Actions

Work Header

Milestones

Chapter Text

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

When have we ever gotten into trouble?

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

Don’t go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How did you sleep, kiddo?”

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ellie!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because I don’t deserve it!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“C'mon. Let's get outta here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why isn’t she turning?

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

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

“Put your gun down!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I said, escort her to camp.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellie reads the first question and starts writing.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, dear?”

“Thank you.”

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

Chapter Text

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

“You okay, Kiddo?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re gonna catch me?

I got you.

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

See, you didn’t even need me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then stop startling me!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Awesome,” she manages to cough out.

“Then let’s do it again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you swim often?”

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

“Pool parties?”

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

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

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

“Wish I could be that comfortable around water…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“Ellie, we’re going to be late!”

Shit.

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

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

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

“But it’s my favourite!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Language, you old fart.”

“You’re a weird kid.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do I look like I knew that, Joel?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did you think of it?”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You are stupid."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“What’s gotten into you?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He chuckles. “In my closet.”

“And the presents?”

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

Ellie scoffs. “Hey, I clean sometimes.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I be the tree’s maid of honor?”

“I was thinking you could officiate.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aw, it snow fun anymore!”

“Ellie.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

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

Inventory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, it absolutely is.”

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

“Now where’s the fun in that?”

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

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

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

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

“So, pregnant again?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh. Cool.”

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

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

Ellie exhales loudly. “What do you want?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I told you not to look!”

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

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

“Because you like it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Ellie!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Quinn literally just threw up, man!”

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

“Two.”

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

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

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

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

“Alright then, let’s get mama a six.”

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

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

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

… And promptly chokes on it.

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nope.”

Please!”

“Nope.”

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

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

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

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

“Tell me! Is it someone we know?”

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You don’t know for sure it was him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her head is pounding.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, shush.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please!”

“Nope.”

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

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

“I’ll bake you a cake?”

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

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

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

“Sadly enough, yes. But still, nope.”

“I’ll do anything!”

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

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

“Deal?”

“Alright, deal.”

“And you have to keep it to yourself.”

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

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

“You’re exaggerating, Freckles.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Riley.”  

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

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

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

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

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

“Whatever, Riley sounds hot.”

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

“Yeah… yeah, I guess.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re such a mess, Lightweight.”

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

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

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

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

“Where am I supposed to sleep?”

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

“Fuck you. Scoot over.”

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

“I’m glad you told me about Riley.”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And it is as soft as a cloud.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“See, I told you you’d say that!”

She holds up her middle finger in answer.

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

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

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

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

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

“Get your ass up.”

“I’m not getting up.”

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

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

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

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

“You’re the worst.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you put my hair in a bun?”

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

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

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

Chapter Text

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

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

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

“Does it still hurt?”

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

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

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

“Whatever you say, kid.”

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

“You’re avoiding the question.”

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

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

Ellie shrugs again. “Nothing you can do.”

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

“You’re home early.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stargazing?”

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re late.”

“Late for what?”

“We’re nearly half an hour late.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, no one answers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jessica scares me almost as much as Maria.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So I can feel bad about eating early?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was nothing.”

“I’ve never had a birthday party.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s my birthday! Please?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

“Ellie. Ellie. Ellie, wake up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Ellie!”

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

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

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

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

“Nice tattoos you got there.”

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

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

“Well, see you around Ellie.”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

“I want a tattoo.”

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

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

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

Ellie just shrugs. “I know a guy.”

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

“Yep.”

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

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

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

“No.”

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

“You’re the worst.”

“Sure, I am.”

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

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

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

“Be safe.”

“Always.”

“That’s not even close to true.”

“Goodnight, Joel!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Earth to Williams? Anyone home?”

The voice makes Ellie jump. She was so deep in thought, she had missed the sun setting over the fence… and Dina’s patrol squad reporting back after their day out in the woods.

Dina herself was standing above her, her body blocking most of her line of sight.

“Sweet mother of God, what is that smell? Do you have a dead possum hiding in that backpack of yours?” Ellie exclaims, teasingly covering her mouth and nose with part of her shirt.

Dina slaps her arm and lies down next to her. “Hilarious.”

“Seriously, you smell like shit.”

“Thank you for sugar-coating it.”

“Anytime. Seriously, what happened to you?”

Dina closes her eyes, stretching on the still-warm grass by the tree. “Fell down an old septic tank.” Ellie shudders, remembering the damp, rotten smell of the sewers they had had to escape through in Pittsburgh.

“Isn’t that supposed to be underground?”

“It was, but it broke when Tyler and I walked over it. We kinda pulled a Jesse-move and fell through.”

“Oh, that’s why it smells like dead fish.”

Dina raises an eyebrow. Oh man, I screwed up. She lunges at Ellie from her spot on the ground and tackles her – she has the element of surprise on her side, which sends them both tumbling to the ground. “Shit, you’re disgusting, get off!”

The older girl just laughs, rubs her hands and arms all over Ellie’s face and wraps her legs around her waist so she has no way of escaping Dina’s grasp. “Now you smell horrible by association, darling!”

She pushes Ellie down on the ground so she can rub her face against hers – her hair smells worse than the old mop that has a permanent place in the bucket of dirty water in the community center. She feels something dig into her back, causing her to yelp out in pain and Dina to pull away.

“Root’s digging into my back,” Ellie explains as she straightens up, resting her hand on one hand so she can massage the small of her back with the other. “I hate you, by the way.”

Dina blows her a kiss in a very dramatic, Dina-like fashion and grabs a hold of her arm to roll off her. Ellie’s breath catches in her throat and she swears she feels her heart stop for a second as she stares down at Dina’s hand.

Dina’s fingers are wrapped directly over her bite.

Sure, it is covered, but she can’t help but remember the raised, hard skin around the bite. She’s going to feel it. What do I do now? Shit. Shit. Shit, I should have been more careful, what if she tells anyone?

But Dina doesn’t seem to notice anything out of the ordinary as she pulls herself to her feet, much to Ellie’s relief. “Not that I don’t enjoy your smelly company, but I’m going to take a shower before I start attracting wildlife.”

“Your mom is so going to make you burn your clothes before you walk inside her house.”

Dina chuckles. “I know, that’s why I’m headed to Jesse’s place.”

Ellie nods, her heart barely recovering from her previous scare. “Isn’t he bedridden for now?”

Dina dusts her pants off and winks at her, starting to walk away at the same time. “Exactly.”

Ellie can’t help but laugh at her friend’s antics.

“Be safe, you two! I don’t want to be an aunt just yet!”

“Shut up, Freckles.”

***

In retrospect, she really should have waited until Chuck was done with his sip of water before asking him to tattoo her.

“You want me to what?” he sputters, water shooting out of his nose.

Ellie wipes her face of the sprayed water that just unceremoniously landed on it. “I want you to tattoo me,” she repeats. “Please.”

Chuck wipes his face with the bottom part of his shirt, exposing his fully tattooed stomach for a brief second. Jeez, how many tattoos does this guy have?

When the shirt falls back to its usual place, Chuck’s eyes lock on hers as if he is trying to read her thoughts. Trying to analyse her. He has bright blue eyes, not that noticeable behind his dark rimmed glasses, but now they seem to see right through her. She might as well be wearing no clothes at all, considering how naked she feels under his gaze. Ellie starts shifting her weight from one foot to the other, nervously looking around to see if anyone heard their exchange.

At this hour of the night, Jackson basically turns into a ghost town, save for whoever inherits the overnight shifts on the watch towers. Other than that, the streets are empty and the houses are dark. Tonight is no different, and she sees no one around them.

“A tattoo’s not a game,” he finally says. He screws the lid of his water canteen shut and puts it safely in his backpack before speaking again. “It’s not going to come off when you get tired of it. It’ll stay on you, forever.”

Ellie nods in response. “I know. That’s exactly what I want.”

“What do you want a tattoo for anyway?”

Ellie paused. Why did she want one anyway?

“I guess I have my reasons.” Chuck chuckles, then turns on his heels and heads out, walking the opposite way she came from – to his place, she assumes. Ellie stays behind, uncertain. “So? You’ll do it?”

He doesn’t turn around, just shouts his answer over his shoulder. “If you can think of a better reason than that, sure.”

Ellie stares at him until he disappears in the distance, swallowed whole by the darkness of the sleeping settlement.

It takes her most of the night to figure out what her answer to Chuck would be, why she wants to get a tattoo so bad. It takes her hours to admit to herself that getting a tattoo doesn’t have much to do with wanting to show off her new ink, but rather, to take focus off something else.

When she realises the real reason behind wanting Chuck to ink her up, the sun’s rising and she hasn’t slept a wink.

Might as well get up.

She can hear Joel in the kitchen downstairs, making breakfast. Or tea, she isn’t sure, but she hears no grumbles about how tea is just a sad substitute for coffee, so her bet is on breakfast. Maybe if she’s lucky, there’ll be leftovers and she won’t have to cook for herself – unsurprisingly, she is an absolute liability in a kitchen, and thus most of what she cooks tastes like burnt toast.

“Is there some for me?” she asks Joel when she hops on one of the stools by the kitchen counter. He is fully dressed, contrary to her, still clad in oversized sports shorts and a plain grey t-shirt.

He pushes a plate of scrambled eggs across the counter. “I heard you tossing and turning all night. Figured you’d be hungry,” he explains to her unspoken question.

“Thanks.”

They eat in silence, not a word exchanged between them again until Joel puts his empty plate in the sink. “Are you going to tell me why you want a tattoo or are you going to let me guess for another day?”

“You’ve got to let me explain it all the way through.”

“Ellie…”

“Promise me,” she says, and the hardness in her voice surprises even herself. “Promise you’ll listen.”

He exhales slowly and sits on the stool he had just left a few seconds ago. His lips are pulled into such a thin line that she can barely make them out through his rapidly greying beard. “Alright.”

“I want to get a tattoo on my right forearm,” she says slowly.

Joel stares at her, expecting more, but then he realizes what will inevitable be exposed if she gets someone to tattoo her skin there and his face hardens.

“Absolutely not.”

“Let me explain!”

Joel pinches the bridge of his nose, his elbow on the flat surface before him. “What is there to explain, kiddo? You can’t show that mark to anyone, ever! Those are the rules, you know that…”

Ellie grabs his wrist and slams his hand down on the counter to force him to look at her, not taking into account just how heavily he was leaning on his it and nearly smashing his forehead against the hard surface of the kitchen counter. She doesn’t waste a second before she starts talking, words spilling out of her mouth at an uncontrollable pace. The element of surprise would only work on Joel for so long before he regained his senses.

“Listen to me! I want to cover the bite. I don’t want to hide forever, Joel!”

She’s breathing heavily. He doesn’t look her straight in the eyes, she can tell he is staring at something just slightly over her head. He’s avoiding eye contact. She can tell by the way his body tenses up, the way he focuses on anything but her, that he isn’t even considering a word she is saying. “You’re not getting a tattoo. End of discussion.”

She sees red.

“The discussion never started in the first place!” Ellie screams out, jumping out of her stool. Joel gets up too, albeit slower. She may have grown a few inches since they first came to Jackson, and he still towers over her by nearly a foot, but she’s so mad that it makes no difference in her mind as she shoves him. Hard. “I’ve been hiding for nearly two years, Joel. Enough.”

She tries to shove him again, because it’s the only way she feels she’ll get her point across, the only way to make him listen. He is expecting it the second time around, and he grabs a hold of her wrists before her hands can connect with his chest once more. “You’ve survived for two years.”

“And I can’t take it anymore! I’ve been afraid to get close to anyone, because I’m afraid I won’t be careful enough and they’ll see the bite and I’ll be done for. This isn’t a life. We were supposed to be safe here, but I feel on the edge every single day I leave this house.”

She shakes her hands free of Joel’s grasp. The older man doesn’t try to restrain her, but his eyes are as hard as ever. Joel can do a lot of things right but compromising and considering other people’s point of views… those are not some of those things.

“We worked so hard to get here, and you’re just going to throw that away because you don’t want to wear long sleeves anymore? No. This isn’t your call to make,” he grunts through clenched teeth.

“Then whose call is it? Yours? You’re not my dad!”

The last words slip out of her mouth before she can hold them back, and as soon as she speaks them, she regrets them. The hurt she sees flash across Joel’s eyes is unlike any she has ever seen.

Joel gulps and steps back, his back banging against the wall.

“I can’t do it, Joel,” she continues, and her throat feels like it’s about to close up. She has no idea if it is because of the words she is speaking now or the ones she has spoken before. “To you, this whole thing just means long sleeves and being unbelievably sweaty for three to four months each year but to me… Try to see it from my point of view. As long as I have to hide my bite, I have to hide part of who I am. Part of my story. And that means that I can’t get close to anyone. Not really, anyway. No dates, no relationships, nothing, because there is no way I can hide the scars for that long if I let anyone in like this.”

Ellie leans back against the counter. Her head pounds and her ears are ringing with all her yelling. “I don’t want to be alone, Joel,” she adds. “And if showing one person my bite so it can be hidden under a tattoo to everyone else after that is what it takes not to be, then screw it. I’m willing to make that gamble. If Chuck freaks out and outs me, if I get shot for being infected, then so be it. It’s a risk I’ll just have to take. Please tell me you can understand that.”

Joel turns back on his heels and crosses the whole house to get to his room, not a word coming out of his mouth, no comment, no insult, no debate, nothing. The slamming door behind him sounds like a bullet to Ellie’s ears, and her fist goes through the wall in front of her in anger as she screams at the top of her lungs. The pain shoots through her whole arm, but the pounding in her hand is not the worst thing she’s feeling right now.

Her scar feels like it’s burning.

It doesn’t matter if Joel doesn’t want her to go through with it. She’s 16. She’s made her fair deal of choices by herself so far, and she can make one more. Even if it turns out to be her last one.

***

Dina wraps the bandages tighter around her injured hand. “You punched a wall because… you lost yet-another game of chess against Jesse.”

“Nope.”

“You punched a wall because… Logan said something stupid.”

“Nope.”

“You punched a wall because… Maria said you couldn’t have dessert before dinner?”

“How old do you think I am, seven?”

Dina’s hands still in the middle of tying the bandages closed, a diaper pin stuck between her lips. “Ellie, dear, I’ve seen you do that before.”

Her friend’s hands resume their movements steadily, flawlessly, as usual. It looks to her like her fingers are dancing, in the way they run across her palm with a feather-light touch.

“It was an afternoon snack, I’ll have you know,” Ellie contests, mockingly outraged.

“Freckles, 6 PM is not the afternoon,” Dina chuckles under her breath, examining her handiwork. “How does it feel?”

Ellie wiggles her fingers experimentally, and the pain in her hand seem to have dulled a little – at least, it isn’t bleeding anymore – but as she moves her hand in wider movements to test it out, she can’t hide the wince from the pain shooting through her wrist. Oh fuck it’s bad.

The shift in her facial expression, however brief, does not go unnoticed by Dina.

“Let me see,” she orders, her finger grabbing her arm to pursue her work. “Lift up your sleeve, I need to see better.”

Ellie’s internal alarm goes off and she pulls her hand back as fast as possible. “It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”

“Girl, you’re as stubborn as a donkey.”

“I am not a donkey!”

“You’re right, the donkey is much cuter.” Dina puts the rest of her first aid kit back in the white plastic box, and snaps it shut before sliding it back under her bed in its rightful place, by Ellie’s legs.

Her bedroom is smaller than Ellie’s, but her bed is wider and higher, so much so it makes walking around the room a hard feat as there are only about two feet on each side of the bed and the door doesn’t open all the way, stopped by the edge of the mattress. It is cozy, and small, and luminous, and so very… Dina.

She turns back to Ellie as the younger girl gets up, and shoves both of her hands in her back pockets. They are face to face, and the restricted space means they are standing impossibly close. Due to their height difference, however little it is, Dina’s breath tickles her lower lip and chin.

“You’re hiding things, Williams. It’s okay,” she adds when Ellie opens her mouth to argue. “It’s fine. I just hope someday you feel comfortable enough to share them with me.”

Dina flattens the collar of Ellie’s grey and blue flannel shirt. Her hand lingers on her shoulder a little, until she jumps up at the sound of her mother’s voice calling from the living room. “Dina, come here please!”

“I should go,” Ellie offers, walking backwards to the door and ducking out of the room. “Thanks, you know… for the hand.”

Dina doesn’t make a move to follow her out. “No problem, Freckles.”

She wanders around for a few hours before going home. It makes no sense to her to go back to her house if she knows she’ll only spend her time hauled up in her room, alone. She’s out of reading material anyway, and there’s only so much staring at the ceiling a girl can do before going batshit crazy. She ends up helping out the Kellers with their garden, mostly pulling weeds and watering plants, but it only keeps her busy until the sun goes down, and as soon as it does, the streets become deserted once more. Ellie drags her feet back to the house, hoping that she won’t have to confront Joel when she gets there. She’s not up for a second fight in the same night.

The house is dark when she gets to it. He’s probably asleep already. Pretty sure he has a patrol round early tomorrow morning.

She tiptoes her way through the living room and almost reaches the stairs leading up to her room when the lights turn on at once, blinding her. When her vision comes back into focus, she spots Joel, sitting in the rocking chair, positioned in such a way that he was out of her field of view from the moment she walked in the door up to the stairs. “Fuck, Joel, you’ve got to stop making dramatic entrances like that, my heart will give out before its time.”

Joel says nothing, he just stares at his hand. Not his hand, Ellie realises with a start, but rather, the nearly empty glass of a dark-coloured liquid – whiskey – he is holding in it. “Joel?”

He doesn’t look up still, but he finally starts moving. He swirls what’s left of his whiskey around his glass and lifts it up to eye-level.

“It’s been years since I’ve had a sip of whiskey that good,” he mumbles as he takes another sip. “Probably since the Outbreak.”

Ellie takes a hesitant step closer to the shaky living room table – it was the first, and only piece of furniture Joel had asked her to put together with the wooden pieces he had cut himself, and she had done a really shitty job of it. “I found a damn good bottle on my last scavenging trip. Was waiting for an occasion to break it open,” Joel explains.

He puts his glass down on the table and Ellie fears for a second that it is going to collapse under its weight. It holds up, amazingly enough, and she is left to stare at Joel, still seated but with his arms crossed over his chest now. “You never told me all this.”

Ellie shrugs. “You never asked.”

“You’re right.” Joel uncrosses his arms and leans forward on his chair. “Listen, kiddo. I’m sorry. I just want to protect you, so much that I forget that you can take care of yourself just fine. And you’re right… You’re not a kid, never really been, and I should stop trying to treat you like one. So, if getting that tattoo is what you want, then do it. Whatever happens then, we’ll deal with it.”

Ellie’s throat feels dry, but her eyes feel just a little too moist. She clears her throat to answer.  

“I have something to tell you too. I just want to say, I’m sorry. About what I said before. I didn’t mean it, I was…”

“Angry, I know,” Joel interrupts. “Don’t apologize for that. What are you planning on getting anyway?”

“Haven’t really given it a lot of thought, to be honest. Something big enough to cover the bite, maybe some cool patterns, or animal footprints even. A bear pawprint would be kinda cool.”

Joel gets up, nodding softly, and heads to the door. Instead of leaving like Ellie expects him to, he turns around and holds it open next to him. “I suggest you think of something fast. Chuck is expecting us. I’d tell you to jump back in your shoes, but from the looks of it you still haven’t learned to take them off when you walk in.”

Joel stares at the puddles of dirt and mud she has dragged around the floor from the door to the stairs, and she can only smile sheepishly in response.

***

As it turned out, they really shouldn’t have made such a fuss of it all. Surprisingly enough, convincing Chuck not to take off running and alert the whole town of her situation was as easy as convincing him to exchange a watch shift. Maybe it had something to do with how Joel sat him down on a chair and towered over him as Ellie explained why she wanted a tattoo and how the scar came to be, cutting off his access to the door of his own basement. Or maybe he was just that chill of a dude, which was the explanation Ellie wanted to go with.

Either way, Chuck’s face had turned a little white when she had uttered the words “bitten by a Runner”, but he hadn’t made a move to run away and actually relaxed quite a bit when Joel added that it had happened nearly two years ago, and that she hadn’t experienced any symptoms since then.

“When I told you to come up with a better reason, I wasn’t expecting that,” Chuck finally says as he lays her uncovered arm down on a wooden table to examine it. “It really doesn’t feel any different than the rest of your skin?”

Sometimes it feels like it’s burning, sometimes it just itches, but most of the time it’s just kinda numb.

“No. Feels exactly the same,” she lies. She feels bad outright lying like that, especially considering how understanding Chuck is of the whole situation, but there’s no point in sharing that information with the guy.

Chuck pushes his glasses up on his nose and brings his face closer to the crescent shaped scar near her elbow. When he starts poking at the raised, bubbly-looking skin of the old wound, Ellie has to resist the urge to pull her hand away. “We’ll have to do a few tests on your bite before we try tattooing your whole arm,” he mutters as turns her arm over a few times.

“Why?” Joel asks from his spot leaning on the ramp attached to the stairs. “Can’t we just do it now?”

Chuck lets go of Ellie’s arm and she tugs her sleeve down out of habit. “I don’t know how the bite will react. I’ve tattooed scar tissue before, but this… It’s unlike any scar I’ve ever dealt with. I want to be able to adjust if the scar reacts weirdly.”

Joel nods, and Ellie does the same. “What do you say I just do one line, wait a week, then see how we go from there?” Chuck suggests, leaning forward on his chair.

She nods again. Chuck gets up to get his gear and Joel finally makes a move to come closer before the younger man can sit back down. “You keep this to yourself, got it? All of it,” Joel growls.

“Joel!”

Chuck gestures for her to calm down – she hadn’t even noticed she had jumped out of her chair at the older man’s display of distrust. “Loud and clear. No one will know.”

Joel retreats back to the darkness of the basement stairway. The tattoo gun starts buzzing in Chuck’s hands and Ellie pulls her sleeve back once more. “Are you ready, Ellie?”

She has never been more ready for anything in her life. “Sure.”

She doesn’t know exactly what she expected going in, but she barely feels the sting of the needle digging into her skin repeatedly. She feels the vibration, though, through her whole arm. Then, as soon as it started, the buzzing stops.

Chuck looks up to her. “You good?” She nods again. “Alright. Did you have something specific in mind?”

“Not really? I just want something big enough to cover the bite mark, and maybe covering the rest of my arm too, so it doesn’t draw too much attention to the area of the scar.”

Chuck stares intently at her arm again. His eyebrows are furrowed in deep concentration and his glasses are slowly slipping down his nose. “It should be darker near the elbow, but it shouldn’t stick out too much from the rest, maybe a tree or something? No, that won’t do it. Tribal patterns? That’d be dark enough…” Chuck interrupts his musings to sneak a quick glance at her face. “No, that won’t do, it doesn’t fit her vibe at all.”

He keeps mumbling softly to himself as he puts his stuff away in the shelves under the staircase, sneaking glances periodically. Ellie and Joel share a look. Man, this guy is off his rocker. Right now, he sounds to her like one of those comic book’s crazy scientist trying to figure out the perfect formula to go along with his masterplan.

“How about I sketch a few things, and when you come back in a few days, we’ll figure out what to do?”

He then goes back to wondering out loud, pulling out pages out of a leather-bound sketchbook and pencils out of a desk drawer. Joel and her leave Chuck’s house soon after, when it becomes apparent that they won’t get another word out of him aside from indistinct mumblings, with a promise of meeting up again in a week and one last threat to Chuck’s life if he says anything about their encounter.

Decidedly, trusting people wasn’t in Joel’s nature any more than making well-thought out decisions was in hers.

The week they agreed upon pass by at the same speed she imagines a handicapped snail would travel at. She mostly stays inside during those days, staring at the line of black ink on her skin relentlessly as the rain outside crashes against the glass panels of the windows. Fortunately, she isn’t scheduled for any watch shifts during that time. She would have been miserable, sitting outside under the pouring rain for hours and unable to even sneak a peak at the state of the early stages of her tattoo. Instead, she covered a few shifts at the stables and managed to avoid inventory duty altogether, effectively keeping her mind off her arm for most of those days.

The line Chuck tattooed on her skin starts out as very clear, and then it starts to itch so bad as it starts scabbing and she has to constantly fight the urge to scratch at it like a demented cat. But as far as she can tell, the line doesn’t fade, blur, drip, or whatever other adverse reaction the ink could have had, she assumes. Truth to be told, she knows next to nothing about tattoos.

She takes it as a good sign.

When she finally makes it to the agreed upon date, not without almost bouncing out of her own shoes with excitement a few times. Joel is out on a scavenging trip this time, and no amount of pestering and grumbling on his part was able to get him out of it for a second time in a row – apparently, he had found a way to convince Tommy to replace him on the round the first time they met with Chuck, but managing that feat twice without arousing suspicion from anyone would be next to impossible.

Ellie only slips out of her house once the darkness of the night has fallen, providing her with cover and anonymity as she makes her way to the other side of town, where Chuck’s house is located. The fastest way there would be the one going through “downtown” – the center square where the clinic, church, armory, community center, school and most of the warehouses are located – but that would mean more chances of running into someone. People are rarely out and about in Jackson once the sun goes down, but if ever she was to run into anyone she’d have to explain where she was going and that isn’t something she wants to do in the slightest. Not that she feels she particularly has to hide where she is going and what she is going to do there, but people have a tendency to talk and gossip and Jackson is no different. She was never one for gossip much, anyway. Joel’s indifference on the matter must’ve rubbed off on her at some point in the last year.

She takes the longer way there, mostly through backyards and hugging the fence walls until she finally makes it to her destination. It takes nearly double the time, but she doesn’t mind. It gives her time to think.

Ellie doesn’t bother knocking when she gets to Chuck’s place. His house, if it can even be called that, is a lot smaller than most residences in Jackson, barely a fraction of say, Dina’s mom’s place. It’s closer to the size of a shed, really. But whereas most residences look decidedly old, and from another time altogether, Chuck managed to make his house truly his own, with paintings and drawings on the wall, big curtains framing the windows and various animal pelts decorating both the walls and floors. Nothing seems to fit together, but at the same time, it’s so very… well, Chuck.

Speaking of the devil, she doesn’t see him anywhere – and she’s sure there’s no way in hell she could have missed a hiding spot in the fraction of a second it took her to survey the entirety of the living area. His bed is neatly made, in a military style that was all too familiar to Ellie – had he been military before ending up in the middle of Wyoming? Had he been affiliated with the FEDRA armed forces? She truly had no idea, but now she really wanted to find out. There are no seats of any kind on this floor that she can see, but the plush rug in the middle of the space seems to serve a lot of purposes in this house.

“Chuck? It’s Ellie!” she calls out when it has become apparent that he either hasn’t heard her come in or he just isn’t home at all, though it doesn’t seem like him to forget their “appointment”. Joel made quite sure of it with the threatening-father act.

“Downstairs!” Chuck’s voice calls out from beneath her. 

Ellie looks around a few times. She can see a curtain half-hiding the doorway to a small bathroom, a kitchen with no table or chairs in sight, a few cushions… but no visible way to go “downstairs”. The first time they had met up with Chuck, they had gone through an outside door leading directly under his house. Maybe that’s where she had to go back to meet up with him?

Chuck replies to her unanswered question before she can say it. “In the closet, by the bathroom.”

What a fucking weird place to hide a staircase. In said closet was not the staircase Ellie had expected to find, but rather, a goddamned trap in the floor hiding the freaking thing.

“Nice bunker you got there,” Ellie greets as she crawls into the tiny space to join up with Chuck.

He doesn’t look up from the table he is bent over, furiously drawing something on a sheet of paper. She can see an array of papers, with different designs on them, anything from a tiger to flowers, including angels and clouds. “Wish I could say it was my doing, but it came with the house. The owner was some kind of survivalist, I think. Had all kinds of guns and canned goods down here, from what Leonard told me, before they looted the place.”

The only source of light is a small lamp on his workstation, barely diffusing enough light to illuminate the whole surface. “Did you think of anything you wanted?”

Ellie says no, though she isn’t sure he hears a word of what she says anyway. She takes place in the stool in front of him, ruffling through some of the discarded sketches in front of her. “Wow, Chuck… these are all beautiful.”

She means every word of it. Every single artwork she picks up amazes her, there is so much details and it feels so… personal.

Chuck briefly looks up, then goes back to his drawing. “They’re just scribbles. What do you think of this one?”

Chucks blows off whatever graphite dust still remains on the paper and hands it to her.

She thought the previous drawings she had seen on his table had been amazing.

This one knocks the wind right out of her.

It’s one of the simplest of them all, but its beauty, in Ellie’s mind, lies exactly within that simplistic approach. She stares at it, open-mouthed, until Chuck clears his throat. “Ellie? What do you think?”

The words won’t come out of her mouth, the design takes her breath away that much, so she settles for another, just as convincing answer.

She undoes the single button holding the cuff of her flannel shirt and promptly lifts her shirt sleeve nearly up to her shoulder before slamming her newly exposed arm down on the surface of the table. The pencil Chuck had been using rolls off the table with the sudden motion and the little bottles of ink shake and clang together.

She doesn’t need to speak – Chuck understands. He doesn’t say a word more than she does as he prepares his equipment and she stares in awe at the piece of art that he created.

The buzzing sound of the device is overwhelming, and the pain from the needle repeatedly digging into her skin is annoying, to say the least, but it doesn’t matter as she watches his sketch being gradually inked into her skin for the rest of her life, like a piece of art she’ll carry around with her all the time, everywhere. Over the next two hours, the lines connect and the shapes become clearer and soon enough, the whole length of her forearm itches and burns and, most importantly, is tattooed from her elbow down past her wrist, over her hand.

Ellie can’t tear her eyes away from her own arm, even as Chuck tells her he is done and starts putting all his equipment away.

It’s even better than she had hoped for it to be.

The tattoo starts near her elbow, with a big, dark moth with its wings spread wide open above her bite. The way Chuck placed it, the patterns on the wings of the moth, little, uneven circles at the bottom of the wings, cover the few more defined teeth-mark on her skin, and the rest of the bite, the part that wasn’t as defined as the rest, is perfectly hidden by the body and the darker parts of the wings of the moth. The moth itself warps around the inside of her forearm, effectively covering any discernable trace of the scar that had been haunting her for the last year. There are still some scars on the back of her forearm, but the Runner’s teeth hadn’t sunk as deep there as they had on the inside of her arm, and they hadn’t bubbled as abnormally as the others had. They could easily pass as the result of an unfortunate accident, if anyone was to ask her about them.

The second part of the tattoo is the two fern leaves upon which the moth is resting, one of them with its leaves inked in while the other had only the contours of the leaves drawn with the interior left blank. The tip of the leaves stretched all the way over her wrist and down on her hand.

“I’d recommend not exposing it to sunlight for at least three to four weeks, but I’d be kidding myself if I believed even for one second that you would listen to any of that.”

“I’ll be honest with you, Chuck, I’ll give it time to heal, but after that…” she trails off, examining every inch of her arm, turning it so she can really see all of it.

Ellie pulls her sleeve back down over the tattoo.

“At least don’t dunk your arm in water just yet.”

“I promise. Chuck, I… I don’t know what to say, this means so much to me. How can I ever thank you enough?”

Chuck smiles at her as they both get up and head for the staircase leading to the main floor of the house. “Just… keep your dad away from me for a little while? Lately he’s been showing up way too much in my nightmares and I can’t say I care for it too much.”

Ellie chuckles, closing the floor trap behind her as she extirpates herself from the closet after Chuck. “Sure thing. Thanks again, big guy.”

“I never should have told you that was my nickname when I was a teenager.”

Ellie hugs him, surprising even herself as she does it. It has been a long time since she has hugged someone other than Joel, Tommy, Maria, or Dina.

“Now, get out of my house, Ellie,” Chuck says as she pulls away. “I’ve got to be up in less than three hours for my watch, and none of those hours include chitchatting with a teenager whose dad bullied me into tattooing her.”

She nods and turns to leave, the beaming smile on her lips never fading.

“Oh, Ellie, one last thing. Don’t tell anyone I did this, I don’t want a line-up for tattoos at my door.”

She pretends to zip her lips closed and to throw away the key, and then she sets out into the darkness. She’s halfway to her house when she stops abruptly in the middle of the street. Her eyes travel down to the flannel sleeve over her arm.

Her hand is shaking as she rolls the sleeve up over her elbow, her skin feeling the evening breeze for the first time in nearly a full year. The tears sting her eyes as they threaten to escape. Instead she resumes her walk, slower than she can remember ever wandering the streets of Jackson, enjoying the moment, her arm uncovered for the first time for anyone to see, if there was anyone around to see it.

She’s so blissfully happy, she damn near dances her way home.

***

Surprisingly enough, Ellie almost waits three full weeks before the skin of her arms sees the sun. She is sitting on the steps of Dina’s house, one morning, as they had both finished their respective shifts – Dina was doing a few patrol rounds since Jesse had been injured, and Ellie was envious to no end as she was still stuck up on her watchtower where nothing ever happened. Dina is rambling away about the last stupid thing Jesse had said, and how it had turned into a fight, and then make-up sex – the best part of any fight, according to her.

The heat is suffocating, as it usually is during the month of July, and as beads of sweat roll down her neck, Ellie suddenly straightens up from her position leaning on the porch ramp. Some pale blue paint chips get stuck on her black, long-sleeved shirt, leaving the bars even more older looking then they had before.

“What?” Dina jumps at her sudden motion. “Was that too much information?”

“Dina, it’s always too much information, no matter how many times I ask you to tone it down. No, I… do you have a pair of scissors or a knife nearby?”

“I’m more of a gun girl myself, but I could try to convince my mom to let me borrow her sewing scissors.”

Ellie shivers jokingly. Dina’s mom’s sewing supplies were as closely guarded as she imagines the Queen of England’s crown must’ve been… if it ever existed? She wasn’t quite sure if the Queen she had read a few times about had actually lived or not, not that it mattered much now anyway. “No thanks, I still value my life to some extent. Here, use this instead,” Ellie replies. She pulls her switchblade out of her back pocket and flips it open before handing it to Dina, careful to hand her the handle of the weapon instead of the blade. “It should work well enough.”

Dina looks at her with puzzled eyes, the knife in one hand and the other on one of her hips. “Well enough for what?”

Ellie gets up and faces her. She can practically hear the temperature rising as fast as the seconds go by.

“I want you to cut off the sleeves of my shirt,” Ellie says slowly, staring at Dina dead in the eyes. The older girl gets up too, so she’s face to face with her.

She gives Ellie a sideway grin, so imperceptible that Ellie might’ve missed it if she hadn’t already been looking at her face intently. “Freckles, if you wanted me to take off your shirt so bad all you had to do was ask.”

“Will you just get to cutting these off already?”

Ellie feels her cheeks burn but bends her neck so she doesn’t have to meet Dina’s eyes as she gets to work with her left sleeve. The cut-off part falls down, and Dina moves on to the other one. Ellie’s heart is pounding so hard against her ribcage it’s the only thing she hears and she’s about ready to bet that Dina can too.

With the notable exception of Joel and now, Chuck, she has never let anyone near that arm. Near the bite. Near her past.

The second sleeve falls off, and Dina whistles appreciatively. Ellie finally manages to look at her again instead of staring at her own feet.

“So that’s what you were hiding all that time? Damn, Williams, you’re edgier than I thought you were. How long have you had this?”

She shrugs. “A while, now.”

“Well, I think it looks great. I don’t know why you felt the need to hide it.”

Dina looks at the tattoo attentively. The rapidly rising sun of the late morning warms the skin of her arms – her pasty white skin, if she had to qualify it – and it feels foreign, somehow. As if her skin had been deprived of the sunlight for so long it had forgotten how good the warm rays felt.

Ellie looks up and catches a glance of Dina’s mom through the kitchen window. She is positive she is being thrown the dirtiest look the mother can muster.

“I don’t think your mom shares your opinion,” Ellie whispers, making sure to move sideways so that Dina’s head effectively blocks her mom’s view of her lips. She isn’t sure the woman can ever read lips, but she prefers to be on the safe side.

“Oh, don’t mind her. She just doesn’t like tattoos much, says they’re how you recognize thugs and ex-prison inmates. But this looks hot.”

Ellie blushes again.

“Wanna come to the lake?” Dina asks, purposely not mentioning the crimson color across her cheeks. “The whole gang is meeting up there. I know you don’t usually want to go, but I thought maybe this time you’d…”

“Fuck yeah, I’ll go,” Ellie interjects. “It’s hot as all hell out there.”

They make their way to the lake, the very same one Joel had taught her how to swim in all those months ago. On their way there, they meet up with Logan, who is headed the same way and whose only comment on her arm’s unusual state of undress is: “Look at that, she doesn’t actually have scales on those arms!” She knows it is a joke coming from him, but she can’t help but wonder what other rumors were going around behind her back about all this.

As they near the south gate, they come across Joel, heading back from patrol.

“I’m going out to the lake, don’t wait for me for lunch,” she informs him as they meet each other.

The beaming smile on her face and the cut-off sleeves of her shirt exposing her arms do not escape him.

He shares a knowing smile with her. “Have fun, kids. Don’t do anything stupid.” Joel winks at her, then goes on his merry way. She and Dina head out to the lake.

For the first time in a long, long time, she doesn’t feel like she has the weight of the world pressing down on her shoulders. She feels free. She feels confident.

She feels happy.

Chapter Text

“Son of a bitch!”

Birds perched on the nearby tree branches fly away as a runaway hammer comes barreling toward them at an alarming speed. Below where they used to be, a particularly annoyed teenage girl keeps angrily mumbling out a string of very colorful swear words as she massages her rapidly swelling left thumb. It is throbbing painfully, and she suspects it will turn a lovely shade of blue in a few hours.

“Fucking hell,” Ellie mumbles out. “Now, where the fuck did that death tool go?”

The hammer she had thrown as far as she possibly could just a few seconds ago is now nowhere to be found.

“Joel will be pissed if you lost another one of his tools,” Dina mumbles with her lips clenched tight, three nails balanced precariously between them. She reaches for one of them, hammers it down and then reaches for the two remaining and shoves them back in the leather pouch hanging off her belt. “I think it went somewhere between the yellow house and the one we’re supposed to be knocking down tomorrow.”

Ellie looks up in the direction Dina indicated. With the notable exception of two little boys chasing a deflated soccer ball around, she sees nothing out of the ordinary in her line of sight. “Do you think Joel will believe me if I say it was stolen by a vicious crow?”

Dina bites back a laugh. “No, but maybe if you say it was a falcon or an owl he might.” She pulls herself up, hammer in hand, and walks carefully over to where Ellie is kneeling, still clutching her thumb. She kneels and pulls Ellie’s right-hand fingers away from her opposite thumb, blowing a rebel strand of hair out of her face. It sticks sideways to her forehead and Ellie bites back a laugh – it looks like the weirdest unibrow of all time. “Doesn’t look broken to me. Can you bend it? Yeah, you’ll be fine.”

“I don’t know, I’m thinking we might have to cut it off,” Ellie sarcastically replies, bringing her hand up to her forehead in the same dramatic fashion she has seen old-timey women use in some of the movies she had seen.

“If you keep injuring it like this, it might fall off altogether and we won’t have to.”

“Hey!”

The only response she gets from the older girl is a blown kiss. “We’re out of planks. I’ll try to see if I can spot that hammer of yours on my way back.”

“Thanks, Dina,” Ellie calls out, but she is already climbing down the ladder resting against the edge of the rooftop.

There had been a bad storm a few days ago, and even though they had ran around like headless chicken for the first hour of that storm, nailing down everything that was at risk of flying away and herding all the animals in the various barns so none of them would wake up the next morning to a cow stuck up on a tree – and with the winds she had witnessed, Ellie had had no doubts that this had been a definite possibility. All things considered, the town had been very heavily hit. A number of houses had been badly damaged, part of the north fence had been knocked down by fallen trees and the old church building had no bell-tower on its roof anymore. Some of the still-inhabited houses had been hit the hardest, because preparing them to withstand that fucking mini tornado had been dead last on everyone’s to-do list.

As it turned out, the house Dina had had her eye on for some time had been among the casualties and part of the roof had been blown off and the interior had fallen victim to the unforgiving wind and rain. She had been crushed when they had seen it the next day, and Jesse had suggested she picked another house to move in, but it had been apparent to all of them that it wouldn’t hold a candle compared to the first one in her eyes.

Dina had been just about to move out when the storm had hit. She lived with her mother, her step-father and her three little brothers, and she made it known to any soul that would listen how it was like living in a circus – she assumed. Like most of them, she had never seen a real circus, but according to Joel when Ellie had questioned him about it, it was awfully similar in ambiance.

“I’m just tired of having everyone around all the time. I have no time for myself, between the clinic, the patrol rounds and anything else that comes up, I never get to be alone. There’s always a brother who needs watching, you know, or a pile of dishes to be washed. I want to read, or sleep in, or like, take a bath!”

Ellie had looked up at her from behind her comic-book. “You want to move out of your mom’s house because you don’t want to do the dishes anymore. Got it.”

“I really hate it!”

And so, Ellie, Dina and Jesse – as best as he could while moving around on crutches – set out to fix the original house so the older girl could move into it. Apparently, redoing the roof on a house also included a fair amount of swearing and injuring limbs on Ellie’s part, and a lot of mockery and brushing up on her first aid skills. Jesse, from his crutches-bound status, had given himself the title of coordinator for the renovations, and had subsequently promptly resigned from the position after he had tried to teach both girls how to hammer down a nail and Ellie had threatened to break his good leg. From that moment on, he stayed out of the way, promising to help out more once he was able to stand again.

Repairing the gaping hole in the roof was almost done, save for the small section Ellie had been working on before she decided to smash her thumb into a thousand fucking pieces.

“Hey, look at that! Bet I can reach that top branch over there!”

The voice startles Ellie, and her head automatically snaps in the direction of the noise. Down below, near where her hammer had flown, according to Dina, stood three teenagers, one of them annoyingly familiar to her.

“What do you want to bet?” says Logan’s familiar voice.

“I have inventory duty next week, we could bet that.”

“Yikes. Alright, we have a bet.

Ellie peers over the edge of the roof. Logan, some girl she knows to be named Lily but has never talked to and a guy she doesn’t know but looks to be around their age are standing around the nearby houses, looking up to a huge tree. Not too long ago, she heard about two young adults that had been found starved half to death near the dam, she assumes he must’ve been one of them.

She hasn’t spoken to Logan, except for exchanging information at the change of shifts in the watchtowers, since the party at Jesse’s house. She isn’t too sad about it, to be quite honest, considering how much of an asshole he had been back then. The guy may have had his flaws – okay, many flaws – but he sure was welcoming to newcomers.

As she looks on, Logan braces himself for his jump, the new guy looking on with an amused smile on his face. Lily stands back, eyeing the tree warily. Apparently with good reason, because as soon as Logan’s hands wrap around the branch, it breaks off from the trunk in a spectacular fashion, sending him tumbling head over heels in the tall grass. The new guy laughs out, loudly.

“Hey, you so knew that was going to happen!” Logan says accusingly while brushing his pants off.

“Oh, yeah, I did, but it was still fun to watch.”

Lily is laughing too, although to her credit, she’s trying to hide it with her hand covering mouth. Her hair is untied, and it is blowing in the wind, brushing across her face and one strand is caught somewhere in the neckline of her shirt and down her…

“Hey, Freckles! Do you mind helping me out or are you just going to stare at the woods until that hammer flies back up to you like a boomerang?”

Ellie nearly jumps out of her skin when Dina’s voice interrupts her reverie. She’s directly under her, her arms outstretched handing her a plank. “Too lazy to bring them up the ladder?” Ellie smirks, but reaching for the piece of wood her friend was passing along, nonetheless.

“Well, I would, but, you know, I’d much rather leave the art of getting injured to your honorable expertise and stick to what I know… and make fun of you as I do it.”

“How nice of you,” Ellie chuckles. She hoists the last plank of the bunch up on the roof beside her and offers her hand to Dina as she reaches the top of the shaky ladder so she can safely step onto the almost renovated rooftop.

Dina stares at her as she bends down to put one of the planks over the gaping hole she was in the process of fixing. “What?”

“Since when are you… gentlemanly like that? Did you have a stroke or something?”

“Shut up and hand me your hammer, will you?”

Dina hands the tool over and bumps her shoulder teasingly. “Are you trying to seduce me, Ellie-dear?”

“Don’t flatter yourself, I just need my self-assigned medic to remain alive long enough to treat my stupid ass next time I injure myself, and you can’t do that if you fall off a roof.”

She hammers the nail down, then the next and then realizes she has no more left and reaches in the pouch attached to Dina’s belt for another handful.

“You’re just going to go for it, no foreplay? Very well, then. How romantic of you.”

“You’re the fucking worst, Dina,” Ellie mumbles, turning back to the task at hand. She feels the heat creeping up the back of her neck and spreading to her cheeks, and she knows it has nothing to do with the suffocating weather they have been subjected to for the past four hours.

Ellie really does try to finish what she started, but she keeps getting distracted from her task. The flow of words spilling out of Dina’s mouth at a dizzying rate does nothing to help her, sure, but usually she can just kind of tune out the sound of her voice and nod along until her friend runs out of topics to discuss by herself. Today, however, she keeps sneaking glances at the three teens below. Logan and the new guy are discussing whether or not to go double or nothing on the climbing bet, and Lily, cheeks and nose turning red from being exposed to the sun, still hasn’t noticed the runaway strand of hair stuck down her shirt, isolated from the rest of the blonde waves she now sports in a high ponytail. It really is bothering her more than it should.

Maybe I can go down there and tell her? Nah, we don’t really know each other that well, she’d probably think I’m a weird ass stranger. Or not?

“So, what do you think I should get Jesse for his birthday?”

Ellie answers mechanically, not even listening. “Yes.”

“Freckles!”

Ellie’s eyes snap back to Dina’s indignant face. “What?”

The older girl raises her eyebrows and puts her hands on her hips. Oh, shit.

“Well, for starters, this was not a yes or no type of question, and also, I had stopped talking for a whole minute before that and you kept nodding and agreeing with me!”

Dina’s eyes wander in the direction Ellie’s just left and a knowing smirk stretches her lips. “Dina? Dina, what’s that face?”

“You were staring at Logan!”

Ellie almost bangs her thumb a second time with the hammer. “What? No! Watching a dead bird is more interesting than watching him try to impress everyone all the time.”

Dina nods, her eyes fixed on the happy trio down below, analyzing them with attention. “Yeah, you’re right. Too macho for you.” She slaps Ellie’s arm, her eyes lighting up as if she had solved the greatest mystery there ever was. “You were so checking out the new kid!”

“No! Dina, come on!”

Her friend takes the tool and the nails out of her hands – is she expecting her to throw this one into the woods too? – and crosses her arms over her chest. “Ellie-dear, I saw you looking that way with goddamn stars in your eyes, if you weren’t checking them out, what the hell were you doing?”

Checking Lily out?

“I wasn’t! I was, erm, trying to see where my hammer had landed.”

Dina shakes her head in disbelief. “You are a horrible liar. You were checking the new guy out!” Her voice spikes up to that high range it shifts to whenever she gets really excited about something. Usually, it makes the dogs either cower away or run to her, one or the other.

Unfortunately for Ellie, the noise, in addition to attracting dogs and bats, also attracts the attention of the three teenagers below, revealing their presence on the roof nearby. Fucking hell.

Ellie slams her hand over Dina’s mouth, effectively cutting off the high-pitched noise she was producing. “Shhhhhhhh! Would you just be quiet, for once, please?”

She stares at Dina in what she hopes to be a menacing glare, and the older girl nods her agreement. She removes her hand and waves nervously at the curious teens. They wave back, only half-confused. Well, now she definitely thinks you’re a dork.

Looking back at Dina, she barely catches a glimpse of mischief in her friend’s eyes before she moves out of her reach. “Hey, Simon! You’re single, right?”

Ellie tackles Dina, but not before the words are out of her mouth.

“Huh, yeah, I guess?” comes the new guy’s – Simon – answer, below. It’s a miracle either of them hear it, really, because they’re still wrestling on the roof, Ellie trying to stop Dina from talking, and Dina trying to escape Ellie’s hold. They must make for quite the sight.

“Great! Wanna go on a date with my friend here? I promise she doesn’t usually tackle people!”

Ellie freezes, both her hands now covering Dina’s mouth. “What the fuck are you doing?” she hisses through her teeth.

There is a moment of silence, during with they both stop struggling, and it gets broken once again by Simon’s voice. “Sure, I guess. I’ll meet you here tomorrow after dinner?”

Dina’s eyes could not bear a more triumphant look even if tiny medals, trophies and ribbons started dancing around in them. Ellie releases her grip on her, too stunned to answer.

Dina shifts her head to the side to look down at a very confused-looking Simon, an even more confused Logan and a slightly amused Lily. “Sounds good, she’ll be here.”

The tree friends scatter, and Dina untangles herself from Ellie’s arms. For a while, she just sits there frozen, wondering what the hell happened and if it is at all possible to throw someone off a roof without causing serious bodily harm.

“I believe the words you are looking for are ‘thank you’. And you’re welcome, by the way!”

“Dina, I’m going to fucking strangle you!”

“Careful dear, you might break your arm trying to.”

“You’re a dead woman!”

***

Ellie paces, again, endlessly walking back and forth along the length of the living room of Dina’s soon-to-be house. “Why the hell would you do that?”

Dina looks up, the runaway strand of curly hair falling in front of her eyes. She blows it out of her face, then leans back on her heels and puts the crowbar she had been holding down on her thighs. Her face is flushed from the effort of ripping off wet and rotten floorboards. “You’re kidding me, right?”

Ellie stills on her way back from the far side of the room.

“Do I look like I’m kidding?”

“Look, you had been checking him out for a while, I just thought I’d give you a nudge in the right direction.”

Checking her out would be more accurate. “I don’t need any help.”

Dina scoffs. “Would you have asked him out?”

“Of course not, but…”

… not because I was chickening out, because I’m not interested.

Dina interrupts her half-way through her sentence. “There you go. Just go on the date, see how it goes. What do you have to lose?”

She wants to storm out, yell, do something, but instead she just sighs. There’s no point in arguing with Dina, especially now that she’s wielding her crowbar again. She kind of feels bad for the poor floorboards breaking apart in the process, first the flood and then an exasperated Dina armed with a potentially lethal metal tool. Clearly, they’re having a worse day than she is, all things considered.

“Alright. I’ll go, but this is the last time you interfere with my love life.”

“Oh, love life – this is serious,” Dina teases from her spot on the ground. “Have fun on your date.”

“You know what I mean!” Ellie shouts over her shoulder. “And I mean it! No interfering anymore.”

The door closes behind her before she can hear Dina’s reply, but there is no doubt in her mind that it goes somewhere along the lines of ‘I don’t know what you mean’ or even ‘I can’t hear you, Freckles’ – she’d be willing to bet her right hand on it… okay, maybe not her right hand, but definitely her left. Alright, maybe no hands at all, just an inventory shift, but she’s almost certain she said one sentence or the other.

Once outside, Ellie practically jumps off the porch and onto the beaten dirt path. She doesn’t know where she’s headed, just that she doesn’t wish to be anywhere near here when Simon shows up. She almost makes it all the way back to her place before bumping in a familiar face.

“Hey! Ellie, is it?”

Well, this day is just getting better by the minute. “Yeah… How do you know my name?” Ellie didn’t exactly mean it as an inquiry, but that is how it sounds coming out of her mouth. The new guy – Simon – notices and pauses slightly at her unconventional answer. “Sorry. I’m a little on edge.”

He smiles and when he does she notices he has a chipped tooth, one of his upper canines. Wonder how he got that…

“Aren’t we all a little bit?” he says, his smile falling a little. “And Logan told me your name. I was kinda wondering who the wrestling girls on the roof were.”

“Oh. I guess we made for quite a sight, huh?” Ellie chuckles nervously.

Simon shoves his hands in his pockets, shrugging. “Nah, I used to see that at least once every week, Roof-Wrestling is a very popular sport where I’m from.”

“Wha… Really? Where the hell are you from?”

He breaks into a smile, exposing once again the broken tooth. “I’m messing with you, dude.”

“Oh.”

They stand in front of each other, quiet, after that rather awkward exchange. He’s kind of cute, if she had to qualify him. Dirty blonde hair falling into his blue eyes, tall, nice… exactly the type of guy any girl she knows would fall head over heels for, so why doesn’t she?

“Look,” she begins, and she notices him shifting his weight from one foot to the other – he’s as uncomfortable as she is. “I know Dina cornered you into doing this, and really, you don’t have to. You can just go home, and I’ll tell her it just didn’t work out. It’s fine.”

He nods and takes his hands out of his pockets, only to cross them over his chest. “I was, erm, kind of hoping you’d show me around town a bit… if you want to. Logan isn’t much help, unless I’m looking for places where he fooled around with girls, and that is some sightseeing that I have no wish to do.”

He bites his lips, waiting for an answer.

“Yeah, I guess,” Ellie blurts out. “But there is not much to see, I’m afraid.”

They head back toward the center of town, where she mechanically points to every building they pass by and gives the shortest description of them in the world. Despite this, he adds little funny comments at the end of every description, and before they reach the end of the main street, she starts to warm up to him. Simon is actually a nice guy, and she truly has no reason to be that cold and distant toward him.

“Sorry about all this,” Ellie says between the broken fountain and the old church. “Dina can be a little over the top sometimes, but she’s a really nice girl… you know, when she isn’t basically ordering people to go on dates with each other.”

Simon kicks a rock out of his way. She can see him shrug and barely makes out the hint of a smile tugging at his lips. “And I am sorry about the way this not-a-date date is going… I’m a bit rusty on the whole dating thing, to be honest.”

“I’d be willing to bet I’m even rustier than you are, so…”

“Well, this is going great, then!” he exclaims. He raises his arms up in the air in mock victory, a stupid, goofy smile plastered on his face. She laughs.

She can’t help it, really.

They keep walking.

Eventually, they move on from pointing out places in favor of just walking around and talking, following the fence line until the sun is well into the process of setting over the tree line.

“What, so you’re saying they just forgot you in there? What the hell!”

Simon shrugs, hands buried deep in his pockets. “In all fairness, I did tell them I’d be waiting for them at the ration line, but it took an embarrassingly long time for them to figure out they left the shelter with five kids and not six.”

“Still!”

“What about you, your parents ever forgot you anywhere?”

Ellie almost trips on her own shoes at the unexpected question. “No, not really. I can’t remember.”

“Come on! I’m sure Joel forgot you somewhere at one point.”

Ellie scoffs loudly. “First of all, you’ve been here for three days, how do you even know him?”

Simon’s cheeks turn red and he stops abruptly, leaving Ellie to take two extra steps before even noticing she is walking alone. “Promise not to laugh?”

“I won’t make any such promises, but I can punch the living daylights out of you until you give in and tell me?”

He rubs his neck nervously. “I kind of, you know, dropped a bucket of dirty water on his head a day ago while I was mopping the second floor of the clinic. I went to the window to dump it out and he happened to be fixing the steps below.”

“Oh my God, you’re Dipshit Von Bucket!” she exclaims. Simon groans loudly, his eyes rolling in their sockets as he does. “He was so grumpy about it that when he came home that night that he didn’t even have it in him to be mad at me for breaking his favourite chili bowl.”

“No chance he forgot about me in the meantime?”

“Considering I told him that there was a chance of isolated downpours of old mop water and handed him an umbrella on his way out the door no later than this morning, I’d say your chances are slim.”

“I’ll just hide under a rock forever, it’s fine,” Simon mumbles as he curls into a ball beside a tree in the high grass. “Would you mind rolling that boulder over me? Thanks.”

Ellie kneels next to him, soft chuckles shaking her shoulders. The grass is now cold, and more than a little itchy on her shins and knees, but it is a strangely nice contrast to the searing heat still lingering in the air around them. “You’d be much less fun to talk to if you get crushed into a pancake.”

Simon stretches out, shifting onto his back, his legs seemingly stretching on for miles. “Oh, so I’m fun to talk to, now?”

“Shut up!” Ellie elbows him in the ribs, rips a handful of grass strands out of the ground and starts to tear them into little pieces. “I meant as opposed to Joel.”

“What an honor,” he chuckles, folding his arms under his head and resting against them. He stares up at the sky, silent, until he continues as an afterthought. “Why do you call your dad by his first name all the time?”

Because he isn’t my dad? She drops the bundle of cut of grass pieces on the ground, then lies down next to Simon, their bodies parallel but not touching. “I don’t know. Force of habit, I guess. I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember.”

It got darker outside since they started walking around, and the lights are starting to turn on in the occupied houses nearby. Ellie gazes into the sky, where the stars are just beginning to show, along with the moon. It is a full moon tonight. “What was the second thing?”

“What?”

Simon turns his head to her, his light blue eyes, so similar to her baby cousin’s, staring into her own. “You said first of all before asking how I knew Joel… what was the second part?”

It’s Ellie’s turn to smile. “Second of all, you really don’t know Joel at all if you think he’d ever forget me anywhere. The guy is a real mother hen.”

“To be fair, I’ve actually only met the top of his head.”

Ellie wonders if before becoming the obsessively overprotective man she knows, he had ever done something like forgetting Sarah at school or at a friend’s house. She makes a mental note to ask him later.

They talk for what feels like minutes to her, but the curtain of bright stars and the moon high up in the sky remind her that it has actually been closer to hours since they first laid down on the grass. Simon tells her all about how he found this group of travellers after his family died in a barn fire a few months ago and travelled with them until they stumbled across the dam near Jackson where they got into a gunfight with a group of Hunters. That’s how he ended up in Jackson, the gunfire attracted the unit patrolling nearby and they found his group. Simon had managed to escape with only scratches and bruises, and another man had been brought back to Jackson to treat his injuries but had died on the operating table of the clinic shortly after. The rest of the group had died in the fight, and so Simon had been the only one to get to the town.

