may as well have bitten them off myself.” She shook her head. “I don’t blame you for it at all.”

“I'm still sorry, anyway.”

“Me too.” Ellie took a deep breath and allowed herself to relax. “Okay, we can re-truce now. I’m done talking about this if you are.”

“I didn’t want to talk about it in the first place. All I wanted was to hang out here alone, but evidently your entire purpose in life is to get all up in my business.”

Rolling her eyes, Ellie turned to leave. “Fine,” she said. “I can take a hint.” But she was surprised when Abby reached out and grabbed her wrist, stopping her.

“I was kidding,” she said. “You can stay if you want.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah. It’s a nice night to be drinking a beer on a boat.”

“Okay then,” said Ellie, resuming her position next to Abby at the bow. 

She wasn’t sure why it pleased her so much that Abby didn’t mind her being there, or why she even wanted to stay considering they were about to be stuck in close quarters for such a long time, but she made a conscious decision not to think about it. Instead she contented herself with her beer, the mild breeze, the gentle waves, and the companionable, comfortable silence with the woman beside her.

Chapter Text

Abby climbed out of her cabin and up onto the deck to say good morning to the ocean. It was something her father used to do, too. He’d wake up, take his morning coffee above deck and sit on a lawn chair facing the sunrise, silently watching the day’s birth. As a young girl she had thought it was silly. She’d grow impatient with him, wanting him to make breakfast or at least pay some kind of attention to her. But after being adrift at sea for the last couple of days, Abby had grown to deeply respect and appreciate the vast ocean around her. It wasn’t just a body of water. It was a system of life, mysterious and dangerous, but it contained a treasure trove of beauty and wonder to those who respected its power. 

Usually around this time of morning there were only two other people awake - whoever was at the helm, and Ellie. Like Abby, Ellie was an early riser. This morning was no exception to that pattern. At the helm on one end of the boat was Brandy, and sitting up near the bow on a deck chair was Ellie. Abby wandered over and sat down in the chair next to her. “Morning,” she said, wiping sleep from her eyes.

“Hey,” replied Ellie. “Beautiful morning, huh?”

“Sure is. We’ve been pretty lucky with the weather so far. Being on a sailboat during a storm kinda sucks. Maybe we’ll luck out and not see any.”

“Now that you said that we definitely will. You jinxed it.”

Abby rolled her eyes. “Please don’t tell me you’re into that superstitious mumbo jumbo.”

“No, but that doesn’t mean I won’t blame you if something happens.”

“I accept that,” said Abby easily.

“Have you ever been caught in a storm on a boat?”

“Yeah, when I was a kid. I think I was like eight or nine. A big storm came through and was tossing us all over. I lost my balance down in the cabin and banged my head against a table. According to my dad I was out for like 3 minutes.”

“That must have been scary.”

“I was unconscious, so I don’t remember it.”

“I meant for your dad,” said Ellie. She looked over at Abby, biting her lip as if debating saying something. “Can I ask you a personal question?”

Raising her eyebrows, Abby said, “Sure. Might not answer it, but ask away.”

“How come you never talk about your mother?”

“She died when I was six,” Abby replied. “She got infected while she and my dad were out looking for supplies. I think it was a clicker that got her. I never really asked for the details.”

“Oh,” said Ellie sadly. “That’s rough. I’m sorry.”

“It's just one of those things, you know? Everyone has lost someone. After it happened my dad started looking for a cure. At first he was doing his own research, but eventually we traveled all over to see if anyone else was looking for one, too. We found the Fireflies and then we stayed with them so he could head up their research division.”

“You know, I grew up in the Boston QZ and I didn’t even know the Fireflies had a research division until after I learned I was immune. All we heard was the FEDRA propaganda about them being terrorists and shit.”

“You grew up in a QZ?” Abby asked.

“Yup,” Ellie said. “And it was every bit as terrible as you’ve heard. Fighting, crazy rules, people with guns all over, black markets… It was pretty terrible.”

“Sounds like it,” said Abby sincerely. “What about your parents?”

Ellie shrugged. “I’m an orphan. It was only me, myself and I until… Well, until Joel I guess.”

“Shit.” Abby couldn’t help but think that this probably explained why Ellie had had so much trouble working through her own emotions, particularly where Joel was concerned. She’d been forced to grow up far too fast.

“Actually,” Ellie said, “I did have someone else for a little while. A girl named Riley. First girl I ever kissed.”

“Nice,” said Abby with a grin. “How old were you?”

“Thirteen.”

“Damn! So you’re like… Completely gay. You never dated any boys at all?”

“Nope. Never had any interest whatsoever.” Ellie waited to see if Abby would have any other questions about this, but once again she seemed completely unphased and did not care in the slightest.

“So what happened with Riley?”

Ellie’s answer was short, and given in a tone that indicated that she had no desire to elaborate. All she said was: “She died.” She leaned back in her chair and put her feet up on the railing that ran along the edge of the boat. “What about you? Who was your first kiss?”

Abby looked at her like she was crazy. “Seriously? You want to know that?”

“I told you mine,” said Ellie innocently.

“Yeah but I didn’t ask for it.”

“Well I did. You don’t want to tell me?”

“I don’t mind telling you. I just think it’s weird that you want to know.”

“I’m trying to make friendly conversation here. So play along and tell me who it was.”

“Fine.” Smiling in remembrance, Abby said, “It was a boy named Jeremy. I was fourteen, and he was seventeen.”

Giving a loud gasp, Ellie exclaimed, “Scandalous! That’s a big gap!”

“I told him I was sixteen,” Abby admitted. “I thought he was really cute and I wanted him to like me. He was a Firefly too, but he was a ranger so he would only be on base for a couple of days at a time. I met him at a friend’s birthday party and we ended up kissing that first night.”

“Damn,” said Ellie. “You work fast, huh?”

“I didn’t do anything. He worked fast,” laughed Abby. “I was so nervous the whole time. I wish I’d chickened out, because he asked to borrow my favorite pistol for target practice and then left on a long patrol the next day. After that I never saw him or the pistol again.”

“What happened to him?”

Abby shrugged. “I think he got assigned to another base.”

“Off to steal some other gullible young girl’s pistol, no doubt.”

“For sure.” Abby glanced over at her and gave her a self-deprecating smile. “Not exactly a love story for the ages. I was young and stupid.”

“As opposed to now, where you’re old and stupid,” quipped Ellie.

“Ha ha,” laughed Abby sarcastically. “Guess I walked right into that one.”

“Sorry. Couldn’t resist.”

From behind them they heard Patrick call: “Breakfast, ladies!”

Abby and Ellie both rose to join their comrades around the breakfast table, both in oddly good moods that stuck with them for the rest of the day.

It became tradition for the two of them to sit on the deck together in the mornings after that. Sometimes they would talk, sometimes they wouldn’t. Lots of times Ellie would sit and draw pictures, and Abby would sit beside her reading one of the dozen books she had brought on the boat. Abby enjoyed those mornings because it was interesting to see the way Ellie formed the drawings, starting with the basic shapes to establish the positioning and key objects and then building the rest of the sketch around it. It impressed Abby, and she frequently gave her compliments on her work.

One morning about two weeks into their journey, Ellie asked: “Can I ask you a personal question?”

“You need to stop asking me if you can ask me questions. Just fucking ask it, alright? If I don’t want to answer, I won’t answer.”

“Geeze,” said Ellie. “Sorry Snippy McGee.”

Abby laughed. “I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be snippy. I’m trying to say that I have no issues with answering personal questions for the most part. I’ve never been anything but honest with you. Obviously there are truce-related things I don’t want to talk about, but pretty much everything else is fine.” When Ellie didn’t say anything, she looked over and saw that she was staring at her intently. “What?” she asked. “What did I say?”

“Nothing,” said Ellie. She shrugged. “I just… I’m not used to people who put it all out there like that.”

“I have nothing to hide from you,” Abby said simply. “What’s on your mind?”

“Uh, well… I was wondering what made you decide to rejoin the Fireflies,” Ellie said hesitantly.

“Hm,” was all Abby said at first as she considered her reply. “This is borderline truce territory.”

“Yeah, I thought it might be.” Ellie had been wondering if the loss of the friends that she and Tommy had killed had been a factor in Abby’s leaving Seattle, and based on Abby’s response it was evident that it likely had been.

Staring off into the horizon, Abby thought about her last few days in Seattle, putting the events and her thoughts in order. Eventually she said, “It wasn’t just that. I rejoined the Fireflies to fight the infection, because that’s the only thing I want to fight anymore. But as far as leaving Seattle goes, there were a lot of reasons that are completely unrelated to everything that happened with you and me. How much do you know about what things were like in Seattle?”

“I know about the Scars, if that’s what you mean.”

“Seraphites,” Abby corrected her. “There was a long-running turf war between the WLF and the Seraphites. It was brutal. I killed a lot of people for a stupid bullshit conflict.” Ellie could see the haunted look in her eye as she remembered those days. It was obvious that she was riddled with guilt over everything she’d done. “But then Isaac, the leader of the WLF, he wanted to wage an all-out assault on the island the Seraphites lived on. A lot of people died, on both sides. And Isaac… He wanted to kill Lev. A fucking kid, you know? I think that, even if you had never come to Seattle, I still would have wanted to leave after all that shit. It’s hard to explain, but over those last couple of days in that city, something changed in here.” She patted her hand over her heart. “I found something I’d lost after Salt Lake City. It was like waking up from a nightmare.”

“I get it,” Ellie said. “It happened to me, too, after Santa Barbara.”

“Too bad it didn’t happen sooner. For both of us.”

“Yeah,” sighed Ellie. “I fucked a lot of stuff up getting here. Left my family and lost ‘em for good.”

“Well, maybe you can get them back once you come home as the hero who ended the cordyceps brain infection. But if not, I’m sure you’ll have women flashing their tits at you everywhere you go after this.”

Ellie burst into laughter. “Oh shit! I knew there was a reason I accepted this mission. All I have to do is live through it and I’ll be drowning in puss for the rest of my life, like a fucking all-you-can-eat buffet.”

Abby groaned and covered her face. “Too far, man. Way too far.” But she was smiling, so Ellie decided to continue torturing her.

“I mean, according to you I should be able to say, ‘I can breathe spores,’ and the floodgates will open, right?”

“That is absolutely fucking NOT what I said, AT ALL,”  protested Abby. “I said that seeing you breathe spores gives me hope. I never said it made me want to roll around in the sack with you.”

“Might be a different story if it’s a girl who’s inclined to roll around with other girls, though.”

“Well, give it a shot. It’s not the worst pickup line I’ve ever heard.”

And so their journey continued. Over the past few weeks the squad had seen glimpses of the life forms that called the ocean home. Dolphins were their most frequent visitors by far. They treated the boat like a playmate, swimming alongside them for hours, jumping and showing off for them. It was hard to be certain, but Abby thought that there was a pod of dolphins that had been following them for the last two weeks, checking in with them every few days to let the people on the boat know they were still around. On another occasion Lev had been delighted to see a real, live shark. It had surfaced for a few seconds after catching some poor, helpless fish in its jaws. 

But their finest wildlife sighting happened about three and a half weeks in. Abby came above deck as she always did in the morning and, in a surreal scene that was almost spiritual for her, she looked out over the waves and saw three humpback whales - the very same animal that was suspended above the atrium of the aquarium in Seattle. The whales were clearly curious about the boat, but not curious enough to come as close as the dolphins had. They stayed a fair distance away, surfacing and waving their fins at them. Stunned, Abby went over to the helm where Brian was at the wheel. It was immediately apparent that he was frightened of the whales.

“These fuckers have been swimming nearby for an hour now. I think they’re going to tip us over!” he exclaimed, gripping the steering wheel of the sailboat in a white-knuckle grip.

“No they’re not,” Abby laughed. “They’re just checking us out."

“How the fuck would you know? Do you speak fucking whale?”

“No, but I can read English, asshole. I read a book about them in the WLF library. Did you know there has never been a fatal whale attack on a human where the human wasn’t doing something fucked up like trying to catch them?” Abby hadn’t taken her eyes off the ocean, watching closely for any sign of the whales.

That’s why she was surprised when she heard Ellie ask: “How old do they live to be?” 

Abby hadn’t realized that Ellie was around. But she was standing nearby, her green eyes also glued to the horizon. “Um, old, I think,” Abby answered. “Maybe as old as humans.”

“So these guys were probably around before the outbreak,” Ellie mused. “I wish I could speak whale. I bet they have some great stories to tell.”

“There used to be ships out in the ocean all the time back then,” Abby said. “Big ones. Tankers and shit. And people used to take cruises on massive ships for fun. Maybe that’s why the whales are so curious about us. They haven’t seen any other humans in a while.”

“Maybe they miss us. They miss their friends, just like the rest of us,” said Ellie.

“Or maybe they thought they’d finally gotten us out of their blowholes and now they’re pissed at us for coming back,” said Brian grumpily.

Abby rolled her eyes. “Brian, you are such a fucking downer. Look at them!” She gestured to the whales, who were once again popping up above the surface to have another look. “They’re playing with us.” She left the helm to go and stand out on the deck, and then she waved both her arms above her head and yelled out to the whales: “Hello there!”

Following her out to the deck, Ellie cupped her hands around her mouth and called out, “Hi whales! You guys are super cool!”

“God, they really are,” said Abby with an appreciative sigh. “I wish-” She stopped speaking abruptly, then awkwardly finished with, “we could get closer.” 

She had been about to say: “I wish Owen could see this.” But she knew it was a bad idea to say that to Ellie. The last thing she wanted was to antagonize her. In the past she’d have said it in a heartbeat. She’d have had no qualms about making Ellie feel like shit for everything she’d done. But these days she found she had neither the energy nor the desire to hate her. The undeniable truth of it was that she just... liked Ellie.

The feeling had been building since Avalon, but spending almost a month in close quarters with her and sitting with her in the mornings had really cemented her certainty of it. Traveling with Ellie was an altogether enjoyable experience. She liked the way Ellie was so low maintenance, never seeming to want or need anything more than what she already had. She liked the way Ellie was a little goofy, quick with a joke and a laugh. She liked the way Ellie was kind of weird, always saying things in a quirky way or teasing everyone for their odd habits. It was basically impossible not to like her.

As she watched the whales out in the water that morning, Abby thought about the last time she’d seen Owen alive.

“I know it’s a fucking mess. But we can choose to be happy. Abby… We’re allowed to be happy.”

It was a profoundly weird feeling to be thinking of Owen’s words as a way to justify her own growing affection for his murderer. 

“I’m going to go wake up Lev,” she said to Ellie, feeling strangely restless. “He’s gonna want to see this.”

“Good idea,” said Ellie.

Abby ducked her head as she went down the stairs to the living quarters of the boat. She found Lev sprawled out on his bed, fast asleep. Putting a hand on his shoulder, she gently shook him awake. “What’s wrong?” he asked sleepily.

“Nothing,” Abby replied. “There are whales swimming nearby. Wanna come see?”

“Yeah,” he said, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. “Let me get ready.”

“Okay. Hurry up.”

She left the bedroom and shut the door, knowing that he would need privacy while he carefully wrapped his chest with medical bandage. Over the last few years it had become harder for him to pass as male, but he had confided in Abby that he was grateful his chest had remained relatively easy to hide. By this point he was almost completely done growing, and he was not nearly as well-endowed as some of the fifteen-year-old girls that lived on the base in Avalon. When he’d first started noticing his developing body, he had become very sullen and depressed, which had upset Abby greatly. So she had gone to the medical ward and stolen some stretchy bandaging and helped him wrap himself every morning until he felt able to do it himself. Almost immediately his mood had lightened, which in turn made Abby very happy.

Before returning to the deck she roused the others, too, knowing that everyone would want to see the whales. Within a few minutes the whole squad was up top, watching the whales that were still surfacing periodically nearby.

Lev had brought up a pair of binoculars that everyone took turns looking through. When they eventually made their way back to him, he said, “I’m gonna go get a better look.” He hung them around his neck and started climbing up the ladder to the crow’s nest. From up there he raised the binoculars to his eyes again and looked around for the whales. As he was doing so, he noticed that the sky in the very far distance was dark with storm clouds. He scrambled back down to the deck. “There’s a storm coming!” he told the others.

“Let me see,” said Abby, holding out her hand for the binoculars. She looked through them and saw what Lev had seen. “Shit. He’s right.”

“Maybe it’ll dissipate before it gets to us,” said Brandy.

“I doubt it. It looks pretty bad. We need to get ready.”

Keeping an eye on the distant storm, the squad set about the task of preparing for the worst. They lowered the sails, put everything important into their life boat, and packed everything they would want to take with them in their packs in case they ended up needing to abandon ship. 

They had just finished when they heard the first crack of thunder. Not long after that, the winds began to pick up and the sea grew choppy. The boat lurched up and down, to and fro as it was tossed around by the awesome power of the waves. Soon the sky all around them was black with storm clouds, and all at once the heavens opened up and rain began falling like they were at the bottom of a waterfall. The violence of the waves seemed to increase by the minute, forcing all the people in the boat to grip to surfaces in order to prevent being thrown around.

Huddled below deck, Abby gathered Lev into her arms when she noticed he was shaking with fear. “It’s okay,” she murmured to him. “We’re gonna be okay.”

“How do you know that?” he said through chattering teeth.

“Because yesterday when I was looking at the ocean, I saw the future. I saw that we’re going to make it to Porto Velho, and we’re going to find the original spores, and we’re going to make it home, and then we’re both going to get the vaccine and die of old age. That’s how I know. There’s no way this storm is going to stop us. Nothing is stopping us, remember?”

“Nothing is stopping us,” Lev repeated, seeming to draw courage from the statement.

To distract herself from her own fear, Ellie took out her journal and a pencil. She found that if she kept it close to her chest, she could still draw despite the rocking of the boat. When she cast her eyes around for a subject, there was only one thing around her that she had any desire to memorialize. Watching them out of the corner of her eye, she sketched out the way that Abby was holding Lev, one hand on the back of his head to keep him pressed against her chest. She captured the expression on Abby’s face, her eyes closed, her brow furrowed, the crease between her eyebrows. She tried to replicate the air of protectiveness, the way that Abby clearly was not scared for herself, only for Lev. Ellie drew Abby’s arms as they wrapped around Lev, shading in the well-defined muscles, showing the way that she was holding him so tightly, so actively, that all of those muscles were flexed with the effort.

As she watched them, Ellie wondered what it must feel like to be held like that. She thought that it must feel so safe, and so warm. Abby’s embrace seemed to completely envelop Lev, surrounding him and insulating him from the world outside. And all of a sudden Ellie realized that she was profoundly jealous of Lev at that moment. She could only imagine how wonderful it must be to feel so secure, and so loved.

Abby opened her eyes and caught Ellie staring. They looked at one another in silence, not trying to communicate, just simply being there together in that moment.

All of a sudden there was a loud bang, followed by a second, even louder crash and a corresponding jolt of the ship that was markedly different from the constant rocking they’d been subjected to for the last hour. “The fuck was that?” asked Patrick, jumping to his feet. 

Withdrawing from Lev, Abby held him out at arm’s length and said sternly: “Stay with Ellie.”

Ellie held her hand out for Lev. “Come on, bud.” When he joined her where she sat on the floor, she reached over and put an arm around him. She may not be able to completely encircle him the way Abby had, but she’d protect him with her life if she had to.

Looking at Patrick and Brian, Abby said, “Let’s go.”

As the three of them climbed above deck, it occurred to Ellie that Abby had just left Lev in her care of her own accord without even a thought. She trusts me with him, she thought, and felt warm all over from the revelation.

“You drew us,” Lev said quietly, looking over her shoulder at the journal. 

“Yeah, I did.” Ellie tilted her journal so he could see it better. “I thought it was really… Beautiful. The way she was protecting you.”

“You think Abby is beautiful?”

After considering the question for a moment, Ellie answered, “Yeah, I guess I kind of do.”

“Hm,” was all Lev said in reply. 

Above deck, Abby braced herself against the violent wind and the torrential rain, shielding her eyes so she could see. As soon as she looked around, she knew what had happened. There, right in front of the entrance to the cabin, was the crow’s nest. It was on fire. The fire was quickly enveloping the rolled-up sails, growing too big for the rain to be able to put it out. “Lightning struck us!” she yelled to the others above the howling gale. “We need to throw it over!”

The three of them went to the burning mast and tried to lift it. Abby strained as hard as she could, and the others did the same, but they were unable to get it to budge. “It’s caught!” yelled Patrick, pointing to the other end of the boat, where the mast was still partially connected to the rest of the boat.

Looking back at the burning crow’s nest, Abby could see that the fire was spreading - and spreading fast. “It’s no good! We need to go! Get the lifeboat ready!” The others nodded, and Abby turned and bolted back down below. “We’ve been struck by lightning,” she said hastily. “There’s a fire. Grab your stuff, we need to abandon ship right now.” Without waiting to see their reaction, she went back up the stairs to help with the lifeboat.

Together they managed to get it lowered next to their ship. It had taken them less than a minute, but already the fire was bigger and coming closer. Abby could feel the heat of it when the wind shifted directions. She was relieved when Lev, Ellie and Brandy emerged from below deck. One by one, she and Brian assisted the others over the gap between the lifeboat and their own burning ship.

Suddenly there was a huge gust of wind and the ship lurched violently to one side. Brian lost his footing on the slippery deck and slammed against the burning mast. When the ship lurched back to the other side, the broken mast came apart from the rest of the ship with a loud crack and rolled with the motion of the boat, pinning Brian between the heavy mast and the metal railing of the ship. “Brian!” Abby yelled, taking off down the deck towards him. The spot where he had been trapped was so close to the fire that the heat was almost unbearable. “Take my hand!” she cried, reaching out for him. “I’ll pull you out!”

“No you won't,” Brian wheezed in reply, clearly in miserable pain. “I’ve got broken ribs. Can’t hardly breathe. Think my arm’s busted too. I’ll never make it.”

“I’ll get you out,” said Abby desperately. 

“Fucking go, Abby. Just leave me! The fire’s gonna be at the lifeboat any second, you need to launch!”

“I’m not leaving you here!”

“Yes you fucking are,” replied Brian, and with his unbroken arm he drew his pistol and pointed it at his own head.

“WAIT!”

“Find the cure, Abby. That’s all that matters.”

Abby managed to look away before he pulled the trigger.

Time seemed to stop. Shell-shocked, nauseated, she realized that someone was yelling at her and pulling on her arm, and she allowed herself to be dragged away. Somehow she ended up on the lifeboat, and then the lifeboat was in the water. When she looked up she saw the fire over the lip of the boat, burning where they had been moments before. If they’d waited even one second longer, they wouldn’t have been able to launch the boat and they all would have died. In his last act, Brian had saved them all.

Her stomach rebelled and she leaned over the edge of the lifeboat and vomited. “Fuck,” she groaned, tears stinging her eyes.

A warm hand was rubbing her back. “You did everything right,” said Patrick. “There’s nothing you could have done.”

“I could have pulled him out. I could have-”

No,” Patrick interrupted her. “There was nothing you could have done. Do you hear me?”

“Abby, he wouldn’t want you to torture yourself like this,” said Brandy. Even though it was raining, Abby could tell there were tears running down her cheeks. 

“Yeah,” Patrick agreed. “He’d want you to suck it the fuck up and focus on surviving.”

Rubbing at her eyes, Abby chuckled. “Yeah,” she said, her voice thick with grief. “Yeah he would.” 

“Smart guy,” Ellie said from where she was huddled up with Lev. “I’d say surviving is going to demand our undivided attention right now.”

Abby looked around at the others on the boat. Everyone was soaking wet, pale and cold. They were on a barebones lifeboat in the middle of the ocean during a violent thunderstorm with choppy waves, unable to control their own direction of travel until the storm let up. Ellie was right, Abby thought. There wasn’t time to wallow in grief and regret right now. “Everyone sit in the bottom of the boat,” she said. “We’ll use each other for warmth.”

Somehow she ended up between Ellie and Lev, both of them leaning against her for support with her having her back against the edge of the boat. A long time passed with no conversation, everyone just focusing on trying to keep warm and conserve their energy. She could tell that Lev had drifted off to sleep because his breathing deepened and evened out. He’d always been able to sleep even in the worst possible conditions. It made the exhausted Abby jealous.

“Hey,” Ellie said quietly.

“Hey,” Abby replied.

“You did good back there. You’re cool in a crisis. I like that about you.”

“Oh, so there is something you like about me after all, huh?”

“No, there are a lot of things I like about you, actually,” Ellie admitted. “It’s very annoying.”

Abby chuckled. “Yeah. I know the feeling.”

“I know it’s a fucking mess. But we can choose to be happy. Abby… We’re allowed to be happy.”

It made no sense, and it was completely incongruent and inappropriate considering the circumstances and what she had just experienced, but for the briefest of moments, for just a fraction of a second as she sat there in that rain-soaked lifeboat, Abby allowed herself to be happy.

Chapter Text

Everyone climbed off the lifeboat while it was still in knee-deep water. Ellie and Abby both took hold of it and pushed it onto the sandy beach before collapsing next to their comrades, grateful to finally be on dry land. They’d been adrift for just under 48 hours, taking turns paddling the boat due east until they reached the coast. They had absolutely no idea where they were because there was no telling where they had drifted during the storm. The only thing they knew for sure was that they were on the continent of South America, because there was simply no possible way the storm could have carried them that far off course.

As the others laid out in the sand, Ellie got to her feet and turned in a slow half-circle, taking stock of their surroundings. The beach was at the bottom of some rocky cliffs, but not far to the south she could tell that the ground leveled out enough for them to walk up. Not being able to see what was at the top of the cliffs was making her nervous. It wouldn’t do them any good if they had wound up so far from civilization that they ended up accidentally traveling in the wrong direction for days. In general it was safe to assume that they needed to go east, but there were too many ways for things to get messed up. Ellie wanted to know for sure that they were doing everything right.

“I’m going to have a look at what’s up there,” she said to the others, pointing up at the cliff. “See if I can’t figure out what’s good.”

“I’ll go with you,” said Abby, getting to her feet. “Lev, you want to come?”

Lev looked back and forth between Abby and Ellie. “Nah,” he said. “I’m tired. Is it okay if I rest here a while?”

“Of course,” said Abby. To Patrick and Brandy she said, “All of you should rest up. If we find something we’ll need to get going right away. It’ll be dark in a few hours and I don’t want to spend the night on this beach if we don’t have to.”

“Be back soon,” said Ellie. She and Abby started off down the beach. As she walked, Ellie pulled out her handgun and checked to make sure it was loaded. “Didn’t miss this,” she commented.

“What?”

“Needing to have a weapon on you at all times. It’s not like infected are gonna jump you in the middle of the ocean.”

“You didn’t keep yours with you on the boat?”

“No,” replied Ellie. “You did?”

“Always. You just never know what could happen.”

Left unspoken was the fact that Brian had obviously felt the same way.

“How are you holding up?” Ellie inquired carefully, bumping her shoulder against Abby’s while they climbed the rocky hill.

Abby swallowed and answered, “Fine.” She glanced over at Ellie. “You?”

“Okay. Just trying not to think about it too much. But you were… I mean, I would understand if you’re not actually fine.”

“I’m dealing. I have to keep reminding myself that there wasn’t anything I could have done. But I’m upset with myself for freezing after he… After it happened. I almost ruined our opportunity to launch the lifeboat. Could have gotten us all killed. It was you, wasn’t it?” Abby asked. “Who pulled me back to the lifeboat after what happened?”

“Somebody had to do it.”

“A few months ago you would have launched without me.”

“Really, Abby?” said Ellie, rolling her eyes. “Come on. We’re past that now.”

“Yeah, I guess you need me for the mission.”

Ellie shook her head. “You’re ridiculous.”

“What?”

Choosing her words carefully, Ellie clarified, “I would hope by now you would know that the fucking mission was the absolute last thing on my mind when I did that.”

“Oh,” said Abby quietly.

The whole time they had been talking they had been climbing the steep, rocky slope that would lead them to the top of the cliffs. Both of them were panting with the effort of the uphill climb - their month at sea had made them somewhat soft, although Ellie had frequently seen Abby doing body weight exercises like pull-ups, push-ups and sit-ups to keep herself in shape on the boat. Wanting to get the conversation away from the awkward direction it had been headed in, Ellie commented: “This is a lot rougher than it looked like it would be from the bottom.”

“Getting tired?” Abby teased. “Need me to carry you?”

“Shut up. Like you even could.”

“Oh, I definitely could. I’ll prove it. Come here.”

When Abby started to advance on her, Ellie laughed and scrambled away, climbing up the hill faster. “No! Get away from me, you fucking weirdo!”

“Get back here, Immune Girl! Your chariot awaits! We need you rested up, right?” Abby climbed after her, grinning maliciously.

It wasn’t long before Ellie encountered a problem, a ridge she was too short to climb. She jumped up and tried to get her hands over the top, but she couldn’t quite do it. “Shit,” she grumbled as Abby came up beside her. “We’ll have to go around.”

Instead of replying, Abby backed up a few steps, then took a running leap and grabbed the edge of the ridge. Using her considerable upper body strength, she pulled herself up and over the top, then turned and reached down for Ellie’s hand.

“Or…” muttered Ellie, reaching up and grabbing Abby’s hand. When she was over the top, she said, “Thanks.”

“I’m sorry, I think I interrupted you. What were you saying about going around?”

“Shut up.”

At last, they reached the top of the cliff. They both crested the ridge and then immediately dropped to the ground and slunk back down behind a boulder to stay hidden. “Fuck,” said Abby.

“Double fuck,” Ellie agreed.

“This is not good.”

Their climb had ended directly outside a small village, and that village was completely covered in spores. In just the few seconds she’d been looking, Ellie had counted no fewer than three bloaters. “How many do you think there are?” Ellie asked, looking at Abby.

“I saw five. Three on the ground, two through some windows.”

Ellie took a moment to consider, but she was having a hard time thinking about logistics because the sight of the spores so close to them had rattled her. Worried, she looked at Abby and said, “Put your mask on.”

“What? We’re far enough away-”

“Dude, just fucking put it on, will you?” Ellie snapped angrily. “What happens if the wind shifts and carries those spores over here? You’d fucking die, that’s what!”

