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Afterlife

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Everything has been leading to this moment and now the moment is passing, leaving Ellie behind, unmoored and weightless, like what zero-gravity must feel like, but awful. She’s kneeling in the water, and Abby is stumbling away towards the boats. Everything is irretrievably slipping from Ellie’s grasp, and it's even worse, because she let it go.

There’s no one in the world for her anymore. No one at all.

There’s faint gunfire and explosions, a whole mansion of people living and dying somewhere behind her, but she feels nauseatingly, sobbingly alone; like the only other person on the planet is staggering away from her, trying to get away as fast as she can stumble.

“Wait…” Ellie rasps, and nothing comes out, and Abby keeps wading forward, has made it to the edge of her boat. Ellie staggers forward, unsteady on her feet. Abby hears the noise and sways back around, her face haggard with fear and exhaustion.

“I’ve got—” Ellie tries to say. Holds out her canteen instead. Abby swipes for it, misses, gets it in both hands on the second go. Her lips are so dry they’re cracked and bleeding, but she fumbles the cap off and bends over the kid, raising his head. Ellie dares to wade closer. She wants to lean on the edge of the boat, but if she accidentally tips it.... She sways on her feet, instead.

“Lev,” Abby rasps, a strangled breath of a name. “You gotta— You gotta just a bit more. Please don’t...” The kid’s eyes are still closed. Abby pours the water over Lev’s lips and Ellie's torn between worrying it's a waste of water and feeling like she's watching Abby trying to pour life itself back into Lev's body. She knows, though, that there’s no one more important in the world. That she and Abby mean nothing at all. Are less than nothing.

The kid’s—Lev’s—eyes shift under closed eyelids, and his lips part, and he coughs, feebly. Ellie helps Abby steady the bottle, and Lev swallows. He tries to shape his lips around the mouth of the bottle, and he swallows again.

Abby’s mouth opens, and she wraps her arms around Lev and rocks them both. The sound she tries to make is a wail of relief and grief, like Mary with Jesus, Ellie thinks as Lev opens his eyes, alive again, still alive. Ellie takes the canteen gently, goes to recap it and—fuck. Her fingers are gone. Are bloody stumps. The nausea and vertigo tilts her world on its axis: she doesn’t stagger, she just falls, and the boat hits her and the water hits her and then there’s nothing.

~*~

She wakes to the sound of an engine, the smell of salt, and the soft, rolling jolts of being in a boat moving across water at speed. She’s soaked, and dully aware that she’s cold. She’s dully aware that she hurts, and she stares up at the stars and the rising half-full moon for a very long time, because moving is going to bring her back into her body too much. Eventually, she turns her head to look at the rest of the boat.

The other woman is at the tiller, hunched over and shivering, and periodically not just hunched over but falling forward, then jerking herself back up. The kid is curled up at the woman’s feet, definitely breathing, still; she stares until she’s sure of it. She stays lying there, trying to get enough saliva into her mouth to wet her lips.

The other woman lists again, and jerks herself upright again. Her grip on the tiller jerks, too.

Sitting up is absolute agony, from her fingertips all the way to her shoulder and into her chest. She does it anyway. Her side hurts too, in a way that had been all-encompassing, before her hand...before… She does not look down at her remaining fingers.

“Where are we going?” she manages to ask.

“Catalina Island,” the other woman says. “East-southeast, hours to go yet.”

Catalina Island. It takes a while for the words to process into memories of maps. They're off the coast of...Santa Barbara. They’d been in Santa Barbara, all of them, even if the idea is an entirely abstract one. It can’t have been more than an hour ago, but there’s also no other world than this: the boat racing over uneven water in the dark, the smell of the sea, the smell of blood and sweat. She is unrecognizable to herself. They’re all filthy and gaunt and hollowed out, and that makes it easier to be staring at each other, their histories and everything that might have been stripped away.

They're withered husks of people, but there is a living, breathing child in the boat between them. The child groans feebly, and both of them twitch towards him. She’s closer to the canteen and picks it up with her right hand. The other woman nods permission. She drags herself over and administers water like a benediction. He drinks. She reaches into her pack, finds the cloth-wrapped dried fruits and meats; he chews, weakly, eyes half open.

The other woman folds forward again, taking entire moments to right herself, the tiller listing badly. They are husks of people, but she leans in, dares to touch the other woman’s shoulder, then motions to herself and the rudder.

“You rest,” she manages. “I’ll steer.”

The other woman stares, and then eases herself slowly, painfully off the seat and down to be next to the child. The other woman wraps her arms around him and they shiver together.

“Steer just right of the moon,” the other woman says. “We should see lights in a while.”

They trade positions again when the pain in her side blurs her vision too badly, and she resumes feeding the boy tiny mouthfuls of water and food. It feels like the most important task in the world.

They’re husks of people, but the other woman swallows a careful sip from the canteen, and offers her the bottle. She shakes her head, and the woman shakes the bottle, insisting, and she takes it, and takes a mouthful.

~*~

The moon arcs slowly across the sky as they take shifts at the tiller, and then eventually, inevitably, the other woman’s steadfast squinting at the horizon pays off: she cries out and then starts looking around, urgently.

“Do you have a flashlight, or something?” the other woman asks. Ellie points to her pack, too tired to move much. The other woman fumbles through the backpack; her eyes widen at the array of weaponry; she clutches the flashlight like a lifeline. She starts a Morse code message directed to the silhouette of the island emerging from the dark.

Don’t, Ellie wants to say. Which is ridiculous, but she doesn’t want to...doesn’t want to remember that they are people, that it is Abby mere feet away, that they are going to live. Ellie had wanted the boy to live, but she’d forgotten that meant the both of them were going to survive, too.

Abby is starting her message over: SOS is clear enough, and then Ellie loses the pattern. Maybe there won’t be an answer.

The flashed reply cuts in halfway through iteration number three, and Abby cries out weakly in relief. Ellie closes her eyes, as if that's going to help delay the inevitable.

~*~

There are people on the shore. Abby steers the boat into shore, the hull scraping over the sand, and the people approach the boat cautiously, with weapons, but also blankets and water and concern. Abby scoops up Lev, protectively, and makes it all the way to her feet, still by the engine. Ellie tries to sit up, but can’t make her body cooperate. She stays curled up in the prow, not sure whether to clutch her hand or her side.

“I’m Liam,” one of the men says, approaching the side of the boat. “Are you all right?”

Abby’s face brightens; there’s recognition there, a past that’s transforming into a future. It’s joy and relief and a sob that contorts Abby’s face.