It’s easy to talk to Simon. Just like how easy it had been to talk to Sam, for the short period when she and Joel had travelled with him and Henry. With the notable exceptions of Dina and Jesse – and Chuck, if she’s really stretching the limits of the definition of the word ‘friendship’ – she hasn’t really been able to grow close to anyone she has met in Jackson. It’s nice to feel this carefree. She finds herself telling him about the things she and Joel went through to get to where they are today and how much she still feels like an outsider despite having lived here for just over a year now.

Ellie stops suddenly to think about how much personal stuff she just told a guy who was a complete stranger just three hours ago. “I should get going, Joel is going to freak out if I’m not home soon,” she explains, pulling herself up. The grass left its prints on the back of her arms and on the side of Simon’s face where it had been pressed on the ground to look at her.

He nods, getting up too. “Oh… yeah, right. Which way are you going?”

She points to her right. “You?”

Simon gestures to her left.

“I guess this is where we leave each other,” he mumbles. “I had a really nice time tonight… you know, for a forced date and all.”

Ellie nods. She notices how he is nervously shifting his weight from one side to the other again, his hands once more being shoved deep into his pockets. “I had a nice time, too,” Ellie says.

She watches him take a step forward, closer to her. She sees him take a shaky breath and open his mouth noiselessly a few times before words start coming out of his mouth. “I have no idea how to end this right.”

“Neither do I,” Ellie breathes out. “Anyway, I…”

She never gets to finish her sentence because Simon bends his head down to her level and kisses her cheek.

“Sorry,” he says sheepishly. “Thought this should end with a kiss goodnight. See you around?”

Ellie nods. “Sure. Goodnight.”

Simon turns around and starts walking up the street.

“Hey, Simon?”

“Yeah?”

Before her mind can catch up to the rest of her, she has caught up to him. What the hell are you doing?

He’s looking at her with big, hopeful eyes and it’s been a while since anyone has kissed her cheek – except for Dina, but kissing someone on the cheek to her is like a handshake to everyone else, so it doesn’t really count – and frankly, she’s just wondering if actually kissing him would feel the same as she remembers it to feel.

Oh, screw this.

She puts her hand on his shoulders, Simon puts his hands – trembling hands – on her hips and she balances herself on her toes to try to even out the height difference. His eyes are locked onto hers, and she brings on of her hands to the back of his neck, pressing down just enough so that he lowers his head to meet her lips halfway.

***

Ellie’s knock is met with an unusually exasperated invitation to come in. She’s greeted by the sight of her friend sitting cross-legged on the floor of her bathroom, her trusty crowbar in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other, surrounded by shards of broken ceramic tiles and lumps of soaked drywall. “Rough night?”

“Stupid water getting everywhere,” she mumbles in return. “I swear to God, if this house is ever water-damaged again, I’ll be moving in with you.”

“I’ll prepare a spot for you in my closet.”

Dina looks at her with an intrigued look. “You’re back early. Was it that bad of a date?”

“Not at all. We got along really well, actually.”

“And?”

“And, what?” Ellie repeats, leaning against the doorframe.

Dina hands her glass so she can get up. “Did you guys kiss?”

Ellie shrugs, downing the last sip of whiskey despite Dina’s protests. “He kissed me on the cheek when we said goodnight.”

“Hot damn, don’t make me an auntie just yet, Freckles!”

“Shut up, you’re the one most likely to make me an aunt before my time and you know it.”

Dina sits her down on what remains of the tub while she takes place on the closed lid of the toilet. This has got to be the weirdest place anyone has ever had a conversation in, ever. “Alright Williams, spill it. What’s wrong with him?”

“Why do you assume there is something wrong with him?”

“You’re telling me,” she starts, her eyes disbelieving, “that you went on a date with a perfectly nice guy, who you had a perfectly nice time with, but who you have no intention of going on a second date with? I’ll take him off your hands if you want, the guy is cute.

Ellie chucks the piece of soaked drywall she had been toying with right at her face, which Dina barely manages to dodge before it hits it marks. It sticks to the wall behind her head, and the irony of drywall that is wet makes her chuckle. “Aren’t you taken? Tall guy, doesn’t smile often, kind of looks like a very lifelike Asian vampire statue most of the time?”

Dina scrapes the wet drywall off the orange bathroom wall and dumps it into the bucket she had been using to toss the debris from the renovating she was doing in the room before Ellie barged in. “Ellie-dear, just because mama is on a diet doesn’t mean she can’t look at the menu. Especially if the menu is tall, handsome and right nearby.”

“You’re the worst.”

Dina blows her a kiss. “I’m the best and you know it. But seriously, what was wrong with him?”

“Nothing. Really, Simon seems like a really nice guy. Really easy to talk to, and funny… We walked around town for a while, we talked, stargazed… It was nice.”

“But?” Dina presses on, eager for more details. Ellie has none to give her.

“I don’t know. He’s not my type, I guess.”

She doesn’t tell her that after kissing her on the cheek, she kissed him on the lips, and felt absolutely nothing out of the ordinary, that she had been excessively conscious of his breath against her face, of the sparse hairs on his upper lip tickling her, and how unusually moist his lips seemed. It wasn’t a bad kiss, by any technical sense of the word, but it was… flat. No feelings, no metaphorical butterflies in her stomach, nothing. It was nice, but that was it.

She leaves a few minutes later with a comforting kiss on the cheek from Dina that leaves a tingling feeling on her skin and heads home. She’s just about to get into bed, after sitting through a stern talk from Joel reminding her that he’s too old to be worrying like this when she doesn’t come home when she’s supposed to, when the light in the second-floor bedroom window across the street turns on, and her eyes briefly sneak a glance outside. She doesn’t mean to, but she catches a peek of Lily getting changed in her room – nothing much, just a bra-covered chest and a toned stomach, but it is enough to get that image circling back in her head for the next few minutes and no matter how hard Ellie tries, she can’t stop picturing it. Wondering what she would have seen if she had kept looking for just a few seconds longer…

Ellie’s eyes fly open as the realization hits her. She guesses, on a certain level, she’s always kind of known – ever since Riley – she just never took the time to think about it much. There was always an angry sergeant around the corner, or a pack of infected to run away from, or a bite to hide from people that distracted her from questioning herself, but now she knows. She knows why she hasn’t felt attracted to anyone Dina had tried to introduce her to, why she felt completely indifferent to Simon, however nice and attractive he was.

“I’m into girls,” she whispers to herself with only the cut-off magazine pictures and drawings taped on the walls as witnesses. “I like girls.”

She must have repeated it a thousand times in the dark, over and over, until the sun came up and the words didn’t feel as foreign on her tongue as before. Until it felt as natural to say it as it did to state the color of her hair. Until it felt right.

My name’s Ellie. I’m 16 years old, I am immune to CBI, I have a tattoo… and I like women.

Chapter Text

The sun had finally set over Jackson after another unusually suffocating October day, and it took no time for the temperature to drop dramatically along with it. It was a relief to Ellie, who had been sweating away in one of the stables on the edge of town for the better part of the afternoon and evening. All things considered, there were worse tasks to be accomplished in Jackson – inventory, for one, which she had actually traded in favor of cleaning up barn number three – but that did not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that it was an enjoyable one.

The warm sun had been beating down on the roof of the farm building for the whole day, and the heat did nothing to tone down the horrible, horrible stench lingering in the air. She had ended up opting to tie her shirt around her neck and use it as a scarf to hide her nose and mouth behind it instead of wearing it the way it was meant to be. Whatever. She highly doubted she had offended any of the cows present in the barn, and the heat was much more bearable with the sports bra she uses to swim in than the warm long-sleeved shirt she had been wearing since she had left the house this morning.

One of the big animals mooed loudly behind her and Ellie nearly jumped out of her skin. “Sweet Lord, do you even know you almost gave me a heart attack?” The huge farm animal kept looking at her, steadily chewing, its eyes big and indifferent to anything happening around. “Of course not, you’re a cow. You don’t give a shit about any of that.”

She turns back to shovelling shit into a bucket, the steady sounds of her shovel digging into the soft dirt floor and the cow chewing is all she can hear. “What the hell are you chewing?” Ellie wonders out loud after a few more minutes of constant shovelling. “There’s no more hay to be found anywhere nearby! It’s all locked away!”

The cow moos again in answer, as if understanding what she said, but continuing its activities nonetheless. You’ve clearly spent a little too much time on your feet, you’re talking to a cow. Time to hit the hay, Ellie. She chuckles at the wordplay, even though no one but her witnessed it.

Ellie is just getting around to fixing the loose latch on one of the stall doors, almost done with her tasks for the day, when one of the huge barn doors at the other end of the building swings open and crashes against the wall with a thundering bang. She fumbles her screwdriver at the sound and her head snaps to the source of the unexpected noise.

Dina runs in, hair undone and flying wildly behind her. “Ellie! Where were you, I’ve been looking for your ass for almost an hour!” She skids to a halt in front of her, and suddenly, Ellie is very conscious of the shirt tied around her neck and very much not covering anything it is supposed to be.

“I was here!” Ellie blurts out, slipping the shirt back on as fast as she possibly could. “Alone here, all day!”

She catches a glimpse of Dina’s red and panicked eyes and her heart sinks. She’s still in the uniform she wears at the clinic – whatever those pajamas-like clothes are actually called escapes her – and the front of her shirt is absolutely soaked in dark, crimson blood. “What’s going on? Whose blood is that?”

Dina catches her breath before stammering out her answer. “It’s Joel… he’s at the clinic. It’s bad, Ellie, really bad. I was there when he was brought into the operating room and I ran here right after.”

The ringing in her ears is deafening, but Ellie manages to make out the words injured, blood and attack, and it is enough to send her running out of the barn as fast as her legs can carry her, not caring in the slightest that she had to jump through a giant pile of shit on her way out.

She’s never ran that fast in her whole goddamned life.

Ellie has no idea how she even got to the clinic, but she definitely remembers crashing through the door that says ‘pull’ on the front.

“Joel!” There is no one around when she finally catches her breath enough to speak any words at all. “Joel!”

She calls out his name, over and over again, opening one door after the other in search of signs of life until finally, one of them opens before she can get to it and the familiar face of the head nurse appears in the doorway.

“What the hell’s going on?” Ellie asks before the woman can open her mouth to speak. “Where is he?”

The door closes behind her as quickly as it opened, but, through the tiny window, Ellie still has time to see a bunch of people huddled around an operating table, and muddy boots poking out of the huddle. Very familiar boots.

“I want to see him,” Ellie says, pushing her way up to the door. “Let me see him.”

“Ellie, I understand this is a hard…”

“I don’t give a shit, I want to see him!”

The nurse stands in front of her, blocking her line of sight. “Ellie, we’re doing the best we can right now but you can’t…”

Before she can think it through, she shoves the nurse into the wall. “Fucking let me through, it’s my dad!”

No amount of begging, cursing, or pushing on her part gets her into that room, and eventually Ellie has to back down when the woman in front of her threatens find someone to knock her out to get her to stop yelling. When the nurse dives back into the room, she makes her promise not to barge in, arguing that if could hurt Joel worse if one of the hands of the people operating on him were to jolt and slip, and she is very careful to close the little blue curtain to obscure her view.

Being alone with her thoughts in that waiting room is the worst thing she can imagine.

If hell does exist, it must be this.

***

It’s my dad. It’s my dad. It’s my dad.

She keeps repeating the sentence in her head until it makes no sense anymore. She means it. Somewhere along the way, she started seeing Joel as a father figure and they very much acted liked the father and daughter they were pretending to be for the sake of the town’s people, anyway. What if she never got a chance to tell him? They’ve been through so much together, and now she feels like she has run out of time to tell him how much he means to her.

“How’s he doing?”

Ellie looks up from her own intertwined fingers at the sound of Dina’s voice coming from the doorway. She changed her clothes before coming back to the clinic, her shit no longer stained with blood, now wearing her regular jeans and blue hoodie, along with a jacket and her beloved leather boots.

The sound of her footsteps echoes off the walls. Ellie shakes her head no and looks back down to her hands. Dina takes a seat on the floor next to her and Ellie hugs her knees to her chest. “Not too good. Jennifer told me that him and Victor stumbled on a pack of Infected on their patrol, and Victor tried to shoot the Infected that jumped Joel but shot him instead. They won’t tell anything else.”

“Holy shit,” Dina exhales. “Anything I can do?”

Ellie shakes her head once more, her gaze stubbornly fixed on her own fingers. Her hands are still caked in mud and dirt, and it gets into the little cuts that cover her palms and fingers. She rubs them, trying to clean her hands as best as she can, without much success. The dirt under her fingernails stubbornly refuses to come of, and all her scrubbing does is open up the small wounds on her hands even wider than before.

She feels Dina’s hand rub the base of her neck, but still, she refuses to look up. Her friend has such a way of looking at people, when she wants to, like she’s seeing right through them. Ellie isn’t sure her shaky façade can hold up to her gaze without crumbling to pieces.

“Freckles? How are you doing?”

The unshed tears threaten to fall, but she finally looks at her friend. “Not too good, either.”

Dina says nothing, she knows there are no words she could speak that would bring her comfort right now. Instead she leans over and gently slips her fingers between hers, squeezing slightly, her other hand still massaging the nape of her neck. For once, she doesn’t shy away from her touch in any way, instead choosing to lean into her. “Do you want me to stay with you?”

“Please,” Ellie breathes out, barely above a whisper, her voice shaky.

Dina presses a kiss to her cheek, a simple answer, before pulling her in to wrap her arms around her shoulders.

Ellie wants to thank her, but heart is stuck in her throat, and so she choses not to speak.

***

Hours passed before any of them saw a sign of life coming from the room down the hall. Night had fallen a few hours ago, and despite the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, Ellie’s eyes were steadily closing every now and then – a full day of farm work had a way of exhausting her to her very core, she had found when she had started participating in the daily tasks around town. She finds herself nodding off more and more often as the night wears on, which doesn’t go unnoticed by her friend.

“Just go to sleep, Freckles. I’ll wake you up if something happens.” Dina removes her jacket as she speaks, her back still leaning against the wall. She’s sitting with her back against the wall, like her, despite the cold air around them making her shiver.

“I don’t want to sleep.”

She means it. She’s afraid something might happen the second she closes her eyes, and she will miss it. She can’t miss a single thing.

“You should sleep, Ellie. There’s nothing you can do now anyway.” Tommy’s voice echoes on the walls of the corridor. He came in a few hours after Dina, his reaction close to that of his niece when he was told he could not see his older brother. Like Ellie before him, he had settled for sitting down on the bare, cold ceramic tiles, and was waiting it out, hoping for the best but still expecting the worst.

Dina pats her lap, her legs extended in front of her. “Come on, Ellie. Just sleep.”

“It’s been hours,” she replies, completely disregarding her friend and uncle’s demand. “Shouldn’t he have been out by now?”

Tommy shifts uncomfortably. “I don’t know. Could be a good thing like it could be a bad one.”

Ellie finally gives in – gives up – lying down on the floor and resting her head on Dina’s thighs. Almost as soon as she does, she feels her eyes closing again, her eyelids seemingly weighing a thousand pounds. “Promise you’ll wake me?”

“I promise, Ellie.”

Her eyes are closed before Dina can finish her sentence, and the last thing she is aware of before she slips into darkness is that the older girl drapes her jacket over her body in some effort to make her more comfortable. She doesn’t have time to thank her, but she’s ever so grateful.

Ellie’s sleep is restless. She dreams of Joel, and Clickers, and Hunters and even David, so much that she loses count of how many times she jolts awake only to be softly soothed back to sleep by Dina. The last time she wakes up, it is after a particularly vivid dream in which she sees Joel getting impaled by the rebar, back at the University, only this time she is frozen in place and he looks over to her with glassy eyes that can’t see anymore, says nothing as she witnesses the light fade from his eyes. This time she can’t get to him.

She wakes up so suddenly she startles Dina.

“Go back to sleep, Ellie. No one came out of that room yet,” she murmurs above her head. Ellie can’t see her from where she is curled up, but she can imagine her eyebrows scrunching together in worry. She feels her friend’s hand rub soothing circles on her back as she tries to catch her breath and calm her racing heart.

Ellie turns over onto her back. Dina’s face is lined with concern, the bags under her eyes dark and her lips pale. “It’s worse when my eyes are closed,” she explains, her voice hoarse from not being used in a while. It is barely above a whisper, but her words bounce off the walls as if she had yelled them at the top of her lungs. “I just keep seeing him die, over and over again.”

“He might be just fine, you don’t know.”

“Or he could be dying right now, and I’m stuck here in this stupid hallway.”

Dina brushes a strand of Ellie’s hair off of her face, her fingers brushing along the line of her cheek and jaw and resting against the crook of her neck. “There’s nothing you can do, Freckles.”

“I know, I just…” Ellie stops midsentence, holding herself up on her elbows. “I’m scared as hell.”

Dina bends down and wraps her arms around her, and suddenly she’s all Ellie can see or feel. There is no more cold hard floor, just the soft and warm body holding her tight and whispering reassuring words into her ear. Her face is buried into a wild mess of dark frizzy hair that no longer smells of flowers like it usually does, cheek pressed against the skin of Dina’s neck. A hand is stroking her hair, steadily, and another one is stroking her back. Still, she can’t shake the feeling of dread that made itself a home in her gut. She feels Dina start to pull away after a while, but Ellie brings one arm up to her back to hold her in place.

“Tell me he’s going to be alright.”

Dina’s sharp intake of breath doesn’t go unnoticed. Ellie’s fingers curl of their own will into the back of the shirt and suddenly she’s holding a handful of fabric in her hand, making sure she doesn’t go anywhere. “I can’t tell you that,” Dina whispers. “But whatever happens, you’ll be okay.”

She doesn’t believe her.

She has spent so much time with Joel, she doesn’t know what she’ll do if he doesn’t make it. The house would be empty, there would be no one to complain about her boots dragging mud all over the place, no one to tell her how much of a dumbass she is whenever she makes a really stupid decision… No one to look out for her like he does.

It’s like the university all over again. Except back then, there was something she could do to help him – she had to do something, his life had depended on it. There had been no time to wonder, no time to second-guess herself, not a second to waste, but today… today she is useless, and it somehow feels worse.

Today, she feels like she is losing the only family she’s ever known, and there is nothing she can do to stop it from happening.

At some point, Dina unties Ellie’s hair, and only then does she notice the headache spreading to her whole forehead.

Tommy went home around the same time, to check on baby Michael while Maria was out supervising repairs to the dam. He swore he’d be back as soon as he could find someone to watch his son but had been a while and he still was not back at the clinic.

Ellie is slumbering again, her head back on Dina’s lap. Her face is so close to her friend’s stomach, she can feel it press against her cheek as she breathes, steady, reassuring. Her eyes are closed, but she’s not sleepy anymore. It’s just easier to pretend to be asleep than it is to confront the reality of her helplessness.

“Hey, Freckles?”

Ellie opens her eyes to Dina’s curious face. “Yeah?”

“What in the world were you doing in a barn with your shirt over your face?” The slightest of all smiles tugs at the corner of her lips as she asks her question. “Is that what you’re into?”

Ellie feels the blush spread across her cheeks and buries her face into Dina’s shirt, the girl’s stomach shaking against her face in quiet laughter. “I was trying not to get killed by the stench.”

“Sure, that’s what they all say.”

Ellie looks up at Dina and rolls her eyes. “Whatever. Do you know any jokes?” Ellie changes the subject.

Dina whistles softly. “Let’s see… I once heard a joke about amnesia, but I forgot how it goes.”

“I taught you that one, dummy,” Ellie chuckles half-heartedly. “I used to wonder why my Frisbee looked bigger the closer it came… and then it hit me.”

“That’s awful.”

“Yeah? Let’s see you do better, show me what you’ve got.”

If she understands she’s desperately trying to change the subject to take her mind as far away from Joel’s situation as possible, she doesn’t comment on it or even lets it show.

Dina looks up to the ceiling, trying to remember another joke. “Okay, how about this one? My wife refuses to go to a nude beach with me… I think she’s just being clothes-minded!”

“Where did you learn that one?”

“Jesse.”

“Wait, Jesse is able to make jokes? Was he having a stroke or something?”

Dina slaps her arm playfully and Ellie pretends to be hurt. “Your turn, Freckles.”

“Alright. Whenever I undress in the bathroom… My shower gets turned on.”

Dina chuckles. “Judging by what little I saw in that barn, I’d be turned on too if I was your shower.”

“You’re the absolute worst.” Ellie knows that Dina is only teasing, but she can’t help but feel the blush spread to her cheeks and neck once more tonight at the mere idea of her friend being anywhere near her while she takes a shower. And then she remembers where they are, and why they are there, and she sobers right up.

What feels like a lifetime late, one of the doors nearby opens with a discreet click and Ellie scrambles to her feet, nearly knocking Dina completely flat on the floor. “Ellie?” the woman from before calls out, surveying the corridor until her eyes land on the two girls sprawled out on the floor, one of them shooting upright immediately and the other one having to catch herself before she gets pushed down even more.

“Yeah?” Ellie hears herself say as if far, far away.

The woman in front of her gets closer, her eyes unreadable, and her face tired. She feels Dina reach for her hand. “Your dad is going to be alright.”

Ellie releases a breath she didn’t know she had been holding, her knees nearly giving out from under her. Joel was going to be alright. He was going to be fine.

“Wha… Really?”

“Really. Your dad is a lucky man, if that bullet had hit anywhere else he would have been dead before even getting back here. It hit just under that big scar on his abdomen,” she explains. The scar from the university.

“What happened?” Dina asks, releasing Ellie’s hand.

The nurse bites her lips. “From what I got, they were attacked by a pack of Infected, and one pinned Joel to the ground. Victor tried to shoot it, but he missed and shot Joel instead.”

“He wasn’t bitten?” Ellie asks. She knows the answer – no one would have bothered trying to keep Joel alive if he had been bitten – but she needs to hear it.

The nurse sighs. “Joel was fine, but Victor had a bite on his leg.”

“Shit,” Dina breathes out. Ellie can’t find it in her to say anything back. “Where is he now?”

The woman clears her throat, clearly uncomfortable, and she knows what her answer will be before it even comes out of her mouth. “Dead. Leonard made the call, him and a few others decided they couldn’t risk him turning here with everyone else around… they were friends, you know. He’s taking this pretty hard.”

The nurse leads her to the room and tells her it could take a while before Joel wakes up, because they sedated him pretty heavily. She then leaves, her shoulders slumped, exhausted from an obviously much longer than expected day.

“I’m going to go home,” Dina says before Ellie goes in. “My mom is probably freaking out already because I didn’t sleep in my own bed, but my door is always open, if you need anything.”

Ellie nods, her eyes trained on the closed door before her, and the unconscious body she can see through the window. She doesn’t see Dina leaving.

***

Ellie fiddles with the edge of the sheet. It is coming apart at the seams, the tread hanging off the side of the bed. The soft glow of the morning light does nothing to help Joel’s pasty white complexion, or the bags under his eyes, which probably mirror hers. Neither does the bright light from the overhead lights, bright and unflattering. He truly looks like shit, almost as bad as he had looked over a year prior.

Even though she sees him, his chest rising and falling regularly with his breathing, she has trouble believing he will be okay. Call her pessimistic, but Ellie doesn’t feel like this whole ordeal is over yet. Instead, she feels like some other complication will arise before they even get to the one at hand.

Ellie doesn’t mean to, but her exhaustion overtakes her now that she knows Joel’s condition is non-life-threatening.

It takes a while – probably hours, judging by the position of the sun in the sky – and she has time to fall asleep a few more times, her forehead resting against the mattress, before she feels Joel start to stir next to her. “Hey,” Ellie whispers. His eyes are fluttering, trying to focus on something. “Welcome back to the world of the living.”

Joel groans, his hands feeling around his stomach over the ratty pale green sheet until they brush against the newly sewed up wound on his abdomen. He winces and lets his hands drop back to his sides as soon as he manages to somewhat asses the damage. “How the hell did I get back here?”

“Victor dragged your ass back here.”

Joel looks at her with confused eyes. “Is he okay?”

Ellie bites her lips and Joel exhales. She doesn’t have to give him an answer for him to understand roughly what happened. She provides one anyway. He should know.

“He was bitten when you were attacked, and he started to turn sometime after he dropped you off here.”

Joel purses his lips. “Son of a bitch… I want to see him.”

“You can’t,” Ellie shakes her head. “The nurse said they executed him before he could turn. Before he became a threat to the town.”

“Sweet Christ…”

She lets the silence between them go on for a little while longer before breaking it. She doesn’t like the way shit went down, but there is nothing she can do about it now.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” Ellie whispers when the silence between them becomes too heavy to withstand. “I was really scared I was going to lose you.”

Joel puts his hand over hers and squeezes softly. “After all of this? You’re not getting rid of me that easily.” Ellie laughs, but it is not lost on either of them how teary her voice sounds. Joel exhales slowly, deeply. “Well, they did a far better job at sewing me back up than you did.”

“Shut up, you old man! You lived, didn’t you?” Ellie sarcastically replies. She knows he is teasing her to make her feel better. “Anyway, what do you have in there to keep getting shit to go through you, a fucking huge magnet instead of your liver?”

Joel chuckles, then his face scrunches up in pain when the motion pulls at his new stitches. He winks at her to let her know not to worry about it too much. “Still a bit sore,” he offers in explanation.

“I should hope so. You were shot, not tickled into unconsciousness.”

Joel looks at her, and his eyes are starting to drop again. Soon, she guesses he will be asleep once more. “So… I’m your dad now?”

Ellie stammers. “Who told you that?”

“Jessica, when I woke up. She said you threatened to come in through a window if they didn’t let you see me.”

“Oh, so that’s her name.” Joel stays silent, knowing she’s trying to divert the subject away from his initial question but unwilling to give her the option to do so. He knows her too well. “I mean, everyone already thinks you are… you’re the closest thing I’ve ever had to a father, and I know I can never replace Sarah in your life, but I really do think of you as my dad.”

Ellie looks at his hand, still laying motionless over hers. When she looks up at his face, his eyes are fluttering closed but he is fighting hard to keep them open. “If it makes you a little less embarrassed, I think of you as a daughter too,” he mumbles through his beard.

Ellie chuckles. “I’m still going to call you Joel, though.”

“Would be weird if you didn’t, baby girl.”

He makes her promise to go home and stop worrying about him long enough to sleep a few hours. She does, and swears she’ll be back later during the day, but he is sound asleep by the time she gets the sentence out of her mouth. 

Only when Tommy reappears does she finally consent to leave the clinic, and by the time she does so, the sun is already high up in the sky.

Instead of going home like she had promised, she heads all the way across town to Dina’s mom house, where her friend was still living for the time being until her own house was renovated enough to be deemed liveable.

She knocks on the door, and after a few seconds it opens to reveal Mona, Dina’s mom, the front of her shirt full of flour. Her friend really did look like a younger, much shorter version of her mother, without the wrinkles at the corner of her eyes and mouth, or the grey streaks in her dark brown, almost black, frizzy hair. “Oh, Ellie, I wasn’t expecting to see you here today. How’s your dad? Dina told me about the incident. Such a shame, what happened…”

“He’s going to be fine, but he’s pretty banged up and out of it now… Tommy’s with him at the clinic.”

They look at each other in silence for a few seconds, the older woman’s eyes travelling down to Ellie’s right arm, to the edge of her tattoo showing around her wrist and over the back of her hand. The woman was very vocal about her dislike of body art, and made it known around town quite clearly that she thought Chuck was a thug, with all his tattoos, and that Joel shouldn’t have let her hang out anywhere near the tattooed guy at all, never mind get one herself.

“Is Dina home?” Ellie breaks the silence.

Mona steps away to let her in and she does, mindful to take her shoes off before going any further inside the house. “She’s upstairs in her room, I think she just got out of the shower.”

Ellie nods and makes her way through the house to her friend’s bedroom. Even if she hadn’t known the way to Dina’s room, the sound of her friend whistling an old country song – ‘Jolene’, she thinks it is called – would have guided her there just as well. She knocks, three little knocks, and waits.

“Come in!”

Ellie steps through the door, making Dina jump out of her skin. She has a towel tied around her, and her wet hair, unusually flat, is still dripping all over the carpet of her bedroom. She’s holding a fresh set of clothes in her hands, obviously about to get changed. “Oh my god, Ellie, I wasn’t expecting you. Is everything…”

She doesn’t get to finish her sentence before Ellie crashes into her, almost picking her off of the ground with the motion. Her arms wrap tightly around Dina’s shoulders, and it takes her a moment to react and hug her back. “Thank you for being here last night… I would have gone nuts without you there. Or, you know, tried to punch a hole through the wall and crawl my way to that room through it.”

It takes a second for the older girl to react.

“You’ve never hugged me first before,” is Dina’s only response.

“There’s a first time for everything, I guess,” Ellie tightens her embrace one last time before pulling away. Dina’s hair is back to its usual flowery scent. “I don’t know how to thank you enough… Let me do something nice for you!”

“You really don’t have to, I just did what any friend would have,” Dina shoots back, tightening the towel around her chest. “Ellie!”

She has already turned around and walked out of the room, despite her friend’s call.

“I’m too far away to hear you!” Ellie closes the door before her friend can argue with her some more.

***

“No peeking!” Ellie orders, pulling her friend along the dirt path that had once been a street, but had been overrun with plants and grass in the years since the town had been abandoned. When the first few people had come back to it, no one had bothered to clear it all away. She’s walking backwards, dragging Dina by her outstretched hand.

“Why do I feel like you’re going to walk me straight into a puddle of liquefied cow shit?”

Ellie scoffs. “Ye of little faith.” She helps her blindfolded friend up the stairs leading up to the creaking porch and opens the door to the house, pushing Dina softly inside. “You ready?”

Dina nods, and Ellie unties the blindfold obscuring her vision. “Oh my… Ellie!”

She laughs as her friend takes in her surroundings, mouth gaping open at the sight before her.

The house they were in now, Dina’s house, to be exact, didn’t look anything like it did merely a week before. The walls had been freshly painted, carpet had been installed in the bedroom and the living room, and the bathroom had been redone.

“Did you do all this?” Dina exclaims, her eyes shining.

Ellie smiles and gestures to the kitchen and bathroom. “Chuck helped me with the plumbing and electricity, and Jesse and I did the rest. We scavenged most of the material from the houses right outside of the fences by Watchtower 2. Hope you don’t mind the mismatched tiles in the shower, we ran out of the original ones halfway in. Anyway, it’s ready to move in when you are.”

Dina squeals and proceeds to run into every room, open every cupboard and closet and turning on and off every light switch, like an overexcited child, while Ellie .

“Ellie, this is too much!” she finally says when she stops running around.

“Call it an early present birthday present from Jesse, and a thank you gift for putting up with my shit for the past year from me. Jesse’s coming by later today after his patrol to help you get settled in.”

Dina lunges herself at her, and it almost sends Ellie tumbling backwards with the force of the impact. Ellie holds her in return, breathing her in. “Thank you, Freckles.”

“My pleasure.”

Seeing her this happy made all the blisters, cuts and burns on her hands and arms worth it.

Chapter Text

Ellie glances up and over Simon’s shoulder, eyeing the people dancing behind him, their feet kick up a layer of dust that had probably been accumulating on the wooden floor of one of the barns’ attic for years before it was invaded by a legion – okay, probably no more than twenty – of teenagers and young adults. The upbeat music resonates in her ears, overwhelming, distracting.

“I got a pair of twos,” Jesse grumbles, throwing his cards on the overturned empty barrel they were using as a table. “What do you guys have?”

“Pair of tens,” Simon smiles, and Jesse groans. “Ellie?”

“I ain’t got shit,” she replies, throwing her cards face-down on top of Jesse’s.

Simon hoots and rakes all the chips in the middle toward his side of the barrel, humming another upbeat, albeit off-key, melody as he does. Her sad pile of chips is getting smaller with every turn, but it’s nothing compared to the massacre Jesse’s stack is suffering at the hands of Simon.

“You’re sure you’ve never played poker before?”

Simon looks up briefly as he stacks his chips into piles, dividing them up by colors. “Yeah, about that… I kind of started bluffing before the game started. I used to play Texas Hold ‘Em with my parents all the time.”

“Well that explains a lot,” Jesse grumbles. He scratches the stubble along his chin with a sigh as he leans back in his chair.

“Come on, don’t be a sore loser,” Ellie teases from across the barrel-table.

“I haven’t lost yet!”

He shuffles the deck of cards as Simon takes Ellie’s place teasing him, and she loses interest in their usual banter.

She has gotten quite close to Simon in the past weeks, once the awkwardness of their ‘date’ had faded a bit. He actually took the whole ‘you’re a great guy, but I don’t like you that way’ speech pretty well – she guesses dating Lily helped him get over the whole thing quicker. To her, Simon’s sarcasm and jokes are a welcomed addition to Jesse’s stoic behavior and Dina’s flirty one.

Ellie surveys the room. Simon, Jesse and her are huddled in one corner of the attic above one of the barns, while there are some people dancing in the middle to the music blaring from the old radio set-up on a table that also housed a pile of  dusty CDs, and some more teens and young adults were playing a game of spin the bottle in the opposite corner.

The lights hanging on the ceiling, tied to the wooden beams, give off a warm glow, just enough so they can see each other, without the illicit feel of the gathering being compromised. They’re usually stowed away in the community center, being saved for Christmas, New Year’s and other pre-approved parties, but Logan – it always seemed to be Logan that was sneaking stuff out of locked cabinets without anyone noticing – had brought them all to way to the outskirts of town without anyone noticing.

Except for the occasional moo, none of the cows under them were complaining about the temporary upstairs’ neighbours’ noisiness.

“Ellie? It’s your turn.”

She shifts her gaze back to the game and consequently to the two guys staring at her. Ellie glances at the cards in her hand for a second before making her decision. “I fold.”

She throws the cards on the flat surface of the barrel and turns back to observing the game happening all the way across the room. She counts nine young people sitting in a circle, with an empty beer bottle in the middle of the huddle that they spin. Ellie does try to keep track of who ends up kissing who but loses count when she sees Dina leaning over to give a quick peck on the lips to the guy in front of her. Good God, the girl to guy ratio is all out of whack. She sees only 3 girls sitting there, counting her friend.

“You know you can join them if you want,” Jesse calls out. “We can just call it even, play some other time.”

“Don’t try to get out of this just because I’m winning,” Simon chirps in. “She could just give you her chips and you could carry on getting your ass handed to you, you whiny loser.”

“Hey! I’m still here,” Ellie interrupts, taking a sip of whiskey from her glass. “Do I look like I enjoy people’s company enough to go over there?”

Jesse chuckles, takes the deck of cards away from Simon and shuffles it, over and over again. “I’m actually surprised you’re here at all.”

“I could say the same of you. Unless it’s at your own place, you never show up to those things.”

Jesse nods in the direction of the mess of people kissing each other in the distance. “I’m supervising party-girl over there,” he says, his eyes trained on the cards.

“You’re spending your evening getting your ass kicked at poker and watching your girlfriend kiss a shit-ton of people that are not you… yeah, you’re the weirdest boyfriend in the history of all boyfriends,” Simon teases.

Jesse turns around and punches him in the shoulder, never even looking up from the task he is busying himself with. “You’re one to talk, your girlfriend has been dancing with Logan for the better part of the night and you’re nowhere near that dance floor.”

Simon looks up, surveys the dance floor, spots his girlfriend and shrugs. “It’s Logan, can’t say I’m that worried about him. He’ll probably say something stupid and earn himself a slap in the face anytime now.”

“Alright, alright, we get it, you’re both very trusting and confident boyfriends, can we finish this game?” Ellie mockingly snaps at them, taking the cards away from Jesse to deal them.

They keep playing, until eventually Jesse runs out of chips and leaves, grumbling about running out of whiskey as well as fake currency, and it is only Simon and Ellie anymore.

Ellie has just won their last hand when he chuckles into his hand. “What?”

“Nothing.”

“Simon?”

He holds up his hands in pretend surrender. “Alright, I was just thinking we should try to set you up with someone.”

Ellie raises an eyebrow. “We in this case being…?”

“Jesse, Dina, me… the fucking whole town, if it comes down to it. We could hold like a contest and you could be the grand prize!”

“As lovely as the idea sounds,” Ellie snickers. “I’m really not interested in anyone, and besides, I like being by myself. You know, no one to supervise during undercover parties.”

Simon scrunches his eyebrows in confusion. “I don’t have to supervise any… Aw, goddammit,” he groans as he looks behind him. “Lily, at least aim for the trash can!”

Just like that, he disappears, leaving his chips and cards right there on the barrel to make sure his retching girlfriend doesn’t make too much of a mess.

“Just you and me now, Whiskey,” Ellie says, looking at her glass. “Although you’re almost gone too.”

She settles for playing with the chips, building little castles and fortifications, and resolving to leave as soon as her drink is finished. All the way across the room, the people playing spin the bottle are exclaiming sporadically while the people dancing obscure her view of the game, though she has no real desire to witness any of that.

She’s just fine with staying on the outside looking in, watching everyone from a distance. Drunk people, she found – especially drunk teenagers, in retrospect – were unpredictable, and she wasn’t a real fan of unexpected behaviour from anyone. Guess she had more than a lifetime’s worth of un-predictableness in the past eighteen months…

Ellie looks over to the people dancing, holding each other close and swaying to the rhythm of the slower song that just came on. It looks so natural for them, to be close like that, but she can’t imagine ever being okay with that kind of closeness, especially not with a bunch of people around watching her.

She’s just about to build the third watchtower in her mini version of Jackson when someone sits down in one of the empty stools beside her. “You do know that sitting by yourself building shit with poker chips is not the fastest way to make friends?”

“It isn’t? Oh my, that explains a lot.” She looks up to see Dina staring at her, leaning her elbows on the table for support. She’s obviously in a very inebriated state, barely holding herself upright. Her hair is half out of her bun, “I take it you’re done playing?”

Dina leans closer to her. Her breath smells heavily of beer, and whiskey? Maybe vodka. She isn’t quite sure. “Can I tell you a secret?” she slurs. “I’m still playing, right now.”

“How can you still be playing there when you’re sitting all the way here with…”

Dina’s lips are on hers, and Ellie is frozen in place, eyes wide open for a second before they shut of their own accord, the final word of her sentence forever lost.

Holy fucking shit.

Her mind is blank, she can’t hear anything anymore, but she feels Dina’s lips move against hers, soft and warm, and then her tongue just brushing lightly against her bottom lip. Dina is deepening the kiss, and it seems that her whole body is unable to move except for her mouth, just moving in sync with whatever Dina is doing, matching her move for move.

It takes a second for her brain to register that the alcohol she tastes is not the one she had been drinking before, but rather the lingering taste of vodka – definitely vodka, not whiskey – on Dina’s lips.

Ellie pushes her away, holding her at arms length, and only then does the sound of people hooting and cheering all the way from across the attic reach her ears. Her face burns, and she knows it must be matching Dina’s shirt by now.

“Bottle pointed at you,” Dina slurs in response to her unanswered question. She’s swaying, eyes unfocused, barely able to stand on her feet without holding on to the edge of the barrel. Ellie has seen firsthand Dina drink people under the table many, many times before, enough to know that she is absolutely hammered right now.

“Dina, just how much did you have to drink tonight?”

Dina grabs Ellie’s discarded whiskey glass and chugs it in one swift motion, not even making a face as she downs the alcohol. “Dunno. Too much, if I absolutely had to give you an answer. Hey! Wait for me before the next turn!”

Ellie steadies her as she turns around to head back to the circle of people playing Spin the Bottle. From the corner of her eye, she sees Jesse heading over and resolves to let him be the one to tell drunk-Dina that she’s had enough.

Ellie turns back to her now empty glass, stunned beyond words, as the sounds of Jesse and Dina arguing cover the music blaring from the radio. Her heart is trying to hammer its way out of her chest.

She’s painfully aware of people – from the drinking game side of the room and the dance-floor side alike – looking at her, and the arguing couple, and whispering among themselves like they weren’t in any way responsible for the events that had just transpired. Bunch of hypocrites.

She ends up leaving as soon as her legs decide to cooperate with her again.

She does her best to ignore the eyes burning holes in her back as she heads for the only exit.

On her way down the stairs, she almost trips over the box of lights Logan had brought over but ends up only knocking it over, the newspaper and flyers that were stuffed in there to prevent the bulbs from breaking spilling out. Almost broke my neck on the stupid thing.

She bends down to put them back in the box and put it away so no one trips on it like she did. Ellie is in no way as inebriated as some of the people she has just left upstairs, and she still almost tumbled her way down.

“Fucking Logan, leaving boxes lying in dark stairways,” she grumbles as she puts the crumpled up balls of paper back where they came from. She tucks the box neatly under a table where anyone coming down the stairs will surely see it if they look for it, but notices one runaway flyer that got stuck between one of the steps and the wall.

Better pick it up before one of the cows chews it tomorrow.

She does, and in the faint light seeping in from the space between the planks of wood from the attic floor, she spots the subject of the flyer.

“CBI Safety Pamphlet,” Ellie reads out, slower than she usually reads because of the shadows from people walking above her between the paper and her light source complicating the process, and her eye catches one of the subheadings. “Transmission. The two known ways to contract CBI are: breathing the spores emitted by the Cordyceps… Contact with bodily fluids of a person infected with CBI, usually by being bitten.”

Ellie’s blood runs cold. She glances down to the tattoo on her arm, to the bite concealed beneath it, and back to the pamphlet.

Contact with bodily fluids of a person infected.

Ellie’s brain plays back to scene from a few minutes before. Dina kissing her, her lips against hers… her tongue brushing against them, their kiss deepening, however brief it had been.

Usually by being bitten.

“No,” she whispers in the dark. “No…”

***

“Joel! Joel, you gotta get the fuck up, right now!”

Ellie bangs her fists on his door until he swings it open, hopping in place to pull his pants up while trying to rub the last remnants of sleep out of his eyes. “I swear to God, if this house isn’t on fire I will…”

“Can I infect other people?” Ellie interrupts him.

Joel is wide awake now. “What? Ellie, what’s going on?”

She has no idea where to begin.

I was at a secret party in the attic of one of the barns, drinking with some friends.

She’s out of breath, having sprinted all the way back to their house in the pitch-black darkness of the night. She feels dizzy too, and she highly suspects it isn’t only because of the makeshift marathon she just ran.

“Dina kissed me,” she blurts out, the words spilling out of her mouth faster than she ever thought she could speak. “We were at this party, and I was playing poker and she was over there playing Spin the Bottle and apparently it pointed at me, and she came over and she just kissed me.”

Joel stares at her, calm beyond belief compared to her uncontrollably agitated behaviour. “Okay?”

“Okay? This is all you have to say, ‘okay’?”

“Just give me a second,” he sighs and finally leaves his spot in the doorframe in favor of his rocking chair in the living room just one door down. She follows him ready to yell at him some more, though she has no idea what words would come out of her mouth.

He sits down and pinches his nose. “Okay, walk me through it. You guys kissed…”

She kissed me!

“She kissed you,” Joel corrects himself with a barely concealed sigh. “So, what?”

“This is how the infection spreads, doesn’t it? Contact with bodily fluids from an infected person. I was bitten, I scan positive for CBI even though I don’t have any symptoms… Do you think I can transmit it to other people with my saliva? Like, am I some sort of carrier or a non-batshit-crazy-non-violent future Runner?”

She’s rambling in her nervousness, rubbing the crescent shaped scar of her bite almost compulsively as she speaks. Joel sits her down on the coffee table, careful not to sit her in the middle where it bends dangerously. As a second thought, he forces her hand away from her bite, which is probably a good thing because there is a very strong chance she might scrape off her tattoo altogether if she keeps this up. “Kiddo… I recall you kissing that Dipshit Von Bucket guy, and he’s still walking around just fine.”

How he knows that is beyond her, and it is also dead last on her list of things she wants to ask Joel about. “That wasn’t the same!”

“How the hell isn’t that the same thing?” Joel groans, rubbing his temples. He lets go of her hand, and it automatically wraps around her bite again.

“Tongue!” Ellie exclaims out, ignoring the urge to hide under the cushions of the couch as she says it. “Quick peck on the lips with Simon, not the case with Dina… not the same!”

Joel leans back in his chair, shaking his head and huffing as he does. “If you had told me 30 years ago I’d be discussing kissing techniques with my 16 year-old kid, I’d have punched your face in.”

“Focus, Joel!”

“What do you expect me to tell you?” he snaps. “That you’ve Infected her? That you haven’t? I don’t know that.”

His voice softens as he finishes speaking, eyes trained on her waiting to see what her next move will be.

Elle breathes in, shakily. She’s feeling her throat start to close up, feeling the unshed tears blurring her vision and threatening to break the dam holding them in. “I want you to tell me it’s going to be fine,” she finally whispers.

Joel squeezes her knees in what she him to intend as a reassuring gesture, but it only manages to accentuate the feeling of dread filling her. “I don’t know that, Baby Girl. Whatever happens, there is nothing you can do to stop it now. We’ll just have to wait it out.”

He pulls her in, her face pressed so close against the bare skin of his shoulder that she can feel the ridges of one particularly nasty scar he has there brush her cheek. “I can’t lose someone else,” Ellie whispers again, to herself more than him. “I can’t be left behind again.”

If Joel hadn’t been listening already, he might’ve missed it.

***

She doesn’t sleep for one second that night. Instead, she tosses and turns, stares at her ceiling and the pictures and drawings that are glued there with only the soft red glow of her alarm clock’s digital display to break the absolute darkness surrounding her.

Ellie keeps seeing Dina kiss her, but when she pulls away, her mind starts playing tricks on her. She sees Dina’s eyes, bloodshot and she’s growling – delirious – her lips twisted in a snarl. At some point, she realises her brain is bringing her back to the carousel, when she had been bitten, and instead of losing one best friend to CBI she’s losing another one. It’s like watching Riley turn all over again. She hadn’t been plagued by those images in a long, long time. She could have done without them for a while longer still.

Before long, the sun has risen, its rays seeping under her curtains, and she hasn’t closed her eyes for even a second.

Joel says nothing to her as she passes him by to get to her watch shift, after a brief shower that doesn’t manage to wash away the disturbing images out of her head.

From the moment she sits down on her chair, riffle carefully placed on her knees as she surveys the surrounding area, she can swear time slows down to the point of almost standing still. Each hour that goes by feels like a day, and with every passing minute she grows more restless.

She has the evening shift on watchtower 8, so she’ll probably stop by the headquarter to check the schedule because she can never remember where she’s supposed to be at.

But an hour passes, and then two, three, four, and still no sign of Dina anywhere on the horizon. Ellie is sure she’s driving her partner nuts with how many times she glances away from the wooded area in front of them to observe the perfectly safe landscape of the settlement.

She probably switched shift with someone because she knew she was going to that party. It’s fine, there is nothing to worry about. She’s probably just sleeping in.

Still, the nervousness keeps uncontrollably growing within her.

Where the hell is she at?

Finally, she reaches the end of her shift and swaps places with Chuck, going down the ladder two steps at a time and heading home. Maybe she’ll do some axe throwing, maybe some other target practice – whatever works to keep her mind and body busy, and most importantly, away from the fact that she has seen no sign of Dina since last night.

“Hey Ellie!” She turns around, seeing Simon running toward her, still wearing the exact same clothes he had on the night before. The stupid smile on his face tells her he either spent the night at Lily’s place or found a magic lamp with a wish-granting genie trapped inside. Odds are, it is the latter. “What are you doing now?”

“Nothing much,” she answers.

“Can you take the evening shift on watchtower 7 tonight? Tommy asked me to do it, but I don’t really want to.”

“Whose watch is it?”

“Dina’s. Apparently, she was supposed to be on 8, but she traded with someone else or whatever. I wasn’t really paying attention when Jesse explained it to me. He said she came down with a fever, but that’s all I know.”

Ellie swears her heart physically skips a beat. She sees Simon’s lips keep moving – he’s still talking – but all she hears is a deafening ringing in her ears that’s drowning out everything else.

I need to see her.

She thinks she tells Simon she has something else to do tonight, but with the ringing in her ears she isn’t sure the words actually came out of her mouth at all. She doesn’t give a shit. She heads straight for Dina’s place, careful not to pick up her pace until she is out of view as to not arouse anymore suspicion.

Between the ringing in her ears and her heart trying to beat its way out of her chest, she feels there is a definite possibility that she might explode of stress before she reaches her destination.

I should have seen her coming, she never should have been able to reach me.

She picks up the pace once more, jogging now.

That’s what you get for letting people get close to you.

She’s running now. Only two street corners to go.

Riley, Tess, Sam, Henry… Now Dina too…

She’s running so fast she can’t even see the houses flying by beside her, only focused on the tiny one with the blue door, windows and fence.

She trips on the last step in front of Dina’s house and consequently crashes through the already shaky front door. She tumbles to the ground, unable to stop herself before the impact, rolling on herself upon crash-landing but still managing to smash her forehead against the wall.

“Good God, Ellie!”

She looks up – the way Dina’s house is configured, she landed smack in the middle of her living room, right at the feet of the pasty white – bordering on green, if she was honest – young woman sitting on her couch with a grey plastic bucket balanced on her lap. She’s wrapped in her warmest blanket, the one her grandmother had sewn her when she was a little kid, and her eyes are looking at her in tired, but overall unimpressed, surprise.

“Do I even want to know?” Dina asks, examining the remains of the door over the edge of her bucket. Looking back at it, Ellie sees that only one of the tree hinges holding the door up is still intact, the other having ripped off the wall when she burst through it.

Ellie scrambles to her feet as fast as she can while still seeing stars from her unexpected headfirst collision with the wall, looking at Dina, examining her, looking for any sign of her turning. She sees none.

“Ellie, what’s going on?”

She’s counting in her head. It had been around midnight when Dina had kissed her, it was now the end of the afternoon, roughly just before five if she had to guess.

17 hours. It had taken way less time than that for Riley to start showing signs being infected.

Doesn’t mean shit. Riley was bitten, Dina… well, I don’t know what’s going on there.  

“What’s going on with you?” Ellie asks her, disregarding her friend’s previous question.

Dina puts her bucket aside by her feet. “Clearly, I just came back from my mid-afternoon two-hour run in the mountains,” she retorts, her usual sarcastic self. “Was it not obvious?”

“I’m serious, Dina… how are you feeling?”

“Like shit. Ellie, you’re kind of scary me. Are you okay?”

I’ve spent the past 17 hours convincing myself I have just signed my friend’s death warrant, so yeah, I’m just… peachy.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine.” Dina looks at her, obviously not buying it. She lets it go nonetheless.

Ellie pushes the door back where it used to be – it closes okay, if you don’t mind the gap between the side of the door and the wall, but as soon as someone opens it again it will surely fall sideways. She’ll have to fix that, sometime.

“What are you doing here, Ellie?” Dina asks, pulling her blanket closer to her body. She’s shivering, Ellie notices, and whatever feeling of dread she had managed to ditch at the door comes rushing back to her.

“I, ehm, I, I wanted to… check up on you!” Ellie cringes at the way her voice gets squeakier over the last part. Lying is so not in your skill set.

Dina groans, leaning her head back against the back cushion of the couch. “I told Jesse not to tell people about this!” She opens one eye to stare at Ellie, still keeping her head in a horizontal position. “How many people did he tell?” 

“Just me.”

What is up with the lying today, Williams? And what the hell wasn’t Jesse supposed to tell?

Ellie sits on the armrest, keeping her eyes trained on Dina’s pale face. “Well, shit,” the older exhales. “Seeing as it’s out of the bag now… How bad was I really?”

“What?”

“At that party last night!” Dina clarifies. “You were there, weren’t you? On a scale of one to ten, how embarrassed should I be?”

Ellie’s eyes widen. “Did you just ask me if I was there? Dina, how much do you remember?”

She shrugs. “Drinking, dancing, drinking some more… I remember sitting down to play truth or dare, and then the rest of my night is either fuzzy or blurry, one or the other.”

No way she doesn’t remember kissing me. Can she?

“You weren’t playing truth or dare, you were playing spin the bottle!”

“What do you know, Jesse was right. Man, I’m such an asshole. He said I made fucking scene, and we actually had a fight about it right this morning.”

“I hate to side with him, but you also kissed like half the people there.”

“Great. Anyone important?”

Dina’s last two words echo in her head, like some kind of sick song, and she can almost picture them bouncing off the inside of her skull. The answer to her friend’s question, however, is nowhere to be found in that stupid brain of hers. What the hell am I supposed to say? ‘Anyone important’… did she mean someone in particular? Am I important?

“No, no one you’d care about,” is the response that escapes her lips.

Dina shivers and straightens up, untangling herself from the cocoon of blankets that she had wrapped around her body. “Pass me my bucket, I’m going to hurl.”

Ellie executes herself as fast as her body will allow. She tries her best to ignore the sounds of Dina vomiting in the container and sticks to rubbing circles on her back with shaking a shaking hand that her friend doesn’t notice and holding back the frizzy curls of her wild mane of unbrushed hair. No, no one you’d care about… Anyone important? No one you’d care about. She can’t decide if she’s happy the other girl doesn’t remember kissing her, or if she’s disappointed. Does she remember at all?

Dina finally leans back into the cushions, handing Ellie her bucket which she holds at a good arm length and puts on the ground with a wrinkled nose. “Gross.”

“Shut up, you’re gross,” Dina retorts, pulling the runaway strands of hair behind her ears. She’s an impressive shade of pale green, not quite green but still kind of white. Green-ish, if she had to say.

Other than that, Ellie sees no signs of infection in her. No incoherence, no feverish delusions, no confusion, no aggressivity, nothing.

17 hours. 17 hours after first being bitten, Riley was already starting to lose her fucking mind, but Dina is here, all here, albeit nursing one hell of a nasty hangover.

“Hey, did Jesse happen to mention who you kissed?”

Dina leans her head down on the armrest and stretches her legs over the rest of the couch, resting them over Ellie’s. In doing so, she sneaks them under Ellie’s right arm, and leaves the younger girl no choice but to set her forearm down on Dina’s thigh. She hopes her friend doesn’t notice the hesitant motion of her hand, or the slight tremor of her fingers as they rest against her leg.

She doesn’t want to be, but she’s afraid. Irrationally afraid, scared half-to-death that the mere act of being next to her for an extend period of time or breathing the same air will infect Dina.

If she had to turn, she would have started to show signs by now. You probably can’t infect anyone, you just test positive for CBI. She’ll be fine. She’s fine.

No amount of convincing on her part manages to put her panicking mind at rest.

“No,” Dina answers, interrupting Ellie’s interior debate with herself. “Do you know?”

Ellie carefully considers her answer. “Nah. Just curious, that’s all.”

Dina nods. After a moment of tense silence during which Ellie keeps a watchful eye on Dina’s every move, the older girl drapes part of her blanket over Ellie.

“Come over here and warm me up, I’m freezing.” Before she can object, Dina has crawled in the space between her arms, curling up against Ellie’s body like a cat in search of a warm shelter. “Quit squirming away, Freckles, if you hadn’t ruined my door I would be fine with just my blanket, but now I’m down one door and still frozen solid.”

With that, Dina grabs hold of Ellie’s wrist and wraps her arm around her own shoulders. Ellie hopes to whatever god there might be, if there even is one left in this batshit-crazy world, that she doesn’t feel her hand shake against her shoulder blade where it rests.

“I can fix your door,” Ellie stammers, very aware of Dina’s body pressed flush against her side and of her own heart beating alarmingly too fast for someone sitting down on a couch. She feels Dina’s breath against her neck, and her head is throbbing. Probably from her headfirst collision with the wall from earlier.

“You better fix my door,” she jokingly threatens as she playfully pokes Ellie’s ribs. “But not now. Right now, you’re my human heater.”

As much as Ellie is afraid of staying near her, she’s even more terrified to leave – petrified at the idea of Dina starting to turn, physically feeling the aching need deep within her to make sure she would continue to be okay – so she stays put, huddled on one side of the couch, frozen in place, with Dina occupying all the remaining space on the cushioned piece of furniture.

Outside, night is falling slowly – it is almost the middle of November now, and the bitter cold is making its presence known rather harshly. The wind is seeping in from the space between the side of the door and the wall where Ellie tore it off its hinges, and before soon, she uses her free arm to bring her side of the blanket up to her chin and sink deeper into the cushion where it is warmer.

“It’s cold as shit.”

“Well, it was warmer when there wasn’t a hole in my wall.”

Ellie looks over at Dina, who has her eyes closed. “Sorry, again.”

“Let’s move this to my room, okay, Freckles?”

She thinks her heart stutters as much as her voice does on her next words. “Wha… what?”

Dina finally opens one eye, playful despite obviously not feeling well. “It’s out of the air current, dummy.”

“Oh.”

Dina glances down ever so briefly, and Ellie feels her fingers press against her ribcage, on her side, “Your heart is beating awfully fast.”

I can’t help it.

“It’s always been a little on the faster side. Don’t worry about it.” 

It isn’t the most satisfying explanation, but Dina doesn’t push it further, mostly because she grabs her bucket in panic just in time to avoid throwing up all over them, the couch and the blanket.

Ellie is almost thankful.

***

Later that night, when Dina has gone back to bed and promptly fallen asleep right when her head hit the pillow, Ellie went to work on the broken door. Busying herself with a physical task also meant harnessing the wild string of horrible scenarios running loose in her head since the night before. She could almost pretend she didn’t notice the fever Dina was running, or the throwing up, or the dizziness.

She’s just hungover.

22 hours now, and other than the fever and the vomiting, nothing was different.

It might just be a regular old virus, like Jesse had last week.

23 hours, and now the door was fixed, she had no more reason to stay, but still, she couldn’t find it in her to go home.

Do pregnant women tend to run fevers a lot? I know they throw up a fair deal… Jesus, I’ve never wished that bad for anyone to be pregnant, ever.

24 hours.

I’m losing it. I’m losing it. I’m losing it.

Hours keep on going by, one after the other, like they always have. Her going stir-crazy doesn’t change any of that. Every few minutes, she pushes the door to Dina’s bedroom just enough so the light from the living room creates the tiniest ray of light, bright enough for Ellie to see that she’s still sleeping – soundly, peacefully, lightly snoring under the covers – but not bright enough to rouse her from her slumber.