“Okay, okay,” said Abby placatingly, reaching behind her to detach her gas mask from where it was clipped to her backpack. “Jesus. Relax. I’m putting it on.”

“Thank you.” Her heart was racing, and it only calmed once Abby had secured her gas mask. Letting out a slow, quiet breath, she turned her mind back to the problem at hand. “We don’t have the firepower to take out that many bloaters. If we can see five, there are probably a lot more.”

“Maybe we don’t have the firepower, but we’ve got regular fire.” Abby took off her backpack and removed an empty glass bottle, two rags, and another glass bottle full of alcohol.

“Good idea,” Ellie said, watching her pour some of the alcohol into the empty bottle and then shove the rags into the mouthpieces of both bottles. “You think there’s anything in that town worth saving before we torch it?”

“Probably, but is it worth the risk of checking?”

Ellie considered this. Their little group was in a bad spot. They had no shelter, no idea where they were, and one fewer member than they’d expected to have. If burning the village was their only option, she wanted to least know its name before they turned it into ash. “Give me ten minutes,” she said, taking her molotov cocktail from Abby. “I’m going to try and get around to the other side and see if there’s anything that can tell us where we are.”

“And at the end of the ten minutes?”

Holding up her bottle, Ellie said: “Open fire.”

“I don’t like the idea of splitting up,” Abby said.

“Too fucking bad.” And without waiting for a reply, Ellie crept over the top of the ridge and headed towards the village. She went close enough to be able to taste the spores and then snuck around the perimeter, keeping her eye out for any infected. From what she could tell, every single person in the village who had been infected were now bloaters. There were no runners or clickers at all. How much longer would it be before the bloaters began to combine with one another the way Liz and Abby had said they would? Ellie shivered at the thought, knowing that it was only a matter of time before they started encountering infected like that. If the outskirts of the continent were lousy with bloaters, the infection was most likely only going to get worse and worse the closer they got to the epicenter of the outbreak.

She thought about how she’d forced Abby to put her mask on, wondering how many more opportunities she would have to look at Abby’s face without it as the mission went on. The thought made her unaccountably sad. It had taken a long time for her to see it, but she’d learned that Abby had a lovely smile. 

What the fuck is wrong with you, Ellie? First of all, you are currently surrounded by bloaters and should not be thinking about that right now. Second of all, you should NEVER be thinking that about fucking Abby Anderson of all people. Get a grip.

It would be easier to ignore such thoughts if she wasn’t so oddly compatible with Abby. They were both fighters, scrappy and resourceful. They were both competitive, constantly egging each other on to be better. They were both determined to achieve their goals, serious and hard-working. And they were both trying to move on from their shared past. If Abby had wanted to endlessly talk about and rehash everything that had happened, this makeshift partnership would never have worked out so well for them. But Abby, like Ellie, had no desire to revisit the events that had led them here. The only direction she wanted to be looking was forward, and Ellie could respect that because she felt the same way. 

The only exception to this rule had been the conversation on the boat the night before they’d left Avalon, but Ellie didn’t feel that that conversation had negatively impacted their working relationship - in fact, she was certain it had been the right decision to say what she’d said. Clearing the air about that last encounter had been a way of showing Abby that yes, Ellie was aware that she’d acted like a monster that night, and yes, she was taking strides to change it.

Because in retrospect, Ellie understood that Abby had shown her the same thing back in that theater in Seattle. Where she could have murdered the pregnant Dina in retaliation for what Ellie had done, she’d instead asserted control over the part of her that wanted to do it and walked away. She was saying: Yes, I was a monster the night I killed Joel, but I won’t be that monster again tonight.

That was why Ellie hadn’t been able to stay away from Abby, had let the thought of her destroy her life with Dina and JJ. She wanted to kill that monster that had tortured and murdered Joel. But on that beach in Santa Barbara she’d learned… That monster didn’t exist anymore. In its place there was just Abby. And if Ellie had gone through with it and killed Abby that night, she’d have destroyed her own soul in the process. She’d have doomed herself to being a monster forever.

Speaking of monsters, Ellie shook her head to refocus herself on the task before her. She was now on the opposite side of the village from Abby, unable to see her past the spores and the buildings. Near the front there was a larger building, and Ellie guessed it was some sort of town hall. If there was going to be identifying information anywhere in the settlement, it would be there. Pulling her handgun, she carefully crept towards the building, eyes darting every which way, ears straining for any sound of infected. One of the front windows was broken, so Ellie put her hand on the sill and vaulted inside. 

The found herself in an office with a hand-made wooden desk inside. “Perfect,” she whispered, and she set her gun down on top of it and began rummaging through the drawers. All the documents she found were in Spanish, but she glanced over them anyway for something that looked like a town name. 

She was still looking through stacks of papers when she heard the telltale sign of the infected on the other side of the village becoming agitated, and the wind brought the smell of smoke to her nose through the broken window. “Fuck,” she said, and she hastily jammed whatever papers were nearby into her backpack, slung it back over her shoulder, picked up her gun, and launched herself back out of the building. Then she pulled her molotov cocktail out and lit the end of the rag, surveying the area for the best place to toss it. There was a massive, dry growth of cordyceps fungus between two wooden houses - perfect conditions for a nascent fire to grow massive very fast. Cocking her fist, she threw the bottle and watched it explode with a satisfying blast of fire, instantly lighting all the fungus and both buildings on fire. Already she could hear the sound of alarmed bloaters, and she turned to run away from the village.

As she ran, she began hearing gunfire from the side of the village where she’d left Abby. “Fuck!” she said again, adjusting her course to get back over there. While she was rounding the corner of a building at top speed, the gunfire abruptly stopped - for whatever reason, Abby was no longer shooting. Either she had killed her target, run out of bullets, or was physically unable to continue the fight. Ellie hoped dearly that it was the first one and not either one of the other options.

A stitch was forming in her side but she did not slow down at all. Finally she arrived at the other end of the village, and her heart leapt to her throat as she spotted Abby fighting in melee range of a bloater. The bloater was on fire and squealing in pain, but its pain only served to further agitate it, and it was advancing on Abby quickly. Abby had a large rock in her hand that she threw at the bloater’s head, but it bounced off it ineffectively. 

“Not good, not good, not good!” panted Ellie, putting on another burst of speed and pulling her rifle. As she raised it to take aim, the bloater landed a heavy blow on Abby that knocked her sideways and caused her to skid across the ground and land in an unmoving heap. “Get away from her, you mother fucker!” Ellie cried, and she opened fire, drawing the bloater’s attention. It took every last bullet in her rifle, but finally the bloater fell, its blood staining the rocky ground. 

Ellie paid it no more thought and sprinted over to Abby. “Abby!” she said, collapsing to her knees beside her. “Abby!”

“I’m okay,” groaned Abby, allowing Ellie to help her sit up. “I’m fine.”

“Jesus fucking Christ, you scared the shit out of me!”

“Sorry. Fucker was too close when I threw the thing.” She gestured vaguely to the town, which was now almost completely ablaze and filled with the sound of pained and dying bloaters. “Didn’t see it ‘till it was too late.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Ellie was still checking her over for injuries. There was blood on Abby’s forehead, but it would be difficult to figure out where it was coming from without removing her gas mask, and she didn’t want to do that so close to the burning village. Clearly Abby was also wanting to check out the injury because she reached up to take off her mask. “What the fuck! Don’t do that, you dumbass. Jesus, what is wrong with you? Come on, let’s get away from these fucking spores.”

“You have a great bedside manner,” said Abby sarcastically. “Has anyone ever told you that before?”

“No,” said Ellie sharply.

“Can’t imagine why not.” 

“Can you stand?”

“Let’s find out.”

Ducking down beside her, Ellie took Abby’s hand and pulled it over her own shoulders. “Put your arm around me. Lean on me.”

Abby snorted. “Flirting, at a time like this?”

“Okay,” laughed Ellie, grateful that Abby at least still had the wherewithal to make jokes. “Now I know you definitely have a concussion.”

She assisted Abby in getting further away from the village, probably going farther than they really needed to, but she wasn’t about to take any chances. Once she was satisfied with the distance from the spores, she helped Abby sit back down on the ground and then reached out to remove her mask. “I can do it,” said Abby irritably, swatting Ellie’s hand away. She took off the mask and rubbed her face, relieved to be breathing fresh air again. She did not protest when Ellie began touching her face, assessing the bleeding cut, because she suddenly felt very tired and just wanted to sit there for a while without moving. “Bad?” she asked.

“Kinda,” Ellie answered. “Might need stitches.”

“You do it. Lev sucks at that.”

“I will later. For now I’ll just clean it and tape it.”

Ellie spent the next several minutes doing that, and Abby appreciated her gentleness as she did so. “Thanks for the save, by the way,” she said, her eyes closed as Ellie dabbed the blood away from her face. When Ellie didn’t answer, she opened her eyes and took in her serious expression. “What?”

“I lose everyone, Abby,” Ellie said. “Every time I get close to someone, I lose them.”

Abby said nothing, just sat there looking at her with an indecipherable expression.

“You scared me,” Ellie reiterated. “Don’t do that again.”

A large piece of the puzzle that was Ellie fell into place in Abby’s mind. She understood why Ellie had followed her to Seattle to get revenge for Joel - because Abby had taken one of the only people she still had. She understood why Ellie had specifically instructed her to take Lev and go after the fight in Santa Barbara - because she didn’t want to do to Lev what Abby had done to her. And, in a stunning realization that kindled a strange warmth deep within her chest, she understood why Ellie had forced her to put on her gas mask so far away from the spores - because she didn’t want to add Abby to the long list of people she had lost.

But this was a dangerous mission, and there were going to be risks involved with that. It would be foolish for Abby to sugarcoat it. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know that I can make that promise, Ellie,” she said. “We’re not exactly on vacation here.”

“Yeah,” said Ellie grimly. She finished dressing Abby’s cut, sat back on her heels and regarded her for a moment. Then she said: “I just wish I didn’t care about you so fucking much.” She got to her feet and picked up her backpack. “I’m going to go back down and get the others. Stay here - and I mean right fucking here. You hear me?”

“I hear you,” said Abby, still stunned by her realization and filled with that strange warmth. “I’m staying right fucking here.”

Turning away from her, Ellie went back to the steep slope they had climbed up before and jumped down over the ridge without looking back. Now alone for the first time in several weeks, she let herself lean back against the steep rock that Abby had helped her get over on the way up and stared up at the sky. She was weirdly dazed and dizzy. She could still feel that desperate fear she’d felt watching that bloater knock Abby aside like she was nothing, could still see the way her body had gone limp and flimsy like a rag doll. When was the last time she’d been that frightened? Not since Dina, that night in the theater... And Abby had played a major role in that moment, too. This is bad. This is so fucking bad and so utterly fucked up, she thought. I must be losing my god damn mind.

What was it? What was it about Abby that drew her so strongly? 

Abby was just so… Interesting. She was an odd mixture of hard and soft. From what she’d told Ellie about her past, it sounded like it had been greatly impacted by the fact that Joel had killed her father, although this was not something they ever discussed due to the truce. But Abby had said that a large part of her personality had changed in her last few days in Seattle. Like Ellie, Abby was filled with regret and guilt for choices she had made in her past. She carried an immense amount of remorse for her actions against the Seraphites. Ellie could relate. She had plenty of remorse, too.

But the biggest thing about Abby that interested Ellie was how open she was. Ellie wasn’t sure she’d ever met someone who was so in touch with her own emotions, and she sort of envied her for it. If she had been able to express herself even half as well as Abby could, she probably would have been able to figure out her issues with Joel and wouldn’t have walked out on Dina and JJ. It was a new experience for Ellie to ask someone about their past and get straight answers, even about things that were upsetting, but Abby was always honest with her. Whenever Ellie would ask Abby personal questions, she could either expect a true answer, or a simple “I am not going to answer that question.” That was it. There was never any anger or offense taken. As long as it was a subject she was willing to discuss, Abby was an open book.

For someone like Ellie, who was curious by nature, there was a definite appeal to that. Perhaps the best way for her to put it was that Abby was easy and enjoyable to talk to. She was really… nice.

Which was, of course, absolutely fucking insane, right? Ellie had seen this girl beat Joel to death with a golf club. But what she was beginning to understand was that that night had been the exception, not the rule.  

Because of the truce, her thoughts about Abby had sort of been split into two different time periods: Before Avalon, and After Avalon. Maybe it was utter nonsense to do that, but that’s what was happening. And while she still had dark, angry feelings about Before Avalon Abby, she actually kinda really liked After Avalon Abby. 

Taking a deep, calming breath, she pushed off the rock and continued down the slope.

She ended up meeting up with the others halfway down. They had seen the smoke from the fire and become concerned, starting up to the top immediately. Ellie told them that they’d had to set the village on fire and why. 

“Where’s Abby?” Lev asked at once.

“She’s up top. She got a little hurt but she’s fine,” Ellie assured him.

“You left here up there alone?” he said in an accusing tone.

“What other choice did I have? I wasn’t going to make her do the slope again with a big old lump on her noggin.”

Frowning, Lev said nothing and continued on up the slope. When they reached the top he spotted Abby immediately and ran over to her. Ellie followed behind at a more reasonable pace. By the time she was within hearing distance they were hugging. “Ellie said you got hurt. Are you okay?” Lev was asking.

“Yeah, I’m good. Got a little cut but it’s okay.”

“Do you need me to stitch it?”

At this, Abby gave Ellie a pleading look over Lev’s shoulder, and Ellie jumped to her rescue with: “I don’t think she needs them, bud. But I’ll check her again once we’re settled for the night to be sure.”

This answer satisfied Lev, who nodded and began to help Patrick and Brandy with setting up a camp. It also made Abby give Ellie a grateful smile, and Ellie had to quickly swallow a laugh.

Later, once everyone had eaten and Abby’s cut was all stitched up (by Ellie, much to Abby’s relief), Ellie took out the papers she’d swiped from the village and passed them around. Everyone began looking through them for information. It wasn’t long before Patrick said: “Shit.” The whole squad gave him their attention. “Bahia Solano is the closest city.”

Colombia?” Brandy said incredulously. 

“Fuck,” said Ellie, and she dropped her head into her hands. “Fucking god damn it! That’s weeks out of the way!”

The mood instantly became heavy and sullen as the reality of their situation pressed in on them. They would have to travel hundreds of extra miles in a land where the infected were the oldest and most dangerous in the entire world… On foot.

Seeing that her squadmates were becoming distressed, Abby put aside her own dread and said authoritatively: “Okay. We get one night to be depressed about this. One. Night. But tomorrow we are accepting it, and we are moving on. Being bummed out about this is only going to make the extra time more miserable. So for tonight, you’re allowed. But tomorrow, we get back to work and keep our minds on the mission. Is that understood?”

Everyone nodded their agreement. 

“It’s going to be okay,” Abby continued. “We’ll make it. We have to.”

Chapter Text

Over the next three weeks, the motto of Squad FTF became: “Fuck Colombia.” 

None of them had ever experienced such difficulty in travel. Almost immediately after setting out from the spot where they had beached their lifeboat, they had encountered the Andes mountains. They had found a map in an abandoned town and were able to locate a pass, but it was still a rocky region and in some places they were walking uphill for days on end, their calves burning, their backs aching, and their feet swollen. Abby, who had never been a heavy sleeper, went to bed every night exhausted and was asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. The others were feeling it, too, she could tell. Brandy, who usually loved to see new places, trudged along as though she was sleep-walking. Lev hardly ever spoke unless spoken to, and Abby hadn’t seen Ellie writing in her journal nearly as often. 

The only person who was able to retain their good nature was Patrick. He kept them entertained by singing songs, playing word games with Lev, and shamelessly flirting with Ellie.

“I told you, I like girls,” she said to him at one point. “Why do you keep trying?”

“I didn’t used to like fish, but then I just kept eating it and now I love it.”

“There’s a lesbian joke in there somewhere,” Ellie had said, “but I’m too tired to think of it.”

In addition to the general difficulty of the terrain there was the fact that spores and the infected continued to be a huge problem. They hadn’t seen a single runner in their entire time on the continent, and there were very few clickers. It was bloaters and stalkers everywhere. Every mission to look for supplies had to be a stealth mission, and for everyone but Ellie they always involved wearing a gas mask. Abby mused that if Los Angeles looked the way South America did, they would have to burn the entire city to the ground. There were just too many spores to deal with.

The only way to prevent being constantly attacked by infected was to stay away from any place where humans had once lived. This meant that they were frequently traveling through rough, undeveloped areas - usually thick, confusing forests. In between towns they could follow roads with minimal trouble, but they avoided settlements whenever possible by giving them a wide berth, and outside of towns it was wild, untamed nature all around. They saw wildlife that none of them had ever thought they would see in person. There were monkeys in the trees, large cats that prowled around, colorful birds in the sky, and even an anteater poking around in the dirt. At one campsite a coyote showed up and attacked Brandy while she was eating her dinner, and Patrick had been forced to shoot it. But for the most part the wildlife left them alone, perhaps figuring that the number of humans in the group made them a target not worth pursuing. 

One night they camped in an elevated spot that overlooked a town down below. There was a high, sharp cliff nearby, and Abby spent the whole night avoiding it even though all the others went to take a look. Though she had been able to make a lot of progress with her fear of heights, it was still a challenge for her to deal with sometimes.

But while she slept she dreamed of her father in his blue scrubs, standing there smiling at her as he always did in her dreams now. When she awoke it was before sunrise, and Abby decided she wanted to see the sun come up on that town down below them. She went to the cliff, and sitting there cross-legged on the ground with her journal in her lap was Ellie. “You’re not supposed to be out here alone,” Abby said as she approached. 

“I’m not. You’re here,” Ellie pointed out.

“Wise ass. You’re the most important person in the world, Ellie. If you fall off this cliff we’re all fucked.”

“Listen, if I’m gonna fall off this cliff then having a buddy out here with me ain’t gonna change that.”

“That is a fair, fair point,” acknowledged Abby. She turned her attention to the cliff and began taking deep, slow breaths to prepare herself for what she was about to do. Then she forced herself to walk towards the edge and look off. “Jesus, that’s a lot higher than I thought it would be,” she said through gritted teeth, and she immediately stepped backwards and plopped herself down on the ground beside Ellie, her heart racing.

“Are you afraid of heights?” Ellie asked curiously, watching her as she recovered.

Abby nodded. “Used to be worse, but I’ve been working on it the past couple years. Obviously I still have a long way to go.”

“I didn’t realize you were afraid of anything.” 

“Why does everyone always say that? I’m a human being. Am I not allowed to be afraid of things?”

“It was supposed to be a compliment,” said Ellie simply, and Abby smiled.

“I know. What about you, Immune Girl? Are you afraid of anything?”

Ellie closed her journal and set it down beside her on the dirt. “Being alone,” she said. “Or ending up alone, I guess.”

Thinking back to the day they had first come ashore in the lifeboat, Abby remembered Ellie’s words: I lose everyone. How many times had Ellie been subjected to her biggest fear? Guilt seared in Abby’s gut, putting a sour taste in her mouth.

“Can I ask you a personal question?” she asked. “And you can absolutely tell me to fuck right off and I’d totally understand.”

Looking at her curiously, Ellie said, “Sure.” Abby had never asked her if she could ask a personal question before, and it felt odd to be on the other end.

“Will you tell me about Joel?” 

Pain seared through Ellie’s heart, and her first instinct was, indeed, to tell Abby to fuck off. But there was something about the way she’d asked, a hesitance and anguish behind her voice. It almost seemed like Abby needed to know, needed to understand. “What do you want to know?” Ellie asked.

“How did you meet him?”

Ellie cast her mind back to those early days in the Boston QZ, a time that was marked with the heavy survivor’s guilt she’d suffered after watching Riley turn in that abandoned mall. “The Fireflies. They were run by Marlene back then.”

“I knew her,” Abby commented. “Joel killed her.”

“He killed a lot of people.” Like your father, right? Ellie didn’t bring this up, though, because of the truce. “Well, Marlene found out that I was immune, and she wanted to get me to the doctors to have tests run. All kinds of bad shit went down, but the bottom line is I ended up with Joel.”

“So you hadn’t known him for all that long when Salt Lake City happened?”

“About a year,” Ellie replied. “But… It was a long year.”

“Yeah,” said Abby. “I’ve had a few of those myself.” She paused, wondering if she should keep asking questions. Curiosity won out over her hesitation, and so she decided to continue. “What about after the hospital?”

“We went back to Jackson,” Ellie said with a shrug. “His brother Tommy was there.”

“What was Joel like?”

Leaning back on her hands in the dirt, Ellie said, “He was... Complicated. But he could be really funny. And man, did he love me.”

“And you?” Abby asked without looking at her, her hands clenched in her lap. “Did you love him?”

Ellie understood exactly what Abby was really asking: How badly did I hurt you?

Reaching up to the dog tag around her neck, Ellie grasped it in her fist and replied: “Yeah, I did.”

Abby nodded her understanding, then stood and went back to the camp, leaving Ellie sitting there alone.

On the day they finally got to the other side of the Andes, Abby and Patrick decided to hit up a town to restock. They were all exhausted from the endeavor of crossing the mountain range, but there was not a lot of time to rest and recuperate. Their schedule had already been so messed up from the boat and the storm, they all guessed that Liz and the rest of the Fireflies would presume them dead when they didn’t show up during their expected arrival window. So they continued on without stopping for too long. Since Abby and Patrick were the least worn down of the five of them, they volunteered for the supply run. The rest of the squad set up camp in the middle of the road to wait because it would be easy for the two of them to find again when they returned. Abby hugged Lev goodbye and nodded at Ellie and Brandy. “We’ll be back before nightfall,” she said.

“Be careful,” said Ellie, putting her arm around Lev as he returned to her side, wordlessly conveying to Abby that she would keep him safe in her absence, and Abby gave her an appreciative smile.

“We will,” Abby assured her. She took one last lingering look at the two of them before turning away, joining Patrick as they headed off down the road.

Patrick managed to wait until they were a full mile away from the rest of the squad before giving Abby a snide smile and saying: “You like her.”

“Who?”

“Ellie. You like her.”

Shrugging, Abby said, “Sure. She’s alright.”

“‘Alright?’” Patrick repeated. “Oh, you think she’s a lot more than ‘alright.’ Admit it.”

“You’d better not be suggesting what I think you’re suggesting,” said Abby, narrowing her eyes at him. When he didn’t answer and instead just squinted at her, she barked: “What?”

“I’m trying to figure out if you’re in denial right now, or if you are so dense that you don’t even realize you have feelings for her. Take it from someone who knows you really well, and who is on the outside looking in: You are definitely into her.”

Abby rolled her eyes. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. If you knew what we’ve put each other through, you wouldn’t be saying this.”

“Then fill me in,” said Patrick. “The town’s five miles away. We’ve got plenty of time.”

“I’m not going to tell you. I don’t want to talk about it. But trust me, it’s bad enough that it makes the idea that I’m having, like, secret romantic feelings or whatever absolutely ridiculous. It could never happen.”

“The feelings couldn’t happen, or a relationship couldn’t happen?”

“Both,” answered Abby succinctly.

“Mm-kay,” said Patrick, clearly unconvinced.

Neither of them said anything for a while as they strolled down the road, rifles at the ready. But apparently Abby was still thinking about what Patrick had brought up, because she spontaneously said, “I mean, if it wasn’t for her we wouldn’t even be on this god-forsaken mission. The Fireflies would have made a cure a long time ago.”

“And that’s her fault?”

“I think so. Maybe.” Abby paused. Then she reluctantly admitted: “I actually don’t know that for sure. I know we were gonna make the cure, but the surgery would have killed her.”

“Yikes. So what happened?”

“She left. Or she got away, or whatever nomenclature you prefer. But there was a… She had an escort, this smuggler she’d been traveling with for a while. He might have acted on his own. It’s possible that Ellie didn’t actually leave of her own volition.”

“Well, what did she say when she was told the surgery would kill her? Did she volunteer to do it anyway?”

“We didn’t, uhh… I don’t think she was ever told,” Abby finished quickly.

Patrick threw his hands up in frustration. “Jesus Christ, you Firefly people are fuuuuuuucked up.” 

“Um, ‘you Firefly people’? You realize you’re one too, right?”

“Yeah, but I’d never do that.”

“Me either,” admitted Abby. “I’d feel way too scummy.” Which she realized meant that she considered her own father’s actions a little scummy, but she could still love him and respect him even if she disagreed with some of his decisions. “I never actually met her face-to-face back then, so I have no idea what she was like or what she would have chosen if she’d known.”

“You know her pretty well now. If she was offered the same choice today, what do you think she’d do?”

After considering this for a bit, Abby said, “I don’t know.”

“Yes you do,” said Patrick. “She’s here risking her cute little butt with us every day, isn’t she?”

“It’s not the same. This mission won’t kill her.”

“It might.”

“Not if I have anything to say about it,” said Abby, and then immediately wished she could take it back. She knew damn well that Patrick was about to jump right on that little slip of the tongue.

As expected, Patrick laughed heartily and said,  “Oh my god, you’re fucking head-over-heels for this girl!”

“No, I’m not,” said Abby, annoyed. “Why don’t you try minding your own business for a change?”

When Patrick spoke again his tone was serious - more serious than Abby had ever heard him sound. “Look, I know that whatever happened between you two was bad - like, murder bad. But I think that if you’ve managed to get this far without killing each other, it’s evidence that forgiveness is a non-nonexistent possibility.”

Giving him a wry smile, Abby said, “Non-nonexistent?”

“You heard me. I used a double-negative, because two wrongs can make a right. Just like you and Ellie.”

Abby groaned. “That was terrible.”

“Damn. I was trying to be clever. But what I said still stands. I think that if someone comes along who is good for you, who gets you, and who makes you happy, you should say ‘fuck it’ and embrace it no matter what.”

“I don't know that this is the kind of situation where 'fuck it' applies. She killed people who I loved. People who I considered family,” said Abby. “It would be an insult to their memory.”

“Would it? I’m not so sure. I think the real insult would be to wallow in misery for the rest of your life because you turned down your one chance at being really, genuinely happy in a world where happiness is so fucking rare.” Patrick leaned over and intentionally bumped his shoulder against Abby’s as they walked. “You’re a good person, Abs. You deserve good things.”

They continued on in silence for a while, and Patrick once again thought the conversation was over. But then Abby said stubbornly, “By the way, this whole thing is moot because I don’t have feelings for her like that, and even if I did - which, again, I absolutely do not - she would never feel that way about me. Plus, news flash: I like men.”

“Do you need to hear the fish story again?” said Patrick coyly.

“Rest assured, I will never need to hear your stupid fish story again.”

“You’re such a fucking baby,” laughed Patrick. 

“And you’re an asshole, so… We’re even.”

When they finally got to the town they were looking for, they had to stop speaking to each other to make sure they could hear any infected sneaking around. They drew their weapons and kept them at the ready as they slipped in between some buildings. At the first sign of spores they put on their gas masks - they’d been wearing them so often recently that Abby’s ears hurt where the straps pressed against them. 

Tapping on Abby’s shoulder to get her attention, Patrick pointed out a grocery store, and Abby nodded. There were a huge amount of spores inside it, but they found some good stuff; food, water bottles, matches, and medical supplies. They managed to collect all this without alerting any of the infected in the building, then headed back outside to look around town for weapons and ammo. 

They soon found themselves in a residential area that was quiet and deserted. But then Abby heard a noise that made her heart leap - an engine. One of the cars nearby was running. A running car meant that there were other non-infected humans nearby. The squad hadn’t encountered anyone else the entire time they’d been in South America. Abby was sure there must be some people still out there somewhere, but they had probably gotten so good at hiding in the years since the outbreak that the squad had absolutely no hope of seeing them if they didn’t want to be seen.

But here in this town at the base of the Andes, it looked like they may have finally spotted someone.  “Which one is it?” she whispered to Patrick, knowing that he had heard the car too.

“I think it’s that one,” he replied, pointing to a dusty Jeep a few houses down. 

“Wanna check it out?”

“I’m right behind you.”

Working cars were a valuable commodity in a post-apocalyptic world. Abby guessed that Patrick was having the same thought as her: Maybe they could somehow convince the car’s owner to drive them at least some part of the massive distance they still needed to travel.

Abby led the way down the street towards the running car. As they got closer, she started to get a bad feeling about the situation. The driver’s side door of the Jeep was open, and the key was still in the ignition, but there was no one around. Approaching the car with great caution, Abby reached inside and killed the engine, pulling the key out and pocketing it. “The driver must be inside,” Abby said quietly.

Moving in a crouched position, they went up the walkway to the front door of the house that the car was parked in front of, finding that its door was wide open, too. Very, very slowly, inch by inch, Abby pushed the screen door open, crept inside, and held it open for Patrick so he could enter, too. Standing still for a moment, they listened for any movement in the house, but everything seemed quiet. “The fuck?” breathed Patrick.

“I dunno,” said Abby. “Should we go?”

“If the owner of that car is dead, we’re taking it,” Patrick said, shaking his head. “It won’t do a dead person any good, and we need it. We have to know for sure what happened to the driver.”

“Okay,” Abby agreed. “I’m with you.”

They went further into the house. The first floor was completely deserted, but Patrick found a note written in Spanish on the kitchen table that he handed to Abby to look at since she knew more Spanish than him, thanks to Manny. “I can’t read the whole thing,” she said, “but it’s something like, ‘I’m infected… I’m sorry…’ And then there’s something about death and the basement. I think he might have breathed spores.”

“Well, the basement thing’s a lead, at least,” said Patrick. “Let’s go check it out.”

The door to the basement was nearby, so Patrick opened it and headed down first, moving quietly and carefully, his gun drawn and pointed ahead of him. He had just got to the bottom of the stairs when all of a sudden something collided with him and sent him flying sideways. Abby yelled in alarm and charged down the rest of the stairs. Patrick was grappling with the infected, who was snarling and foaming at the mouth as they fought. 

“Get the fuck off him!” yelled Abby, grabbing the infected around the throat with her entire left arm and shooting it in the head with her right. It died instantly and collapsed on top of Patrick, who pushed it off. Abby kicked it again for good measure and said, “I think I figured out the rest of the note. He got infected and came down here to kill himself, but I guess he couldn’t do it in time.” She turned back to Patrick, who was still sitting on the cement floor, and offered him her hand. Out of habit, she asked: “You good? Did it getcha?”