“I’m Abby,” she manages. “Abby from Santa Barbara.”

Liam’s face brightens into a grin. “Well, how about that. It’s a pleasure to meet you properly, Abby from Santa Barbara.”

“This is Lev,” she says. “Help him.”

“Looks like you could all use a hand,” Liam says, smiling at all three of them. He doesn’t try to take Lev from Abby’s arms. He leans into the boat instead, reaching for Ellie and helping to ease her upright. The assistance doesn't make it any less agonizing. He sees her hand and blanches. “You’ve all been through the wringer, huh?” he says, and signals to the others.

“I can walk,” Ellie growls, not at all sure that she can, but still. “Who're you?” Liam’s gentle expression only deepens.

“We’re the Fireflies,” he says. “You’re safe now.”

~*~

The Fireflies have golf buggies this time, of all things. Ellie attempts to walk out of sheer goddamn stubbornness—and because being on her feet for the last however long she’s got left feels right, too. “It’s a long way when you’re tired, dear,” a little old woman holstering a Star .45 pistol says, kindly. “Are you sure?”

Abby folds into one of the buggies without a word, still cradling Lev in her arms. Liam drives Abby, and the kindly woman walks alongside Ellie for the hundred yards it takes Ellie to stagger and fall to her knees. She stays on her hands and knees, miserably, as a second buggy pulls up. The kindly woman helps her in, tries to engage Ellie in conversation to distract from the pain, but terror has dried up Ellie’s voice.

They drive along the shore, towards a settlement. It’s going to be a beautiful morning: Ellie tries to savor the endless blue ocean, the cool breeze, and the rising sun clearing the horizon. One last dawn, she thinks.

The tiny convoy turns right into the settlement proper. It’s not so much a settlement as it is a town reclaimed from post-outbreak deterioration. There are enough crumbling houses that Ellie involuntarily tenses: infected hidey-holes, she thinks, her skin crawling. But on this street, at least, there’s also signs of normal life. She can hear a rooster crowing somewhere nearby and the occasional dog barking from behind intact fences. There are buggies everywhere, parked neatly on the street, under palm trees, or in tiny driveways, and just as many solar panels on roofs, capturing the emerging dawn.

The front yards are dusty and dry, but she can see kids' toys and bikes, and brightly-painted front doors. The neighborhood is mostly silent at this hour, aside from the low hum of the buggies’ engines. There are a lot of houses halfway through construction or salvage, Ellie isn’t sure which. But everywhere there are signs of life, and no signs of infected. Not even reinforced doors or windows. It’s tempting and terrifying in equal measure.

The settlement drops away as they mount a slight incline, giving way to trees and scrub, and then there on the right is a low, single-story building. Catalina Medical Center says the repainted sign. Unfolding from the buggy is excruciating, but damned if she’s going to go in here on a stretcher. Triply so because Abby is upright and carrying Lev up the steps and through the front doors. Ellie stumbles along after, stubbornly.

“C’mon in,” Liam says. He’s holding the door open for her. “Let’s get you checked out.” Ellie steps into the comparative gloom; her death sentence, once deferred, now due.

~*~

The medical staff are all so kind. Ellie is bracing for the moment they turn on her, and desperately drinks in every gentle touch and sympathetic look. Abby flatly refuses to be treated in a different room to Lev, so the staff keeps all three of them together, assuming. Abby doesn’t correct them. Abby doesn’t correct them, and the three of them are left alone in a treatment room for whole minutes, and Abby doesn’t say anything.

She says plenty to Lev. “We made it, oh god, oh fuck, we made it,” and cries into his hair. But feelings take energy, and soon theirs is all gone. Abby leans back against the wall, wrapping her arm around Lev's shoulders and looks at Ellie, pensively.

Then there’s a bustle of people; too many medical staff in the room—still kind, still gentle, but asking targeted questions this time, and here it comes. Fear is sucking the air out of the room, and Ellie fights to breathe.

“I’m Abby Anderson,” Abbey says. “This is Lev. He was a Seraphite.” There’s an inside joke in her voice, and she smiles down at Lev’s head.

"This is…" Abby glances across, and Ellie realizes that Abby doesn't remember her name. The laughter that wants to bubble out of Ellie chest is entirely hysterical. "She helped us." Abby says. “She got us here.”

All Abby’s doing is delaying the inevitable, like some new form of torture, and Ellie hates her for it.

One of the doctors—Dr. Wright, she introduced herself as— is spending so long fussing over Ellie’s missing fingers that she’s not noticed Ellie’s other hand yet. Anticipatory anxiety is making her shake a little.

“How did this happen?” Dr. Wright asks.

“Um.” Ellie winces. She doesn’t look over at Abby. “I got into a fight.”

“With an animal?”

“No,” Ellie says, shortly. “But also, um.” She raises her other hand. The bite mark is nearly a day old. It throbs, slightly, but is barely starting to blister. It’s starting to close, her body busily healing it like any other shallow wound.

“I’m Ellie,” she says. “Ellie—” What would he have thought? Would he care? Would he be pro— It's not like he’s around to object. Sucks to be you, Joel “Ellie Miller. I'm the one that was immune." She looks down at the scabbing-over bite mark. "Am immune."

Instinctive horror made Dr. Wright recoil, and then comprehension dawns across her face. Ellie doesn’t know how to interpret the clench of the doctor’s jaw.

“We can talk about all that later.” Dr. Wright says.

~*~

They put her under, and they wake her up again, after. She’s alive, with stitched and bandaged finger stumps, and a just as carefully dressed bite wound.

Dr. Wright comes and stands at the foot of Ellie's bed, like Ellie's any other patient. “You're in good shape, aside from some dehydration and a little malnutrition. I'll give you some antibiotics and painkillers. Try and keep your hand as elevated as you can. You’re going to be okay.”

“You can use me,” Ellie says, a little desperately. “I want you to.”

Dr. Wright closes her eyes for a moment. “Thank you,” she says. “But that’s not something we have the capacity for anymore.”

"I have so many questions," Ellie says. "But they're all dead, aren't they?"

"I can probably answer many of them," Dr. Wright allows. "But the original medical team…" she trails off regretfully.

The grief and loss stings afresh.

"Do you hate me?" Ellie whispers.

Dr. Wright pauses for a moment, considering. "The ones that wanted to go after you and the smuggler—"

"Joel," Ellie snaps. "His name was Joel. He was my…" She falters, both on the words and at the breathtaking arrogance of her expectation.

Dr. Wright raises an eyebrow, but she gives a half-nod, too. "—after you and Joel. The angriest, the ones who couldn't handle the loss, none of them are here."