Every time Ellie closes her own eyes, curled up on Dina’s couch, she sees her friend kissing her again, and downing her whiskey – which had also come in contact with her saliva, come to think of it – and it’s impossible to get to sleep when she’s that worried.

30 hours.

She makes eggs for breakfast, and Dina eats with an unprecedented appetite – “I haven’t eaten since the party, give your girl a break”. She’s still a little pale, except for her cheeks, which are a deep crimson color, and her forehead is clammy and hot to the touch. She’s still feverish.

36 hours.

If Dina wonders why she is sticking around for so long, she doesn’t say it. Instead she keeps chatting non-stop like they haven’t seen each other non-stop since the day before. At one point she asks Dina if she can take a shower, hoping it’ll calm her nerves. It doesn’t, and she just stands under the cold stream of water shivering until she can’t hide in there any longer before it becomes suspicious – she has no doubts Dina is going to pound on the door if she suspects her of using up all her hot water again. Do you want me to turn into an ice cube next time I shower?

Ellie doesn’t use any hot water. It certainly isn’t her first cold shower, or even her last, she assumes.

48 hours. It’s probably just the flu.

She goes home.

“You’re sure you’re okay, Freckles?”

She takes another look at Dina, back to her usual skin color and chirpy personality. “Yeah,” she mumbles. “I’m okay.”

72 hours. 96 hours. 120 hours. A week. Two weeks. A month.

She keeps a watchful eye on her the whole time, but still, Dina doesn’t turn, and Ellie can’t be thankful enough for this.

Chapter Text

“27,” Ellie mumbles under her breath, her hand blocking the rays of the setting sun from shining into her eyes, surveying with attention the line of trees in front of her until she sees it again. It’s so cold outside she can see her breath making little puffs of condensation in the air. She can’t feel the top of her ears anymore, she’s in fact willing to bet they are about to fall off on the rudimentary wood floor. “28…”

“You know, you only have to count up to ten before you have to go look for people,” a voice calls out from behind her.

She turns around to see Chuck leaning on the side of the scaffolding, his feet still on the ladder steps and his elbows resting on the floor of the watchtower nest. He’s looking up at her, his eyes half-hidden behind the strands of carrot-colored hair escaping from his faded blue baseball cap, squinting to see her despite the bright rays blinding him.

“And you have to hide until I find you, dumbass.” Ellie doesn’t think she has ever greeted Chuck with something other than sarcasm since he had tattooed her, and she can’t remember him not teasing her.

“Point taken, my young padawan.”

“Your what, now?”

He huffs as he pulls his heavy frame the rest of the way up into the inside of the observation nest. The ladder’s top two steps had been broken sometime mid-November, and no one had bothered to fix them or change the ladder altogether since then, so people actually had to drag their sorry asses up now.

“Man, if there is one thing I miss from before the Outbreak, its people getting my cinematographic references.” He takes place into the empty chair beside Ellie’s, the fragile, weather-worn structure creaking under his weight. “So, what were you counting to before stopping to observe my workout?”

“Workout? That looked more like a beached whale trying to drag itself back to the sea.”

“When have you ever seen a beached whale?”

“Don’t need to when I see you doing this all the time.”

“Fuck you.”

“And I think you’re great too.”

He surveys the horizon for a few seconds, orange light covering everything in sight and reflecting off the absolute whiteness of the snow. Judging by that, Ellie estimates they probably have only an hour, maybe an hour and a half at most, before night falls over Jackson. This falls earlier each day, it seems, and it does nothing to change her total dislike for winter. There is nothing positive about it – dying plants, migrating birds, fewer deer, rabbits and older wildlife to hunt, cold weather that chills her to her very bones, shorter days… and awful memories and nightmares as an added bonus.

She had been hoping that after her first winter after the whole David ordeal had passed, they would go away on their own and leave her the fuck alone. Apparently, she wasn’t worthy of such luck.

“Anything else I should know about?” Chuck asks. He’s skimming over her watch notes in the leather-bound notebook they keep on a small metal shelf up in the nest of the watchtower. It is mostly used to record temperatures, observations and technical notes of every shift, but Ellie uses it to doodle around when the days are slower. Chuck turns over the notebook, showing her a basic drawing of what could only be described as a hybrid between a horse and a moose on the half-page marked December 12th, 2035. “I take it this was a slower shift?”

Ellie chuckles. “You could say that. Most interesting thing I’ve seen since this morning is a squirrel going up and down the same goddamned tree 28 times in like, half an hour. Town’s a freaking ghost-town today.”

“You need to find some hobbies, Ellie.”

“Don’t I know it. Have a good watch, Chuck. Don’t freeze to death up here.”

She hands him the riffle, and her fingers have trouble uncurling from around the barrel where she had gripped it, hours ago. Man, they just froze there. It’s too fucking cold outside. She fantasizes about jumping right into her bed as soon as she gets home, wrapping herself in a cocoon of blankets and re-reading her comics for what must be the hundredth time.

She hops down the ladder – not without getting a few splinters in her hands on the untreated wood in her hurry to get down – and almost lands directly on top of Jesse’s head. She always jumps down the last few steps, but today she ends up slipping down instead of jumping down.

He simply sidesteps her rapidly falling body, impassive as always.

“What in the world are you doing here?” Ellie asks, looking him up and down. He’s wearing his usual patrol outfit, patched up cargo pants with lots of pockets, all loaded with survival items and supplies, a backpack and what used to be a black hoodie with the big pocket on the front of it ripped out and the actual hood cut off – for safety, she remembers him saying as he was cutting it out, months ago. He has a grey jacket slung over his shoulder, to complete the outfit.

Jesse holds up a finger in front of his lips, signaling to her to be quiet. He’s holding one of their walkie-talkies up to his face, turning the dial carefully – she assumes to try to tune in the right channel. The white numbers on the dial had faded years ago, Tommy had told her, and only the ones on Leonard’s were still visible, but no one dared touch that one.

After a moment of silent staring, Tommy finally dares to makes eye contact with her. “Have you seen Mitch anywhere?”

“No,” Ellie replies, watching him carefully. “Why?”

Jesse doesn’t answer right away. She hears only static coming from the different channels, and Jesse’s occasional requests for a reply. “Oh, for fuck’s sake…”

He shoves the talkie back into one of the side pockets of his cargo pants before rubbing the top part of his nose between his eyes. It’s something she noticed he does quite often when he isn’t sure what he should do next.

“Who did you piss off this time to get the cold shoulder even with the talkies?”

“Dam’s turbines are fried. No one knows why – Tommy thinks it’s a malfunction, Maria thinks it was intentionally sabotaged – but it’s all hands on deck over there until it gets figured out. Only people left here are the ones already on a watch shift, a patrol, needed somewhere else or unable to leave Jackson for one reason or another.”

He’s pacing, eyeing both the gate nearby and the street he presumably came from.

“What’s the big deal?”

Jesse stops pacing, and he looks at her with steely, calculating eyes. “The patrol team that left on Monday never reported back. They radioed from one of our checkpoints two days ago, but that’s the last we heard of them. I’m supposed to go up to their last known location with Mitch, but the dumb shit is nowhere to be found,” Jesse informs her. He kicks a rock out of his way and it bounces all the way to the fence separating Jackson from the Wyoming wilderness. Up above them, Ellie spots Chuck briefly peeking over the edge of the watch tower nest to investigate what the unexpected noise was. “Christ, I don’t have time for this.”

The words are out of Ellie’s mouth before her mind catches up to her lips – something that, objectively, happens way too often for her liking. “I’ll go with you.”

“You’re not on the patrol roll,” Jesse objects. “And, you’re 16.”

“Almost 17,” she counters. “You were 17 when you started to do patrols.”

“I was turning 18 the next week!”

“Do you really have the luxury of arguing with me while you wait for someone else to magically become available? You said it yourself, everyone is needed elsewhere. I’m not.”

Jesse scratches at the stubble of his patchy beard, checking his watch and back towards the center of town where Mitch would be coming from if he actually managed to show up. Still, there is no one there.

“I’ll be careful,” Ellie continues, pleading her case. “Everyone in Jackson is busy, and it’ll take over an hour to go fetch someone from the dam to come with you. Let’s leave now – if those guys are in trouble, we shouldn’t waste anytime talking about this.”

Jesse stares her down. She tries to make herself taller by standing straighter, but her friend is still a good head taller than her. “You’ll do as I say?”

“I promise.”

“Your dad is going to skin me alive if anything happens to you,” he grumbles. Jesse pulls out a pistol from one of the side pockets of his cargo pants and hands it to her, careful to hold it so it doesn’t aim for anything in particular. “Make sure it doesn’t happen.”

She nods and takes the gun, shoving it into the pocket of her coat as Jesse asks Chuck to let Joel know that Ellie is gone with him. Ellie knows she shouldn’t be happy about any of this – after all, the whole reason Jesse and Mitch were going out in the first place was because a patrol party failed to check in multiple times when they were scheduled to – but she is. For the first time in a long, long time, she feels like she’s actually useful to the town.

Ellie feels more alive leaving the fenced community behind than she has in the past year. It feels good.

***

“Don’t you miss it? The city life, I mean…”

Jesse sneaks a brief glance sideways at her. He easily steps over a fallen tree trunk while Ellie has to climb over it to try to keep up with him. Damn short legs.

“Why would I?” Jesse questions back. She doesn’t usually ask him any questions that involve anything more than a yes or no answer on his part, but they’ve been walking for an hour now and walking silently is driving her nuts. She already tried telling a few jokes, but she barely got a sideway glance in response – a vey Jess-like reaction, not that she expected anything else coming from the unusually quiet guy.

She knows Jesse ended up stumbling upon Jackson with his dad when he was 12, and that he was born in the Denver Quarantine Zone. That’s about it.

Ellie ducks under the branch in front of her. “Dunno. Just figured you’d miss the anonymity of a larger city, that’s all.”

“I don’t think I have as big an issue with people knowing me as you do.”

“I don’t have an issue with that.”

Jesse scoffs and shakes his head. “Sure. And I don’t have issues with small talk.”

“Forget I said anything, then.”

They keep walking up the dirt path leading around a cliff, and then down onto a beat-up road that they follow at a safe distance under the cover of the trees. There are no birds chirping anymore, and the only sound reaching Ellie’s frozen ears is the crunching of the snow under their boots as they make their way further and further away from Jackson. Night had fallen about a half-hour ago. If it wasn’t for the full moon reflecting on the snow, she isn’t sure she would have been able to follow Jesse – his linger legs allow him to walk way faster than she can, and so he always seems to be walking a few yards in front of her, at least. Hell, she isn’t even sure Jesse would have found his way in the complete obscurity of the night.

Thankfully, they manage to reach one of the cabins they use as a checkpoint not long after she thinks her toes are going to fall off from the cold. It is partially covered with tree branches and snow, and if Jesse hadn’t made a sharp turn when they reached it, she probably would have walked right by it without ever noticing a thing.

It is warmer inside, but still too cold for her liking, even after they light a small fire – not big enough to draw attention, but enough to warm them up, even just a little.

“I don’t miss the city,” Jesse says, poking absentmindedly at the embers with a stick. She was just about to drift off, laying down on a ratty blanket that had been stored in the cabin for an occasion just like this one – as close to the fire as it was safe to. “I miss the life I had there.”

“Do you wish you could go back?” She knows she does – she’d trade a lot of things to be 13 again, when life was much simpler and she had not yet been bitten. When Riley was still alive. But then she remembers Joel, and Dina, and Jesse, Tommy, Maria, Michael, Chuck… She never would have met them if she hadn’t wandered in the mall that night.

Jesse keeps playing with the fire. He lights his stick a few times, then puts it out, and then lights it again. Finally, just when she thought she would not get the answer, Jesse speaks again.

“No,” he mutters, almost a whisper to be confused with the wind outside their shelter. “The things that I miss… they’re not in Denver anymore than I am. It wouldn’t do me any good to go back.”

He looks at her over the flames and she can almost see how freaked out he is about having already shared that much with her in such a short time. Almost. To the outside observer, he looks exactly the same as always – tall, quiet, confident – but to her, he seems just a little less dark and mysterious. She guesses his persona is part of his charm.

“I used to play chess, with my mom, and then she died and we never played again,” Jesse continues with his eyes going back to staring into the fire. “Not me, not my dad, and not my brother.”

She doesn’t know much about Jesse’s life before Jackson, but she figures this might be her only chance in a while to learn more.

“What was his name?”

“James. My dad was a big fan of westerns – old movies about the Far West and shit – and he thought it would be hilarious to name his sons after a famous outlaw. Guy’s name was Jesse James. My mom apparently wasn’t pleased when she figured it out, but my dad told me that by that time we were already five or six, so it stayed that way.”

“I never would have guessed you had a twin,” Ellie confesses. “It’s hard enough to deal with you, let alone a clone.”

Jesse smiles at her pitiful attempt at lightening the mood. “We were quite mischievous back then. My mom pretended to hate it, but I always thought she was glad we were getting along that well more than she was mad at us for the shit we were pulling. She was a wonderful lady. Patient, kind… it would have broken her heart to know what happened to James.”

Jesse stops talking, but not before Ellie hears the faintest hint of a tremor in his voice. She might have made it up, she isn’t sure. What happened to James? To your mom? She itches to ask the questions out loud, but if she does she’s afraid Jesse will close off altogether, so she doesn’t interrupt him.

“Dad never pursued anyone else, not to my knowledge, at least. Always said mom was the love of his life, his one and only.” Jesse finally looks up from the dying embers to stare at her. He puts another log in before speaking again. “What about you, Ellie? Anyone you left behind back home?”

Anyone I left behind.

Riley.

The girl I was before I got bitten.

Everything I knew.

“No. There was nothing left for me in Boston – my only family is Joel, and he’s here.”

Jesse nods. He rolls out one of the blankets onto the ground, on the other side of the fire from her, and lies down on it. She can’t see him anymore, but she can still hear his voice. “Mom never made it out of Denver. Some soldier shot her in the street like a dying animal. James got sick along the way. He didn’t get to Jackson.”  

She hears him shuffle on the other side of the cabin. “I’m sorry, Jesse. I had no idea.”

“We should get some sleep. Long day tomorrow.”

She doesn’t push him further – he has already willingly provided more personal information on his life before they met than she had ever hoped to get out of him. She settles for listening to the noises outside their shelter, especially the howling wind or the occasional hooting owl nearby.

It takes a while for her to finally drift off but when she does, her sleep is restless, plagued with dreams in which she keeps imagining waves upon waves of Infected flooding the cabin. Some of them are plain-old Runners and Clickers, but some of them are grotesque caricatures of people she knows that have turned. She wakes up in cold sweat, frozen to her very core on the cold, hard ground.

When Jesse finally stirs awake on the other side of the dying fire separating them, she’s already been staring at the branches and snow making up the roof for what feels like a lifetime.

“We should be at John and Kenny’s last known checkpoint in an hour, maybe two if the snow blocked our usual path,” Jesse mumbles, shoving items into his backpack with practiced movements. Ellie has no doubts everything has its own place in there by now.

“It’s the abandoned rest-area, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, that’s the one.”

They set out on the rest of their journey under the early morning light, silent except for short commands on Jesse’s part and quick comments on hers.

At one point, the wildlife gets less dense and the forest clears out to reveal the remains of what must have been a huge rest stop back before the outbreak. There are two buildings side by side, both with plants and moss growing over the brick façades from years upon years of abandonment, both two-stories high with no windows on the second-floor. She sees that one of the sides of the left-most structure is practically non-existent, with a fallen tree in the middle of where she assumes the wall must have been, and puddles of water collecting at the bottom. It looks like a haunted mansion if she’s ever seen one.

“Cozy,” Ellie comments, whistling in mock appreciation.

“It’s worse than it looks once you get inside,” Jesse replies over his shoulder. In the time it took for her to observe the damage done to her surroundings, he had walked almost all the way to the empty doorway of the right-side building. There is no door there, and she can’t say she is too surprised considering the overall and overgrown state of the area.

She hastens her pace to catch up to him before he ducks inside, only to be slammed against the wall besides the door as soon as she steps through. “What the fuck, Jesse!” she exclaims as she feels the rough surface of the bricks slam into her back painfully, her voice almost immediately getting muffled by Jesse’s hand against her mouth. Her eyes wander behind him to the room they just entered.

Whatever she thought she might find inside, she wasn’t expecting that.

There is blood, everywhere – on the walls, on the floor, on the ceiling, and on the two obviously dead men lying in the middle of the room. John and Kenny. She knows it is them, but she wouldn’t have recognized them in their current state. There isn’t much of them left to recognize anyway.

The air reeks of blood, so much she can almost taste it. Ellie pulls Jesse’s fingers away from her lips. “Holy shit,” she whispers, so low she almost didn’t hear her own voice.

Faintly, she hears the sound of footsteps coming from the upper floor and both their heads snap up just in time to see a barely noticeable layer of dust falling from the ceiling, in one spot, then a second, then a third, all going in the general direction of the staircase she can just make out at the far end of the room, plunged in absolute darkness.

Jesse pulls out a gun from the side pocket of his backpack, and she does the same. Three bullets. That’s all she has. Three bullets between her and whatever the hell is upstairs.

Her heart is hammering away in her chest, the thundering sound in her ears almost drowning all the other sounds. Almost. “We have to go,” Jesse hisses through his teeth, pushing her backwards.

She crouches, as does Jesse, and she takes a step back, then another, until she’s outside and she feels the icy air brush against the back of her neck, her eyes trained on the crumbling stairway the whole time.

“I’m telling you, I heard people coming through here.”

The sound of the voice – definitely not Jesse’s – make her jump. It’s coming from behind us.

“Shit!” she whispers. “They’re everywhere.”

Jesse looks around. It’s hard to pinpoint where the voice is coming from, but there is at least two people coming from the woods behind them, and one unidentified person or Infected coming at them from inside the building. There is nowhere to run off to.

If they go back to the woods, they’ll come face to face with whoever is behind them. If they go back inside, they’ll have to face whatever was upstairs and quite possibly the strangers from the woods. If they go around the building, they probably won’t have time to make it to the safe cover of the tree line before they are spotted.

Jesse grabs her arm and yanks her toward the other building, the one with the tree inside of it. “Move it, Ellie!”

Ellie dives over Jesse behind the crumbling brick wall just in time to avoid getting seen. She tries her best to calm her racing heart and her shaky breaths. If anyone sees the little puffs of condensation coming out of their mouths, they’re done for, so she does her best to breathe as sparsely as possible. “Fuck, oh fuck.”

They lean their backs against the wall, shoulder to shoulder. Ellie is right where the edge started to collapse on itself and when she turns her head sideways, she can see just a little around the corner. Enough to see the two men that just emerged out of the woods.

“Hunters,” she whispers to Jesse. “Two of them, five o’clock.”

He nods, gripping the handle of his gun tighter. She sneaks another glance around the corner to see them bend down to examine the footsteps in the snow that will no doubt give their position away soon enough.

“How many bullets do you have?”

Jesse checks his 9MM as she keeps an eye on the two guys that just appeared. One of them is wearing only a t-shirt and pants, along with boots and gloves and the other one is dressed for the weather, but none of them look friendly. They draw their weapons, one wielding a shotgun and the other one, a very long blade. A machete.

Ellie’s blood runs cold.

“I got two,” Jesse’s hushed voice pull her from her observation briefly. “No way out?”

Ellie looks again. They’re advancing toward them, following the two sets of footsteps in the snow. They are less than thirty feet away from them. “No way out,” she whispers back.

Just my luck – I finally get to go on patrol, and I’m going to end up in a gunfight. Man, when we get back Joel is so going to wrap me in bubble-wrap and lock me away in my room so I don’t injure myself again.

Jesse looks over her to the other building. There is a pile of rubble next to it, big enough to hide behind. “Think you can cover me?”

Ellie looks to their two newfound enemies one last time. Her grip on the pistol Jesse lent her tightens in anticipation.

She nods. She hasn’t had to shoot anyone since last year, just before she reached Salt Lake City with Joel when they’d been attacked by three Hunters in the middle of the night. She doesn’t miss it, but she’ll have to do it again if she wants to live another day.

She takes a deep breath and fires the gun.

As soon as the bullet leaves the pistol, she hears an overwhelming ringing in her ear, and nothing else, but she knows she hit one of them. At the very least, it stunned them long enough for Jesse to crawl over to the rubble pile and take cover behind it. All at once, she can hear again.

“Fuck, they’re in the building! They shot me!” she hears one of them yell out, immediately followed by a deafening crack and a downpour of tiny pieces of rubble that cuts her face, neck and hands before she can flatten her body on the snow-covered floor. The shotgun blast hit somewhere above her head.

Jesse fires once, and she hears the bullet hit the bricks of the other building. He missed.

There is one of the Hunters crouching behind a fallen tree trunk and she has no clue where the other one is, but the one she does see is aiming his shotgun straight at Jesse’s head.

She raises her own gun and the Hunter falls flat on his back, a bullet lodged in his chest. Ellie releases a breath she didn’t know she had been holding in as she drops back behind the relative safety of the collapsing building.

“Fucking piece of shit!”

From the corner of her eye, she spots something moving behind Jesse’s hiding place and she fires her third and final shot.

The Runner falls at Jesse’s feet with a hole in its head before her friend even has a chance to turn around.

“Where the hell did it…”

Jesse’s eyes widen as she speaks. “Ellie, watch out!”

She lives the next few seconds as if in slow-motion.

She sees Jesse raise his gun up to his face to aim, turns around only to see the remaining Hunter – the one she shot before – barreling toward her and realize that she doesn’t have time to avoid him before she feels the guy’s fist crash into her face, sending her tumbling in the snow.

The sound of Jesse’s gun jamming sounds like the bell of her last hour ringing. She sees stars.

She feels a hand close around her ponytail as she tries to scramble away and yank on it.

Ellie actually feels the roots of her hair rip out of her scalp and she yelps out in pain, bringing both her hands up to her head to try to free herself. The Hunter pins her to the ground, his full weight on hers keeping her from moving even an inch away.

“Stupid little girl, thinking you can get away from me,” he growls above her, straining to keep her in place.

“Fuck you!”

He had a machete, where the hell is it now?

“Maybe I will.”

One of her fists connects with his face, feels his teeth dig into her knuckles.

He slams her back into the ground by pulling on her ponytail. Stars spin in front of her eyes, it’s like someone split her skull open and she’s sure she’s going to pass out either from the pain or because the full weight of a grown man resting on her chest is keeping the air from entering her lungs.

“Why don’t you run, little girl. See how far you can make it, but I’ll still catch you,” he hisses into her ear, his breath hot and fetid against her skin. “Might as well give up now and I’ll make it easier on you.”  

She stills.

When her eyes finally focus, it isn’t the Hunter’s face that she sees. It’s David’s.

Run, little rabbit, run.

It’s okay to give up.

She manages to reach into the pocket of her coat and her fingers close around the familiar handle of her knife.

You can try beggin’.

She plunges the blade into the guy’s neck and waves of blood fall upon her. When he leans back to press his hands against the open wound, it gives Ellie just enough room to get one of her legs out from under him and kick him square in the chest to crawl out from under him.

The sound of a gun firing stills her.

She turns around to the sight of Jesse holding his smoking gun, with blood dripping all over the length of his arm and a bloody machete on the ground.

She hears the Hunters body fall like a sack of flour behind her.

“You okay?” Jesse asks, panting. He presses his hand to his shoulder to stop the bleeding and looks down at the Infected at his feet. “Guess that was the thing upstairs.”

“Yeah,” she mutters, scrambling to her knees and trying to catch her breath. “Must’ve been.”

She reaches for the knife still plunged into the Hunter’s neck. He has a bullet hole right over his left eye, and a still profusely bleeding even though the guy is clearly unconscious and on the verge of dying.

Her hand is shaking so bad when she reaches for the weapon she has trouble pulling it out. She feels like she’s going to throw up.

“We have to go,” Ellie finally manages to say. “Now.”

Jesse ducks into the other building where they found the corpses before being attacked and comes back with a ring – a plain, simple wedding band – and a watch.

“For their families,” is Jesse’s simple answer to her silent question.

Riley’s tags feel heavy against her skin, and she remembers how comforting they were when her best friend had just died, how it felt like a little part of her was still with her somehow. She understands.

***

Their trek back to Jackson is done in silence. They’re both bleeding, and sore, and not in any mood to talk. They don’t stop for water, or sleep, only to change or tighten bandages, and soon enough, the fences surrounding the community of Jackson come into view.

To say she feels numb is an understatement.

She leaves for her house just as Jesse hands the wedding band to John’s screaming widow. Joel is nowhere to be found when she climbs the stairs up to her room and flops down on her mattress, not bothering to take off her clothes or her boots. She falls asleep immediately.

***

“Ellie.”

She opens her eyes to Dina’s worried face, and darkness surrounding them. When they had reached Jackson, it had been morning.

She must have headed here after making sure Jesse was okay.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she mumbles, pulling herself into a sitting position. There is blood in her bed, on her pillow, both new and old. Her head is pounding, and her face hurts, as does the rest of her body. There isn’t an inch of her that isn’t sore right now.

Dina nods and simply reaches her hand up to brush her fingers against her cheek. Ellie winces – this is where the Hunter’s fist made contact with her face. She can barely see out of that eye, and she knows for a fact her lip is busted. The wound reopened just by saying those seven words before. The rest of the skin from her face is covered in cuts and bruises from the shotgun blast, and she feels her hair is heavy with caked blood, both her own and the Hunter’s.

Dina brings back a bucket of warm water, a few rags, and proceeds to clean out the wounds methodically. The hardest is the one on her head where a patch of skin came off in their scuffle when he yanked on her ponytail, but Dina manages to get all the blood out of there anyway.

At some point, she hears Joel at the bottom of the stairs and she’s sure he’s going to come up, but he doesn’t, and she distinctly hears his footsteps walking away.

“You don’t have to tell me what happened,” she whispers when she’s done. The water in the small container is red now, as are the rags and her hands. “Just tell me how I can help.”

She almost tells her that she can’t. Almost.

Everytime she blinks, she sees the Hunter yank on her ponytail again, completely exposing her throat and rendering her basically helpless. She had been too vulnerable, and she’d be damned if she didn’t learn from her mistake.

“There is a pair of scissors in my dresser’s top drawer.”

***

Later that week, they hold a funeral service for the two dead members of their community in the old Church building. Jesse has his arm in a sling – turns out the Hunter that had attacked her had thrown his machete at him before pining her down, cutting deep into his shoulder. He would make a full recovery, but he had been lucky not to lose an arm.

She’s seated in one of the pews, between Joel – who insisted this was going to be her only outing of the year after that “stunt” her dumbass ha pulled -- and Dina, with Jesse seated on the older girl’s other side.

The tips of her hair, cut by Dina just over her shoulder and tied back into a low bun, brush against the nape of her neck in a still foreign fashion. No one would ever grab her like that again. Ever.

As Kenny’s daughter tries her best to get through her speech in honour of her dead dad, Ellie keeps seeing the man’s dead body, blue from the cold and blood loss, lying in a pool of frozen blood on the bare floor. Then it’s her own hand driving a knife into a man’s throat, and there is even more blood.

She snaps back to reality when she feels Dina’s fingers curl around her shaking hand. Her hand has been shaking with various levels of intensity whenever she thinks about the events of the past few days and she can’t help it. The older girl doesn’t shift her gaze from the eulogy or let go of Jesse’s good arm that she’s holding on to when she gives her hand a soft, reassuring squeeze.

Ellie reciprocates the touch, fingers intertwined between Dina’s. Thank you, she wants to say.

Dina lets go over her hand and it falls back into her lap.

It stopped shaking.

Chapter Text

Ellie should have seen this coming, really. One moment, Dina was chatting away, making plans to celebrate Ellie’s upcoming 17th birthday while the younger girl was trying her best to ignore her extravagant plans, and the next, there is an all-too-familiar screech behind her making her blood go cold.

“Ellie, watch out!” Dina yells out, and Ellie barely has time to duck before the Runner slams into where she had been standing just a fraction of a second before. It hits an old wardrobe – the kind that looks like a big, upright chest – and it comes crashing down on top of her.

Ellie swears under her breath as she feels the piece of furniture pin her to the floor, knocking the wind out of her lungs. The shelves are digging into her stomach and legs and she’s squirming as fast she can to get out of the unfortunate predicament. She’s vulnerable, unarmed, and temporarily blinded by the cloud of dust that materialized itself around her when over twenty years of accumulated grime fell upon her.

“It’s a simple scavenging trip, three hours tops. The building has already been cleared out by a patrol earlier today, it’s basically risk free” Tommy had said as he assigned Dina and Ellie to the tasks.

Risk-free, my ass.

She digs herself out enough to make out the Infected’s frame in front of her, between her and Dina, who’s looking at it with bewildered eyes, her gun hanging limply down her side – useless.

The infected turns to her, an easy prey that offers no resistance whatsoever. Only then does she notice something wrong about that Runner. It behaves exactly the same way any other Runner she has seen before does – erratically, violently, unpredictably – but something doesn’t feel right about this one. It’s not the right height, it’s a good two feet shorter than the average Infected and much tinier in bulk too.

“Ellie, it’s a little girl,” Dina hisses, eyes trained on the creature trying to regain its senses from the strength of the impact. It is wearing a torn, stained, polka-dotted dress, with only one Velcro sandal left attached on one of its feet, and, apart from the bloodshot eyes, blood-curling screams and rotten teeth, it looks every bit like a regular little girl.

“It’s a Runner!” Ellie reminds her, struggling to wiggle out of her predicament. “Just shoot it!”

Still, Dina doesn’t move, but the Runner does. It starts running toward Ellie, still having half the room to cross, and Ellie braces for the impact. “Dina!”

It never comes.

The gunshot echoes within the walls of the room instead, followed by the thud of a body hitting the floor.

Dina is standing in the exact same spot with her weapon raised at eye-level in a shaky hand.

On the floor, the dead Infected girl twitches a few times, a bullet lodged in its neck, and then stills. Ellie takes a closer look – she must’ve been only 7 or 8 when she turned, and recently too, by the state of her body and the outward signs of infection. How scared must that little girl have been when she realized she was losing control of her body, her own brain… She can’t imagine how terrifying it must’ve been for her.

She has never seen an Infected person that young, ever. Not with Joel, not since arriving in Jackson. It’s heartbreaking.

She feels the planks move and spots Dina digging her out of the rubble. “Thanks,” Ellie mumbles as her friend offers her hand to pull her to her feet. “Let’s go home before anymore of them show up, the gunshot probably attracted a whole bunch of those things.”

The two girls run most of the trip back to Jackson, silent except for quick commands and checks, running through mud fields and little creeks instead of going around them. They look like shit, and Tommy sends them straight home as soon as they deliver their haul – a half-empty unidentified pill bottle, three shotgun shells and a small bottle of rubbing alcohol.

“Do you mind if I take a shower at your place?” Ellie asks when they reach the familiar house that her friend calls home.

“Not if I get to shower first,” comes Dina’s reply. She’s already halfway to her bathroom, flinging her shirt over her head and somewhere behind her couch.

“Deal,” Ellie replies, closing the front door behind her at the same time as Dina slams hers shut. She’s careful of taking her shoes off before she can drag mud all over the house.

The water starts running and Ellie sits cross-legged on the mat by the door, not daring to touch anything with her muddy, dusty and, quite frankly, smelly clothes.

Dina has done a nice job decorating her place with rugs and carpets and colourful drapes framing her windows. It feels homey, and Dina, Jesse, Simon, Lily and herself found themselves spending more and more of their time here instead of anywhere else, especially Jesse, who basically moved in, and Ellie, who preferred Dina’s company to Joel’s silent grumpy one by a long-shot most of the time.

She doesn’t see Jesse’s boots anywhere near the door – usually, she’ll trip over them at least once every time she comes over. Where the hell is he anyway? Oh, right, he’s pulling a double shift on watchtower 3 tonight.

It takes her legs falling asleep under her weight for Ellie to realize Dina has been in the bathroom with the water running for an unusually long time. “Dina? You okay in there?”

Her calls go unanswered – there is no sound coming from the other side of the door except for the sound of the running water from the shower.

“Dina!” She knocks on the door a few more times, more insistent now. Still radio-silence from the other side. “Dina!”

Maybe she fell. Maybe she’s unconscious. Maybe she doesn’t hear you over the sounds of the water?

“Dina, if you don’t answer I’m going to come in!” Ellie shouts, pounding on the door now. “Oh, screw this.”

She pushes the door just enough so she can peek her head around it. While she expected the room to be foggy – she knows how much Dina enjoys hot showers, especially after a three-day patrol in the cold Wyoming wilderness in the middle of February – it is just the way she’d expect to find it if it was unoccupied, running water notwithstanding. There is no condensation on the mirror above the sink, indicating that it is not a hot shower Dina is taking.

Dina never takes cold showers.

“Dina?” Ellie asks again. She takes a hesitant step onto the tiled floor of the bathroom, her whole body tensed, then another, and another, until she’s standing next to the shower curtain with her fingers curled around the edge. Her heart is pounding against her chest. “Dina, come on. If you’re messing with me, it’s a really awful prank.”

Ellie pulls the curtain back.

Dina is seated on the bare floor of her tub-shower combo, her knees pressed against her chest and her arms wrapped around them. The stream of water coming from the showerhead is falling on top of her head and her hair is clinging to her skin like dark colored snakes. She’s shaking, and Ellie can just make out the faintest hint of goosebumps on her arms and legs, and along her neck, and down where her ribs meet the curves of her…

Williams, you fucking perv, get a grip.  

“Dina?” she asks, as slow and low as humanly possible, her cheeks burning.

Her head snaps up suddenly, and the only thing Ellie sees in them is absolute terror, unlike anything she’s ever seen before. “I killed her,” Dina whispers. Ellie doesn’t think it is meant for her as much as it is a statement that she is repeating to herself. “I killed a little girl.”

Her eyes, wide with panic, are staring at the tile wall, ignoring her like Ellie didn’t just peek around the shower curtain while she was inside it. Her breaths are short and quick, and her whole body is shaking.

Fuck it.

Ellie steps inside the shower, the blast of freezing cold water shocking her as it hits her back. She crouches in front of her friend and even though she is physically between Dina and the spot she had been staring at, it’s like she isn’t here. Her friend is staring right through her.

“I killed her. She came at you, and I shot her. I shot a kid. I shot a fucking kid.”

“Ellie.” The voice sounds muffled, from another room almost. Certainly not close to her in any way. “Ellie, look at me.”

Joel holds her shaking hands between his, and she sees the campfire, and her panicked face reflected in his eyes. She sees his hands on hers, but it doesn’t seem real, she can’t feel them. What she does feel is the machete handle gripped tight between her fingers, becoming slick with blood and her hands slipping ever closer to the blade with every hit. The blade cuts her palms and fingers, she can physically feel the skin splitting open. She feels every impact of the weapon against his face, bones crushing under the blade, every drop of blood splattering her skin and mixing with her own rage-and-fear-fueled tears.

“Ellie, look at me. Listen to my voice. You’re safe. David’s dead. We’re not in Colorado anymore.”

Gradually, she’s slipping back into reality, and the feeling of blood on her hands becomes more distant as the feeling of Joel’s calloused hands on hers becomes real.

“You’re safe, now, baby girl.”

It doesn’t feel like it in the slightest.  

The water hammers down her back, painfully reminding her of the fresh bruises that cover her skin there, but at least it is shielding most of Dina’s face from the assault of little droplets.

“Dina, are you having a panic attack?”

She sits with her legs folded under her, never taking her eyes off Dina – close enough to touch her if she wants to, but far enough not to startle her.

Although Ellie is blocking most of it with her back, the water is still falling over both of them and the drops are trickling down Dina’s skin, down where Ellie makes a superhuman effort not to look. “I.. I don’t know,” Dina stammers. Her breathing gets even more erratic, but now her eyes are trained on hers instead of staring into space.

“Have you ever felt like this before?” Dina shakes her head no at Ellie’s question. Some of what she thought were drops of water rolling down her cheeks are actually tears, the younger girl notices once she scoots a little closer to her.

“Tell me what you need,” Ellie says, inching just a little closer to her once more, within reach if Dina needs it. She’s not going to get any closer before the other girl makes a move, or gives her a sign, or something. Her being here, in her shower, while she is showering, is probably enough uninvited invasion of privacy for the rest of their lives.

“I don’t know. Ellie, I can’t make it go away, she’s going to come back for us… I, I don’t…” she trails off, her voice shaky.

“Okay, just… focus on breathing. In and out,” Ellie stammers. Helping someone with a physically demanding task, or even shooting down a Runner as it is about to sink its teeth into someone, that’s something she can do. Apparently, helping someone deal with things she cannot see – things that don’t exist for her – isn’t part of her skillset.

She exaggerates her own breathing, taking deep and slow breaths that Dina can follow. “I know you’re scared now, but it’ll go away. I promise.”

“What if it doesn’t?” Dina manages to ask. Her nails are digging into the skin of her knees where she is gripping them too tight. She knows it is pointless to try to pry them away while Dina is this wound up. “I just keep seeing her coming at you, and I don’t want to shoot her, but I have to, but….”

“Okay, okay,” Ellie stops her from spiralling even deeper into her own panic. “You made the right call, it was her or me. You had no choice.” Dina shows no change of behaviour whatsoever. You’re way better at going through a panic attack than you are at helping someone through one.

“It’s okay. It’s okay to feel scared, but there is no danger here right now,” Ellie reassures her as best as she can, putting her hands over hers like Joel’s done to her before, hoping it’ll bring her focus back to the present, and not the horrible reality her brain is subjecting her to. “It’s just you and me. No one else.”

“I don’t know what’s real anymore.” She sees Dina’s fingers loosen ever-so-slightly around her knees, and she takes advantage of that brief moment to lace her fingers through hers, giving Dina’s hands a soft squeeze.

“That’s okay. Let’s try something. Name five things you can see.”

“What?”

“It can be anything, anything you can see, right now, right here.”

There is a moment of silence and Ellie fears she’ll have to resort to something else to calm Dina down, but the older girl stars naming things in a quiet, almost imperceptible voice. “I see the bar of soap,” she starts. “Shampoo. The curtain. The towel. The drain.”

“Great,” Ellie continues. “Now, name four things you can feel.”

“The tiles. The water. The cold. My hair.”

“Good. Three things you can hear.”

“The water hitting the shower curtain. The fan… Your voice.”

“Keep going, you’re doing great. Two things you can smell.”

“Flowers. Mud.”

Ellie’s shirt was soaked in mud, since she hadn’t yet changed out of her patrol clothes before jumping in the shower, and the wet fabric only enhances the swampy smell emanating from her.  

“One thing you can taste.”

Dina’s voice is quiet when she answers. “Salt.”

Her own tears.

“You’re doing great, I’m so proud of you. Can you try breathing again? Slow breaths, that’s it. You’re doing so good, just focus on right now.”

“I can’t breathe,” Dina wheezes.

“Can you focus on one thing?” Dina shakes her head no at Ellie’s question.

What the hell do I do now?

She thinks back to a time not too far away, when Joel had asked her to count the windows on the façade of an old hotel, to distract her. It had worked, after a while, and her attack had subsided not too long after. But there are no windows inside the shower of Dina’s bathroom, and the only visible thing she can count would be the tiles on the wall, but they’re so big she’d be done in seconds…

Ellie brings one of Dina’s hand to her own chest in a last-ditch effort, over the spot where her too-fast heartbeat is erratically trying to pound its way out of her ribcage, trying her best to ignore the way her stomach flutters when the tips of Dina’s fingers brush against her exposed collarbone. “Then just… count. Count my heartbeats.”

Ellie doesn’t know how long it takes for Dina to stop breathing so heavily, but eventually she calms down enough to stop digging her nails into her right palm, still holding her, and when her friend finally locks eyes with her, it’s like she’s seeing her for the first time since Ellie barged in her shower.

Her features are weary, and Ellie can tell how tired Dina is just by the way the shaking in her limbs changed from terrified to exhausted. Ellie finally exhales a breath she didn’t know she had been holding in that whole time, and only then did it finally dawn on her just how impossibly close they have become, how by pulling Dina’s hand all the way to her chest to count her heartbeats, had revealed even more naked skin to her than she had seen in the first place. Her knees are no longer being held against her chest, and her eyes wander down for the briefest second.

Ellie’s cheeks burn and her eyes snap back up to Dina’s face, where it is safe to look. “Do you want me to go?” she mumbles, cheeks red and hot in contrast to the cold water still hitting her back mercilessly. It’s so numb now from the freezing temperature that she can’t feel the pain of her bruises being beaten by a steady stream of droplets anymore.

“Not yet.”

Dina pulls her in to wrap her arms around her and Ellie breathes in the scent of the flowery shampoo that she hasn’t quite washed out of her hair yet as the older girl nestles her head against her shoulder.

Ellie is torn between holding her as close and as tight as possible and trying to hold the naked girl at a distance before she goes absolutely insane.

Dina’s arms are wrapped tightly around Ellie’s neck, her face pressed against Ellie’s shoulder, and Ellie does her best to rub the shivering girl’s back to bring some warmth back to the cold, soft skin. She’s all-too aware of Dina’s body pressing into her, of the way her skin feels soft under her hands and exactly how easy it would be for her eyes to wander right now. She keeps them shut.

They end up staying like this for what seems like both an eternity and the fraction of an instant, before Dina breaks their embrace and Ellie ducks out of the shower, cold and wet and straining against her now water-heavy clothes.

“Do you mind if I borrow some clothes before going home?” Ellie asks, purposely looking down at her feet to give Dina some sort of privacy as she wraps her towel around her body.

“Sure.”

Ellie steps out of the bathroom to end up face to face with Mona, Dina’s mom, standing in the middle of the living room with a bowl of what looks to be some sort of stew cradled against her chest. It always startles Ellie whenever she comes face-to-face with the middle-aged version of Dina – they’re so physically similar it is almost scary, but where Dina is bubbly and friendly and affectionate, her mother is distant and cold. At least in Ellie’s experience.

Her eyes travel from Ellie’s drenched clothes, dripping all over the carpet, and then stop somewhere behind the 16-year-old – Ellie doesn’t have to turn around to know Dina is behind her, only clad in a simple white towel. The older woman’s eyes flicker to the couch, where her daughter’s trademark black long-sleeved shirt lays discarded on the floor beside it.

“Ellie.”

She also doesn’t need to have mind-reading abilities to know what Mona is thinking right about now. Her pursed lips and the scathing look she throws her way are enough to let her know it is time to abandon ship before it sinks, or in this case, before she gets dragged into an argument she has no intention of participating in. The woman’s dislike of her and her “bad influence” on her daughter are widely known around Jackson – she seems incapable of accepting that her 18-year-old girl can make questionable choices all on her own with no help whatsoever. If she only knew how many times it was Dina dragging Ellie along to take part in whatever stupid activity her mind had cooked up…

After seeing her come out of the bathroom while her daughter was getting out of the shower, it was highly unlikely that her opinion of the tattooed and hardened teenaged girl would change any time soon.

“Mona,” Ellie greets, not expecting an answer back, flying by her and grabbing her shoes on her way out the door, all thoughts of borrowing clothes left behind in that bathroom. She doesn’t stop to put them on before stepping out into the snow-covered streets, running the whole way home in the freezing February night.

***

When she finally makes it home, after what seems to her like a never-ending walk, she still hasn’t been able to shake the image of a very wet and naked Dina.

She’s your best friend.

The water, dripping down her face, along her neck, past her shoulders and…

She was having a panic attack.

Her own drenched clothes clinging to her like a second skin, Dina hugging her, her body pressed against hers leaving no curves, no edges to the imagination, separated only by the soaked fabric of her t-shirt and by god does she want that out of the way…

This was just a friend helping a friend out, nothing more.

Dina’s mom staring at her like it was possible to burn someone alive by just looking at them, outraged by what she though had happened in that bathroom.

I fucking wish something would have happened… No! She’s not into you like that. Don’t put yourself through this.

Ellie doesn’t even bother to take her shoes off as she swings the front door open, making Joel jump up from where he was snoozing on the couch. “Good God, Ellie, where’s the fire?” She sees Joel looking at her from the corner of her eyes. “And why the hell are you wet? It’s goddamn freezing outside!”

She answers none of his questions, all her brain power focused on keeping the images from earlier from overtaking her, and locks herself in the bathroom, basically jumping out of her wet and cold clothes and into the shower, shutting the glass door behind her with way more force than necessary.

The scalding water raining down on her head helps a little, warming her up slowly. The tiles in front of her are cold and wet under her hands and in the blink of an eye, it’s not the shampoo rack that stands between her and the wall, but Dina. Soaked, naked, beautiful Dina.

Ellie closes her eyes, thinking it might help drive the fantasy away. It doesn’t. It makes it worse – or, you know, better.

Now she’s seeing her again, intense chocolate brown eyes looking up at her, little droplets of water running down her face, along her cheekbones, getting stuck on her lips before falling and Ellie just wants to catch them as they fall… or, you know, before they fall off… with her own lips.

“Stop it,” Ellie mumbles to herself. “Don’t go there, dude.”

She opens her eyes again, but it is no use. Opened or closed, her eyes keep seeing her, all of her – pinned between her own body and the wall, with that water still running wild along her skin, imagines her fingertips brushing against her breasts, down along her stomach, even further down…   

She presses her forehead to the cold tiles of the shower. Part of her is doing it to cool her heated skin, but an even bigger part is doing it to convince her stupid brain that she’s completely alone in the shower.

 “Just give in” the imaginary Dina in her head whispers in her ear, goosebumps appearing on her skin at the mere idea of the imaginary scenario taking place. “No one has to know – I’m not even real.”

Ellie feels warm all over, warm and tingly in places that have no business feeling like this at the thought of her best friend. Her fingernails dig into her palms from her fists bunching together to keep her hands from brushing against herself – she knows if she does that, her stupid, hormone-filled brain will pretend it is Dina’s exploring her body, not hers.

The more she tries to push the fantasy away, the more the fake Dina her brain made up insists, leaning up to whisper tantalizing things in her ear, things that make her heart skip a beat and her blood rush to her cheeks, neck and chest in embarrassment. The creation of her mind presses herself flush against her body, and she can almost feel the way Dina’s soft skin would feel against her scar-covered own.

This isn’t real. You’re only thinking of her like this because you just saw her naked. This doesn’t mean shit.

Ellie looks up at the showerhead, shakily breathing out. Her hands drop from their place against the wall, hanging lifelessly at her sides, not daring to go anywhere else.

You helped me feel better,” the imaginary Dina whispers, her voice low and teasing. “Let me return the favour, make you feel good.”

Ellie’s fingers lock behind her neck as she closes her eyes, holds her breath and lets the water cascade down her face. She’s painfully aware of the droplets running down her skin, and of the fact that she semi-unconsciously shifted her body so the stream of water massages her in a more… intimate way then before.

“Let this happen, Freckles.”

She feels fingers brush against her breasts, then down along her stomach and then tracing the contour of her hipbones. She realizes they’re hers.

“Sweet Fuck,” she exhales as she desperately tries to convince herself to keep her hands still, her voice almost a growl, barely audible with the rushing sound of the water around her.

Ellie stops fighting it.

She can feel her face burn when she finally leaves the bathroom, a while later, wrapped in layers upon layers of towels as if it would hide her from Joel’s sight. It doesn’t and Ellie can tell by the way he pointedly refuses to make eye-contact that he has at least some notion of what went on in that bathroom only minutes ago. Never in her life has she been less grateful for his abnormally good hearing.

Ellie always thought she was a quiet girl when it came to doing that – sleeping in bunkbeds, back in Boston, with at least one roommate and paper-thin walls, meant having to be discreet if she wanted to avoid being teased endlessly by her classmates. Since her room in Jackson is just above Joel’s, she always did her best to avoid making any noise at all on the rare occasions she felt like doing a little more than flipping through the pages of the old Playboy magazines she had found in one the cardboard boxes that had been left in their shed by the original occupants.  

By the looks of things, she hadn’t been as quiet this time as she usually was so careful to be. 

She doesn’t touch more than two of the steps leading up to her room in her eagerness to escape the most awkward situation she has ever been in, by far. 

Later that night, when she is so close to falling asleep, she hears her window slide open, hears light footsteps approaching carefully, accompanied by a familiar flowery scent she knows all too well. She’s too sleepy to protest when she feels Dina’s body slide under the covers and seek warmth against her.

“I don’t want to be alone tonight,” Dina whispers in the dark, her breath tickling Ellie’s cheek. She feels the warmth of a naked thigh against her own and her eyes snap open, heart racing as her mind goes into overdrive.

She can’t keep the images of hers and Dina’s – the fake one, obviously – activities in the shower from intruding back into her head. She feels her cheeks burn at the thought of Dina, the real Dina, so close to her, barely dressed, pressing her body against hers with absolutely no idea that Ellie had been touching herself to a very similar scenario not too long before. Her cheeks burn in shame and her heart races. She’s fully awake now.

“Thank you. For everything.”

“It was nothing,” Ellie mumbles. If you knew what I’ve done after that, you wouldn’t be thanking me.

Dina wraps one of her legs around hers, setting her head down on Ellie’s shoulder and swinging her arm over her, her hand resting against her collarbone and her fingers searching behind the collar of her shirt for the metal chain holding Riley’s tags. She plays with them absentmindedly, rolling them between her fingers, brushing her thumb on the engraved surface bearing the name Riley Abel, followed by the number 00129. She never asked Ellie about Riley anymore, not after the younger girl’s sharp response of “I don’t want to talk about it” after one too many curious questions. On some level, she’s sure her friend knows that when she feels like sharing her memories of her dead friend, she’ll be the first to know, but for now, it’s easier not to share anything – because that would mean having to explain why she’s not alive anymore.

Ellie looks over Dina’s head to her dresser, where her friend’s pants, boots, coat and sweater have been haphazardly strewn over the array of comic books, drawings and folded clothes. She feels hot skin on hers, soft skin, burning through the material of her pajama pants and oversized sleeping t-shirt.

“How did you know what to say?”

Ellie stares at the ceiling, trying her best not to think of the way Dina’s forearm is resting on her chest, of the way every brush of her fingers against her skin as she plays with the necklace makes her feel like she’s on fire, or how her breath tickles her ear and sends shivers down her spine much like she fantasized it would, earlier.

“That’s what Joel used to say, when I had one. More or less.” She doesn’t like to reflect on those dark moments when nothing made sense to her anymore than she absolutely has to. Dina is still looking at her with expectant eyes, her answer apparently unsatisfying. “I didn’t have a lot of them, maybe three or four, two winters ago, and none since then. Everytime, it would take something different to get me through it – sometimes he’d have me count things, have me tell him my favorite memory when I was a little kid, or just describe what was around me… whatever worked at the moment.”

“How did yours feel?”

She ponders the question. “Like I was about to die,” Ellie whispers in answer, remembering the way her heart would hammer against her chest so hard she thought she was having a heart attack, how the pressure would build up within her skull to the point where she thought her head would implode or that she’d turn deaf forever… Mostly, she remembers how she felt like the world was about to end.

Dina nestles her face into the crook of her neck and presses the rest of her body along Ellie’s side – she’s sure the older girl can feel her heart skipping a beat at the sudden movement, or at least hear the hitch in her breath. If she does, she doesn’t show any indication of it, not when she first snuggles against her and not when Ellie caves in and wraps her arms around Dina’s waist. She can feel warm soft skin under her fingers where her top rode up her hips, and she’s just itching to sneak her hands under the fabric to find out if all of her is equally enjoyable to the touch.

It doesn’t take long for Dina to fall asleep, obvious to the internal battle taking place next to her, her breathing deepening and a slight snoring sound making its way to Ellie’s ears.

It’s not possible to get a crush on your best friend… not twice, especially not with two different best friends.

But even as she thinks it, prays to whatever powerful deity might or might not be listening, she knows it is no use. Although it feels similar to what she felt with Riley, back when she realized she meant more to her than just a friend, it also feels different. This is more intense than anything she has felt before, it’s all consuming and she doesn’t know how she’ll ever think of anything else but Dina.

She’s falling for her best friend, hard. Again. “I’m so screwed,” she whispers to herself in the darkness, careful not to wake the snoring girl beside her. “I’m so royally screwed.”

Chapter Text

“So you’re telling me,” Dina starts, her feet propped up on Ellie’s mattress, “that you’ve never seen a movie. In 16 years.”

She’s staring at Ellie from her spot on the floor, her head resting on one of Ellie’s balled-up flannel shirts that had been laying on the floor for God-only-knew how long before it had been repurposed as a makeshift pillow. For once, her hair is loose, and it forms a halo of dark brown curls around her face. Dina almost never lets it loose, only when she is indoors and has absolutely nothing on her agenda for the rest of the day, which is the case now. “That nest of hair can and will attract wildlife, do you really want people to start calling me bird lady?” Ellie remembers her saying when she had asked her why she always pulled her hair up whenever she went outside, though she has to admit that the mental image of Dina with a flock of birds flying around her is hilarious in itself.

“I’ve seen movies,” Ellie argues, mockingly outraged. Dina raises a disbelieving eyebrow at her. “Okay, I’ve seen parts of some movies, never was around for the full thing, but it counts!”

Dina leans up on her elbows to get a better look at Ellie, involuntarily giving the younger girl a plunging view down the front of her shirt, which is already way too loose for Ellie’s peace of mind anyway. If the older girl noticed the quick glance down at her breasts, she thankfully doesn’t comment on it – Ellie would probably spontaneously combust if she ever noticed.

It’s been harder and harder to stop thinking about Dina ever since what Ellie had come to call the Shower Incident. By allowing her brain to imagine Dina’s hands on her body as she had been pleasuring herself in the – very – relative intimacy of her own shower, Ellie had hoped that it would help get the images of her naked friend out of her head long enough for her to regain some of her senses, at least. It did quite the opposite, actually – instead of harnessing the fantasies running wild within her imagination, it was like a she had opened a gate that she was unable to close now. Fucking hormones, man. That’s all this is. Fucking hell.

In the time it took for Ellie to somewhat shake the image of Dina’s cleavage out of her head – and the subsequent memories of actually, unwillingly, catching a glimpse of it – she has climbed up on the bed and stolen Ellie’s comic out of her hands. Not that she had put up much of a fight to keep it within her grasp, really.

She throws it behind her, somewhere close to her dresser, and leans over Ellie’s still form. “What do you mean?”

“What?” Ellie’s throat feels unusually dry, she’s painfully aware of the walls behind her and on her right side stopping her retreat and of Dina’s hands on the mattress on each side of her hips. She’s so close she can feel the tickle of her breath against the skin of her cheek everytime she exhales, the warmth radiating from her body like it isn’t still bloody freezing outside still.

And her brain is as non-functional as it can be without actually being dead.

“The movies, dumbass. What do you mean, you’ve only seen parts of movies?” Dina continues, unshaken by the whole situation. Ellie wonders how she can be so comfortable being so close to people while she just wants to sink deeper into the mattress.

The words tumble out of Ellie’s mouth as if Dina had just broken the dam holding back her words and sentences. “Back in Boston, the staff at the military school used to hold these movie nights, or whatever they called it, and they’d haul up all the kids into the yard and project it on the widest wall of the building. Always ended up being barred from going for one reason or another, mostly shit the people in charge made up because I pissed off someone I shouldn’t have or punched some annoying kid, so I had to sneak in to see anything. They’d always catch me, though, and I’d get locked in my room until the next morning.”

“That’s awful,” Dina breathes out. “Tell you what, how about we watch one together? There’s some old tapes in the old church basement, and I’m pretty sure there’s something to play them on somewhere in this town.”

“Do you even know how those work?”

“No, but I’m sure my mom does, or Joel… I’m sure we don’t need to be scientists to figure it out.” Dina’s eyebrow is raised as it always is when she’s teasing someone, and her eyes are trained on Ellie’s, waiting for an answer that’s stuck somewhere between the younger girl’s brain and her mouth. “

“I could ask Chuck, seems like the type of shit he’d know about,” she mumbles, almost to herself, but it doesn’t go unnoticed by Dina. The beaming smile she gives her makes her stomach do fucking somersaults, or makes her feel like there’s butterflies fluttering about in her chest, or whatever. She isn’t sure what she feels, but it sure as hell isn’t the way she used to feel whenever she made Dina smile like that. Not before, anyway.

“So it’s a date, Freckles?”

Ellie almost chokes on thin air at the suggestions. Figure of speech, dumbass. Not an actual date. Get a fucking hold of yourself. Ellie is just about to answer, having finally managed to regain the use of her tongue, when a light tap on the window makes her jump out of her own skin and painfully bump her forehead against Dina’s.

“What the actual fuck! Simon?”

Of course, no one bothers to use the goddamned front door like normal people, especially not the goofy idiot currently precariously perched atop the windowsill trying not to fall into the bushes below as he tries – and spectacularly fails – to figure out how to open the window from the outside. She imagines her friends’ reluctance to enter her house in a conventional way has nothing to do with the usual customs of entering other people’s residences, and everything to do with the perpetually grumpy man also living there.

Dina bounces to her feet quicker than Ellie can calm her thundering heart, almost cat-like in her movements, more graceful in simply getting off of her bed than Ellie could ever hope to be on her best day. It isn’t exactly warm in her room – she blames the tiny gap where the window doesn’t shut all the way anymore – but she knows her body should not be feeling this cold at the loss of the girl who had been radiating heat above her barely a second ago.

She slides the windowpane up, letting the blonde-haired teenager hanging on for dear life to the windowsill stumble inside with a thud.

Fuck. So much for not waking up Joel. If Dina’s near-constant chatter hadn’t managed to rise him from his slumber, the falling body hitting the floor right above his head certainly had.

Simon bounces off the ground and brushes off his pants, grinning from ear to ear. He’s wearing his favourite, terrible flowery snap-button red and orange shirt, with only the two lowest buttons snapped. He is bare-chested underneath, like it isn’t bloody freezing outside still. “You ladies having a sleep-over without me? How rude of you.”

Ellie rolls her eyes at her friend’s antics, and choice of attire, sinking even deeper into the mattress, while Dina chuckles quietly next to Simon.