“Yeah, it did,” Patrick replied quietly.

The bottom dropped out of Abby’s stomach, and she swayed on her feet.  “No it didn’t,” she said, her voice wavering, her entire body shaking.

But Patrick held up his right hand, where a bite mark was bleeding freely. “It did.”

“No… Patrick, we can fix this,” said Abby desperately, looking around the basement as though searching for some way to change the inevitable. “There’s gotta be something… I mean, there’s no way…”

Patrick cut her off with: “Stop. Don’t do that. You know it’s over, Abby.” He turned his gun over in his hand and offered it to Abby grip-first. “Do it.”

Abby stared at him and shook her head. “No.”

“End it, Abby. Now. I don’t think…” His breath hitched. “I can’t do it myself. I’m not like Brian.” When Abby didn’t move, he said, “I’m not fucking turning, Abby!”

With a shaking hand, Abby reached out and took his gun. 

“Nice and quick now, okay? I can already feel it. I don’t have a lot of time,” Patrick said. But Abby couldn’t move. She was frozen with the gun in her hand. “Here, we’ll do it together.” He reached out and covered her hand with his own, leading her finger to the trigger, then leaning forward so the barrel was pressed against his temple. “Tell the others I said ‘See you around.’ And Abby, please don’t blame yourself. I don’t. Just keep fighting - and for fuck’s sake, keep winning, okay? For me.”

“Okay,” Abby choked out. “I will.” She blinked and felt tears cascade down her face.

“Bye, Abs.”

“Bye, Patrick.”

He died with a sad smile still on his lips. The gunshot was deafening in the tiny basement, the loudest gunshot Abby had ever heard. Her ears were ringing - she couldn’t hear a thing. It had all happened so fast. One minute he was there, and the next minute.... Gone. She collapsed on her knees with her back to her friend, sobbing openly. Why did this keep happening? How much more of this could she take? How much worse were things going to get before they got better?

How much more was this fucking infection going to cost her?

She had no idea how long she stayed in that basement, but eventually something clicked in her brain and she went on autopilot. She climbed the stairs, found a sheet in a linen closet and returned to the basement to wrap Patrick up and bring him back with her. Once he was securely wrapped, she lifted him up and carried him upstairs and outside to the Jeep. She laid him in the back seat and shut the door, then went back inside the house to see if there was a way to get into the garage. There was one, so she went in and looked around, quickly locating what she’d been searching for. Two shovels were hanging on the wall, and Abby took them both and put them in the car. Then she climbed into the driver’s seat and set off back to the rest of the squad.

Everyone stood when the Jeep approached. Ellie could see immediately that there was only one person inside, and her stomach lurched with fear - her mind jumped right to something happened to Abby. But then Abby exited the car and opened the back seat, and Ellie realized that she was removing a body - Patrick’s body. It had to be.

Abby gently set Patrick down on the ground and walked over to the group. Brandy was already crying, and Lev’s bottom lip was trembling. “Runner got him,” Abby explained hoarsely. “I… I had to…”

Stepping forward and putting her hand on Abby’s arm, Brandy said, “It’s okay. You did what you had to do.”

“Will you help me bury him?”

“Of course.”

They dug the grave in a scenic meadow. Abby dug the entire time, sweat making dirt stick to her bare arms, and mixing with the tears on her face. Everyone else took turns. When Ellie had completed her share of the digging she disappeared for a while, but by the time the grave was finished she came back with a rock on which she had painted Patrick’s name, and below it, the Firefly symbol. “I used the best paint I had on hand. It won’t last forever,” Ellie said, handing the rock to Abby, “but it’s better than nothing.”

“It’s perfect. Thank you,” Abby said. She knelt down and carefully placed the rock at the head of the grave, running her fingers over Patrick’s name. Then she backed off, and everyone stood around the grave in silence, privately paying their respects. 

After some time, Brandy knelt near the rock and kissed two of her fingers, then pressed the fingers against Patrick’s name, tears still flowing down her face. She gave the others a terse nod before turning to walk back to camp.

Lev moved to stand next to Abby, putting one arm around her waist and leaning against her shoulder. Grateful for his support, Abby turned her head to plant a kiss on the top of his head. “Are you okay?” Lev asked her. 

“Yeah,” said Abby unconvincingly. “You can head back to camp if you want. I think I just need to be alone for a while.”

When he looked concerned and it seemed like he might be about to argue the request, Ellie threaded her arm through his and said, “Come on. It’s okay. Sometimes people just need a little time.”

“Okay,” he said morosely. And he allowed himself to be led away from the gravesite.

Abby did not return to the camp for a very long time. After everyone else had fallen asleep, Ellie climbed out of her sleeping bag and went back to Patrick’s grave. There she found Abby, still standing exactly where she’d been when Ellie had left her hours before. She walked over and stood beside her.

“He handled himself so well, at the end,” Abby said softly. “He was so courageous. He didn’t try to fight it, or pretend it didn’t happen. He just… Accepted it. I don’t think I could do that. Even knowing what it means when you get bitten, I think I’d still try and fight it. That’s what happened to you, right?”

“Yeah,” Ellie said. “I was bitten alongside Riley when I was fourteen. We decided to wait it out together because we thought it would be poetic, which is complete fucking bullshit. Poems are supposed to be about beauty. Nothing about this infection is beautiful. Riley said the gun was taking the easy way out, but I think you’re right. I think it’s braver to accept it for what it means. But we decided to wait.  Riley turned. I didn’t.”

“How different would my life be if you’d done what Patrick did? If you’d been brave enough to end it then?” Abby gave a little chuckle. “Nothing would be the way it is now.”

“I think about that all the time. A lot of people would have been better off.”

“Yeah, well… I’m glad you didn’t do it,” said Abby emphatically.

“You sure about that?” asked Ellie sadly. “A lot of shit has happened because of me - and I mean, to you personally. A lot of really bad shit.”

“I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it. Because of you, we have a shot at ending this fucking thing. If we manage to pull this off, and they make that vaccine… It’s worth the price I’ve paid, including everything that happened in Salt Lake City and everything in Seattle. And I know Brian, and Patrick, and my dad... They all would have said the same thing.” Abby took a deep breath and said: “Ellie, I need to ask you something, and don’t you even think about lying to me, okay?”

“I won’t,” Ellie promised.

Looking her directly in the eye, Abby asked: “If you’d been given the choice back in Salt Lake City… Would you have done it? Would you have told them to do the surgery?”

Easily meeting her eyes with a burning sureness in her gaze, Ellie immediately answered: “In a fucking heartbeat, Abby.”

The next thing she knew, Abby had reached over and gathered her into her arms, holding her just as tightly as she’d held Lev in the cabin of the boat. Ellie was breathless with the suddenness of it, and speechless with the intimacy of it. Abby’s body was solid and sturdy, yet soft and warm at the same time, and she smelled of earth, sweat, and pine. One of her hands was tangled in Ellie’s hair at the back of her head, pressing her gently but firmly against her shoulder. It made Ellie’s whole body tingle, made every nerve feel distinctly alert and alive.

But it ended as quickly as it had started, and Abby released her and strode off into the forest without saying a word. Ellie was left standing there alone, reeling from the echo of strong arms around her, and stunned with the residual warmth left behind by the incredibly rare sensation of feeling utterly, completely safe.

Chapter Text

If it hadn’t been for the horrible loss of Patrick, Ellie would have been tempted to refer to the Jeep as a “godsend.” Travel for the next two thousand miles, while it still wasn’t exactly easy, was definitely far less difficult than it had been to cross the Andes. It still took them nearly an entire month to cover that distance, but that was because they had to stop at every single possible opportunity to find gas to keep the car running, be they petrol stations or abandoned cars from which fuel might be siphoned. This sometimes involved trips into towns that they might have passed up had they been on foot, but they all knew that the car was a lifeline. None of them were willing to give it up, not without a hell of a fight.

A few times the car had gotten stuck in the mud, and when that happened Ellie would slap Abby on her well-developed shoulder and say, “It’s time for the muscle!”

Which would inevitably lead to an argument about how Abby was “a lot more than just the muscle,” and that Ellie was “far from the brains of this operation.” Sometimes those arguments would end in mud fights. Sometimes they would end in Abby stealing something of Ellie’s and holding it above her head so she had to jump to reach it. Sometimes they ended in Ellie drawing absurdly inaccurate pictures of Abby with a huge torso and a tiny head, which would then be surreptitiously passed around the car and giggled at by everyone who wasn’t Abby. But ultimately, every fight ended in laughter.

Because what the two of them understood without having to say it out loud was that the losses of Brian and Patrick were taking a heavy toll on everyone, and as the two oldest members of the group, they had a responsibility to keep morale as high as it could possibly get. Neither one of them wanted to see Lev and Brandy get so discouraged that they couldn’t find anything to smile about.

But in recent weeks, as the trip went on, they both also learned that they simply liked the other better when they were happy. So, naturally, it made sense to make the other happy, right? That was why they went out of the way to do things for each other. That was why Abby had brought back some art supplies she’d found in an abandoned, spore-filled town for Ellie, even though she couldn’t really spare the weight. And that was why Ellie made sure there was always hot sauce around for Abby to drench her food in and that they always had that damn pine-scented soap she used, even though literally no one else used any of that shit.

Ellie wasn’t stupid. She knew exactly what was happening here, even if Abby didn’t. But she also knew it was bad, bad news, and they both needed to snap the fuck out of it. And she fully intended to do that - to snap the fuck out of it - but not until the end of the mission. For now, she needed this. They needed this. It was just too nice to give up while everything else happening around them was so horrible.

So she allowed herself her various indulgences without fighting herself about them too much. If she wanted to stare at Abby’s muscles while she was lifting something heavy out of a doorway, she would do it. If an opportunity arose to make Abby laugh - especially when she wasn’t wearing her gas mask - she took it. And if Abby looked particularly beautiful while she was relaxing under a tree or driving the car or sleeping beside a campfire, Ellie was going to secretly draw her that way. 

It was impossible to deny that she thought Abby was sexy. After all, she was a lesbian and Abby was just objectively fucking sexy. Ellie had never seen a woman who looked quite like her, so physically fit and confident in her own body. If someone had asked her a year ago if she considered muscular women attractive, Ellie probably would have said no. But Ellie from a year ago was fucking stupid, honestly, because sometimes looking at Abby made her mouth run dry and she’d forget whatever she was supposed to be doing at the moment. Frankly, it made her wonder if she was going crazy, or if it had simply been too long since she’d been with someone.

Physical attraction to Abby was fine. Ellie could deal with that. She’d been lusting after girls all her life. She was an old pro at it.

What was harder to deal with was the growing emotional attraction to Abby. At this point she was pretty sure she was falling in love.

But it was happening differently than it ever had before. If what Ellie had felt for Riley had been love then it had always been love, right from the start, because she’d had strong feelings for her since the day they’d met. With Cat, it had been almost like being star-struck, more enamored with the idea of actually having a girlfriend than with the girlfriend herself. With Dina, she’d had a school girl crush on her for a long time when they were younger, and then years later when she took stock of the situation again she’d realized she was in love - it was a natural progression of things. 

Nothing about what was happening with Abby was natural, and Ellie wasn’t star-struck, and it certainly wasn’t love at first sight. Instead, she felt like it was sort of an inevitable conclusion - like she didn’t really have any choice in the matter. Because of the way their lives were right now, they were forced to depend on one another. And because of how they were forced to be in close quarters, it was impossible to ignore how compatible they were. And because all their constant life or death situations required them to act the way they actually were at their very core instead of being able to put up a front, she felt like she really knew Abby, in a way she’d rarely known anyone else. She knew what was driving Abby. She knew what Abby was capable of, how brave she was, how compassionate and protective and strong she was. There was no way Ellie could avoid learning these things about Abby, and they all happened to be things she really liked.

It was very concerning to Ellie because she’d made the decision to let herself fall unchecked for now, even knowing how hard it would be to stop once they no longer had to rely on each other to live through the day. The idea that there could ever be anything between them was laughable. This woman had murdered people she loved right in front of her fucking eyes. She could imagine the looks of horror and disdain she’d get from the folks back in Jackson if she one day showed up with Abby on her arm and said, “Guess who I’m sleeping with!”

God, it made Ellie want to curl up and die just thinking of it. And then there was the memory of Joel’s bashed-in skull, of that room in the Baldwin place. And there was Jesse, alive one second and then dead on the ground beside her in the next. How could Ellie ever love Abby after all that? How could she ever feel anything but disdain for this woman? How fucked up was she that she even had to remind herself that those things were real - and that Abby had done them?

But every day, somehow, no matter how much she reminded herself of that, she fell a little further. And every day, somehow, she minded it a little less.

Their luck with the Jeep ran out about three hundred miles out from Porto Velho. Their route had taken them too far from civilization and, despite their best efforts, they ran out of gas. Everyone was so depressed about the loss that they decided to take an entire day off from travel, instead spending the day getting everything out of the Jeep and sorting through what they would have to leave behind. Brandy was most upset about the extra bedding they’d been able to bring with them. Now they would have to go back to sleeping with just their sleeping bags on the ground.

“If this is going to be my last night with the extra blankets, I want them to be nice and clean,” she said. “I’m going to go down to the river and wash them.”

“I’ll go with you,” volunteered Ellie, jumping down from where she’d been sitting on the hood of the Jeep. “My sleeping bag is getting a little funky.”

“I’ll do it for you,” Lev said quickly, snatching up Ellie’s rolled-up sleeping bag from where it was stored in the trunk of the car. “I, um, have some stuff to wash, too,” he added awkwardly. Then he turned to Brandy and smiled shyly. “Ready?”

Returning his smile, Brandy said, “Yeah. Let’s go.”

Once they were gone, Ellie turned to Abby with an astonished expression and said, “Um, what-the-fuck?”

Abby laughed. “Oh, shit! Lev’s got a crush! And a fucking big one, I’d say, if he’s willing to touch your nasty-ass sleeping bag.”

“Oh, yeah, like yours is any better,” shot back Ellie. “I think a new strain of cordyceps is cultivating on your rancid pillow.”

This got another big laugh out of Abby. “Better get that vaccine quick, huh? Because I’m not washing it until we get to the outpost. I hate sleeping on a damp pillow.”

“I mean, fungus grows in the damp so I’d say that’s actually kinda reasonable.”

“See? I love it when you support my terrible ideas.”

Ellie wandered over and sat next to Abby, who was setting up a stack of wood for a fire. “Did Lev say anything to you about Brandy?”

“When could he have?” replied Abby. “We’re all cooped up together all the time.”

“Yeah. Privacy? What’s that?”

“Exactly.”

“Is this his first crush?” Ellie asked.

“Since I’ve known him, yeah.”

“Poor kid.”

“It’s all downhill from here,” Abby agreed sympathetically. She rose and picked up the axe they used to cut firewood. She went over to a large log she had dragged out of the forest earlier and then evaluated the area. “Scootch a little,” she said, waving her hand at Ellie to move farther away.

“I’m fine right here,” said Ellie, annoyed. “You’re all the way over there.”

“You make me put my fucking gas mask on half a mile away from spores. You can move a foot to the left so I don’t accidentally put splinters in those pretty green eyes.”

Ellie moved at once. “You think my eyes are pretty?”

“Sure,” said Abby easily, and she swung the axe so that it buried itself to the hilt in the wood with a satisfying thunk. She put her foot on the log and yanked the axe out with a grunt. “I’ve seen those drawings you make of me when you think I’m not paying attention. You’ve got a seriously fucked up image of me.”

“What do you mean?”

Another swing, another thunk. Abby paused with the axe still buried in the wood, clearly upset about something. “This isn’t bringing back any memories for you, huh?” she rasped. Then she pulled the axe out and swung it again.

All at once, Ellie was pressed against a cold stone floor - and the axe was a golf club. 

When she blinked the memory away, Abby was wiping her forearm across her eyes. “Sorry,” she said. “I don’t know why I… Fuck, I’m an idiot.” She tossed the axe on the ground and started to walk away.

“It didn’t,” Ellie said, and Abby stopped. “It probably should have, but that’s not what I think of when I look at you anymore. The drawings... That’s what I see.”

Abby swallowed and nodded, returning to pick up the axe again. “Like I said. Fucked up image.”

“Tell me about it.”

“It’s mutual. I don’t think it’s possible for me to hate you anymore. Not after all this shit. I don’t know what’s gonna happen if we make it out of this alive, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get back to hating you.” She flashed a quick smile and added, “Unless, of course, you go back to being a shitty person.”

“Which I don’t plan to do, for the record.”

“Yeah, me either.”

Ellie’s heart was racing. Abby had just taken a huge, risky step, one that Ellie wasn’t sure she’d have ever been able to take first. She’d broken the truce for the very first time, because, presumably, the possible reward for doing it had outweighed the personal detriment caused by leaving it unsaid. Now it was Ellie’s turn to pay it back in kind. “I know about your father. I understand why you did what you did to Joel. I’d love to be able to take the moral high ground and say otherwise, but we both know that if it had happened to me, I’d probably do the same thing,” she said. “Shit, I did do the same thing.”

“I’d take it back, if I could,” said Abby.

Stunned, Ellie just stared at her.

“I would. For all the pain it caused both of us... It wasn’t worth it. I wish I’d been smart enough to understand that. Hating him for all those years for what he did, it was a waste of time and energy.” Abby came and sat down cross-legged next to Ellie on the ground. “I read this book of true stories a few weeks before you showed up in LA. I found it in the library back in Avalon. One of the stories was by a guy who’s daughter was murdered. This drug addict broke into her house one night. She gave him food, she talked to him, I think she might have even given him some money. Eventually the guy left. But then he broke in again later that same night and he murdered her anyway.”

“Jesus,” said Ellie.

“Yeah. So her father was pissed, right? He hated this guy who killed his daughter.”

“Who wouldn’t?”

“It’s totally understandable,” Abby agreed. “But then he started realizing that all he could do was hate. It was all he had time for. He didn’t even feel like he was properly grieving his daughter. It was destroying him inside. He couldn’t do it anymore. He wrote: Hating someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

This resonated so deeply with Ellie that she felt a chill go down her spine. “What did he do?” she asked.

“He went to go see the murderer in prison. They started writing each other letters. He learned to understand him. The murderer had had a really hard life. He watched his mom drown his little brother when he was a kid. Lived on the streets since the age of like, eight or something. Had to steal to keep from starving. Shit like that. Eventually, hearing all this, the father forgave him.”

Letting out a slow breath, Ellie said, “That is rough. Not an easy thing to do.”

“No, but the father felt better for it. And the murderer felt better. And I think the daughter would have felt better, too, knowing that her father could sleep at night again. I think when you understand why someone did what they did, it’s easier to forgive.” She paused for a moment, gathering her thoughts before continuing: “With Joel… Getting to know you these last few months, and knowing that he did what he did to save you…” Abby carefully ran her eyes across Ellie’s face, as though trying to memorize her. Then she looked away and shrugged. “I get it.”

Ellie’s world tilted sideways. Only one other time in her life had someone ever expressed the magnitude of their love for her so unequivocally and clearly without even saying the actual words - Joel, on his porch, the night before he died. She remembered the sureness in his voice: ...I would do it all over again.

Letting out a pained groan, Ellie covered her face and collapsed backward so she was laying on her back in the grass. “God, Abby… We are so fucked!”

“Yeah,” said Abby with a grin, greatly appreciating Ellie’s reaction on so many different levels. “Sorry.”

“You should be, with your fucking sage short stories and your fucking…” She gestured vaguely at Abby’s body. “Arm... Muscles. Jesus, can’t a girl catch a fucking break already?”

“You want me to punch you in the face or something?”

“Dude, if your stupid axe-swinging stunt didn’t work, a punch in the face would probably feel orgasmic.”

“So what I’m hearing is that you definitely want me to punch you in the face.”

“I really hate you.”

“Mm hmm,” hummed Abby smugly. “Sure ya do.” She patted Ellie’s foot, which was the body part that was currently closest to her, then stood and took up the axe again, letting the physical activity soothe her racing mind.

Ellie sat up, took her journal out of her bag, and sketched Abby as she cut the wood, this time not bothering to hide what she was doing. When Abby looked over and saw her doing it, she grinned and flexed her arm at her, to which Ellie responded by sticking out her tongue. Then they both went back to their separate activities in silence.

When Lev and Brandy returned they were both laughing at something, but they quieted down as they joined Abby and Ellie at the newly-lit campfire. “We caught these,” Lev said, holding up some fish he’d tied to a string. “You think they’re edible?”

“They look like paiche,” said Abby, who had studied up on flora and fauna they might encounter during this trip before they had left. “Yeah, we should be able to eat those. Good haul.”

“Where’s my sleeping bag?” demanded Ellie. “If you didn’t do a good enough job, or if you got fish scales on it, it’s back to the river with you.”

But the bag was clean, and whatever material it was made out of dried quickly. The Fireflies had given all their best equipment to assist them with this trip, and Ellie was grateful for it. It would really suck to go to sleep in a wet sleeping bag, and it would happen often on this continent where it rained so frequently.

Ellie got a rare opportunity to speak with Lev in private later that evening while Brandy and Abby were doing one last sweep of the area to check for infected, wild animals or, if they were really, super lucky, a source of gas for the car. “Thanks for washing my sleeping bag, Lev,” she said innocently, really laying it on thick. “It was really nice of you to do that for me.”

The tips of Lev’s ears turned pink. “Damn it,” he sighed. “Was I that obvious?”

Ellie laughed heartily. “Yeah, kinda. I think it’s really sweet. And I think she likes you back. You should go for it.”

Lev shook his head vehemently. “No way. She’s just nice to everyone, that’s all.”

“What? She never blushes when I hand her something, or when Abby smiles at her or something. It’s only you she does that with.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Lev said morosely. “It wouldn’t work, anyway.”

“Why the hell not? You’re a smart, talented, sweet, handsome guy. Honestly, you’re a catch. What makes you think it wouldn’t work?”

Looking her right in the eye, Lev said, “You know why, Ellie.”

“Oh, that?” said Ellie incredulously. “She likes you, Lev. You think she’s really gonna give a shit what kind of packaging you come in?”

He raised his head and gave her a puzzled look. “Of course she will. Right?”

“Dude, no. Here, wait, I’ll prove it.” Ellie looked around for her backpack and pulled it over. She removed her journal and flipped through the pages until she found one of her drawings of Dina. “This is my last girlfriend, Dina. Remember her?”

“I shot her with an arrow,” said Lev bluntly.

“Yes, you did indeed,” Ellie agreed wryly. “Nice shot, by the way.”

“Thanks.”

“Anyway, before me, she’d never been with a girl. It never even crossed her mind, she said. But because she loved me, she was into me. If I was a guy she still would have felt the same way. It just doesn’t matter, Lev. If you really love someone, it doesn’t matter what they look like.”

Lev looked at the picture for a while. Then he carefully closed the journal and handed it back to Ellie. “Did she have the baby?”

“She did.”

“Boy or girl?”

“A boy, unless he gets older and says otherwise,” said Ellie, leaning over and bumping him with her shoulder, and he gave her a shy smile.

But it faded and was replaced with a concerned frown. “Is that… Are they the family you lost?”

Ellie broke eye contact as she turned to put her journal away. “Yeah,” she said shortly.

“Abby and I will be your family,” said Lev. “If you want.”

Her heart aching for things that could never be, Ellie said, “I appreciate that.”

“Is that a no?”

“I think we’ve talked about enough way-too-personal shit for one night, huh? Let’s get some sleep.”

Still frowning at her, Lev nodded and climbed into his sleeping bag, drifting off to sleep a short time later.

Ellie wasn’t sure when she dozed off, but at some point she was awoken by someone shaking her gently. She blinked her sleepy eyes open and saw Abby crouching over her in the firelight. “Abby? Wha’s wrong?” she slurred.

Abby put her finger to her lips. “Shh,” she said. “Nothing’s wrong. I want to show you something. Quiet, so you don’t wake the others.”

Climbing out of her sleeping bag, Ellie grabbed her backpack and followed Abby out into the dark forest. “Did you bring me out here to murder me?”

“Shh!”

“Because if you did, no fair. I was sleeping.”

“Oh my god, you are so fucking annoying. Be quiet!”

“Just say yes or no. Is it murder?”

“No.”

“See? How hard was that?”

Abby held up a hand, and for a split second Ellie thought she was about to playfully slap her. But then she realized that Abby was just signalling her to stop. “Stay really quiet now,” she whispered, then motioned for Ellie to stand at her side.

When Ellie was beside her, she pointed through a small gap in the trees, and Ellie’s breath caught. Laying on the ground a safe distance away there was a mother jaguar, with three fluffy jaguar kittens nursing at her breast. “Holy shit,” she breathed. “How did you find this?”

“Um, I used my eyes,” said Abby sarcastically.

“Geeze, no need to be a dick about it,” grumbled Ellie. They watched the animals in silence for a long time. Then Ellie said, “This reminds me of Salt Lake City. All the zoo animals were roaming around the city. Joel and I saw giraffes just casually strolling through the park.”

“Yeah, I know. My dad was always looking after this pregnant zebra. It actually gave birth the same day you showed up.”

“Huh,” said Ellie contemplatively. “Fucking crazy how intertwined our lives always were without us even knowing it, isn’t it?”

“Always will be, too. And Ellie, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.” Abby reached out and gently tucked a strand of Ellie’s hair back behind her ear, her eyes following its progress. "We can choose for it to be a good thing," she said softly. "We can choose to be happy." She continued to trace Ellie’s jawline all the way down to her chin, noting the way Ellie shivered slightly at the delicate touch.

But Ellie reached up and took hold of her hand, moving it away. “Don’t,” she whispered. “I can’t.”

Abby nodded, accepting this without a fight. She knew that this was something Ellie would have to reach her own conclusions about in her own time. And she knew that no matter how badly she wanted this, the answer would probably always be no, and there was little, if anything, she could do about that. “Okay,” she said. “Well, I can. I’m in. So if you change your mind, you let me know.”

She took one step backwards to distance herself from Ellie before turning and walking away, and she was soon swallowed up by the darkness of the night and the forest around them.

Chapter Text

Roughly eighty miles out from Porto Velho, they ran into their first multi-person infected. 

Luckily they saw it before it saw them. Ellie and Lev were running a scouting mission, investigating a long-deserted town in the hopes of scavenging anything they could use. The spores were intense. They floated like snow in the air around them, and it was even enough to bother Ellie a little. She kept sneezing from the particles getting up her nostrils, and when she spit she could see them in her saliva. It was disgusting, and for the first time in quite some time, she voluntarily put on a gas mask just to make her life a little easier. When she did this, Lev gave her a disappointed look.

“What?” she said as she tightened the straps.

“Nothing,” he replied.

“Don’t lie to me, you little goober. What did I do?”

Lev sighed. “I dunno. I kinda like watching you breathe the spores. It’s cool. Makes you look like a superhero.”

“Oh,” said Ellie, flattered. “Yeah? You think?” A memory came to her of a dank basement back in LA. “Abby thinks so too, although she used different words to describe it.”

“Yeah, I bet she did,” laughed Lev. “She likes you.”

“Kinda knew that, actually.” Now uncomfortable, she motioned to the path that would lead them to the village. “Shall we?”

Ignoring this, Lev asked, “Do you like her?”

“Lev,” said Ellie sharply. “You’re a good kid. I’d hate to have to kill you.”

Lev rolled his eyes and started up the path. “Fine,” he sighed.

The multi-person infected was trundling through the center of town when they arrived. It would have been impossible to miss it due to its size. Both staring at it with wide eyes, Ellie and Lev ducked into some tall grass to observe it. “Holy mother of god,” breathed Ellie. “It’s an uber-infected!”

“Abby is such a liar,” said Lev. “There’s no fucking way she killed one of those herself!”

Having fought Abby more times than he had and subsequently been on the receiving end of a serious ass-whooping, Ellie wasn’t so sure. But regardless, the uber-infected was intimidating, and they both agreed that avoiding it was far preferable than fighting. They took turns keeping an eye on it as they crept around and checked out all the buildings. Ellie was both horrified and strangely fascinated by it. It had arms and legs sticking out all over, and there were heads and mouths pointing every which way. One of the things that had always disturbed her most about the cordyceps infection was how painful it looked. Runners, who still had the ability to see, could be reliably killed with stealth because they were too busy clutching their eyes in pain. Advancing to the clicker stage almost seemed like a blessing, because as far as Ellie could tell, by that point enough of their humanity had gone that they didn’t seem to feel as much pain.

This uber-infected was clearly in pain. There was no way a beast like that could sneak up on someone because it seemed to have multiple voices, and they were all groaning in anguish. Ellie almost wished they would kill it just to put it out of its misery.

Logic won out in the end, and they snuck back to the camp without drawing the thing’s attention. When they told the others about it, Abby looked worried. “You should have come back and got us,” she said. “What would have happened if you’d been attacked?”

“The same thing that would happen if all four of us were attacked - we’d die,” said Ellie. 

“That’s not funny,” Abby replied.

“It wasn't supposed to be. Look, things are only going to get creepier and harder as we get closer. We’re running out of bullets and food, and we’re all exhausted. I say that at this point, we should power through these last eighty miles as fast as we possibly can,” Ellie said. “We could take a rest day tomorrow, and then go non-stop until we reach the base.”

Everyone looked at one another, judging each other’s reactions. “Or,” Brandy said, “we could go very slowly and carefully so that we don’t make any mistakes.”

But Ellie and Abby were both shaking their heads. “Never happens,” Abby said. “Something always comes up. Ellie’s right. The only way to ensure that we get to our destination safely is to keep moving and get there as soon as possible.”

So they agreed to Ellie’s plan and rested for the next day, once again combing through their gear for anything they could leave behind so that their travel would be as quick as possible. Abby, who was a light traveler, didn’t have a whole lot to get rid of. She ditched two of her more ragged tank tops and a gun she’d run out of bullets for weeks ago but had kept around just in case. Once she was finished, she cast around for something else to do and, as usual, found herself wandering over to see what Ellie was up to.

Ellie was sitting cross-legged on the grass, surrounded by various papers and art supplies. When Abby came over, she pushed aside a pile of paint so that she could join her. “What’s all this shit?” Abby asked, plopping down on the ground and picking up a nearby paper with a drawing of a landscape on it. Abby recognized it as one of the campsites they’d stayed at back in Colombia. 