Abby is Ellie thinks, distantly. But so is she, and one of those things should be wrong. Her hand is starting to throb.

"Were there others?" Ellie bursts out. "Are there others? Like me?"

"Yes. There were, and there very likely are. There were earlier attempts at a vaccine, too. Other… samples, but none that were effective. You were… Your brain scans…" She winces. "Your results were the most viable we'd seen so far, and Dr. Anderson, and the microbiologists, and our facilities in Salt Lake City… we needed all of it, together." She gestures, open handed, helplessly.

The name niggles at the back of Ellie’s mind, and she tries to put it away for later.

"Is there anything…" Ellie starts. "Can you…"

"We could take samples of your brain," Dr. Wright allows. "But my area of specialty is orthopedics, not brain surgery. Having the ability to do anything useful with your sacrifice…That window may open again, but I don't see how or where."

"You could kill me," Ellie whispers.

"What on earth good would that do now?"

Ellie closes her eyes, and swipes at her face with her free hand. "I'm sorry," Dr. Wright says. The pain in Ellie's hand flares, and she realizes she's trying to clench her fists. "Do you want more pain relief?" Dr. Wright asks.

"No," Ellie says, tightly. The doctor inclines her head in acknowledgement and, blessedly, leaves the room.

They leave her alone for nowhere near long enough. A guy in jeans and a shirt comes in with a backpack. A white guy, older than Liam, or maybe just with much greyer hair. There’s a brutal scar running down the side of his face, glancing off his chin and picking up at his collar bone before vanishing under his shirt. It twists one side of his face into a permanent smile.

“Hello,” he says, and the other side of his face joins in his smile, warming his eyes. “I’m Carlos. They tell me your name is Ellie.” He gestures out from his chest, an elegant little movement that somehow conveys a handshake and acknowledges that both her hands are out of action. “Do you want anything?” he asks.

“I want you to go away and leave me the hell alone,” Ellie mutters.

“I know,” Carlos says softly. “I’m sorry.”

This is a suicide watch, she realizes. Or an infected watch, or, probably, both. She laughs bleakly, darkly to herself. Carlos rummages around in his bag and comes up with a small fabric pouch, and from it takes out a few objects wrapped in little twists of paper.

“Candy?” he offers.

“No,” Ellie says reflexively. Then: “Where’d you even get that?”

“Traders come through Los Angeles,” Carlos says. “When it’s safe. We go out to meet them whenever we can.”

“Oh,” Ellie says. He unwraps one, and even in the few seconds before he pops it in his mouth, the sweet smell fills her mouth with saliva. “Uh,” she says.

He unwraps one for her and places it in her upturned, bandaged palm. She snuffles it out of her hand, and the sugar hit and the caramel flavor make her whimper involuntarily.

“Good, no?” Carlos is grinning at her. He’s rummaging again, but brings out knitting this time, which is way less interesting. He unfurls what looks like an intricately patterned giant square and settles in with tiny, industrious movements.

They sit in silence for a long time, long enough that Ellie starts to feel hungry. She tells herself it doesn’t matter, but there’s also not that much else to focus on. His needles barely make any noise, and the morning birds have long quieted into the afternoon.

“It’s nice here,” Carlos says just about the time she starts to squirm with boredom. “We’ve been here for some time, and the people are kind.”

“Depends who you are,” Ellie mutters darkly. He glances up at that.

“There is enough water here, and food. No one is beaten here.” He tugs more yarn from his ball. “There are work crews, but you can pick what you want to do, and change if you want to. No one is forced to work, here.”

“That’s not exactly the Fireflies I knew,” Ellie says, thinking of Riley’s initiation and the QZ attacks. Carlos shrugs.

“Lives change, goals change. It’s important to be able to adapt for survival. We were going to assist the people captured by the Rattlers when we had rebuilt our forces sufficiently.” He beams at her. “You did that for us, I hear. Thank you for that.”

“I didn’t…” It wasn’t like that had been her goal. She grimaces. Carlos is watching her, knowingly. He tugs for more yarn, still knitting, without looking down.

“You don't have to pretend to be okay here,” he says, and Ellie can’t even muster a sarcastic quip to that, can’t hold his quiet, understanding gaze.

~*~

Dinner is brought to her and supervised by one of the hospital staff. It’s fresh vegetables and even fresher fish, of all things, and it’s even better than Jackson food.

The orderly is quiet, much less warm than Carlos. She must know who Ellie is, what she’s caused, but the food doesn’t taste poisoned or anything. The wound dressing changes after suck, but she isn’t mean about them.

Regardless, the pain of it still leaves Ellie sweating and a little queasy, and utterly unprepared and vulnerable when Abby steps into the room.

Gaunt, short-haired Abby is so different to the silhouette that's haunted Ellie's dreams it takes whole seconds for Ellie to think “Abby”, and even then, the thought isn’t frightened rage.

“Lev okay?” Ellie asks. Abby nods.

It should be terrifying, Abby taking the chair next to the bed and sitting down, but there’s nothing left but a leaden feeling in Ellie’s chest.

Ellie steals glances at her when Abby’s looking out the window. She tries to overlay this gaunt, tired woman with the woman who had stood over Joel with the golf club, who had held a knife to Dina’s throat, and she can almost do it. The rage is there, but it’s a dully glowing ember in her chest, and she’s so tired. She imagines someone putting a gun in her hand, but she can’t imagine having the strength to raise it, never mind pull the trigger.

This is how Tommy must feel, she thinks. Unable to do a simple fucking thing. Useless. Worse than useless: failed.

“D’y’need water?” Abby asks. Ellie shakes her head. The evening glow is sliding into shadow.

“Why?” Ellie manages, at last. “Why’d you…?” She gives a tiny gesture that encompasses the entirety of their current circumstances. It's a relief to have someone she doesn’t have to use full sentences with.

Abby exhales. “Lev,” she says, eventually. “He wouldn’t have been impressed with me if I’d let you drown.”

“He wouldn’t’ve known,” Ellie says, frowning a little.

“Yeah, but I would.”

“You could’ve dragged me back to the beach.”

“Didn’t have the energy for that,” Abby says blandly. “Besides, your side looked real bad. And I don’t know how far we would have gotten without your water.”

“You could’ve—could’ve…”

“Could’ve saved you,” Abby offers, half a question.

“No fucking point to that,” Ellie spits.

Abby gives a mirthless, bitter laugh. “Isn’t there?”

Ellie growls between clenched teeth. She wants to roll away, but her side hurts. She squeezes her eyes closed, instead.