“Weren’t you having a sleep-over of your own already?” Dina teases. The raised eyebrow is back, ridges appearing on her forehead and the corner of her lips curling up into the barest hint of a smirk.

Simon rubs the back of his neck nervously before answering. “Let’s just say that Lily’s dad had evening plans that did not involve me.”

“Sucks to be you,” Ellie chimes in, “but what the hell are you doing here in the middle of the night?”

“Always the polite hostess, I see.”

“Fuck you, you almost gave me a heart-attack in my own house. You’re lucky I didn’t push you out of that window.”

Ellie knows her threat isn’t taken seriously by either of her improvised guests.

“You know I would have come back as a ghost to haunt you for eternity,” Simon smiles, sitting cross-legged on the rug beside her bed. “I’m just waiting here for their movie to end and then I’m going back over… Hopefully it’ll be worth the delay.”

Simon wiggles his eyebrows in what he no doubt intended to be a suggestive way, but his goofy smile and general awkwardness make it come across as more of a joke than anything else.

“That’s enough Simon for one night,” Dina declares, swinging a leg out of the still open window. “Jesse should be home by now, anyway.”

Home.

It wasn’t a secret to anyone in Jackson that the two of them spent more time together than apart, these days, only spending time on their own when their respective assignments required it. Most days, they could be found gravitating around the other, or touching in some way, whether it was Jesse’s fingers brushing against Dina’s thigh as they were listening to Leonard’s dispatch of additional tasks to be accomplished during the week, or Dina leaning against his chest at bonfires, or just holding hands as they walked about the town. They made a cute couple.

It also escaped none of the gossiping hens in the settlement that no one had been seen leaving or entering the house that Jesse occupied in weeks, the residence staying dark and still as ever.

Neither of them had said anything about it, but Ellie knew. Jesse was at Dina’s house all the time now, and a bunch of his stuff had appeared in various spots as if overnight. If she’d had to guess, she thought he had moved in just after the whole shower ordeal, back in February.

She was happy for them, really, so she didn’t understand the sudden urge to ask Dina to stay the night instead of going back to her boyfriend.

What the hell is going with you, Williams?

“Dina?”

The words had slipped out of her mouth before she could hold them back – or even figure out the words that would follow her name, for that matter. The older girl turns around, one leg out of the window and her hands pulling her hair into its usual bun before escaping into the night. With her arms up like this, her shirt was riding up her hips, exposing her skin up to her bellybutton and making Ellie lose whatever train of thought she had had before. “Yeah, Freckles?”

Ellie blinks herself back into the present. Dina is looking at her expectedly, moving to grab her jacket in one hand and hang on to the exterior side of the house with the other.

“Be safe.”

Dina cocks her head to the side in disbelief. “What are you, my mom?”

Ellie chucks one of her socks at her from across the room in annoyance, but her smile betrays her. “Screw you, I hope you fall and break your leg on the way down.”

Dina blows her a kiss and winks as she slips and closes the window behind her. “That’s more like it,” the older girl whispers as it slides shut, and then she disappears into the night.

Her eyes are still trained on the now-shut window when Simon groans loudly from his spot on the floor. “The hell’s wrong with you now?”

He motions toward the window with his head. “She’s going to have so much more sex than me tonight,” he laments, and Ellie doesn’t know what to reply to that. Taking her silence as confusion, Simon carries on. “Jesse’s been on patrol for like, a week and a half, you know she’s so going to jump his bones the second she gets home. She’ll probably wait for him to take a shower though. Or maybe, they’ll do it in the shower!”

I get it,” Ellie hisses, cutting him off before he can. “No need to paint me a picture.”

Shower… Nope, not the time to remember that. Ellie shakes her head – she doesn’t think there will ever be a right time to remember that.

“Aren’t you curious though? He’s always so serious and moody, I bet he’s…”

He’s speaking louder now, excited as he is to be annoying her, and he never sees her remaining sock fly toward his face until it hit him square in the nose.

“Oh my sweet lord, Ellie, your feet stink!”

“Would you shut the fuck up? Joel will hear your stupid ass. Hell, Lily’s dad will hear you from across the street if you keep this up!”

Simon pays no mind to her warnings, choosing instead to pretend to suffocate from the smell of her socks – admittedly, spending the day with her feet in puddles of water did nothing to help her case.

He is in the process of pretending to choke to death, kicking his legs and fake thrashing around, when his foot hits something under her bed and he stills. “What’s that, a box? What are you hiding under your bed, Ellie?”

He reaches under the bedframe and pulls out the old, worn-out carboard box that she had found months ago in the toolshed behind their house. She can feel the heat spreading to her whole face as she realizes he intends to open the box, and she remembers what it contains.

“Don’t you dare! Simon!”

The words come out more like a squeal than the intimidating growl that she intended, but it only spurs Simon on further. He flips the lid off the box, yelping as he ducks to avoid Ellie’s fist connecting with his face. “Ellie, you naughty, naughty girl!”

“Give that back!”

“Okay!” He throws the first magazine in her face, the front-page image of a very minimally dressed woman in an equally suggestive position hitting her forehead. If she wasn’t so mortified, she’d laugh at the insanity of the whole situation.

Simon takes the second one and flips through it, whistling appreciatively at the sight before him. “Which one’s your favourite? I like this one!”

“I will strangle you, you dick!”

“Shhhh, your old man will hear you.”

She pounces on Simon, the box of dirty magazines he had been holding tipping over and spilling its content all over the floor. The more he laughs at her attempts to wrestle the one magazine he has rolled-up in one hand, arm extended to keep it out of her reach, the more furious she becomes, and soon enough, she has him pinned under her, one leg on either side of his hips, straddling him to keep Simon in place. He’s still holding the collar of her shirt to keep her at a distance when the door to her bedroom flies open and crashes against the wall with a deafening sound.

Her head snaps up so fast she fears she might have permanently damaged her neck.

Scratch that. She fears Joel’s stare will burn a hole through Simon.

Ellie glances down at Simon’s frozen form, still trapped under her. At some point during their scuffle, the last snap-buttons came undone on his shirt, and it hangs loosely on either side of his chest.

Oh, fucking hell.

She knows what this must look like to Joel – their faces are flushed, his shirt is undone, her hands are on his chest and his hand is tugging at the collar of her t-shirt. There’s also the tapestry of dirty magazines littering the floor to add to the picture, which she is sure isn’t a pretty one.

“Best be on your way, kid.”

Simon scrambles to his feet and Ellie is unceremoniously thrown to the ground as he rises. “Joel, this isn’t what it looks like, we…”

Joel shoots her a look and she closes her mouth. No point in trying to convince him of the truth now, not when he was this closed off.

Behind her, Simon is fumbling with the latch on the window, his shirt still flying about. “For fuck’s sake, just use the front door already,” Joel hisses through clenched teeth. “I already know you’re here.”

“Mr. Miller, I…” Simon mumbles as he passes him by, Joel making no move to step aside so he has to flatten himself against the wall to go through the doorway.

“You’re lucky I didn’t shoot you, don’t push that luck.”

“Joel!”

Simon bolts down the stairs. “Goodnight, then,” he shouts on his way out.

For a while, they just stare each other down, Ellie sitting on the bare floor amongst the array of magazines – no point in hiding them now – and Joel standing motionless in the doorway.

“Did you have to be such a dick to him?” she finally asks. She rises from the floor to sit on her bed instead.

Joel raises his eyebrows. “To the guy sneaking into my house in the middle of the night?”

“It’s like, 9, old man.”

“I’m sorry, is this a discussion of the right hour to have boys climb up the window up to your room?”

“We were just…” Ellie starts, but Joel cuts her off before she can finish her sentence.

“I don’t want to know about what you were doing!”

“We weren’t doing anything!”

“Don’t give two shits about it either way!”

Joel seems to realize they are screaming and he takes a deep breath, his eyes just slightly rolling back into their sockets in annoyance. He’s dressed, but she can tell he threw something on hastily, and probably in the dark too. His feet are bare, and the pages of the magazines stick to one of his heels when he walks over to her desk chair.

“I thought he was seeing the girl across the street,” Joel finally grumbles. His eyes glance down at the issue he stepped on and glances back up just as quickly, looking as uneasy as Ellie has ever seen him.

She fidgets with the chain on her neck, a habit of hers when she’s confronted with uncomfortable situations, almost like touching Riley’s tags reassures her, as weird as it may seem.

“He is. This,” she gestures to the general state of the room, “is not what it looks like. I promise.”

Joel looks at her, silent, his equivalent of a demand to continue her explanation.

“He found the magazines under my bed,” Ellie shrugs. This is the only explanation she gives, and it really is a testimony of how far they’ve come that he nods, almost imperceptibly. He doesn’t need her to say it to understand that she had been fighting with him.

Joel clears his throat. “Good,” he starts, and then his gaze flickers back to the open magazines at his feet and he clears his throat once more. “Thought I’d escape this conversation if I never brought it up, but I guess it wouldn’t be right to hide under a rock forever.”

Ellie’s heart skips a beat. Oh no.

“I realise you probably never talked about this, and believe me I don’t want to do this, but, you know… You’re 16 now, and it’s normal to get curious.”

Oh no.

“I know you kissed what’s-his-name,” he starts, and she can see him fidgeting with one of the nails that lay discarded on their kitchen table – more of a storage surface than dining area, if she was being totally honest. Every word that comes out of his mouth looks like it physically pains him.

“Simon,” Ellie provides. Now would have been a great time to shut up, dumbass.

“I don’t give two shits what his name is,” Joel interrupts, his face as red as a ripe tomato. “And I can’t say I’m happy about it, but you can’t stay a kid forever and…”

“I was 14 when we met each other, I don’t think I qualified as a kid even then,” Ellie mumbles, eyes downcast and cheeks burning. Just because she doesn’t dare to look him in the eye as he speaks doesn’t mean he stops his speech.

“Like I said, a kid. And would you shut up? Faster I can get it out of the way, faster we can go our own way and pretend this conversation didn’t happen.”

“Or we could just not have this conversation at all.”

Joel scoffs. “We’re talking about this.” Joel stops for a moment, thinking.” No, better yet, I do the talking, and you do the listening.”

His words tumble out of his mouth at an alarming rate, as if he was in a hurry to get this over with.

Ellie throws herself on her bed, face down into her pillow, and groans. “Just kill me now.”

She doesn’t see him anymore, and that helps forget them embarrassment for a little while. His silence also helps.

Man, Dina would laugh at her until she turned blue if she saw them right now.

Joel reluctantly throws himself into a straight-to-the-point explanation, almost clinical in its descriptions of human reproduction. Ellie lets him talk, though she is mortified beyond belief by the whole situation and keeps her head firmly pressed into her pillow. This is nothing new, but hearing it come from Joel makes her cringe.

“If it had been before the outbreak, I’d have told you to keep condoms around – boys really can’t be trusted to think with anything other than their dick, better think for them – but… you know. Better than nothing if you manage to find some, anyway.”

He quiets and, Ellie think it is over, but no such luck.

“You got all that?”

Ellie finally looks up to see him as red as she’s ever seen him. “Which part, the one where you traumatized me or the one where you made me want to throw myself out the window?”

“Would you take this seriously, dumbass? It’s all fun and games until nine months down the road there is a baby trying to push itself out of you.”

She could have shut up, then. She could have answered “I’ll be careful” or even simply “I understand”, but no, her dumbass brain stopped working for a split second, look enough to give Joel her first reply of the night that wasn’t sarcastic.

“I think me getting pregnant is the least of your worries,” she blurts out and Joel sighs.

“Which part of it wasn’t clear? It’s like math – man plus woman plus sex equals high chances of baby-making.”

No. Not man plus woman.

“If you really want to add this up like a math problem, then you have the wrong equation.”

He looks at her like she has grown a second, or even a third head, but then his hard mask is back and he scoffs. “Well then, by all means, correct it.”

Ellie’s heart is beating so hard against her ribcage that’s she’s sure he can hear it hammering away. Hell, she’s sure he can see it pounding if he really paid attention, with how hard it is beating.

Is this really how you’re going to tell him?

Ellie sits down on her mattress, facing him, and for once tonight he is waiting for her to speak before making a move.

When is it ever a good time to slip a casual “by the way, I’m gay” into a conversation, anyway?

He’s looking at her steadily, calmly, but part of her wants to climb down that window and live as a runaway for the rest of her days.

What if he sees it the same way these close-minded fuckers do?

Her tongue feels too big in her mouth and fidgets with the hem of her shirt with shaky fingers while trying to find the best words to express her thoughts.

Just tell him.

He’s still waiting.

Tell him.

She doesn’t hear anything, nothing beside a faint ringing in her ear and her beating heart.

Do it.

“It’s actually woman plus woman plus sex equals no chances of baby-making,” she says, barely above a whisper.

But he hears. Joel always hears everything, and she can see the confusion on his face, the shock.

“Oh,” he says, shifting in his seat. “Wait, what?”

“You’re giving me the wrong safe-sex talk, you old moron.”

“Oh.”

Joel gets up, walks to her door and she’s thinking he’s going to leave, but he turns right back around to come back to her and let himself fall beside her on the bed.

“How long have you known?” he asks, and she breathes a sigh of relief at the realisation that he hadn’t turned away. He wouldn’t turn his back on her because of who she was, like the true father she had come to see him as.

She thinks back to Riley, to kissing in dark corners of the Military School when no one was looking. “A while.”

Joel squeezes her thigh. “And you’re sure?”

She slaps him in the chest, playfully. “How sure are you that you don’t like men?”

“Point taken,” he chuckles. “Forget the whole contraception part of that talk, then.”

“I will try my best to.”

Joel’s eyes are trained on her face, observing her every reaction, taking in the slightest twitches of her face. “The rest of it stands, you know. You still don’t need to do anything you don’t feel ready to, no still means no, you still make sure your partner is comfortable with whatever you guys are doing, and for the love of God, make sure I never catch you.”

“Got it,” she whispers, nodding. To say she felt lighter after revealing that part of herself to Joel – to anyone, really – would be an understatement, and she can’t help the grin that stretches her lips.

She could not say how exactly, but one moment she was holding the fabric of her shirt between her fingers and the next, she was wrapped up in strong arms with her face pressed against Joel’s chest.

“This doesn’t change a thing for me, you know that?” he whispers in her hair, one his hands holding the back of her neck and the other one resting against her back. “You’re still my baby girl, and I still love you. No matter what.”

She feels the tears threaten to spill, so she brings her arms around Joel’s neck and holds him even tighter than he is holding her.

“No matter what,” she repeats, and she feels him nod in response.

When they untangle, Joel helps her put the magazines back in the box, safely under her bed. There is still one in his hand when he rises to his feet, but when she reaches for it, he pulls it away.

“I’m keeping this one,” he announces on his way out the door.

“Joel!”

Chapter Text

The whiskey burns Ellie’s throat as it goes down.

She probably shouldn’t have poured herself a second drink, but here she is, one sip away from seeing the bottom of her glass once more. The taste lingers on her lips and tongue, and she can still feel the warmth of the alcohol coursing through her.

Really, she shouldn’t drink the night before a patrol, bur she can’t find it in her to care about it now.

She had been on more than a dozen patrols since her first one, months ago, and none of them had ended nearly as horribly as that one had. Might’ve had something to do with Joel arranging for her to always be paired with him after that – he said it was to train her right, but she knew it was really to keep an eye on her.

She never would have guessed, almost three years ago when they met, that her reluctant travel companion would turn out to be such a mother hen.

Tomorrow, she was heading on patrol with Leonard, Maria’s mother and the reason Jackson was still standing, 23 years after the Outbreak when so many other cities and settlements had fallen to Infected or Hunters. They were supposed to map out two new patrol routes, and Joel was all-set to lead the first team, comprised of Chuck, a man named John and – on his first ever patrol assignment – Simon.

Tommy had wanted to hear none of Joel’s bullshit when he had made the announcement, and the only thing that had made her old man grumble a little less was the fact that she would be under Leonard’s watchful eyes the whole time.

And Jesse’s and Dina’s, if they managed to keep their hands off each other long enough to actually do their jobs.

If Dina managed to keep her hands to herself, to be honest. Jesse would put his head to the task, and Dina would spend her time teasing him relentlessly until he’d give in to whatever she wanted him to do. For all his calm and collected and thought-out exterior, she had Jesse wrapped around her little finger.

She had everyone wrapped around her little finger, really.

“I’ll bet your old man will throw me off a cliff before our second night out,” Simon breathes out as he sinks deeper into the couch next to her.

Ellie’s tears her gaze away from her almost finished drink to look at her ever-smiling, albeit pale-faced, friend. He looks tensed, even if he tries his best to hide it behind his usual banter and jokes.

Too bad she sees right through him.

“If you keep talking that much he’ll probably punch you twenty minutes in,” Ellie snickers, playfully elbowing him in the ribs. “Lighten up, Simon. You’ll be with Joel and Chuck, it’ll be okay.”

Simon gives her a sideway smile, before glancing behind her and quickly diverting his eyes. “Yeah, there is no chance of Chuck and your scary old man doing that unexpectedly, so I guess I got that going for me.”

Ellie looks in the direction he just looked away from, just in time to see Dina kissing her way up Jesse’s neck in a corner of her own kitchen, where the refrigerator was partly shielding them from view of their guests in the living room. Doesn’t mean Ellie couldn’t figure out what exactly Dina was trying to get Jesse to do.

Dina barely had any boundaries when sober, and what little she had then were as good as gone when she had a few drinks too many, like tonight.

“Get a room, you two!” Simon hollers beside her, and Jesse jumps up in surprise, his ears turning bright red at being caught. Dina doesn’t stop what she’s doing – she’s reached his ear, now, Ellie notices despite doing her best not to see anything. The older girl raises her middle finger in Simon’s general direction. “Good God, I never thought I’d say that, but I’m actually happy I’m hanging out with your babysitter instead of these two tomorrow. Sucks to be you, Williams.”

Ellie downs the last of her whiskey. Yeah, sucks to be me.

Jesse untangles himself from Dina’s grasp long enough to notice Simon and her quietly getting up and putting their jackets on. “Going home?”

Ellie raises an eyebrow, but it’s Simon who answers in her place. “Nah, we’re just going to run a few miles around Jackson, you know, as practice for tomorrow,” he says slowly, his face completely neutral, and Ellie doesn’t know if it’s his dead-serious expression or the fact that Jesse has virtually no sense of sarcasm whatsoever, but he looks almost outraged at the idea.

“We should all go to bed to be well rested for tomorrow,” he says, slipping back into patrol leader mode. “We can’t afford to get lazy because we didn’t get enough sleep.”

Dina snakes her arms around his chest from where she is pressed against his back. “I’m not sleepy,” she whispers loudly in the way drunk people try to be quiet sometimes, and she and Simon know this conversation isn’t meant for their ears.

Ellie can’t tie her shoes soon enough.

“We’re leaving at dawn tomorrow, just go to bed, already.”

There is a brief silence before Dina replies. “Oh, I’ll go to bed, but I don’t intend to sleep.”

They hear Dina pull Jesse into her bedroom more than they see her. Her usual quietness disappears like her boundaries when she drinks. She’s sure neither of them notice their guests slipping out of the house.

“She looked hornier than usual,” Simon remarks when they are out of earshot, and Ellie nearly stumbles over the last step on Dina’s porch.

“She’s always like that when she drinks.”

Simon shakes his head. “Not that much. Think she’s pregnant yet?”

Ellie learned a long a time ago to ignore his wild comments and theories – most of the time, they aimed to get one of them to react, or implied that someone was either pregnant or had gotten someone else pregnant. Half the time, it was both.

She bites her initial answer back and kicks a rock out of her way.

“You are way too invested in your friends’ love lives,” she finally declares when her silence becomes too long.

“Sex lives,” he corrects. He has this glint in his eyes, like he’s about to say something incredibly stupid. “The details are way crunchier.”

“Perv,” Ellie scoffs, elbowing him in the ribs once again. At this rate, he’s sure to find a bruise there tomorrow morning.

Simon hits her right back. “Prude.”

“Whatever, fuck you.” The smile on her lips betray her amusement.

It’s nice having Simon around, balancing out Jesse’s overall gloominess and Dina’s disregard for social standards of personal space and invasions of privacy, especially that Dina is using that lack of boundaries regarding physical contacts to make Jesse not-so-sullen all the time.

It’s a good thing Simon is an entertaining distraction.

The closer they get to Simon’s place, the quieter he becomes, and by the time he climbs up his porch steps, he has gone completely quiet. How stressed out must he be? He hasn’t made a single inappropriate comment since… well, seven houses ago.

“Hey, Simon!” she calls out as an afterthought. He’s already one leg inside his home, and she’s already in front of the next empty house on his street. “I’m sure everything will be fine tomorrow. Chuck and Joel have done this hundreds of times, and nothing’s ever happened to John on a patrol round. No reason for it to change just because you’re joining them.”

He nods, but he doesn’t make a move to go further inside just yet, and so, Ellie stills too. “What is it like? Fighting the Infected?”

She decides not to ask why he doesn’t know the answer – the idea that the 17-year-old teenager he had been then had managed to get to Jackson, in the middle of the fucking Wyoming wilderness, without once coming face to face with Infected somewhere along the way is almost unbelievable. But then again, she’s immune to CBI, who is she to judge the credibility of someone journey?

She thinks about her answer before giving it out, weighing the words before saying them slowly.

“Like you’re running out of time,” she finally says, truthfully. “Like one single wrong move you make will be your last one.”

He nods. She can see his jaw clench and unclench, repeatedly. He wants to say something, but for once in his life, he doesn’t seem to find any words to express what’s going on inside that head of his.

“You’ll be fine,” she repeats, as reassuringly as she can. It feels weirdly unsettling to try to be the comforting one – that’s Dina’s job, not hers, and she can think of a thousand reasons why it should remain that way. “Joel will make sure of that.”

Simon cracks a smile, finally. If she hadn’t already been staring at him, she would’ve missed it, with the darkness and distance and all.

Ellie turns on her heels, fully intending to go straight to bed, but she can’t resist one last jab at Simon. “Unless he remembers that you’re the guy he caught fooling around with his daughter in her room.”

The fact that she can see Simon pale even though it is pitch-dark outside is hilarious.

Man, I wish someone else could see his face right now.

“But nothing happened!”

“Have fun convincing him of that. By the way, he knows we’ve kissed before.”

“That happened months ago!”

“Joel does have a tendency to get his timelines mixed up.”

“You’ll tell him it meant nothing, won’t you? Ellie? Ellie!”

It’s way more fun letting him think about the grumpy old man possibly holding a grudge than to inform him that yes, Joel does know of the exact nature of the one innocent kiss they shared.

She wraps her arms around herself, the wind making the evening air colder than it was before, and she’s shivering by the time she stumbles inside her house.

Joel is coming out of the bathroom when she comes in, hair wet and barefoot but otherwise dressed. It is so long now that he has to tuck it behind his ears to keep it out of his eyes, like Tommy does. With their hair styled in a similar fashion – if it could even be called that – and Tommy having, for all intents and purposes, given up on shaving since the birth of his son, the two brothers looked terrifyingly alike. Maria always said that watching Joel was like catching a glimpse of a future version of her husband. For now, though, Tommy’s hair is still mostly light brown, albeit now with a few strands of grey hair shooting through his hair and beard, whereas his brother’s is more salt and pepper than its original dark brown.

“It’s late,” Joel says, his equivalent of a greeting.

“I’m aware,” is Ellie’s only reply, and she takes a moment to observe the man that she has come to consider as a father. He is nearing his mid-fifties now, but if you didn’t know his exact age, you’d think he was much older. The wrinkles on his face were getting deeper, and it seemed new ones were appearing on his face almost weekly now, and though he would never say it, she saw how exhausted he looked when he came back from patrol, more so than she remembers from their travels together.

“You really should do something about that hair of yours,” she finally mutters. She’s been staring at him, and he’s been staring right back, and she has no intention of getting herself into a silent battle to see who could keep this up the longest. “It looks like you tried to sew an old mop to your head.”

Joel glares at her from his spot in the doorway, but Ellie only smiles as she sinks into the couch with a sigh to untie her shoes. “Would you also like me to comb and blow-dry it?” he asks grumpily under his breath.

“Only if you aspire to be the prettiest bearded girl in the village.”

Joel huffs as a response, but instead of leaving the room as he always does when she decides to make him the butt of her jokes for no apparent reason, he sits down on the coffee table in front of her. It bends dangerously when he puts his full weight on the surface, but just as it has for almost two years, it withstands the increased pressure on its poorly assembled structure.

He leans forward, but he waits until she has safely thrown both her shoes behind her by the door to speak. “Stick to the maps. Don’t stray from where you’re supposed to go, don’t do anything stupid.”

“Joel…”

“If anything goes wrong, you get your ass back here and you don’t look back.”

“It’s going to be…”

“Keep your weapons in reach at all times.”

“Joel!” Ellie has to almost yell out his name for him to stop the flood of safety recommendations tumbling out of his mouth. He stills, lips parted slightly in preparation of the next piece of advice he had been about to bore her with. “I know all that shit. I’ll be careful.”

Joel’s eyes are disbelieving.

“Okay, I’ll try to be careful, how’s that?”

He nods.

She knows he has a hard time letting go of this idea that he has to protect her, that he has to keep her out of trouble. Frankly, she’s not sure anyone can, but he’s done his best so far. She doesn’t pretend to know what goes on in that stubborn head of his, but if she had to guess, she’d say he is starting to realize that he can’t keep treating her like a little girl, that he can’t keep her out of harm’s way himself forever.

That his body will give out at one point, and then he won’t be able to.

And when that happens, he has to trust that she’ll take care of herself. Without him.

“I promise I’ll be careful, and when I come back, I’ll get to say I told you so,” Ellie pledges. “And I’ll be as annoying as ever.”

Joel gets up, nodding. “That’ll push me into an early grave.”

“Wouldn’t it be a timely grave, old man?”

“I’d head up, if I were you. I won’t be waking your ass up tomorrow morning if you wake up late.”

Ellie snickers. Normally, she’d prop her feet up on the coffee table just to piss him off, but not tonight. “Hey, Joel?”

Joel stops, his hand on the handle of his bedroom door. Ellie doesn’t wait for him to turn around – knows he probably won’t, anyway.

“Don’t give Simon too much trouble, alright?”

His back is to her, and the only light in the room is coming from the bathroom, but she can swear she sees the corner of his lips rise up in a grin and the wrinkles near his eyes become more defined in amusement.

He disappears into his room without giving an answer.

It takes a while for Ellie to fall asleep that night.

***

Contrary to what he had said the night before, Joel did make an appearance to wake her up – more accurately, unceremoniously shoved her out of bed – and Ellie had never been more glad to have chosen to wear a ratty old t-shirt to bed the night before instead of sleeping mostly naked as she had recently taken to with the return of the warmer weather. Just as soon as he had done it, he went back downstairs and slammed the front door shut as he left the house. Not a word was spoken between them.

Truly, he was the most brutal and unpleasant alarm clock the world had ever seen.

By the time she runs over to the south gate, Joel, Leonard, Jesse, Dina, Chuck, Simon and John are all there already, inventorying the contents of their backpacks and going over maps one final time before the two groups’ departures.

Chuck sticks out like a sore thumb in the middle of the huddle. He’s surrounded by people dressed in various shades of grey, brown, tan, black and other unremarkable colors, with hair ranging from black to dirty blonde – although the matter of Simon’s hair being qualified as dirty blonde or very light brown is still up for debate between Dina and Lily – but here he stands, with bright red hair that looks ablaze in the soft light of the rising sun.

“Your hair is blinding me, big guy,” Ellie teases as she passes him by on her way. “Maybe put a hat on that?”

“How else is your old man going to spot me when I get lost in the woods?”

“Fair enough.”

Joel is keeping busy, methodically inventorying the contents of his backpack, rearranging items so some of them are more easily reached in case of emergency, and Jesse is doing the same, eyeing the older man out of the corner of his eyes when Joel isn’t looking his way. Aw, Jesse’s trying to copy Joel. That’s almost cute.

Leonard is trying to find a specific frequency on the talkie in his hand, backpack ready to go and set at his feet, and John is drinking “tea” out of a metal canteen. Funny how his morning tea suspiciously smells of whiskey, everytime she’s close enough to smell it. Very mysterious. As long as it doesn’t impair him in any way, who gives a fuck?

“Took your sweet time, sleeping beauty,” Dina called out as she stuffed a canteen of water into her pack, along with warmer clothes and a small blanket to sleep on.

“I’m told good things come to those who wait,” Ellie snickers. She shoves a hand down the back pocket of her jeans – yeah, her switchblade is still there, waiting patiently to be used. “I assume you’ve had a restful night of sleep?”

Dina finally turns to her and the dark bags under her eyes are impressive, to say the least, but she has a permanent smile plastered on her lips. “Do you really want me to answer that?”

“Nope!” Ellie drops her pack to the ground and starts her last check to make sure she has everything she needs for the next four days. “You bunch of horny rabbits have no self-control.”

That last part about the rabbits was said under her breath and was never meant to be heard by anyone but herself, but Dina inches closer until she’s kneeling right next to her, so close that Ellie can smell her shampoo and feel the warmth she radiates through her clothes. “Self-control is overrated, Freckles. Let loose a little, have some fun, you might like it.” 

You might like it.

“Fuck you.”

“I’m good, thanks,” she says, winking, and Ellie realises she’s looking behind her, where Jesse is standing looking over at them, face red with embarrassment – over what exactly, Ellie isn’t sure. When he moves to go back to whatever it was he had been doing before he had started paying attention to their conversation, his hair falls away from where it usually covers his neck and reveals a bunch of hickeys on his skin.

Ellie pretends she didn’t see them.

Out of the corner of her eyes, she spots Simon awkwardly going up to Joel and asking to see the map in the politest way Ellie had ever heard him address anyone. Joel only stares him down, his eyes unreadable, until he nods at him in acknowledgement. “Dipshit Von Bucket,” he greets, and Ellie has to bite the inside of her cheek to avoid laughing out loud at Simon’s panicked expression. Clearly, he wasn’t expecting the older man to remember their first encounter, or the nickname he had come up with for the boy who had dumped a bucket filled to the brim with dirty water on his head.

“Aren’t we over this? That happened nearly a year ago…” Simon asks, but it comes out as more of a whine than anything else.

Whining – not the best way to get on Joel’s good side.

Joel smirks slightly, almost imperceptible under the thickness of his grey beard. “Lord Dipshit Von Bucket, if you insist.”

Simon turns to Jesse, sitting next to him and studying patrol records attentively. “At least it has a ring to it,” he mumbles under his breath when he is sure Joel can’t hear him. Jesse never even looks up from his observation.

Before long, the two parties split up – Joel’s is headed south, and Leonard’s is going west.

“Let’s get this show on the road, peeps,” Chuck calls out. He looks out of place

Peeps,” Ellie repeats. “Seriously, man?”

Chuck hoists his backpack, which rattles like a bunch of nails in a tin can, over his shoulder. “It was a very common expression back in my days. Short for people?” When no one reacts, he shakes his head. “Bunch of uncultured swine.”

“Admit it, Chucky, you’re just old!”

Honestly, Ellie is pleasantly surprised to find that the scathing look Chuck throws her way doesn’t set her on fire right where she stands. “Old enough to know you’re a little shit,” he spits back, and Ellie chuckles. Man, he is such a child stuck into a grown man’s body sometimes.

Chuck steps out of Jackson, leaving the safety of the high walls behind without looking back, followed closely by John and, trailing a few steps behind, Simon, who takes a moment to stare up at the watchtower they just passed and take in the sight of Jackson.

She wants to tell him to be careful. She wants to tell him to be safe.

She doesn’t. Man, I’m the worst friend ever.

She grabs her own pack and starts toward the path leading west into the treeline, as Dina practically bounces down the dirt road like fucking Snow White in the forest.

“Jesse,” she hears Joel mutter behind her, and she turns around to see her friend approach the older man. “Keep her out of trouble, will you?”

Jesse nods, Ellie rolls her eyes. She’s going to be 17 next week, and still, he acts as if she needs protecting, as if she didn’t manage to survive up to 14 all by herself.

“I meant it, boy – anything happens to her, anything, and I’ll hold your stupid ass personally responsible for that,” Joel threatens.

“I’ll make sure she comes back in one piece.”

“Cut the kid a break, Joel,” Leonard intervenes, shoving Jesse toward her and Dina so they can get a move on. “He’s more careful than you, this one.”

“Not sure about that,” Joel mutters, but he nods one last time in Ellie’s direction – an unspoken “Be safe” – and turns to where his unit has all but disappeared behind a curve in the exterior walls. Soon, he rounds the corner and she can’t see him anymore.

The rising sun filters through the newly grown spring leaves on the nearby trees, they are surrounded by the sounds of the birds awakening all around them and she’s been outside the walls for a grand total of three minutes and her shoes are already soaked through with the morning dew lingering on the overgrown patches of grass.

This is shaping up to be a wonderful day.

“Let’s get a move on, you kids!”

***

Ellie thought patrol rounds with Joel were the most boring thing in the world – boy, oh boy, was she wrong.

Nothing in the world could ever compete with the agony of the absolute silence that Leonard expected – and forcefully demanded when she and Dina had failed to comply, about 10 minutes after they’d left the settlement.

It leaves the four of them to walk in silence, like weird a funeral procession made up of armed mute monks.

Leonard walks ahead, map in hand, taking the time to mark down all the spots that would be suitable for setting up camp along the newly established patrol route as he goes. Jesse walks a few steps behind him, to his left, while Dina is behind him on the right. The no-talking rule is never broken, but the looks the couple exchange speak for themselves, and Ellie does her best to look anywhere else.

They come across no Hunters, no Infected, only spooked rabbits and the likes.

They only stop when the sun is just about to set, at a little clearing near a rocky mountainside and an even smaller creek. Only then does Leonard relent a bit on his sound-of-silence-only rule, allowing whispered conversations to take place. They still have three days to go, and sweet lord does Ellie miss Joel’s grumpy complaining – at least she could talk to herself aloud, if nothing else.

Sometime after they started setting up camp, Dina and Jesse disappear deeper into the forest to fetch wood for the fire. When they show up again, they don’t have any more wood than they left with. Ellie pretends not to know exactly what they were doing during their absence. No one looks this satisfied after coming back empty handed from collecting sticks and branches to start a fire.

She’s trying her best to ignore the whispers exchanged between her two friends when Leonard sits next to her next to the fire for warmth. It might be April, and it might be warm during the day, but it still gets cold during the nights. The older man rubs his hands together before bringing them close to the flames. The barrel of the riffle he had been holding, placed safely on his lap, must have been freezing his fingers. Leonard breaks the silence, and Ellie realises that she hasn’t heard his voice in hours. “No one has seen any Infected, or other hostiles in these parts for years – not that I’ve been made aware of, anyway – but when you talk, you get distracted, and when you’re distracted, you get careless, and…”

“Carelessness gets you killed,” Ellie recites, like the memorized prayers she’s heard some of the older soldiers mumble under their breaths before hopping on the military trucks that were supposed to bring them to their outside duty posts – most of them didn’t make it back. “I know.”

Leonard analyzes her, his eyes as neutral as can ben. “I’ve never said that to you.”

“No, but you’ve said it to Joel, and he’s just about painted it on my bedroom door so I’d remember it.”

Maria’s dad surveys the surroundings, from the little creek to the mountainside, and lingering on the treeline where there is nothing to see except for the new spring leaves and the occasional raccoon or rodent passing by. “Doesn’t look like you need the reminder too much, from what I know.”

Ellie scoffs. Images of her first patrol invade her mind – blood, pain, fear, death – and she has to block them out again, otherwise she knows she won’t get to sleep at all tonight. “Trouble just keeps finding me, I guess, it makes no difference if I’m careful or not.”

She thinks she saw the ghost of a smile dance on his lips, but when she looks a second time to confirm her suspicions, she sees only the usual tight line of his mouth. Must have been the fire playing tricks on me.

The night itself is uneventful, at best, painfully boring at worst. They eat the sorry excuse of a meal they managed to scrape together – some sort of thick stew, with whatever meat was on that squirrel Leonard caught added to it. Not even the tiny bites of meat can salvage it, but they all eat it until there is nothing left, and then they roll their blankets down on the cold, hard ground by the fire. Ellie hopes sleeps comes easy to her, partly because she believes she’ll go batshit insane if she has to keep whispering for one more minute – partly because in her dreams, at least, she doesn’t have to see Jesse and Dina undress each other with their eyes.

Jesse takes the first watch, then Leonard takes the second, she takes the third and Dina takes the last. Dina snuggles against her, wrapped in her own blanket, for added warmth while Jesse stands guard nearby, until her boyfriend settles into his own improvised bed and she rolls over to his side, leaving Ellie to curl up into a ball inside her ratty old blanket to keep her own body heat from escaping into the night. It takes a while for her to get to sleep after that.

When she finally drifts off, it is only for a little while – an hour, maybe an hour and a half at most – before Leonard silently shakes her awake for her watch. She feels numb from the cold, but this is no different than the numerous nights she spent freezing her ass off on one of the watchtowers, wondering if someone would find her frozen on her seat after sunrise.

It leaves her with way too much time to let her mind wander. She doesn’t like where it takes her, but she can’t help but let her thoughts drift off, every once in a while. There really isn’t much to distract her out here.

And so, she allows her imagination to run free. She pictures a version of reality she knows will never exist, a world she can only dare imagine in the darkness of the night, when she’s all alone in her bedroom. She imagines how it would feel, to be the one Dina is looking at with such love in her eyes. To be the one she shamelessly shoves into a wall to kiss senseless, not caring in the slightest if anyone sees them.

To be the one holding on to Dina as she sleeps, with her wild curls getting into her face and her legs tangled with her.

Ellie knows she should stop fantasizing about things that will never happen, but she can’t. Besides, it’s not like she’s hurting anyone important – only herself.

Watch shifts are much shorter on patrol rounds than on the walls surrounding Jackson, and so she’s quite surprised when Dina wakes, on her own, and basically orders her back to sleep. How that girl always manages to know the exact time without ever having to use a watch or an alarm clock is a mystery to Ellie, who would probably sleep through a fucking tornado if given the chance.

Even as she wraps herself in the warmth of her blanket, she can’t find sleep again. She gives up trying after a long time of tossing and turning, opting instead to pack her stuff and to get the fire going again. 

She feels more than she sees Dina’s gaze burning a hole through her back as she works, moving some sticks around, using one to pile the embers in one spot, adding dry birch bark and other small twigs until she sees the tiny flames she had been expecting lick at the kindling. Ellie smiles, blowing unto the fire until she deems it big enough to take on a life of its own without her help.

She hears her unspoken question as Dina’s eyes keep flicking to her when she isn’t looking. Why aren’t you sleeping? You need your rest as much as we do, don’t you? She can almost hear Dina’s voice saying those words, but still, her friend keeps silent. Maybe she figured out Ellie would lie if she asked why she wasn’t sleeping. Maybe she didn’t really want to know. Not that it mattered in any way.

They move out soon after, and the next days goes by exactly like the third. They find a clearing next to a frail-looking cabin and set up camp there for the night. They make sure to stay outside, on Leonard’s recommendation – it’s harder to be taken by surprise if you can see your surroundings, he says.

The sun is setting when they finally get to sit down and eat.

She pretends she has to pee so she can escape the two lovebirds making googly eyes at each other over the dying fire, and frankly, to have a few minutes by herself.

As Ellie walks back to their camp from the relatively isolated space in the woods she had found, she hears it, clear as ever, sending shivers down her spine – the high-pitched shriek of a clicker, followed by the demented yells of Runners and very human shouts.

She doesn’t think, she just runs as fast as her legs will carry her. The branches slap her face, chest and arms, but still, she doesn’t slow down, not until she gets close enough to the commotion to see first-hand the extent of the monstrous pile of shit they just stepped in.

Jesse’s trying his best to fend of a Clicker, one hand furiously rummaging through the contents of his pack and the other wielding a heavy branch like a sword, as Dina keeps pelting it with sticks and stones in the hope that it’ll get its attention long enough for Jesse to grab whatever weapon he is looking for and fire it.

She doesn’t get to see if their plan works out.

A Runner leaps at her from her right side and it is because of instincts alone that Ellie manages to flatten herself to the ground fast enough to keep the monstrosity from tearing her head clean off her shoulders. She barely registers that her chin hits one of the logs they had been using to sit on the previous night before she’s upright again, wildly looking around to figure out where the next attack is coming from.

“You fucker!” Ellie seethes through clenched teeth, spitting out a mouthful of blood. She has no clue as to where she is bleeding from. If you don’t find a way to make it out of this alive, it won’t matter anyway. “Oh, shit!”

The Infected is coming at her again, fast, too fast for her liking. Its shrieks make Ellie’s blood run cold, and the eyes… she’s always found their eyes – bloodshot, wild, evil, if she’d had to say – to be the most bone chilling thing about those fucking monsters. The fraction it takes for her to make that observation is almost the end of her.

She grabs the thing’s legs as it collides into her and hauls herself up to her feet as quick as she can without letting go of the decomposing limbs within her grasp. The Infected yells – a sound coming straight from the depths of Hell, if there even was one – and crashes headfirst into the ground, its arms flailing about in an attempt to grab her. Ellie dodges the hands and kicks him in the head, not waiting for it to come back up, sending it sprawling backwards in the mud. She’s pretty sure the Runner left part of its skull on the ground and some flesh stuck to one of her shoes, but she doesn’t investigate further. There isn’t enough time for that.

Her attack gives her a few precious fractions of a second to reach behind her. Her hand closes around the familiar handle of her switchblade and she clicks it open, awaiting the thing’s inevitable comeback with her feet firmly planted in the ground and her weapon held high in front of her.

“Come on, you lazy fuck!” she shouts, her voice half-stuck in her throat. The Runner can’t understand her, she knows, but it feels good to voice her pretend confidence, like pretending she has a handle on the situation will make it true.

 “Leonard!” Jesse shouts, and she hears a gunshot, and the only thing she sees one of the walls of the wooden cabin collapsing on itself, sending the roof sliding down on the older man and the Infected he was fighting off. She doesn’t see him rise from the rubble before she plunges her knife inside the eye of the Infected that was still relentlessly trying to sink its rotten teeth into her flesh. She stabs once, twice, three, four, five times, until she loses count and the creatures is only a silent, twitching heap of limbs at her feet.

The heavy thud of a body hitting the ground behind her makes her glance back for a second, just as she bends down to retrieve her weapon from the thing’s head.

Dina is pinned under one of the Infected – where the fuck are they all coming from? – holding a thick branch in front of her and using it as a chew toy she sticks in the Runner’s mouth to keep its jaws from closing around one of her limbs.

As with most things having anything to do with Dina, Ellie doesn’t think before she acts. It’s like her body does not belong to her, like her limbs aren’t her own, possessed by some unseen force of nature.

Or whatever.

The next thing she knows, she’s running toward her, her knife still buried deep inside the skull of the Infected she had been stabbing, forgotten behind her. She hears only Dina’s grunts and labored breathing as she struggles to keep the Infected at arm’s length, sees only the snapping jaws closing relentlessly over the stick, gradually eating it away like some kind of undead beaver until it looks so thin she thinks it might snap at any moment.

And then Ellie crashes into it so hard it makes her head spin, and they both tumble into the mud, rolling about until she doesn’t know which way is up and which way is down. She feels stones and sticks dig into her back, her ribs, thighs, hips, everywhere, and she’s punching it wherever her fists can reach, and the parts of the Runner that she can’t reach with her hands, she does her best to try to kick.

“Ow, fuck!” Ellie screams. They just rolled into the dying fire, if the smoke that fills her lungs is any indication. She doesn’t feel the burn, only the squirming, screaming Infected trying to wiggle out of her grasp.

She’s not letting go. She can’t.

She won’t.

The Runner’s breath stinks of death, of rotten flesh, and its saliva is dripping in Ellie’s face. Despite her best efforts, the Infected is hitting her just as hard she’s hitting it, and the force with which one of its limbs – its knee, maybe? – connects with her stomach knocks the wind out of her. Its screeching never relents, its fingernails dig into her face and neck as it scratches at her desperately,

Ellie’s head hits something, hard, and she feels her grip loosen from the shock just slightly – and then the Infected falls over her, lifeless.

It’s at that point that she realises she doesn’t hear shit besides a ringing in her head, when she pushes the body off her and sees Dina standing over her, a broken thick branch in her hands.

The other half of her makeshift weapon is buried deep into the Runner’s mouth and coming out of the back of its head.

Dina leaps over her to the pile of rubble where the old cabin had been standing just minutes ago. All that remains now is a bunch of planks and debris, and the corpses of two Infected.

By the time Ellie drags herself to her knees, still trying to catch her breath, the world has stopped spinning so much, and Dina and Jesse have pulled Leonard from the rubble. He’s unconscious, bleeding heavily from the left side of his head.

She looks around. She counts one dead Clicker, and five other dead Infected lying about camp.

“Ellie?” Her head snaps up at the sound. By the look on her face, it’s not the first time Dina has been calling out her name, but she hadn’t heard it before. Her breaths are fast and shallow, but her eyes are steady when Dina looks her over.

Nurse Dina, back on duty.

“You’re hurt,” she states simply, looking at her leg. Ellie looks down too, and the pain hits all at once.

Her left pant leg has been ripped out from her knee down, exposing her injured leg. The skin on her shin is almost entirely burnt, angry red with white spots near her ankle where she probably rolled over the embers of the fire. It looks shiny, and she can feel her heartbeat down in her leg, and sweet fuck does it hurt like a bitch.

There is blood everywhere on her, so much that it can’t possibly be all hers. She feels it drip down her face, and she touches the bridge of her nose tentatively where she thinks it is coming from. She barely suppresses a hiss of pain – the skin there is split open across her nose on the left side, level with her eyes, and her nose definitely feels swollen.

She stops her evaluation of her physical state there. She doesn’t have to confirm it for her to know that her skin is covered in scratches, and she’ll most likely find a bunch of tender bruises on herself come tomorrow morning.

“I’m fine,” Ellie mumbles, looking over at Jesse and Leonard. The older man is still lying motionless on the damp muddy ground; the younger one is trying to bandage his head and asses the gravity of the injury. “You should take a look at Lenny, he needs it more than me.”

Dina doesn’t listen. She pulls the flaps of burnt cloth away from her leg, grimacing as she kneels in front of Ellie to get a better look at her injury. Ellie refuses to let even the slightest grunt of pain escape her lips as she feels what’s left of her pants come away with some of her burnt flesh.

“Like hell I am. Jesse is already taking care of it.” She looks over the burn once more. “We have to get you out of the mud. Can you stand?”

“I think so.”

Her leg is stiff and hurts like a bitch – as does the rest of her body, if she’s being honest with herself – but it should hold her weight, at least until she gets to sit down on one of the logs.

With Dina’s help, she rises to her feet, her legs shaking under her and threatening to give out. Must’ve hit my head harder than I thought. Fuck.

Dina slings one of Ellie’s arms over her own shoulders to steady her and to relieve some of the weight off her injured leg until they can figure out the extent of the burn.

They’re less than a few steps away from the log she meant to sit on when Ellie hears the familiar sound of a gun being reloaded, and her heart skips a beat. The sound is coming from directly behind them – Jesse. Her eyes widen, looking all around to see what could have prompted him to reload, but she sees nothing. The fallen Infected are still lying unmoving, the rest of the woods are as still as she’s ever seen them and the birds are still chirping. There is nothing out of the ordinary to be seen.

“What the hell’s going on, Jesse?” Dina hisses, looking around just as wildly as Ellie is.

She feels the adrenaline rush back into her bloodstream, and she can’t feel the pain in her leg anymore, or anywhere else for that matter, only the thundering beat of her own heart and her wheezing breaths.

They manage to turn around to face Jesse, untangling themselves from one another and reaching for weapons, any weapons – in Dina’s case, it is a stick, and in Ellie’s, it’s her bare fists – she doubts she can injure herself more than she already is.

Jesse is standing tall over Leonard’s body, his face devoid of any emotion and his handgun aimed at something behind them. Ellie looks back in confusion – still, she sees no threat of any kind in the direction her friend is staring so intensely at.

“What the fuck did you see? Jesse!” she whispers, mindful of attracting unwanted visitors.

Jesse’s face stays neutral, but his shaking hand betrays him. “Dina, come over here.”

And then it dawns on her.

Jesse isn’t aiming at anything behind them. There is no Infected hiding in the woods, waiting to pounce on them at the first occasion, no Hunter waiting for them to lower their guard so they can slaughter them and riffle through their meager belongings. No.

His weapon is trained on her.

As Dina walks toward him, she stays very still. Jesse is notoriously cautious in his use of weapons – he never even loads his unless he is on watch duty or on patrol – so whatever it is that made him draw it now, she wouldn’t put it past him to shoot her if she made any unexpected movements. She raises her arms in surrender, exhales slowly, shakily, and hopes to whatever god might or might not exists that his finger doesn’t slip on the trigger.

What the hell’s going on? Why is he doing this? Every catastrophe scenario runs through her mind, from him secretly working for the Fireflies and handing her over to them, to him having completely lost his shit.

She’s fucking terrified. There is nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide – her own gun is in her backpack by the fire, out of reach, and her knife is still plunged deep within the Runner’s skull. It’s close enough that she thinks maybe she can reach it before Jesse fires, but then what? She’s pretty damn accurate when it comes to throwing knives but there’s no way she’ll be able to do it before the bullet leaves his gun. The best outcome would be to take him down with her.

Her eyes flicker to the shining edge of the blade glistening in the setting sun, and Jesse inches his finger ever closer to the trigger. “Don’t even think about it.” His voice is like pure ice.  

“What are you doing?” Dina breaks the tense silence, her eyes going wildly back and forth between her boyfriend and Ellie, both of them staring at each other as if the first one to move would combust where they stood. “Jesse, put the gun down!”

He shakes his head but stays otherwise still as a statue.

“At least tell me why,” Ellie breathes out. Her heart is beating so hard she has trouble hearing anything besides it. “If you’re going to shoot me, I deserve to know why.”

His weapon wavers slightly, and his eyes shift down to her injured leg. “You’re Infected.”

Ellie’s heart skips a beat. Her arm is still covered, and still tattooed, there is no way he saw the scars hidden under the ink.

“That’s a burn, Jesse, what the hell did you knock your head on?” Ellie spits out, taking one more look at the injury on her leg when she notices where his line of sight ends. “And aim your fucking gun away from my face!”

“Jesse, put the gun down, please,” Dina pleads. “It’s just a burn, I looked at it myself.”

He shakes his head once more, but lowers the weapon ever-so-slightly, nonetheless. It now aims at her chest, and Ellie can breathe a little easily. “Back of your leg,” he says simply.

Ellie’s hand flies there.

And comes away bloody.

It is no easy task to try to look at her own calf, but she manages it. There is no mistaking the half-moon shaped teeth-marks she finds there, not when she’s seen them on her own skin once before, and on other people way more than she’d like.

Twice. I got fucking bitten twice. Who the fuck gets bitten twice?

“I want to see,” Dina states as it becomes clear from Ellie’s own shaken expression that Jesse wasn’t lying about what he had seen. Neither she nor Jesse try to stop her as she kneels behind Ellie. Her fingertips ghost over the bite, brushing against the skin around it, trembling. “Shit. Oh, shit.

She can’t look at her friend, can’t bear to see the resignation she’ll surely find in her eyes, so she keeps her eyes trained on Jesse’s emotionless ones.

“How?” Jesse asks. It is an order, not a request.

Ellie takes a deep breath before answering, her throat suddenly much drier than it had been seconds ago. Flashbacks of her struggle with the Infected, of flailing limbs and rolling around and punching and kicking come back to her, but she can’t pinpoint exactly when its teeth had sunken deep enough into her flesh to break the skin.

She has to fight the urge to tell Jesse to fuck off, that it’s none of his business, but angering him is not the way to go about now.

“I can’t recall,” she says through gritted teeth.

“Are we even sure it’s an Infected bite?” Dina asks, her voice wavering only slightly over the words. She’s grasping at straws, looking for an explanation where there are none other than the one Jesse had provided.

“Unless one of you guys has a cannibalism fetish…” Ellie starts, but Dina interrupts her.

“Stop screwing around Freckles, this isn’t a game!” She’s half-way between Jesse and Ellie, looking at both of them with disbelief in her eyes. “Jesse, put your gun down!”

“We can’t take her back to Jackson,” he says simply, and the matter-of-factly way he has to approach this makes Ellie wonder if this isn’t the first time he’s had to shoot someone that had been bitten before they could turn. “It’s a mercy.”

“That’s not a mercy, that’s an execution!” Dina roars in outrage.

She understands, really, she does. She’s seen what the progression of the infection did to people, turned them into shells of what they were before. She remembers Riley, slowly losing touch with reality as her fever kept steadily rising, until she had tried to tear her to pieces. She had been unrecognizable, eyes bloodshot, and drooling, and screeching until she could hear her voice get hoarse. Sometimes, Ellie wishes she could have had the guts to pull the trigger before she turned.

Only she wouldn’t be turning.

Shit, shit, shit, shit.

Jesse’s seemingly completely detached behaviour, which he was no doubts trying to convince himself was real and not made-up for the sake of the situation, makes much more sense, now that she thinks about it. It would be easier to pretend he didn’t feel any emotion for her than to face having to shoot one of his closest friends.

Heaven knows she’s aware of how hard that is, and how impossible of a choice trying to decide between a few hours of denial – before the Infection inevitably takes over – or the lifetime guilt of having pulled the trigger is.

“I won’t run away,” Ellie starts, making sure to keep her hands in Jesse’s line of sight. “I’m not turning, you’ve got to believe that.”

“Don’t think you’ve got much of a choice, Ellie.”

He slipped by saying her name, she sees it in his eyes, in the wavering of the gun he’s holding, and in the color draining from his face. No matter how much he may have wanted to distance himself, he couldn’t do it completely.

Her heart is still pounding. Now would be her only window to reach for her own knife while Jesse’s guard was down.

Don’t tell anyone, she hears Joel’s voice repeat in her head. Whatever happens, you can’t tell people you were bitten, they’ll shoot you on the spot or trade you to the Fireflies.

She doesn’t think Joel accounted for her being bitten a second time in his safety recommendations.

Promise me, Kiddo.

I promise.

She had nothing to lose, here. Either Jesse was going to shoot her, or they’d think she was crazy, and shoot her anyway.

Or they would believe her, and she might live a little while longer.

“I’m immune.”

The gun lowers a fraction of an inch in shock. “What?”

“I’m immune,” Ellie repeats, louder this time. “I was bitten before, and I didn’t turn. No reason for me to turn now.”

“No one’s immune.”

Jesse’s eyes are hard, his voice is steady and the weapon aiming at her face again.

“I am!” Ellie scrambles. He doesn’t believe me. I’m going to die here. “Fucking hell, I can prove it!”

“Jesse, for fuck’s sake, put the gun down!” Dina shouts. She steps in front of Ellie, blocking Jesse’s line of fire.

He blinks suddenly as she does, shaken. “Move out of the way.”

“And what are you going to do, shoot me?”

He gulps, and she knows Dina struck a nerve. He could never open fire on his girlfriend, and Ellie never thought she’d ever be grateful for his inability to refuse Dina anything, but she is now. She takes one step toward him, then another, then another, until her hand lands softly on top of his weapon, pushing it down until it points at the ground now.

Ellie starts breathing again, and she realises she had been holding her breath for a while.

“Just let her explain,” Dina says, softly, in the soothing voice Ellie sometimes heard her use when she had to treat some of the kids at the clinic, just before she reset their arm, or stitched them up, even.

“You believe her?” The only movement from Jesse is the twitch in the muscles of his jaw.

Dina smiles, but there is no joy in her eyes, only sadness and quiet resignation. “I’d like to.”

Better start explaining now before he changes his mind.

“Three years ago, I was living in Boston,” Ellie’s voice trembles, betraying for the first time how terrified she is. Dying while fighting, she could deal with – hell, she’d come awfully close on more occasions than she could count – but this, waiting around to see if she would be executed by her own friends or not, and die alone in the woods with no one on her side… it was so much worse. “I was at a Military Prep School, and I had this friend, Riley, who joined the Fireflies. We snuck out of the school in the middle of the night to go to a mall and we were attacked. Both of us were bitten, but I never turned.”

Jesse and Dina are looking at each other in disbelief. Ellie knows how it sounds – desperate, like she’s making up this story to gain a few more precious minutes.

It’s exactly like it sounds, then.

“I’m going to roll up my sleeve,” Ellie warns, wary of Jesse’s gun still too close to him for her liking. “I don’t have any weapons on me. My knife is in this fucker’s head, and my gun is in my backpack by the other fucker.”

Jesse nods, but his pinky finger drums against the bottom of the handle in nervousness a few times. Dina watches intently, silent. She’s still standing between the two of them, though if she did it consciously or not is still up for debate.

Ellie undoes the single button on the right cuff of her flannel shirt with practiced movements, reminiscent of a time when she was hiding her forearm all day and eager to come home to finally let her skin breathe. Back then, she couldn’t wait to undo that button. Now, she’d rather be doing anything else.

She feels the sleeve loosen around her arm. Jesse and Dina are staring at her, watching her every movement closely. Ellie’s staring right back at them.

She doesn’t need to see what’s on her skin, she already knows the secret her tattoo holds.

As she slowly rolls her sleeve up, the tattoo comes into full view – first the pointy end of the fern leaves, starting at the base of her thumb and always visible on her wrist, then the rest of the leaves, running along the length of her forearm, and, finally, the moth taking up all the space right under her elbow, obscuring any visible sign of the bite concealed underneath.

Chuck really did some exceptional work on her arm, but for the very first time, Ellie wishes he was a little less talented with needles and ink, because to the unfamiliar eye, it looks like a regular tattoo.

To Jesse’s and Dina’s eyes, it looks like a regular tattoo, and she needs it to back-up her claim.

“You won’t see shit from all the way over there,” Ellie explains. She’s trying her best to keep her voice steady and to keep her hands from shaking too much. She doesn’t think they notice it.

Jesse hand twitches, but he remains immobile with the gun firmly pointed at the ground.