“That’s my ‘toss’ pile,” Ellie explained. “This is my ‘keep’ pile.” She patted a much smaller pile that was sitting near Abby’s knee.

“Can I look?” Abby asked politely, not wanting to accidentally stumble onto anything that Ellie considered too personal.

“At this point? Why the fuck not?”

Abby smirked and picked up the ‘keep’ pile, looking through the artwork slowly. Some were quick sketches - of Lev, Brandy, Brian and Patrick, of the various wildlife they’d seen on their travels, of the whales they’d seen from the boat. Towards the bottom of the pile there were older drawings, ones Ellie had probably done prior to leaving for South America and had had access to better materials. Watercolors of the Pacific ocean from the docks in Avalon. The sun setting over the Los Angeles skyline. And, at the very bottom, clearly the oldest drawing by far, there was one of a beautiful woman holding a smiling baby. Caught off guard, Abby drew a sharp breath at the picture. It was obviously drawn with love, and Ellie had managed to perfectly capture the love in each subject’s eyes.

“Dina,” Ellie offered unprompted. “And JJ.”

“I remember her. You two were together?” Abby guessed.

“Yeah.”

“Baby’s not yours, though, right?” said Abby wryly.

“No. Jesse, the guy that you…” Ellie pointed a finger-gun to her own head and made a little explosion noise.

Guilt immediately brought stinging tears to Abby’s eyes. “Oh,” she said. “Fuck.” 

“Yeah. Thanks for not killing her too, by the way.”

“Don’t thank me,” said Abby grimly. “Thank Lev. I would have done it.”

“I know.”

A tense silence fell between them. Abby wished she hadn’t come over here in the first place. “I guess it was stupid of me to think we could ever get past all that,” she said.

“No, it wasn’t. Maybe someone else could, I dunno. I just don’t know if I ever can. I don’t move on easy, as you should be well aware by now,” said Ellie. “You’ve always been the bigger person in that way.”

“I always had help,” Abby said, nodding towards where Lev and Brandy were sitting on the other side of camp, also talking privately as they sorted through their things. “I think if it wasn’t for Lev, I’d still be that horrible monster you first met. That monster is still inside me, and I’m not trying to make excuses about what I did. But he helped me see that I didn’t have to be like that. He showed me a different way.”

“So what’s my fucking problem, huh?” Ellie asked rhetorically, reaching over to take the picture from Abby’s hands. “I had both of them. But I left, because I couldn’t let it go. I gave up everything to chase you to Santa Barbara, only to find out the answer was up here all along.” She tapped her own forehead.

“What stopped you that day, Ellie? You were half an inch from killing me, but you stopped yourself. Why?”

“I dunno,” said Ellie. Then, reluctantly: “Joel.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“I told you, the whole thing was about Joel. He stole my destiny from me, Abby. When he pulled me out of that hospital, he fucked up the whole world - and my whole world. But… He did it because he loved me, you know? Because I was his world.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“He never regretted what he did. I think even if he’d somehow known how it would turn out, how it would end for him, he’d still have done it. Killing you that day wouldn’t change what happened, and he wouldn’t have wanted to change it anyway. I dunno. I couldn’t go through with it. Not when I knew you had every right to want him dead, and that was even before I knew he’d killed your father.” Ellie looked at Abby and said, “You remind me of him, sometimes.”

“Uhh… Cool?” said Abby slowly, and Ellie laughed. “The fuck’s that supposed to mean?”

“The way you are with Lev, mostly. That’s what does it. You protect him the way Joel protected me.”

Abby considered this for a long moment, then said, “That’s kind of a mind-fuck, huh?”

“Little bit.” 

Wanting to lighten the mood a little, Abby said, “Well, you want to know what I think?”

“I dunno. Do I?”

“You definitely do.” She reached over and tapped Ellie’s head. “I think you are your own worst enemy. I think you’re too hard on yourself and you don’t let yourself believe that it’s possible that anyone could love you despite your significantly and abnormally large number of incredibly serious fuck-ups.”

Glaring at her, Ellie said, “I don’t understand why you think I would like hearing this.”

“You’re not damaged goods, Ellie,” said Abby firmly. “Take it from someone who’s been on the receiving end of all the terrible shit you’re capable of doing: You still have the ability to love, and you still deserve to be loved. You’ve got plenty to offer, even if you don’t end up saving the world with your immunity.”

Ellie shifted uncomfortably, scrunching up her nose. “I don’t know if I like the feeling of having the inside of my brain examined like that.”

“I’d think you’d be used to it by now, after all the Firefly doctors poking and prodding you.”

“Har har,” said Ellie sarcastically. “Good one.”

“Now, putting all this shit aside, I have an important question for you,” said Abby.

Hesitantly, Ellie said, “What?”

“Where are all the sketches of me?”

Refusing to meet her eyes, Ellie answered: “My backpack. I already decided I’m keeping them.”

“Good,” said Abby simply. She stood and said, “I’m gonna go check on those two.”

“It doesn’t mean I’m gonna change my mind,” Ellie said, looking up at her from the ground.

“I know.”

“So you can stop acting all smug.”

“You got it.”

“Also, we had a fucking truce, remember?”

“Uh huh.”

“Fuck you.”

“Fuck you, too.” Abby turned away, took a second to get her grin under control, then went to check on Lev and Brandy.

The squad set out early the next morning, guns loaded and masks at the ready. Based on what they’d been seeing recently, it was entirely possible that a strong wind could carry spores over to them. Ellie made them put them on any time they felt even light breeze, though, because she couldn’t stand the thought of losing any one of them. They’d all become so close over the last few months.

Their speed of travel could best be described as “break-neck.” They stopped only when absolutely necessary, and aside from checking the immediate area carefully for infected, they did not do sweeps of the places where they stopped. It wasn’t necessary because they never stayed in one place for very long, and they knew exactly what they would find on the sweeps: More of the same. Everywhere they looked it was spores, overgrown dwellings, and farms that nature had reclaimed.

On the third day of this kind of travel they found themselves at the top of a hill, and below, the air was speckled with spores. “This is it,” said Abby, pulling out her special mask that the Fireflies had given them that included tubes so they could drink water and eat energy gel.  “This might be the last time we get to be without these masks for a while.” She looked around at the others, who had also gotten their masks out. “You ready?”

“Yeah,” said Lev.

“Yes,” said Brandy.

For one crazy moment, Ellie toyed with the idea of kissing Abby while she still could. But by the time the crazy moment was over Abby had already affixed her mask over her face, and Ellie lamented that she hadn’t had the wherewithal to at least make Abby smile first.

“Let’s do this,” said Abby, and she turned and led the way down the hill.

By the end of the day’s travel Ellie was wearing her own mask too, once again uncomfortable due to all the spores in the air. None of them slept very well that night thanks to having to wear their masks to bed, and they ended up setting out again far sooner than they usually did.

It was surreal to finally be so close to their destination. Ellie felt like they’d been on the road for years. For the first time it occurred to her that she was about to be subjected to a lot more people than she had for the last four months. And, she realized, she most likely wouldn’t have Abby by her side 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The thought was depressing. She’d really grown to depend on Abby, and not just in a survival way, but in an emotional way, too. They kept each other going. It was nice, having Abby as a constant companion and confidante.

At long last, after ten days of wearing their masks non-stop, they emerged from a patch of fungus-covered forest and saw their destination in the distance, a large white building across a vast, grassy field. All four of them stopped short upon seeing it. “Holy shit,” said Ellie. “We made it. We fucking made it.”

“Not all of us,” said Lev sadly. 

“I wish Brian and Patrick could see this,” Brandy said. “They’d be proud of us.”

“Yeah, they would,” Abby agreed. “Come on. Let’s get over there and take a load off, huh? My feet are killing me.”

As they approached the building, they could see that a white tent had been set up directly in front of the doors to the building, the words “DECONTAMINATION AREA” written along the top of it in big, blocky letters. When they were close to the building, a couple of masked soldiers came out of the tent and pointed rifles at them. “Hands in the air. Identify yourselves,” one of them demanded.

All four of them put their hands up. “Ellie Miller,” Ellie said loudly, pointing to herself with her hands still in the air. “Immune girl.”

The soldiers hesitated. “If you’re immune, why are you wearing a mask?” one of them asked.

“Because the spores are fucking gross,” replied Ellie, and she removed her mask. “There, you happy now?”

The soldier who had spoken first turned and lifted the flap of the tent. “Four incoming. And get the professor up front immediately,” he called to someone inside it. He turned back to the group and waved them on. “Come inside for decontamination.”

Inside the tent, they and all their possessions were thoroughly doused in water and rubbed clean. Once that was finished, they went through the doors to the main building and were allowed to remove their masks. Abby, Lev and Brandy all scrunched their faces up, relieved to finally be free of them. When Abby noticed Ellie was looking at her and trying not to laugh, she raised her eyebrows and said, “What?”

“You’ve got creases all over your face,” she answered gleefully.

“Fuck off, Immune Girl.”

Looking around at their surroundings, it became apparent that the building they were standing in used to be a large mansion. They were in the foyer, where along the wall were hung several dozen masks, all numbered and labeled with their owner’s name. The ceiling above them was creaking constantly as people walked around upstairs. Off to the side was a parlour, which was being used as an armory. Ellie wandered over and poked her head in curiously as they waited to be told where to go, and the others eventually joined her. “They must keep it up front in case they get attacked,” Ellie observed.

“Smart,” Abby commented. “I’m sure they don’t have a lot of time to scramble if one of those beasts comes this far out.”

“Not unless they want to get scrambled,” quipped Ellie, and Abby groaned.

“Thank god we’re finally here,” she said. “I’m not sure I could handle one more day of your jokes.”

“You love them. Admit it.”

“I love them,” chimed in Lev.

“Me too,” added Brandy.

“Aww, you guys!” Ellie slung her left arm around Lev and her right arm around Brandy. “You guys are the bestest.”

“Miss Miller?” said an accented voice, and all four of them turned to look. A man with a cane was limping towards them from further down the hallway in the house. 

“Miss Miller was Joel’s mother,” said Ellie casually. “You can call me Ellie. Who the fuck are you?”

A little taken aback at her strange mannerisms, the man said, “Uh, I’m Professor Eduard Santiago. I’m the head researcher and ops leader for this base.” He offered his hand, and Ellie shook it. “Pleasure to meet you.”

“Yeah, you too. And this is Brandy, and Abby, and Lev’s the little guy back there. They’re my squad… Which, I mean, I’m sure you already know.”

Santiago cast his eyes over the rest of the group. “I believe you were sent with six, yes?”

“We lost two,” said Abby in a way that made it clear that no other information would be given on this until she was confident it was being given to the right person. Ellie felt a wave of respect for the ease with which Abby could handle herself in these situations wash over her. 

“I see. Well, few squads make it out here with their numbers fully intact. Two is a relatively minor loss.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Ellie saw Abby clench her fists in anger, and then she saw them unclench when Lev put his hand on her forearm.

“We expected you to be here several weeks ago,” Santiago said. “We thought we’d lost you.”

“Technically, you did lose me,” Ellie pointed out. “Just… Not to death.”

“And thank the Lord for that,” said Santiago sincerely. “You represent humanity’s last hope.”

Shifting uncomfortably on her feet, Ellie said, “Alright, well, humanity’s last hope is tired and hungry, and so are her friends. You think maybe we could get, like, a 48-hour stay on that whole world-saving thing?”

Nodding, Santiago said, “Yes, I’m certain that could be arranged.”

The group was fed in the dining room, where there was a massive wooden table that had clearly been there since before the outbreak, when this had been a regular house. Afterwards they were brought to a different wing of the house with a long row of bedrooms. There were apparently so few Fireflies in the base that they were able to spare four whole bedrooms. Abby went into her room and set her bag down, thinking about how odd it would be to spend the night alone. Even in Avalon, she shared a room with Lev. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d slept without another person nearby, but she thought it must have been back in Seattle, when she used to sleep in the library sometimes so Manny could have his privacy with one of his many women. 

Hot water was brought in for her to take a bath, and she was given a brand new set of clothes - another black t-shirt, of course, and cargo pants, as well as a pair of sweatpants to wear to bed. Abby often wondered if it was some kind of proto-military superstition that everyone who joined up had to wear this exact outfit. The thought made her smile, and she found herself looking around for Ellie to share it, only to belatedly remember that they weren’t in each other’s company anymore. Right at that moment, she went from being alone to being lonely.

Shortly after she had finished washing up and was about to climb into her bed, there was a soft knock on the door. She opened it to find a Firefly soldier standing there. “There’s a call on the radio for you,” he said.

“Okay,” said Abby. It didn’t surprise her - she knew it was only a matter of time until they’d be hearing from Liz. “Lead the way.” The soldier led her to the radio room, which was upstairs in the attic so that the antenna could be as high up as possible. She sat down at the station and put on the headphones. “This is Abby,” she said.

“Hello, soldier. This is Liz. I can’t tell you how good it is to hear your voice.”

“I don’t know that I can say likewise, but it’s nice to know you care, I guess.”

“Of course I care. I hear you lost two along the way. Tell me what happened.”

“We lost Brian on the boat. There was a storm and we were struck by lightning. The boat caught fire and we had to abandon ship. Everyone but Brian made it off.”

“I see. That explains the travel delay. Where did you end up going ashore?”

“Fucking Colombia,” said Abby. “We had to cross the damn Andes.”

“And the second soldier?”

“Patrick. He was bitten by a runner in a town on the south side of the mountains.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Liz. “I know he was a particularly good friend to you.”

“As was Brian. We were all close.”

“How are the rest of the squad?”

“Fine,” answered Abby shortly. “Tired, though, so if there’s a point to this conversation, I’d like you to make it so we can be done.”

Liz made sure to transmit the sound of her chuckle over the radio waves. “You know Abby, I’m almost glad you’re still angry with me, because it means you’re still the perfect soldier for this mission.”

“The fuck’s that supposed to mean?”

“Your hatred for that girl may work to our advantage. You need to understand that the important part of this mission is Ellie… But only up until she obtains those samples. Once the samples are in your possession, you are to do whatever it takes to get them out of there and back to base.”

Abby sat there frozen in complete shock, the hair on the back of her neck standing on end. “What exactly are you saying here?”

“I think you know what I’m saying. If you are presented with a choice - the girl, or the samples - you pick the samples. That shouldn’t be hard for you, considering your history with her.”

Abby said nothing, her stomach churning, trying to resist throwing up everything she’d eaten an hour ago.

“Are we clear on this, Anderson?”

“Oh, we’re very clear, Liz,” said Abby, her voice low and dangerous.

“Good. In that case, get some rest. Over and out.”

Abby removed the headphones and placed them on the desk without bothering to sign off. Nodding to the soldier who was waiting politely nearby, she went back downstairs to her bedroom. But after only the briefest of pauses, she instead continued on until she was standing outside Ellie’s door. There, she stood and debated if she should knock.

As she was debating, the door opened. “Creaky ass floors,” Ellie said. “You’ve been standing here for what, like, two minutes?”

“Yeah,” Abby said with a bashful smile. “Sorry, I’m a chicken shit.”

“Come in,” Ellie said, and she stood aside as Abby entered, shutting the door behind her. “What can I do for you?”

“I talked to Liz on the radio. She sends her condolences about Brian and Patrick. Oh, and she told me I’m more than welcome to leave you to die if I want, as long as you get the samples first.”

“Seriously?”

“Yep.”

“What a bitch!” Ellie chewed on her bottom lip, considering this. “Does she expect something to happen that would kill me?”

“I mean, that would be my guess. Otherwise why even bring it up?”

“Fuck,” said Ellie. 

If this was a suicide mission for her, it was Joel and the hospital all over again. Except this time, it was Abby who would be expected to let her die.

“You know you have to do that, right? You have to get those samples back to base, with or without me,” Ellie said.

“Don’t fucking tell me what to do,” snapped Abby.

Ellie gave her a sad, affectionate smile. She had no doubt that Abby was also thinking about what Joel had decided to do in that hospital. “Do you want to sleep here with me tonight?” she asked calmly.

Pathetically grateful, Abby replied: “God, do I ever.”

Taking her hand, Ellie led her over to the bed and they climbed in. Ellie laid on her side with Abby behind her, and she guided Abby’s arm over her. Getting the idea, Abby pulled her closer and held her tightly. For a while they lay there in silence, both absorbing and getting used to the increased intimacy of this position. Their size difference had never been more evident. With Abby’s arm around her, Ellie felt completely surrounded and protected.

“Damn, you’re scrawny. You need to start lifting weights,” Abby whispered into her hair, and Ellie dissolved into laughter.

“Nah, I'll leave that to you. I can handle myself fine. I’m going for stealth, not brute force.”

“You know that after tonight, technically I could tell everyone on base that I slept with you.”

“Not if I kick you out before we fall asleep.”

Abby tightened her grip, and Ellie let out a contented sigh. Grinning, Abby said, “So do it. Kick me out.”

“Don’t fucking tell me what to do.”

Chapter Text

“There you are. Jesus, I’ve been looking all over for you!” said Owen, his voice echoing in the empty locker room.

“Owen, what the fuck!” laughed Abby. “You can’t be in here.”

“It’s three AM, Abs. You’re the only person crazy enough to be working out at this hour.” Owen’s eyes lit up. “Hey, wanna do it in the showers? Gotta admit, that’s kinda always been a fantasy of mine, to do it in the girls’ locker room.”

“Nah… I’m all sweaty.”

“Uh, yeah. Duh. Hence, the shower.”

“I said no, alright?” said Abby, trying to hide her smile. “What do you want?”

“You tell me. Manny said you were looking for me at dinner.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Abby. She turned and pulled out a map from her backpack, then unfolded it and pressed it up against the lockers. “So, this weekend I was thinking we could sign out a truck and try this area again. I know we already looked here last month, but this section was covered by Leah and Jordan, and you know how shoddy their sweeps are.” For the first time since pulling out the map, she looked up at Owen and noticed the expression on his face. “What?”

“This is what you wanted to talk to me about?” he asked flatly. “This? Really?”

“Well… Yeah,” said Abby slowly. “What else would I want to talk to you about?”

“Um, my day? The scars? Those gross burritos they served for dinner? Fucking ANYTHING else, Abby!” he yelled. “Fuck!”

“What’s your fucking problem, Owen?”

He shook his head. “Nothing. Never mind.”

“No, please, tell me. I’d LOVE to hear it.”

Owen sighed. “Ever since we came to Seattle, all you talk about is training, or Joel. And I know you’re only training so that you can fight Joel. Your entire life… Is Joel. It’s like you don’t even have room for me any more.”

“That tip we got about Joel is the whole reason we came to Seattle in the first place! Of course I want to look for him here. And I invited you to come, didn’t I?” asked Abby, motioning at the map. “Joel killed my father, Owen. I’ll never be able to rest until he’s dead.”

“Look… I agree that he deserves to die for what he did. I really do. But I don’t think it’s worth throwing your entire life away. You’re not even you anymore. You’re not…” He trailed off.

“I’m not what, Owen? Just fucking say what’s on your mind.”

“You’re not the girl I fell in love with,” he finished.

Stunned, her ears ringing, Abby said, “So what, you don’t love me anymore?”

Owen looked at her sadly for a moment, then shook his head. “As long as this is the person you choose to be, I don’t see how I could love you.”

All the pain Abby felt inside began to morph into rage, as it always did. “Fine,” she said angrily. “Then it’s over. But know this, Owen. I didn’t CHOOSE to be this person. HE did this to me.”

“No, Abby, you did it to yourself.” Then Owen turned and left the locker room. 

Abby threw the map back into her bag and slammed her locker shut.

The clang of the locker rang in Abby’s ears as she awoke, and for a split second she was confused about where she was. But then the feeling of a small, soft body cradled in her arms calmed her, and she smiled as her whole world narrowed to nothing but Ellie.

She was still fast asleep, and Abby raised her head to take in the sight with pleasure. She looked so much younger in slumber. It was hard to imagine that someone who looked this sweet and beautiful was a killer, but Ellie most definitely was. This world made killers of everyone. It took more strength not to be a killer in a world like this. Owen had understood that, and now Abby and Ellie did, too. How ironic and tragic that it had taken his murder and murderer for Abby to understand the point he’d been trying to make that day in the locker room. She wished she’d listened to what he was trying to tell her sooner. Then maybe everything wouldn’t have gotten so fucked up, and she and Ellie might actually have a real chance at being together like a semi-normal couple.

As it was, she still wasn’t holding out hope. Some might say that she was being fatalistic to think she didn’t have a real shot with Ellie while they were currently cuddled up in bed together, but Abby knew better. This thing they had going would end the minute their mission did. Of that, Abby had no doubt. She knew Ellie well enough to know that when they returned to their real lives, the stark reality of their history would come back to her, and she would run from it. Abby’s best guess was that if Ellie lived through this mission, she’d probably go back to Jackson. That was the life she knew. This little interlude with the Fireflies would put her mind at ease about her immunity and her responsibility to the world because of it, and she’d be in a mentally better place. The last thing she would want would be a constant reminder of all her mistakes, and there was no bigger reminder of those mistakes than Abby herself.

So she would enjoy this while it lasted, and she would try to replace as many of Ellie’s bad Abby memories with good ones as she possibly could. That way, hopefully, when they eventually parted ways for the final time, Ellie would be able to remember her with some degree of fondness. It wasn’t much, but it was all she had. Or, at least, all she would eventually have.

For now, she had a lot more. She laid her head back down on the pillow and buried her nose in Ellie’s hair, breathing her in. Abby had only been in love once before. If she concentrated really hard, she could remember a time when being with Owen had felt this way - like every single breath he drew was magic, like feeling so sure that he’d been created specifically for her because of how perfectly they fit together, like life could never be that bad as long as she had him. But then Joel and the hospital and Seattle happened, and now the memories of that time were so faded that it was as though they’d happened to someone else.

She’d been so young then. And it turned out that she and Owen had never really known each other, not the way you’re supposed to know someone you love. They’d only seen each other at their best, and then they’d fallen apart when Owen saw her at her worst.

But Ellie? Oh, Ellie had seen her at her worst. And vice versa. Even still, she’d been invited to spend the night.

For all Ellie’s flaws and all her mistakes, Abby hadn’t known it was possible to love someone this much.

And yet somehow, she was supposed to care about some fucking samples more than she cared about this woman? Yes, she knew the samples could save mankind. But trying to imagine a scenario where she would be capable of leaving Ellie behind was impossible. Now more than ever, she had a deep and disconcerting understanding for Joel Miller.

Ellie stirred and awoke, which Abby knew because she stretched herself out and made a cute little noise. Then she rolled onto her back to look at Abby, blinking sleepy green eyes at her. Rather than speak to her, Ellie rolled once more and wrapped her arms around Abby, cuddling closer and burying her face against her chest. Warmth blossomed in Abby’s body from head to toe, and she resumed the important task of holding Ellie as close as possible.

After some time they could hear that activity was beginning to take place in the mansion around them. People were walking up and down the hallway, holding conversations that the two of them couldn’t quite make out the words of. 

“Tell everyone to shut the fuck up,” Ellie grumbled, her voice muffled against Abby’s body.

“Okay,” said Abby, and she started to pull away.

“Never mind,” Ellie said quickly, tightening her hold so that Abby stopped moving. “It’s fine.”

Abby laughed. “You’re shameless.”

“I know. I’m the worst.” She backed off enough so that she could look Abby in the eye. “Thanks for staying. I honestly can’t remember the last time I slept so well.”

“You’re seriously thanking me for that?”

“Um, yeah?”

“Believe me, you don’t have to.”

Ellie nodded. “Okay.” She rolled onto her back again, and Abby propped herself up on her elbow to look down at her. With a devilish smile, Ellie said: “Am I the first girl you ever slept with?”

“Yes,” replied Abby. “In any sense of the word.”

“So you’ve really never been with a girl before?”

“Never.”

“Hm,” said Ellie. “Interesting.”

“Why’s that interesting?”

“I dunno. You’re so… Butch. Just wouldn’t expect you to be into guys, that’s all.”

“You know, I wasn’t always this buff. I used to be scrawny, too. Maybe not as scrawny as you, but…” She laughed when Ellie slapped her shoulder. “Sorry. I know, going for stealth, blah blah blah… Anyway, I have been approached by girls before. I guess they thought the same thing about me that you do. But none of them ever really did anything for me so I never took them up on it.”

“But I do something for you?”

“I have feelings for you,” said Abby seriously. “It makes a difference.”

“And that doesn’t freak you out?”

“It terrifies me, but not because you’re a girl. Why should that freak me out?”

“How are you like this?” Ellie asked, squinting at her. She’d been wondering about this ever since she’d first disclosed her sexual orientation to Abby all those months ago in that abandoned bakery in LA. “With me, and with Lev… Do you know how rare it is to meet someone who doesn’t have a problem with either one of us? Even a lot of the folks back in Jackson could be awful bigots, and that was after knowing I was gay for years. But you’ve acted like it’s nothing from day one.”

Abby took a moment to consider this, absently toying with the fabric of the blanket under her hand where it was resting on Ellie’s stomach. “I guess my dad raised me right,” she concluded. “He didn’t teach me to hate people for things they can’t control.”

“Huh. Smart guy.”

“He was.”

Still brimming with curiosity, Ellie prodded: “So you’re not having, like, an identity crisis in the least about suddenly being interested in a girl? You’re just…” She waved a hand negligently. “Okay with it.”

“I cannot believe how weird you’re finding this,” said Abby incredulously. “Is it really so bizarre to you that it doesn’t matter to me?”

“Yes!” laughed Ellie. “Maybe I’ve been burned by one too many straight girls, I dunno.”

“Oh, you poor thing,” said Abby sarcastically. “Did little Ellie get her ego smushed?”

“God, you’re such a bitch.” Ellie paused to consider the topic they were discussing again. “I did tell Lev to go after Brandy because it shouldn't matter what a person looks like, and I really do believe that. But I guess I didn’t expect that you of all people would feel that way.”

“Well, I do. Just because I’m a badass killing machine doesn’t mean I’m closed-minded. I admit that I never thought I would fall for a girl, but I did, and I don’t see any reason to put up a fight about it.”

“Okay,” Ellie said, shrugging in surrender. “So I was wrong about you. I can accept that.” They could hear that there was even more activity in the house now, and the distinct scent of coffee had drifted into the room. Ellie guessed it must be easier to come by down here where it actually grew. “We probably should get up.”

“Yeah, Lev’s gonna come looking for me soon, if he hasn’t already. They’re both gonna know I spent the night in here.”

“I don’t give a shit if you don’t.”

“I absolutely do not,” said Abby definitively.

“Cool.” Reluctantly they both got out of bed and started to head out of the room. Before opening the door, Ellie looked at Abby and said, “I can’t believe you didn’t try to kiss me, not even once. All fucking night and all fucking morning.”

“You told me not to.”

“Yeah, I did. Because I’m a…” Ellie shook her head, sighed, and looked up at the ceiling. “Fucking... Moron. I’m so fucking dumb.” She angrily opened the door and stalked out into the hall, and Abby followed, laughing at her.

“Uh, hi, Abby,” said a voice to her right, and she turned to see Lev standing at the door to the room that Abby was supposed to sleep in the night before. Obviously he had been about to knock on her door when she and Ellie emerged.

“Morning, Lev,” she replied casually. She glanced at Ellie and said, “I’ll catch up.”

“Oh, he doesn’t want to talk to me about this little scandal?” Ellie asked, pretending to be offended. “Just you?”

“That is accurate,” Lev said unapologetically. He made a shoo-ing motion at Ellie with his hand. “Run along now. She said she’ll catch up.”

“What a punk,” said Ellie. “You’re a bad influence, Abby.”

“Please just go,” said Abby, pinching the bridge of her nose. Once Ellie had shrugged and headed downstairs, she turned her attention back to Lev. She put her hand between his shoulder blades and led him into her unused guest room, shutting the door behind them. “I know what you’re thinking, but I swear: Nothing happened.”

Putting his hands on his hips, Lev replied, “You have no idea what I’m thinking. Why not?”

For a moment Abby was sure she’d misheard him. “Excuse me?”

“Why didn’t anything happen? You obviously care about each other.”

“Are you trying to tell me that you do not think it is a patently bad idea for me to be romantically involved with Ellie?

Lev shrugged and chewed on his bottom lip, saying nothing.

“Lev. Did you forget that we’re in the middle of a conversation? Answer me.”

“Did you know that it took almost a month of us traveling together for you to laugh at something?”

Confused, Abby said, “Okay, so you did forget about our conversation.”

“By the time it finally happened I was almost convinced that you didn’t know how. And even after that, it was pretty rare. I think I’ve heard you laugh more in the last five months than I did in the entire two years before that. That’s because of Ellie,” Lev concluded. “I know it is.”

That was definitely true, Abby thought. Ellie certainly did make her laugh.

“So even though it’s complicated with Ellie,” Lev said, “I think it’s a good thing. I like it when you laugh.”

Touched, Abby stepped closer and pulled him in for a hug. “You’re the best, you know that? The best in the whole world.”

Lev hugged her back as hard as he could. Afterwards, he backed away and said, “Tell me why nothing happened.”

“I asked,” Abby told him. “She said no.”

“Why?”

“Because of all the things that are impossible to change. There’s just too much bad blood. It doesn’t matter how we feel about each other, I guess.”

“Of course it does,” said Lev stubbornly. “That’s the only part that matters.”

“I’m with you, Lev. I know it would be difficult, but I still think it’s worth a try. But you know how Ellie is. She’s…”

“A blockhead,” interrupted Lev.

“I was going to say unyielding, but yeah, blockhead works too.”

“Hm,” said Lev thoughtfully. “That really sucks, Abby. I’m sorry.”

Abby shrugged, looking down at the carpet. She tried to look as unbothered as possible when she said, “It’s okay. I’ll get over it.” Even saying the words was painful, and she could feel tears prickle at her eyes. She cleared her throat and said, “Let’s go get breakfast, okay?”

She could tell by the concerned look in his eyes that Lev was not falling for her ruse in the least, but he nodded and the two of them went downstairs to eat with Ellie and Brandy.