“You can kill me,” she whispers. “Please kill me.”

“There’s even less point to that,” Abby says, maddeningly mildly. “Only person who could’ve done anything useful with it is dead.”

“It has to mean something,” Ellie shouts. Abby flinches, and the silence stretches, twice as loud, as they listen to see if anyone comes running. They remain alone.

“It means that the doctor got murdered,” Abby says grimly. “And the guy that did the murder got murdered, and the woman who did that murder is, well. Here we are.”

“I didn’t want any of it,” Ellie sobs. “I would’ve said yes, if they’d asked me. If Joel’d let me...”

“Thank you,” Abby says in a very small voice.

“He was your dad,” Ellie whispers. “Wasn’t he. The doctor.”

Abby closes her eyes and nods.

“Joel was…” Ellie bites her lip. “I don’t know who my dad was. But Joel was my dad. In every way that counted, he was my dad.” Her breathing is ragged and wet in the silence. “I’m sorry he murdered your dad.”

“I’m sorry I murdered your dad, too,” Abby says, thickly. “It didn’t solve a fucking thing.”

~*~

After Abby leaves, the orderly takes one look at Ellie and goes in search of Dr. Wright.

Dr. Wright adds painkillers and sedatives to Ellie’s IV, and Ellie floats away, pathetically grateful for the reprieve.

The drugs seep out of her and leave her drifting half-awake as dawn spreads across the ceiling. There’s no time, somehow, to get stuck in her own head about what a new day meant post...what. Post hunt? Even the words feel distant.

Being on suicide-infection watch turns out to be a great way to meet the rest of the town. She’s had what feels like most of the leaders of the Fireflies’ areas come do a shift of staring at her, asking questions, offering their area for signing up into.

There’s Al from water and waste management, Rachel from fishing, James who oversees the kitchen gardens, and Lou who manages housing and construction. Carlos, to her surprise, turns out to oversee security with Andrew, the other half of his “we”. Andrew has a great many questions about the veritable arsenal she’s brought with her.

“You can keep it,” Ellie offers, tiredly, because she doesn’t fucking care anymore. And then, “Shit, wait, I want a bit of it.” He invites her to drop by the armory whenever she feels up to it.

Some of her minders clearly know what’s under the bandages on her right hand. Some of them Ellie can’t tell if they don’t know or they don’t care. Carlos isn’t wrong, she has to admit: they do seem nice here, even to her.

Ellie doesn’t want nice. She doesn’t want their compassion or their pity. She doesn’t deserve any of it. She’s not the fourteen-year-old who turned up to Jackson, desperate to prove herself and to be useful. It’s been a long time since she was anything approaching a good person.

~*~

Ellie walks out into the late morning sunshine with her left arm in a sling, precious antibiotics, clean clothes on her back, a hotel room key card, and a mud map to said building.

She can manage the walk back into town, as long as she paces herself for a rest under every third palm tree or so. There are a lot of palm trees, and going downhill helps, but even so, she’s startled to reach the hotel, on the shore barely half a mile from the hospital. That explains the dinky little golf buggies everywhere. It’s still weird not to see hitching posts.

“We don’t have much of a surplus of powered, habitable houses at the moment,” Lou, head of construction, had said. “But we did swing you all hotel rooms with an adjoining door, if that works.”

There’s that assumption again. Came together, staying together. Ellie had shrugged tightly. If Abby hadn’t corrected them… Why the fuck hadn’t Abby corrected them?

The hotel is in good shape, meaning it looks structurally sound and doesn’t even smell of mold. The lobby is empty of both people and salvageable furniture. The elevator button lights up when she presses it, and she takes it to the second floor, marveling despite herself. There are neat little pre-apocalypse signs, and she follows them to room 205. She can’t hear anything from 204. She holds the card up at the black box by the door handle—"About an inch away," Lou had said—but it still takes three goes before the box will cooperate with her trembling hand.

The room is two double beds—made beds, even—with nightstands, a desk with a chair, and a bathroom. Welcome, newcomers! says a sign near the sink. It exhorts her to Please save water wherever possible!. Ellie rolls her eyes at that, but she also remembers the dry, dusty front yards. She turns on the faucet just enough to confirm there’s actual running water, and turns it off hard.

The rest of settling in is entirely made up of dropping her backpack by the desk and going to check her exits. Her room is close to the emergency stairwell; stairwell is intact and clear; drop from balcony to ground would be painful, but survivable. The door that connects her to room 204 stays shut, and there is only silence beyond.

She sits down at the desk and drags her backpack against her legs. It’s crusted with salt, but the waterproofing has held up admirably. She unzips it, one handed, reluctantly. Don’t think about the desk in her apartment in Jackson, strewn with scrounged art supplies. Definitely don’t think about settling into the farmhouse with Dina, bartering in Jackson for toys for JJ—

Miserable rage makes her kick the desk, hard. The lamp topples and— “Shit”—she lunges for it, and its precious bulb.

There’s a soft knock on the adjoining door, and that does nothing to settle her heart rate at all.

“You okay?” It’s the kid.

“Yeah,” Ellie calls.

It only takes a few beats of silence before she starts feeling awkward. It’s still only silence on the other side of the door, but she can all but feel him now. She fumbles a couple of times with the lock, pushes the adjoining door open, and steps back to let him in.

Abby is right behind him, her hair mussed, looking like she’s very abruptly awake.

“I’m fine,” Ellie says to Lev, and she also holds Abby’s gaze over his head. I won’t hurt him, Ellie promises silently, and Abby nods and eases down into Ellie’s desk chair. Lev sits on the end of her bed, bouncing experimentally on it. The kid’s facial scars are unmistakable in the light of day. They're unsettling, but the rest of his face is so lit with his smile that Ellie’s own mouth wants to tug up into a smile back at him.

“Are you going to work?” Lev asks. “We’re gonna try housing,” Lev adds before Ellie can reply. “Gardening is so deeply not cold.”

“Cool,” Abby corrects, not even looking at him; the twinkle in Lev’s eye says they’ve done this a lot.

“I…” Ellie looks down at her left hand. “I don’t know yet,” she says. She’d been pretty reasonable at construction rotation back in Jackson, but the thought of her grip slipping, dropping anything from a height, let alone anything heavy… "Maybe gardening," she thinks out loud.

“Nice digs, huh?” Abby says, catching Ellie’s eye and nodding out to the balcony. The view is spectacular, Ellie realizes, but she abruptly can't deal with small talk.

“They think we were all captured by the Rattlers,” she says flatly. “Why’d you lie for me?”