She’s grateful for that. It’s the small things…

Dina takes a step forward, toward her, and then she’s right in front of her, one hand gently holding on to her wrist and the fingers from the other brushing against her skin, light as feathers.

“Show me.”

Ellie does. She guides the fingers all the way up to the moth inked on her skin, until they brush against the wings, and the raised teeth marks that blend in so seamlessly with the design. “Holly shit,” Dina breathes out.

Her fingers are exploring on their own now, feeling for the thicker skin of the scars, running along the bite, trailing off and then coming back. She’s mapping out the bite, like she can’t quite believe it is there.

“I didn’t have the tattoo when I got to Jackson. That’s why I was always wearing long-sleeves, until I asked Chuck to cover it up last year.”

She doesn’t know what she expected to see when her gaze crossed paths with Dina’s, but it certainly wasn’t betrayal.

“You didn’t tell us,” Dina says. Ellie can’t tell if it is a question or a statement.

“Joel said it was too much of a risk to tell anyone.” It’s an apology, by Ellie’s standards, but it isn’t enough, not nearly enough for two years of keeping her condition a secret from even her closest friends.

There are no words that Ellie knows that would express what she meant to say.

She meant to say sorry. She meant to say that she never should have kept that from them, when all they’d both ever done was trust her, and share their stories with her, even the painful parts. She thinks back to the time when Jesse told her what happened to his family, to the endless hours Dina spent seated on the cold ceramic tiles of the clinic when Joel had been injured, rubbing soothing circles on her back and whispering reassuring words into her ear until she fell asleep.

They had deserved to know her, and she had denied them that.

For someone who used to never stop talking, she’s gotten awful at finding the right words to say to people.

So she doesn’t try.

“You didn’t tell me,” Dina continues, and the words hurt more than the hits she took today or the burn on her leg. “You told Chuck, but you didn’t tell me.”

“I had to,” Ellie offers, though she knows any excuse she gives is pointless. “He had to see the bite to tattoo over it.”

For a while, none of them move.

“How do you know it’ll be the same?” Jesses asks.

Dina’s fingers fall from her arm, and Ellie swears she’s never felt so far away from her friends.

“I don’t,” she answers, truthfully. “I was bitten three years ago, and I’m still doing okay. I don’t know why I’m immune, or if the Infection is just waiting for the right moment to show its ugly face, but I have had no symptoms since I was bitten.”

She looks at Dina.

“I have to believe that I’ll stay immune forever,” Ellie adds, almost as an afterthought. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”

Jesse finally puts the gun back in his holster.

***

Just because her friend decided against shooting her on the spot didn’t mean he trusted her not to turn in her sleep. She should have known, really.

Which is why she found herself chained to a tree, in the dark.

They had tended to Leonard’s head wound as best as they could, but there was no sign the old man would regain consciousness anytime soon. Dina might be skilled in the first aid department, but he needed far better treatment than she could provide. They decided the best course of action was to fashion a makeshift stretcher, to head back to the settlement and hope the old man would not pass away before then. Still, night was falling, and only fools traveled the treacherous wilderness that surrounded them after nightfall.

She pretends to sleep, just so she doesn’t have to face distrusting eyes anymore, but there is no such thing as resting where the rough bark digs into her back and her legs are cramping up from being unused and unmoving for so long. Dina and Jesse are huddled by the fire for warmth, next to where they laid their patrol leader and did their best to make Leonard comfortable.

For a while – minutes, hours, Ellie couldn’t say – the couple made no sounds. No talking, no whispering, not even a cough or a sneeze broke the relative quietness of the Wyoming wilderness. The fire crackles away, dying slowly.

She’s just starting to nod off when Dina’s soft voice startles her.

“If I hadn’t convinced you not to, would you have done it?”

Jesse doesn’t answer right away. Instead, she hears him coax the fire back to life. “She wasn’t safe, she was bitten,” his voice rings out in the night, even if it is barely above a whisper. “It was the only logical thing to do.”

“You’re not answering. Would you have given her a chance to explain? Would you have believed her?”

“No. Is that what you want to hear? I would have shot her.”

There is a long pause.

“Oh, Jesse,” Dina breathes out, so low Ellie has trouble making out the individual words. “That was never what I wanted to hear.”

Ellie doesn’t see her, but she hears Dina take her blanket and set it on the other side of the fire, away from where Jesse is keeping a careful watch on her.

The metal of the chain is like ice on the skin of her wrists.

***

It took a day of using all the shortcuts they knew to get back to Jackson.

Just before they arrived, Dina had wrapped Ellie’s flannel shirt around her leg to hide the bite, although she still walked with a limp. No one at the clinic was surprised when she refused to be treated there, when they brought Leonard in. After all, she never accepted treatment unless it was a matter of life or death.

Dina usually came by to patch her up later, when word got to her that Ellie had injured herself in one way or another, but not this time. This time, Ellie wrapped her legs in bandages herself.

A few days later, when Joel finally made his way home, dirty and visibly tired – but overall unharmed – he found Ellie seated in his favourite chair at the kitchen table, with her leg all bandaged and elevated. She remembers what she told him the night before they parted.

I promise I’ll be careful, and when I come back, I’ll get to say I told you so.

He remembers too. “Where’s that I told you so you promised me?”

He meant it as a joke, she knows it, but she feels her jaw clench and her fists grip the seat of her chair. “Not this time.”

It was so far from fine.

One of her best friends had wanted to shoot her, the other one had refused to even talk to her since the ordeal, and the man she had come to consider as a grandfather figure was lying unconscious in one of the beds of the clinic.

Joel never asked questions.

He just poured them both a glass of the good whiskey he kept hidden in his bedroom and redid the bandages on her leg.  

Three days later, word got to her that Leonard had woken up, but that the impact of the collapsing cabin had done some nerve damage. The whole left side of his face was paralyzed, and he would probably never speak fluidly again.

Her leg healed, and she went back to watch shifts with Chuck. Like she had predicted, the bite on her calf turned into an angry red scar, and, when it was healed, it was covered in another tattoo – a wolf’s head, snarling, its bared fangs somewhat aligned with the teeth marks on her skin so that one would have to look really closely at them to tell the difference.

She had to use her 17th birthday as a way of convincing him to tattoo her again without telling Joel, but he had outdone himself once more.

Life in Jackson carried on as if nothing had happened, for the most part.

No one really knew when it had happened, but by the time May rolled around, the gossiping hens around town all agreed – while Jesse’s house had been sitting empty and dark for months, he went back to it every night now, and no one ever saw anyone else but him cross the threshold.

In some other world, she thinks some part of herself would have been happy not to have to deal with their public displays of affection anymore.

She’s pretty sure that part of herself stayed in that forest.

Chapter Text

“Anything else to report?”

Ellie shakes her head. “Nope. No sign of Infected or humans anywhere on the route.”

Tommy nods as he scribbles down Ellie’s comments on the map spread out on the table in front of him, next to the spot she had pointed at. There was an old house there, overrun with moss and climbing plants and weeds and some other shit she couldn’t even begin to try to identify, but it also had an old military-style bunker built underneath it that could be used as a safe-house or a shelter on patrols or supply runs. She had stumbled upon it with Chuck on their last patrol, and since it was almost time to switch up their routes again – Tommy was careful not to use the same ones for too long – they had reported the discovery back to him as soon as they had returned.

Tommy looks like he’s aged five years since his father-in-law’s injury. With Leonard out of order, and Maria caring for her father as he recovers, trying to keep Mikey from crawling all over the place and eight months into a difficult second pregnancy, he had taken on all the duties the older man had been handling before. That included coordinating all the patrol rounds, and keeping track of the food supplies and the repairs on the walls and around town, in addition to his own tasks of supervising the operation of the hydroelectric plant and organizing the watch shifts. In short, Joel’s brother hardly ever went home anymore and scarcely slept at all. His bloodshot eyes have dark circles under them and she sees him massage his temples more often than she’s ever seen him before – headaches, if she had to guess, though she never heard him complain about it. Effectively being in charge of everything around Jackson was not agreeing with him in any way.

Of course, Joel had tried to take some of the load off his shoulders, but the younger brother had blatantly refused the offer, at least at first. She was beginning to think their pride was a family trait rather than an individual one. It took a lot of coaxing, and arguing, on Joel’s part to convince him to let him help, if, and only if, Leonard still wasn’t back on his feet by the time Maria gave birth.

There’s about a 50/50 chance of Tommy doing as he pleases anyway, Ellie thinks.

When it becomes clear that he is deep in thought and has no more questions for her, Ellie turns on her heels and slips out the door as quietly as she can. After six days of sleeping on the hard ground with only her ratty old blanket to keep the roots and rocks from digging into her back, and never shutting her eyes for more than a few hours of restless sleep, she’s just about to shoot the next person that delays her reunion with her shower and her soft bed.

“Ellie?”

She freezes with one foot out the door. Ellie barely manages to hold back a groan of exasperation from escaping her lips, but she can’t stop the eye-roll she does almost as a habit. Apparently, she hadn’t been quiet enough. “Yeah?”

Tommy walks around his table, leaving the mess of homemade maps and jumbled up piles of hastily scribbled notes behind.

“It’s your first patrol since…”

“Since Leonard got injured,” Ellie cuts him, impatient. “Yeah, I’m aware. What about it?”

Tommy raises an eyebrow at her sudden snappiness, but otherwise doesn’t react to it. Guess he got used to it by now.

“You okay? Lots of difficult patrols in very little time.”

Just put the gun down!

You told Chuck, but you didn’t tell me.

She wasn’t safe, she was bitten.

Ellie blinks herself out of her memories. “Just peachy.”

“Joel’s worried about you,” Tommy continues, grabbing a hold of her wrist as she turns to try to leave once more. “We all are.”

Ellie wiggles her arm free of her uncle’s grasp. “I’m fine.”

She isn’t, not by a long shot, but he doesn’t need to know that. No one does.

That night, she doesn’t bother putting on her sleeping t-shirt and shorts before falling into bed, little droplets of water from her shower still rolling down her skin.

She’s asleep before her head hits the pillow.

***

Ellie wipes the sweat off her brow with the backside of her hand, and the motion leaves a smudge of dirt in its place instead. The mid-June sun is unapologetically burning the skin of her face, shoulders and arms, and there is not even some semblance of wind to attenuate the suffocating heat.

Worst of all, it had been raining the night before, so much so that she and Chuck found themselves up to their ankles in smelly mud – and quite frankly, quite a bit of cow shit, though Ellie prefers not to think about it too much – as they slave away under the scathing sun, trying to repair one of the fences surrounding the farmlands on the south side of town. Seemingly never-ending pastures stood in place of the decrepit houses that had occupied the place until they had torn them down last year. Only the concrete foundations remained now.

Before that, the livestock had been kept in enclosed farmlands outside the gates, but an onslaught of coyote attacks that had killed nearly half of the animals had forced Leonard to find a better housing solution. Since no one used any the residences on the south side of the settlement, as they had all been heavily water-damaged in the time between the Outbreak and Leonard deciding to settle a community, it had been turned into pastures where cows and goats and sheep and horses roamed about freely.

Fixing the fences is repetitive work, and so, as she gets into the rhythm of the task, her mind inevitably wanders away.

Ellie had imagined telling her friends about her bite more times than she was able to count, or even remember. Mostly in the dead of the night, when she could not sleep, or those nights where she would wake up in cold sweat as she dreamt that she was back at that mall in Boston. Back with Riley – happy, hopeful, until she inevitably turned as Ellie watched, helplessly. Back when everything was so much simpler.

Those nights, she’d stare up at the ceiling until the birds started singing outside her window and the first shy rays of sunlight broke through the darkness of the night. She’d spend hours letting her mind wander, and it went everywhere she did not allow it to go during any other moment.

How different her life would have been if she had never been bitten. If Riley had been the one immune and not her. If Marlene hadn’t been injured in the Boston QZ, if she’d never been entrusted into Joel’s care, if he had died somewhere along the way.

How different it would be now if she’d only trusted her friends enough to tell them the truth.

It was much too late to change any of it now, she knew.

Dina hadn’t talked to her at all since their return from patrol, seven weeks ago, and neither had Jesse. Simon was still blissfully unaware of anything, putting any tensions he felt between his three friends on Jesse and Dina’s recent break-up, and Ellie being caught in the middle of it.

Those nights, alone in the dark, she wishes she could go back in time and do it all differently.

She would tell Dina the truth the moment the older girl stepped foot in the library looking for that book on gardening. She would tell Jesse as soon as he walked through the door of the old Church where she had first seen him, she’d tell Simon during their first conversation, under that tree.

Hell, she’d walk through the gates of Jackson screaming it at the top of her lungs if she could, caution be damned.

Anything would be better than being ignored by two of the people she cared most about it this fucked up world.

“Heads up!”

By the time Ellie looks up, the pebble has already hit her square in the middle of the forehead. It doesn’t hurt, just annoys her, and effectively snaps her out of her reverie.

Her eyes find Chuck, some twenty feet away from her, crouched down near one of the crooked fence poles he was in the process of straightening. His face is apologetic, like he can’t believe he just threw a fucking rock at a seventeen-year-old’s face. “What the fuck was that for?”

“What the fuck’s wrong with your reflexes?” he asks in return without missing a beat, his blue eyes looking at her in concern, half-hidden behind the thick frame of his glasses. “Two months ago a goddamn worm couldn’t have crawled past you without you knowing, and now I warn you I’m going to throw a rock at your face, and you let it hit you right in between your eyes!”

He looks at her face as if it is the first time he is seeing it and, much like the first time he’s stared at her this way, Ellie feels more like he’s looking through her than at her.

“Fuck off, Chuck.”

Ellie brushes the dirt from her knees. Chuck keeps silent as she rises to her feet, but she feels his gaze burn into her back while she gives her section of the fence a good shake to make sure it is sturdy enough. When she starts ripping nails out of the damp wood of the next damaged section, the tattooed man finally goes back to work without speaking the question she knows he had been itching to ask.

She doesn’t fool herself into thinking she can escape his curiosity much longer, but she’s glad for his silence, however long it’ll last.

The sun burns her exposed shoulders where she rolled the sleeves of her shirt until it looked like a tank top, and she knows it’ll sting come tomorrow morning, but for now anything that diminishes the blistering heat they are subjected to sounds good to her.

She’s almost done with her last section, the sun high in the sky and her stomach growling in hunger, when she hears Chuck stop working behind her. She doesn’t have to turn around to know he’s observing her. “Just spit it out already.”

If Chuck is startled, he doesn’t show it. “What happened on that patrol?”

She had told him only the essential when she had asked him to do her second tattoo to cover up her newest bite – that the four of them had gotten into a fight with a bunch of Infected, that Leonard had been injured and that she had been bitten again. He must’ve deduced by her brooding expression that he wouldn’t get any more information from her the night she asked for the tattoo, and he never asked about it over the two sessions it took to get the wolf design from his workbook’s pages to her skin.

“Fucker bit me,” Ellie said simply. She shoves her tools in the red toolbox by Chuck’s feet, ready to leave, but he makes no move to head back to his house.

He looks at her expectantly. “I knew that, smartass.”

“What more do you want then?”

“For you to stop sulking all the time would be a good start,” he says, his words devoid of any animosity despite the accusing nature of the words.

“I’m not sulking.”

“And I’m six foot two.”

“Screw you.”

She shuts the toolbox’s lid and grabs the handle after making sure that they left none of their borrowed equipment behind, annoyed as all hell.

Between stumbling into bed for a few hours of deep, dreamless sleep and then getting up at the ass crack of dawn to head out to the pastures before it got too hot in the fields, her patience is growing thinner by the second.

“Ellie.”

She feels the fleeting touch of Chuck’s hand on her shoulder applying just enough pressure to let her know he wants her to stay, but not enough to make her feel trapped or startle her. Not that it takes much to startle her lately, anyway.

He’s standing an arm’s length away, in the shade from the lone birch tree standing tall and proud. His skin is red, and sweaty, as is hers, and the bags under his eyes rival her own. Suddenly, she feels awful for snapping at him for no reason – he’s probably just as exhausted as she is.

“What?”

“I don’t know what happened on that patrol,” Chuck starts. She’s about to give him the same answer as before, but he holds up his hand to stop her and she bites the words back, even though she strongly considers turning right the fuck back to where she was headed and storming off. “And if you don’t want to tell me, that’s fine. But god fucking damn it, get your shit in order. You three are driving me insane with your cold-shouldering and your brooding.”

She wants to yell at him. What she does with her time is none of his fucking business, but her mind can’t decide between shouting or straight up punching his glasses in, so she just stays there frozen with her lips slightly parted in an unspoken tirade instead.

He pays no mind to the seething look she sends his way, or the way her fist shakes against her thigh as he takes the toolbox from her grasp – though if the tremor in her fingers is from anger or confusion or sadness, she couldn’t say. Somehow, she thinks she feels all of those emotions at once, all the time.

It’s horrible.

“I don’t know how,” she finally says.

Chuck leans against the fence post, leaning the toolbox against his leg. “Do you want my advice?”

She nods. Not for the first time, she notices him rubbing at the date tattooed on his wrist, much in the same way she strokes the moth and fern leaves inked on her arm. No, she realises with a start, not like my tattoo – like Riley’s tags.

His fingers brush the inked date the same way her fingers brush against the cold metal that rests against her chest, close to her heart. Like a man lost in the memories of happier times, long passed but never forgotten.

Like a man whose life had crumbled before his eyes, and who needed a constant reminder of who he used to be.

Like someone who could never quite let go of the past.

Much like her.

“Put aside your pride. It’s not going to help you in this shit world, but friendship is, and whatever it is you did, it’s not worth being alone and angry.” His fingers swipe over the numbers one last time before he shoves his hands deep into his pockets. “Trust me. You don’t want to wake up one day and realise you’ve missed your chance to take it back before its too late.”

Chuck might be standing in front of her, all flaming hair and blue eyes, but it’s Dina’s voice she hears in her head.

You didn’t tell us.

She feels awful all over again.

Because it’s true – she consciously decided to keep part of who she was from her friends.

Because she can’t see either Dina or Jesse talking to her anytime soon. She knows if it was the other way around, she’d have a hard time getting past it.

Because she doesn’t know how to show them how sorry she is.

Ellie bites her lips so hard she tastes the blood on her tongue.

“I don’t think I’d be able to forgive myself for what I did.”

Her confession is barely over a whisper.

Chuck hears it as clearly as if she’d been screaming at the top of her lungs.

“It doesn’t matter if you can’t, it only matters that the people you care about do, don’t you think?”

“What if they can’t?”

Chuck’s fingers twitch in his pocket, and Ellie can only assume it’s because they’re itching to go back to his tattoo.

“Then at least you’ll get to sleep knowing you’ve done all you can to make it right,” he says. His eyes are focused on something behind her, something she can’t see. “I think that’s better than wondering for the rest of your life if you could have done some things differently.”

***

She can’t sleep.

It’s the dead of night, the whole community is silent, asleep, and she can’t find a way to drift off.

Chuck’s words are still ringing in her ears, like a song stuck in her head, repeating itself over and over again until she can’t think of anything else.

They’re all she hears as she rolls out of bed and puts on a clean set of clothes. They’re her only company as her feet drag her all the way across town to the familiar house with the blue door and windowsills, moving like a shadow in a ghost town.

She’s never done this before. It’s always been Dina seeking her out in the middle of the night, never her, but it’s been weeks without so much as a greeting and the radio silence is slowly eating at her.

She can’t take it anymore.

Ellie knocks on the door. Once, twice, three times, until she sees the soft light of the lamp on Dina’s bedside table shine faintly behind the closed curtains signaling that she’s awake now. Her heart is pounding against her ribcage, but her mind is empty, save for Chuck’s words of advice, and when the front door swings open to reveal a disheveled Dina rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, she still hasn’t decided what she’s going to say.

For a moment, all she sees in the girl’s eyes is worry, most likely over what catastrophe brought her all the way over here in the middle of the night.

Then it is replaced with her newfound blank expression she’s never seen her use with anyone else before and it feels as though her breath has been knocked out of her.

“Ellie.”

Her voice is cold and hard and it sounds almost foreign to Ellie’s ears, like it’s not really her friend talking but a stranger.

“Hi,” she breathes out, unable to say anything else that would make sense right now.

Dina leans against the doorframe, her face blank. “What are you doing here?”

“I want to talk.”

The words come out of her mouth just fine, but she feels as if her tongue is twice its normal size in her mouth.

“I don’t.”

It’s only Ellie’s quick reflexes that keep the door from slamming shut in her face. That, and her feet sliding between the frame and the panel at the last second.

“Just hear me out, please!” Ellie pleads. Dina’s holding the door shut, so she can’t see her face, but she can imagine the look of annoyance painted on her features. She’s seen it enough times directed at someone else, but never her.

“I don’t owe you anything.”

“But I do,” she says, ignoring the throbbing in her foot from where it is still trapped, afraid she’ll be left talking to a piece of wood in the middle of the night if she moves it. “I owe you an apology, at least. A real one.”

The pressure on her foot loosens a little and she can’t help but think this is the closest she’ll get to an invitation to speak tonight.

There is a silence the other side of the door.

“You never apologize to people,” Dina says, sounding genuinely surprised, and it feels so good to hear something other than disdain or plain dislike that Ellie almost forgets to speak.

Almost.

“I’ve never felt like I’ve had a reason to before.”

The door creaks open and Dina appears behind it. Her arms are crossed over her chest and her eyes are trained on hers, demanding the apology she was just promised.

Ellie’s not going to waste her chance.

The words spill out of her mouth like the dam that had been holding them back for weeks just burst from the pressure.

“I fucked up. I should have known better than to keep things from you and Jesse, and I should have trusted you more. I’m so, so sorry for what I did.”

The only answer from Dina is silence. Behind Ellie, the crickets chirping in the distance is louder than usual, or maybe it’s just that her silence is just that more deafening.

“I never meant to make you feel like I didn’t trust you,” she continues, her voice hushed and shaky. “You’re one of the people I trust most in this world. It’s just that I didn’t want to get close to anyone when I first got here, and then we became friends and I wanted to tell you but I didn’t know how. And the more time went by, the more guilty I felt for keeping it from you. I didn’t know how to bring it up after all this time without you resenting me.”

Dina’s arms fall to her sides, sliding into the back pockets of the jeans shorts she probably just threw on to answer the door, and her face softens just the slightest bit, so Ellie continues, knowing she has her full attention now and might never get it like this again.

“I was afraid of you rejecting me for being Infected, and it was easier to pretend I was just like everyone than to face that possibility.”

“Aren’t you afraid of someone hearing you?”

Dina’s voice stops her before she can jump back into her speech, as does the realisation that she’s been stating loudly her Infected status for all of Dina’s neighbours to hear, in the dead of the night when there is no sound loud enough to drown out her voice.

“Yes,” she answers simply, truthfully, “but I’m tired of hiding it, and if that’s what it takes for you to talk to me again, then I’ll shout it from the rooftops in a heartbeat.”

Dina looks at her like she’s grown a third head. The moon is reflected in her eyes, a small dot of light in her otherwise dark irises, and she still has marks on her face from her pillow.

She has no right to be that beautiful and that mad at her at the same time.

“I’m not asking for that,” she starts, and Ellie might be mistaken, but she thinks she hears the tiniest hint of annoyance in her voice. Still, even if it is, it’s the first time she’s expressed an emotion other than disdain or indifference for her in seven weeks, and she’ll take it any day. “I’m asking for you to put yourself in my shoes. I thought we were close enough for you to tell me shit like this, but apparently, we weren’t. How do you think that felt, Ellie?”

“I’m sorry.”

“I don’t care how sorry you are,” she spits out, and the fiery Dina she knows is back with a vengeance. The older girl grabs the collar of her flannel shirt and pulls her inside, closing the door so hard it makes the very walls of her home shake as Ellie stumbles in her living room. Then Dina turns back around, and Ellie takes a step back. Maybe being dragged inside wasn’t such a good thing after all.

Ellie’s throat tightens at the sound of her nickname.

Dina steps forward and she crosses her arms over her chest once more. It could be the fact that her hair looks like she got struck by lightening, or the fact that her eyes are just about to burn her alive where she stands, but Ellie’s afraid.

She’s afraid of what she’ll say, afraid of what she’ll do, but most of all, she’s afraid of losing their friendship over this. At least, if it all goes to shit now, she’ll know where she stands, as opposed to the uncertainty she’s been stuck in for the past weeks.

“It hurt. How do I know you won’t do it again? How many more secrets are you keeping to yourself, Freckles?”

Ellie gulps. Too many.

“I don’t want to hide things from you anymore,” Ellie says, and it comes out as more of a plea than a statement. “Whatever it is you want to know, just ask me.”

It was the wrong thing to say, apparently. Dina explodes. “Do you think it makes everything better? That you telling me things now will erase the fact that you kept the fact that you are fucking immune from me for two fucking years? It’s not that easy!”

She punctuates every sentence by shoving her backwards until the back of Ellie’s knees hit the couch and she falls backwards into the cushions. She’s left to stare up at her friend from her spot while she figures out what to do.

“Then tell me how to fix this, because I have no fucking idea what to do anymore!” Ellie didn’t mean to yell, but it takes Dina by surprise long enough for her to keep going before she gets a chance to scream at her some more. “I tried giving you your space, I tried apologizing, and it’s getting nowhere, and I’m miserable! So please, please, tell me what to do.”

Dina’s voice is ice cold when she answers – Ellie almost wishes she’d start shouting again.

You’re miserable?” she seethes, her jaw clenched. “What about me? Do you think I’m enjoying this?”

She paces the length of her living room as she speaks, her eyes pointedly not looking at her as she does so.

“Of course not, I…”

“Just be quiet, will you?”

Ellie’s mouth stills, half-formed words still on her lips, but she keeps quiet.

Dina stops her pacing to face her. “I’m just as miserable as you are. If you hadn’t kept that bite mark from us, Jesse wouldn’t have tried to shoot you. And I wouldn’t have broken up with him over it.”

“You broke up with him because he tried to shoot me?” Ellie asks, all previous agreement of keeping her mouth shut already forgotten.

“That, and other things. We had a different way of seeing things, and it just wouldn’t have worked out. The shooting you thing was just the last straw.”

They stare at each other in silence. Dina’s breathing hard, like all the yelling had used all the air her lungs could hold, and Ellie’s fidgeting with the chain of the Firefly tags on her neck. Her hands are shaking. Outside, the crickets are still chirping, their song unchanged after the shouting match they had just witnessed.

“What do you want to know?” Ellie asks again, softer this time. “I know it won’t make any of what happened better, but I don’t want to feel like I’m hiding things anymore.”

Dina nods. She sits on the rug in front of the couch, cross-legged with her hands resting on her thighs. “Who’s Joel? He’s not really your dad, is he?”

Ellie shakes her head. “Some guy the leader of the Fireflies trusted enough to smuggle me out of Boston, after I was bitten. She got injured, and she needed someone to take me outside of the city walls to the Capitol building so one of her teams could pick me up and bring me to Salt Lake City. When we got there, her team had been shot, and we’ve been travelling together ever since. Joel thought it would be safer for people to think we were related than to let them ask questions about how we came across each other.”

“Not such a stupid thing to do,” Dina comments, bringing her knees up to her chin. “Why do you hate winter so much?”

Ellie gulps. Even with Joel, she tries to avoid speaking of what happened in the time she had to care for them both as much as possible. Can’t go back on that being honest thing now.

“So?”

“Joel got impaled on a rebar,” Ellie whispers. “I had to make sure we survived, because he was unconscious and feverish for weeks. I met this guy, David, when I was out hunting. He offered me shelter and traded me the deer in exchange for antibiotics. I was stupid enough to trust him, and it backfired. He kept me prisoner at his camp, that’s when I learned who him and his guys truly were – cannibals. Tried to kill me, but I got him first. Everytime I see snow, I see that ski resort. I see his stupid, dead face.”

Just saying his name leaves a horrible taste in her mouth. Even though it’s a very, very basic rundown of what transpired then, Dina doesn’t press the issue further. Ellie’s hands are still shaking and she can’t get them to stop.

“Who’s Riley?”

“My friend from back in Boston who got bitten. You already know that.”

“I meant, who was Riley? You told me he died, but you’re still wearing his tags to this day. Must have been someone special for you to hang on to that through everything.”

She seems to have calmed down a bit. It makes Ellie feel more peaceful than she has in weeks.

Maybe that’s why she corrects her this time.

“She.”

“What?”

Ellie looks into Dina’s confused eyes. There’s no way to back up now, but she wouldn’t even if she could. She said she was going to be honest and answer all the questions Dina had.

“Riley was a girl,” she confesses, waiting for a reaction of some kind. It never comes.

Dina simply looks at her, head cocked to the side. “That’s why you never used any pronouns when talking about her.”

“Yeah. You assumed she was a guy at that party, when we were playing that drinking game, and I never bothered to correct you. I should have.”

The older girl is pensive, her chin resting on her knees and her eyes going back and forth over the features of Ellie’s face. “You like girls.”

“Yep.”

“Is it only girls?”

“I’d say dicks aren’t really my thing, so yeah.”

Dina cringes. “So that date I set you up on with Simon…”

Ellie smiles. “Would have worked out much better if he had boobs and a vagina, I assume.”  

They talk for a while longer. More accurately, Ellie speaks, and Dina mostly listens, which is a complete reversal of their usual roles.

The sun is rising when Dina sends her away.

Chuck was right. At least now, she can sleep, because whatever happens now, she’ll have done all in her power to fix things with Dina.

***

She doesn’t see Dina at all over the next week, nor does she see Jesse anywhere during that time.

One day, she’s sitting on her usual chair, at her usual spot on the watchtower, when she hears someone climbing up the ladder behind her. She doesn’t turn around. “You sure that ladder can support you weight?”

“You’re hurting my feelings, Freckles.”

That gets her to turn around so fast it makes her head spin, because it isn’t Chuck’s booming voice coming from behind her, but Dina’s soft one.

She’s just standing there near the ladder, a basket at her feet and a riffle slung over her shoulder. Her hair is up in its usual bun, with a few runaway strands escaping the confines of the hairband and coming down in soft curls to frame her flushed face.

With the last rays of the setting sun fading away behind her, she looks like one of those Greek goddesses that she read about, if they owned firearms and cowboy boots.

“I took Chuck’s shift tonight,” she says as if it was an everyday thing. She sits on the empty chair beside Ellie’s, whose mouth is still hanging open. “Are you hungry? I brought leftovers.”

She pulls out a sandwich wrapped in tinfoil out of the basket and hands it to Ellie, who accepts gratefully. They eat in silence, staring at the tree line and, occasionally, each other when the other one isn’t looking.

“I’d wait until Jesse comes to you to apologize,” Dina advises through a mouthful of chicken. “He does things at his own pace, and this really fucked him up good. Might take a while.”

Ellie nods vigorously. “And us? Does this mean we’re okay?”

“Not yet,” Dina says, staring out into the wilderness as night sets around them. “But we’ll be.”

That’s all Ellie needs to hear for now.

Chapter Text

There is something familiar about the way the sun sets behind the tree line, something comforting about its very last rays shining bindingly into Ellie’s eyes. It feels like forever ago when she was foolishly wishing for something, anything, to happen during her watch shifts, but now, she’s just thankful that another seven hours went by without all hell breaking loose.

Well, almost.

“How much time left?”

Dina’s voice pulls her away from her thoughts.

“20 minutes,” Ellie mumbles. She uncomfortably shifts in her chair for what seems like the millionth time today – she definitely isn’t built to quietly sit still for hours upon hours like this.

Dina leans back against her chair, letting a long sigh escape her lips. With the setting sun behind her, it makes her eyes shine just a little brighter than usual as she takes a long look over the never-ending scene of trees and bushes and creeks, and Ellie finds herself staring at her just a little longer than usual.

“I can’t wait to get out of here,” Dina confesses. She keeps her voice low, and her eyes trained on the horizon like they were taught to, but Ellie knows somehow that she’s taking to her, and not to herself.

Ellie smiles. “Got big plans tonight?”

Dina nods. “Of course. And so do you, by the way.”

“I… what, now?”

Dina finally tears her gaze away from the wilderness. A smile tugs at her lips, and Ellie notices – not for the first time – how it makes tiny wrinkles appear at the corner of her eyes.  “We’re watching a movie tonight.”

The leaves on a tree rustle in the distance. Ellie stares in the general direction of the movement for a few seconds, until she sees the grey squirrel that caused it climb up the trunk like the devil itself was after it. Satisfied that no Infected is going to come out of the woods – at least not right this moment – she turns back to her still-smirking friend.

“I’m sorry, when did we make those plans?”

“Probably sometime between now and thirty seconds ago.”

“We weren’t even talking!”

Dina leans forward, so close to Ellie’s seat that she can smell that soap of hers despite the wind blowing her hair away. “Ellie, dear, I make the decisions, and you follow. You should know that by now.”

Ellie smiles, feeling the burn spread up the nape of her neck and sinking deeper into the shadows created by the setting sun to hide it. Dina wasn’t wrong. She wasn’t one for arguing with her friend’s plans, especially after the whole Infected-status-reveal fiasco made her feel like their friendship was hanging by a thread.

“I’m busy tonight.”

“You’re babysitting Joel?”

“No.”

“Joel’s babysitting you?”

“Screw you!”

Ellie shoves Dina away, unable to keep her own smile from stretching her lips. She had missed all this, the playful banter and the comfortable silence alike.

Behind them, the sound of the ladder’s steps creaking as someone climbs up to their level breaks the relative silence of the late September afternoon. “Hey, Ellie… Dina,” Tommy greets as he hoists himself up the rest of the way where the last two steps have long since broken off. He runs his hand through his hair, brushing it back out of his eyes. “Anything I should know about?”

Dina has already swung the strap of her riffle over her shoulder before Tommy was done asking his question and by the time Ellie opens her mouth to answer him, her friend is already half-way to the ladder.

“Nope.”

“Alright. Thanks for keeping an eye on Mikey tonight, Ellie, I really appreciate it.”

Dina stops in her tracks, her eyes catching Ellie’s as she turns around to look at the two of them. Ellie bites her lower lip, shifting awkwardly on her feet. Tommy looks back and forth between the two girls.

“You’re still coming over, right?”

“Yeah, of course!” Ellie stammers, finally regaining her senses.

She looks over at Dina, who just shrugs. Ellie can almost hear her say “It’s okay, Freckles, we’ll catch that movie another time” in that light-hearted, carefree intonation of hers, but it’s been literal weeks since Dina even looked remotely interested in hanging out outside of patrol rounds and watch shifts and it’s not okay, not by a long shot.

But Dina just smiles, gives a mock salute to Tommy, and disappears down the hatch as noiselessly as a cat.

Ellie lets out an involuntary sigh.

Tommy stares at her, his blue eyes scanning her face. “Did I screw up your plans?”

Ellie rises from her seat and he takes it, bringing it closer to the edge of the railings so he can get a better look at the surroundings. On day shifts, it didn’t really matter where you put your chair so long as the sun was not shining in your eyes, but on night shifts you’d better pray for a clear night and move your chair as close to the tree line as possible unless you wanted to leave your post the next morning with a headache born from squinting too hard to make out any shape at all in the darkness.

“Nah, I didn’t know I had plans until about three minutes ago, don’t worry about it,” Ellie offers, sliding the strap of the riffle off her shoulder and handing the weapon to her adoptive uncle. “Dina wanted to watch a movie tonight.”

“Oh. Sorry, kid.”

Ellie shrugs, noticing not for the first time how alike Joel and his brother sounded, despite having spent years apart and even longer away from Texas – the same accent, the same habit of grunting instead of replying with actual words, the same way of overusing y’all. The only difference was how little Joel spoke compared to his brother. “I’m spending the night with my favourite nephew, it’s not like I’ll be sulking at home.”

“Mikey’s only your favorite because the other one isn’t born yet.”

Ellie smirks, remembering how close Maria was to giving birth to the couple’s second child, and winks. “Then I’ll have two favorites.”

Tommy grins in response. “Good.”

She pulls at the cuffs of her sleeves, trying to cover as much skin as possible. The nights were already getting cooler – soon, it would get even colder, and then the leaves would fall and before they knew it, the town would be covered in snow from depths of the unused stone well by the stables to the top of the old church tower.

Ellie shivers just thinking about it.

“You know,” Tommy mumbles, his voice barely audible over the wind steadily blowing around them,” you guys could watch one at my place, I think we have an old DVD player in the basement. Don’t have many movies though.”

“You’d be okay with that?”

“Sure! You’re babysitting my kid all night, it’s the least I can do. Besides, the kid will probably be out cold before you get to my place, anyway.”

Ellie looked around, suddenly curious. “Speaking of the kid, where the hell’s Michael?”

“With Chuck, in the map room. He’ll come up once you get your lazy ass downstairs. Go on.”

Ellie doesn’t need to be told twice.

It turns out that Tommy was wrong about Chuck keeping an eye on the baby, as Ellie found out pretty quickly, for she almost landed on the tattooed red-haired man as she was sliding down the ladder.

“Good lord, Ellie, you should come with a warning label. May fall out of the ceiling at any given moment painted on your forehead would suit you. I could arrange something.”

Ellie raises an eyebrow. “Don’t you think I have enough of your work on me as it is?”

Chuck laughs, the sound seemingly bouncing off the walls and coming back to Ellie even louder than it had started out. That was one of the many things she liked about the man – everything about him was so unapologetically honest, from his laugh to the words he spoke, even how he looked at the people he talked to daily. With Chuck, there was no hidden agenda, no secret plans, just sincere blue eyes hidden behind crooked old black-rimmed glasses, and an extended hand waiting to help out any time it was needed.

“If you’re looking for someone to agree with you, you’re speaking to the wrong guy,” Chuck smiles, looking down briefly at his tattooed forearms. “What’s got you in such a rush anyway?”

“Trying to catch Dina before she vanishes. Have you seen her?”

The suggestive wiggling of his eyebrows makes Chuck’s glasses slide down the bridge of his nose.

“So, Dina, huh? My, oh my, little Ellie’s got big plans tonight!” Chuck ducks just in time to avoid getting slapped behind the head, laughing all the while, and the more he laughs, the redder Ellie feels her cheeks turn. He shakes his head, and the motion makes the raven’s wing on his neck shift like the bird is about to take flight from where it is tattooed on his chest and neck. “I’m just messing with you, kid. She went to the armory to drop off her riffle.”

“Thanks, Chuckie!” Ellie turns on her heels but stops in her tracks before she even takes two steps away. “Chuck? Where the hell’s Mikey? I though he was supposed to be with you.”

The man climbs up the first steps of the ladder as he answers. “With Dina. Oh, and Ellie? Don’t ever call me Chuckie again.”

“Whatever you say, Chuckles!”

Chuck’s laughter follows her long after he climbed up and she lost sight of the man.

The armory isn’t too far away from the watch tower she had just left, barely a 30 seconds walk, but with Ellie’s mind racing in anticipation, it feels like a much longer journey.

Get a grip on yourself. You’re just asking her to come babysit your nephew with you, why are you like this?

Her hands should not be this sweaty, nor should her heart be racing this fast.

The door to the armory was ajar and if the sing-song laughter escaping from the building didn’t confirm without the shadow of a doubt that Dina was within its walls, the wide-open door plainly stated it. By now, Ellie could swear her friend was physically incapable of shutting a door or washing dishes as soon as they needed to be done.

As she got closer, a second laugh reached Ellie’s ears, an out of control giggle blending seamlessly with the one she knew belonged to Dina. Little Michael was on the floor of the armory, flat on his belly in the middle of the pile of blankets they were keeping for patrol packs. Every time he would manage to crawl out of there, Dina, on her knees on the dusty floorboards, would pick him up and drop him right back into the pile, and he’d giggle some more.

Ellie didn’t know how long she stood in the doorway for, but eventually, Dina kept Michael in her arms instead of putting him back in the blankets and came to stand before her.

“Hey, you,” Dina said, avoiding Michael’s fingers as they were headed for her mouth. “Took you long enough. Little Michael was getting worried.”

Mikey reached up and grabbed a fistful of Dina’s hair, yanking it out of her bun. “Almost fell on Chuck going down the ladder.”

“Were you sliding down the ladder again, by any chance?”

“Maybe.”

Michael turned his head to her at the sound of her voice and flashed her a mostly still-toothless smile that made little dimples appear in his chubby cheeks. “Li!”

Ellie can’t help but smile. The little guy hadn’t mastered the first syllable of her name yet, despite her numerous attempts at teaching him over the past few months. The 18 month-old lost all interest in trying to climb up Dina’s bun by holding on to her hair and instead reached out his arms toward his cousin, half his body dangling mid-air in that fearless abandon that only babies have.

“Hey there, Mikey-boy!” Ellie grins as she picks up her honorary cousin. Every time she looked at him, lately, she found him to be just a little bigger than the time before. He started to look more like a little boy now, and less like a baby, though the chubbiness of his face didn’t seem to be fading any time soon. He sure seems heavier than the first time Tommy had shoved him in her arms and told her to watch him for a while. “How’s my little trouble-maker?”

Of course, he didn’t answer, but he smiles wider and pulls at the runaway strand of hair that keeps falling into her eyes. That was as good an answer as she was going to get from the eighteen-month-old, by any stretch of the imagination.

She looks up at Dina to notice her just staring back at her, silent, with a small smile on her lips. “What?”

“You’re good with him,” she states, simply.

“He can spend hours looking at wooden blocks, it’s not like I have to be exceptionally entertaining for him to like me,” Ellie shrugs. She hoists Mikey a little higher on her hip – yeah, he’s definitely gotten heavier since her last babysitting stint.

How long had it been since then? A month? Six weeks? Who could tell? Lately, all her time was spent between watch shifts, patrols and getting the settlement ready for the upcoming winter, with a few hours here and there where she would collapse in her bed in sheer exhaustion.

Dina straightens the riffle in the locker behind her, then closes the door over it. The sound rings out in the room for what seems like forever. “Have a nice night, Freckles. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

She makes for the door behind Ellie, zipping up her jacket as she passes her by. “Dina, wait!”

She stops down the steps outside, in the middle of what used to be a street but was little more than a beaten path now – she knows it leads to Dina’s home. Ellie catches up, Mikey still tugging at her lower lip, amused to no end, making sure to shut the door behind her with her free arm.

“Come to Tommy’s with me,” she blurts out.

Dina turns around, a sincere smile on her face that manages to lighten even her eyes in amusement. “You have really shitty date ideas, Ellie dear.”

“Not as a date,” Ellie stammers, her cheeks and neck reddening. “Just… You wanted us to watch a movie, and Mikey will be out like a light before long anyway, so I just thought…”

Ellie trails off as she stares at Dina’s unreadable face. Nothing about her demeanor suggests she’s agreeing to it. Most of the time, she can figure out what her friend’s feeling without her having to speak. If she was scratching the side of her eyebrow close to her temple with her index before answering, almost everytime she would be disagreeing with whatever she was being told but was looking for a polite way to say it. If she was biting her lower lip, chances were a sarcastic comment was to follow soon after. If she was tugging at the baby hairs at the nape of her neck, she was upset.

Not today. Today, she was as unreadable to her as what remained of the stone statues in the church.

But then she smiles once more, and it’s suddenly not as bad, and the sense of dread that made itself home deep in Ellie’s gut lightens just enough to help her breathe right again.

“Sounds like a plan. I’ll meet you there in a little while?”

“Yeah, sure!”

Even if she had wanted to, Ellie doesn’t think she could have come up with a more thought-out response. Dina turns on her heels and the strands of hair that Mikey loosened from her normally tight bun fly behind her as she walks away, hair blowing in the evening wind.

Get your head out of your ass.

Ellie turns her attention back to Michael, cooing and stringing along whatever few words he knew in a senseless sentence.

“What do you think, Mikey-boy? She’s forgiven me yet?”

For a moment, as the baby looks up to her with his pale blue eyes, so like his fathers’, she swears he’s about to launch himself right into a motivational speech, but Michael just smiles his gummy, mostly toothless grin, and blows a spit bubble in response.

“Li!”

Ellie can’t help but smile right back at him. “You’re no help at all, you know that?”

***

As Tommy had predicted, it doesn’t take long for Michael to start nodding off – roughly half-way through his bath, and Ellie has to hold him up as she finishes rinsing him. She doesn’t even get to step foot in his room before he’s sucking his thumb, struggling to keep his eyes open, and he’s off to dreamland before she can set him down in his crib.

It takes far longer for her to track down the DVD player that Tommy mentioned having in his basement than it did bathing a squirming, uncooperative baby, for some reason. The basement of the house Tommy and Maria lived in was basically a cemetery of clothes, toys, technology and other relics from before the Outbreak. Ellie had no idea what the purpose of most of the things she saw down there was, and some of them she knew were next to useless now – like the coffee machine Joel had spent a fair amount of time ogling when he had first found it, grumbling about how homemade tea had nothing on a good, steaming mug of coffee.

Coffee beans didn’t grow in the states, he’d told her, and so there was no way to brew a cup now, even if he had the machine handy.

By the time Dina finally showed up, some time later, Ellie had managed to track down the player in a slightly damp cardboard box, along with a bunch of wires that were as tangled as her hair after a long patrol.

Finding them, it turned out, was not the easy part – finding the right ones and plugging them into the player and the TV was.

“Joel told me that people used to have whole rooms for these,” Ellie grumbled. “TVs, and speakers, and game systems, and DVD players. How they didn’t accidentally hang themselves with one of the wires is beyond me.”

Dina broke out in laughter. To be fair, she must have made for quite the sight – sitting cross-legged on the bare floor, trying her best to untangle the cables in front of her and failing with flying colors. She had long since given up on blowing the hair out of her face, and it was falling freely into her eyes and tickling her cheeks. She needed to cut it again, before it got too long.

The TV was stuck on a dark grey screen speckled with white dots that looked almost like a moving picture of a snowfall in the darkness of a winter’s night and no matter what she tried, she could not get the damn thing to show anything other than that stupid image. She’d been trying for nearly half an hour now, and still, the movie would not start.  

“Do you give up yet?” Dina teases. She’s curled up on the couch, her legs folded under her and half hidden under a thin blue blanket she had brought back from her house.

Ellie can’t help but throw down the unmanageable tangle of cables she had been holding. “No. I’ll figure this out.”

“Like, before next year?”

Dina finally gets up from her seat to join Ellie on the floor. Her usual scent of flowers is stronger than she remembered it – she realised Dina had probably taken the time to shower before coming to Tommy’s place. Michael had a bath, Dina took a shower… and I still smell like a goddamned pine tree. Wonderful, just wonderful.

She studies the device for a while, turns it over in her hand, checks that the wires are well connected to the TV and the player and that the power cord is plugged into the outlet. Finally, she sticks her ear next to the player, so close that she might as well have decided to use it as a pillow, and bursts out laughing.

“What? What’s going on?”

Ellie doesn’t know if she should be offended or embarrassed – though something tells her that it should be both at the same time – but all she manages to feel is that familiar feeling of free-falling at the sound of her friend’s laughter.

“Freckles, you forgot to start it,” she manages to say between snorts of laughter. She pushes on a button near the bottom right corner of the player, and suddenly the little screen on the front of it lit up a deep blue color and the word Hello appeared in pale grey. The TV screen went from grey and snowy to solid blue and stayed that way until both girls had to consider the possibility that they had forgotten a step somewhere along the way.

“How is this so complicated?”

“It’s not complicated, Ellie, you’re just awful at it.”

Dina stopped trying to get the stupid thing to work a while ago, and she went back to the warmth and comfort of her little cocoon of blankets and cushions from which she was quietly assessing the situation.

“Oh yeah? Let’s see you figure it out then!”

Dina rolled her eyes at her challenge, not moving from her place on the couch. “And miss you getting your ass kicked by an inanimate object? There’s not enough money in the world.”

“You’ve never used money,” is the only reply that comes out of her mouth. “Not once in your life.”

Dina shrugs. “There’s not enough whiskey in the world, then,” she corrects.

Ellie rises to her feet, smiling softly. “I guess that’s probably more accurate. I’m getting a glass of water, do you want one?”

Her friend shakes her head no, so Ellie drags herself to the kitchen to pour herself a single glass from the pitcher Tommy and Maria kept in their fridge, but as soon as she unceremoniously sinks down into the cushions her drinks is stolen from her hand.

Dina gulps down the water until there is none left but a few sorry sips.

“You could have just asked for your own glass, you know,” Ellie playfully scoffs.

The dark-haired bundle of covers looks at her. She licks her lips before handing the glass back to her, and Ellie can’t help but focus on the tiny drop of water still on her lower lip that her tongue missed. “Your drinks always taste better than mine, Freckles.”

“It’s water, how can mine possibly taste any better than the one in your glass?”

“It just does.”

Ellie’s thrown back at a time not that long ago, when they’d had the exact same conversation after Dina wouldn’t stop downing Ellie’s drinks instead of getting her own. Once she had gotten over the whole can-I-infect-people-with-my-saliva fiasco, and established that Dina would have turned into an Infected already if it was possible, she had started noticing how Dina rarely got a drink for herself, instead opting to steal Jesse’s or hers or basically anyone else’s. A few months ago, she’d asked her about it, but the older girl had simply shrugged her shoulders and stolen the glass of whiskey that was in her hand.

“I’ve missed this,” Ellie blurts out. The sun had set a while back, and the only light was the one coming from the TV and bathing the whole living room in a mystical blue color. In that light, Dina’s eyes seemed to shine brighter than ever in contrast to the surrounding darkness, and the features of her face were highlighted by the shadows, defining her cheekbones. “Not the stealing my drinks thing, but… I guess I missed things not being awkward between us.”

For a moment, the other girl stays silent. Except for the soft buzzing sound coming from the TV, the is no sound to be heard in the house.

“I’ve missed it too.”

Ellie nods. Dina’s feet nudge at her right thigh, before she feels the familiar weight of her legs coming to rest on top of hers. She places one hand on Dina’s shin and the other one on her thigh by force of habit alone.

“I want to apologize,” Dina continues, unprompted. “For how I reacted.”

“You don’t have to apo…”

Dina cuts her off before she can finish her sentence.

“No, I do. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Just… hear me out, okay?” Ellie nods, and Dina takes a deep breath before speaking again. “When I realised you were bitten, I thought… I couldn’t believe it, it just felt so unfair. And I was angry, so, so angry. Not at you, not a first… I was angry at myself for not having been able to do anything to keep it from happening.”

She pauses, but Ellie knows she isn’t done. It isn’t her place to speak now, not while every word out of Dina’s mouth sounds like it pains her to say, sounds like it weighs a thousand pounds, so she settles for giving her thigh a soft squeeze.

She wishes it would say all the things she just can’t put into words. I’m sorry. I know how you felt. I understand. I know how you feel now.

Dina continues, but her eyes aren’t on hers anymore – no, she’s staring at something that isn’t there, somewhere between them, somewhere that exists only in her memories.

“I felt useless, and I couldn’t believe that I was going to lose you, of all people. When Jesse wanted to shoot you, my head knew I should be going along with it. It was the logical choice. I knew what was going to happen: you would get a fever, and then you’d go insane, and then you’d turn and try to kill us. Killing you would have been merciful, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even bare to watch him do it. I was selfish, and I thought that if you were going to die, then I still had a few hours at least to pretend none of it had happened. A few hours to spend with you in those woods. To pretend my heart wasn’t breaking already.”

Dina’s eye snapped back to reality. Ellie could see the blue screen of the TV reflected in them, along with hurt and betrayal.

“Dina, I…”

Dina puts her hand on Ellie’s, the one resting on her thigh, and shakes her head slowly. “Let me get this out.”

There was such resolve in her eyes, she had no choice but to nod in acceptance.

“When you told us you were immune, I didn’t know what to feel. I felt so relieved, at first, but then I started wondering why you had waited so long to tell us about it. I could understand not wanting to tell Jesse, he’s not the most confession-inducing person in the world, but me? I thought we were friends. I thought we were close. And then I started thinking, and I realised that if it hadn’t been for you getting bitten, you probably wouldn’t have said anything.”

“That’s not…” Ellie caught a glimpse of Dina’s raised eyebrow and stopped her arguing short. “Right, quiet. Got it.”

“It hurt to know that, and part of me wanted to get back at you for it. I guess that’s the reason I pushed you away. It was petty, and childish. And I was wrong.”

Dina sits a little straighter on the seat. Ellie has to bite back the urge to speak again.

“You coming to see me in the middle of the night to apologize took a lot of guts, and I shouldn’t have been such a bitch about it, and I shouldn’t have made you confess all those things about you,” Dina continues. She takes a deep breath before speaking her next words. “What I want to say is, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for ignoring you, and making you feel like shit for weeks, and for having been so distant lately.”

Ellie opens and closes her mouth a few times until she feels like her lips and tongue regained the ability to make sounds. “Can I speak now?”

Dina nods. She sinks back into the cushion, away from Ellie, and the warmth of her hand leaves hers feeling awfully cold.

“I never meant to keep all those things from you,” Ellie begins, her mouth feeling like it is stuffed with straw as she speaks. “Most of the people I tried to trust turned on me at one point. Some tried to kill me. It takes time for me to trust people, and it took time for me to trust you. By the time I convinced myself you weren’t trying to stab me in the back, I didn’t know how to tell you without freaking you out. I was afraid you’d want nothing to do with me once you knew I’d been bitten. I’m sorry too.”

Dina smirks. “We both should’ve trusted each other more,” she concludes.

They stay quiet for a while, seconds, minutes, Ellie couldn’t say, but it’s not awkward like it’s been for the past weeks – it’s comfortable, and she doesn’t feel the need to fill the silence.

When she hears the light switch being flipped on, and she sees the light blindingly flooding the living room, she realises she fell asleep with her arms resting on Dina’s legs. Judging by the way her friend is squinting her eyes at the light, she was asleep too.

“Sorry about that,” Tommy says. He drops his coat on the back of one of the kitchen chairs, not bothering to pick it up after it slides to the floor, and shuffles over to the living room. “Your movie was any good?”

Ellie sneaks a glance to the blue screen.

“Great,” Dina answers, stretching like a cat over the couch and Ellie’s legs.

They may not have seen that movie, but it doesn’t matter.

Later, as they reach Ellie’s house, she hangs to Dina’s arm so she’d stop walking. “We’re okay?”

“Does this mean we’re okay?” she’d asked Dina weeks ago, when she had taken Chuck’s watch shift, shortly after Ellie’s midnight apology. “Not yet, but we’ll be,” she’d replied.

Dina smiles up at her. “Yeah, Freckles. We’re okay.” Then she leans up and hugs her, and it’s so warm Ellie could stay like this for a long time, but she settles for hugging her back, probably a little tighter than she used to before their fight.

“Good night, Ellie,” Dina whispers as she steps back, her fingers dragging along Ellie’s back and sides to come to rest in her back pockets.

“Good night, Dina,” she whispers back. Her skin tingles where Dina’s fingertips brushed against it through her clothes.

Ellie makes her way up the stairs to the porch, a smile tugging at the corner of her lips even though Dina was walking away.

This was a pretty great night, all things considered, Ellie thinks. Maybe next time we can…

And then she pushes the door, and her eyes adjust to the darkness of the house to make out the picture in front of her.

“Oh my fucking God, Joel!”

She tries her best not to see the naked man bouncing off the couch like it’s on fire, or the decidedly feminine form underneath him grabbing for the drapes – the only blanket-type object in proximity.

“Ellie!”

“Sweet Jesus, your white butt cheeks shine in the dark, man!”

“Just leave!”

Ellie slams the front door shut and stands on the porch, very still and very confused. She hears the commotion inside, muffled voices arguing, and things being knocked down, before the light turns on inside and the door swings open again, revealing a red-faced and disgruntled Joel.

“I thought you were staying at Tommy’s tonight,” he mumbles through his beard, and Ellie notices that he doesn’t quite meet her eyes when he talks to her.

“And I thought you were on patrol,” Ellie shoots back. “Who’s that?”

“None of your goddamned business.”

She takes in Joel’s appearance – dishevelled, red faced, hair stuck to his sweaty forehead. Ellie takes a step back. “You know what? I’ll crash at Dina’s tonight, think I’ll need sometime to get over the traumatic experience of seeing your naked ass.”

“Ellie, I,” he starts, but then the words die on his lips. “See you tomorrow then.”

Ellie nods and Joel ducks back inside the house, grumbling something about having to put a sock on the door of his own house. She’d have to remember to ask him what it means, later.

***

“I’m telling you, there’s no way I’ll ever get that image out of my head,” Ellie complains, shutting the door of Dina’s house behind her. “I think it’s burnt into my retinas.”

Dina giggles, all the way from her bedroom. “Pretty sure there’s worse things to see in life, Freckles.”

“It’s Joel, he’s not supposed to have a sex life.”

Dina reappears, wearing an oversized blue t-shirt riddled with holes and tears that goes down to mid-thigh. She plops herself down on her couch, careful to avoid the spring that burst through the space between the two cushions from the seat underneath them and drags Ellie down with her.

“You’d rather have him brood around the house like a sour old monk forever?”

“No, I just… don’t want to see it.”

The twinkle in Dina’s eyes betray what she’s going to say before she even opens her mouth to speak. “On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate his butt?”

To say Ellie is horrified at the thought would be an understatement.

“Dina!”

“What? He looks like he has a nice firm ass.” She keeps a straight face for barely a second before collapsing in laughter on Ellie’s shoulder, her chest and shoulders shaking as she chuckles and wheezes. “I’m just messing with you, Freckles. Your old man’s not really my type.”

“I thought any guy was your type,” Ellie teases.

Dina looks up at her, and Ellie sees her looking over her features, looking for something she can’t quite figure out. “Maybe I don’t have a type after all,” she whispers. “I’m not sure anymore.”

Dina looks like she’s going to add something, but then she closes her mouth and leans back against the backrest, sinking deep into the cushions. By now, with Dina always sitting in the same spot, the cushions wrap around her shape like she’s always belonged there.

“How about that movie?” Dina breaks the silence. Ellie jumps. She had been so deep in her own thoughts that she hadn’t realised how much time had passed but judging by the way Dina is looking at her, it must have been a while since anyone had spoken. “I don’t have one of those fancy DVD players like your uncle does, but I do have a few VHS tapes lying around.”