Now that everyone was well-rested and well-fed, a young soldier named Pete came to bring the four of them on a tour of the facilities. They started with the armory, which Abby was happy about because she wanted to know what kind of arsenal they would be working with for the next stage of their mission. “We have the best weapons cache in the world, I think,” said Pete. “Any time the Fireflies get their hands on something really good, they send it down here.”

“Have you guys ever taken down one of the really big infected?” asked Lev. “The ones that look like a mountain?”

“We call those big guys amalgams. Yes, we have killed one, but it was with dumb luck. One of our squads encountered it just outside the perimeter of the suffocation zone on a dry day after many days of rain. All the rain had softened the connective fungus tissues that hold the amalgam together. Our guys were too far into the cloud to make a decent run for it without risking suffocation. So they chose to fight. One of the guys had a rocket launcher, and I guess he hit a sweet spot because they said at least twenty littler infected were torn off it. So they reloaded and kept firing, and eventually the amalgam was small enough to take down. We lost five soldiers in the scrap, and we had to spend about half a year hunting down all the little guys, but we killed it.”

“Shit,” said Ellie. “That doesn’t sound like something we’ll be able to replicate.”

“I would have to agree,” Pete said. “You’re better off avoiding them altogether.”

“How many are there? Do you know?” Abby asked.

“We think nine, but it’s hard to say for sure. Visibility is so bad you can’t hardly tell which one is which, and pictures are useless with all the spore cloud interference. One of our guys in the lab is working on building tagging and tracking technology.”

Raising her eyebrows, Abby commented, “That’s a very good idea. They used to do that with endangered species in the old world.” When Ellie gave her a look, she explained, “I read it in a book.”

“You and your books,” said Ellie, rolling her eyes.

Abby shrugged. “I like to read.”

“So which of these guns will we be taking with us?” Brandy asked, looking at all the various options.

“I believe the professor’s exact words were: Give them whatever the hell they want,” said Pete. “My guess is there isn’t much you guys wouldn’t get if you asked.”

Ellie rubbed her hands together and licked her lips. “That’s what I’m talking about. Dibs on that big machine honker up there.” She pointed to a large gun mounted on the wall.

Abby laughed. “Oh my god, that thing is the size of you! I’d love to see you try to shoot that.”

“Good, because I’m shooting that bad boy first chance I get.”

“In terms of protective gear, this is what you guys are looking at.” Pete opened a closet and showed them the military-grade masks and body armor that everyone but Ellie would be wearing. The only things he had for Ellie were some sort of ski mask and a pair of goggles. The mask was made of a smooth, stretchy substance and would cover her entire face except for her eyes. “Through testing in the lab we determined that this fabric will work best for your purposes. The spores won’t be able to adhere to the mask, and its natural holes are big enough that the little spores can still get through without hampering your ability to breath from it. It should minimize your spore intake.”

“I appreciate that,” Ellie said, running the fabric between her fingers. “It sucks, having to deal with all that shit. Super gross.”

“Well if it makes you feel any better, I’m not particularly interested in the idea of breathing spores either,” deadpanned Pete.

“Yeah, that does make me feel a little better. Thanks, Pete.”

Next Pete took them to the lab, which was what they called most of the building. The research team had set up science equipment almost everywhere on the first floor, and the entire basement was all part of the lab.  On the first floor there were all sorts of gizmos and electronic crap that none of them had ever seen before. “Up here we’re working on non-dangerous stuff,” said Pete. “In this room we have communications equipment, next door we have weapons we’re trying to mod to fit our purposes, and in here…” Pete opened a sliding door between two rooms. “This is where we are experimenting with mask technology.”

Abby approached one of the tables. Sitting atop it was a large glass box. Inside it was a gas mask on a dummy head. Attached to the box was a moving fan, and it was blowing little particles around in the glass box. “You guys have spores in here?” she asked in disbelief.

“Only way to learn,” replied Pete. “Don’t worry, the box is very secure. We’re professionals.”

“I can’t help but notice,” said Brandy, “that you have a lot of experiments, but not a lot of people running them.”

It was true - since they’d been taken on the tour, they had only seen two people in white coats in the lab working on various stations. “Scientists are in short supply these days,” Pete said. “The Fireflies send anyone down they can find and convince to come, but it’s a tough sell. And as you know, it’s not easy to get here. We’ve lost people on the way down.”

“All those missions that soldiers in Avalon are sent on to come here - are they escort missions?” Abby asked.

“Yes, but usually for gear, not personnel. Liz will send squads to pick up any scientists they can locate and bring them to us, but that only happens about once a year. We lose people faster than we gain them. That’s why our numbers are so few. We have better luck with the professor training people like me - regular soldiers who make it down here in one piece - on our experiments than we do banking on fresh scientists. But we keep trying, because we could use the new scientific minds.”

“How do most of your people die?” asked Ellie, and Abby was glad she’d done it. It was something Abby had no doubt they were all thinking about, but only Ellie had had the guts to ask.

“The spores,” answered Pete at once. “Spore management is the hardest part of life down here. It is very difficult to run outdoor missions when the air itself is toxic. We’re safe in this building because we’re airtight and we have reusable filters for our ventilation system that need to be swapped out and cleaned every two days. But as time goes on the spore cloud only gets thicker, and we estimate that within the next five years we will have to abandon this facility and find somewhere farther out from Spore Zero to set up base.”

“Well,” said Ellie, “hopefully by the time that happens everyone will be able to breath the spores like me.”

“Your mouth to God’s ears,” said Pete. “Speaking of which, let’s take a look at the basement. That’s where our immunologists are testing vaccine combinations.”

They went downstairs via a wooden staircase that was just as creaky as the rest of the house. If Pete hadn’t described the basement as a lab, Ellie would have been tempted to call it a dungeon. The floor was cement and had no carpeting. It was dank and cold, and the beams on the ceiling were all exposed. Only the center of the room had science equipment, with glass beakers and bunsen burners and chemicals in bottles. And all along the walls were iron cages with thick bars, and inside them: Infected soldiers.

“What the fuck?” breathed Abby. Lev was so disturbed that he hid behind Abby, and she reached out to put a comforting hand on his arm. “What is this?”

Pete looked at her with grim understanding. “This is what every soldier who comes to this base agrees to. It’s a condition of staying here. When one of us breathes the spores, we are brought here and used for the good of mankind. Every single one of these men knew this was where they would end up, but they did it anyway. Because they knew that the work we are doing here can’t be done any other way.”

As she walked along the cages, the infected snarled at Ellie and pulled at their chains. She’d seen something like this before - in the rattlers’ camp. She wondered if Abby was thinking about that, too. She hoped not. Abby had never told her what life was like in that camp, and she probably never would, but it wasn’t hard to guess that it must have been awful. Ellie knew what it was like to be haunted by images of a terrible past, and she didn’t want Abby to have to re-live whatever she’d gone through there.

Behind her, Pete was still talking, explaining the various experiments they were doing to figure out how to best deliver the cordyceps vaccine so that it could be used by the human immune system. “We can’t cure those who are already infected,” he said. “We’ve been forced to accept that at this point. But using those who are already infected, we can see how the immune system reacts to the virus as it exists in these men - to see how it puts up a fight. No vaccine will ever be able to fight off the infection once it is this advanced, but if we administer one prior to contamination, the immune system will be able to kill the fungus long before it is able to take hold of the host. As long as we have the original strain of the fungus, we are confident we can do this.”

“How soon can it be done?” asked Ellie, turning to look at him. “Once you have the spores you need, how soon can you develop a vaccine?”

“We estimate within about one or two years.”

“And distribution?” Abby said. “Is there a plan for that?”

“That’s up to Liz. We are here to focus on the science. All those practical matters are left in her very capable hands. We’ve been told that once there is a vaccine, all Fireflies will be immediately assigned to that task.”

“Good,” said Ellie. Determined and serious, she looked around at all the infected in the cages and repeated: “Good.”

“I have one more thing I think you’d be interested to see, but it will require us to mask up,” said Pete. “Follow me.”

They went back upstairs and put on their masks - Ellie included, as she did not feel particularly interested in being accosted by spores while they were looking at whatever was next. Pete led them outside through the decontamination tent, and then brought them around to a field behind the mansion. Parked there were two small airplanes, one that looked military and one that looked civilian. There were masked soldiers working on the military plane. “Cool!” said Lev, his eyes lighting up behind his mask. “Do those really fly?”

“They will once we’re done with them,” said Pete. He pointed to the plane the soldiers were working on. “This one came from an abandoned military base about a hundred miles away. It was a real bitch to get her here. And then a few months ago we were contacted by a militia group in Peru that we regularly trade with. They know what we’re working on here, and they told us they’d found a Cessna and wanted to know if we were interested. We told ‘em fuck yeah we were.”

“What are you going to do with them?” asked Brandy.

“Kill the amalgams,” replied Pete, audibly pleased with his response. “We’re building bombs that we can drop to wipe out the lot of them, along with all the spores in the area. But obviously we can’t do it until we have Spore Zero, otherwise we risk accidentally destroying it.”

Always the practical one, Abby inquired: “What about fuel?”

“We found some in the military base, but we’re very limited,” admitted Pete. “We have teams out searching for more. Argentina has a few military bases that have never been checked, and there are airports all around the continent that might have some. We’ve got a pretty good stockpile for once we can get them airborne.”

Abby wondered: How much faster and safer would the squad’s journey here have been if their arrival had been deemed important enough to merit a ride in one of these machines? Fury was creeping up on her as she thought of the losses of Patrick and Brian. They would still be here if this travel could have been done by air.

As if reading her thoughts, Ellie asked: “Do you have enough fuel to fly to the base at Avalon?”

“If they flew, yes,” Pete responded readily, as though he’d known this question would be asked. “But again, they are not yet running.”

Abby and Ellie exchanged glances, the meaning of which was clear to both of them: They did not believe him.

At bedtime, Lev and Brandy went into their rooms, but Abby hesitated outside hers, gazing at Ellie with uncertainty. “Well…” she said. “Night, I guess.”

“Abby,” Ellie said. “I don’t want you to feel like I’m leading you on or taking advantage of you.”

“I don’t,” Abby assured her. “I know what this is. And I know what it’s not. But I still want whatever you can give me.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m positive.”

“Okay,” said Ellie, and she took Abby’s hand and led her into her bedroom.

Chapter Text

The next day flew by in a whir of planning and preparation. Abby, Lev and Brandy all had to be fitted into their protective gear, and all four of them needed to be trained on some of the weaponry they’d be bringing, as well as the communication gear the base was providing for them. Because it would be impractical to check their own location in the spore cloud, the base was giving them each their own long-range two-way radio so they could remain in contact at all times.

“But much like our mask technology,” Professor Santiago explained as Lev and Brandy were playing with the walkies, “these, too, will fail at a certain point in the spore cloud. All the spores will physically interfere with the signal. At best we can hope that you will be reachable until the edge of the suffocation zone. At worst, you will be on your own for far longer.”

“Then how will we know where to go?” asked Abby.

“You won’t, but the thing is: We don’t know either.” He led them to the dining room where a map of the area had been laid out. Pointing to a spot on it, he said, “We are here.” He trailed his finger to a line roughly ten miles away. “The suffocation zone begins here. But this is all we know. Past this line, you will have to figure out where to go yourself, Ellie.”

“And how am I supposed to do that?” Ellie said nervously.

“We can offer you some guidance based on what we have learned so far. Our research on the cordyceps infection gives us clues. Ever since setting up this base four years ago, we have been unsuccessfully attempting to replicate the exact conditions under which the fungus first materialized on cacao crops. The fact that we have never been able to do it is telling. By process of elimination, we can tell you that the fungus could not have originated anywhere that was exposed to sunlight. The moisture eliminated by any amount of sunlight would be enough to prevent the fungus from growing.”

Looking at Ellie, Abby said, “Underground, maybe?”

“Yeah,” agreed Ellie, who had come to the same conclusion.

“Or a really shady area of a forest,” suggested Lev.

But Santiago shook his head. “The cordyceps could not have grown on living crops. We are certain that the cacao pods had already been harvested before the fungus grew.”

“So they were picked and stored underground,” concluded Abby.

“That is what we believe, yes. Now, prior to the outbreak, there were only two farms past this line that produced cacao. The first is five miles past the line. The second is twelve. We do not know which one was the birthplace of the spores.”

“Shit,” said Ellie. “I hope it’s the five mile one.”

“As do we,” replied the professor. “What you will need to do is look at all the fungus growing in the area and determine which one it is based on growth patterns. You know how to do this, yes?”

“Yeah,” Ellie said. “We all learned how to do it back in Avalon.”

“Good. There is a road that you can follow that should take you to both farms.” Santiago traced the road that he was talking about on the map, and Abby leaned over to look.

“Hope Lane,” she read. “That’s… Appropriate, I guess.”

“A coincidence, if you can believe it. That was its name prior to the outbreak,” said Santiago. “We assume there will be road signs labeling each farm you come across, but in the event that they are too overgrown for you to spot, we will give you the exact distance to each farm and you can use this pedometer to track how far you have walked.” He pulled a wristband out of his pocket and handed it to Ellie, who held it up and inspected it.

Fitbit,” she read off the back of it. “Cool. Did you guys invent this?”

“It’s old world,” Santiago clarified. “We merely salvaged it.”

Ellie put it on her wrist and poked at it, checking out its various functions. “Is that a heart rate monitor?” she asked excitedly. “Nifty! Let’s see… 88 BPM. Is that normal?”

“Yes,” said the professor, bemused. 

She slipped it off her wrist and grabbed Abby’s hand, pulling it towards her and fixing the Fitbit on her. Then she checked its face. “70 BPM,” she announced. “Are you dying?”

“No, I’m just in better shape than you,” Abby teased. She took the device off and handed it back to Ellie. “Stop playing with your life-saving devices and pay attention.”

“Geeze. Party pooper.” When Abby gave her a stern look, she said, “Okay, okay. What else you got for me, Prof?”

Clearing his throat, Santiago continued: “As we have already established, the original spores are likely to be underground. You will need to follow the spore growth to the location of the cellar where they were stored, gain access to that cellar, and find the crops that manifested the fungus. From that growth, you will need to gather samples and store them in these containers.” He lifted a duffel bag from beneath the table and unzipped it. Inside were three plastic containers with special airtight lids. The next several minutes were spent demonstrating how to open these lids and then teaching Ellie to do it. “You need to be able to do that under the most extreme conditions, Ellie,” he said afterwards. “Possibly while injured. Possibly while on the run. Possibly without any visibility. Practice with them until you feel confident you can do it in any situation at all.”

“Okay,” Ellie agreed, still opening and closing the containers. 

“Gather as much of the fungus as you can, then come right back to us.”

“What are we looking at in terms of amalgams?” Abby asked. “Do we know if there are any in the area?”

“We are certain that there are,” said Santiago gravely. “We anticipate you will see at least one over the course of the mission. Luckily they are difficult to miss, so you should have no trouble avoiding them.”

“I thought visibility was shit in the cloud?” Ellie said. “Couldn’t one of them sneak up on us?”

But the professor shook his head. “It is highly unlikely. While it is true that they are hard to see, they are very easy to hear. They wail at all times, in many different voices. They do not ever stop wailing.”

Ellie shivered. She remembered the mini-amalgam they’d seen on the way here and hoped she wouldn’t get a chance to hear that sound again. It was probably much worse when the amalgam was made up of more people.

“Are there any other questions about what must be done?”

For the first time, Brandy spoke up. “What do we do if we do accidentally get the attention of an amalgam?” she asked, her voice shaking.

“The same thing you do if you encounter any other infected you are not prepared to fight,” said Santiago. “Run, hide, and pray.”

“What do we do while Ellie is looking for the spores in the suffocation zone?” Abby said. “How can we help her?”

“There is nothing you can do but wait for her to return.”

Something wasn’t right here, thought Abby. “Then why do you need us to go at all?”

“As a failsafe,” said Santiago shortly. “There may be problems we did not anticipate. You three will be there to assist if something unexpected happens. Now, if there’s nothing else, you will set off at dawn tomorrow. You four are humanity’s last hope, and nothing is more important than this mission and those samples. I trust you all understand that?” When everyone nodded, he said: “Good. Then I advise you to rest up and enjoy your evening. ”

The unspoken subtext of his dismissal was clear: Enjoy your evening, because it might be your last.

He stood and left the table, and the four remaining members of Squad Fight The Fungus looked at one another from where they sat. “But no pressure or anything,” said Ellie, and the others laughed in relief as the tension in the room broke. 

“How are you feeling about this?” Brandy asked Ellie. “Do you think you can do it?”

“I have to, right? For Brian, and for Patrick, and for everyone in the basement who’s infected, and for all the rest of the world… I just have to,” said Ellie with determination. She rose from the table and picked up the duffel bag full of airtight containers. “I’m gonna go put this with the rest of my gear.”

The others watched her go, then looked at each other. “We need to protect her,” Lev said quietly. “Even if none of us make it back alive, she needs to come out of there.”

“That is the exact opposite of what she would want us to do,” said Abby, clenching her fists on the tabletop. She raised her gaze and looked at the two of them. “But I agree. Fuck us.”

“Fuck us,” Brandy echoed.

Abby rose from the table and nodded at them before turning and following Ellie out of the room. 

She went to Ellie’s room and saw that the duffel bag was sitting next to her backpack, but Ellie was nowhere to be found. Knowing that Ellie would have no interest in going back downstairs to the lab, she instead climbed the stairs up to the attic. There she found Ellie standing before the large window at the top, looking out over the spore cloud outside. No one else was up there, the only sound being the light crackling of the radio from the unmanned station that took up one side of the small space. Abby approached Ellie and wrapped her arms around her from behind, smiling when Ellie leaned back against her. “Shameless,” she commented, resting her chin on Ellie’s shoulder. “I wasn’t sure if you would tell me to fuck off.”

“We’ve done this same exact thing for two nights now, except horizontally,” Ellie pointed out. “I consider this boundary crossed. Plus this feels way too fucking good to say no to you now.”

“Mm,” Abby hummed in agreement. They stood that way in silence, watching the spores falling like snow outside. “Do you want me to ask you how you’re feeling about the mission?”

“No,” Ellie replied. 

“Okay.”

Quietly, Ellie said: “What are you going to do if you have to leave me behind?”

Abby said nothing.

“Abby. What would you do?”

Hesitantly, Abby admitted, “I don’t know.”

“Jesus, Abby. I killed your friends, remember?” Ellie pulled away from her and turned to glare, crossing her arms over her chest defensively. “And you know that once this is over, there’s nothing. We can never be anything real,” she said firmly.

“Yeah, I fucking know all that,” snapped Abby angrily. 

“So?”

“So it doesn’t matter, Ellie! Do you think I chose this? Do you think that I only love you because I’m expecting to get something in return? That’s not how it works!” Abby ran her hand over her face, calming herself down so she could continue in a more reasonable tone. “Look, I wish I could tell you that you can count on me to do what needs to be done. But I don’t know, alright? I do not know.”

“Then maybe… Maybe you shouldn’t come.”

“Fuck you. I’m coming.”

Ellie smiled. “Knew that wasn’t gonna work.”

“Oh, so you do have a brain,” said Abby, feigning surprise.

“At least one of us does.” Stepping forward, Ellie slid her arms around Abby’s waist and rested her forehead on her shoulder. She felt Abby’s tense body relax as she returned the embrace. “Would it make a difference if I told you that, given the choice, I would pick the samples?”

“Even if it cost you your life?”

“Yes.” Ellie pulled back and looked at her. “The Fireflies never gave me the choice. Joel never gave me the choice. This time, you need to respect that it’s my choice. If you love me, you’ll respect that.”

“Yeah,” sighed Abby, reaching up to brush that one bang away from Ellie’s face. “I know. It doesn’t help that the fact that you’d pick that is one of the things I love most about you.”

“Is it?”

“Mm hmm,” Abby hummed. “Didn’t realize it at first. Patrick helped me see it, the day he died.”

“What?”

“He was busting my ass about you all day,” she said with an affectionate smile. “He had me figured out before I had myself figured out. That night, by his grave, I thought about what he said and I decided I had to stop lying to myself. Life’s too short for denial.”

“You hugged me that night,” Ellie remembered. 

“When I make a decision, I stick to it. I was done pretending. Plus I’m, like, eighty-five percent sure you love me back.”

Ellie’s jaw dropped. “Eighty-five percent?!”

“Yeah,” said Abby casually.

“Eighty-five.”

“Yes,” said Abby, now annoyed. “Eight five. Eighty-five.”

“God, I’m such an asshole,” Ellie groaned, dropping her head back down to Abby’s shoulder and hugging her tighter. “I’m sorry for being such a cold bitch to you.”

“So you’re saying your intention was for that percentage to be higher?”

“Abby, the fact that you even need a percentage to quantify your certainty is a huge failure on my part.”

It wasn’t a typical love confession, but Abby would take it. In a way it was fitting that Ellie would manage to convey her feelings in such an odd statement - after all, she was an odd girl. Abby had always liked that about her. She grinned and squeezed Ellie tightly. “We are fucked,” she said.

“Completely, utterly fucked,” Ellie agreed. She backed away and took Abby’s hand. “Come on,” she said. “If I’m going to die tomorrow, I want to spend the rest of the night doing unspeakable things to you.” 

“Excuse me?” stammered Abby, tripping over her own feet as Ellie began leading her downstairs.

Ellie tossed an amused smile over her shoulder, which turned into a laugh when she saw Abby’s wide-eyed expression. “Relax, weirdo,” she said.

“I truly do not understand how you can constantly call me that when you are, in fact, the absolute weirdest person in the world,” Abby grumbled. As they got closer to Ellie’s room, Abby began to panic. “Wait, Ellie.”

“Hmm?” said Ellie, pretending not to hear her.

“I’m serious, Ellie. Hold up a fucking second.”

Sighing, Ellie stopped and turned to her. “What?”

“I don’t want to do this,” Abby said in a rush.

“I knew it,” Ellie said, shaking her head. “You’re fucking straight, right?”

“What? No, that’s…” A couple of soldiers came around the corner and Abby lowered her voice. “That has nothing to do with it. Can I trust you not to jump on me the minute we get in there?” She jerked her head in the direction of Ellie’s room. 

“Um, you’re sexy, Abby, but you’re not that sexy.”

“Jesus Christ, Ellie.” She pushed Ellie in the direction of the door. “Go.”

Ellie, stop. Ellie, go,” Ellie mimicked. “Make up your fucking mind, willya?”

“GO!” repeated Abby.

“Alright, alright, I’m going.” They entered the room and Abby shut the door. “How funny would it be if I jumped you right now?” Ellie said.

“Fucking hilarious,” deadpanned Abby. “Listen to me, Ellie.”

“I’m listening.”

“If you’re doing this because you think you’re gonna die tomorrow, I’m out.”

Ellie frowned. “Why?”

“Because if this is gonna happen, I want it to be real. And that… That would not be real.”

Looking away, Ellie said, “But it never will be.”

“I can live with that,” said Abby. “But you mean a lot more to me than that. I can’t put that aside so that we can have ‘just one night.’ Can you?”

“No,” Ellie admitted. “But I want you to have that memory, after I’m gone.”

“I’ve been down that road,” Abby said, thinking of Owen. “Trust me, it’s worse. If you die tomorrow, the last thing I’m gonna regret is that we never had sex. And if we’re being perfectly honest, I don’t want to fall asleep tonight thinking that you’ve already resigned yourself to the fact that you’re gonna die.” Her eyes filled with tears at the very idea of it, and she swiped at them with frustration. “You’re a fighter, Ellie. I’ve seen it over and over again, since the very first time we met. So fight. You have to promise me you’re going to fight tomorrow,” she said urgently.

At a loss, Ellie threw her hands up. “You know what we’re up against, Abby! You heard what Liz said! There’s no way-”

“ELLIE!” Abby cut her off. “Fucking promise me, god damn it! I need you to try as hard as you fucking can to make it through this! Are you still the same girl who tracked me down and fought me with a giant gaping puncture wound in your side or not?”

“Oh, you noticed that, huh?” said Ellie with a bashful smile.

“Yeah, I noticed it. I respect the hell out of you for what you’re capable of, Ellie. Personally, if you run into an amalgam out there, I’m betting on you. Fuck the odds. And if I happen to be with you when it happens? Forget about it. The fucking thing’s history! We are cut from the same cloth, you and me. We’re unstoppable.”

Slowly, the fire seemed to return to Ellie’s eyes as she considered this, and Abby felt her spirits lift at the sight of it. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll fight.”

“As hard as you possibly can?”

“As hard as I possibly can.”

“You promise?”

“I promise.”

Abby studied her closely until she was certain Ellie was telling the truth, and then she nodded, satisfied. “Good.”

“I’m sorry,” Ellie said softly. “I shouldn’t have…” She waved her hand towards the hallway. “I swear, I wasn’t trying to… I was just…”

“Scared?” Abby finished for her, understanding written all over her face.

“Yeah,” Ellie admitted. “Shit. I keep forgetting how well you know me.”

“Yeah, you can’t keep anything from me. Come on. Let’s cuddle.”

Ellie made a disgusted noise. “Do you have to call it that?”

“I’m sorry? What else would you call what we’ve been doing?”

“I dunno… Laying together? Relaxing? Foreplay?”

“Snuggling,” said Abby as she climbed into the bed.

“That’s even worse.”

“Shut up and get in this bed, asshole,” said Abby, holding up the covers.

“That actually kinda does it for me,” said Ellie as she obeyed. “Is that weird?”

“If you ever have to ask if something is weird, it’s safe to assume the answer is yes. Also if you’re the one asking, the answer is definitely yes.”

Ellie laughed as she settled in alongside her, resting her head on Abby’s shoulder and wrapping her arm across her midriff. This was the first time they’d laid in this position, and Ellie couldn’t help but notice the muscles beneath her arm. She put her hand on Abby’s stomach and began poking at them. “Damn,” she said appreciatively. “You are so fucking built.”

“That’s a good thing, right?”

“Uh, yeah,” said Ellie emphatically. “It is very a good thing.”

“Wow, so good it makes you start talking like a five year old, huh? I guess you weren’t kidding when you said I was sexy.”

“I would never joke about that. Rest assured: I am very, very into you.”

“Good. And, likewise.”

“Yeah?” Ellie raised herself up and grinned down at her. “Tell me more, straight girl.”

Abby reached up and ran her thumb along the freckles on Ellie’s face. “These are cute. That was the first thing I liked. And I know I tease you about being scrawny, but I like the way you’re lean, but still muscular here on your arms.” She moved her hand to trace Ellie’s bicep. “And you have these grooves, right here on your hips…” She started to move her hand to the waistband of Ellie’s sweatpants, but her hand was caught and stopped.

“Okay,” said Ellie, her voice strained. She cleared her throat. “I get it. New topic now please.”

“So you believe me?”

“Yup. A hundred percent. New. Topic. Now. Please.”

“But this one is so much fun!”

“Fuck you forever.”

Abby almost replied that that was exactly what she wanted, but decided not to at the last second. She wanted this night to be one of those fond memories down the line for Ellie, and she doubted it would be one if she reminded Ellie of how heartbroken she would be when it ended. Instead she said, “Fine, new topic. What do you want to talk about?”

Wanting to get her mind off the looming threat of the mission, Ellie settled back down against Abby and said, “Tell me a story.”

“Like a fairy tale?” asked Abby, confused.

“No, something I don’t know about you. What about Lev? Tell me how you two met. He told me it was a few nights before the theater. Is that true?”

“Yes. He came into my life right in the nick of time.” Abby launched into the story, starting at her capture by the Seraphites and omitting the fact that she’d been on her way to see Owen at the time. She explained about the escape and Yara’s injury, and then of leaving them in the trailer.

“You didn’t stay to help them? That doesn’t sound like something you’d do.”

“I told you, I was different before. Do you think the Abby you encountered in Jackson would have stayed?”

Ellie didn’t have to give the answer. They both knew it already.

Next Abby told her about spending the night in the aquarium, again leaving out her little encounter with Owen on the boat. She recounted how her conscience had dogged at her so she went back and brought Yara to Mel. Then there was the trip to the hospital over the nightmarish sky bridge, and the fall at the end of it.

“You’re making this up,” said Ellie dubiously. “There’s no way that’s a real thing.”

“I fucking wish it wasn’t a real thing, but…” Abby drew a shuddering breath, remembering the heart-pounding terror of the ordeal. “It was very, very real. I nearly shit my pants.”

“Oh, there would definitely be pants shitting if that was me. You’re fucking brave as fuck!”

“Didn’t feel very brave. I was terrified the whole time.”

“Exactly. That’s why it’s so brave. You were scared, but you did it anyway.”

Abby continued with the hospital and the mini-amalgam in the lower floors. She skipped her encounter with the sniper - Tommy, that was his name - and went straight to the island and Yara’s death and Isaac’s attack. “The WLF and the Seraphites were killing each other off. The whole town of Haven was on fire. It was awful. Everything about it was so… senseless. Neither one of us wanted anything more to do with it. Lev lost everything that day. I couldn’t let him die there after that. So we found a rowboat and managed to escape,” she said.

“And when you got back to the aquarium, you found your friends dead on the ground,” said Ellie, working through the timeline of those three days in Seattle in her mind.

“Yeah,” said Abby around the lump in her throat.

Ellie untangled herself from Abby and sat up in the bed, her back towards Abby. She hung her head and said, “I’d take it back, if I could.”

A ringing silence followed. Abby sat up as well and pulled her knees up to her chest.

“I didn’t even want to kill them,” confessed Ellie. “Not really. It just happened. And I didn’t know she was pregnant until it was too late.”

This was big news for Abby to be hearing. Some part of her had always wondered how Ellie could do a thing like that, especially when her own partner had been pregnant at the time.  She scooted forward to be sitting right next to her. “You didn’t?”

“I swear to god, I did not know. I never would have done it if I’d known.” She gathered her courage and turned her head to look at Abby. “I am so, so incredibly sorry. I know that doesn’t cut it, and I know it’s something that will always be there between us, but I am. I could never ask for your forgiveness.”

“And I could never ask for yours. But you don’t have to ask. You already have it,” said Abby softly. “I think I forgave you a long time ago.”

Tears began to roll down Ellie’s freckled cheeks, and Abby reached out to gently wipe them away with her thumbs. “How are you like this?” Ellie asked for the second time in this bed. “How can you be so compassionate towards me after everything I've done to you?”