Abby grimaces. “I didn’t know if they were still real mad about everything. Plus, I figured you should be allowed to get a head start on who you wanted to be here. If you wanted to stay.” It's half a question, and Ellie dodges it.

Ellie giggles disbelievingly, bitterly. “There’s nothing left for me to be.”

“I dunno, Miller, that’s sort of up to you to figure out.”

Ellie stares at her. “That’s not—” my name, she nearly finishes. And it’s not. But she also selfishly doesn’t want it to stop, now that it’s out there. She closes her mouth.

“We’re gonna go help set up for dinner down on the beach,” Lev says, glancing between the two of them and settling on Ellie. “You wanna come?”

She shakes her head, and then seethes at herself for being disappointed when they head off without her. She eats the last of the food she had from her backpack, sitting on the balcony, listening to the waves roll in and trying to ignore the laughter and voices of the Fireflies down on the beach.

~*~

It’s like the first little while in Jackson, getting oriented, trying to find a place, but she feels much more off balance. There are no patrols here, not in the ways she’s used to. There are sentry shifts, watching the horizon, or sitting concealed at landing points overnight, but there’s no infected, no killing, no violence, nothing to do with all her pent-up adrenaline.

It feels fucking awful.

She drops by the armory up at the former casino as soon as she can manage it. Andrew starts laying out her weapons.

"These are some excellent in-the-field modifications," he says. He wants to talk scope attachments and her plastic bottle sound suppressors, but Ellie finds herself clamming up.

It’s confronting, looking at the range of banged-up, hard-used rifles and handguns, not least because she can’t remember how or where she got many of these, or who she killed to get them. She takes Joel’s Taurus and the five rounds still in it. Andrew lets her without comment, which confirms that it was an infection watch, not a suicide watch.

“There was also a…” switchblade, she doesn’t quite finish, because even as she says it, she is viscerally back in the Santa Barbara water, lunging and slashing at Abby until Abby smacked it out of her hand. Ellie inhales sharply. It’s gone. She doesn’t deserve it anymore.

He offers her a position on the security team, and she shakes her head. “I’m a bad fit for that, now.” He offers to teach her how to knit, and she barks laughter in his face, and then feels bad.

"It would give you something to do when the nights are too long," he points out, gently. The bags under her eyes must be even worse than they look in the mirror. "And it might help your hand feel more like your hand again.” And fuck him, her finger stumps are still bandaged, it’s not like she can use them for—

Ellie looks down at her left side, and the hand tucked protectively against her body. Her hand, which she hasn’t tried to use since getting out of the hospital.

“Show me,” she relents.

~*~

She’s pretty okay at it; when she brings him her first attempt at a test swatch, Andrew makes an approving noise and shows her how to cast off. He shows her how to start socks next, which feels ridiculous both in terms of skill level and in terms of the California weather.

Good for Jackson she thinks as she looks back over the notes he wrote for her, and the agony steals her breath, a grief more debilitating than any hand pain. She doesn’t start the socks for days.

But the nights stay horribly long, and she returns to the notes and dubiously produces a little pouch of a thing. She has to explain in the morning that it's the toe of a sock, and Lev's eyes light up.

"It's a stub of a toe!" he crows.

Abby gets it first; she groans and covers her face with her hands. It takes a moment for Ellie to process it, and then she laughs, wildly.

"I'm so proud of you," Ellie says, and Lev's grin is infectious.

"Don't encourage him!" Abby yelps, half-laughing, half-despairing. "I hate you both, oh my god." The joy of all of it glows through Ellie's tiredness and sits there, warming her chest well into the afternoon.

~*~

Once her side has healed enough that she can move okay, she takes up gardening with James and his crew. Even propagating seeds wipes her out, and she staggers back to her room, exhausted, in early the afternoon. She sleeps whole hours before she jerks awake, walks down to the little café by the dock for supper, and returns to her room to sleep again. The dreams kick in sometime after that, but well before she's actually got enough sleep. She dreams endlessly of the infected, but also of being at home in Jackson, of the farmhouse, and she knows which ones she dreads the most. Lying awake after, thinking of JJ and thinking of Dina, and utterly unable to stop fucking sobbing. Hating herself. Thinking—knowing—that Dina is safer without Ellie beside her in bed, without someone so fucked up that half the time they woke up swinging...

Other nights she wakes with her heart racing, scrabbling for a weapon, sure for long, horrifying moments that the hotel is overrun. Trying to shed that adrenaline is a different sort of awful, but the sound of Lev's snoring, faint through the adjoining door, helps.

Ellie’s heard Lev and Abby wake from their own nightmares, and heard their indistinct reassurances to each other. Tries to pretend they're for her, too. Sometimes, on the worst nights, when she can’t hear Lev’s snoring over her own pounding heart, she gets up and presses her ear to the door, desperate for someone to hold her and tell her things are okay, to stay with her until she falls asleep again. The sound of someone—anyone—helps.

That lasts until the night she falls asleep there, and everyone gets the shit scared out of them in the morning, when Abby opens the adjoining door and Ellie flails awake onto Abby's legs.

Abby leaves the door wide open that evening, and Ellie doesn't close it. They stop closing the door after that, and it helps, it helps so much. She still doesn't sleep much, but it's easier to lie awake and feel slightly less alone in the world.

~*~

It's not so much a dream as the feelings of Jackson, of the cold air on her skin, the creak of the farmhouse, the smell of JJ’s skin, the warmth of Dina’s smile against her own mouth. She wakes slow and warm, and the hotel room brings reality crashing back in a wave of loneliness and self-loathing. Fucked up, fucked up, you had it and you gave it away.

Ellie stumbles out of bed, and out onto the balcony, trying to get the balcony door closed behind her so she can sob in peace.

“You okay?” It's Abby, in their adjoining doorway, and the jolt of adrenaline-shock about pushes Ellie over the edge. She doesn't have words for a lie; she just backs up and wedges herself in the far corner of her balcony and cries.

"Yeah," Abby murmurs. She's easing herself down into the opposite corner. Ellie curls up tighter, hoping Abby will fuck off. She doesn’t. She just sits there, quietly. And this was what Ellie wanted, someone with her, but she doesn't deserve the compassion in Abby's eyes.

“What’s the fucking point?” Ellie manages to get out between sobs. “You kill people, nothing gets fixed and you still feel like shit. You don’t kill people, you feel just as bad, and everything still hurts. You’re still poisoning everything you touch.” She flexes her mutilated hand. It's been days since the bandages came off, but catching sight of the pink, raw-looking stumps still makes her shudder. She closes her eyes. "So what's the fucking point?"