Ellie rises to her feet, leaving behind the warmth of the couch to kneel in front of the cabinet over which rested the little square TV Dina’s mom had salvaged from the church’s basement, years ago, when they’d first arrived in Jackson and never used once, according to her friend. It had been used as a shelf for years in their household and Dina swore that her mother still hadn’t noticed its disappearance, almost a year after her daughter had moved out and taken it with her.

Ellie had trouble believing that – Mona did not give the impression of losing track of her things – but it wasn’t worth busting the fantasy bubble Dina lived in.

“What do you want to watch?” Ellie asked, riffling through the contents of the cabinet. All the movies she saw, she had never heard about, so she had no idea what to look for.

Dina yawned. “Just pick something, Freckles.”

“Okay,” Ellie breathes out. “You’re so going to fall asleep halfway through.”

“Yes, which is why you’re picking the movie. Just don’t pick the Wizard of Oz one, it stops playing after like half an hour. Tape’s broken.”

After carefully reading some of the back labels, and mocking a few of the summaries she read, she settled for one about some guy pretending to be a knight after his master’s death and taking part in jousting competitions – whatever those were.

“A fine choice,” Dina approved when Ellie shared her selection with her. She was huddled in a blue and grey quilt that she’d gotten from her bedroom while Ellie had been looking for something to watch.

Ellie learned three things very quickly after she popped the movie in, following Dina’s instructions, and went back to her side of the couch with her feet propped up un the coffee table.

First, jousting looked fun. She could probably find a way to convince Simon to try it with her, if she could manage to sneak two horses out of the stables for a few hours. She’d have to look into it, because it would hands-down beat the latest source of entertainment in Jackson – an old bingo set someone had found on a scavenging trip a few weeks back, which had been played pretty much every night since. Joel had convinced her to go once, and she had hated it with a passion. He went alone a few times since – maybe that’s where he met that woman she’d caught him with earlier?

Second, Dina’s ability to stay awake after nightfall when she wasn’t up and about were abysmal – she’d fallen asleep on her lap barely twenty minutes into the movie and was snoring softly five minutes later. That was nothing new to Ellie, she had spent enough watch shifts nudging her awake to know she struggled to fight sleep when she had to stay still, but it still amazed her how fast she could go from talking her ear off to downright snoring away.

And third, sleepy Dina was way too cuddly for Ellie’s sanity and peace of mind.

It had started with her legs resting on Ellie’s thighs. When she’d grown tired of that position, it had been her head in Ellie’s lap, her head turned toward the TV to keep watching, and when she had finally surrendered to sleep, she’d turned to bury her face into Ellie’s grey and green flannel shirt.

As much as she wanted to enjoy the movie after that, it was a lost cause. She could feel Dina’s warm steady breaths on her stomach, through the fabric of her shirt. She could feel every flutter of her eyelids as she was dreaming, and she was convinced that her beating heart skipping a beat everytime her friend shifted against her would wake her up eventually.

It didn’t. Dina kept on sleeping peacefully, and Ellie went on trying her best not to disturb her by moving.

She was so close, yet so far away, and she’s pretty damn sure she forgot to breathe more than once.

She finished the movie, but for the life of her, Ellie couldn’t recall what the storyline had been, just bits and pieces here and there, but no real plot. When the light from the screen turned blue, after all the words and names of people and companies had appeared and disappeared before her eyes, she had no choice but to wake Dina, albeit reluctantly.

“Dina. Dina, wake up,” she whispers, shaking her gently. “Movie’s over.”

The girl’s only answer is to bury her face deeper into Ellie’s shirt and grumble something that she can’t quite make out, but probably went somewhere along the lines of “Fuck you”.

“Dina, come on.” Still, she doesn’t move, so Ellie slides out from underneath her to stand next to the couch. “Don’t make me roll you off those cushions.”

Finally, Dina opens one sleepy eye. “You wouldn’t, Freckles.” And with that, she closes her eye again and goes right the fuck back to sleep.

“Fucking hell,” Ellie grumbles. Of course she wouldn’t push her off the couch, but she knew from experience that Dina’s couch was too narrow to comfortably sleep in and that her friend would wake up sore all over if she spent the night there, so leaving her there really wasn’t a viable option. “You’re the worst.”

She puts one knee on the ground next to the couch and slides her arms under her friend’s body – one under her legs, one under her back, close to her shoulder blades. She does her best to ignore the fact that her oversized t-shirt does not cover her legs, and that her palm is in direct contact with the skin of her thighs. Dina stirs, but otherwise gives no sign of noticing what she is doing. Might be better this way.

“That’s not going to work,” Ellie mumbles when she tries to lift and realises she has no grip on the limp body in her arms. She removes the arm under Dina’s legs to lift the arm closer to her around her neck, over her shoulders. Doing so spreads some of her friends weight away from her arms, and she’s finally able to stand with Dina still in her arms. The motion startles the sleeping girl just enough for her to lace her other arm behind Ellie’s neck too, but not enough to wake her. It feels intimate, to have her hold on to her this way, and wrong, because she’s asleep, but she can feel Dina breathing against the skin of her throat now, and it sends her mind racing, imagining what it would be like to be this close to her more often.  

“She’s not into you. She’s not into girls, period. Stop imagining things, you’re only hurting yourself,” screams one voice in her head.

Another one, quieter, whispers something else. “What if? You’ll never know until you ask her.”

Ellie lays Dina down on her bed half thankful to break the physical contact and half sad. As soon as her friend touches her mattress, she stretches out like a cat and grabs a pillow to bury her face in.

“Good night, Dina,” she whispers, pulling the covers over her friend’s body.

She turns to walk out of the room when Dina’s hand wraps around her wrist. The girl’s eyes are still closed, but her grip is firm. “Where are you going?”

“Living room. I’m sleeping on your couch, remember?”

Dina shakes her head blindly.

“You’ll stab yourself to death in your sleep.” She gives a soft tug on her arm. “No way. You’re sleeping here tonight. Plenty of room for two.”

“I’m fine on the…”

“Save us some time and just get in the bed… please?”

Ellie breathes out, deeply. Screw this. “Alright, then. Move over.”

Ellie lays down, as still and rigid as a plank of wood, while Dina resumes her previous sleeping position, taking up as much space as she possibly can. For a while, Ellie focuses on calming her beating heart, and ignoring the voices arguing in her head, until she finally manages to start drifting off.

Only for a little while, though.

“Ellie?” Dina’s voice breaks the silence.

“Yeah?” she grumbles, trying her best to hide the sleep from her voice.

There is a moment of silence before her friend spoke again. “How did you know you liked girls?”

The questions startles Ellie. “I don’t know. I just knew.”

“You’ve always known that?”

“Pretty much.”

“Even before kissing Riley?”

“Even before that.”

Dina shifts, pulling more of the covers to her side and uncovering Ellie’s feet in the process. Ellie doesn’t tell her about it. She can deal with cold feet for a night, and Dina will just pull them to her side again later during the night anyway. “You’re no help, Freckles.”

“Sorry?”

Her words echo in her head long after the older girl resumes snoring, deep in sleep, what feels like hours later. You’re no help, Freckles. You’re no help.

Why would she say that?

Sometime during the night, she realises she’s afraid of the answer, whatever it might be.

I’ll ask her tomorrow, she thinks as she drifts off.

When tomorrow finally comes, with its rays of sunlight and chirping birds and a whole new list of tasks to accomplish, she’s awakened by Dina stirring against her side. She’d probably gotten close sometime during the night.

She watches her friend get ready for her shift at the clinic like any regular day, all smiles and jokes, and the words die on her lips before she can speak them.

She can’t find it in her to ask Dina what she meant.

Chapter Text

With the notable exception of Hunters raids or the stray Runner or Clicker showing up at one of the gates, few unplanned things ever happened in Jackson. Sure, attacks on patrol teams were common occurrence, but that wasn’t in the actual town. Nope, in Jackson, the days were pretty much the same – boring, almost.

Unless someone left the gate to one of the barns open overnight. In that case, as Ellie found out quickly, you were dragged out of bed barely an hour after collapsing in it and tasked with tracking down all the runaway cattle and bringing them back to the pastures.

All things considered, it wouldn’t have been such a tiring task if her partner for the day had not been Jesse.

He hadn’t made any effort to talk to her since their last patrol, though if you weren’t really close to him, you’d probably think he was being his usual broody self.

But Ellie knew him, and thus, she knew he was purposely avoiding Dina and her.

The second Ellie had walked through the barn doors to figure out how many cows were missing, the flash of annoyance in Jesse’s eyes confirmed that today was not the day he would willingly talk to her again.

“Jesse,” Ellie greets, her eyes going over what remains of the herd, counting silently how many were still in the barn and how many were missing.

Jesse never looks up from where he’s tying a knot in a rope, one knee on the ground. “Ellie.”

His hands tighten the knot just a tad more than it needs to be. Okay, not in the mood to talk. Got it.

“We’re missing like, fifteen cows,” Ellie states, appalled. It would take most of the day to find them and bring them back to the barn, and she knew from experience that trying to move an uncooperative animal would not work out too well for anyone who attempted it.

Her statement did not require an answer. One came anyway.

“Sixteen.”

Jesse rises to his feet, the length of rope neatly wrapped in loop in his hand, and immediately heads out the door. A fresh batch of fallen leaves blows in when he swings the door open, twirling around on the ground and swirling around her boots before coming to rest against the back wall.

“Wait, Jesse!” Ellie shouts, cursing under her breath as she picks up a tangled length of rope and trips over her own shoes. “Hold on!”

He’s already almost at old Peter’s house when she catches up to him. “Hey, dickhead!”

He stops so abruptly that Ellie almost crashes into him.

“What the hell do you want, Ellie?” he whispers through clenched teeth. He keeps his eyes trained on their surroundings, probably on the lookout for any stray cows wandering about the streets, and his fist closed around the neatly tied rope. The little muscles at the corner of his jaw twitch as he finishes talking. If Ellie had to say, she’d guess he was using all the self-control at his disposal to bite back a follow-up comment.

She grabs his arm to get his attention, but he yanks it away, throwing her a brief annoyed and disapproving look before looking away once more. “I know you don’t want to talk to me, but we’ve got a job to do here, and it would be a heck of a lot easier if you stopped being a dick about it!”

“We’ve got nothing to talk about,” Jesse hisses. He fiddles with the Honda knot under his fingers, his thumb brushing repeatedly along the frayed ends of the rope.

Ellie glances around for the briefest of moments, just long enough to make sure no one is within earshot of their heated exchange. “Yeah, we do,” she seethes back, moving so she’s blocking his way. “You tried to fucking shoot me. I should be the bitter one, not you!”

“I’m not apologizing for that.” He walks around her, and she might be mistaken but Ellie’s pretty sure he makes an extra effort to keep from tackling her into a tree as he passes her by.

“Dina forgave me for not telling you guys sooner… Why can’t you?”

He kicks a rock out of his way, not looking back at her. “My relationship’s over because of your lies. Think about that.”

“So I’m the reason you guys broke up now?”

“Why don’t you ask her yourself, since you guys are such close friends again?”

He’s too far away to hear her curse him under her breath and throw down the mess of tangled rope at her feet in frustration, or maybe he just chose to ignore it.

***

It takes three hours and one insanely stubborn cow for them to meet again. Should’ve known it would be Big Bertha. That cow’s got one hell of an attitude.

Ellie manages to coax the animal all the way up to the gate of the pasture before it decides to stop moving all together and munch the grass by the fence instead. She tried every trick she knew – pushing the cow, pulling at the lasso around its neck, screaming to scare it enough to run to the pasture. With the notable exception of a curious neighbour peeking out of their window to witness her ambitious undertaking and Ellie herself growing unbelievably frustrated.

After many, many minutes of slaving away, Ellie leans against the fence to catch her breath and curse the animal once more for good luck. “You’re going to become the best steak I’ve ever tasted, you know that?” she huffs, wiping the sweat from her brow with her sleeve. Big Bertha keeps ruminating away like that mouthful of dead grass is the best treat in the world.

“You’re doing it wrong.”

She doesn’t have to look to know who the voice belongs to, and it does nothing to improve her mood.

“Shut up, Jesse.”  

“It’s the last one,” he adds. Only when she hears the sound of his boots crunching the dry grass on the ground near the cow does she turn around.

His whole left side is covered in mud, from his armpit all the way down to his shoes, and there are some dead leaves sticking to the leg of his pants. “What the hell happened to you?”

“Let’s get this over with.”

She watches him go through the exact same process she did only a few short minutes ago with the exact same results. “I already tried that.”

“Maybe you did it wrong,” he retorts, still pushing as hard as he can to get the animal to move.

“I’m sorry, is there a wrong way to push a cow?”

“Just… start pushing too,” he grumbles.

Ellie hops on the fence, hooking one of her legs to the wooden post next to her so she doesn’t lose her balance and fall flat on her back. No one bothered to remove the bark from the trunks of the trees they used to build the fences around the pastures, and it digs into the back of Ellie’s thighs through her jeans. “Even with the two of us pushing, there’s no way we’re moving all twelve-hundred pounds of her if she doesn’t want to.”

Jesse lets his hands drop from the cow. His expression is as exasperated as she’s ever seen it, and despite the cool, almost-November air, his forehead if as drenched in sweat as hers is. “What do you propose we do then?”

“Why don’t you try shooting it, see if it freaks out. It might start moving.”

Jesse scoffs in response. Ellie doesn’t know if this is an attempt at a jab or a joke on her part. Could be both, honestly. “Another cow will probably show up between me and her to keep that from happening, and then we’ll have two stubborn cows on our hands.”

Ellie raises an eyebrow at his answer.

“I can’t tell if you’re joking or not.”

“What do you think?”

“I think you’re about to try shooting me again.”

Jesse blows a strand of hair out of his eyes, exhaling deeply. He leans on the fence too but makes sure to leave a good five feet between them both. He smells heavily of mud, and hay, and cow, and, for some reason Ellie can’t figure out because it’s not even 10 in the morning, chili. “What are we doing?”

Ellie smirks. “Herding cows back to the barn.”

He almost smiles, she can tell by the twitch in his cheeks.

“You know what I mean. I’m not going to apologize for what happened back on that patrol, and you’re not going to forgive it, so what do we do?”

For a moment, Ellie considers jumping off that fence and walking away. There is nothing forcing her to stay here and talk with him. Maybe she could go home, and finally sleep. Or maybe she could go see what Dina was up to.

Instead, she rests her elbows on her knees and rubs her hands together because, even though she just spent half an hour trying to make the animal equivalent of a water tower move, it is still awfully cold outside – mid-November, almost winter again – and her fingers have lost most feeling in them. “I thought we had nothing to talk about.”

Jesse shrugs. “Maybe we do after all.”

“Okay,” Ellie breathes out. She bites the inside of her cheek, carefully chooses her words before speaking them. “Can you see something other than the end of your relationship when you look at me?”

Jesse looks up to the skies. Big, black clouds rolled in while they were chasing after cattle within the streets of Jackson, and the wind picked up. No doubt they would be caught in the icy downpour if they couldn’t get that cow moving, and fast.

“No,” he finally says. “I’m not going to lie. If you hadn’t been bitten, we’d still be dating. I do blame you.”

“Then what do you want to do?”

Jesse ponders the question. “I don’t know. Going back in time isn’t really an option.”

“Yeah. That’d be easier.”

The loud, sharp crack of thunder makes Ellie jump, and almost fall off the fence she was sitting on. With a simple moo, the cow lifted its head and started out toward the barn.

“Well, would you look at that,” Ellie snickers, only half-annoyed. “We only had to use a thunderstorm to move it. Why didn’t we do that before?”

Jesse hops down from the fence and picks up his discarded length of rope. He’s shivering in his wet, muddy shirt as he passes her by to follow the animal into the pasture, locking the gate behind them. “I’ll make sure they don’t run away again,” Jesse offers.

Ellie nods. The closed gate between them is a clear sign he doesn’t want to be followed and besides, Ellie’s eager to go home and sleep since she hasn’t closed her eyes for more than an hour for more than a day and a half, so she heads back down the road to her house. “Hey, Jesse?”

He turns around. Big Bertha is almost to the barn now. “Yeah?”

“I didn’t decide to break up with you. If you don’t like it, I’m not the one you need to talk to about it.”

Jesse shrugs and turns back to head toward the barn. “See you around, Ellie.”

***

“How dumb are you?”

Ellie trips on a protruding root as the sound of Chuck disbelieving statement echoes in the forest, breaking the relative quietness of the day. “Thanks for sugar-coating it, Chucky,” Ellie mumbles as she catches herself on a nearby trunk to avoid falling flat on her face in the slippery mix of dead leaves and mud.

Chuck walks ahead, his bright red hair like a lighthouse guiding her way through the wilderness. With his brown and grey clothes, a Raider waiting to pounce on them would see only that head bobbing about, seemingly unattached to a body. The mental image pulls a smile from her lips.

“I’ve been trying to find a nicer way to say it for the past five minutes. Believe me, if there was a nicer way to say it, I would’ve found it by now.”

Chucks slows his pace down just enough to allow her to catch up to him without breaking her neck slipping on the ground. “Alright. Why am I so dumb this time?”

“Jesse isn’t mad about Dina ending their relationship,” he begins, chuckling. “He’s mad that she dumped him for you.”

“I… what?”

“Get your head out of your ass, kid. Ah! Here we are,” Chuck comments as the shadow of an old, crumbling hunting cabin comes into view. He disappears within it, his shoulders almost getting stuck in the narrow doorframe where a door used to be, once.

She’s frozen in place a few short steps from the cabin, her right foot in a puddle of freezing water, her mouth hanging open in an unspoken snarky reply. His words bounce around in her head until they lose all meaning. “Wait! Chuck, what do you mean?”

She dashes into the degraded building after him, leaping over an overturned chair on the porch.

She finds him hunched over a desk, using a pocket-knife he’d been carrying to pry a locked drawer open. It gives way with a soft creaking sound and he slides it open with a dissatisfied grunt. It’s filed with papers, letters and pictures. Nothing useful to them. “Probably that you’re as blind as you are dumb.”

Chuck,” Ellie growls.

He smirks, shutting the drawer and turning around to face her, leaning against the flat surface of the desk he was in the process of scavenging. “Yes?”

“Stop fucking around.”

His blue eyes look at her behind his glasses, amused. “Alright, kid. Jesse’s mad his ex dumped his ass for her friend. What’s hard to understand about that?”

“Dina didn’t break up with Jesse for me. She said they weren’t working out anymore.”

Chuck lets out a booming laugh. “You really don’t see it?”

Ellie’s annoyed now. Mostly because she can’t figure out what the hell Chuck’s going on about, partly because she wants to punch the smug smile off his face. “See what?”

“You’re so cute.” Chuck crosses his arms over his chest, one eyebrow shooting up over the black crooked frame of his glasses. “Dina’s into you.”

Ellie laughs nervously. “You should look into finding a new pair of glasses, Chucky. These are not enough anymore.”

“You should look into finding one yourself. She’s not even trying to hide it. For fuck’s sake, even Joel noticed it.”

“He never said anything to me.”

“Have you ever known him to mingle into other people’s love lives? Don’t think he’s going to start with his own kid’s,” Chuck remarks. “Seriously, short of whacking you smack in the middle of the face with a sign that says I LIKE YOU, I don’t know what else the girl can do.”

Could it be?

“Since you guys made up, she’s always finding a reason to hang around you. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why. Think about it.”

And think, she did.

 

“Stop squirming, Freckles,” Dina whispers as she balances the scissors behind her ear, her fingers brushing the tangles out of Ellie’s wet auburn hair.

“You’re tickling me,” she complains. In truth, every time her friend’s fingertips brush against the skin of her neck, it sends goosebumps down her spine. Not because she’s particularly ticklish – she’d once been told she was as ticklish as a boulder – but rather because she’s physically fighting the urge to lean back into her touch, craving more than the occasional scrape of her nails against her scalp, neck and shoulders.

Instead, she sits cross-legged on her bed. There is a respectable distance between her back and Dina’s body, so for now, she only needs to worry about her fingers in her hair occasionally brushing against her skin.

“Poor thing,” Dina mocks. “You’re sure you don’t want to ask someone else to do it? Just because I cut your hair once doesn’t mean I’m any good at it.”

“Ask who? Joel?” Ellie asks incredulously. “Do you want me to end up bald?”

Dina flicks Ellie’s ear in response. “Hilarious. No, I meant like, Esther maybe? If she can cut her own hair straight, she can probably cut yours.”

“She kind of scares me,” Ellie mumbles. She fiddles with the hole in her jeans until Dina’s silence urges her to continue her explanation. “Have you seen her hands? They look like they belong to a skeleton. It freaks me out.”

“I never should’ve made you watch that Halloween movie,” Dina teases. “Who knew you were such a baby.”

It pulls a smile from Ellie’s lips. “Why the hell would I want to be terrified for two hours?”

Behind her, Dina brings the wooden chair that usually serves as the base of Ellie’s tower of clean clothes closer to the bed. The legs scrape against the carpet, and then she feels her friend’s knees dig into the small of her back.

“How short?” she asks, with just a hint of amusement in her voice. Her fingers draw an imaginary line between Ellie’s shoulder blades. She can practically hear the shivers as they run down the length of her spine and hopes Dina can’t tell. “Here?”

Ellie shakes her head. “Higher.”  

Dina moves Ellie’s hair away from her and her fingers draw a new line, along the place where her neck meets her shoulders. This time, she’s sure her friend can see the goosebumps that appear on her skin at the touch. Dina’s so close she can feel her breath on the nape of her neck. “Here, then?”

“I, ah,” Ellie clears her throat. “Yeah. That’s fine.”

“Stand still.”

Ellie couldn’t have moved away even if she’d tried.

It takes Dina both too long and too little time to cut her hair for Ellie’s liking. “All right, all done,” Dina says after a while.

Ellie finally moves, but it’s only to unfold her now numb legs and stretch out on her bed with a groan, her face pressed into her pillow. She turns her face toward Dina.

“Thank you,” she mumbles. “Feels much lighter now.”

Dina smiles, but she doesn’t look up from the towel in her lap she’s in the process of folding so the freshly cut strands of hair don’t fall out of it and onto the carpet where Ellie will probably just swipe it under her bed where it will lay forgotten until the end of times. Finally, when she’s satisfied with the bundle in her hands, she sets it aside on the nightstand and stares at Ellie. “No problem.”

Dina’s eyes stay on Ellie, curious.

“What?” Ellie asks. “Does it look that bad?”

“It suits you just fine,” Dina chuckles before staring at her some more. “Does your back still hurt?”

The night before, part of the fence had collapsed after a particularly violent thunderstorm and Ellie had been a part of the team that hauled freshly cut tree trunks from the forest all the way back to Jackson. Due to the importance of the repair, they had worked for a full day before it was deemed sturdy enough to stand until the next day, albeit with an extra watch team posted nearby to make sure no enemies could make use of the opportunity to strike. Ellie hadn’t said anything, but she wasn’t exactly built for carrying loads that heavy for long periods and before the day was through, she’d felt as if the muscles of her back, along with all the other ones her upper body contained, were about to fall off of her bones.

She’d managed to hide it… well, from everyone but Dina. Apparently, the way she walked gave her away. Her pride kept her from admitting she couldn’t possibly carry one more trunk then, and it spoke again now.

“I’m fine.”

Dina raises a disbelieving eyebrow. “Really? So if I ask you to give me a piggy-back ride, you’ll be okay with that?”

She had her, and she knew it. “Maybe later?”

“You’re a horrible liar. Take off your hoodie.”

It took a second for Ellie’s mind to register the words Dina had spoken, but when she did, she couldn’t stop her cheeks from blushing what she was sure was a bright shade of crimson. “Why?”

Dina rolls her eyes and sits on the bed next to her. “Just so your clothes aren’t as thick. I know you’re wearing another shirt underneath it.”

Ellie blinks a few times.

“Why?” she asks again.

“Did you turn into a parrot during the day?” she teases, tucking a loose strand of dark curly hair behind her ear. “Sometimes, massages help when you’re feeling sore.”

Ellie’s tongue feels much larger than her mouth does. “Wouldn’t know, never had one.”

“Ellie, do you trust me?”

The answer is automatic. “I do.”

“I promise your back will feel better,” Dina says, grabbing the hem of her hoodie. Ellie raises herself on her elbows to help her yank it over her head, leaving her staring up at Dina when she collapses back into her mattress. Her back muscles throb and threaten to give out altogether, even though she’s lying down. “Lie down on your stomach.”

“My, you’re bossy,” Ellie chuckles, earning herself a warning slap on the shoulder from Dina. Still, she rolls over onto her stomach, grabbing her pillow in a hug so she can rest her head against it – that, and keep her hands safely tucked away.

She feels the dip of the mattress when Dina shifts her weight and jumps up when she feels the warmth of her friend’s legs against her sides. She has one leg on each side of her. “Calm down, Freckles. I’m just getting comfortable.”

Then it’s her hands she feels, pressing firmly into the sore muscles of her back with practiced ease. Ellie doesn’t care when and how she came to know how to massage someone, provided she keeps doing it. The tight muscles seem to loosen under her deft fingers and it’s all she can do to stop herself from moaning in relief.

“Is that okay?” she hears Dina ask, her voice hushed.

“Don’t you dare stop,” Ellie groans into the pillow. 

Dina laughs, and it makes even the mattress shake. “And you said I was the bossy one.”

Ellie would have replied something snarky, but it is that precise moment Dina chose to make herself even more comfortable by literally sitting down unto the small of Ellie’s back.

She’s all warmth, and it drives Ellie crazy to think of how close they are.

Living with Dina was agreeing to live in a world of pure duality. It’s wanting to be close, but also trying to keep some space between them. It’s wanting to see her more often and trying to pull away.

It’s wanting to take advantage of the situation of close proximity they are experiencing now to pull her close and kiss her, but also being frozen in place, unable and unwilling to escape her touch.

She can’t take the closeness anymore, but she also wishes they could stay like this forever.

 

“Dina’s like that with everyone,” Ellie justifies, dragging herself out of her memories.

Chuck rolls his eyes. “You sound like you’re trying to convince yourself. You’re not going to convince me. She used to act like that before, sure, but that was...”

“See, I told you she,…” Ellie interrupts, but Chuck just continues as if he hadn’t heard her.

“… with Jesse, right before they started dating. See what I’m getting at?”

Ellie is left standing there with her mouth wide open, like a fucking fish out of water. Outside, the wind howls, whistling through the trees and making the autumn leaves twirl on the ground, and Chuck keeps staring. “Cat swallowed your tongue?”

 

Ellie wakes up to the tickle of Dina’s fingers tracing patterns on her arm. They’re slowly inching up to her elbow, tracing each leaf starting from her wrist, then moving on to the moth, brushing along the ridges of the bite mark concealed by the wings.

The early morning light shines through the thin curtains Ellie nailed to her window years ago, now faded from the sun and riddled with holes, bathing the room in a soft yellow light. Dina’s lying on her side, her arm folded under her head to prop it up and the other draped across Ellie’s own arm.

“Hey,” Ellie whispers, her voice hoarse from lack of use. “Have you been awake long?”

Dina looks up at her, tearing her gaze away from the tattoo she was in the process of mapping out and stilling her hand on top of Ellie’s forearm. “Few minutes,” she murmurs back. Her eyes are wide awake, the sun making her eyes seem just a shade lighter from their usual brown. Her hair fell out from its usual bun and it covers Ellie’s mattress in wild dark waves, and she has taken most of the sheet hostage during the night, making it look like she’s wrapped in some sort of cocoon.

She’s beautiful.

Dina’s fingers resume their movements and once Ellie takes a few seconds to properly wake up, she notices the goosebumps appearing on her skin – whether it is from the lack of blankets in the middle of November or the brushing of Dina’s fingers against her skin, she couldn’t say.

Dina notices before she has a chance to hide her arm and begrudgingly parts with some of her nest of sheets to cover Ellie too. “Does it hurt?”

Ellie does her best to pretend not to feel Dina’s naked legs against hers and ignore how revealing the neckline of her tank top is from this angle. “The tattoo? No. Like being poked by tiny sewing needles. It itches after, mostly.”

“Not that, dummy,” Dina playfully swats at her arm before dragging her hand up to where Ellie knows the moth is inked unto her skin. “That.”

“Oh,” Ellie breathes out, shifting uneasily on the mattress. It didn’t matter if she’d already told her about her bite, her most basic instincts yelled at her to hide, and she fights the urge to yank her arm back, out of reach of Dina’s touch and subsequent questions. “Not anymore. It used to burn, for a while. Kind of like when you disinfect a wound with alcohol, you know? Except all the time, day and night, for weeks at a time. Now it’s just numb, I guess.”

Dina stares at her still, brown eyes locked into her own. Ellie could just get lost in them, she’s sure. “So, you don’t feel that?” she asks. Her fingers press softly into the ridges created years ago by the Runner’s teeth digging deep into her flesh.

“I feel around it,” Ellie answers.

Dina nods. As her fingers still on her forearm, it’s her foot she feels moving, inching up her shin, then burying itself in the space between the mattress and her calve. “How about this one?”

She’s talking about the other, more recent bite, now covered by the majestic tattoo of the snarling wolf Chuck had gifted her with. “Still tender sometimes. Not as bad as the other one was, to be honest.”

She nods. Dina yawns then and buries her face in the crook of Ellie’s neck.

Ellie stills as the scent of vanilla and flowers invade her nostrils – Dina’s shampoo – and for a moment, it registers in her mind how close they are. How easy it would be to reach a hand out, tilt Dina’s chin up, lean down and kiss her. How her soft, warm skin would feel under her hands if she let them wander under what little clothes she’s wearing right now.

There’s a ninety-nine percent chance of her combusting on the spot if her mind keeps wandering in that direction without acting on it, so she clears her throat and speaks up. “We should get going. Maria’s probably going to send a search and rescue party if you don’t show up at the clinic soon.”

Her own voice is much hoarser than she remembers it ever being. Dina raises her head, her eyes searching her face for a few seconds, then she slips out of the bedsheets and slips on the pants she discarded sometime during the night. Ellie adverts her gaze, but not before the sight of her friend’s legs and mostly naked butt gets burned into her mind.

“I’m stealing this, by the way,” Dina announces from the opposite end of the room. Ellie turns back to her to see her slipping on that blue flannel she’d been wearing the day before and distinctly remembers throwing somewhere on the floor by the door. In her opinion, it looks much better on Dina than it does on her.

“You could at least pick a clean one,” Ellie comments, sitting on her bed and pulling the heap bedsheets to her. “Plenty of those in the closet.”

Dina shrugs.

“It’s relatively clean I’d say.” She’s almost at the door when she turns back to Ellie, a smirk etched on her face. “Besides, this one smells like you.”

 

 

“Earth to Ellie? You’re still with me, kid?” Chuck’s booming voice pulls her from her memories.

She shakes her head, hoping to make sense of all of this. It doesn’t help clear things up one bit. “Yeah.”

He resumes his rummaging through the drawers, sorting out what’s useful from what isn’t and what could potentially be, provided there is enough space left in their backpacks for extra items.

Ellie’s brain feels like it’s going to short circuit. Had Dina really been touchier with her than she used to be before? With the whole Infected status falling out, she’d been a lot more distant so when they’d started hanging out again, she hadn’t paid attention to how affectionate she was being as much as being thankful for Dina wanting to be near her at all.

“What are you going to do about it?”

Ellie busies herself with packing the things Chuck deemed salvageable into the backpacks, pointedly avoiding his gaze. “What makes you think I want to do anything about it?”

Chuck slams the last drawer shut and looks at her incredulously. “You’re fucking with me, right? Ellie, I’m short-sighted, not fucking blind.”

Fuck this. It’s Chuck – who is he going to talk about this to?

“I’m that obvious?”

“Your stubborn ass turns into the world’s most obedient puppy whenever she’s around and when she hugs you before going home, you’re walking around with that stupid, smitten grin on your face until something else comes along. Yeah, you’re that obvious.”

Chuck hauls his backpack on his shoulders and heads back outside. Thankfully, he doesn’t see her blush, though maybe he already knows she’s turning a shade of red comparable to his flaming hair.

“Hey, Chuck? Got any advice for me about the whole Jesse being a dick thing?”

Chuck laughs. “Jesse thinks you’re fooling around with his ex, of course he’s being a whiny ass bitch about it,” he blurts out. “He’ll come around, just give him time.”

They walk in silence the rest of the way to Jackson. Right before reaching the gate, Chuck sets his bag down at his feet and digs through it until he pulls out a worn-out book with its title half-erased by time and use. He hands it to her.

“Dina let me borrow it a few weeks back. Give it back to her for me?”

Ellie examines it with attention – it looks like it’s about to fall apart in her hands. “Sure.”

The twinkle of mischief in his eyes doesn’t escape her notice.

“While you’re over there, maybe talk to her? You’ve got nothing to lose, here.”

A few short steps later, she finds her steps have led her right to Dina’s street. If she really has nothing to lose, then why does it feel like her heart is about to leap out of her ribcage and like she is about to throw up at the same time? Ellie would probably never know. It was raining heavily now, the low rumbling thunder from earlier that morning having been replaced by a full-on thunderstorm, complete with lighting and heavy winds and a downpour of freezing rain.

Just talk to her. Like Chuck said, you’ve got nothing to lose. What if you’re not the only one feeling this way? She can’t help the smile that stretches her lips.

She’s almost at Dina’s house, maybe fifty feet away, when she sees the door open and witnesses a grinning Jesse stepping out into the rain, with a waving Dina safe and sound inside the house.

The smile falls, and she stops dead in her tracks.

Jesse’s grinning from ear to ear, something she doesn’t think she has ever seen in her life, and he’s whistling, whistling as he heads down the street toward Ellie. He’s so lost in his own world, he doesn’t even see her, hiding in the shadows of the community center. He just passes her by, blissfully unaware.

Ellie doesn’t miss the hickey on his neck, nor the way Dina’s hair looks wildly out of place, even from that far away.

It’s not hard to figure out why.

She turns back and heads home.

Fuck, Chuck.

***

The next day, she bumps into Jesse as he’s leaving his watch shift and she’s heading down to the stables to care for the horses. This time, he does see her.

“Ellie!”

She rolls her eyes. Great, just great. “Yeah?”

He looks around, making sure they’re alone before he starts speaking.

“Listen, about… you know, what we talked about yesterday,” he begins, rubbing his neck. “I was wrong. I should have given you a chance to explain. Are we good?”

Ellie bites back the first reply that comes to her mind. You’re not mad at him, she reasons. You’re just mad he took his chance when you didn’t.

“We’re good,” she echoes, the words leaving a bitter after-taste in her mouth.

Jesse turns on his heels, enough words spoken between the two of them for today.

Later, she’s scrubbing one of the saddles in the stables when she feels a presence behind her, and she knows by the lightness of the footsteps that the intruder is none other than Dina.

“Chuck told me you came to give me my book back last night,” she begins, leaning against the workbench to catch Ellie’s attention. “Tell me, Freckles, did you hide it somewhere? Is it a scavenger’s hunt type of thing? Because that could be fun.”

Ellie doesn’t look up from her work, just gestures behind her with her head. “In my bag.”

She can feel Dina’s gaze on her.

“Why didn’t you give it to me last night?” she asks. “I was home all evening.”

Ellie scoffs, finally looking up from the leather straps in her hands. “Yeah, well, so was Jesse.”

She thinks she can see the flicker of something pass in her eyes, but it’s gone just as soon as it appeared.

“Oh. He told you about that?”

There’s no use in making her ask more questions. “More or less,” she answers, as vaguely as possible.

Dina sighs. “Fuck. I was hoping he wouldn’t make a big deal about it.” When it becomes clear Ellie won’t ask any further questions, she continues. “We made out, but like… I don’t think I want to get into all this again. Not anything serious anyway.”

“Maybe you should tell him,” Ellie blurts out. “Doesn’t look to me like he got the memo.”

Dina looks at her, slightly amused. “And how do you suggest I do that? Sorry Jesse, I might like to keep fucking you when I’m horny and I’ve exhausted all other options, but nothing more?”

Ellie almost smiles. “Sounds clear to me.”

Dina laughs, seemingly not noticing Ellie’s interior debate. When she leaves, she’s left alone with the horses and her own thoughts.

She feels stupid for even thinking she could have a chance with Dina, or that the girl could feel the same way about her.

She knows she’ll settle for staying her friends. It’s not worth it to risk getting her hopes crushed like this again, or to jeopardize their friendship over her feelings.

Because it didn’t matter whether Dina still had feelings for Jesse. It didn’t even matter if they'd really just made out or if they’d slept together. Not really, anyway.

It just highlighted one very important thing that Ellie had been trying her best to ignore – she’d never be Dina’s first choice. Hell, she’d never even be an option. She’d only ever be her friend.

Back when they’d been traveling together, Joel had told her that most of the time, the worst wounds were the ones you couldn’t see. She’d begged to differ – she’d seen the gaping hole the rebar had left in his stomach, surely nothing could hurt more than that. She had been wrong, oh so very wrong.

When she’d been bitten by that Runner, it had burned more than anything else. When she’d killed David, she had just felt numb, and that was it.

Now, it felt like someone had reached into her chest and pulled her beating heart out of it, before ripping it in two right before her eyes. And Joel had been right.

It was worse.

Chapter Text

The last rays of sunlight bathe the settlement in a warm orange glow, which gives the supremely deceptive illusion of the day being somehow less cold than the average. It isn’t. It’s fucking freezing, the same way it has been for the past month and will be for the following two.

Gloves are not enough to keep her fingers from freezing in place as she holds on to the rifle in her hands on watch shifts, and her coat and hoodie are not enough to keep the icy wind from infiltrating her clothes and numbing the skin underneath. Her face perpetually feels like it’s been frozen in place by the glacial outside air and she can’t remember the last time she stepped out the door of her home and walked for more than twenty steps without feeling like her ears are about to fall off into the street.

Ellie hates it with a passion.

“How long do you think we’ll have to stay up here before our asses freeze to those chairs?”

If anyone hates winter almost as much as she does, it’s Chuck.

He was born and raised in California, he’d told her once, and in his own words, Californians were not bred to stand around in the snow for hours upon hours waiting for their balls to freeze off. Ellie really thought it was an eloquent way to put it, if there ever was one.

“You should ask Joel,” she shoots back from the other end of the platform, where she pulled up her chair. During snowstorms, putting the two people on watch at opposite ends of the observation towers was the best way to have a global vision of the perimeter. Still, the visibility was already pretty much shit, and the sun hadn’t even set yet. The next team coming up to relieve them would have a long night in front of them if the wild flurries didn’t let up and turned into a blizzard instead. A very, very long night. “He’s spent so much time up here lately, it’s a fucking wonder he’s not walking around with a chair frozen to his ass.”

Chuck barks out a laugh that gets lost in the howling wind. “Well, I’ll bet my last pair of good socks that the little lady keeping him warm at night has something to with that.”

She fake-gags, pretending to lean over the banister to throw up. “Don’t ever mention that again. Let me pretend he’s as asexual as a plant, for the well being of what little sanity I have left.”

Chuck snickers – or shivers violently, Ellie can’t be totally sure – and dusts off the fresh layer of snow that accumulated on his hat.

“Are you deaf as well as dumb?”

“Fuck you.”

“Your room is right above his, and you’re telling me you’ve never overheard their…”

“I swear to God, Chuck, if you finish that sentence, I’ll push you off this tower.”

Chuck raises an eyebrow with little icicles on it at her. “I’m like, a hundred pounds heavier than you, and besides, I don’t think God would approve of such aggressive behavior.”

“I swear to Satan, then!”

“Alright, alright!” Chuck raises his hands in surrender, only to shove them pack into the depths of his coat pockets.

Ellie turns back to her observation. The snow is still falling, no one is coming out of the treeline and…

“… naked extra-curricular nighttime activities?” Chuck finishes his previous question, almost choking on a snicker halfway through.

Ellie smashes her face into the snow that gathered on the banister, groaning loudly. “For fuck’s sake, I don’t need a reminder.”

By then, Chuck is doubled over in laughter and she’s trying her best to keep the images of a mostly naked Joel flying off the couch at bay. It’s been weeks already since she stumbled unto the compromising situation and still, she feels uneasy being reminded of it.

Her name was Megan, she learned after the most awkward conversation she’d ever had with Joel – including the talk he gave her when he thought she was sleeping with Simon, amazingly enough. She remembered seeing her a few times around Jackson before, but now she seemed to be bumping into her everyday around town, and nearly every night in her own living room.

It’s not that Ellie didn’t like her, she was a nice woman, all things considered, it’s just that seeing her reminded her of that first encounter and no amount of freshly baked, hot apple pies could change that – though it helped.

Ellie opens her canteen of water and takes a sip, careful not to swallow an ice cube that formed during her shift.

“You know what you should do?” Chuck doesn’t wait for an answer. “You should haul yourself up in your room and have even louder sex. You know, drown them out.”

The mouthful of water she had been in the process of swallowing comes out in a mist as she coughs it out, taken by surprise.

“And who do you suggest I execute that plan of yours with? My hand?” It’s Chuck’s turn to choke on his water, and while he turns red because of the lack of air, Ellie feels herself turn red in embarrassment. “Why am I telling you about my lack of a sex life, again?”

“Because you have no friends?” he sputters, wiping his chin with his sleeve.

“I have friends,” she retorts.

“Sorry, I’ll start again. Because you don’t have any friends you don’t want to bang?”

“When did this turn into a let’s-make-fun-of-Ellie day?”

“Every day is a let’s-make-fun-of-Ellie day, you know that.”

Ellie shrugs and looks at her watch. It’s nearly 4, the next team should be here in a little while, and then she can run away from Chuck as fast as her legs will carry her.

“Speaking of banging friends,” he continues, “how are things with Dina?”

Ellie leans back into her chair, looking at Chuck disbelievingly. “We’re friends, you know that.”

“Friends or friends?” he asks, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively as he repeats the word for the second time.

“Get your pervy head out of your ass, Chucky.”

“But I’m curious!”

Ellie breathes out, sending a puff of steam flying among the flurries. Chuck looks like the kids on Christmas Day she saw in the movies Dina forced her to watch on Christmas Eve, saying she couldn’t refuse her because it was her birthday. When Ellie had pointed out that her birthday was still a week and a half away, she’d just laughed and said her birthday was a month-long event. Ellie couldn’t find it in her to contradict her.

“It’s… complicated,” Ellie begins. “Like, I really thought she was into me, and then I went over to her place and she was hooking up with Jesse, so… I’m not sure what to think anymore.”

“That was a month ago!”

“Six weeks.”

“Does it matter? Last I checked, they didn’t get back together.”

While Jesse had been all smiles and goofy expressions for a few days after Ellie had seen him leave Dina’s house, he had rapidly gone back to his usual stern look. She never dared ask Dina about it, but she assumed her thing with Jesse stayed a thing and didn’t turn into a relationship.

“So? It’s not like she showed any more interest in me than she did before that, and she still hooked up with Jesse. Pretty sure that means she’s not into me.”

Chuck leans toward her. “Want to know what I think?”

“Nope.”

“I think,” he continues, completely disregarding her answer, “your lady friend’s been dropping hints she likes you for months, and your dumb ass didn’t pick up on them, and eventually she got… how do I say this politely… eager for some naked extra-curricular nighttime activities.”

Ellie winces. “Please, don’t ever use those words together again.”

“And so, she went for a quick fix, because knowing how blind your sorry ass is, she’d still be waiting on you to wake up by the time next fall comes around. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t like you, just that she doesn’t think you like her back.”

Ellie stops to consider Chuck’s words. Despite the rather crude way of describing it, he had a point. Maybe he was even right.

“Get a fucking move on, kid, before your chance’s gone for good.”

Behind them, the steps creak, signaling the arrival of the next watch team, and Ellie leaps to her feet, basically throwing her rifle at Mitch, who barely had time to step off the ladder before he had to catch the flying weapon barreling toward his face.

Ellie flies down the ladder like she’s done so many times before. She doesn’t wait for Chuck to catch up with her before bolting off.

***

Most lights are turned on in the houses as Ellie walks by them. Some residents are just heading out for their evening shift, whether it be on the watch towers or at different workstations, some families are enjoying an early dinner an she even spots a few couples just hanging out in their living rooms. Everyone seems to have something to do tonight. Everyone except her.

Her feet lead her to the familiar house with the bright blue windowsills and doorframes and squeaky steps, all the way up to the front door.

“What the hell are you doing here, Williams?” she whispers to herself, little puffs of smoke escaping her lips in the cold.

She had no answer to her own question. Maybe she just wanted to hang out, maybe she wanted to ask Dina if Chuck was right all along. Truth to be told, she could not say why she was here, just that she wanted to be near her friend tonight.

Before she can bring herself to knock on the door, it flies open, slamming against the wall with a shock so violent it makes the very porch she is standing on shake, and a flaming pot shoots out of the house so close to her head Ellie can feel the heat radiating from it. It lands in the snow with the familiar hiss of scalding hot metal being cooled brutally fast and sinks down almost immediately.

“What the fuck are you doing here?”

“Well, hello to you too, grumpy-face,” Ellie greets, turning back to see a flustered Dina blowing a wild strand of hair out of her face. She’s wearing the rattiest t-shirt Ellie had ever seen her in – riddled with holes and tears and stains roughly two sizes too small at the waist, judging by how it hugs her hips, yet the sleeves were so long she could hide her whole hands in them. “Is this a new sport?”

Dina looks over Ellie’s shoulder, presumably at the gaping, smoldering hole left in the snowbank in front of her porch steps. “Yeah, I’m organizing a tournament next week. It’s going to be wild.”

“Sign me up,” Ellie quips, a smile tugging at her lips. Suddenly – and maybe it’s just the scalding hot pot that flew by her head a few seconds earlier – she doesn’t feel as cold.

Dina looks at her from head to toe. She probably looks like a moving snowman from being subjected to the blizzard and then making the trek all the way to Dina’s house.

“Are you waiting to get hypothermia or are you going to come in?” she teases, leaning against the doorframe.

Ellie doesn’t have to be told twice and closes the door behind her.

The lights are mostly turned off, except for a reading lamp by the couch that barely radiates enough to brighten the living room and the overhead lighting from the kitchen. There is a definitive cloud of smoke inside the house, making it hard to breathe properly, and Ellie’s eyes water a bit at the sudden attack.

“Unrelated subject, what can you cook with a can of tomato sauce and carrots?” Dina asks, heading back to the stove to turn on the fan in a valiant effort to dissipate the smoke and clear the air. It doesn’t do much to help.

Ellie whistles in mock-consideration. She pulls up one of the stools to and leans against the counter, watching Dina try to dig out something from one of the cupboards next to the sink. “Hum, soup? You could even add that chicken you traded for yesterday.”

“That was the chicken, Freckles.”

“Oh. Then tomato soup with carrots it is.”

Dina shakes her head in amusement and slides a wooden cutting board on the counter toward her. Ellie helps herself to a knife from the knife block as the older girl opens the refrigerator door and bends down to retrieve the carrots from the vegetables’ drawer. Ellie does her best to ignore the way her shirt rides up her hips until it’s hitched halfway up her back.

Years ago, before Joel and Ellie had even gotten to Jackson, the residents had incorporated a new system to keep agricultural production going during winter where they would modify big warehouses so the roof was completely made of windows and keep them awfully warm during the winter so they could grow a selection of herbs and vegetables in there. Joel said it was a popular thing back before the Outbreak, that those were called greenhouses. Ellie would’ve guessed glasshouses, by the look of them. She could never call them by their real names, though, always referring to them as see-through alien spaceships, much to Dina’s hilarity and Joel’s despair.

They had a surplus of carrots this time of year, which would explain why Dina had two dozen of them in her fridge while there barely was anything else in there.

Ellie works in silence, listening to the soft hum of the lightbulb above her head and the angry scraping of Dina trying to salvage whatever was left of the cauldron she had retrieved from the snow. After a while, she gives up, and pulls another one from the cupboard above the sink.

“What brings you here?” Dina asks after she made sure that the water heating in the pot would not catch fire if she turned her back on it for a few seconds.

Ellie looks up for a brief second before focusing on her carrots once more. “I could smell something burning all the way from the fence, I was coming to rescue you. You should be thanking me.”

“My knight in shining armor,” she comments, throwing a handful of the cut-up vegetables into the hot water.

Ellie smiles, and Dina smiles back.

They work in silence after that, peeling and cutting and cooking until, half an hour later, they’re both seated at her coffee table with steaming bowls of soup placed in front of them.

Though Dina has had a table in her kitchen since she moved in, Ellie could count on her fingers the number of times it had actually been used. She preferred to eat in the living room, sitting barefoot on the rug with her food on the coffee table, or seated at one of the stools with her food on the counter. According to her, dining room tables were meant to be used by a lot more people than just herself and dining alone at one was just sad.

“It’s not bad,” Ellie comments, bringing a spoonful of soup up to her lips.

Dina raises an eyebrow in disbelief. “The tomatoes taste burnt, and the carrots are still crunchy. Which part of this is a culinary success to your taste buds?”

“I didn’t say it was good,” Ellie adds, “just that it’s better than your chicken.”

“Fuck you.”

“Hey, this is my line, make up your own.”

Dina winks. “It’s mine now, deal with it.”

Ellie’s stomach feels like it’s doing somersaults, so she looks back down to her dinner instead, focusing on the scraping sounds their spoons make against the ceramic bowls. It takes nearly half a bowl of soup for Ellie to work up the courage to ask her question.

“So, ah, you and Jesse…” she stammers, hoping Dina will figure out where her question is going and answer it. She doesn’t, or maybe she enjoys seeing her uneasy too much to put her out of her misery.

 “Me and Jesse?” she repeats, trailing off at the end. She blows on the hot contents of the spoon. “What about us?”

Something about the way she says the word us makes Ellie shift in her seat. It just doesn’t sound right. “Are you guys back together?”

Dina leans back against the armrest of the couch, dinner forgotten, watching her with an amused smile stretched on her lips and suddenly, Ellie wishes she could take the words back. Pretend she didn’t say anything and just enjoy the quiet company, for however long it lasts.

“What makes you say that?”

Ellie shrugs. She wishes she was anywhere else. Even being down in the storage units on inventory duty would be better than this. This is the last time I listen to Chuck, I swear to God. “I don’t know. Just curious, that’s all.”

Dina picks up her empty bowl, as well as Ellie’s, washes them along with the cutting board the knives and the spoons they used and places them on a plastic drying rack by the sink. The whole time she’s gone, Ellie can only hear her heart beating in her ears, so loud it drowns out the noise of the running water and the clang of the dishes, until Dina comes back to sit next to her, and then all the other sounds come rushing back to her.

“No, we’re not together,” Dina finally explains, leaning one elbow on the coffee table. She’s close, much closer than she was when they ate, and it makes it hard to focus on the words she’s speaking. “We had our fun a while back, but it wasn’t what either of us wanted, in the end. It wouldn’t have been right to keep that going.”

“What did he want?” Ellie asks. Her tongue feels like sandpaper against the roof of her mouth.

Dina brings her hand to rest against her cheek. Most of her hair fell out of her bun by now, and what remains of it holds up by sheer power of will alone, Ellie could swear it, because physics don’t allow those type of things. “A relationship.”

Another silence, deafening.

“How about you?”

Dina looks directly into her eyes as she answers. “I wanted someone else.”

If she thought her heart was beating out of control before, now she can swear it stopped altogether. Ellie clears a throat once, twice, hoping it’ll clear her head at the same time. It doesn’t, and once again, she ends up with a contender for the shortest question ever.

“And now?”

Dina’s response is automatic, like she doesn’t even have to think about it. “I still do.”

Kiss her. That’s your opening. Kiss her.

It would be so easy. She’s barely a foot away from her, it would only take her leaning forward to kiss her. Dina’s eyes look like they’re on fire. Ellie feels like she’s on fire.

Her lips are parted, inviting. She can just imagine how soft they would feel against hers, how her breath on her cheek would feel, how it would feel to run her hands through her hair and untie what’s left of that fucking bun and have her hair surround them both.

Dina’s waiting for her to make a move, she’s sure of it.

What’s stopping you?

***

“I can’t believe you chickened out.”

Ellie follows in Chuck’s footsteps, quite literally. Thankfully, the snow had stopped during the night, so there was no blizzard to fight through, but they still had to trek in a bunch of freshly fallen snow and Ellie was sinking in it up to her knee most of the time. They’d left seven hours ago, and she couldn’t feel her legs, her boots were soaked through and her toes were frozen solid.

Unfortunately, it also meant that Chuck had had seven hours to grill her about her whereabouts of the night before, resulting in Ellie caving fifteen minutes ago and telling him everything. A decision she was bitterly regretting right about now.

 “I did not chicken out,” Ellie retorts, wishing she would’ve kept her mouth shut for once.

“Are you kids calling it something different these days?”

“No, but…”

Chuck glances back. “Then you chickened out.”

Ellie gives an annoyed grunt in response – both because of his incessant pestering and the ever-annoying task of trying to keep her boots from staying stuck in the snow as she walks. The trees are so close together in this part of the woods, the sun barely makes it through the maze of intertwined branches above their heads, which makes it seem like it’s much colder than it really is.

“No, it’s just… it wasn’t the right time, you know.”

Chuck scoffs, clearly not caring one bit if she hears him or not. He readjusts his glasses on his nose, pulls his hat down further on his head to hide most of his ears, and only then does he turn back to her. “When the fuck’s the right time, then? You had the romantic dinner for two setting locked and loaded, and it wasn’t the right time? Sweet lord, girl, you’re going to die single living with your forty-two cats if you keep this up.”

“Thanks for the confidence boost, Chuck.”

“For future reference,” he continues, snapping off a branch that stands in their path so he can squeeze sideways between two trees. Ellie doesn’t even have to shift to fit in the space, which makes him roll his eyes in annoyance. “When a girl tells you she likes someone, and stares at you like you said Dina did… well, the person she likes is you, and you should shut the hell up and kiss her.”

Ellie catches up to him so they stand side by side, the thickness of the forest giving way to a clearing. Up ahead, she can see road signs, faded, crooked and bent out of shape by years of being subjected to the elements. Once upon a time, this clearing was probably a road, or like, a parking lot. Now it’s been taken over by nature. It’s strangely beautiful.

“How was I supposed to know that?”

“You listen to my advice, that’s how.”

Ellie flips the rim of his woolen hat. It momentarily covers his eyes, and he is quick to flip it back to its original position. “Chuck, be serious.”

“I am.”

Ellie swears under her breath and resolves to keep walking in silence. The road signs become more numerous, and the clearing is soon replaced with buildings. She can’t help but think that it must have been a pretty little town, before shit hit the fan twenty-three years earlier, with its old-fashioned fences and gazebos and benches overlooking the nearby cliffs.

It takes all of six minutes for Ellie to give up on her resolution. “Okay, so I chickened out. What’s the big deal? I like the way things are between us now, I’m not even sure I want to make a move. What if it changes things between us too much? Am I making a mistake?”

Chuck steps over a fallen tree. “I can’t answer that for you, kid, but remember how you felt when you thought Dina got back together with Jesse. Are you prepared to see that happen again – with Jesse, or anyone else, doesn’t matter – knowing you didn’t even try, because you were afraid it wouldn’t lead to anything better than what you already had?”

Ellie remembers. She remembers the hurt, the incredible high of thinking she could possibly have a chance, followed by the awful low of realising she didn’t. She remembers the disgust that filled her when saw Jesse prancing around, telling anyone willing to hear that he was well on his way to winning Dina back. She remembers the self-loathing over feeling this way, when clearly, Dina didn’t owe her anything.

What did she have to lose, after all?

Chuck leads her through the broken first floor window of a nearby building, which is the only entrance not completely boarded up by planks and pipes and whatnot. She’s careful not to lean on the windowsill too much as she ducks in – the perspective of accidentally sitting on some broken glass shards is not an interesting one and judging by the state of the building’s façade, it would not take much more than her weight to tip the whole thing over like a Jenga tower.

Inside is a maze of overturned chairs, papers, empty plastic containers and busted syringes. “Oh, man… this thing is a deathtrap,” Ellie blurts out as her eyes get used to the ambient darkness in stark contrast to the blinding whiteness of the snow outside.

“I’d say.”

There is an office in a corner, with lots of glass shards surrounding the floor next to it. Ellie’s boot crunches some of them and when she lifts one of her feet, she notices there is a piece of paper stuck to it.

The Cordyceps mushroom is a parasitic fungi that can take over a…

Ellie rips the pamphlet from the sole of her boot. She’s read it so many times now she knows it by heart.

The light seeping in from the window allows them to put off turning on their flashlights for a little while longer.

“What do you think place was?” Ellie asks, examining the numerous posters on the walls. Some of them depicted different body parts and the muscles and bones associated to them, some other detailed the proper way to wear a medical mask. In another corner of the room, there is a wooden structure with brightly colored beads on curved metal rods sitting on a table which Ellie thinks might have been a toy of some kind, though she’s not totally sure.

Chuck is already near a door at the far end of the room. “This was a medical clinic’s waiting room. People would come here when they were sick or injured to get treated. They’d go to this office there to register themselves, and then they would wait around this room for some time until a doctor called them into another room to get checked out.”

“Didn’t people use hospitals for that?”

“Consider this like the equivalent of you going to see Dina when you get hurt instead of heading over to the clinic. Does the job just as well for most things, but with less supplies and not equipped to handle emergencies. And, you know, less waiting time.”

Ellie nods. “I see.”

Chuck pulls his gas mask from his backpack and adjusts the straps. “I’m not sure what’s on the other door, this is a new patrol route. Better to be safe than sorry.” He pulls the hat off his head in one swift motion and replaces it with the mask, shoving the rolled-up hat in his back pocket until it is needed again. Ellie nods, almost reaching behind her to grab for her own gas mask before remembering that Chuck already knows she doesn’t need it.

The aborted movement doesn’t escape his eye. “Still can’t believe you don’t need that.”

Ellie scoffs, pushing past him to get to the door.