“I’m like the father in that story. I don’t want to spend my life drowning in hatred anymore. I want to be happy. I need to forgive, because if I don’t I will never be able to live my life to the fullest.”

“I just…” Ellie paused, swallowed. “I don’t know if I can ever get there.”

“I think you underestimate yourself.”

“I really wish that was true.”

“I’m not saying it would be easy for you, but I know you could do it.”

“You’re only saying that because you want to be with me.”

“There’s definitely some truth to that,” Abby acknowledged. “But I swear, that’s a small part of it. It’s like I said before - I don’t expect to get anything in return from you. Hatred is a poison, Ellie. All it does is destroy you inside. What I want is for you to be happy and healthy, whether that’s with me, or back in Jackson, or somewhere else entirely. I love you, and I want you to be healed so you can move on and actually enjoy whatever is next for you.”

For a long moment Ellie just gazed at her, struggling against all the impulses coursing through her. But it was a losing battle, and one she found she was willing to lose. She raised her hand and placed it against the side of Abby’s neck. “Just once,” she whispered. “It can be real this one time, okay?” 

“Okay,” Abby replied.

And then Ellie leaned in and kissed her - softly, slowly, savoring every single thing about it. Her lips, so warm and pliant. Her breath against her face, released once in a short puff but then drawn deeper as she relaxed into the kiss. Her hands, now reaching up to gently thread her fingers through her hair with careful restraint, not pushing for more than Ellie was willing to give.

When they drew apart Ellie felt strangely at peace, as though some big question she hadn’t realized she’d been asking had been answered. She lingered with their lips still close, wanting nothing more than to do that again - over and over for the rest of her life, and she worked to contain that desire. Her hand was still resting against Abby’s neck, and she could feel her pulse fluttering under her thumb. “Your heart is beating so fast,” she breathed with wonder.

Abby reached up and took hold of her hand, turning it so that she could see the face of the pedometer on her wrist. “120,” she read. “So’s yours.”

Ellie's face broke into the biggest grin Abby had ever seen her manage, and she said: “Cool.”

Chapter Text

Abby once again found herself in the precarious position of doubting every single step she had taken to lead her to this moment. She was laying flat on her back with Ellie sprawled out on top of her, one of her arms across her stomach and one of her legs trapping both of Abby’s. Ellie’s warm breath was tickling her neck as she snoozed peacefully, and Abby wondered how she could simultaneously be this happy and yet this deeply filled with regret.

She regretted killing Joel and forever entwining her life with Ellie’s. She regretted going to the theater that rainy night in Seattle, deepening that connection and ensuring its permanence. She regretted seeking out the Fireflies and running into Ellie again. She regretted accepting this mission and getting to know her better, allowing herself to fall head-over-heels for this girl to such a significant degree that her well-being was more important to Abby than her own. 

This was a problem, because today she may very well be expected to watch Ellie die.

Slowly, carefully, she rolled over to face Ellie without waking her and wrapped both arms around her more firmly, pulling her closer and resting her chin on the top of her head. Ellie made a little approving noise in her sleep, and Abby waited to see if she would wake. But Ellie slept on, and Abby closed her eyes to appreciate the feeling of simple intimacy they were generating in their protected little bubble.

She was terrified of what was going to happen today. She didn’t want to do it. She didn’t want Ellie to do it. But she knew they would both do it anyway.

Ellie stirred against her, and because her face was pressed against Abby’s neck, she felt it when a smile stretched over her lips. “Mmm,” Ellie hummed with pleasure.

“What?” Abby whispered, amused.

“Remember when I kissed you?”

“No. Remind me,” teased Abby.

So Ellie did. She reached up and snaked her hand around the back of Abby’s neck and drew her down for a warm, sleepy kiss that went on for some time.

Afterwards, Abby kept her eyes closed and rubbed her nose against Ellie’s affectionately. “Why’d you do that?” she asked softly.

“Because I wanted to. And because I love you.”

Reluctantly, Abby opened her eyes and searched Ellie’s. There, she found none of the things she was hoping she wouldn’t see: Fear, desperation, regret. Instead she saw only good things: Pleasure, contentment, acceptance. “What changed?” she said.

“I’m not sure,” Ellie admitted. “But something did.”

“Figure it out,” Abby said. “Please.”

“I’ll try.”

Breaking her own unspoken rules, Abby requested one more kiss, moving slowly to give Ellie time to refuse. But she didn’t refuse, and instead she deepened it, and the next few minutes were nothing but bliss and euphoria. 

It ended abruptly when a sharp knock came on the door and reality came crashing down on them. They separated and stared at one other. Then Abby demanded: “What are you going to do out there today?”

“Fight,” replied Ellie at once.

“You’d fucking better.”

The knocking came again, and Pete’s voice floated in: “Miss Miller?”

Ellie extracted herself from Abby’s embrace and went to open the door a bit, leaning against the frame to block most of his view inside. “I’m up. I was just about to start getting ready.”

“Good. The professor is requesting all four of you in the dining room at your earliest convenience.”

“Okay. I’ll be down soon.”

“I’ll let him know. Have you seen Miss Anderson? I knocked on her door but I didn’t get an answer.”

“Uh, yeah, she’s uh…” Ellie cleared her throat and jerked her thumb over her shoulder at the room behind her.

“In here,” called Abby from where she was sitting up on the bed, still trying to calm her racing heart.

Pete blushed. “Oh,” he said awkwardly. “Very good. Then I’ll see you both downstairs.” He made a quick retreat, disappearing down the stairs at the end of the hall. Ellie shut the door and turned back to Abby.

Very good?” she couldn’t resist repeating with a smirk.

“You’re such a bitch,” laughed Abby. “Come on. Get your stuff. We’ve got a plague to abolish.”

They met up with Brandy and Lev downstairs. Both of them were sitting at the dining room table with an untouched plate of food in front of them. Abby considered cajoling them to eat, but her own stomach was churning so much that she didn’t see how she could without being hypocritical. Instead she went into the kitchen and poured herself a cup of coffee, which she had taken a liking to since coming here.

“Are you drinking coffee?” Ellie asked when Abby sat down next to her.

“Yeah,” Abby said, wrapping her hands around her steaming mug. “It’s good. You should try it.”

Ellie gave her a strange look then, and Abby raised her eyebrows. “I’ve had it. Joel used to drink it, whenever he could find it.”

“Well, you did say I remind you of him, right?”

“Yeah, but I find the reminder especially odd right now, considering…”

“Stop,” interrupted Abby, reaching over to put her hand across Ellie’s mouth. “Never, ever finish that sentence.”

Ellie snorted with laughter against her hand, then batted it away from her face. “I was gonna say, ‘Considering I’m about to use my immunity to save the human race today.’ I dunno what you were thinking, you perv.”

“I fucking hate you.”

“I know you do.”

The professor entered the room and placed a suitcase on the table. “Good, you’re all here,” he said. “I have something for you.” He released the latches and removed four small clamp-like devices. “These are called pulse oximeters. You attach it to your finger like so.” He clipped one to his own finger and the number 97 was displayed in blocky red numbers on its face. “Abby, Lev and Brandy, you three must monitor your oxygen content carefully. The minute your meters read below 95, you are to stop and let Ellie continue on alone, for that indicates that you have come to the threshold of the suffocation zone and your masks are no longer performing at maximum efficiency. Is that understood?”

“Yes,” they answered. 

“Good. Now, Ellie, we do not anticipate this being a problem for you, but we will provide you one as well just to be safe. Keep an eye on it as you move through the spore cloud.”

“Sure thing,” said Ellie casually, reaching across the table for one of the devices and clipping it on her finger. Hers displayed the number 99. She picked another one up, took Abby’s hand, and clipped it to her finger. It read 98. “Yours is lower.”

“That’s ‘cause you take my breath away,” Abby responded without thinking.

Ellie rolled her eyes and said, “Oh, brother,” and Lev and Brandy erupted into giggles.

“Oh my god,” groaned Abby, mortified. She dropped her head on the table and covered it with her arms. “Can we go out into the spore cloud now please?”

“You may,” replied Professor Santiago gravely, and the levity was sucked from the room. He motioned for them to follow, and they all headed towards the front door and began putting on their gear.

They put their masks on last. Abby and Ellie looked at each other one last time before sliding them into place. 

“This is it,” Abby said. “Everyone ready?”

“Yeah,” Lev said.

“Yes,” said Brandy.

“Let’s do it,” said Ellie from behind her ski mask, affixing her goggles in place.

“Good luck, soldiers. We are all depending on you,” said Santiago from beneath his mask. Then he opened the door for them and they stepped outside into the decontamination tent. “Be safe.” And he shut the door behind them.

Ellie hitched her backpack and duffel bag higher up on her shoulders and led the group out of the tent towards Hope Lane. The road was about four miles from the mansion, and then the suffocation zone was roughly six miles beyond that. She reset her pedometer to zero to keep track of how far they had gone. 

For the first two miles none of them spoke, instead keeping a watchful eye on their surroundings. Abby walked up front at Ellie’s side, with Lev and Brandy behind them. The spores floated around them, no more intense than some of the basements and abandoned subway stations that Ellie had encountered in her time. Her oximeter remained at 99 the entire time, and she periodically reached over to check Abby’s as well, comforted by the solid blocky 98 she saw there.

“Hey,” Abby said after the third time she did this. “I’m fine. It’s all gonna be fine.”

“I know,” said Ellie. “But I’m gonna keep checking anyway, and you’re just gonna fucking live with that.”

Abby smiled under her mask. “Okay.”

Turning around to walk backwards, Ellie said to Lev and Brandy: “You guys good? Need anything?”

“An umbrella would be nice,” said Brandy, reaching over to brush spores off Lev’s shoulder. If he hadn’t been wearing his mask, Ellie was sure she would have seen him blush.

“Don’t think an umbrella would be much help,” said Abby. “A poncho, maybe.”

“Typical Fireflies - coming up with great ideas after the fact,” said Ellie, shaking her head. She was the least covered in spores of the four of them, because as Pete had said, the spores did not appear to be sticking to her ski mask. She was definitely breathing them in, though. Their telltale earthy taste was present in her mouth, and she was grateful for the filter that her mask provided to keep it at a minimum. “Man, this shit is nasty. Kinda wish I could spit.”

“I mean, technically you could,” Abby pointed out.

“Dude,” Ellie said, pulling up her mask above her mouth and spitting on the ground several times, “you’re a genius.”

Abby rolled her eyes. “You’re sexy when you’re spitting like that.”

“Come and get it, baby,” taunted Ellie with a little wiggle of her chest. “I’m right here.”

“Shut up,” laughed Abby.

As they walked on, they began encountering a phenomenon that none of them had ever seen before. The spores were so thick that they were actually accumulating on the ground, so that now they were trudging through about an inch of dusty fungus residue. If the circumstances had been less gross and serious, Ellie would have been tempted to make a “snow angel.” But as it was, the spores were already so oppressive that she had no desire to cover herself in more of them. She didn’t like the idea of Abby and the others being subjected to this many spores. Who could say how safe this actually was for them? She was worried and unhappy, but she didn’t let the others see it. The only thing she allowed herself was the periodic checking of Abby’s oximeter, letting that 98 mollify her somewhat.

They reached Hope Lane just under an hour after leaving the mansion. When they got to it, they radioed back to base and then continued on towards the suffocation zone, Ellie once again resetting her pedometer. There was a wooden fence that ran along both sides of the lane, and it was entirely overgrown with fungus. Prior to coming to South America none of them had ever seen anything quite like it. Back home it was normal to see the fungus in contained areas - basements, houses, abandoned shops and office buildings. But the spores on this continent grew above ground in the open air, overtaking the land everywhere they looked.

About two miles down the road, there was a marked increase in the number of spores in the air. “Fuck,” Abby swore. “This shit is rough.”

Everyone knew what she meant. They were now trudging through six inches of spores, and visibility was getting worse by the step. When they attempted to radio back to base to give an update, they got no answer - the spore cloud had become too thick for radio waves to reach that far. Ellie linked her arm with Abby’s under the pretense of checking her oximeter, but she kept them linked even after seeing that 98.

Three miles down Hope Lane, they all froze at once. From not far off, just to their right, they heard the unmistakable wailing of an amalgam.

“Oooh my god,” said Brandy, trembling from head to toe.

They stood there staring into the blizzard of spores, looking for any sign of the amalgam. Ellie’s heart was pounding so loudly in her ears that it nearly drowned out the sound of the wailing. All of a sudden, Abby grabbed at her shoulder and pulled her down. “Get down!” she hissed. Behind them, Lev and Brandy also ducked into the spores that were accumulating on the ground. “Over there.” Abby pointed to a large chunk of fungus growth, and they all crept over to it to hide. 

From their hiding space, Ellie risked a peek over the side and got her first good look at the amalgam.

It was truly the size of a house, a huge misshapen ball of fungus, arms, legs, heads and mouths. It moved with an odd, rambling sort of step, almost more of a roll. This was because its legs were made of formerly human bodies, merged together in a chaotic mess that was so disorganized and grotesque that one leg was significantly longer than the other. As she watched it took a few steps toward them, and the ground shook under its heft despite the padding of spore on which it was walking. With every step it took, the infected humans that made up its legs screamed at the top of their lungs with agony as they bore the weight of the rest of the massive beast atop it.

Ellie retched at the sight of it, ducking back down below the fungus barricade. “Shit,” she said, gripping her stomach as she focused on holding back her vomit.

“It’s coming this way,” said Brandy desperately. “What do we do?”

Abby looked around for someplace else to hide, but she saw nothing. “Fuck,” she said. “We need to distract it. I’ll throw a grenade and we can run.”

But Lev was resolutely pulling his top-of-the-line machine gun off his shoulder and loading it. “It’s too big. You won’t be able to throw the grenade far enough. I’ll draw it. You run.”

Cold horror raised goosebumps on Abby’s skin. “Absolutely fucking NOT!” 

“You got a better idea? GO!” And without another word, he leapt out of the hiding spot and began running down the lane in the direction they’d come from, firing his gun at the amalgam as he went. He immediately had the thing’s attention, and it roared and began chasing after him faster than any of them had anticipated it could move. This was because, instead of raising its legs to take steps, it simply rolled. Its body accumulated spore covering as it rotated itself towards Lev, like a snowball rolling down a hill.

Abby had tried to grab Lev as he’d jumped out but she hadn’t been quick enough. Filled with complete panic, she did the only thing she could think of - she yanked a grenade off her belt, pulled the pin and threw it as hard as she could in the direction from which the amalgam had originally appeared. Lev had been right - even her best throw would not have given them enough distance.

In the time it was in the air, the amalgam caught up with Lev, balanced itself on its uneven legs, raised one of its massive arms, and swiped at him. It impacted him so hard that his tiny body went airborne before landing in a motionless heap in the middle of the lane, kicking up a cloud of spores from the road that obstructed their view of him.

The grenade exploded with a massive bang, sending spores flying through the air. The agitated amalgam changed its mind about Lev and rolled off towards the explosion. Because it had moved away from where Abby, Ellie and Brandy were hidden to chase after Lev, it was enough distance to make a difference, but now the amalgam was headed their way again and they needed to move while they still could.

Tears in her eyes, Abby gripped Brandy by the shoulders, looked her in the eye and said: “Get Lev and bring him back to base. Take these.” She shoved two more grenades into Brandy’s hands. “Go, NOW!” Then she turned and grabbed Ellie’s hand and pulled her into a sprint towards the suffocation zone. “Fucking idiot,” she said as they ran. “Stupid fucking kid!”

They ran until they were almost a full mile down the road, long past far enough for the spore cloud to swallow up the whole scene and for the wailing of the amalgam to be muffled by the spores in the air around them. When they stopped running, Ellie immediately launched herself into Abby’s arms. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” she sobbed. “This is all my fault. You wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for me.”

Abby hugged her tightly and wished she wasn’t wearing her mask so she could breathe her in. “It’s not your fault. It was his choice. It was the only thing we could have done, but he was the only one brave enough to do it.”

“Brandy to Abby, Brandy to Abby,” they heard from their radios. They were apparently still close enough to Brandy for their radios to work. “Come in, Abby.”

Desperately, Abby fumbled with her walkie for a moment before putting it up to her mouth. “This is Abby, how is he?”

“Alive,” answered Brandy, and Abby sank to her knees in the spores with relief. Ellie knelt beside her, rubbing her back in silent support. “Badly injured though,” Brandy continued. “Took all the grenades but I’m pretty sure we’re finally away from the amalgam. We’re hidden in a barn, and once we’re sure it’s gone we’re heading back. Go get that cure, don’t worry about us. Fuck us, remember?”

“Fuck us,” replied Abby solemnly, shaking her head at Ellie when she looked at her in silent question.

“Good luck, both of you. Over and out.”

“You too. Over and out.”

Abby clipped her radio back to the strap of her backpack and stood, then offered her hand to Ellie and pulled her to her feet. “Let’s move,” she said.

Ellie nodded, and they resumed their resolute march down the lane.

The world around them was now a nightmare of fungus and ruin. Farm buildings, barely visible through the spores, were fortresses of cordyceps, white and pink and decayed. Their path along the road narrowed as the growth from the border fence became thicker and imposed itself on the open space that used to exist. In some places the spores were up to their knees, and they had to help each other over fungus obstacles.

Abby was worried. She didn’t see how it was going to be possible for Ellie to travel such a huge distance in these worsening conditions by herself. And on top of that, she was definitely having more trouble breathing. The incident with Lev had seemed to rattle Ellie so much that she was no longer checking Abby’s oximeter, but Abby noticed that it had dropped to 95. But she did not voice her concerns about Ellie because they were obvious, and she did not mention the oximeter because she wasn’t ready to leave Ellie alone. As they walked she surreptitiously tried wiping the spores off the vents in her gas mask, and it did seem to help for a few seconds at least.

She had no idea how long it had been when they climbed over a fungus growth and, as much as she tried to remain upright, she could not. Unable to stand, she fell to her knees among the deep spores. Ellie had not noticed her go down, and she called weakly, “Ellie.” Even just that one word made her short of breath.

When Ellie turned back, Abby held up her finger with the oximeter on it. It read 93.

“Fuck, Abby!” cried Ellie, rushing to her side to help her up. “Why didn’t you say something sooner?”

“What a stupid question,” said Abby, letting herself lean on Ellie for support. “You think I want to let you do this on your own?”

“You don’t have a choice.”

“I know,” replied Abby. “I guess this is it, then. This is where I leave you.”

Ellie reached up and wrapped her arms around Abby’s neck, and Abby wrapped hers around her waist. They leaned their foreheads together, the plastic of their respective goggles touching as they looked at each other. “I’m gonna fight,” she promised.

“I’m waiting right here for you. Please come back to me,” Abby begged. “If you never give me anything else, please give me that.”

“I’ll try. Fuck, I’ll try.”

Then Abby did something odd - she tilted her head and bumped the mouthpiece of her mask against the general vicinity of Ellie’s mouth.

“Um, what the fuck?” said Ellie.

Abby burst into laughter. “I’m sorry. I was trying to kiss you. I thought it would be romantic but it was just… stupid.”

Ellie laughed so hard that she pushed up her goggles to wipe away a tear. She knew it probably wasn’t actually that funny, but the moment was so emotionally charged, and Abby’s laugh was so wonderful, it just broke her. “Yeah, it was pretty stupid. But I still liked it.”

“You’ll like it more when I do it for real later. So go get those spores and come right back to me.”

“Alright. Stay safe until I get back.”

“I will.”

Briefly, Abby tightened her hold before releasing her. In return Ellie ran her hands down Abby’s arms and took her hands, squeezing once before letting go. Then she turned and continued down the path. Abby watched her go, but she was quickly swallowed up in the spore cloud. Then Abby lowered herself to the ground in anguish, putting her head in her hands and trying not to cry, wondering if she’d just had the very last conversation she would ever have with the woman she loved.

The spores farther down the road thickened considerably almost immediately after leaving Abby. Ellie could barely see three feet in front of her. She kept tripping over fungus that was growing on the road, falling several times into the thick spore covering on the ground. It was disorienting and difficult, and Ellie felt sweat begin to run down her face and back, trickling down and making her shirt stick to her skin. It felt as though every step was sapping her energy in a disproportionate way. Her limbs felt heavy and clumsy. 

All she could taste was spores - she could feel them in her mouth, her nostrils, coating her throat. Pausing for a moment, she stuck the straw of her water bottle under her ski mask and swished a mouthful of water around her mouth. Then she lifted the mask just enough to spit it out. It shocked her to see that the water she spat was completely black with spores. And she quickly learned that it hadn’t been worth it to do that. Even just the short amount of time that she’d pulled her mask away from her mouth replaced the spores she’d spit out and then some. She resigned herself to the fact that there was nothing she could do about her discomfort and continued on her journey.

By the time she reached the first farm that the professor had indicated, she was beginning to understand that all the issues she was having with her body were not simply symptoms of her exhaustion. There was something more serious going on here. 

Her whole body was coated in a cold sweat now, and she was shivering uncontrollably. The blurriness in her vision wasn’t due to interference from the spore cloud. Her stomach was churning and cramping painfully. There was a loud ringing in her ears.

Forcing herself to power through the pain, she examined the fungus growth around her and saw that it was definitely leading towards the farm that she was just outside of. It looked like she’d lucked out - Spore Zero was somewhere in there.

She climbed over fungus growth towards the place where there would be farm buildings with a herculean effort of will, even as her muscles were cramping and spasming. Time had no meaning to her so she couldn’t tell how long she’d been going like this. Sluggishly, her mind reminded her of her pedometer and she held her wrist up to her face and squinted at it, trying to make sense of the figures there. The spores were so thick that she had to put the pedometer flush against her goggles to be able to see it properly, but even then they may as well have been written in a different language for all she could comprehend. “Numbers,” mumbled Ellie to herself, and she noticed that her tongue felt numb as she did. “Remember numbers, Ellie.”

Once she understood that she was close, she checked her oximeter. It still read 99. 

“See that? You’re fine,” she told herself. “You’re fine.”

But she knew she wasn’t. She knew she needed to get to those spores and bring the samples back to Abby - and fast - because she could tell she was definitely going to die.

Wading through the spore growth, Ellie followed the fungus until it led her to an underground cellar on the side of a building, where fungus from within had pushed open the doors as though it was defying gravity. “Jackpot,” Ellie muttered, and she reached behind her to pull out the machete she had hanging from her backpack. She hacked at the cordyceps until she could fit her body through and down into the overgrown crop storage area.

Swinging the machete with as much strength as she could muster, she cut a path until she found the remains of a canvas sack labeled Cacao that had been ripped apart by spores. Raising the machete once more, she began cutting off pieces of the fungus right where the fungus-covered crops were. Then she let the duffel bag with the airtight containers slide off from her shoulder, unzipped it, and began loading the plastic containers with the fungus. Once they were all stored in the duffel bag again, she dropped to her hands and knees, pulled up her mask a bit, and vomited violently, her whole body clenching with pain as she did. The vomit was black and tar-like - spores, mixed with blood.

“Gotta hurry,” she groaned, still gagging as her stomach convulsed. “Get to Abby.”

She dragged herself back up the stairs and out into the spore cloud, starting the trip back to Hope Lane in a haze of pain and misery. For the second time in her life, she kept herself going with a constant whisper: “Abby. Abby. Abby Abby Abby.”

Her only consolation was that Abby wouldn’t have to make the choice about leaving her to die. It was inevitable.

By the time she got to Hope Lane, she realized she was going to fail at her mission. There was no way she would be able to make it all the way back to Abby. Roughly half a mile from where she’d left Abby she collapsed to the ground, unable to move. All she could do was keep whispering: “Abby... Abby... Abby…”

And then, from behind the ringing in her ears: “I’m here... Ellie... I’m here.”

Abby was kneeling next to her, breathing heavily and constantly running a spore-covered piece of cloth over the vents in her gas mask - a ripped-off sleeve from her shirt, by the looks of it. As she reached out to put her hand on Ellie’s shoulder, Ellie noticed that her oximeter kept switching between 86 and 87 depending on when Abby brushed spores off her mask. “No…” Ellie groaned.

“Hold…” Abby managed to roll Ellie onto her back and dropped the duffel bag onto Ellie’s stomach. Then she had to stop to breathe, still moving the cloth against her mask. “You… Hold bag. Carry you.”

“Fuck off,” Ellie said. “Take the bag and go.”

“No,” Abby gasped in reply. “Need you… Wipe mask, okay? Can you?”

“Just leave me! It’s over already, I’m infected!”

Abby’s eyes widened. “Immune!” She forgot to wipe her mask for a second and her eyes rolled to the back of her head as she gasped for air. Resuming the furious wiping, she blinked rapidly and shook her head. “Wipe… Fucking… Mask!”

Without waiting for an answer, she put the piece of cloth in Ellie’s hand, slid one arm under Ellie’s knees and the other behind her back, and grunted with effort as she lifted Ellie off the ground. The movement was immensely painful for Ellie’s cramping body, and she cried out in distress. But she fought through the pain and raised her hand to wipe off Abby’s mask.

Feeling like her head was going to explode from lack of oxygen, Abby began trudging back the way she’d come, willing herself to just get to the edge of the suffocation zone. It’ll be easier with every step, she told herself. Easier, and easier… Darkness was gathering around the edges of her vision, slowly creeping inward. Walk, Abby. WALK.

And then, just as she promised herself it would, she felt it get a little easier. The step after that, easier still. Looking at her oximeter where her fingers were curled around Ellie’s shoulder, she saw that it now read 90. “Almost there,” she told Ellie breathlessly. “Almost there.”

But Ellie did not respond. Her arm went limp and she dropped the rag on the ground.

“Ellie! ELLIE!”

Ellie was dead weight in her arms.

“Ellie! Don’t you fucking dare die on me now!”

When her oximeter read 95 she broke into a run, moving as fast as she could without risking suffocation from the physical exertion. “Come on, Ellie, stay with me. Please stay with me. Fight through it, Ellie,” she panted to the unresponsive girl in her arms. “I need you to fight!”

She couldn’t tell if Ellie was breathing or not. She didn’t stop to find out.

“FIGHT!”

Chapter Text

Abby waited impatiently as the soldiers in the decontamination tent cleaned off the considerable amount of spores on her and Ellie’s bodies. Now that she was no longer moving she could tell that Ellie was still alive, but her breathing was short and shallow and abnormally rapid. “Just a little longer,” she said, bowing her head close to Ellie’s. She refused to let anyone else take her unless it was someone who could actually help.

As soon as they were cleared for entry to the mansion and someone inside began opening the door, Abby kicked it open wider and strode inside, ignoring the soldiers who scrambled to close it again. Professor Santiago was waiting for them in the foyer. “Help her,” Abby demanded of him at once.

“Did you get the samples?”

“HELP HER, GOD DAMN IT!” shouted Abby.

The professor turned and waved a soldier standing just behind him forward. “Dr. Palmer, if you would…”

Dr. Palmer approached Ellie and examined her pale, limp, sweat-covered form. With a grim expression he said, “Let’s get her to a medical room.”

He turned and walked to a room down the hall, Abby hot on his heels. “What’s happening to her?” she asked. “She said she was infected, but that’s not possible right?”

“I don’t believe so, no.”

“Then what’s happening to her?” repeated Abby urgently.

“I’m not sure. Set her down on the bed.” 

Abby did as she was told, laying Ellie gently down on the soft surface of the bed. She took the duffel bag from where it was still resting on Ellie’s stomach and placed it on the floor nearby, then she stepped back to allow Dr. Palmer to examine her, finally removing her mask. Shaking from head to toe, worried tears prickling at her eyes, she asked, “She’ll live, right?”

Again, Dr. Palmer said, “I’m not sure. Her vitals are very weak. I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

“What the fuck is happening to her?”

“Spore toxicity,” said Professor Santiago from the doorway. “She’s experiencing a poisoning of her blood from an abundance of cordyceps spores.”

Abby rounded on him at once, fury bubbling in her veins. “You knew about this,” she said in a low growl. “You knew this was going to happen and you fucking kept it from us! You and that fucking snake Liz!”

“We knew it was a possibility,” admitted Santiago.

Crossing the room, Abby slammed her hand on the wall right next to where he was standing. “You know it was a CERTAINTY! Except you thought it would KILL HER! Well it FUCKING didn’t, so you’d better tell me you can treat her or I swear to god, I will throw you out a fucking window and let YOU drown in the fucking spores!”

Santiago shook his head. “We don’t have the necessary…”

Cutting him off, Abby said: “Do they have it in Avalon?” 

“Yes, but…”

“Then here’s what you’re gonna do. You’re going to put fuel in one of those fancy airplanes of yours and you’re gonna take all four of us back to Avalon right. Fucking. Now.” She emphasized each of the last three words with a hard slam of her fist against the wall.

Terrified and cowering away from her, he said, “Alright. Alright. No need to get violent. We will have you in the air in a matter of minutes.”

Abby backed off and returned to the side of Ellie’s bed. She kicked the duffel bag towards the professor so that it slid across the floor and stopped by his feet. “Here’s your fucking samples. She got those for you, even though you sons of bitches have never done shit for her. It’s time for you to repay the god damn favor.”

“Oh, thank god,” said Santiago, kneeling to open up the bag and look inside. He ran his finger across one of the containers, gazing reverently at the spores inside. “Yes, Miss Anderson, I do believe you are right. A favor is indeed owed.” He stood and picked up the bag. “We’ll ready the plane at once, and we will get her and your brother in it right away.”

“Where is he?”

“Just next door. Someone will be by soon to collect you all.” He turned and left, walking as quickly as his limp would allow.

Abby wanted to go check on Lev, but she also didn’t want to leave Ellie’s side. Torn, she took Ellie’s limp hand and raised it to her lips, kissing it softly. “I’ll be right back,” she whispered, then she left, shooting her one last lingering, worried look.

Brandy was sitting by Lev’s bedside. He, too, was unconscious. When Abby entered the room, Brandy leapt up and hugged her. “Abby! I was so worried! Where’s Ellie?”

“Next door,” said Abby brusquely.

“Is she okay?”

“I don’t know yet. How’s Lev?”

“Broken leg, collarbone, and three broken ribs.”