"Well." Abby draws her knees up to her chest, and rests her chin on her knees. “The Prophet would say diplomacy and negotiation are the paths that lead to the most happiness. They're also the hardest paths. Should those fail, should violence occur, then it’s about performing penance.”

It’s unexpected and weird enough to make Ellie gulp in a little composure: disdain helps a lot. “You don’t… you don't seriously believe that shit?” Ellie manages.

Abby smiles, a tiny little warm expression. “Try spending three immensely fucked-up months in close proximity to a former Seraphite. He rubs off on you, eventually.”

Ellie snorts.

"Trying to sit with what we've done," Abby says. "And with what was done to us, and not passing it on. Making it stop with us. Passing on something better than what we were dealt, or what we dealt out. That's our penance."

Ellie thinks of JJ, and it’s a stab in the guts. And she thinks of Dina, just as scarred but somehow less fucked up than Ellie, and the tenderness she had been giving JJ, to Ellie, and the grief tries to swallow her again.

“I’m not— I’m too fucked up to be that person.”

“Maybe you are. But the Prophet never said it was going to be easy.”

“Ugh,” Ellie mutters. She sniffs hard. She’s cold and stiff, and getting up is going to suck.
The only thing waiting for her is her own cold bed with its tangled, sweaty sheets, and it might be more enjoyable to stay here all fucking night. Abby clears her throat.

“Lev’s had a rough couple of nights,” she ventures. “He’s in with me. You want his bed for the night?”

Yes please Ellie thinks, but she can't make the words. Please

Abby gets up first, and holds out her hand, and Ellie nods, and takes it. Abby's hand is warm and calloused, and Abby lets her hold it all the way to 204. Lev is snoring lightly in Abby's bed. Lev's sheets are tangled too, but it's so much easier to slip between them than her own. She wants Abby to follow her into bed. She wants Abby to hold her, and she won’t cry in the dark, so close to them, she will not.

"G'night," Abby whispers in the dark. Lev mutters something, and then snores again.

"Night," Ellie manages. She lies awake on her back, staring up at the ceiling. There’ll be no sleep for her, not like this, not…

She drifts awake, curled on her side. It's morning enough that it's light, but not quite dawn. Lev's bed is warm and cozy enough that Ellie could almost believe it was a hug.

Abby and Lev are curled up together. Abby’s still asleep, but Lev blinks sleepily, seemingly waking under Ellie's gaze. He focuses, and sees her, and he smiles at her like it’s entirely normal for her to be in his room, in his bed.

"Mornin’," he whispers.

"Mornin’," Ellie whispers back. "Your bed is very comfy."

"You're very welcome," he whispers. Abby grumbles in her sleep, then settles again.

They grin at each other, and things almost feel okay.

~*~

Ellie's built her stamina back up enough that she's making it through entire shifts at the garden plots. It nearly feels good: her aching muscles, the prickle of sunburn, even the dirt under her remaining fingernails feels something like an achievement. The hot shower afterwards is a reward all of its own, and she spends the time until Lev and Abby get back knitting on the balcony, enjoying the breeze.

Then one afternoon, a golf buggy pulls up outside the hotel. It's too early for it to be Lev and Abby, but Ellie can hear Abby's voice: "Seriously, I'm fine," and that's all Ellie needs to be on her feet, leaning worriedly over the railing.

"What's wrong?" she shouts down.

"Fine!," Abby shouts back, but she's getting out of the buggy, and even from this distance Ellie can see the discoloration across the side of Abby's face. Ellie dumps her knitting on the table and bolts for the stairs.

"I'm barely even bleeding," Abby's saying as Ellie crosses the lobby. Abby's technically correct, but Jesus— she's holding an icepack to a scrape that runs the full length of her cheekbone, and her face is all but swelling as Ellie stares. The bruising is going to take Abby's right eye out of action, and make chewing a bitch.

"Wasn't looking where I was going and accidentally tried to stop a 2x4 with the side of my head," Abby says with forced cheerfulness. "Roy is unbelievably sorry, and has promised me all of his beers for the next month." Lev whimpers. He's not crying, exactly, but he's as pale and shocked-looking as if he'd been walloped too.

"Please," Lev whispers. Ellie doesn't know what sort of argument they've been having on the way home, but Abby's expression softens. "I'm not seeing double," she says gently. "I don't have a headache. All my teeth are present—or accounted for, anyway." She adds a smile, but Lev's hunching in on himself even harder.

"Please go get checked out," he says in a tiny voice.

"Shall I drive?" Ellie offers.

"Yes," Lev says. Abby looks between the two of them, and sighs.

"Okay," she says.

~*~

Abby is, in fact, as fine as Dr. Wright can make her. To the doctor's credit, she takes one look at Lev and methodically and conspicuously examines Abby from the scalp down.

"You got lucky," Dr. Wright says. "No concussion, no neck damage. Take painkillers if you need them, keep up the icepack to reduce the swelling, okay?"

Lev relaxes a little, but not as much as Ellie might have hoped. She brings them all supper. Abby finishes all of hers and makes a point of taking her meds, and Lev picks at his and looks not very mollified. Abby's eye has swollen closed, and even for Ellie, it's a little unsettling to see.

~*~

That night, Ellie jolts awake to Lev screaming.

"Lev!" Abby shouts. "Wake up, Lev, Christ—"

Lev wails, a primal cry grief and rage and helpless terror. "Leave her alone," he screams, and all of the hair on Ellie's arms raises in horrified sympathy. She lunges out of bed as Lev screams on and on.

"Lev, please," Abby's begging. She's trying to hold him, and he's sobbing, struggling, fighting dirty and smart even in his sleep.

"Lev!" Ellie barks, making it a command of a shout, and his eyes snap open, unfocussed and glassy with tears.

"Don't you touch her!" he screams, his voice cracking with it. Abby's crying, too, rocking him. “I know,” Abby’s saying. “I know, I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m fine. It's okay.”

"Should I…" Ellie starts backing up a little, not wanting to intrude. Abby, her face buried in Lev's hair, reaches out blindly and gets a fistful of Ellie's sleepshirt. "Okay," Ellie murmurs, and dares to cover Abby's fist with her hand. "Balcony?" she offers.

It's a warm night, but Ellie gathers them blankets anyway as Abby carries Lev outside. Cowering under the blankets, Lev stays curled up tight against Abby's side, and Ellie sits close by.

Lev raises his head to look at Ellie, his face is still streaked with tears. “You killed them,” Lev says, and there’s a ferocity there, and under it is a plea.

“Lev,” Abby murmurs, somewhere between worry and a warning.