“One of the very few upsides of being bitten and living to tell the tale, I’m afraid.”

She can’t tell because of the sunlight reflecting off the glass surface of his mask, but she’s fairly sure he rolled his eyes at her offhand comment.

On the other side of the door is a corridor, with smashed-in doors on both sides leading all the way down to a staircase leading up to the second and third floors of the building. All the rooms – which Chuck told her were individual exam rooms – had been obviously raided a long time ago and though they checked them out anyway, there was nothing left in there that could be used.

As Chuck had guessed, there are spores on that side of the door, so many in fact that it makes it look like they’re standing in some weird, multicolored fog.

They make sure to step on the side of the steps, so there is less risk of it breaking under their weight as they go up. To be fair, it looks like Ellie would only have to stair at the staircase for too long and it would collapse on itself.

On the second floor was an old pharmacy. Now, that was a place Ellie was familiar with. Maybe a little too much, even.

Chuck went straight for the counter, humming something as he went, muffled by the mask but still recognizable. “What the hell is that song?” Ellie asks as the melody reaches her ear. “Joel keeps mumbling it all the fucking time.”

Chuck snickers. “Well, never would have taken him for a Celine Dion kind of guy.”

“A Celine what, now?”

“It’s the singer’s name. Song’s from the movie Titanic. It must have come out sometime when your old man was a teenager.”

Ellie ponders his answer as she examines the shelves by the staircase. Why does that name sound familiar?

“Wasn’t that a fucking huge boat that sank like a hundred years ago?”

Chuck barely looks up from his task of opening and closing drawers. “Yeah. They made a movie based off it.”

“Didn’t, like, hundreds of people die on that boat?”

“Yeah.”

“And they made a movie from that? With songs?”

Chuck looks at her over the frame of his glasses, that once again slid almost all the way off his nose, only kept in place by the mask pressing against his face, a thoughtful expression on his face.  “Well… sure, if you say it like that it sounds weird.”

Ellie turns back to her scavenging, lifting shelves and turning over empty pill bottles, but still she found nothing of value, or of interest, even.  

Ellie doesn’t remember much from the very brief history lessons she was forced to attend, back in Boston, but Riley had been obsessed with ships for a few months, there, and she can remember her saying that around two thirds of the passengers had died in the sinking. To know that this tragedy had been turned into a movie, years after the events, for other people’s sheer entertainment was… unsetling, to say the least.

She wonders… if the Fireflies end up finding a cure, if people would turn the Outbreak, and their very lives, into a movie, for the sake of entertaining people who aren’t even born yet. Small chance of that happening, but still, it felt wrong.

“What’s your favourite movie, Chucky?”

“The Shining, no contest. I have it at home, I could probably lend it to you sometime.”

Ellie shrugs. “Sure, why not.”

She should have known that Chuck wouldn’t let an opportunity to tease her go by.

“You could ask Dina to watch it with you. Hopefully, you guys will watch it at night, in the dark, huddle close, under a blanket… but knowing you, it probably won’t be the right time, so no point in even trying, right?”

Ellie hides the smile tugging at her lips – no point in letting Chuck know she was realizing how much of a dumb idiot she was. “Fuck you, Chuck! You know, for all your criticism on me not making a move, I find you awfully single.”

“Who says I am?” he retorts, wiggling his eyebrows as best as he could with the mask obstructing most of his face. “Maybe I’m wooing ladies left and right and you just don’t know it.”

Ellie scrunches her nose at the mere thought of Chuck playing Casanova around the settlement. “See, this goes on top of my I did not need to know that list, right next to knowing Joel has a sex life.”

Chuck stifled a laugh, ducking inside one of the cupboards under the counter to look for useful items, the beam from his flashlight reflecting off the broken glass displays on the other side of the room.

Ellie turns back to her own foraging until she hears it.

A muffled bang followed by the distinct sound of a glass container breaking.

Ellie flips on her heels, her hand automatically reaching for the gun in the back pocket of her jeans. Chuck stands exactly in the same spot he had been crouching in before, with the metal lid and rim in his hand and a baffled expression on his face as he’s staring at something by his feet. “Mason jar wasn’t screwed on right, it slipped right out of my hands.”

He places the pieces he still holding on the counter.

Above them, there’s sounds, and frantic footsteps and – Ellie’s blood freezes in her veins – screeches.

“For the love of God, Chuck!” Ellie hisses, pulling her gun from her back pocket and clicking the safety off. 

“Fucking hell,” he grunts through gritted teeth, copying Ellie’s moves and taking his own gun out. “Let’s move, go!”

There’s dust falling from the ceiling getting closer and closer to them – meaning whatever Infected were up on the higher floor are getting closer to the same staircase she and Chuck are running to. Ellie leaps over an overturned display by the door and slams against it when it won’t open right away, despite her pressing down on the push bar like she’s aiming to go right through it. Chuck smashes into her, knocking the very wind out of her and causing the metal bar to dig painfully into her ribs.

With the added weight of Chuck’s body pressing down on the mechanism, the door finally flies open and they tumble onto the second-floor landing of the stairwell, with Ellie sliding on the floor until she smashes into the wall opposite the door.

It rings, so loud she can’t hear anything over it, not Chuck yelling something at her as he drags her up only for her to fall right back down to the floor and not the Infected that will show up any given second now.

She shakes her head.

“Get the fuck up, kid!” she finally hears Chuck scream into her ear. “We don’t have time for a nap!”

Honestly, she thinks she jumps to her feet on sheer adrenalin alone, but once she’s up nothing can drag her back down.

The next few seconds happen like in slow-motion. The door to the third floor swings open and Infected come tumbling out, much the same way she and Chuck did a few seconds earlier. Ellie counts at least four of them, all Runners by the looks of it.

“Motherfucking shit!”

Ellie leaps down the stairs, Chuck hot on her tail, and hits the ground running. She’s almost out when she feels something isn’t right and stops dead in her tracks. She can’t see him.

“Chuck? Chuck!”

She’s alone in the doorway to the waiting room of the clinic. Ellie looks around wildly. He couldn’t have passed her, she’d have seen him. Maybe he went the other way? No, there’s no exit that way, he wouldn’t have…

And then her heart fucking stops.

He’s still on the steps, holding on to the handrail and he’s… too small? Something isn’t right, he should be taller than this. Ellie’s heart drops when she realises why.

“Fucking hell, Chuck!”

His leg went through one of the steps, the same treacherous ones they’d been careful avoid stepping in the middle of on the way up, and he’s trying to pull himself out of it. His face is contorted in pain, his gun is nowhere to be seen, and holy shit this is not good.

Suddenly, his eyes snap up and find hers. “Just fucking run, Ellie! Go!”

The first Infected appears in her field of view.

There’s no way she can get there in time to stab it, but there’s still something she can try. Ellie lifts her gun, aims… and stills, for just the fraction of a second, because it’s already pounced on Chuck in the millisecond it took her to register what was happening.

She’s not a bad shot, far from it. Joel made sure she could handle herself if they ended up in a sticky situation when they were travelling from Boston in search of the Fireflies’ lab, and the following three years in Jackson with hardly anything to do meant she ended up doing a lot of target practice. She’s good, she knows this.

But the Runner is thrashing on top of Chuck so much, it makes it near impossible to aim for it without shooting the man under the Infected. Her eyes follow their moves, and then, Chuck punches it straight in the face, and its head snaps backward with a sickening crunch. For just a moment, its head is away from Chuck’s body.

That’s the opening Ellie had been waiting for.

She takes the shot just as the Runner launches toward Chuck’s face once more, the sound deafening in the confined space.

The Runner tumbles down the stairs, coming to an abrupt stop at Ellie’s feet, a gaping hole where his right eye had once been. It doesn’t move anymore.

After that, it comes easy to her, almost like she’s done this all her life. An Infected shows up at the top of the stairs, she shoots is, it rolls down the stairs before it can even touch Chuck, and she does the same with the next one, and the next, and the next, until the stairwell is silent except for her heavy breaths and she’s staring at a pile of corpses separating her from her companion.

She counts seven of them, not four like she’d first thought.

“Holy shit,” Chuck wheezes, still trying to pull himself free of the step trapping his leg in place. “Holy shit.”

Ellie climbs back up the steps, kicking a disarticulated arm out of her way. “What the fuck happened? Are you ok?”

“I’ll be just fine once we get out of here,” Chuck grunts. “Help me up, before more of them come along.”

She pulls on his coat and arms, and, combined with Chuck pulling on the handrail, his leg finally comes free, but the motion sends him down onto the pile of corpses below.

He grunts, rolls off the pile, and gets up, only to collapse against the wall with a whispered curse.

“Chuck, your leg…” she begins, eyes wide at the noticeably growing bloodstain on his pants, but he waves her off.

“There won’t be a leg to worry about if we don’t get the hell out of here,” he groans. Ellie swings one of his arms over her shoulders to support his weight and keep some of it off his injury, despite his protests.

They hobble out of the stairwell and into the clinic.

“Ellie, you should go,” Chuck says, out of breath. “There’s going to be more of them, and soon.”

“Like hell I’m leaving you here!” Ellie strains out. How in the world did he think she’d ever be able to leave him behind to save her own skin? “We’re getting out of here together or not at all, Chucky, get it through that thick head of yours. We’re almost out.”

They backtrack through the waiting room, Ellie pushes herself out of the window first, not caring now if the glass shards get stuck in her hands and thighs as she exits.

“Alright, your turn big… Holy fuck!” Ellie curses again.

The stampede of Infected is rapidly headed their way, coming out of the various buildings in search of whatever had made that much noise before, and zeroing in on the only thing out of place – Ellie, standing alone in the middle of the street.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Ellie stammers. “Get a move on!”

She leans back into the window she just left the waiting room from, reaches behind Chuck to join her hands in some sort of bear hug and throws all her weight backward into the street, pulling Chuck over with her.

Ellie’s hands don’t let go of him fast enough to avoid the back of her head hitting the frozen mailbox behind them. For a moment, the very buildings around her spin, but she pulls herself to her feet, Chuck doing the same while holding on to the mailbox for support.

“Right across the street, the information kiosk!” he points out. “Door’s right there, barricaded windows.”

20 feet to go, she tells herself, dragging Chuck along as the swarm of Infected gets closer, and closer, and louder, and louder. 15 feet.

Chuck stumbles on the sidewalk.

10 feet.

They’re getting closer, she knows it, hears it, but Ellie doesn’t turn around. There’s no need to waste precious seconds on witnessing the Infected’s relentless march toward them, not when they’re so close to safety.

5 feet. Please be unlocked, please be unlocked.

Ellie lets go of Chuck to dash to the door, praying to anyone willing to listen that the door wasn’t locked. It swings open, and Ellie tumbles inside, followed by Chuck, who hopped the rest of the way to the building.

She kicks the door shut and scrambles to her feet to look for something, anything, to keep it closed. Ellie can’t see anything, it’s too dark, her eyes aren’t used to the darkness after being outside, and they’re getting closer still, she can hear them through the door.

The sound of the first body hitting the door makes her jump.

“Shit,” Ellie breathes out nervously. “Chuck?”

“Right here,” comes his strained reply.

Her eyes are used to the darkness enough to make out his shape, slumped down against the door, bracing himself it. He’s holding it, she realises with a start.

Her eyes scan the surroundings. There’s a bookshelf in a corner. That’ll do.

She makes quick work of dragging it up to the door among the sounds of Infected slamming down against it, and the boarded-up windows, and she prays, fucking prays it holds.

“Get out of the way,” she grunts, and she tips it over. She barely notices Chuck rolling away from the door before the bookshelf crashes against it. It does the job of keeping it shut just fine, but Ellie still runs around the room a few times and pushes any piece of furniture she can next to it, and then, when there is no more space around, she stacks smaller items on top of it. The end results is a mountain of assorted furniture, and she’d actually laugh at how ridiculous it looks if only the monstrosity she created wasn’t the only barrier between them and the pack of screeching Infected waiting outside.

They’re still throwing themselves at the door, and the big information window that was boarded up with planks from the outside and locked shut with some sort of aluminum garage-door type of thing with a padlock. She hopes it holds. She fucking hopes it does.

Finally, when she’s satisfied there is no other way in or out of that room, she sits down on the bare cold floor and allows herself to catch her breath.

“Holy shit,” she exhales. “That was a close one.”

Chuck clears his throat from where he is still slumped on the floor. “I’d say.”

Ellie straightens up to look him over. He looks like shit. His leg is bloody, and even from all the way here she can see it is bent at an impossible angle at a place where legs do not usually bend.

“How bad is it?”

Chuck cringes. “Pretty bad. It’s broken for sure.”

Ellie leans her head back against the wall, trying her best to calm her racing heart and ignore the demented screams coming from outside and the muffled sound of bodies being hurled at the walls, trying to break in. Her scalp feels moist to the touch, and she brings a hand up to the back of her head, feeling around the painful area where she hit the mailbox. It feels bumpy, sure, but her fingers aren’t bloody when she looks at them. Her hair probably just feels wet because of the snow melting on her head.

She’ll have a few bruises come tomorrow morning – hell, she’s fairly sure there’s already one forming on her shoulder where she collided with the staircase’s wall – and she has a bunch of little cuts on her palms from the broken shards of glass on the windowsill, but she’s otherwise fine. All things considered, she’s doing as good as she could have hoped for.

She looks at Chuck one more time.

“Chuck.”

He looks up.

“Where’s your gas mask?” Chuck looks back down, fiddles with the torn fabric of his jeans, clenches his jaw, and her heart sinks, because it’s not like him to be this serious. “Tell me it’s a joke, Chuck, come on. It’s not funny anymore.”

Chuck shakes his head and if Ellie hadn’t been seated already, she’s sure her legs would’ve given out from under her.

“Runner ripped it off my face in the staircase,” he offers, almost like an apology.

No. No, no, no, no.

“Tell me it’s a bad joke, please,” Ellie begs. She never begs, but this just can’t be, it can’t, it can’t. Not him too.

Chuck closes his eyes for a second and opens them again to stare at the ceiling. His wet hair, with sweat, snow and blood, falls into his eyes, but he doesn’t push it away. He looks as dumfounded as she feels.

“I’ll bet leaving me there doesn’t seem like such a bad idea now, does it?”

“Shut the fuck up,” Ellie spits out. “There weren’t that many spores in the stairwell compared to the second floor, you might be just fine.”

She almost manages to convince herself – surely, the amount of spores had an impact on whether or not the person who inhaled them turned – but then she meets Chuck’s gaze.

“Ellie,” he whispers, and she wants to scream, she wants to hit something, or someone, because there’s so much resignation in the way he said her name it feels like she’s been punched in the gut.

Chuck unzips his coat, and then pulls the fabric of his collar away from his neck to expose a series of crescent shaped bites running from the spot where his ear meets his jaw down to where his neck meets his shoulder, right in the middle of the raven tattoo he has there.

His eyes never leave hers, even when he sees her shoulders sag in defeat, even as he lets the fabric fall back on his injured skin. “I’ve made it longer than anyone I knew before the Outbreak,” he chuckles humorlessly, his eyes looking mistier than usual. “Guess it had to end sometime. Might as well go out in a spectacular fashion.”

Ellie feels like she can’t breathe.

I didn’t notice. He was right in front of me and I didn’t notice.

Riley, Tess, Sam, Henry. All of them deserved more than they ended up with, all because of her, one way or another.  All of them died because of her.

And now she was going to have to add Chuck to that list.

“I’m so fucking sorry,” she whispers. Her voice catches on the last word, and she has to stop to catch her breath before continuing. “I should’ve been faster.”

She thinks back to the second she took to aim, to get the perfect shot at that Runner while it was clawing and biting at Chuck’s face without her noticing.

Right now, there’s nothing in the world she regrets as much as that damned second.

“And I should have been less heavy, maybe I wouldn’t have gone through that step,” he counters, dismissing her insinuation with a waving motion of her hand. “You still shot the whole lot of them, dragged my ass right out of there. You did all you could, Ellie.”

“But it wasn’t enough.”

The relentless banging on the walls continues, in sync with her thundering heart. Chuck keeps quiet. She wonders what’s possibly going through his head right now. Is he thinking about things he should’ve done, things he would’ve done differently if given the chance?

“So, what’s the plan?” she asks shakily. She doesn’t really want to know.

Chuck glances down at his ruined leg. “It’s not like I can go anywhere, anyway. Not with a broken leg. Not that it would matter,” he scowls, gesturing to his neck. “I guess… we hope they go away before I turn. And you go back to Jackson.” 

She can’t find it in her to reply anything, doesn’t have the strength to, so she lies on her back and stares at the ceiling and does her best to ignore the Infected and how her heart feels like it’s been stepped on.

They stay like this for five hours, according to Chuck’s watch beeping every hour and still, she can hear them outside, circling, prowling. Waiting for their prey to be forced out.

Chuck is breathing heavily now. The bites have already started to bubble on his skin, spreading, and he’s sweating profusely, the fever catching up to him.  

It’s like seeing Riley turn again, and still feeling helpless.

“Ellie,” Chuck finally says. His flashlight has long since died, and Ellie’s is the only source of light that remains, and the shadows it creates on his face accentuate his somber look. “Do you still have your gun?”

Ellie nods, holding it up in front of her so he can see it.

He nods in turn. “Good, good. I’m going to ask for a favor.”

Ellie bolts in a seated position, alarmed, and the gun clangs on the tile floor when she drops it. Chuck doesn’t look at her, like he knows she’s figured out what he’s asking of her already, knows how huge it is.

“No. I know where you’re headed, and it’s out of the question.”

She hopes he can’t hear the panic in her voice, the tremors giving her away. The gun beside her suddenly seems like a formidable threat, daunting in the shadows just out of reach of the beam of light emanating from her flashlight, and she can’t face it, she just can’t.

“Hear me out,” Chuck pleads, finally meeting her eyes. “I’m going to die anyway. I’m just asking to die while I still remember my own name. Before I try to kill you.”

“You’re asking me to kill you,” she spits out.

“I know! It’s a horrible, horrible thing to ask, but what other options do we have? Look, just kick the gun over, I’ll do it myself.”

“I’m not doing that either!”

Chuck looks at her, jaw clenched tight and fingers shakily curling into clamped fists. There are tears welling up in his eyes, and Ellie feels her own threatening to fall. I can’t do this. I can’t do this.

“Okay,” he finally replies. “I get it. I shouldn’t have asked. Can you do something else for me then?”

“Anything,” her answer shoots out of her mouth, automatic. She’s denying him his dying wish, there’s nothing else he can ask for that she could refuse him right now.

Chuck reaches into his coat, wincing as his fingers brush against the torn skin on his neck as his hand looks for something. When it reappears, it is clasped around a chain, which he pulls over his head and then turns it over between his fingers a few times before finally extending his hand toward Ellie, the chain dangling freely over the floor.

“Get rid of my things for me, will you?”

Ellie walks over, slowly, and takes it into her own hands. Hooked to the chain is a rusted key, smaller than any she had encountered before. His house key.

Chuck’s looking up at her expectantly.

“I’ll do it,” she confirms, placing the chain safely around her own neck and tucking it inside her shirt, next to the Firefly dog-tags she still kept safely on her at all times.

Chuck breathes out a sigh of relief and finally allows himself to sink down to the floor and curl up next to a chair. “Thank you. I think I’ll just, you know, take a nap.”

Neither of them are good with goodbyes, much less when that goodbye is a permanent one, and they know it.

Ellie walks back to the opposite side of the room, her back to the wall, and lets herself slide down to the floor, her eyes alternating between making sure the boarded up door and windows hold up to the relentless beating the Infected are subjecting them to, and watching’s Chuck’s still shape.

In this moment, surrounded by screaming Infected and locked in a room with her friend, Ellie’s never felt so alone.

***

Ellie jerks awake, lying on the cold, hard tile floor, her whole left side asleep. Stupid, falling asleep like that…

For a second, she doesn’t know what woke her – Runners are still yelling, Clickers are still clicking, albeit less… angrily?

Then she hears the whimper coming from behind her.

Her flashlight gave out, so the only source of light is the moonlight seeping in from a crack between two of the planks on the window, and it takes a few blinks for her eyes to adjust.

She sees Chuck first, hunched over in the middle of the room, shoulders shaking. The whimper came from him, she realises with a start, and her heart plummets at the thought of what could possibly cause a man his size and hardened by years of hard work to emit a sound like that.

She sees the gun after.

Out of reflex, her hand goes to her back pocket, where she normally keeps it, even though she knows the weapon Chuck is holding up to his temple with shaking hands is hers.

“Chuck, don’t do this, please,” she calls out.

His whole body jerks in shock at the sound of her voice, but his hand stays on the gun, and the gun stays pressed against the side of his head. Ellie walks around to face him, slowly, careful to keep her distance. How long had she been sleeping? It had already been a few hours since he’d been bitten when he had laid down, facing away from her…

His eyes are bloodshot, his skin red and grey-ish at the same time, and sweat is profusely trickling down his face and neck. Not only sweat, Ellie observes, tears too.

“Chucky, come on, big guy,” she tries again. “Put the gun down.”

His breathing is shaky and uneven, but what gets Ellie the most is how hollow is eyes look, how utterly defeated. “I was hoping you wouldn’t wake up,” he spits out. Even his voice sounds different, strained. Like he’s fighting himself.

She realises he is.

If she wasn’t convinced Chuck was turning before, she is now, and every fiber of his being is fighting to hold on just a little bit longer.

“You stole my gun,” Ellie points out.

Chuck nods, his eyes pointedly still trained on the tiled floor, on the streak of blood from his injured leg he left on it when he dragged himself to the weapon. “You didn’t want to shoot me. I couldn’t risk hurting you because of that.”

Her throat closes up to the point where she can’t breathe, her chest constricts to the point where she thinks her heart has no more room to keep beating the way it should.

“I can’t do it,” he grunts, teeth clenched tight and fingers gripping the handle of the gun even tighter, judging by how white his knuckles are. She sees the shift in his features before he even spits out his next words. “I can’t fucking do it, Ellie!”

She steps back at the force of his scream, reverberating off the wall of the room until it’s all Ellie can hear.

“I have my finger on the trigger, and I can’t pull on it. I’m a fucking coward,” he continues. His hand shakes.

And he looks so broken, so unlike the strong, carefree, capable man she’s come to consider as one of her closest friends, Ellie can’t do anything but bite back a strangled cry, and angrily wipe the stray tear escaping her eye.

“Do you fucking understand?” he shouts, out of breath even though he’s immobile.

She knows she shouldn’t take it personally, knows it’s the Infection spreading talking more than her friend, but it feels like Chuck kicked her straight in the face. He’s breathing hard, and she watches helplessly as bites down on his fist and screams, screams at the ground, his whole body twitching. The sound is muffled by his own hand. It sounds like it’s coming from someone else.

She knows what’s going to happen next, whether it’s from his hand or hers. There’s no turning back now.

She’s made up her mind.

Ellie takes a step forward, only stopping herself from taking another one because Chuck suddenly straightens up and points the gun at her. It wavers – his nervous system is shutting down on him – but there’s no way he’ll miss from four feet away.

She stills. “Let me help you,” Ellie whispers. “Give me the gun.”

He shakes his head. “I have to do this!”

“Hand the gun over, Chuck. I’ll do it. I’ll do it. I promise,” Ellie presses on and the dam breaks.

She’s the one shaking now, from the sheer restraint needed to keep a hold of herself, to keep herself upright as she makes her offer, though every part of her is screaming against it. Her eyes burn and the first tear escapes, followed by another, and another, until even the collar of her jacket is drenched.

But she owes him that much, at least.

She takes another step. The gun wavers even more. Then she takes another, and another, until her fingers wrap around the barrel, and her other hand comes to rest on the hand Chuck is using to hold the handle. In contrast to her cold fingers, his hand is burning hot. “Let go, Chuck,” Ellie orders, as firmly as she can. “Trust me.”

His eyes snap up to hers, bloodshot, empty, desperate. And he lets go of the weapon.  

It’s her gun. She’s been carrying it for years, but now, as its weight settles in her hand, it feels foreign.

Don’t do this.

Don’t.

Ellie’s hand shakes.

I can’t do this.

I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.

“Are you sure about this?”

Chuck rests his hand on top of hers and guides the gun to his forehead, leaning against the barrel. His eyes close briefly, and his bottom lip quivers. “I’m not ready to go,” he confesses, voice breaking, “but I know I have to.” He opens his eyes again and stares at the ceiling – he’s terrified. She can tell.

It fucking breaks her.

Be strong, Ellie.

When he lowers his eyes to hers again, she doesn’t see a man who’s scared to die. She sees a man with an unbreakable resolve, she sees someone who didn’t treat her differently because she wasn’t as grown up as the rest of them, she sees the friend who kept the secret of the bites he covered up for himself for two years now.

She sees the survivor who wants to make sure his people are alright, one last time.

“I don’t know if I can do this,” Ellie breathes out through the sobs racking her body.

Chuck’s crying too, and it’s all Ellie can focus on. It’s like there’s only the two of them left in the world, like nothing exists beyond this room. “For once in my life, I want to be selfish. Let me be selfish, Ellie. Please, just pull the trigger.”

He bows his head, his chin coming to rest against his chest, and the motion makes the point of contact between the gun and his head slide slightly higher the where it originally was on his forehead, the barrel now resting on the top of his head.

Still, Ellie can’t pull the trigger.

“I’m sorry to ask this of you.”

She lets a teary chuckle escape her lips. “This sure as shit isn’t the way I was expecting to pay you back for those tattoos,” she manages to get out, wiping at her face with her sleeve so she can try to see more clearly.

“That’s not the way I was thinking of either,” he replies, and she thinks he might’ve smiled a little, though his head is still bent down so she can’t tell for sure. “Go on, Kiddo. It’s my time.”

Ellie’s grip tightens on the gun.

And she sinks to her knees in front of him, bringing a hand against Chuck’s neck on his uninjured side, her thumb brushing away the tears on his cheek and her other fingers wrapping around the back of his neck. She lifts his head.

“I’m not going to shoot you execution style,” she states, and there’s no space for discussion. “You deserve better than to go out like a wounded animal.”

Chuck smiles wearily. “Thank you.”

Each intake of breath hurts her lungs, like her own ribcage is fighting for all of this to just stop. There’s no amount of wiping that can keep up with the stream of tears pouring out of her eyes now.

She’s never been good at goodbyes. “You did so much for me… I wish I could’ve done more for you.”

“You’re already doing more than I’ve ever had the right to ask of a seventeen-year-old. I mean it, Ellie. Thank you.”

She readjusts her fingers on the handle, moves her index from the trigger guard to the actual trigger. Her heart’s pounding against her chest, and everything is spinning out of control, and Ellie thinks for a second she might pass out. “I’m going to miss you so fucking much,” she blurts out, and it comes out more of a strangled cry than a statement. Her fingers squeeze his face tighter. He doesn’t complain.

“You’ll get over it,” he whispers back. “I, Ah… I feel like I should say some wise words, right about now, so, you know… don’t be afraid to take the leap.”

They both chuckle feebly, tearily, at that. “I have no idea what’s that supposed to mean.”

“Neither do I, but I’m sure you’ll end up in a situation where it’s applicable advice.”

He exhales loudly, and his hands come to rest on her knees. He doesn’t have to tell her for Ellie to know that this is it – he’s ready, or as ready as he’ll ever be.

Her heartbeat goes wild, not only going faster but apparently skipping beats now too.

I can’t.

Her heart’s in her throat. She feels sick to her stomach, and her hand trembles so much she’s afraid she won’t be able to shoot at all.

This is too hard.

The first strangled sob escapes her lips, followed by others she can’t hold back anymore. She doesn’t want to anymore. She has no strength left for that.

“Goodbye, Chuck.”

He gives her a thin smile, a mere shadow of the beaming ones that used to live on his face before.

“Goodbye, Ellie.”

She wants to close her eyes, wants to screw them shut so she doesn’t have to see what she’s going to do, but Chuck’s staring into her eyes, and he trusts her to do this, and she has to do this right, has to do right by him.

She keeps them open and squeezes the trigger.

Everything happens in rapid succession.

The gunshot rings out, deafening, final, infinite.

Blood, and other things she can’t even begin to think about, rains down on her face, and jacket and hands.

She feels Chuck’s hands slide from her knees and his face slips away from her grasp as his now lifeless body tumbles backwards.

The Infected outside screech and throw themselves at her hideout once more, with renewed energy.

She hears an ear-splitting tortured wail, a sound so filled with grief, and anger, and pain, that it can’t possibly come from one person alone.

She realises it’s coming from her.

***

It takes two days, according to Chuck’s still-hourly-beeping watch.

Two days of sitting alone in that information kiosk after she broke anything that could possibly break inside – furniture, decoration, her own wrist when she punched the wall in grief.

Two days of keeping an ear peeled for the sounds of the Infected, waiting patiently for them to go away. Hoping they would before she starved.

Two days of staring at Chuck’s lifeless body, slumped on the floor, head covered by her jacket because she couldn’t bear to look at the gaping hole she’d left in his forehead for one second longer.

Two days of scratching at the deep red, almost black bloodstains on her pants, hoping it comes out, trying to forget how the pool of blood had spread quickly, and how she hadn’t noticed until she’d been kneeling in it.

Two days of knowing she should be hungry, thirsty, tired and cold, but unable to feel any of that and realising their rations are in Chuck’s backpack, and that, like his mask, is nowhere to be found.

It takes two days.

It takes two days, but it’s finally quiet outside.

The Infected are gone, as far as she can tell, or at least, took shelter into the nearby buildings, and she slaves away for an hour, trying to move all the furniture away from where she piled them up. Her hand should hurt, but it doesn’t.

When it’s done, she crouches by the door and listens.

Still no sound.  

Her eyes fall to Chuck’s body, and her heart gives a painful tug. She can’t leave him here to be devoured by animals, or rot in this very room where he died.

“I’ll bring you home,” Ellie whispers, voice hoarse. Her dry, chapped lips crack at the sudden, unexpected use of her mouth.

She pulls one of her hoodies over her head, ties the arms together in a knot around Chuck’s chest, making sure it comes to rest under his arms so she has leverage to pull him. She then rips out the side of the bookshelf and rolls his body over it. She carves two indentations in the wood, one on each side of Chuck’s waist, and then slides his belt out from the beltloops of his jeans and secures it around his body and the plank so he’s strapped on. 

She should be cold – it’s January, she spent two days hauled up in a building with no heating with only two layers of hoodies on her to keep her warm, and now she’s down to one – but she isn’t. Or maybe she doesn’t give a shit anymore.

Her contraption works, for the most part. Over the next day, Ellie drags Chuck’s body across the snow, slaving away to pull a dead body almost twice her weight. She leaves a trail, but no bloodstain behind – after two days, she doesn’t think he has anymore blood to lose, and besides, he’s frozen to the core now.

She drinks melted snow when she takes breaks, when her body feels like it can’t possibly go on, and then she starts again, a relentless, macabre march.

At one point, she starts to feel sick, because it occurs to her that she’s wearing one chain around her neck as a reminder of the friend she couldn’t save, the friend who slowly lost her mind, and now, she’s wearing the other one for the friend she shot before he could lose his.

She throws up in the snow.

Her hoodie, the one she’d been using as a pulling rope, rips out an hour away from Jackson. She leaves it in the snow, dragging Chuck along by the collar of his jacket.

He’d probably find it hilarious, if he was still alive to see this.

It’s well into the night when she emerges from the treeline, and she’s never been so thankful to see Jackson’s tall walls and even taller watch towers. She hears a bell ring, distant, eerie. Their sounding the alarm.

Everything spins.

Ellie’s knees give out from under her and Chuck’s collar slips from her grip. She collapses face first in the snow.

I made it.

She turns her face to see the gates open, and shapes coming at her, wobbly, hazy, and she thinks she mumbles something about having to bring Chuck back home, and then they fade to black.

 

 

“She’s lucky she’s still alive.”

 

 

“Hypothermia, broken wrist, bump on her head… we’ll have to wait until she wakes up to see if she has a concussion.”

 

 

“They put him in the shed behind the church, until they can dig him a grave. Ground’s frozen, so it might take a while.”

 

 

“I wonder what happened.”

 

 

When she drifts in and out of consciousness, Ellie catches glimpses of conversations. Never images, just sounds, and then she goes under again. One time, it’s just a blinding light, and no sound.

Then the next time, she’s conscious enough to take in her surroundings, though she spends a few minutes just blinking at the bright white light overhead until her eyes adjust. She’s in a bed in the clinic. On a chair, by the door, there’s one of her other jackets from her room – Joel must’ve brought it over, along with a spare set of clothes. Ellie peers down under the heavy blanket covering her to see she’s only wearing a hospital gown. There’s no traces of her old clothes.

Joel is slumped in an armchair, by her side, his head tilted back, and lips slightly parted. He’s fast asleep, though the lines on his face betray the worried state he had been in when he had drifted off.

What happened?

It comes rushing back so fast she feels like she can’t breathe. The Infected. Chuck. The gun. The blood.

She slips out of bed, despite her head spinning and her whole body protesting, and takes the needle attached to a pouch of clear liquid out of the inside of her elbow. The cast on her arm is still damp.

Getting dressed silently, she slips out of the room.

She can’t stay here.

 

 

Chuck’s house feels too big and too small at the same time, too dark and too bright, too hot and too cold. Mostly, it feels wrong. Like it shouldn’t still be standing when he isn’t there anymore.

She doesn’t know where to start, but she knows she has one last thing to do.

She’s packing a box of kitchen utensils when there’s footsteps on the porch, and Dina appears, her expression a mix of anger, concern and relief. “I’m not going to stop,” Ellie warns before she has a chance to speak.

“Like hell you are,” Dina retorts. “You should still be at the clinic right now, not packing boxes. You’re in no shape to be on your feet. Joel and I have been looking everywhere for you, he thinks you went home. Fucking half the town’s looking for you right now!”

She answers like it’s the simplest thing in the world. “He asked me to get rid of his stuff.”

“I don’t think he meant right the fuck when you got here!”

Ellie doesn’t listen, moving on to plates and bowls, and she can’t stop because what else is she supposed to do now?

“You’re going to kill yourself, Ellie…”

“I don’t care, I’m not going back to the clinic.”

The hand on her good wrist makes her jump. “Ellie, come back with me.”

Her cast-covered hand drops a plate, and it shatters to the ground. Whatever control over her emotions she thought she had, it disappears with that plate, and she’s so angry she’s afraid she’s going to push Dina right through the wall, right then and there.

“You know, he hated scavenging trips, and we went anyway, and for what? There was nothing there, Dina, nothing! Chuck died for nothing!”

She only notices she’s yelling when Dina winces at the volume, but she keeps quiet. There is nothing she could say that would make any of this better, and she knows this. Instead she reaches out and pulls Ellie to her, cold fingers against numb skin.

All the fight goes right out of her.

She’s so, so tired.

“It’s not fair,” Ellie mumbles against the skin of Dina’s neck. She’s holding on to the other girl’s waist like her life depends on it, like she’s going to drift away into nothingness if she so much as loosens her grip. Her vision is blurry and when she squeezes her eyes shut, the tears spill out uncontrollably, getting lost somewhere in the blanket of dark hair surrounding her. “He died terrified, Dina. He didn’t fucking deserve this. It’s not fair.

Dina strokes the back of her neck softly. “I know, Freckles. I know,” she breathes out in a shaky, low voice.

Ellie doesn’t know when exactly her knees collapse under her, but when they do, Dina slides right down to the floor with her, never breaking contact. Not when her tears drench her sweater, not even when her sobs get so intense it makes her whole body shake with grief. Dina stays right there, holding her and whispering comforting things in her ear until Ellie feels as if her eyes have dried up for good.

Ellie pulls away. Dina’s eyes are red and her cheeks are tear-stained. She’s been crying too. Dina’s hands slide from Ellie’s back and neck, along her shoulders and down her arms until she feels cold fingers tangle with her own. “Come on,” she begins, tugging at her as she rises to her feet. “Let’s get you home.”

Ellie nods and allows herself to be led out of Chuck’s house, all the way down to her own home.

She’s so out of it she has no idea which path they sed to get there.

Joel grumbles something when they come in, though she doesn’t understand what – or maybe she doesn’t care. She thinks he mentions something about calling off a search party. She just heads up the stairs and collapses on her bed, snow-covered boots and winter coat still on. She hears them talking, faintly, him and Dina, hushed voices doing their best not to be too loud.

It doesn’t matter if she hears them or not, she can’t find in her to give a shit about it.

After a while, she drifts off into uneasy sleep.

 

 

“Let me be selfish,” she hears Chuck plead. “Do it.”

Before her eyes, his features begin to shift, his eyes glossing over and hard plates of fungus sprouting through his skull. “Do it.”

He’s getting bigger, somehow – or is she getting smaller? – and soon, he stands tall above her, bubbling saliva dripping from his mouth and his rotten teeth falling out onto her head like a nightmarish downpour. “Do it.”

She can’t run away, frozen in place, her limbs feeling like they weight a ton. The gun in her hand feels foreign as she struggles to lift it. “Do it!” 

He lunges at her, all screech and snarl and teeth and rage, and she pulls the trigger.

 

 

Ellie sits straight up in bed, breathing heavy, covered in sweat and the ghost of a strangled scream dying on her lips. The echo of the gunshot still rings in her ears.

She registers the moonlight bathing the room in a soft blue glow – her room. Not the decrepit information kiosk they had hidden away in to avoid Clickers. Her room, with the floor covered in clean and dirty laundry alike, with piles of comics and magazines and books decorating the various flat surfaces and her collection of CDs and tapes sitting on one shelf next to her walk-man. With her guitar sitting patiently in the closet, behind the door that wouldn’t open all the way anymore.

It calms her thundering heartrate just a little, just enough to start noticing other things. Like the way her face feels bloated, her eyes burn and her throat feels sore. She blinks a few times.

Though Ellie distinctly remembers going to sleep fully clothed, her feet are now bare. Her coat is hanging neatly on the hook behind her door, her boots are placed right by the door and her faded grey hoodie is folded and resting on her desk chair in the corner next to… a leg holster?

Dina.

She notices the hand just resting on her arm, though she can’t tell how long it’s been touching her like this for. “Dina? What are you doing here?” she asks, her voice raspy.

She sees her eyes reflect the moonlight, filled with worry, notices the bags under them. She’s lying on her side, her hand on Ellie’s arm is the only place where their two bodies touch.

“Didn’t think you should be alone tonight,” she whispers back. Her hand finally moves from her arm to go up to her shoulder and press down on it. Lie down, it says. Ellie lets her body fall flat against her mattress, her head bouncing off the pillow, and it would be easy, so easy to dive into the comfort Dina offers and pretend none of the world outside exists, but she can’t bare to face anyone right now. Not even Dina.

She turns on her side as soon as she’s flat on her bed and faces the window. Her t-shirt is drenched in sweat and sticks to her back and chest, and her hair is stuck to her forehead. Outside, the snowstorm she fought through to come back is still raging.

Dina presses herself against her back and her arm snakes around her chest, completely disregarding her current uninviting state to wrap her in a cocoon of warmth and safety. She pulls the covers over them both, and she just waits, quietly. “I don’t want to talk about it,” Ellie blurts out when it becomes apparent Dina’s waiting for her to speak. Her voice is still shaky and threatening to break over every syllable that leaves her lips.

She feels Dina nod behind her, holding her just a little tighter than before. “We don’t have to, but I’m here if you change your mind.”

She presses a kiss against the back of Ellie’s neck and starts half-humming, half-whispering a song she can’t quite place, and, truly, she has a horrible singing voice, but the melody is soothing, and grounding, and Ellie drifts off again before long.

This time, she doesn’t dream at all.

***

“I knew I’d find you here,” a voice calls out behind her.

Ellie doesn’t turn to see who the voice belongs to – she could recognize her from her footsteps alone if need be. “I’m not exactly trying to hide.”

She’s sitting in the middle of a tapestry of laid-out drawings, cross-legged on the floor of Chuck’s living room. He’d asked her to get rid of his things, and that’s what she meant to do, only she hadn’t thought through how much his place would remind her of him.

Maybe Joel had been right. Maybe it was too early to jump into all of this, but she needed to do something, anything, to keep her mind off the fact that she never again would bicker with the red-headed man on watch shifts, that he never would brutally knock some sense into her oblivious self.

That’s she’d never hear his booming laughter resonate off the walls of the community center.

Her throat tightens painfully.

Dina approaches slowly, stopping near the door to take off her boots, and sits next to Ellie. She reaches out to grab one of the drawings, an amazing picture of the view Ellie recognized as the one from atop Watch Tower 6, facing the mountains and featuring a lazy waterfall in the background. “Chuck really was good,” she comments, holding another drawing up to her eyes. “I can’t believe he’s gone.”

Ellie throat tightens again. “Yeah,” she breathes out, her voice threatening to give out altogether.

Dina takes a look around the room. Ellie spent the whole day going through his things, putting whatever could still be used by other people in boxes on one side of the door, and by now, she was left with the pile of drawings at her feet and a locked metal box that she had found tucked in the cupboard under the kitchen sink.

Crazy how all traces of one’s life could be put away in the span of an afternoon…

“He gave me a key, when he told me to clean out his things,” Ellie begins, clearing her throat like that would cover how different her voice sounds, how raw it sounds now, even to her own ears. “I thought it was the key to his house, but his front door doesn’t even have a keyhole.”

Ellie fumbles with the key, safely tucked into the front pocket of her flannel shirt.

Dina shifts a little closer. “Does it open that thing?” she asks, nodding in the direction of the metal box Ellie had her gaze trained on.

“I think so.”

Dina nods. “It was Chuck’s funeral today.”

“I know,” Ellie finally snaps out of her observation to look at Dina. She’s wearing her nice coat, the one without all the patched-up holes and tears in it, and for once, her hair is down while she’s out and about, and not just lounging around at her place. The leg holster is nowhere to be seen either. She made an effort to dress nicely today. “It didn’t feel right to go.”

Dina reaches an arm out to wrap it around Ellie’s shoulders, and Ellie rests her head down against her friend’s shoulder for a moment. “Why?” Dina’s soft question breaks the moment and Ellie tenses up. “I know you said you didn’t want to talk about it before, and you still don’t have to tell me, Freckles. It’s just… I feel like you’re pulling away. Don’t shut down on us, Ellie.”

Your friends and family are going to want to help you. Don’t close yourself off.

Ellie straightens up and takes a deep breath. She feels hollow, like none of his matters anymore, anyway. “I don’t want you to think less of me when I tell you,” she confesses, the words coming out of their own accord.

“Not possible. I promise,” Dina reaches out her hand to give her good one a reassuring squeeze. “I’m not promising not to smack you upside the head, though.”

Ellie chuckles tearily. Dina hand gives another squeeze, and Ellie squeeze her own fingers around hers in response, tighter. “Remember, you promised.”

“Talk to me, Ellie.”

There’s no judgment in Dina’s deep brown eyes, only curiosity, and more than a little bit of sympathy. Maybe that’s why she finds the words so easily.

“We were ambushed. There were these Runners, hauled up on the third floor of that goddamned pharmacy, and Chuck dropped a mason jar on the second floor, and it shattered, and we started hearing them coming toward us. So we ran out of there, as fast as we could. I jumped down to the ground floor – honestly I don’t think I touched even one of those steps, but then I was running out of there, and there was this crash behind me. Chuck’s leg went through one of the steps. His leg was broken and he was stuck there, and the I could see them, the Runners, coming at him. I knew there was no way I’d get there in time, I was too far away already. By the time I took my gun out, the first one had already pounced on him. I shot it, then the second one, and so on until there were no more out there. We hid in an information kiosk, but the Infected were still circling around us so we had to wait it out.”

Dina is rubbing circles on the back of her hand, encouraging her to go on, even though Ellie’s hold is probably crushing her fingers.

“That’s when he told me he’d been bitten.”

“Oh, shit,” Dina breathes out. “What did you do?”

“I didn’t know what to do. He asked me to shoot him, and I said no. I told him there was this chance he was immune, like me. He just looked at me and nodded, but I knew he didn’t really believe it. I fell asleep at some point. When I woke up, he had a gun to his head, and I could tell he was starting to turn. I couldn’t say no again.”

Her vision blurs again. “I fucking shot him, Dina. I shot my friend.”

Dina gets up and sits down in the empty space between Ellie’s legs, bringing her legs around Ellie’s hips and sneaking her arms around her. Before long, Ellie finds herself completely surrounded by her. “I’m sorry, Freckles. I can’t imagine what it felt like.”

“I couldn’t leave him there,” Ellie continues, her voice muffled by Dina’s neck. “He deserved more than that.”

“You did so good, Ellie,” Dina whispers. “So good. He’d be proud of you.”

The tears sting her eyes once more. She’s so tired of crying all the time, but she can’t seem to stop, and now her head hurts.

“I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have to be my human tissue all the time,” she pulls away from Dina, trying her best to wipe off the trail of tears that made their way along her neck, but she just ends up knocking her on the side of the head with her cast.

Dina laughs half-heartedly. “I’ll be your tissue anytime you need me to.”

“Fuck, that’s like the worst job in the world.”

“Guess I’m just lucky like that.”

Dina wipes the tears from Ellie’s face, before leaning back and reaching behind her to bring the locked metal box between them. It’s a simple thing, really – a metal box with a padlock on it, rusted along the edges and featuring fancy swirly patterns on the corners – but it’s heavy. Dina sets it down on her thighs.

“What do you want to do with this?”

“I should probably open it,” Ellie says, pulling the key and chain out of the pocket of her checkered shirt. “It kind of scares me, to be honest. The guy never locked his doors, but this he locks? What the hell’s in there?”

Dina chuckles, and Ellie looks at her like she’s grown a second head, until she shares her thought. “Maybe he’s gifting you his porn collection.”

“Dina!”

“Sorry, just trying to lighten the mood a little,” Dina offers sheepishly. She fiddles with the padlock. “You can just bring it home, you know. Look at it when you feel ready. There’s no need to do this now.”

Ellie gulps. She doesn’t think she’ll ever be totally prepared for whatever Chuck wanted her to find and dispose of, not now, not tomorrow, not even next week.

“Will you stay with me?” she asks Dina, and they both know this is as close to asking for help as she will get.

Dina smiles shyly. “As long as you want me to.”

Ellie takes the key and unlocks the box.

Nothing jumps up at her when she opens the lid, not even the porn collection Dina had suggested earlier. Inside is a pile of letters, held together by strings, and a few other items underneath, along with pictures. She can’t place many of the settings, though, but she recognizes a much younger, and much less tattooed Chuck, smiling widely at whoever was holding the camera at that specific moment in time.

It is so weird to see him so young, carefree… still alive, when she knows him to be dead now. It’s mesmerizing.

“Hey, look at this one,” Dina points out, a picture held in front of her. It’s Chuck, for sure, and two other guys, roughly around the same age she and Dina are now, if Ellie had to guess. They all look kind of alike to her, with the notable exception being Chuck’s hair standing out in stark contrast to the other two’s brown head of hair, once again. They’re leaning on some sort of wooden railing, with the boy on his left actually sitting on it. Behind them, she can see waves crashing onto a beach of pale, almost white sand. “Do you think these were his brothers?”

She turns the picture over and sure enough, there is a legend on the back. Thomas and William and me, Florida, August 2010. “Maybe. I don’t know, he never really mentioned any family.”

They go through more photos, laughing at the ridiculous hairstyles Chuck was sporting in some of them, until Ellie brings another one up to her eyes and stills, the chuckle dying on her lips.

Lily. 7 pounds, 3 ounces. December 12th, 2012 (would’ve been mom’s 45th birthday)

The photo shows an ecstatic-looking Chuck, beaming proudly as he hugs a tired but smiling woman holding a baby huddled in pink blankets. They all have white bracelets and the woman is hooked up to some machines behind them. What for, Ellie doesn’t know. The picture is faded and creased in some places from being folded multiple times over the years, but it doesn’t take anything away from the peaceful moment that was captured.

“Chuck was a dad,” Ellie states, amazed at the thought. The words feel weird on her tongue, like Chuck and dad were two words never meant to belong in the same sentence, but at the same time she can just see it, so clearly. Chuck getting up in the middle of the night to feed a screaming baby, spending hours upon hours drawing her whenever he felt like it, proudly parading his daughter around like nothing more beautiful had ever existed.

Dina looks over the picture, smiling. “How do you even know it’s his kid?”

“Have you seen the hair on that kid? No way that’s not his,” Ellie jokes half-heartedly, pointing at the tuff of bright red hair poking out of the blankets. “Besides, I’ve seen that date before. On his wrist. I never asked him what it meant, but he kept touching it when he was thinking too hard about something.”

She puts the picture back in the box, at the bottom of the pile, and picks up another one. Each one holds memories, special moments Chuck had managed to keep with him through the past twenty-something years.

“What do you think happened to her?” Dina asks after a while, once they’ve gone through most of the contents of the box.

Ellie shrugs. “I don’t know. He never talked about her, and she’s not here now… my guess is she died.”

They find other pictures depicting various moments of his life, up until September 2013, when the Outbreak happened, and then they move on to the letters. These are mostly Chuck’s thoughts on paper, along with some quick scribbles and full-sized drawings, nothing spectacular, except for one letter.

Ellie’s throat tightens as she reads the page in her hands. “Dina? I found it. When the Outbreak hit, his kid was with her mom on a trip to visit her parents in Colorado. He wasn’t able to find them after.”

Dina starts to place the items back in the box, especially careful not to break the pair of tiny white baby shoes they had found in there. “That’s worse than knowing she died, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know. Losing Sarah fucking destroyed Joel. I think he would have preferred to be able to pretend she was doing well, somewhere, even if it was without him.”

Dina nods. “God, can you imagine if she was still alive? The girl would be like, in her mid-twenties by now.”

Ellie locks the box back up and helps Dina to her feet. “Shame she’ll never know how amazing her dad was.”

Ellie picks up all the drawings and drops them in a box along with the metal lockbox. The rest of the house is neatly packed away, clothes and furniture and decoration alike.

“What are you doing with this?” Dina asks, handing her the box.

Ellie thinks for a second. “I’ll keep the pictures and the letters. But his drawings… it feels wrong to hide them away. His art was so good, it shouldn’t disappear with him.”

“You could put it up in your room.”

“Nah. I have a better idea.”

Dina walks out, waiting for her expectantly on the porch. Ellie turns around to take in the empty house one last time. Something catches her eye, in the big box of DVDs she put away. Two words, white on a black background. The Shining.

 

I could probably lend it to you, sometime.

 

She reaches out with a bittersweet smile and grabs the movie, placing it safely inside her jacket.

 

“Goodbye, Chuck,” she whispers to no one in particular, her eyes surveying the empty house. “I’ll miss you, big guy.”

She turns off the lights and walks out, closing the door behind her.

***

By the time the next week rolls around, Ellie shows up at the little library room in the community centre, a scrapbook under her hand. It is displayed proudly on a shelf, with “Chuck’s Artwork” written on the spine in Ellie’s uneven handwriting, and people consult it often, whenever they miss him.

There’s something comforting in knowing he’ll be remembered for what he liked to do best, even by people who didn’t have the privilege of knowing him first-hand.

It makes the gaping hole he left in their lives just a little easier to handle.

Chapter Text

Ellie used to sleep like a baby. As far back as she could remember, she had never had much trouble falling asleep, or staying asleep.

Now she can’t even remember the last time she slept through the night.

It’s always the same thing. She’d fall asleep, be caught up in a wonderful, peaceful dream, and then it’d twist into a nightmare featuring progressively more hellish-looking Infected speaking in Chuck’s voice. Every time, she’d be forced to shoot him, or die.

Every time, she woke up in cold sweat and remember that he really was gone, and that she really did shoot him.

It became a habit, then, to sneak silently downstairs and just sit quietly by the window in the living room, staring at the streets of Jackson until the town would wake up, lights appearing in the windows of her neighbor’s house and people starting to head out to their assigned tasks for the day. Sometimes she would read, sometimes she would try to figure out how to solve that stupid Rubik’s cube that Joel was always toying with – so far, she couldn’t figure the damn thing out.

One thing remained the same, however.

Once she’d been awakened by her nightmares, she could not go back to sleep.

It becomes a routine. She’ll wake up, wait until it’s time for her to head out for the day, go about her daily tasks and assignments, come home, eat and then lock herself up in her room. It was easier to stay in the relative peace of the house she shared with Joel than to deal with the stare of nosy people burning a hole through her back. She could hear them, sometimes, whispering about how they heard a rumor that she had just shot Chuck, and that her account of the events was just a cover-up story. Mostly, she tried to tune them out. None of them were there, none of them had seen the bites on Chuck’s body.

People tended to gossip when they had too much free time on their hands.

It lasts for a full three weeks before Joel wordlessly sits her down at the kitchen counter, pours a glass of the good whiskey he keeps hidden under the sink and sets it between them.

“Trying to get me drunk, Joel?” she teases.

“It’s not for you, it’s for me,” he grumbles, lifting the glass up to his lips and downing the contents.

He places the glass back on the counter, fills it again, and pushes it toward her this time. “This one’s for you.”

To say she has no idea how to react is an understatement. He’s never hidden the fact that he doesn’t exactly approve of her drinking at all, much less when there’s no holiday or celebration to justify it. “Are you ok?”

 “Drink.”

“Jeez Louise, you don’t have to be all grumpy about it,” she mumbles, raising the glass up to her lips. The alcohol burns her throat as it goes down and leaves her all warm and tingly inside. “Now what?”

He fills it again, pushes it toward her, and watches as she drinks it again. What the hell is going on?

She places the glass upside down on the counter, a clear sign that whatever he’s doing there, she’s done with it.

Joel looks at her. He has a way of looking at people, with that passive, observant gaze of his, until people flinch and tell him what he wants to hear or storm off. After years of living with the man, Ellie has learned to ignore it, for the most part, but today it makes her uneasy.

“Now you’re going to promise not to set the house on fire.”

“Why the fuck would I set the house on fire?” Joel just stares, and she exhales in defeat. “Sure, I promise.”

But he isn’t done, not by a longshot. “Or flood the house again.”

“I promise, and it wasn’t a flood, just a little water damage.”

“Or to punch a hole in the wall.”

“I promise the house will remain the same, now can you please, for the love of God, get to what you’re getting at?”

Joel puts the cap back on the bottle again and places it back in the cupboard before turning to her, leaning against the counter and staring her down in the flickering light of the overhead lamp. The lighting makes the lines on his face deeper, and the bags under his eyes darker. He looks older than Ellie knows him to be.  

“Dina’s coming over,” Joel finally blurts out. He lets go of the counter and waltzes right past her to dive into his bedroom. “And I’m leaving.”

“I beg your fucking pardon?” Ellie sputters, spinning around on the stool to stare at the spot where he has just disappeared to.

Joel emerges from his room, buttoning his jacket and pulling on his warm gloves. “You heard me.”

She hops down from the stool, dashing in front of his, blocking his path to the front door. “Yeah, I heard you, but what the fuck? Why the fuck? I have a watch shift in fifteen minutes.”

“No, you don’t. I asked Tommy to take it and besides, you’ve been drinking, he won’t trade it back once I tell him that.”

“So that’s your grand plan, keeping me from working by tricking me into drinking?”

Joel looks down at a spot behind her.

“Mind handing me my boots if you plan on standing in the way for long?”

Ellie kicks them over. Joel shakes his head, exasperated look plain on his face at her antics, but still, he bends down to pick them up and sits on the armrest of the couch.

By the time he laces them and stands, she still has not moved, arms crossed in front of her chest in a defying stance. Or as defying as her standing barefooted in her bright green pajama pants could look.

“Look, you don’t want to talk to me, that’s fine, but you’re not staying hauled up here alone.”

“Hey! I don’t hide away in the house, I get out.”

Joel raises a disbelieving eyebrow. “When’s the last time you left the house for something other than watch shifts?”

“Yesterday.”

“You dropped a comic book out of your bedroom window and went out to get it back. Doesn’t count.”

“Fuck you!” She steps out of the way. “I’m not a little kid, you don’t have to arrange playdates for me.”

“He didn’t. I did.”

Ellie’s head whips back to see Dina in the doorway, leaning against the frame. She’s wearing her usual patched-up coat, cowboy boots riding up to her knees despite the fact that it’s February and there’s snowbanks taller than her outside.

Joel quietly finishes tying his boots and slips out, not saying another word as he disappears down the road, no doubt to his lady’s house.

I’m going to fucking murder him. Them. Whatever.

Dina steps in, closing the door behind her, and looks her up and down as she leaves her boots on the mat by the door. “You look like shit.”

“Thanks, wasn’t exactly expecting company,” she bites back, and Dina winces.

“Look, I’m sorry for cornering you like this,” she offers. “It was my idea, Joel just went along with it. I just… missed seeing you, that’s all, and I thought maybe some company would be good for you.”

Ellie exhales. She knows she’s been pulling away, and really, she doesn’t feel like seeing people at all, but Dina’s here, in her living room, and she can’t find it in her to send her home.

“Fine, but I’m going to read comic books all day.”

“Fine by me. I’m sure I can keep you company, maybe get a little reading done myself.”

She takes her coat off and throws it across the back of the couch.

She’s wearing a burgundy – or is it maroon? – shirt with lighter dots on it, tucked into her jeans, with buttons on the front. The first one is open, letting just a hint of skin peek through. Her hair is up into her usual bun.

It suits her well.

“Give me a second to change out of these,” Ellie adds, looking down at her pajamas and suddenly feeling like she’s supremely underdressed.

Dina nods, and they make their way up to Ellie’s room, where Dina waits outside until Ellie calls for her to come in after she throws on a pair of jeans that aren’t too ripped at the knees and a plain black t-shirt. She makes herself comfortable on Ellie’s bed, while she sits down in her desk chair to start reading through the second issue of Savage Starlight again.

Her plan of reading comics in peace lasts a good three minutes before Dina breaks the silence. “So, there’s a dance tonight…”

Ellie looks up briefly from her comic book, annoyed. “I’m not going.”

“What do you mean, you’re not going?”

“That I’m not going.”

“Ellie.”

“Dina.”