“Shit,” swore Abby. She approached him and kissed his sweaty forehead. There was a bag of fluid on an IV drip right next to her, and she checked the label and saw it was morphine - an incredibly rare and powerful painkiller. It was good that he was getting help, but the sight of the valuable medicine also served to anger Abby. So they provide soldiers with medical care but don’t have a plan in place to help the most important person in the entire world with the problem they KNEW she would have? Fury rekindled, Abby turned away from the drip. “They’re taking us all back to Avalon on one of the planes so they can treat Ellie there. Pack up any shit you want to take with you, because we’re never coming back to this hellhole.”

“I thought the planes weren’t working?”

“They lied. Shocker, right?” Abby ran her fingers through Lev’s hair. “Thank you for getting him out of there,” she said to Brandy sincerely. “I don’t know what I would do if I lost him.”

“Me either,” said Brandy shyly, and Abby smiled at her. She reached out and squeezed one of Lev’s hands. “Lev, I’m gonna go check on Ellie now, okay? I’ll be right back.”

In the doorway to Ellie’s room, Abby could see immediately that her condition had declined. She had curled herself up in a ball on the bed, and her clothes were dark with a cold sweat. Heart lurching with terror, Abby crossed the room and climbed into bed beside her, gathering her in her arms. She could feel that Ellie was shivering violently, her breathing labored. “Oh, god,” Abby sobbed. “Please don’t do this. Please don’t leave me.”

“What’s happening to her?” asked Brandy tearfully. 

“They said the spores are poisoning her blood. They didn’t… They never expected her to make it out alive.” She laid a soft kiss on the top of Ellie’s head. “But they don’t know Ellie very well, do they? She’s a fighter. She’s gonna make it.”

“Damn right,” Brandy agreed.

Dr. Palmer entered the room with an IV drip bag like the one Lev had. Immediately Abby asked forcefully: “What’s in that?”

“Just a saline solution,” he assured her. “She’s dehydrated.”

“She’s in pain. Is there something you can do for her?”

As he started the IV on one of Ellie’s arms, he said, “The professor doesn't think it’s a good idea. We don’t want to accidentally make anything worse.”

Abby wasn’t a fan of this answer, but she knew it was true. Her father had often scolded his students for giving patients drugs before they knew for sure what was wrong with them. So she bit her tongue and focused on Ellie, watching in concern as her thin, scarred eyebrows knitted and sweat dripped down her face.

A short time later a couple of masked soldiers came into the room with a stretcher. Abby released Ellie and climbed off the bed so she could be transported onto it. It viscerally reminded her of that day over five months ago when she’d found Ellie injured on the streets of LA. So much had changed since then. The Abby from that day would never believe it if someone told her that she would eventually find herself so deeply in love with Ellie that she’d be willing to risk not only her own life, but the lives of everyone on earth just to save her. 

Ellie moaned with pain as she was moved onto the stretcher, and then the soldiers began to wheel her out. Abby followed, putting her gas mask back on as she walked. To Brandy she said, “Stay with Lev.”

“Okay,” Brandy agreed, and she went the opposite direction of them outside of Ellie’s room.

When the soldiers were about to bring Ellie outside, Abby realized they didn’t intend to put a mask on her. “Wait,” she said angrily. “The last thing she needs is to breathe more fucking spores.” She grabbed the closest mask off the wall in the foyer, not giving a shit who it belonged to, and affixed it to Ellie’s face. As she did that, Ellie’s eyes opened, though they were glazed and confused. “Hey, baby,” said Abby softly.

“Abby?” she groaned. “What’s happening? Where am I?”

“You’re safe. We're gonna put you on a plane and get you back to Avalon so you can get some help, okay?”

“Hurts,” gasped Ellie. “Everything hurts.”

Abby’s heart broke at the fear and pain in her voice. “I know, baby. I know. But you’re gonna be okay. Everything’s gonna be okay.” She gently brushed Ellie’s hair away from her face, then backed off and nodded at the soldiers to wheel her out. They pushed the stretcher out the door and across the lawn to the Cessna. The side door was sitting open and the soldiers brought her up the ramp and inside the plane, where they fastened the stretcher in place in between two seats on either side of the aisle. Abby took one of the seats beside her and reached over for Ellie’s hand - the one with three fingers. She held it tightly, running her fingers along her knuckles.

A short time later they brought Lev out, Brandy pushing his IV drip along with him. Once they, too, were secured in the plane, an older soldier came on the plane to speak with them and introduced himself as Antonio, the pilot. “We’re going to take off with the door open and fly like that for a while so we can flush out all the spores,” he informed them in his thick accent. “Don’t be alarmed. It’s perfectly safe.” He quickly showed Brandy how to operate the door. When she was confident she could do it, he told them: “We will take off in a minute. Should have you there safely in about thirteen hours. Just sit tight and relax.”

None of them had ever been on a plane before. In fact, Abby had never even seen one in real life before coming to Porto Velho. She found the takeoff both terrifying and exhilarating. As the plane rose from the ground she leaned her forehead against the window and watched everything beneath them get smaller. Soon they were higher than the spore cloud, and it was incredibly surreal to see it isolated and clear below them. The landscape all around was dotted with pink and white sections of fungus, but eventually Abby’s view of it all was lost when the Cessna broke through the clouds. After that she could see nothing but the fluffy clouds below them, like a soft blanket covering the earth. Oddly enough, she found that this didn’t trigger her fear of heights. Everything looked so foreign from the plane that it was hard for her mind to link it to the concept of “being high up.” It was almost like looking at one of those model towns she sometimes found in abandoned old world hobby shops.

For about fifteen minutes they flew with the door open, but then Antonio yelled back for Brandy to shut it, and they all removed their masks. As Abby was removing Ellie’s, she came around again but didn’t quite open her eyes. “Abby?”

“Right here,” Abby assured her, squeezing her hand.

“I feel weird. What’s going on?”

“We’re on an airplane, just like I told you. Remember?”

“Thought I dreamed that.”

Abby stood and leaned over the stretcher. She reached out and gently turned Ellie’s head towards one of the windows. “Open your eyes. You’re gonna love this.”

With a great effort of will, Ellie did. “Wow,” she breathed. Outside the window was bright blue sky, and white clouds so fluffy and clear they looked like the softest of cotton. “I do love it. Thanks for turning my head for me.”

Smiling, Abby said, “You’re welcome.” She laid her hand on Ellie’s face, rubbing her thumb over her cheekbone. “How do you feel?”

“Like shit,” replied Ellie. “I’m definitely not going to live.”

“Shut up. Yes you fucking are,” said Abby assertively. “You’re going to fight through this, remember?”

“I’m trying, Abby. I am. What’s wrong with me?”

“The professor said the spores poisoned you.”

“Did you bring the samples back?”

“Yeah,” said Abby.

“You should have left me. That was fucking stupid, what you did.”

Shaking her head, Abby said, “I will never, ever apologize for that. I’d do it a hundred times over, if I had to.”

A weak smile lifted the corner of Ellie’s lips. “Just like Joel.” And then her face contorted in pain and she curled up into a ball again, lost to Abby once more. Distressed and horribly worried, Abby worked to hold back her panic and terror. She’d never felt so helpless before.

About halfway through the flight, Lev awoke. Abby managed to tear herself away from Ellie long enough to tell him and Brandy everything that had happened after they’d been separated, leaving out all the details of her personal conversation with Ellie at the edge of the suffocation zone. They were both proud of her for what she’d done, glad that she’d managed to get Ellie out of there alive.

Towards the end of the flight, Ellie went into another fit of violent shaking and sweating, and afterwards she became completely unresponsive.

“Ellie!” Abby shouted, patting her face. “Wake the fuck up, Ellie! Please do not do this! Come on, hold on just a little longer!”

Abby continued to try and wake her as the plane touched down on the streets of LA, tears running down her face, but she got no answer. Soldiers came and got Ellie and rushed her onto a truck, and Abby hopped up next to her. They were whisked to the coast and onto the medical speedboat, just as they had done on that first day a few months ago. Except this time, instead of taking the wheel, Abby glued herself to Ellie’s side, never taking her eyes off her.

Doc and Liz were waiting for them on the docks of Catalina Island. Doc jumped into the speedboat as it was still in the process of being tied off, his doctor’s bag in hand. “How long has she been like this?” he asked Abby as she backed off so he could take her spot next to Ellie.

“A few minutes,” Abby told him, her voice wavering. “She’s been in and out for hours but this is the first time I couldn’t get her back.”

As quickly as he could, Doc checked Ellie over. He put his stethoscope against her chest and checked her pulse, and then he pulled out a vial and a syringe from his bag. He injected the substance into Ellie’s veins via the IV that had already been put in place back in Porto Velho.

The effect was immediate. Ellie’s eyes blinked open in confusion and she looked around as though she was searching for something. “Abby?” she asked when she didn’t see her. 

“Right here,” said Abby, weak with relief. 

Slowly, Ellie turned her head so she could look at Abby. “Is this Avalon?” she asked, dazed.

“Yes,” Abby said, reaching out to brush away her sweaty bangs. “Doc is here.” 

“Oh,” Ellie said. She moved her head again and saw Doc beside her. “Heya, Doc.”

“Hello, Ellie. Let’s get you up to the hospital ward, okay?”

He directed some soldiers to bring both her and Lev up to the casino. Abby climbed off the boat onto the docks with the intention of following them, but Liz stopped her. “Welcome home, soldier,” she said. “And I believe congratulations are in order for a successful…”

Abby interrupted her with: “Get the fuck out of my way, Liz.” 

She put her hand on Liz’s arm and pushed her aside, brushing right past her without a single glance back.

Jogging to catch up, Abby walked beside Brandy just behind Lev and Ellie’s stretchers. She guessed that Liz must have told the whole base that they had managed to get the samples of Spore Zero, because as they went up the hill, all the soldiers they passed turned and began applauding them, cheering and whistling in celebratory praise. Some of them came over to slap Abby and Brandy on the back. One soldier who Ellie was friendly with ran alongside her stretcher for a bit to talk to her, and then Abby saw Ellie raise her hand to receive a high five. Abby noticed that some people were crying. 

The two soldiers that Ellie had beat up in the cafeteria in the first week she’d been on base came over to walk beside Lev’s stretcher. Abby clenched her fists, ready to repeat Ellie’s actions from that day if the situation demanded it. But then she heard that they were apologizing to him - and thanking him. “You’re a real stand-up guy,” said the soldier who’s nose Ellie had broken.

Unsure what else to say, Lev responded, “No I’m not. My leg is broken.”

The two soldiers laughed, then they both gave him a fist bump and backed away to let other soldiers take their place to speak with Lev.

Feeling an emotional swell in her chest, Abby looked down at Brandy and said, “Guess this is Patrick’s so-called ‘hero’s return,’ huh?” 

“Just wish he was here to see it,” she replied, also clearly overwhelmed with emotion. “Him and Brian.”

“Me too.”

The procession continued to draw attention all the way to the hospital ward. As they went through the double doors, Abby glanced behind her and noticed that Liz was following them, most likely intending to be present for whatever was about to happen. Not caring one single little bit about the optics, Abby closed the doors and turned the lock before Liz could enter. Then she forgot all about Liz and turned her attention to Doc and Ellie. Ellie was being wheeled into a room and hooked up to some monitors. Abby entered the room and leaned against the wall, crossing her arms over her chest. “What did you give her, on the boat?” she asked.

“A mild antidote I’ve been working on for the last few months,” Doc replied.

“Oh, so you’ll make the antidote, but you won’t send it to Brazil for her?” Abby asked sardonically.

“The antidote was made in secret. Professor Santiago knew I was making it because I informed him and requested his expertise, but no one else did. I was aware that Porto Velho had a functioning aircraft, and I wanted to be prepared for the possibility that you would be brought to my care. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but obviously I am glad I did it now,” Doc said. “Making the antidote was not a… sanctioned experiment, shall we say. Liz would not have been pleased to see how many supplies I went through making it but... I admit I’ve grown very fond of you, Ellie. I hoped that you might come out of there alive, and I wanted to give you the best chance at survival if you did.”

Shocked, Ellie’s jaw dropped. “Doc! I had no idea you felt this way!” She leaned forward and wrapped her arms around his neck. “Come’ere, you big softy!”

He accepted the hug with an awkward pat on her back, then pulled away and cleared his throat. “Yes, well, the antidote is not as efficient as I had hoped. But I have managed to salvage and repair a dialysis machine as well. A few sessions with that, and you should be right as rain.”

“What’s that do?” Ellie asked.

Abby answered quickly, “It cleans your blood. That’s a very good idea, Doc. But what I don’t understand is why you didn’t say something to her before she left. You guys obviously knew from all that testing you did when she was bit that the fungus was toxic, right?”

“Yes, we did. And I should have said something,” he replied, looking guilty. “But Liz insisted on total secrecy, and I was too much of a coward to go against her orders. I consoled myself by trying to pretend that I believed that the spores in Section Zero would not be plentiful enough to constitute a lethal dose, even though in truth I was quite sure it would be. You see, the toxicity of the spores is so minimal that brief, infrequent exposure is not harmful to her. Her body is perfectly capable of filtering the fungus out on its own in minor doses. But prolonged, exorbitant exposure…”

“Lethal,” Ellie finished.

“Quite. Except those spores didn’t know what they were getting into when they picked a fight with you, did they?” Doc said affectionately.

“That’s exactly what I said,” said Abby, smiling at Ellie. “Nothing kills this fucking girl. Trust me, I know.” She pushed off from the wall and walked over to Doc, offering her his hand. “Thanks, Doc. Sorry for snapping at you. You’re alright.”

“I’m not sure I agree with you,” said Doc, shaking her hand, “but I appreciate the sentiment. I’ll go and prepare the dialysis machine.”

After he had left the room, Abby came over and sat on a chair by Ellie’s bedside. “How do you feel?”

“Better,” Ellie replied with obvious relief. “Lots better. The cramping is a lot less.”

“Good.” 

As they were waiting, they heard Doc speaking with Liz outside the room. “I apologize,” he said, “but Ellie is not well enough to speak to you at the moment.”

“Isn’t Abby in there too?” Liz asked.

“She is, but I would like to run some tests on her as well. Perhaps you should come back tomorrow?”

Liz lowered her voice so neither Ellie or Abby could hear her answer, but then they heard the sound of the double doors, presumably meaning that Liz had left. When Doc re-entered the room with the dialysis machine, Abby asked, “Are you in trouble because of me? I locked her out.”

“I would be in trouble regardless, I assure you,” Doc said as he hooked Ellie up to the machine.

“What kind of tests do you need to run on Abby? Is she in danger from the spores too?” Ellie said, worried.

“That was a lie,” said Doc bluntly. “Unless she feels otherwise unwell, I was merely trying to buy her time before she has to face Liz.”

“Damn,” said Abby appreciatively. “You fucking rule, Doc.”

Doc blushed. “You flatter me. Now, this treatment will take a while. I’ll be back in a few hours when it is completed to unhook the machine.”

Once he had gone, Abby shifted around in her chair to remove her gun belt and placed it on a nearby table, then bent down to unlace her boots. That finished, she stretched out her legs, leaned back in the chair, crossed her arms, and closed her eyes. 

“Abby, you’re clearly exhausted,” said Ellie. “Why don’t you go and get some sleep?”

“I can sleep right here.”

“That doesn’t look very comfortable.”

Opening her eyes, Abby said, “If you want me to go, I’ll go. But my personal preference is to stay with you.”

Ellie considered this for a long moment, chewing on her bottom lip thoughtfully. “Okay,” she said. “Have a nice chair nap.”

Abby smirked and closed her eyes.

Chapter Text

True to what Doc had said, after a couple of dialysis treatments Ellie felt perfectly healthy again. Three days after returning to Avalon Doc cleared her to leave the hospital ward, and after stopping by to bid the still-hospitalized Lev farewell, she left to head to her room for the first time in over four months. As she walked through the base people stopped to congratulate her, thank her, and ask her invasive questions. She had known that this was likely to happen and had a few canned answers all ready to go. Abby and Brandy had both informed her of the fact that they were now all celebrities on the base. But Ellie in particular was a frequent topic of interested discussion and curiosity because her immunity had somehow become common knowledge. None of them were sure how it had happened, but both Brandy and Abby had had fellow soldiers come up and ask about it.

“And what do you tell them?” Ellie had asked Abby when she was informed of this.

“Guess,” Abby had said.

“To fuck off?”

“There’s that brain of yours. Nice to see it again.”

Aside from that first dialysis treatment and the rest of that first day, Ellie hadn’t actually had the opportunity to spend a whole lot of time with Abby since coming back to Avalon. Both Abby and Brandy had been in debriefing sessions the entire day after they returned, going over every single part of the mission almost day-by-day since they’d first set sail on the boat. And then at the end of that day, Brandy had come by to let Ellie know that Abby had been locked in a cell for the night - she had attacked Liz again, this time for not telling Ellie about the risk of spore toxicity. It wasn’t exactly a surprise to anyone, not even Liz, from which Ellie surmised that Liz was aware that she and Abby no longer hated each other.

“God damn it,” Ellie had said to Brandy after she had finished retelling the events of the fight. “Is she gonna get kicked out of the Fireflies?”

“I doubt it. I think that would be a bad look for Liz considering we’re the hot-shot heroes who ended the cordyceps brain infection,” Brandy had replied.

“That is a very, very true thing you just said,” Ellie had said, instantly comforted.

Now it was midday on the third day and Abby was still locked in her cell. Making a spontaneous decision, Ellie turned her path towards the disciplinary building where Abby would be, hoping to at least be able to wave at her through the bars or something. When she got there she approached the guard at the front door and asked if she could go in, but they apologetically turned her away, saying that they had specific instructions not to let Abby have any visitors at all. 

Disappointed, Ellie went back to her original plan of going to her room. When she got there, she was surprised to see Liz waiting for her outside her door. “Made a pit stop, did you?” asked Liz casually.

“You keeping tabs on me?” Ellie asked coldly, brushing past her to open her door. She entered the room and left the door open, figuring she might as well talk to Liz now because she’d always known she’d have to do it eventually. Liz had not visited her in the hospital ward, which suited Ellie just fine.

“Yes,” said Liz honestly, entering the room and shutting the door. Ellie put her backpack down on her desk and began unpacking her things. “You did a remarkable job out there, Ellie. I’m very proud of you.”

“I don’t want your pride,” said Ellie. “Why didn’t you tell me about the spore toxicity?”

“Isn’t it obvious? I didn’t want you to back out of the mission. Perhaps it was a miscalculation on my part, but I weighed the risk against the reward and I made my decision."

"No, you just didn't think it would be an issue because you thought I would die and you wouldn't have to deal with it."

"Yes, that is true. We did not expect you to live. But even if I had expected you to live, I would have made the same decision. The destruction of trust in our personal relationship is a minor price to pay for the survival of the human species.”

This was an altogether valid point, but Ellie felt stung by it nonetheless. “I just can’t believe you think that would have made me turn down the mission. I knew how important it was, that’s why I agreed to it even though it meant working with Abby, who I hated more than anyone else in the whole world.”

“Well, that didn’t end up being an issue, did it?” said Liz dryly. “I must admit I was very surprised to learn what was going on between you two.”

Playing dumb, Ellie said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, please,” laughed Liz. “A solder discovered you sharing the same bedroom.”

“Aww man, fucking Pete snitched on us?” whined Ellie. “I thought we were friends.”

“Don’t blame him. I ordered him to keep tabs on you four to get an idea of how well you were holding together as a unit. Apparently you were doing a lot better than I expected you to.”

“Okay, well, nothing is going on, really. We were just…” Ellie paused. “You know what, it’s really none of your business.”

“Fair enough,” Liz said. “Anyway, I suppose there’s not much else to say except to extend my sincerest gratitude for what you did. Humanity owes you a debt. And the Fireflies do, too.” She reached into the inside pocket of her jacket and removed an envelope. “Just over two months ago a new recruit showed up from Jackson. His name is Dean. Do you know him?”

All the air rushed out of Ellie’s lungs. She did know Dean. He was a few years younger than her, but she had patrolled with him a few times. “Yeah,” she said weakly. “He’s here?”

“He is. He’s out on a one-month mission at the moment, but he gave me this to give to you in the event that you returned before he did.”

Ellie reached out with numb fingers to take the envelope. “Thanks,” she said.

“If you decide to go back,” Liz said, “please let me know. We would be happy to take you in the plane. It’s the least we could do. The pilot will stay here for a few more days until you decide, alright?”

“Okay,” rasped Ellie. Then, again: “Thanks.”

Liz nodded and left the room.

With trembling fingers, Ellie opened the envelope and withdrew the sheet of paper inside.

Dear Ellie,

When Dean told me he was planning to join the Fireflies I asked him to bring you this letter. I must unfortunately inform you that Tommy has passed away. He was killed by a pack of clickers roughly three miles from Jackson while out on patrol. His leg injury was getting steadily more troublesome over the years and he simply couldn’t run as fast as they could. Many of us had been trying to get him to stop going out and let those of us who still have both our eyes and two working legs do it, but you know how he was - every bit as stubborn as his brother. He was a fighter to the end. He managed to take out four of the fuckers before he was overtaken.

His death leaves us without a sheriff to handle our patrol rotations and training. Steven has been filling in until we can find a more suitable person for the position. If you decide to come home, the badge is yours.

Dina and JJ have asked me to send their love. She and Tucker had a messy break-up so they are struggling a bit, but the town has rallied behind them both the way only Jackson can.

I hope this letter finds you well, and I hope your time with the Fireflies has been fulfilling for you, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hope to see you in Jackson soon.

All my love,

Maria

Ellie sank down onto her desk chair, her legs too wobbly to support her.

Tommy was dead. Fucking Tommy.

Jackson wanted her back. That life was being offered to her again, the life of security and abundance and community and family. Even Dina and JJ were being offered again, if she was correctly interpreting the subtext in that paragraph of Maria’s letter - that Dina must have mentioned missing her, must have said something about wishing Ellie would come home.

What had spoiled Jackson for her, the last time she’d tried to go home? Had it been the feeling of not fitting in, of there not being a place for her? Well, there was a place for her now. Had it been the bad memories of Joel’s death? Well, she’d worked through those now. Had it been her desire to bring meaning to her immunity? Well, she’d done that now.

All the things that had driven her away were no longer a problem. Even Tommy’s death was a resolution in a way - now there would be no worrying about him finding out that she’d lied about killing Abby. In fact Ellie would be surprised if anybody in Jackson ever mentioned Abby again. Nearly everyone who had been connected to that part of her life was gone now, aside from Dina, and Dina already knew the truth.

This was an opportunity to move on from this entire chapter, this epic, bloody saga that had begun that night in the Baldwin place and ended the minute she’d hacked those spore samples in that cellar in Porto Velho.

And the person bookended at either end of that saga was Abby. All the misery and all the hurt that Abby’s presence in her life had brought… All the terrible things that Ellie had done, all the mistakes she had made along the way… This was a chance to pack it all up in a neat little box and store it away in the recesses of her memory forever.

This was a chance for a fresh start - a second chance at a normal, relatively problem-free life.

What was her other option? A life with the Fireflies, a group that hadn’t trusted her enough to give her all the facts? A life of fighting infected day in and day out, of danger and fear and stress and exhaustion? A life where she would constantly be losing friends left and right? 

A life… with Abby?

Abby, of all people?!

She was so busy with her thoughts that the sound of a knock on her door barely even registered. As though someone else was moving her limbs, she opened her door and standing there… was Abby.

A strong rush of emotion swept over Ellie at the sight of her. Oh, god, did she love this girl! How could she possibly love this person so much?

“Hey,” said Abby with a grin. “They finally sprung me. The door guards said you came by but they had to turn you away. Thanks for trying, anyway.”

“Sure,” said Ellie distractedly. 

There was an awkward pause.

“Can I... Come in? Or…”

Shaking her head to clear it and blinking several times, Ellie said, “Yeah. Yeah, of course.” She stood aside as Abby meandered in hesitantly. 

“Everything okay?” Abby was looking at her curiously, perfectly aware that something was up based on Ellie’s mannerisms.

Ellie looked down at the piece of paper she was still holding, then took a deep breath and held it out for Abby to take. “It’s from Jackson,” she said.

Handling the paper very carefully, as though it might explode in her hand, Abby opened it up and read it.

For a long time she said nothing, just continued to stare at the words on the paper. Eventually she said, “Didn’t know Tommy survived the theater.” She paused, then added, “Guess I killed him eventually, though, in the end.” Another pause. “Looks like your girl’s single again, too. You could really have it all now.”

“Abby…”

“Don’t,” Abby cut her off. “Whatever you were about to say, don’t. You listen to me, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Whatever you decide, I will live with it. You need to do what’s right for you. Do not factor me in to this.”

“How could I not?” said Ellie passionately. “You think I give a fuck about the Fireflies? About fucking Los Angeles? The choice is either Jackson, or you. You are my other option.”

“Well then,” Abby said, her voice hoarse, “it seems pretty clear to me.”

“Does it? Because I have no idea what to do.” Ellie ran her hand through her hair, frustrated.

“Look,” said Abby around the growing lump in her throat, “you just got this, right?”

“Liz gave it to me a few minutes ago.”

“So it’s too soon to decide. There’s no rush right?”

“I have a couple of days,” Ellie said. “If I want to catch a ride on the plane they need to know that.”

“Liz offered that, huh?” Abby guessed. “One last opportunity for her to fuck me over.” When Ellie opened her mouth, Abby waved her hand quickly. “Sorry. I’m sorry. Forget I said that. Whatever you pick, I’ll be fine.”

“Will you? Because I think, if I were in your shoes and you were thinking of leaving me, my heart would break into eighteen billion pieces,” said Ellie.

“Even if I was leaving you to go back to a peaceful, idyllic life? A life with someone I love - with a family?”

Yes, Abby, even then.”

Abby looked away, blinking rapidly. “I can’t tell you it won’t hurt. Of course it will hurt. But you can’t decide to stay here because leaving would hurt me. This is about more than our relationship. And Ellie...” She reached out and took Ellie’s three-fingered left hand, holding it up in the air between them. “I’ve always known all along that it could never be real. Not with all this between us. Can you really see yourself spending the rest of your life with the monster who killed Joel? Who killed Jesse and Tommy? You said it yourself, you can’t forgive, right? Well… Now you don’t have to.”

Ellie said nothing. She just stared at her damaged left hand, stared at the space where there used to be fingers.

“So yes, it will break my heart. It’ll fucking shatter me. But I walked into this with open eyes. Do what you have to do, Ellie. Go home - where you belong.”

She released Ellie’s hand and made a quick exit so that Ellie wouldn’t see her tears.

Ellie did not sleep that night. Instead she spent hours going through all her old journals. There were five in total, the fifth being the one she’d been using during her time with the Fireflies, and was still currently using. 

The first was the one she’d started keeping at fourteen, when she’d first arrived in Jackson with Joel. There were silly entries about jerky and the other kids in the settlement, and there were ones about Cat and her fear of telling Joel that she was gay. Then there was the trip to the museum with Joel and all the dinosaur drawings. There were things about Dina sprinkled liberally all throughout, like a time capsule of watching herself fall in love. She’d forgotten just how many doodles she’d done of Dina over the years. But what Ellie noticed the most was all the guilt and pain she’d felt as she tried to come to terms with the fact that her immunity meant nothing. It was evident in every word, every doodle. Even with all the good that came along with living in Jackson, that darkness was always there inside her.

The next journal was the stretch of time from sixteen to seventeen when she’d been searching for answers about the hospital in Salt Lake City. There were so many doubts about Joel. She’d wanted so badly to believe he was telling the truth about that day, but she’d known in her heart that he wasn’t. And then there was the entry when she’d finally found out that truth, and after that the journal was dark with her rage, grief, pain and betrayal. Present-day Ellie watched the breakdown of her relationship with Joel play out across the pages.

The next book started relatively light, with her feelings for Dina evolving and growing. And in the subtext she saw herself wanting to forgive Joel, and trying to find a path towards it. Finally, she found the entries from the time of Joel’s murder, and she saw with a lurch the first mention of Abby’s name. “I begged you to stop,” she’d written beneath the ferris wheel sketch. “You brought this on yourself.” Seattle’s entries were manic, lighthearted on one page and terribly dark on the next. Then for a long time there was nothing but darkness.

Until the fourth book - scattered with sketches of the farm animals, of Dina, of JJ, of Tommy and his scarred face, of Jesse from memory. And of Abby. Abby, Abby, Abby. Still she obsessed over this woman who had harmed her so deeply. She saw the way she tried to bury the darkness in the background, but how it gradually crept to the surface until… Santa Barbara was next - and after, no more Abby. There was only Joel.

Finally she took out her current journal and saw LA and Avalon and South America and Abby, Abby, Abby. Flipping through the pages, she saw the way she had documented the trip with sketches of her squadmates. When they’d lost Brian, she’d devoted an entire page to him. With Patrick, the same, as well as a sketch of Abby standing motionless as she had for hours in front of his grave. Ellie now knew that, along with whatever else she’d decided there, that was when Abby had owned up to the love that was growing inside her. It made the sketch all the more powerful and beautiful to Ellie - this was Abby, brave Abby, who had made a decision to change and stuck to it. Forcing herself to move on, Ellie turned the page and continued on her trip through South America. In these pages, there was plenty of bad shit that had happened to her, plenty of opportunities for her to spiral back into the darkness as she had in all her journals before, and yet, somehow, she never did.

She continued flipping through her current journal but paused on one particular page, one particular captured moment - Abby swinging her axe in the forest, minutes after she’d been able to make Ellie understand the depths of her feelings for the very first time. She smiled wryly as she remembered saying to Abby: “We are so fucked!” And boy, had that ever been the truth. It was the truth that she was dealing with right now.

Picking up the fourth book again, she found an older drawing of Abby, drawn from memory while sharing the farm house with Dina and JJ. She set the two drawings down on the floor in front of her, looking back and forth between the two.

They hardly even looked like the same person.

Reaching into her shirt pocket, Ellie pulled out the letter from Maria and laid it overtop of the drawings. What would Maria say, she wondered, if she knew that the reason Ellie was considering leaving Jackson behind for good was to build a life with the woman who’d murdered Joel? What would Dina say? What would JJ think of her, when he was old enough to understand? How would Jesse have felt about it? And Tommy? Tommy would kill her - literally, actually kill her. And Joel? Would he be upset if he knew what was going on inside her heart? Would he consider Ellie’s immeasurable love for his murderer a betrayal?