“You mean the Rattlers?" Ellie asks. "I killed a lot of them."

"Good," he says. It's the same tone that Abby had used as she’d held the knife to Dina's throat, and something visceral unfurls in Ellie’s stomach. She wraps her arms around herself to try and keep the horror at bay.

"It doesn't fix things,” Ellie says, haltingly. “Killing people."

"Means they hurt less people,” he returns immediately. “And protecting your people is important."

"There is that," Ellie allows. "But that hurt and that anger? The kind that makes you want to hunt someone down and kill them? That doesn't go away after they're dead."

"Maybe," Lev says. "But trying to kill people is good sometimes."

Ellie looks helplessly to Abby. I told you, she tries to convey. We’re not the right people for this. Abby is making a face, but she’s floundering too.

"We'd be dead if you hadn't come back to kill us," Lev says, almost absently. "That's what you were doing, wasn't it?" Statement of fact, not a question. Ellie nods, minutely. "I'm glad you came back to kill us."

Ellie chokes on that, a laugh in her throat, and a sudden lump that makes her cough. She rubs her hands over her face.

“I—um.” She looks up at Abby over the top of Lev’s head. Abby makes a tired, wry, smile. Ellie finds herself smiling back, a mirror of Abby’s expression. “I’m—I'm really glad I came back to kill you, too.”

~*~

Things are fragile for a little while longer. Abby's bruises take days to flare into a spectacular sunset of colors, and longer yet to fade to dirty yellows. Ellie turns the heel on the sock under Andrew’s meticulous guidance, and starts in on the mindless rib of the leg in the hours after Lev's nightmares. She keeps sleeping in Lev's vacant bed, and it seems to help all of them. As Abby's bruising eases, so does their disrupted sleep. Lev doesn't move back into his bed, and Ellie doesn't move back into hers, and the sock progress slows as they shift from sleeping as well as they had before the accident into sleeping better than they had since…further back than Ellie can remember.

Even her own dreams get easier, mostly. She doesn’t jerk awake anymore, doesn’t come up swinging, but…

One night she wakes, already mid-sob, the dream-warmth of Dina’s lips on her shoulder still lingering. When she’s gulped a silent breath and opens her eyes, she finds Lev sitting tentatively at the edge of the bed he shares with Abby.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry it hurts.”

She doesn’t know what he thinks hurts, but she can see grace when it’s offered.

“Thank you,” she whispers.

He glances at Abby, then carefully shifts himself off the bed. “Do you want—” he starts, and seems to consider his words. “It might hurt less with someone else.”

Her chest aches, but for the first time in a long time, it’s not only grief. “Please,” she says, and scoots back to make room for him to curl in next to her.
He’s right; it does hurt less with someone else.

~*~

Finishing the sock cuff feels like it takes forever, but at last she gets Andrew to walk her through how to cast off her first sock, and he makes her cast on the next one immediately at their kitchen table while Carlos makes them celebratory cups of tea.

Things change, slowly. She can look at Lev and smile; she can look at Abby and breathe. She can think of JJ and Dina and not be dragged under by grief.

She even dares to page back through her journal, a tiny bit, picking at the scabs of memories: Jesse and Tommy, and Mel and Owen and Nora. Collateral damage, Tommy would have insisted, even of himself. Worth it, to avenge Joel.

“Yeah,” Ellie whispers aloud, alone in her hotel room. “But you’re an asshole.”

~*~

Abby and Lev have been stopping by the fields on their way home, ostensibly to help Ellie pack up, but really so Lev could hang out with Lucia. There’s very little packing up and a lot of chatting on the kids’ part, and Ellie and Abby move back towards the road, cleaning tools far enough away that the kids’ voices were little more than a murmur.

"I…I'm sorry," Ellie begins. Abby tilts her head, inquiringly. "I'm sorry about Mel and about Owen, and…"

Abby's eyes narrow. "You doing penance, or you wanting the guilt to go away, Miller?"

Ellie grimaces. “I don’t...I want…”

Abby isn’t giving her any outs. She’s standing steady with the rake in her hand, waiting, and Ellie has to look away.

“Yeah,” Abby says. "Me too." She turns back to the wheelbarrow, and holds out a hand for Ellie's shovel to stack with the rest. Ellie passes it over. It’s not okay, but some wounds weren't going to heal clean.

~*~

Things are still changing. She’s made it through a full week of all-day gardening at last, and when she sees the knots of people start to gather down on the beach for the Friday night gathering, Ellie puts her shoes back on and walks down to join the crowd.

Ellie can’t spot Abby, but she catches Lev and Lucia bashfully greeting each other, and it makes her smile. Lev awkwardly, sweetly, takes Lucia’s hand, and Lucia leans in and pecks a kiss to Lev’s cheek, like his scar isn’t even there. They're both blushing ferociously, visible even in the fading light, but they’re grinning, too, in a way that makes Ellie’s heart squeeze with joy—then her chest keeps tightening, fucking crushing her lungs, and—

Dina had kissed Ellie. Dina hadn’t been at all bashful, but the same grin that blossomed over Lev’s face, Ellie’s had that grin, and the warm glow inside her, and now—fuck. Fuck

She stumbles away from the revelry, away from the bonfires and out along the beach. The sand is getting in her shoes, and she rips them off her feet, half-falling with the effort, and it's infuriating that carrying them feels like just as much work as wearing them. She goes further, faster, until she’s far enough away that she feels properly alone and can sit on the sand and suffer in peace. She tries to calm her breathing with the sound of the waves, and it's not doing shit.

“Hey, Miller.”

Ellie stares stubbornly down at her bare feet and clenches sand between her toes. She tries to radiate fuck off, but Abby isn’t taking the damn hint. She’s just sitting respectful distance away and waiting.

“What—” Ellie clears her throat. “What do you do when you’re the shittiest person alive?”

Abby, to Ellie’s surprise, laughs. Really laughs.

“Do you want to fight me for that title, Miller? Because you literally did, and I gotta say, you lost.”

Ellie turns her head to stare. Abby scoots around so they're facing each other. There's a grim little smile on her face, and a fierce energy crackling off her.

“What scale of shitty are we measuring against?” Abby asks. She raises her hands, fingers closed. “Killed a lot of people? Because yeah, we both did a lot of that. I killed a lot of Scars, a lot of people that Lev knew, even. Let’s say we’re about even there." She raises both index fingers.

“Were we assholes to the people who loved us? I dunno about you, but I get a fucking big tick in that column. Did you wreck your relationship in the pursuit of killing people? Did you do it so thoroughly that he went off and made an entire life with someone else? Up to and including that they were going to have a baby together?”

“Mel,” Ellie realizes numbly. “And Owen.”

“Bingo,” Abby says. She swipes at her eyes like she’s mad at them.

“I nuked that relationship long before you pulled the trigger,” Abby admits. “I’ll never know if I could’ve had him back.” She shrugs a little, one shouldered. “But I don’t think I could’ve.”

Ellie stares down at her own hands and chokes a little: she doesn’t even have enough fingers to tick off the ways in which she’s been shitty. The ways in which she is shitty.

“I…" Ellie tries, her voice thick.

Abby presses on, raising her fists back up, fingers extended, her voice wavering only slightly. “Did you chase someone across the damn country to murder them for the shitty things they did?” Abby raises fingers on both hands again. “Did you choose to go through with it?” Abby raises the fourth finger on her left hand. “Or did you choose to let them go?” She waggles the two raised fingers of her right back and forth, questioningly.

“I…” Ellie tries again. “You stopped too,” Ellie says. “You chose to let someone go.”

Abby raises her eyebrows.

“Dina," Ellie says. Abby looks politely blank. “Dina’s my—was— my girlfriend. The pregnant one, the one you were going to…” Ellie sketches a finger across her own throat.

“Ah,” Abby says, looking away. "That was Lev, though, to give credit where credit's due and all that." A wave rolls into shore in their silence. “I’m glad I didn’t slit her throat.”

“Me too,” Ellie says, in the same bland, off-hand way they’d developed to talk about horrendous things. “Meant I got to burn my relationship to the ground all by myself.”

Abby makes a soft, inquiring sound and Ellie swallows, forces herself to go on. “She left me when I— Well, I left her to come hunt you down. She was—she was very done with revenge, with…” Ellie stalls.

“With you?” Abby says. It’s not unkind.

“With me, because I couldn’t let it go,” Ellie admits. She lets a bitter smile twist to the surface. “I couldn’t let you go. So I left, and now she’s very done with me, too.”

She can almost say it steadily. “So she and JJ—” Her voice cracks. “He’s her—was Jesse and her—”

“Dina’s baby?” Abby offers softly. Our little potato, Ellie thinks, and tries to curl up to protect herself from grief so strong it’s almost panic. She wraps her arms around her shins, but she can’t stop herself sobbing against her knees.

There's a tentative hand on her shoulder, and she doesn't deserve comfort for this, but is too weak to shrug it away. Abby scoots in closer, resting her arm around Ellie's shoulders, and Ellie leans into the warmth of Abby's side.

“He gets the chance to grow up,” Abby says. She’s stroking Ellie’s hair as she says it, and her words are soft and gentle. “He gets the chance to grow up safe and happy with his mom. He’s lucky, so lucky. Dina gets her life with him”—Ellie flinches—“as much as anything’s certain in this world, which is approximately zero.”

The grief and regret are unmooring her, and she feels dizzy with it. This was standing in the ocean at Santa Barbara, watching Abby leave; this was swaying over Mel’s body, and seeing the swell of her belly…

“Mel and Owen,” Ellie says, forcing it out. “And their baby. They should have had that fucking chance too. But I shot them.”

Everything has slipped from her grasp, and it’s her own fault; it’s because she let it go. But this time, Abby is holding her steady, keeping her grounded. Anchoring her. Ellie can breathe with Abby’s arms around her.

“Yeah, they should have,” Abby says. She’s crying, too. “Even if it was going to be decisively without me, they should have got that chance. No more luck for them.”

Ellie wipes her face on her sleeve. “This is doing penance, isn’t it?” she tries to smile, to go back to the safety of blandly casual horror, but all of it’s too fucking heavy.

“Yep,” Abby says. “This is what we pick up and carry while we figure out what our lives look like after all of that.”

“Do we get to have lives, after all that?”

“Yes,” Abby says, with such quiet certainty Ellie tries to turn her head to look at her. “We get our lives for as long as we get them, until we don’t. Just like everyone else.”

Ellie exhales, long and slow and wet. Abby doesn't move her arm, and Ellie doesn't move it for her. Stars are slowly appearing in the sky

 

“If—” Abby says. She tightens her arm around Ellie's shoulder, squeezing gently. “If you want a place to stay while you’re figuring out your life, Lev and I are planning to put in for the house we’re doing up at the moment. It’s got room.”

It's so fucking much. Ellie opens her mouth, then closes it, struggling for the words as her eyes burn and her breath shudders. She is not going to fucking cry.

“Us shitty people gotta stick together, Miller,” Abby says. Ellie presses herself against Abby's side. She doesn't trust herself to speak, but she puts her left hand on Abby's knee and squeezes tight with all three fingers. Abby presses her face to the top of Ellie's head, and Abby's smile curves against Ellie's hair.

~*~

Ellie's still working on the second sock when the Anderson house, as the construction crew has dubbed it, is finished near the end of fall.

Lou ceremoniously closes the front door and hands the key to Abby, Lev bouncing on his heels with nervous excitement beside her. Abby’s less obvious about it, but she doesn't look comfortable in the middle of the crowd, either. She scrapes her hair back into its ponytail like she's going into battle.

"Miller, you get over here, too."

It's not like Ellie wants the attention, but the crew bumps her forward until Abby's waving the key under Ellie's nose.

"Fuck you," Ellie whispers, alarmed.

"All together?" Abby asks, hopefully, and neither Ellie nor Lev can actually deny her that.

It's a three-bedroom house, but it takes as long as the first night before they’ve packed three beds into the largest bedroom.

The seasons shift, or shift as much as they ever do in California, apparently. It's not a winter like Ellie had ever imagined, and she misses the calm, hard coldness of snow, but when the first big storm of the season rolls in, she finds herself dancing in the now-muddy streets with everyone else as the water tanks fill.

Lev moves into his own room, asking with studied casualness one morning if they would help him move his bed. After months of regular meals and construction work, he’s strong enough that he doesn’t need the help, but they do it anyway.

“You can always come back, if you need,” Abby says, and he nods seriously.

“I know,” he says. “But I think you’ll be okay.”

With Lev moved out—the other end of the hallway, sure, but the bedroom feels huge—it only takes half of one lonely, restless night before Ellie plucks up her courage and slips into Abby's bed. Abby reaches for her, gratefully. Within the week, they're moving the second bed into the second bedroom and designating it the guest room.

~*~

Ellie usually sleeps through the night, now, with the warm weight of Abby pressed against her back.

She still dreams, they all do, but mostly—

—mostly they’re good.