Lost, confused, distressed and restless, she stood and exited her room, leaving all her journals open on the floor.

It was the middle of the night, and most people were asleep. No one bothered her as she wandered down the row of barracks buildings. As much as she tried not to let them, her feet carried her to Abby’s room, and she lifted her left hand and knocked very softly. She knew from the speed with which Abby answered the door that she had also been awake. 

Wordlessly, Ellie stepped into the room and into her arms, and Abby accepted her without comment, holding her close for the first time in what felt like months. Neither one knew exactly how long they stayed like that, but it was long enough for Ellie to feel herself settle down inside, to return to a state of total peace and contentment, much like she had felt on the morning of the mission.

That is… Until she opened her eyes and looked at Abby’s room.

“What the…” She pulled apart from Abby and walked further inside the room. All of Abby’s stuff was laid out in organized piles on the floor, and next to it, her empty backpack. Ellie knew immediately what was happening, because she’d done it countless times herself - Abby was preparing for a journey. “What is this?”

“Uh…” Abby reached up nervously and scratched the back of her neck. “I talked to Liz this afternoon. I’m leaving.”

What?

“Not right away,” Abby hastened to add. “And not forever. I’m becoming a ranger. The Fireflies are gonna need supplies if they wanna be able to make and distribute the vaccine. Syringes, chemicals… Alcohol swabs or whatever. And I can’t stay here on base with Liz anymore, not after… Well, fucking everything, I guess.”

“And when were you planning on telling me this?”

“I just did.”

Ellie cast her eyes around the room, noticing Lev’s bed - empty, because he was still in the hospital ward. “What about Lev?”

“He’s got a long recovery ahead of him, according to Doc. Couple of months maybe, plenty of time for me to run a long mission and come back. And, I mean, he’s got a girlfriend now,” Abby said with a smirk. “The last thing he needs is me around cramping his style.”

“Somehow I don’t think he’d agree with you.”

“No, he doesn’t,” Abby admitted. “He doesn’t want me to go, but he understands why I have to.”

Turning to face her, Ellie said, “Because you think I’m going to leave you. That’s why, right?”

Abby gave her a sad half-smile. “Yeah,” she said.

“Jesus Christ, Abby.”

“Tell me otherwise, and I’ll stay,” Abby said. “But I need to make a contingency plan now, because if I sit still after you’re gone I’ll fucking…” She stopped herself from finishing the sentence.

But Ellie was having none of that. “You’ll fucking what?”

“Fall apart, okay?” said Abby, angry that Ellie was making her say it. “I will fall apart. You happy now?”

“Of course I’m not happy! This whole thing is fucked up!”

“Well I’m trying to protect you from it, Ellie!” Abby said forcefully. “I want you to make up your mind without having my broken heart be a factor in your decision. No matter what it will do to me, I need you to choose the option that will make you happy!”

The immediate retort that came to Ellie was that neither option would, but as soon as she thought it, she realized it wasn’t true. All of a sudden she understood why she’d felt compelled to look through her journals all night - she’d been reminding herself of the darkness she’d been sinking into for so long, so that she could compare it to the last five months of walking entirely in the light. The idea that she would ever be happy in Jackson was utterly ridiculous. That wasn’t her home anymore. Abby was her home now. In that instant, the path ahead of her was laughably clear.

Without another word she crossed the room, wound her arms around Abby’s neck, and kissed her soundly. But immediately, Abby pulled back with a panicked look in her eye. “What are you doing?” she asked urgently. “What is this?”

“I’m choosing to be happy,” Ellie replied.

Abby thought she might burst from all the hope that blossomed inside her. “With me?”

“Fucking obviously, Abby,” said Ellie with a mixture of fondness and exasperation. “Otherwise I’d have tried to make out with the god damn airplane.”

A helpless laugh escaped Abby, and she wrapped her arms tightly around Ellie, pressing her against her chest with a hand on the back of her head. “God, I love you so fucking much,” she said.

 “I love you, too.” 

The last syllable was almost cut off when Abby swooped in and captured her lips for a passionate kiss that felt like it could have been their very first - it was their first that was unrestrained, limitless, and full of the promise of more. Abby moved her hands to Ellie’s hips and backed her up against the wall. Then she trailed her kisses down Ellie’s neck. “Are we doing this or are we stopping?” she asked between kisses.

“This,” panted Ellie, letting her head fall back against the wall with a soft thud. “Definitely this.” 

Needing no further invitation, Abby moved away briefly so she could lift Ellie’s shirt and sports bra off and toss them aside. When she started to close back in for another kiss Ellie held her back with a palm on her chest and quickly returned the favor before they fell into one another again, their breath catching as their bare skin touched for the first time. Dropping her hands to Ellie’s waist, Abby made short work of her jeans and underwear, breaking the kiss once more so she could look down and watch her wiggle out of them with a grin. Leaning closer and pressing Ellie harder against the wall, she took Ellie’s arms and put them over her own shoulders. Then she reached down and placed her hands around the backs of Ellie’s thighs and said, “Put your legs around my waist.”

“Yes ma’am,” said Ellie as she immediately followed the command. Abby’s hands on her thighs kept her safely in place as she was lifted, carried across the room, and gently deposited on the bed. As they went Ellie ran her hands over Abby’s shoulders and biceps, enjoying the way they flexed just under her skin. “Hooooly shit that was so fucking hot,” she said once she was on the bed. She would never have guessed that something like that would do it for her, but she felt like she was melting into a puddle of arousal. When Abby joined her on the bed she found herself pinned, and she also discovered she had no problem with that whatsoever.

“You liked that, huh?” said Abby, amused.

“So, so much,” Ellie replied enthusiastically.

“I’ll remember that for next time.”

The idea that this was going to be a thing they were going to get to do many times was indescribably exciting to Ellie. She drew Abby in for a kiss with one hand and started pushing her sweatpants down with the other. “Off. Now,” she demanded with their lips still pressed together, and Abby smiled through the kiss and assisted with the task. Ellie glanced down and noticed something. “Are you wearing boxers?”

“Not anymore,” said Abby as they were tossed aside.

“Smart ass.”

“You love it.” Abby deposited a quick kiss on her lips, then said, “Be right back.”

“Wha… Bu… Where are you going?”

“Just down here,” replied Abby innocently as she kissed her way down Ellie’s body.

“Okay, see you later, take your time,” said Ellie breathlessly, and she felt Abby chuckle against her chest.

Abby did take her time. She explored Ellie’s breasts, small but the perfect size to fit in her hands, with nipples that responded instantly by hardening into points when she ran her fingers over them and when she circled them with her tongue. Once she was able to move past those, she traced the various scars on Ellie’s body, trying not to think about the fact that some of them may very well have been caused by her. There was a particularly bad one on Ellie’s abdomen - the wound she’d been suffering from when they’d fought in Santa Barbara. She kissed it lovingly before continuing her journey south. “Jesus, you’re so wet,” she said when she finally reached her destination.

“You carried me across the roo- holy fuck, Abby!” Ellie interrupted herself to groan loudly as Abby swiped her tongue across her for the first time. She threw one of her forearms across her eyes to try and concentrate on not coming too fast, but she was completely unsuccessful. She was already so close before Abby had even started touching her that she only managed a few seconds before her orgasm ripped through her, making her arch her back against the bed. When she returned to her senses, Abby was resting her chin on her pelvis and looking at her with amusement. “Sorry,” she said, embarrassed.

“Why? I think it’s sexy that I do that to you. Plus it makes me feel like a stud.”

Ellie laughed. “A stud?”

“Yeah, a stud. Like hot shit, you know?” She climbed back up the bed and propped herself up on her elbow beside Ellie, watching her as she recovered, absently drawing little patterns on her belly. “And I know I’m new at this whole having sex with women thing, but I would assume your little orgasm snafu doesn’t mean we have to stop.”

“Nope,” said Ellie, and she pushed Abby onto her back and straddled her waist, looking down at Abby’s toned torso and running her fingers along her collarbone teasingly. “No we do not. Also, it wasn’t a little orgasm.” She leaned down and kissed her, tasting herself there. “Did you like doing that?”

“Yes,” Abby replied as she ran her hands up Ellie’s thighs where they were positioned on either side of her body.

“I would never have guessed that that would be the first thing you did. That’s like… graduate level lesbian shit.”

“What can I say? I’ve been doing some fantasizing over the last couple of months.”

“Well, I stand corrected. I guess you’re not straight.”

“I tried to tell you,” said Abby. “But if you need more proof…” She took Ellie’s hand and led it down between her legs, where she was greeted with copious wetness. 

Ellie let out an involuntary moan at the feel of it. Immediately inflamed with arousal all over again, she adjusted herself so she could continue touching Abby, rubbing her clit in slow, tight circles. 

Yes, Ellie…” Abby’s head fell back on the pillow, and Ellie used the opportunity to run her tongue up her neck, tracing one of the veins that stood out as Abby’s climax came closer. She kept the speed slow, wanting to draw her out as long as possible. But apparently Abby hadn’t been lying about enjoying what she’d done, because she barely lasted any longer than Ellie had. When Abby fell over the edge, Ellie watched her carefully, cataloging the moment in her memory to take out and re-examine at her leisure. “Fuck me,” Abby sighed afterwards, breathing heavily. 

“I mean, if you insist…” replied Ellie with a smirk, and she slipped two fingers inside, curling them to hit that sweet spot. It made Abby give a surprised gasp of pleasure, which was like music to Ellie’s ears. 

“Ellie!” Abby couldn’t believe how quickly her second orgasm built up, expertly drawn out by the rhythmic pressure of Ellie’s deft fingers pressing deep inside her. It was every bit as strong as the first had been, and the end of it she was covered in a fine sheen of sweat. For a long moment all she could do was lay there and breathe as Ellie withdrew her fingers and deliberately trailed wetness up her stomach to her breasts, playfully circling her nipples. When Abby had gathered enough energy, she reached up to catch the wandering hand in hers and turned her head to look at the still-smirking Ellie. “No fair,” she said. “It was my turn.”

Ellie shook her head solemnly. “Oh, Abby. Silly, silly Abby. If you think I’m ever going to pass up an invitation to fuck you, you are sorely mistaken.”

“Yeah? Well you’re about to be just plain old sore,” replied Abby, using sheer physical strength to flip Ellie over and reverse their positions. She propped herself up with one arm and reached down with the other, determined to do to Ellie what Ellie had done to her.

“Bring it, bitch,” taunted Ellie, and she raised her head to initiate a scorching kiss that served to re-ignite their passion anew.

It wasn’t until much later, when Ellie’s head was resting on Abby’s shoulder and Abby was gently running her fingers through her hair, that Abby found the time to dig for a little more detail. “What about Jackson?” she asked.

“What about it?”

“You’re really okay with not going back? I never went inside, but it seemed like a nice place to live.”

“That wouldn’t be living,” said Ellie. “That would be running. The truth is that Jackson was never a factor for me. If I’d never gotten that letter, I still would have gone through the same thought process about leaving you. The decision wasn’t Jackson or you, it was not you or you. It was to keep being the same angry, damaged person I was before I came to LA, or to forgive and allow myself to heal. It doesn’t matter where I am or what I’m doing. As long as I’m with you then I know I’m headed down the right path - the one that will let me heal.”

Abby’s heart fluttered in her chest. “And are you?”

“Am I what?”

“Healed?”

Ellie reached up and gave her a slow, languid kiss. Then she pulled back, smiled, and answered: “I’m definitely getting there.”

Chapter Text

The gates of Jackson looked the same but Ellie didn’t recognize anyone who was manning it. At first the guards had been skeptical of her, but when she’d dropped Maria’s name they had opened up and let her in. She wandered through the town, noticing everything that was different and everything that was the same. From the looks of it the population had grown significantly in her absence. By the time she reached the tavern she hadn’t seen a single person she knew. As cruel fate would have it, the first person she saw that she recognized was Seth.

“Oh, it’s you,” he said emotionlessly when she approached the counter. 

“Nice to see you, too,” Ellie replied sarcastically. “Where’s Maria?”

“In the back.”

When Seth continued to stand there looking at her, Ellie prompted, “Get her, please.”

Seth moved just enough to be able to push open the swinging door to the back room of the tavern, turned his head slightly and called: “Maria!” 

Ellie rolled her eyes. “Thanks,” she said coldly.

A minute later Maria came out and immediately saw Ellie. “Well I’ll be damned,” she said. “Look what the cat dragged in.” She came around the bar and gave Ellie a hug. “It’s good to see you. You’re looking well.”

“You too. Town looks great, too. Seems like you guys really blew up since the last time I was here.”

“About a year back we incorporated over a hundred survivors from a settlement up in Canada that burned down.  They traveled all the way down here because they heard we had a good thing going.”

“You do,” Ellie said sincerely. “I’ve seen a few other settlements with the Fireflies, but only one was better than Jackson, and that’s only because they had a functioning merry-go-round.” The memory of dragging Abby on to the stupid thing and forcing her to sit on a ridiculous sparkling pink sea horse went through Ellie’s mind and she had to work to hold back her smile. “People as far off as Mexico have heard of this place. They talk about it like it’s utopia.”

“Oh, Ellie, flattery will get you everywhere,” said Maria. “Why don’t you sit down a while? Let me buy you a drink. What do you want? A beer?”

“No thanks. I actually can’t stay long, I just wanted to drop in and say hi.”

“Are you here on Firefly business?” Maria asked, pointing at the dog tag hanging around Ellie’s neck.

“No, purely a social visit,” Ellie replied. “The rest of my squad is waiting for me up near the creek trails. We’re passing through on our way east and they agreed to let me stop in as long as we’re here.”

“What’s the rush? Why don’t you have them come in and spend the night indoors? Plenty of space in the Inn, and I’ll even waive the fee for y’all.”

“I appreciate that, but we’re all used to roughing it. We don’t want to put you out.”

“It’s no trouble, I assure you. Feel free to change your mind at any time.”

“Thank you,” said Ellie, knowing perfectly well that there was absolutely no way the rest of her squad would be coming here. “Listen, can you tell me where Dina’s living now? I’d really love to say hello.”

Maria hesitated for a moment, then answered, “She lives with her wife Amanda up by the schoolhouse.”

A huge smile came over Ellie’s face. “She got married? That’s so great! How long ago?”

Clearly this was not the reaction Maria had been expecting. “Um, well, I suppose it’s been about nine months now.”

Man,” said Ellie, shaking her head with wonder. “What a world, huh? Crazy how shit works out sometimes. Alright, thanks Maria. I should get going. Be safe out there, willya?”

“You too, Ellie. And if you ever want to come back, there’s always a place for you here.”

As Ellie left the tavern and set off towards the schoolhouse, she reflected on how different her life would have been had she decided to go back to Jackson after her mission in South America. It was hard to believe this town had ever felt like home to her. But the truth was that she’d never felt as comfortable here as she did by Abby’s side. There was simply no comparison between the two.

She found the mailbox labeled “Amanda / Dina / JJ” and headed up the walkway to the front door. As soon as she started down the path a dog began barking inside the house. From behind the door she could hear Dina asking the dog in an excited voice, “Who’s here? Who’s here Bobo?” Then Dina opened the door and her jaw dropped when she saw Ellie, bright-eyed and smiling, coming up the porch steps. “Holy fucking shit,” she said. “Ellie! You look great!”

It was really true. Though she doubted she’d ever be as physically fit as Abby, Ellie had been going with her for runs and doing morning exercises with her - be they sexual in nature or not. “Thanks,” she said, grinning. “So do you.”

“Ugh,” said Dina, rolling her eyes. “I’m a suburban mom.”

“Yeah, and it looks good on you.”

“Thank you. Well, come on in.” Dina stood back and let Ellie enter the home. It was small, but warm and cozy. It was clearly a place that was full of love. Bobo the dog, a large yellow lab, walked between Ellie’s legs a few times affectionately, wagging his tail enthusiastically. As Ellie was petting him, a painting of Dina and JJ on the wall drew her attention and she wandered over for a closer look. “Amanda did that. My wife, that is.” Dina held up her left hand, showing Ellie the ring on her finger. “Got married and shit.”

“I heard. Congrats, Dina. I mean it. I’m really happy for you.”

“Thanks. You know how I never could resist you artsy-type chicks.”

“Nope, you never could. She's obviously very talented - this painting is great. I love it.” Ellie turned away from the painting and looked around the house. “Where’s JJ?”

“Upstairs taking a nap,” Dina replied. “I can go get him.” She started to head to the stairs, but Ellie stopped her.

“Not yet,” she said. “I need to talk to you about something first. Let’s sit.” She gestured to the nearby dining room table, and she and Dina sat. Ellie set her backpack down on the floor between her feet, unzipped it, and began rummaging through it. “I brought something for JJ.” From her backpack she pulled out a small, hard plastic box. She set it on the table, opened the lid, and removed a tiny glass vial of clear liquid and a syringe, which she laid out wordlessly on the table before Dina.

Dina covered her mouth with her hand and leaned back in her chair, tears immediately flooding her eyes. “Is that what I think it is?” she said, her voice shaky.

Ellie nodded, giving her an understanding smile.

“Ellie… How… I mean, we’ve heard rumors but no one actually thought they were true!”

“Well, they are. But listen to me, Dina. No one can know about this, okay? He’ll have to hide it like I did until the Fireflies can start mass distributing it. Right now our resources are sparse so we can't have everybody coming to us and fighting over doses. We're all sworn to secrecy and only a select few Fireflies have gotten it so far - people who work with spores, people who have young children, rangers that are out looking for the supplies we need to make more, that sort of thing. It might take as long as a decade, but eventually we’ll be able to get it out to more people.”

“I can’t accept this, Ellie,” said Dina. “I mean, this is too much...”

“You absolutely can accept it, Dina,” said Ellie firmly. “I went through a huge ordeal for the Fireflies so they could make this. Everyone on my squad who lived through it is entitled to a dose, but obviously I don’t need mine and I want JJ to have it.”

This was not technically the truth. The dose was actually Abby’s. She had struggled with the idea that she was somehow more deserving of a dose than anyone else, and she had insisted on giving hers to JJ instead. To her it was the least she could do to even somewhat make up for the unrepentable sin of killing his father. She wanted him to be the first in a generation of children who would get to grow up safe from the risk of infection. Ellie understood where she was coming from and why she wanted to do it, but she also selfishly wasn’t willing to let Abby go unvaccinated. Unlike what Ellie had told Dina, Liz had never intended to give her one of the doses. After Abby had told her what she was planning to do with her dose, Ellie had marched right up to Liz’s office and demanded one to distribute at her own discretion, and she had injected it into Abby’s arm herself later that night.

It had been a surprisingly intimate and emotional event for both of them, and Ellie shivered, remembering…

“Okay, gimme that sexy arm of yours,” Ellie said as she finished drawing the vaccine into the syringe and set it down on the desk. They were in the room they shared in building six whenever they spent time in Avalon. Abby was sitting on the bed and Ellie was sitting on the desk chair facing her, their knees touching. When Abby rolled her eyes and put one of her arms in Ellie’s lap, Ellie ripped open a package with an alcohol swab and ran it over Abby’s bicep. Then she picked up the needle. “You ready? You’re just gonna feel a little pinch.”

“Are you being serious right now?” Abby said dryly. “You have literally stabbed me in the arm with a switchblade. I’m pretty sure I’ll be fine with a fucking needle.”

“Yeah, but I wasn’t in love with you then, so I didn’t feel bad about hurting you. But now? You hurt, I hurt.”

Abby smiled, her heart melting with love. “Don’t worry. I can handle it.”

“I know you can.” Ellie took the needle and performed the injection the way Doc had taught her. The injection site didn’t even bleed when she pulled the needle out and set it aside, but she rubbed Abby’s skin with a cotton ball anyway. Then she leaned forward and kissed the spot. “Now you’re just like me,” she said softly. “And you have no excuse not to grow crazy old and die of old age with me.”

“Wasn’t looking for one,” Abby replied, and she pulled Ellie into her lap and kissed her. "You're a miracle, Ellie. You know that? I don't know what I did to deserve this, but you are a complete fucking miracle."

Everything that had led them here flashed through Ellie's mind, and when she looked at Abby she knew that she had also considered all of that history before speaking, and yet she'd still decided to say it. "Well, whatever you did," she said, "I'm really glad you did it."

"Yeah," said Abby with an incredulous chuckle. "Me fucking too." She wrapped her arms more fully around Ellie and kissed her again as she allowed herself to fall backwards on the bed, bringing Ellie along with her.

Ellie was shaken out of the memory when Dina reached across the table and took her hands. “Thank you,” she said, tears rolling down her cheeks.

“You’re welcome,” responded Ellie, glowing with pleasure. If she hadn't already been sure that she was on the right path in life, this moment would have convinced her. All the suffering and pain that had led her here was completely worth it. Now more than ever, she was certain that this was exactly what she'd been put on this earth to do. "Go get my little potato buddy.”

JJ cried when Ellie stuck him with the needle, but she quickly ducked down afterwards and blew a raspberry into his tummy, and soon she had him shrieking with laughter. She sat on the floor and played with him and Bobo while she spent a little time catching Dina up on her life with the Fireflies - her travels with them to find supplies had taken her to all sorts of interesting places. Eventually the topic got to where Ellie had known it would: Her personal life.

She and Abby had agreed that it would be best not to disclose their relationship to anyone in Jackson. Ellie had been worried that this would offend Abby, but as usual she was totally understanding about it. There was no reason to dig up old wounds with the people here. It had been hard enough for Ellie to change her mind about Abby - there was no hope that it could be done for people like Dina and Maria in the short amount of time that they would be spending in town. So when the topic came up, Ellie was intentionally vague with her answers.

“Have you thought about settling down and starting a family?” Dina asked. “Are you seeing anyone?”

“I am in a relationship, but I don’t know that settling down is in our future,” Ellie answered.

“Why not? Is it not serious?”

“Oh, it’s serious - permanent, even,” said Ellie. “But we’re happy doing what we’re doing. We’re fighting the good fight, and the nomad life suits us. It keeps things interesting, you know?”

“She travels with you?”

“I never go anywhere without her.”

“Except Jackson, apparently,” Dina pointed out. 

“True. This was something I needed to do alone. I’m sorry you won’t get a chance to meet her,” Ellie said, knowing damn well that Dina had already met Abby on that night in the theater in Seattle. “She can be a little prickly at first, but I think you’d like her once you got to know her.”

“If you like her, I’m sure I would, too.”

Ellie checked her watch. “Well, it’s getting late. I should get going.” She reached out and pulled JJ against her chest, hugging him for all she was worth. “Bye, not-so-little-anymore spud. Do me a favor and live to be the world’s oldest person, okay?”

“Okie,” said JJ in his tiny toddler voice.

Kissing him on the top of his head and then rising up off the floor, Ellie said, “You too, Dina. Live until you’re so old your tits sag all the way to the floor, alright?”

Dina laughed. “I’m sure Amanda will be super into that.” She watched as Ellie swung her backpack onto her back and then walked with her to the front door. “I don’t know how I can ever thank you enough, Ellie. Because of you, he actually might live to be the world’s oldest person.”

“Just be happy. That’ll be thanks enough.”

“And you? Are you happy?”

With what was easily the most genuine smile Dina had ever seen her manage, Ellie replied, “I can honestly say that I have never been happier than I am now.”

“I could tell that the second I saw you. I'm really glad for you. Whatever your lady is doing to you, she’s obviously doing it pretty fucking well.”

“You have no idea,” laughed Ellie. She reached out and pulled Dina in for a firm, warm hug. “Bye, Dina.”

“Bye, Ellie.”

Ellie gave her one last grin and a wave before heading off down the path.

There was one other place Ellie wanted to go before returning to her squad. The cemetery was quiet and still, the sound of birdsong floating down from the trees. She approached Joel’s grave and sat down cross-legged in front of it, reaching out to trace the carvings of the letters in the stone. “Hey Joel,” she said. “I wish I could visit more, but I think of you all the time. Lots of stuff reminds me of you. Any time I smell coffee, or hear a guitar, or see a dinosaur… It’s like you’re right there beside me.

“And Joel, Abby reminds me of you. I honestly don’t think I’ll ever make up my mind about how that would make you feel. Some days I think you would be so angry with me for being with her that you’d never forgive me. But most days… Most days I think you would see how happy I am, and you would find a way to deal. All you ever cared about was my happiness.

“That night, on your porch, I told you I wanted to try and forgive you. Well, I do, Joel. I forgive you. And Abby… I forgive her, too. I had to do it, because I didn’t want to tear myself apart by being angry like I did with you. I regret not forgiving you sooner. We could have had so much more time together. And I can’t allow myself to make that mistake again with Abby. So I hope that, wherever you are, you’re okay with it. 

“I guess that’s all I wanted to say. I miss you, Joel. And… I love you.” She reached out again and traced his headstone. “Bye.”

She rose, took one last look, and then turned and began briskly walking back to the front gates, ready to go home to Abby.

The creek trails were a little harder to navigate than usual because there had been a lot of rain recently. Ellie found Abby taking advantage of the higher-than-usual water level by sitting on a rock with her bare feet in the water. She was completely absorbed in whatever book she was reading, but even still, when Ellie snuck up behind her and playfully covered her eyes she knew immediately who it was. Abby batted Ellie’s hands away with a laugh, marked her page, and set the book aside. “You came back,” she said with fake surprise. “I was worried you’d decide to stay.”

“Were you really?” asked Ellie, sitting down beside her on the rock. 

“No, of course not,” said Abby easily. 

“Good. I do have a confession to make, though.”

“What’s that?”

“I kissed a boy - more than once, too.”

“You bitch!” gasped Abby, putting a hand over her heart. “How could you?”

“I know. I’m a big old cheater. I kissed his head, I kissed his arm where I stuck the needle, I kissed his belly and both his hands.”

“BOTH? Unforgivable, Ellie.”

“I know,” Ellie repeated with a sigh. She wrapped her arm around Abby’s lower back and rested her head on her shoulder. “You did a good thing, Abs. Dina was very grateful.”

“It’s nothing. I couldn’t keep it for myself. Wouldn’t have been right.”

“It’s not nothing, okay? Maybe it won’t fix all the wrongs, but it certainly doesn’t make them worse.”

“That’s the idea, right? To stop making things worse than they already are.” She turned her head and kissed Ellie’s forehead. “How was it with Dina?”

“Why? You jealous?”

“Obviously.”

Ellie laughed. “It was good, actually. She’s married, has a really cute little house and a big old dog. I’m happy for her.”

“What did you tell her about me?”

“I told her you’re really fucking good in bed, and that’s why I keep you around.”

“So, the truth, then.”

“Exactly,” Ellie said. In a more serious tone, she continued, “No, I just told her that you make me crazy happy, and that the life I have now is the best I’ve ever had. And you’re the biggest part of that. You know that, right?”

“Yeah, I know,” replied Abby with a contented smile, which widened when Ellie swung her leg over and straddled her lap, resting her wrists on Abby’s shoulders. “Oh, hello there,” she said, wrapping her arms around Ellie so her hands were resting on the small of her back. But her smile faded when she saw the uncharacteristically serious expression on Ellie’s face. “What?”

Ellie put her hands on either side of Abby’s face, looked her directly in the eye and said: “I love you, Abby. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to express how much. Choosing to be with you was by far the best, healthiest decision I ever made. And I was only able to choose it because you offered. Because you were so honest with yourself and so forgiving with me. So thank you for being brave enough and smart enough and strong enough to do that first, because I don’t know that I ever would have been able to.”

“Oh, Ellie,” sighed Abby, utterly lovesick, “if you think that it was ever possible for me not to forgive you, you clearly don’t understand how in love with you I really am. I couldn’t be with you unless I forgave you, and I’d never wanted anything as much as I wanted to be with you. So even though I knew it would be scary and hard, I couldn’t stand the idea of doing nothing about it.”

“No, that’s not your style.”

“Nope. And right now I really want to kiss you, so I think I’ll probably have to do something about that, too.” 

“Oh, well I can handle that for you,” said Ellie, and she ducked her head to follow through. She brushed her lips lightly across Abby’s once, then returned for a long, leisurely kiss that made her whole body sing with pleasure.

They separated only because they heard a voice from nearby say: “I am seriously getting so tired of walking in on you guys making out.” Lev put his hands on his hips and glared. “You’d think after two years you’d be able to tone it down a little.”

“Have you ever looked at this girl with your eyeballs?” Ellie asked him, waving her hand in front of Abby as though she was presenting a prize on a game show. “Just fucking look at her. What am I supposed to do when she looks like that? I’m only human.”

“Jesus Christ, Ellie…” Abby groaned in embarrassment. “Really?”

“Well I think it’s sweet,” Brandy said, linking her arm with Lev’s and leaning against him. 

“There, see?” Ellie said. “It’s sweet.”

“Honestly, Lev, you should probably just get used to it, because it’s gonna keep happening for sure,” said Abby. “Sorry, bud.” She reached up and patted Ellie’s cheek. “Okay, let me up. We need to hit the road if we wanna be out of range of all the patrols by nightfall.”

Ellie climbed off her, then offered her hand to help pull Abby up. She waited for Abby to put her boots back on, toss her book in her backpack, and swing the backpack over her shoulder before offering her hand again - the one missing two fingers. Abby immediately took it, entwining her fingers with ones Ellie still had, not at all phased or upset by the damaged hand. 

The four of them began walking east, away from Jackson and towards their distant destination, a research hospital in New Jersey that the Fireflies had gotten a tip about. The rumor was that there was a large amount of supplies that could be used for making vaccines in the heavily spore-filled basement of the facility - a problem that was no longer an issue for the four remaining members of Squad Fight The Fungus. They always kept a vial of Doc’s now fully effective cordyceps toxicity antidote on hand just in case, but it was highly unlikely anyone would encounter that issue. Nowhere on earth were the spores as bad as they had been in the now-destroyed Porto Velho - and most likely never would be again, thanks to the Fireflies. 

As they left Jackson, Ellie thought once more about the city and all its inhabitants. If she ever came back here, it would be with enough vaccines for everyone. Enough to really make a positive impact on the world. But for today, for now, this was enough. She looked over at Abby, who gave her a dazzling smile and squeezed her hand tighter.

Oh yeah, thought Ellie, a return smile lighting up her face. This is definitely enough for now.

THE END