She throws her hands up in the air. “You’re the most annoying person I’ve ever met.”

“Why, thank you.”

Dina leans against the wall, hugging her legs to her chest and leaning her chin against her knees. Ellie smiles and turns the page of her comic book, content to have at least made Dina give up the idea of convincing her to go out that night.

She’s in the middle of reading an action-packed strip when she hears Dina stir on her bed. She tries her best not to pay it any mind, but the near-constant rustling of her sheets makes it hard to focus on anything. Anything beside Dina. On her bed. Wrapped in her sheets. Ellie shakes her head slightly, hoping to clear her mind. She’s been reading the same page twice now, and she can’t remember any of it.

“So, what do you propose we do tonight?”

Ellie’s head snaps up. Dina’s looking at her, a sly grin on her face, no doubt congratulating herself on having pulled her out of her book.

“What?”

Dina gestures toward her in a clear come over here motion. Defeated, Ellie creases the corner of her page and sets the comic book on her desk. For good measure, she throws herself down on the mattress to make Dina almost fall over, laughing as the yelp escapes her at the sudden motion, and then having the laughter die on her lips when Dina hangs on to her shoulders to avoid an unceremonious dive to the floor.

Ellie steadies them both. Despite Ellie’s antics, she has a barely suppressed smile stretching her lips. It makes Ellie weak in the knees.

“What do you mean?” she asks again.

Dina shifts so they’re face to face, her with her legs tucked under herself and Ellie with right leg folded under her left, and her left foot tapping on the floor. “I mean,” she starts, and Ellie swears her voice has never sounded this captivating before. “I’m here to spend an evening with my best friend, and if her stubborn ass doesn’t want to be dragged to the dance, then we have to find something else to do.”

Ellie looks away. “You should go to the dance,” she offers Dina an apologetic smile. “I’m afraid my stubborn ass isn’t the best company in the world. Besides, I know how much you like those things.”

“I like spending time with you more,” she replies. “So, what do you want to do?”

Ellie shakes her head. Her cheeks are burning in embarrassment, she hopes Dina can’t tell.

“Really, I’d feel bad if you missed it because of me.”

Dina grins mischievously, and Ellie suddenly feels like she’s stepped into a trap, right where Dina wanted her to end up. “Then come with me, please. It’ll be fun, I promise.”

She leans over and grabs Ellie’s hands in her own, and her hands are warm, and Ellie wants to say no, say she just wants to stay home, but…

“What the hell would I even do there?”

She lets go of her hands. Dina pretends to think really hard, scrunching up her face and looking up to the ceiling. She darts out her tongue, swipes it across her bottom lip, once, twice, and then it’s gone, and Ellie realises she’s staring and snaps her eyes back to Dina’s teasing gaze. “What in the world could you be doing at a dance, I wonder…”

Ellie can’t resist lightly shoving her in mock annoyance. “Hilarious, Dina.”

“Come on, Freckles! Do it for me?”

“Have you ever seen me dance?”

“No.”

“Ever thought there might a reason behind this?”

Dina eyes light up in amusement, like those of the little kids around Jackson when the first snow falls and they try to catch the flurries with their tongue. She’s practically bouncing up and down on the mattress, making the springs creak, and Ellie is so thankful Joel is not in his room right now, because he’d surely have a few questions.

She’s also very much regretting her confession.

“Ellie, are you telling me you don’t know how to dance?”

“No, I’m telling you I’m too short to be an astronaut.”

Not even her sarcastic remarks can divert Dina’s attention away from the fact that she willingly admitted to not knowing how to do something.

“Why?”

“Not many occasions in a military school.”

“And outside of it?”

“Once,” she replies, thinking of Riley and the music and the mall, before all hell broke loose, “but I wouldn’t call it dancing as much as randomly bouncing around to some music.”

She’s positively giddy as she takes Ellie’s hands into hers and drags her out of her bed to stand in the middle of the room.

“Come on, Freckles, show me your moves!”

Ellie stands there, frozen, while Dina looks at her expectantly. “There’s no music, and besides, I don’t have any moves.”

“You must have at least one,” Dina presses on.

“Does awkwardly standing in a corner count as a move in your book?”

She giggles – and it’s a good thing Dina has already turned around and started rummaging through the CDs on her shelves, because she can’t help the stupid grin that she feels appearing on her face at the sound, and the knowledge that she’s the one that made it come out.

“What are you doing?”

She picks up a pile of them, looks at the first one, puts it back in place and does it again until she finally smiles. “Finding music,” Dina winks, placing the CD in the player.

The music plays softly, slowly, and Dina comes strolling back to her. “Elvis, really?”

“Well, your selection is quite restricted,” Dina teases. “Besides, it’s the perfect song to teach you. And it’s the only album I recognized.”

Dina gets closer. She should be telling her no – why the fuck would she want to learn anyway? – but all her answers die on her lips when her friend takes her hands once more. “Today’s lesson is an easy one, Freckles. Everyone should learn how to slow dance, even you. You know, in case awkwardly standing around fails you one day.”

She smiles at her, more of a teasing smirk than a full-blown smile, before guiding Ellie’s hands to the small of her back. “Dina, I don’t…”

“You don’t know how, I know, which is why I’m teaching you,” she interrupts.

Ellie exhales. What harm could it do? “Alright, whatever.”

Dina smiles, really smiles now, and it brings the stupid grin back on her own face. “Your hands go here,” she begins, firmly pressing Ellie’s hands on her waist so she knows to keep them there. “And mine… Mine go up here.”

As she speaks, she drags her fingers from Ellie’s hands all the way up her arms to her shoulders, and then they tangle together somewhere behind her neck. The weight of Dina’s forearms against her shoulders feels foreign, but at the same time, so right.

“Okay,” Ellie breathes out. The song goes on, with the slow, deep singing and soft piano and guitar sounds accompanying it, and she’s just standing there, trying her best not to spontaneously combust. “Now what?”

Dina looks up at her, and it just now occurs to Ellie that’s she’s noticeably taller than the older girl now – not by much, maybe an inch, an inch and a half at most, but she remembers when it was the other way around, back when she was 15 and had just gotten to Jackson. Sure, she’s been taller than her for a while now, but having her so close makes it that much more obvious.

“Now,” she murmurs, and Ellie swear her very voice sends shivers down her spine, “we have to get closer, and then we just move to the music. Got it?”

Ellie’s mouth feels dry, like she just tried to swallow a sandcastle.

“Got it.”

Dina takes one step forward and Ellie stops breathing for a second, because she can feel Dina’s body just barely brushing against hers, from her hips to her breasts, and Ellie wants to run away, hide somewhere where her skin doesn’t feel like it’s going to catch fire any given second, but at the same time, she doesn’t think even a tornado could convince her to move.

It’s all too conflicting.

Elvis keeps singing, and somehow, it feels like some kind of sick joke that this, of all songs, would be the one Dina picked.

Like a river flows, surely to the sea

Dina’s staring at her, wordlessly, all traces of the teasing smile gone from her face. She’s focused on something, Ellie can’t tell what exactly, but her gaze never wavers as she feels Dina start to move, swaying softly underneath her fingers.

Darling, so it goes

Ellie follows, as best as she possibly can, but it’s so impossibly hard to focus on anything with Dina so close. She’s close enough to smell the shampoo she uses – something flowery, and lavender, if she remembers correctly – close enough to feel the tickling of her breath on her face.

She steps on Dina’s feet more times than she cares to count, or admit.

Some things are meant to be

“Just… follow me, okay? You’re going too fast,” Dina says in a low voice, not quite a whisper, but not her usual tone of voice either.

Ellie nods, her heart pounding away relentlessly in her ribcage, faster, stronger. Her breath comes out in shaky exhales.

“Are you nervous?” Dina asks, brushing her fingers against the nape of her neck. Her eyes are searching her own, looking for an answer, or a sign. A sign that she wants to stop, or one telling her to go on.

Ellie isn’t sure which option she likes better right now.

“A little,” she confesses.

Dina smiles. “That’s okay. I’m kind of nervous, too.”

Ellie scoffs, earning herself a raised eyebrow from the girl still swaying to the rhythm of the music in response. “What in the hell do you have to be nervous about? Me stepping on your toes again?”

“Your uncoordinated ass stepping on my toes is always my main concern,” she mocks, but she looks down briefly and Ellie can’t be sure, but she thinks she may have fallen a little offbeat in her movements, for just a second. “Seriously, how did you survive so long with so little coordination?”

“Fuck you,” Ellie exclaims, mockingly outraged. “How did you survive so long with so little cooking skills?”

Dina tries to keep a stern face, but her mask crumbles as soon as Ellie starts to snicker at her lack of response. “Touché.”

It’s easier to follow Dina when they’re arguing more than when they’re silent, Ellie finds, and soon enough, she starts to figure out how to hold her close without stepping on her feet, or at least, well enough for Dina to stop telling her she’s as stiff as a stick or that she has the grace of a rusty door hinge.

Take my hand, take my whole life too

“Why this song?” Ellie asks, as it nears its end. “You could’ve picked any CD, any track, but you chose this one.”

Dina looks up at her, and she’s… getting closer? That can’t be right, they’re already pretty much as close as can be.

“You’re curious,” she states.

“And you’re avoiding the question.”

Dina smiles again, still swaying to the music.

“I don’t really remember my dad – I don’t even remember what his last name was, or mine, for that matter – but I remember he loved music. And whenever he could, he would take my mom into his arms and just dance. It didn’t matter where they were, or what time it was, or whether or not there was any music playing. Sometimes, he’d dance with me too, and I remember it was the happiest I can remember being.” Dina stops briefly, looking down at her feet and then back up at Ellie. “This was one of his favourite song.”

Sometimes, Ellie forgets that her mom’s husband isn’t also Dina’s dad, and that she remembers very little about him. All she told Ellie is that he died before they could make it to Jackson, and that her mom remarried a few years after. She wonders which is worse, never knowing your parents or having them by your side for so little time.

Dina rests her head on Ellie’s shoulder, and, instinctively, she tightens her grip on her waist. Her chin is pressed in the junction of her neck and shoulder, in the spot half covered by her shirt and half… well, not. Vaguely, Ellie’s mind registers that one of her hands is shaking.

For I can’t help falling in love with you

Ellie’s hand leaves its place on the small of her back before her mind can catch up to its movements. She drags the tips of her fingers along Dina’s spine, up to her neck, and then around it to brush away the wild strand of hair and finally, she rests it against her shoulder.

She doesn’t think she’s breathing anymore, but then again, Dina doesn’t seem to be either, judging by how still her chest is against hers. Her heartbeat is going wild, so loud it feels like her heart is pounding right next to her ear, but still, she can swear her brain did not make up the sharp intake of breath from the girl in her arms when her fingers brushed against her skin.

For once, Ellie doesn’t think. There’s nothing to consider, nothing except the way Dina feels against her, the way she’s sure that she can’t go on for one minute longer without at least trying to get even closer or she’ll either combust or melt.

Dina pulls back slightly, just enough so her head isn’t pressed against Ellie’s shoulder anymore, but still impossibly close. Her breath tickles Ellie’s chin.

Ellie leans down…

… and the CD skips with a high-pitched screech, tumbling into the next track, a definitely more upbeat song definitely not suited for slow dancing.

She’s been so caught up in the song, in its softness, she nearly jumps out of her skin when it changes. Well, not exactly out of her skin, but enough to startle Dina too. The dark-haired girl’s hands drop to her sides and she pulls away, and just like that, the moment’s gone.

She feels like an idiot for even thinking there might’ve been a moment between them. Dina’s just trying to teach her to dance. Anything else, her mind probably made up. Months of wishful thinking probably caught up to her, that’s all.

They look at each other, now a good foot apart. Ellie doesn’t know where to stand, her arms hanging uselessly at her sides – and when the hell did her arms get so long and cumbersome?

“Maybe we’ll make a dancer out of you yet,” Dina finally breaks the silence, teasing, and Ellie releases the breath she had been holding. Surely, if she had been in any way aware of what had almost happened, she would not be standing here still, joking.

Ellie smiles, and the way it stretches her cheeks feels awkward. “Maybe.”

Dina walks over to the CD player and takes the disc out of it, placing it safely within the plastic case and putting it back on the shelf where she took it from.

Funny how watching her do something so mundane could be so fascinating.

“Listen, Dina…” Ellie starts, though she doesn’t quite know what the end of her sentence is. She turns around, leaning back against the desk, placing her hands on the flat surface and staring intently at Ellie, waiting for her to go on. “I know you wanted to hang out tonight, but… You should go to the dance. People will send out a search party if you don’t show up soon.”

The disappointment flashes on her face, briefly, and Ellie adverts her eyes. She wishes she could explain, make her understand why she wants to be alone.

I need to figure my shit out before I have a stroke, and I can’t do that with you here.

“You’re sure you don’t want to do something? We could watch a movie, or…” she trails off, gaze fleeting over Ellie’s face, taking in her expression. “Okay.”

Ellie tries to ignore to disappointment in her voice when she finally breathes out that one word, can’t help but wonder if she just shoved her foot in her mouth, again.

“Maybe we could do something tomorrow,” Ellie offers. “I hear the last scavenging party found a few more movies, maybe there’s one in there we could watch.”

Dina pushes herself off the desk. She strolls over to Ellie, still standing in the middle of her bedroom, opening and closing her fists nervously, trying to still her shaking fingers. She tucks the strand of hair falling across Ellie’s face back behind her ear and leans up to place a quick kiss to her cheek.

She feels like her skin is on fire. Dina’s already at the door before she can form any sort of coherent thoughts, the doorknob in her hand.

“If you ever change your mind, you know where I’ll be,” Dina says, turning back to Ellie. “You know, every class needs a final exam… this could be yours. Promise I’ll be nice.”

She offers one last, half-smile, and slips out the door.

Ellie groans and throws herself face down on her bed, burying her face in the pillow as the sound of Dina shutting the front door behind her reaches her ears.

“Stupid,” Ellie grumbles. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

To say she was confused was an understatement. Had Dina pulled away first, or had she? If she had been the one to pull away, was it because she realised Ellie was trying to kiss her, or just because Ellie had startled her when the track had changed?

Had she completely misread the situation?

Ellie rolls over to stare at her ceiling.

“What the hell are you doing?” Ellie whispers to herself. Of course, the flaking paint above her head offers her no answers.

It’s pitch-dark outside when she finally tears her gaze away from the ceiling, and she can faintly hear the music coming from the church, where the dance was being held, along with some shouts and hoots.

Ellie’s eyes fall on the metal box on her desk, by the CD player, the one that had been sitting there for a month now, with the pictures and letters and drawings spilling out of the lid. She can almost hear Chuck telling her she’s an overthinking dumbass.

Take the leap.

“Fuck it,” Ellie growls, jumping to her feet and grabbing a clean flannel shirt to throw over the plain black t-shirt she had been wearing before rushing down the stairs, only stopping to put her shoes on.

She’s tired of wondering.

The pews have all been pushed back against the walls of the Church, and Christmas lights – the same ones Logan had stolen, a year and a half ago, the night of that party in the attic of the barn – are hanging from the wooden beams of the ceiling. It bathes everything underneath it, the people, the tables, in a soft, yellow glow.

When Ellie walks in through the side door as to not bring attention to herself, she’s greeted by the upbeat sound of a country song playing from the speakers. There are people dancing all over the place – parents with their children, couples, groups of friends. She spots Simon and Lily, awfully close and clearly lost in their own little worlds, as well as some other acquaintances nodding in greeting as they notice her. She nods back, but that’s it. She isn’t much of a people person, especially not in the past few weeks.

She can’t see Dina anywhere, so she heads to the table by the main door where they set up Leonard and all the bottles of alcohol they could spare.

The older man looks even older than before his accident. The white hair on his head never grew back where the ugly scar goes from right above his hear all the way down to the nape of his neck, and so it looks like some kind of weird tangled garter snake trying to hide in some high grass. Though the scar looks gnarly, it’s not the main reason people were uneasy talking to him for extended periods of time. No, that had more to do with the fact that he had never regained full use of the left side of his face after all the nerve damage it had sustained in the collapse of the shed, and now, any time he spoke, his words would come out muffled, or generally distorted, and part of his face would not move at all, making it look like half of it belonged to someone else. It freaked people out. Maybe that’s why he sat himself with the alcohol, so no one would linger and try to sneak out more than their fair share.

“Hey, Leonard,” Ellie greets as Beth, in line in front of her, takes her drink in hand before being swept away for a dance by her husband. They got married last June and still acted like newlyweds most of the time. It was cute. God, she hoped nothing bad would happen to either of them.

The older man looks at her with an amused half-smirk on his face, leaning back in his chair to look at her. “Back in my days, you had to be twenty-one to drink.”

“Back in your days, didn’t people die at like, twenty-five?”

He guffaws, a loud sound that startles the man passing them by. “I’m not that old, kid. And I’m not giving you drinks. Rules are rules, eighteen and above here.”

Ellie smirks as she lifts one glass up to her eyes, wipes the unknown stain on the bottom. “I could just pour some from my flask in there, no one would know the difference. I could even share some with dear old Johnny over here.”

She gestures to the man slumped in a chair, currently begging his neighbors to give him their drinks. Johnny liked to drink, a lot, it was no secret around Jackson, and when he drank, he had a slight tendency to break things. Most of the time, when the town held event like these, he ended up cut off before most people would even start showing up, and tonight seemed no different.

Leonard looks at her disbelievingly. “You don’t have a flask.”

“Do you really want to find out?”

He smirks, giving up on all pretense of giving her a hard time. Every time Ellie went to one of those things, he’d be the one making sure she ended up being able to at least get one drink, but it never was without Ellie having to pretend to blackmail him first.

“You drive a hard bargain, Ellie,” he concludes, grabbing the glass from her and pouring in probably a little more whiskey than he had to.

Ellie backs away so other people can get their own drinks and goes to the very end of the room, making sure to stick to the walls as she goes so she’s not in anyone’s way. There she just leans on the railings separating the elevated area where celebrants were placed during funerals or other celebrations. Not many people still held on piously to religion in Jackson – whatever people had faith in, whoever they prayed to, they didn’t bother coming down here to do it.

She sips her whiskey, surveying the room. She hoped to God that Megan hadn’t been able to drag Joel down here tonight.

The lights hanging overhead make the whole scene unfolding in front of her eyes seem surreal, with the people dancing, the music coming from the speakers… like it’s all a part of a world she doesn’t really belong in.

Ellie takes another sip of her drink, and then her eyes fall on Dina. She’s dancing with one of the Becker twins, all over the place, through the different pairs of dancers on the floor, and she looks so happy, and carefree in that moment, it pulls a small smile from Ellie’s lips.

Kevin – at least, she thinks it’s Kevin – spins Dina around so she has her back to him, bends down to whisper something in her ear and Ellie can hear her laugh from all the way over.

She’s racking her brain to find a reason to take Dina away from everyone, to speak to her one-on-one, to finally get an answer to all those questions she’s asking herself, but as she keeps staring at her friend, so plainly enjoying herself out there, she can’t seem to find one.

The movement catches Ellie’s eyes just in time for her to notice Jesse walking toward her, but it’s too late to pretend not to have seen him now, so she settles from straightening up a little, then, leaning back against the railing as he does the same.

He has a glass of clear liquid in his hand, and knowing him, and knowing how he gets when it comes to patrols, it’s unlikely it contains anything other than water, especially the night before he has teams scheduled to go out.

Jesse had recently been helping Tommy to manage the patrols, which meant he wasn’t part of the patrol teams as much as he used to. That was fine by Ellie, as it meant less chances of being stuck with him for an extended period of time with no witnesses and besides, he was a much better patrol leader than partner.

“I hate these things,” he finally breaks the silence, obviously realising Ellie won’t be the one to do it.

Of all the things he could’ve said, he goes for the small talk? That’s unusual. She scoffs in answer. “Tell me about it.”

They stay quiet, side by side, looking at anything but each other and Ellie can’t figure out why the hell he’d come to see her, of all people. It’s not exactly like they’re on good terms, though it got better than used to be in the past few weeks. He clears his throat. “Your old man really laid into me today.”

Ellie nods, pursing her lips. “What happened?”

“Another big lecture about my patrols. Don’t go here, don’t got there… funny how involved he gets whenever you’re scheduled to go out.”

Funny is a word to describe it, but not one Ellie would use. Annoying, maybe, overbearing, for sure, but funny? Nope.

It’s not like he has no reasons to be worried, what with her last patrol ending with her having to shoot Chuck and dragging him back to Jackson, in addition to a mild case of hypothermia and a broken wrist, but she’s been on patrol lots of times before, and it went just fine. Still, she hates that he went back to treating her like a twelve-year-old, after all she did to try to get him to see her as the capable person she is.

“Yeah.”

They go back to their uncomfortable silence.

“She’s putting on quite the show,” Jesse points out after a while, eyes fixed on his ex-girlfriend.

They both look on as the song comes to an end and Kevin dips Dina down, who dramatically raises her leg over her head, trusting her partner not to drop her as she does. To be fair, it’s hard to look anywhere else when she’s nearby.

Ellie smirks, shifting to look at him instead. It wouldn’t hurt to tease the guy a little, now would it? He could take it, and besides, it’s not like they have that much left of a friendship to jeopardize. “I give you guys two weeks until you’re back together.”

“Not going to happen,” Jesse affirms. Ellie barely has time to go back to her observation – and notice that Dina has spotted her and is now navigating the sea of people switching partners or catching their breaths between songs to make her way over – before he speaks again, curiosity evident in his voice. “She say something to you?”

Ellie can’t resist. “Make it one week.”

“Ellie, hey!” Dina calls out, finally emerging from the crowd, sweat glistening on her face and neck and the skin that the opened buttons on her shirt left exposed. None of them are snapped on anymore. “What took you so long?”

She strides over, not even sparing a glance at Jesse, and takes the glass from Ellie’s hand. Ellie would have tried to get it back, but her other hand is on her shoulder and by the time she’s recovered the ability to talk, Dina has already thrown her head back and gulped down whatever was left of her drink.

“Well, I’m here, aren’t I?” Ellie offers as an explanation, looking on bewildered as Dina swallows the alcohol without so much as a wince and leans forward to place the empty glass precariously on the railing she is resting her elbows against.

Jesse chooses that moment to interject.

“Dina,” he greets, lifting his glass.

Her reply is pure ice, and Ellie resolves to make sure she’s never on the receiving end of that tone of voice. “Jesse.”

She turns back to Ellie, offering up a smile, and grabs her hand as she turns back toward the dancing area. “Come on,” she whispers, dragging her behind her, and with Dina’s hand holding on to hers, there is very little that would convince her not to follow her blindly.

“Hey, don’t forget we leave at first light, so get some rest.”

“Yes, sir!” Dina calls back, turning back to offer a mock military salute as Jesse walks away.

She leads them back through the maze of people that paired off at the first sounds of the slow song coming from the speakers, plucked guitar strings and other instruments she doesn’t quite place, all the way to a spot relatively devoid of dancers.

 “You’re such a dick,” Ellie teases, pretending not to notice how Dina changing which hand is holding on to hers sends goosebumps along her arm.

“Come on. Don’t you start with me,” Dina smiles back, stopping abruptly in her tracks, making Ellie stumble on her own feet a little before she regains her balance. She tugs on Ellie’s arms, placing her hands on the small of her back, and this time, it doesn’t feel as weird, not even as she rests her arms on her shoulders.  

Dina look ups at her, with barely contained amusement in her eyes. “Okay, I have a very serious question for you.” Ellie’s attention is on her, waiting, serious, but the smile she can’t help but let escape betrays her. “How bad do I smell?”

It’s Ellie’s turn to smile, despite how ridiculous Dina’s question is. Okay, I’ll bite.

She leans in closer, bending down just slightly, pretending to sniff the air around her and wrinkle her nose at the smell.

 “Like a hot pile of garbage?” she offers, straightening up. It’s not true, not at all – she smells faintly of sweat, sure, but still so very much of something that is just typically her, like freshly cleaned laundry and flowers and soap and so many other things she doesn’t quite have a name for. Dina’s smile gives way to a fake offended look, complete with raised eyebrows and disapproving glare.

“Oh, okay.” Dina’s eyes are twinkling and before Ellie can slither away, she tightens her hold on her neck and she stands on the tip of her toes to press her sweaty cheek against hers. She drags her face along the length of her jaw as Ellie lets a strangled sound, somewhere between a laugh and a groan, escape her lips. “How about that?”

“Gross.”

Dina’s voice is barely above a murmur, barely audible in the ambient noise. “You love it.”

Though she tries not to smile at her antics, Ellie fails miserably, and she settles for making sure to keep her lips tightly pressed together to avoid letting an answer she can’t take back slip past them.

Dina leans in, ever closer, and, again, it feels like it is both too close and not enough for Ellie comfort. She feels Dina’s arm slide down across her upper back as she rests her chin against Ellie’s shoulder, cheek pressed to the exposed skin of her neck.

She didn’t tell me we had to be that close before, why is she doing it now?

There’s no space between them anymore, just warmth and beating hearts – or is it just hers she feels pounding against her ribcage? Nothing matters, just the way her fingers itch to slide away from their spot on her waist to run up her back and how perfect this feels. It doesn’t even register in Ellie’s head until she looks up and sees the people around them stealing glances – some curious, disbelieving, even a little confused – that dancing so close might attract attention.

“Every guy in this room is staring at you right now,” Ellie points out, looking behind Dina at the various pairs of eyes on them, eyes that immediately divert their gaze elsewhere when their owners realise they’ve been spotted.

She feels Dina shift slightly against her, lifting her chin from her shoulder and turning her face toward hers. They’re too close for Ellie to see anything but the nape of her neck, and the stubborn baby hairs there that she never quite manages to tame, but she feels the tip of her nose brush against her cheek for a fleeting second and knows she’s turned.

“Maybe they’re staring at you,” Dina suggests, her voice soft in her ear and breath tickling her earlobe.

She scoffs, because why the hell would they be staring at her when Dina is anywhere nearby? “They’re not.”

“Maybe they’re jealous of you,” comes the tickling response.

Now that is an explanation she can believe. Any one of them would probably trade a few shifts on inventory duty to trade places with her and be the one holding Dina so close like this.

Too bad they have no reason to be jealous at all, and Ellie’s heart drops at the thought, as does the smile that had been ghosting on her lips since Dina had mercilessly dragged her on the dancefloor.

“I’m just a girl,” Ellie breathes out, shaking her head slightly at the absurdity of that suggestion. “Not a threat.”

Dina nose slides against her cheek as she pulls back, brushing against the strand of hair Ellie can never quite get to cooperate and stay either behind her ear or within the confines of the low bun Dina taught her how to do, a few months back.

Her eyes fleet across her face, unreadable, and she lifts a hand to tuck the strand of hair behind her ear.

“Oh, Ellie,” she breathes out, making Ellie’s knees go weak, and her fingers follow the curve of her ear, lingering down by her earlobe before coming to rest on the back of her neck. “I think they should be terrified of you.”

Her voice trails off on the last word, barely audible, and her eyes drop down to Ellie’s lips, then come back up to stare into hers, and she can’t even think about what it means because she’s getting dangerously close again.

Ellie’s eyebrows shoot up in disbelief a fraction of a second before she feels Dina’s lips on hers, soft, warm lips capturing hers softly, slowly. Kissing her. 

No fucking way.

It’s over way too soon for Ellie’s liking, Dina pulling back slightly, and she knows exactly what she’s doing. She’s giving her the option to back out, giving her the time to process what she just did and decide what to do with that.

Take the leap.

This time, when she feels Dina’s lips on hers, she’s ready, and she releases the breath she didn’t realise she’d been holding as her eyes close, finally. Her stomach does somersaults, but she doesn’t care, doesn’t mind, because she’s kissing Dina and she’s kissing her back, and it’s such an astounding thought Ellie can’t help but think she’s going to wake up any second now. 

As she feels Dina’s lips moving against hers, her tongue brushing against her bottom lip, not asking for access as much as warning her she’s going to take it, she thinks her dreams have never felt so real, and if it really is one, she’d be happy not to wake up from it.

She tastes faintly of whiskey, and Ellie’s head is spinning, though if it’s because of the lack of air or just how intoxicating Dina feels, and tastes, she’ll never really know for sure, but she’s pulling away slightly, and Ellie dives back to keep this going for just a moment longer, asphyxiation be damned.

Dina pulls away once more, her hands pushing against her shoulders in a clear stay-there motion, and Ellie doesn’t understand, she’d been the one to kiss her first… had she unknowingly taken this too far?

But Dina is still smiling slightly, eyes amused, and she settles for furrowing her brow in confusion, because, clearly, she can’t read her friend at all anymore.

“See? I told you. They should be terrified,” she mocks, smiling wider.

Ellie tries, really, she tries to suppress the smile threatening to split her face in two, glancing down at the ground beside them, and she succeeds… for a brief second, before it tugs at her lips once more, and her eyes meet Dina’s again. Dina, who’s just slightly rubbing her thumbs on her shoulders, encouraging, reassuring, and oh shit she’s not kidding.

She loses her fight, the stupid grin stretching on her face, mirroring the one she sees in the girl still pressed against her, and she can swear she hasn’t smiled like this in years.

She feels warm, and fuzzy, and they keep dancing until the song changes again.

Dina looks around, briefly, and lets her hands drag down along her arms until her fingers curl between hers. “Come on, Freckles, let’s ditch the audience.”

Screw everyone watching – they can go fuck themselves, for all she cares. Still, Ellie lets herself be dragged off outside, past the church and the clinic, all the way behind the armory by Watch Tower 6, where Dina finally stops.

“Dina why are we…” Ellie begins, her words dying in her throat as she’s pushed into the wall behind her. “Oh. Oh.

She can’t say she’s expecting her to lean into her once more, but when Dina does, her arms wrap around her waist to pull her even close, like she’s done this her whole life instead of only once before, and she’s taking all Ellie has to offer, and she lets her, gladly.

Her hands are roaming, up and down Ellie’s sides and back, fingernails scraping against the skin of her neck and Ellie doesn’t mind that they’re sure to leave marks, she can’t, not when her lips are moving against hers like this.

There’s none of that softness from before, only hunger and it’s setting Ellie on fire.

Her own hands finally move from Dina’s waist, taking the other girl’s hands and placing them on her shoulders, before her own travel back down to their initial place. She pulls away from her, just for a second, just to catch her breath, leaning her forehead against hers, reveling in the way she sounds as breathless as she feels.

It suddenly registers in that dumb brain of hers that, if Dina had kissed her to prove a point, to make someone else jealous, there would have been no need to drag her off in a dark alley between two buildings where no one could see them.

“Please tell me you’re not messing with me,” Ellie finally says. She means it as a joke, but it comes out as more of a plea, and Dina rolls her eyes, her fingers still tangled together digging into Ellie’s neck.

She leans up once more to place another kiss on her lips. “Does it look like I’m messing with you?”

There’s none of that teasing, flirty attitude she’s come to associate with Dina, only dark eyes staring into her own, and it’s fucking real, and her fingers are shaking when she brings them up to cup Dina’s cheek.

“Promise.”

Dina leans up once more, placing a kiss under her ear, in that soft, ticklish spot where it meets her jaw, and there’s goosebumps on her skin that Ellie could swear have nothing to do with the cold. “I promise.”

Her hands slip to the back of Dina’s thighs, and she feels – fucking feels – the sharp intake of breath against her own chest when she flips them so Dina’s the one pressed against the wall, and then smiles at the muffled yelp she lets out when Ellie lifts her up, sneaking her arms underneath her thighs for support. Dina’s feet are digging into her back, but she doesn’t give two shits about the bruises she’ll no doubt find there come tomorrow morning, because this…this is exactly what she’s been wanting, waiting to do for months.

It’s Ellie’s turn to smile wider, grin on her lips as she leaves a trail of open-mouthed kisses along Dina’s jaw, down to her neck and exposed collarbone, only looking to pull that breathless almost-moan from her again and again because the sound is music to her ears.

Dina tangles her hands into Ellie’s hair, and she hears the all-too-familiar snap of the hair tie holding her sorry excuse of a bun breaking off. Her hair falls into her eyes, sneaks between them as Ellie kisses her way back up Dina’s neck, but it’s quickly pulled back out of the way by Dina before she guides Ellie’s lips back to her own.

Oxygen is overrated, she thinks as she tries to keep up, tries her best to match Dina move for move, but it’s so hard to keep track of what’s going on when there’s so much to touch, so much to feel, so much to understand still. The way her nose digs into her cheek, or the way she tends to try to lean to her left as she kisses her, whereas Ellie herself tends to lean the opposite way, causing each of them to have to compromise in turn – even the way Dina pulls her bottom lip between her teeth, just a tug, not enough to hurt, but enough to drive her wild – it’s all new to her. New, and exciting, and dizzying, and so fucking right.

And as much as she knows Dina, it’s like she’s a different person, a stranger she still has everything to learn about, a stranger who she wants nothing more than to get acquainted with. She may have fantasized about kissing her best friend more times than she can count, but the girl her imagination had conjured up has nothing, absolutely nothing on the real, warm, eager girl wrapped around her.

Dina hitches herself even higher, climbing up Ellie’s frame, and she’s nowhere near prepared for the change of view that comes with the sudden height difference, but it’s not like she has enough time to appreciate it before Dina captures her lips again anyway, and the way her tongue explores her mouth, fights with hers, makes her head spin in the best way possible.  

Ellie’s never cared much about her own physical strength. She only needed to be strong enough to fight back, whether it be against a pack of Infected, or against hostile humans, nothing more. But right here, with Dina’s legs wrapped around her waist and her body pressed flushed against hers, her friend trusting her completely to keep her from falling, she’s fucking proud of it.

They part after a while – seconds, minutes, hours, Ellie couldn’t say – breathless, their kisses becoming slowly less desperate until they break apart altogether, equally stupid smiles on their faces. She can still hear the music coming from the church, still hear the frequent shouts from the streets around them, but here, in the shadows, hidden from sight, they don’t matter. It doesn’t even matter who could’ve seen, as long as she could keep holding her for just a little while longer.

She lets Dina slide back down to the ground when her arms start shaking, making sure not to drop her too soon, and she in turn releases the fistful of her hair she still had a death-grip on, and the stubborn strand – that one fucking strand – immediately falls back over her left eye.

She tucks it back behind her ear, a pleased smirk on her lips. “Didn’t take you for a go straight to making out in an alley kind of girl,” she teases and Ellie’s stomach sinks as she starts to wonder if maybe it was a little much and she didn’t realise it, but Dina’s still smiling, and she knows it’s not a complaint, merely an observation.

“Well, to be fair, I didn’t take you for a kiss your best friend in front of half the town kind of girl, either,” she retorts, doing her best to calm her racing heart and hide her shortness of breath. “And I’m not sure this qualifies as making out.”

“What exactly qualifies as making out in your book, Ellie-dear?”

Ellie hides her face in Dina’s neck, feeling her cheeks and neck burn, and she feels Dina’s shoulder shake in silent laughter underneath her. “Let’s just call this an unexpected kissing session and leave it at that.”

“Or not, I might need a comparison between the two before I can agree with your definition.”

She laughs, and Ellie laughs too, despite feeling even redder at the suggestion, and it takes a while before they let each other go, despite having started to shiver in the cold air.

“Walk me home?” Dina asks, eyes shining in the semi-darkness, and she could’ve asked her to jump off the cliffs neighboring the dam and Ellie would have done it in a heartbeat.

She’s still trying to convince herself that this really happened, that it isn’t a wonderful figment of her imagination, when Dina pulls her in for another kiss, more demanding, leaving her breathless on the porch as she wishes her goodnight and slips inside her house.

Ellie falls asleep in her own bed with a dumb, happy smile on her face and her cheeks hurting from smiling too much.

She gets up the next morning, goes about her normal routine, and it takes until the moment where she faces her own reflection in the bathroom mirror, and that goofy grin still plastered on her face, to realise it.

She slept through the whole night for the first time in weeks.

Chapter Text

To say Ellie was miserable would be an understatement.

She had ended up sitting in a frozen pond after the fallen tree trunk her patrol team had used to get across had broken under her weight – well, to be fair, it had collapsed under both her weight and Joel’s, but since he had almost reached the other side, he had been able to jump ship before ending up soaked like she had. Ellie, on the other end, had been standing smack in the middle of their makeshift bridge with no way of reaching either side before taking a forced plunge in the water.

She had been hoping the ice would hold up – wishful thinking, of course.

Funny how falling into frozen water could feel like being stabbed all over by a thousand tiny knives.

They’d been lucky enough to have been on the return trip, not even an hour out from Jackson, but by the time they reached the gate, Ellie’s toes, feet, fingers and hands had lost all feeling, and her forearms and calves were well on their way to following down the same path. At least Joel had lent her his jacket to try to keep warm on the way back, but it wasn’t enough to counterbalance her soaked clothes that were now threatening to freeze in place.

Fucking winter, making everything more complicated than it had to be.

Still, despite feeling frozen to her very core, and shivering so forcefully that every step is a challenge, she can’t help but smile – admittedly through chattering teeth – when she sees Dina sitting on their front porch’s railing.

“What the hell are you doing up there? Get down.” Joel grumbles, rubbing his arms to keep warm in the cold weather – in Ellie’s experience, this is as good a greeting as an unexpected visitor is going to get from him, and that’s probably only because he actually likes Dina. At least, when she isn’t threatening to rip out wooden structures from their house by sitting on it.

Dina jumps down gracefully, almost looking like she choreographed the whole thing. “Sorry, Joel!” she shouts, and the old man continues to make his way up the stairs as if she hadn’t been there at all. “Where’s your jacket?”

When it becomes apparent he won’t answer, because he slips into the house without looking back, she shrugs dismissively. “Don’t worry about it, he’s just cranky when he doesn’t get his naptime,” Ellie points out, though her words are interspersed with the sound of her teeth clanking together as she keeps shivering.

Dina turns back to Ellie, stopping in her tracks to take in her appearance. “Nice blue lipstick you got there, Freckles. Are you trying out a new look?”

“Depends, is it working?”

The sounds of her teeth still clanking together almost covers her answer, and she struggles to get up the stairs – numb limbs aren’t much use when trying to move around.

“Can’t say you’re pulling it off,” Dina teases. “Come on, let’s get you inside before you freeze to death out here, and then you can tell me what the hell happened to you.”

Dina ushers her in, and even though she knows the house is much warmer than the outside is, she doesn’t feel the difference. She can’t see Joel anywhere – he’s probably changing out of the clothes he’s been wearing on patrol. They might not have been wet like hers were, but still, after three days out in the woods, she could understand wanting to get out of them.

Her friend closes the door behind her as Ellie heads for the bathroom, not caring in the slightest if she drags mud and dead leaves and snow all the way there. Taking care of the icicles that have formed on her eyebrows and eyelashes takes precedence over clean floors.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Dina asks, appearing beside her as if from nowhere.

“In the shower,” she answers, trying to go around her to get to the warmth the hot water was sure to bring.

Dina blocks her path, standing between Ellie and the door. “Like hell you are,” she comments. “You’ll burn your skin off.”

“No.”

“Ellie, I’ve literally been holding your hand for the past three seconds and you still haven’t noticed.”

Sure enough, when she looks down, Dina’s fingers are intertwined with hers, and, sure enough, she can’t feel a damn thing. “Alright, what’s your treatment, doctor?”

Dina pushes her toward the stairs leading up to her room instead. “Take your wet clothes off and put some dry ones on instead.”

“Genius solution.”

“Shut up, just call me when you’re done.”

Ellie bites back the snarky remark about to pass her lips, as it would only delay her road back to being warm.

It’s much harder to undress when she doesn’t feel her extremities, especially unbuttoning her flannel, and her drenched jeans stick to her legs like a second skin – a very heavy, and cold as fuck, second skin.

She slips into the warmest possible hoodie she can find, a light grey one rendered unbelievably soft by years of constant use, and a pair of sweatpants, and then she dives under her covers.

Dina finds her curled into a ball, still shivering under the covers, when Ellie calls her in. “When are you going to tell me what you did to end up wet in the middle of winter?”

Ellie smiles, enjoying her little cocoon of almost-warmth with her eyes closed. “Why do you always assume it’s my fault?”

“Is it not?”

“Technically, it’s the tree’s.”

Dina snorts, and Ellie hears the rustling of clothes near her bed – though she’s way too comfortable to open her eyes. “I’m sure the forest is out to get you,” she states, her voice dripping with barely disguised sarcasm.

Ellie would have answered, she really would have – after all, she has a whole presentation on why the wilderness and her do not mix locked and loaded – but the covers are suddenly lifted, letting in the slightest gust of colder air inside, and Dina crawls in. Ellie’s breath catches in her throat. She can’t tell if it’s because of the cold, or the sheer idea of Dina sliding into her bed.

“What are you doing?”

Dina wiggles her way between her arms, snuggling closer until their two bodies are pressed flushed together, and the tip of Ellie’s nose is buried into the pleasant heat radiating from the skin of her friend’s neck. “Warming you up. You’re still shivering, that’s good… means I won’t have to drag your ass to the clinic.”

Dina’s warm – or at a bare minimum, warmer than herself – and Ellie’s fingers and toes are slowly starting to regain feeling, even though that feeling is all too similar to a bunch of needles poking relentlessly at her skin.

After a while, Dina’s hands sneak under her hoodie, leaving a trail of warmth along her cold back, and Ellie’s arms settle around her, as if out of habit, though her thundering heart begs to disagree. There is nothing common about the way her bare hands drag along her back and side.

Get your head out of the gutter, Ellie.

“Is this your way of staying safe?” Dina asks as she continues to rub her back, the hint of a chuckle in her voice.

Ellie smiles. “I’m in one piece, aren’t I?”

 

Flashlight. Food rations. Canteen of water. Extra ammo. Gun. Bandages. Bow. Arrows. Socks. Matches.

Ellie riffles through the contents of her backpack, kneeling on the cold, hard ground, making sure everything she’ll need for the next three days is safely tucked away inside. Nearby, Joel and Tommy are going over patrol routes, marking the new variations in the itinerary on the main map and transcribing them onto the smaller one the older brother will take with them when they leave Jackson. It’s too early for anyone else to be up and about, especially in the dead of winter.

“Ellie.”

Her head snaps up at the sound of her name. Dina stands over her, hands in her back pockets, her trademark bun tied neatly on top of her head. The tips of her ears are already turning red because of the cold, and the sun just barely rising behind her makes the little curly hairs that are somehow always too short to be a part of her bun look like a frizzy, out of control, halo.

“Hey! I, uh, I wasn’t expecting to see you so soon,” Ellie stammers as she rises to her feet, dusting off the knees of her jeans from the dirt and snow she had been kneeling in.

Dina smirks. “Missing me already, Freckles?”

“You wish,” she retorts, almost as a reflex, but in truth… yeah, she did miss her. She missed kissing her already, the way they’d laughed quietly in that alley, pressed against the cold brick of the building behind them. She even missed the dancing, or at least, she missed the way Dina’s waist – warm and soft – had felt under her fingers as they had danced.

It didn’t make sense for her to crave something she’d only gotten a taste of once so badly, but here she was, hoping her face didn’t say as much as she was thinking.  

Her fingers drum against the leather strap of her leg holster, and Ellie gets a brief glance at that knowing smile she gets sometimes. “As a matter of fact, I do,” she whispers, making sure the sound of her voice doesn’t carry all the way to the brothers still discussing their upcoming patrol.

Ellie feels the heat rush up the back of her neck.

Dina bends down to pick up Ellie’s backpack. “You’re going to ask me why I’m here.”

“Am I that predictable?”

“To me, yeah,” Dina teases, handing her the bag. Ellie slips her arms in the straps and lifts it to its rightful place on her shoulders. “Listen, I just came by to wish you a safe trip,” she adds, almost as a second thought.

“Yeah, you too,” Ellie answers, and she mentally kicks herself over her inability to come up with a more thought-out response.

Dina looks around once and takes a step forward, closing the distance between herself and Ellie. “I want to talk about last night when we come back, so you better get back here safe,” she whispers, too close and yet, not quite enough. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing bad,” she adds when she sees Ellie’s face falling.

“Nothing bad like, let’s forget about it? Or nothing bad like, let’s do it again?”

What possessed her to ask the question, she’ll never know, but it gets Dina to lean up on her tiptoes and place the lightest possible kiss on her cheek, so light she’s not even sure she feels it, and suddenly, she doesn’t mind not knowing.

“That answers your question?” she breathes out, taking a step back as Joel and Tommy break apart and head into different directions.

It’s almost time to go.

“I’d say.”

Dina reaches for her hand and gives it a squeeze before turning on her heals. “Promise you’ll stay safe?”

“I promise I’ll be back in one piece,” Ellie swears, watching as Dina heads off to her own patrol. “Hey, you have to promise too, you know.”

She winks at her before turning the corner of the armory, presumably to meet up with Jesse for their departure. “I swear.”

 

“I really should have been more specific with my demands,” Dina snorts. “I’ll remember for next time.”

“Sorry. Trying my very best over here,” Ellie claims. Her teeth have stopped chattering, and so have her shivers, but Dina stays pressed closed still, her legs tangled in hers and her hands running up and down her back to warm her up.

For a moment, the sound of their regular breaths is the only noise in the room, and the warmth between them feels so comfortable, and Ellie’s eyes feel heavy, and if she could just shut them for one minute...

“Don’t go falling asleep on me, Freckles.” Ellie’s eyes snap back open to see Dina looking at her with a soft smile on her face. She pulls away slightly, and Ellie misses her warmth already. “So, what are you doing tonight?”

“Sleeping? Figuring out how to dry my boots?”

Dina slips out of the covers and bends down to grab her coat that lay discarded on the floor by Ellie’s bed. “Sounds fun. Want to go on a date with me instead?”

She’s still curled in a ball, wrapped in her bedsheets, still cold, and now, shocked into temporary muteness.

Dina’s looking at her, expecting a response, and trying her best not to laugh when she’s unable to make one come out of her mouth.

“Uh, sure. When?”

“Now.”

“Oh, you mean now-now?” Ellie squeals out, clearing her throat to try to force it to stop speaking in such a squeaky, high range.

Dina raises a teasing eyebrow, crossing her arms over her chest. “I’m sorry, do you have anything better to do with your 24 hours off? Would you prefer I leave you to your boot-drying plans?”

“I guess I can move my boot-drying operation around a bit,” Ellie sighs exaggeratedly. “What do you want to do?”

“Build snowmen, obviously.”

“Dina, I literally still have ice hanging off my coat.”

“I’m kidding, I was thinking something along the lines of dinner and a movie. It’s not like there’s much else to do this time of year anyway.”

“Sounds good.”

Dina smiles and heads out the door, stopping in the doorway before going down the stairs. “Are you coming?”

“I was kind of hoping to take a shower first.”

“Alright, fancy pants, you have an hour, but then I’m expecting you to show up to my house in your nicest flannel.”

“Which one is that?”

“The green one without any holes in it.”

Ellie bursts out laughing, the sound echoing off her walls and coming back to her seemingly even louder than it left, and her throat and chest hurt at the sudden movement – she blames the cold.

“What’s so funny?”

“Dina, you borrowed that one months ago.”

She takes a moment to think, then ducks out of the room. “Whatever. See you in an hour. Don’t make me wait too long.”

***

“We’ll have to find you a new pair of shoes before long if you keep pacing like this.”

Ellie stops dead in her tracks, halfway between the kitchen and the old TV that doesn’t work anymore. Joel is sitting on the couch, his feet propped up on the coffee table. He’s looking at her with a smirk showing through his grey beard, partly hidden behind the notepad he’s writing his patrol summary in, a pencil balanced carefully behind his ear. “Because you’ll wear a hole in them soles,” he clarifies when Ellie just stares at him without saying a word.

Joel goes back to his report, the lead tip of his pencil making soft scraping sounds against the paper.

Ellie exhales loudly. She’s even getting on her own nerves now, never mind Joel’s, and it’s a wonder the man hasn’t thrown his notebook at her yet to get her to stop her pacing.

She doesn’t remember the last time she’s felt this nervous when no hostiles or Infected were involved.

It’s Dina, she tells herself, forcing herself to sit down at one of the stools by the kitchen counter, you know her already, what do you have to be nervous about?

But she had so much to be nervous about, she felt, so much that could go wrong… It had been a few days since the dance… What if Dina had changed her mind since then? What if this was all a big misunderstanding? Sure, they’d agreed to this date – even the word makes her stomach lurch in nervousness – no later than a few minutes earlier, but what if she was regretting it now? What if she regretted ever kissing her in the first place?

Ellie slams her forehead down on the cool surface of the countertop, groaning audibly.

The scraping sounds stop, and Ellie’s head snaps back up. Joel is staring at her again. “Something you want to talk about?”

Ellie just shrugs. I’m fine. This is fine.

She takes her knife out of her back pocket and studies it for a while. Considering how many Infected and Hunters alike it has stabbed over the past few years, it is in surprisingly good condition, with only a few more scratches and dents on the handle than it did when it was first handed down to her. She keeps the blade sharp out of habit, mostly because knowing she always carries a deadly weapon in her back pocket makes her feel a lot safer, even if she seldom uses it.

Ellie flips it open and folds it shut again a few times, enough for her to calm her nerves a bit, and also enough for Joel to finally give up on his report and set his notepad down on the coffee table with an exasperated sigh.

Joel’s knees pop audibly when he rises from his armchair, reminding Ellie that, while he is still the same strong, stubborn man who single-handedly cleared out most of the Pittsburgh area of Hunters, he is not getting any younger. His hair is much greyer than it was when they first met, almost totally white on the temples, he needs glasses – even if he won’t admit to it still – and he has put on a few pounds since they settled in Jackson, though if Megan was to be listened, he’d still need to put on a few more to reach a healthy weight.

Joel sits down next to her and leans sideways on the counter beside him. His eyes scan Ellie’s face for a few seconds before he decides to speak. “Alright, spill it, kid.”

“It’s nothing,” Ellie mumbles out. “I promise, you’ve got nothing to worry about.”

Joel’s eyebrows shoot up in disbelief at her statement. “Nothing, really? Because in the last five minutes I’ve seen you fill up a glass of water until it spilled, almost dig a hole in the parquetry and get mad at your shoelaces because, according to you, they’re too damn hard to tie.” His tone isn’t accusatory in any way, he just states the facts. Joel leans forward on his stool. “Want to try that again?”

“I didn’t think you were listening when I was complaining about the laces.”

“I’m always listening. Stop avoiding the question.”

Ellie flips her knife shut one final time and sets it on the counter, between her and Joel. “I have a date with Dina tonight.”

His eyes are unreadable when he looks at her.

“Date-date, or friend-date?” She feels the blush rush to her cheeks and neck, and she doesn’t have to give an actual answer for Joel to figure out which is the right one. “About fucking time, Ellie.”

“Not helping, old man.”

He smirks knowingly. “You’re afraid you’ll find a way to screw it up.”

“No! I mean, yeah… kind of?” Ellie stumbles on her own words, as well as on her own thoughts. “I know I should be excited, but right now I just feel like I’m going to have a goddamn heart-attack.”

There is no way she can possibly be this nervous, not for a date with someone she trusts with her life. Just thinking about it makes her feel like there’s a bunch of butterflies trying to fly out of her stomach, and she hates herself for failing to come up with a better, and most importantly, less cliché comparison.

She looks up at Joel. “What the fuck’s wrong with me? I’ve wanted this for so long and now I can’t decide if I want to hide in the shower until the hot water boils my skin off or run away altogether and never come back.”

His face is expressionless, save for the few more wrinkles appearing around his eyes betraying his amusement at the whole situation. He clears his throat and sits just a little straighter in his seat. “Now, first of all, we haven’t got enough hot water for you to stay in there that long and you just came out of there, so I suggest dropping that option. Second, you’re a dumbass.”

Ellie snickers despite the mockery being directed at her. “Shit, thanks for sugar-coating it.”

“Dumbass is sugar-coating it, dumbass. Listen here, you’re not going to get anywhere with that lady of yours by driving yourself stir-crazy in my living room.”

Easier said than done, she thinks to herself, and Ellie shifts uncomfortably in her seat. “I just don’t want to fuck this up.”

“There’s no recipe for this, you just have to not be such an idiot about it.”

Ellie smirks. “Are you channeling your inner Chuck right now?”

Joel shrugs in response. “Is it working?”

“Meh, not sure. He had much more sass than you.”

“Ungrateful kid,” he scoffs, but she knows it’s all in good fun.

They’re quiet for a while, alone in the kitchen, Ellie staring at the clock on the wall, wondering if the hands are moving at all or if time is making fun of her too.

“I’ve never been on a date before,” she finally confesses. “Closest I ever came to that was sneaking into the mall with Riley, and it’s not like that ended too well.”

“Unless your plans for the night include an illegal outing to an abandoned mall, I highly doubt either of you is going to get bitten by any Infected while wandering around the streets.” Joel pauses and tilts his head sideways, which Ellie has noticed him doing whenever he’s curious about something. “What are your plans anyway?”

Ellie doesn’t answer right away, taken aback at Joel’s curiosity. This is unusual for him, considering his newfound mentality of “as long as you don’t get yourself or anyone killed and you come back when you’re supposed to, whatever you’re doing is none of my business”.

Just as she is about to answer, Joel waves his hands in front of him. “You know what, don’t answer that. There are things in life a father simply shouldn’t know about what his kid is doing with her girlfriend.”

Ellie feels redness spread across her cheeks and shoves him, mildly outraged. “We’re having dinner, you pervert. And she’s not my girlfriend.” Yet, she wants to add, and the thought makes her nervous all over again.

“Aren’t you the romantic type,” he comments gruffly. “Am I expecting you back tonight or tomorrow?”

Ellie blushes furiously. “Tonight.”

“Good.”

When she looks at the clock again, she reaches two conclusions. First, that the hands must be moving anti-clockwise – it’s the only explanation for it – and second, that there is no point in staying here just to be grilled by Joel. It’s hard to imagine Dina minding too much if she arrives early, anyway.

Ellie jumps down from the stool, grabs the knife as she does so, shoves it in her back pocket almost as a second thought, and half runs out of the kitchen in exasperation. She throws on her jacket and flips the hood of her hoodie over her head to shield herself from the biting wind still howling outside. Joel’s soft chuckle follows her out to the front door, and she has one hand on the handle already when he calls out for her. “Ellie?”

“Yeah?”

He’s standing in the hallway now, having apparently followed her, and leans against the wall. “Stop stressing so much, it’ll be alright.”

Ellie doesn’t reply but she knows he understands what she just can’t express with words – something along the lines of a thank you. She hasn’t quite mastered the art of thanking people yet. She grabs her backpack, slings it over her shoulder, and heads out the door. She’s almost to the spot where Joel had stopped shoveling, probably as tired as she was of wading through snow, the spot where the height of the snowbank goes from a few inches to about three feet – there aren’t many people that live farther away from Downtown than she and Joel do, and that means that the snow isn’t as packed in by the resident’s comings and goings as it is on the more often used streets.

 “And stay out of trouble!”

“Sure thing, Joel.”

“I mean it, be safe.”

“When am I not?” she shoots back, yelling over her shoulder to be heard over the gusts of wind.

She can’t hear his reply, but she imagines it has something to do with him listing occurrences where she, in fact, hadn’t been.

She fights her way through the blizzard, losing her shoes in the accumulated snow multiple times and letting out a fair number of muffled swears along the way, and the snowflakes angrily sting her cheeks and forehead as the wind launches them mercilessly at her face. Normally, it merely takes her five minutes to walk from her house to Dina’s, but today, it seems never-ending, despite her running the whole way to avoid being subjected to Mother Nature’s wrath for longer than it is absolutely necessary.

When she finally climbs the steps leading to Dina’s front door, she’s both drenched in sweat and soaked with melted snow, and she’s utterly miserable.

She doesn’t bother knocking before swinging the door open and shuffling inside, trying her best to keep the wind from blowing waves upon waves of flurries inside and spectacularly failing at it.

“Dina?” she calls out when she finally gets the door to close. “Dina!”

The house is dark, and unusually quiet, until her hearing gets used to being away from the roaring of the wind and to the soft noises of her friend’s house. Dina’s muffled reply comes from the bathroom, almost drowned out by the sounds of the rushing water. “I’m in the shower!”

“No shit,” Ellie mumbles, chuckling. Dina really had a knack for stating the obvious, sometimes.

She takes her jacket off, hanging it on one the hooks to dry, and removes her hoodie too when she notices the hood has turned a dark grey with melted snow.

The water stops just as Ellie makes her way to the dining table, under the only light turned on in the house, and pulls out a chair. “I’ll be out in a minute!”

Ellie shakes her head, trying her best to keep the images of the very naked Dina she knows is on the other side of the wall from invading her thoughts. It’d be easier if she didn’t have actual memories of what that scene could look like to go along with the outrageous thoughts, and Ellie shifts uneasily in her seat.

The door flies open, and Dina emerges, surrounded by a cloud of condensation from her presumably way-too-hot shower and clad in only a blue towel wrapped around her body. It just barely reaches the top of her thighs, covered only the bare minimum amount of skin possible. Her hair is completely soaked, almost flat because of the added weight, the ends still dripping onto the carpet as she makes her way to her bedroom.

Ellie adverts her eyes, blushing to the sound of Dina giggling as she closes her door behind her.

When Dina waltzes back into the dining room, Ellie has managed to regain some of her senses. “I see you found some clothes in there,” she remarks, as sarcastically as she possibly can.

Dina just smiles, cocking her head to the side in an almost sheepish fashion, even though Ellie knows she’s probably not repentant in the least. Her hair drips onto her shirt, the droplets of water trickling down her neck, along her collarbone and disappearing below the neckline of her shirt.

Ellie’s eyes snap back to Dina’s face to see her smirking. “Doesn’t seem to be stopping you from checking me out,” she teases, and Ellie blushes again.

“Sorry, I…”

“It’s okay, Freckles, I don’t mind,” she whispers, leaning in tantalizingly close to Ellie’s ear, sending shivers down her spine.

She backs away, smiling.

“You’re the worst,” Ellie grumbles, the heat on her cheeks subsiding only slightly. She fights the smile tugging at her lips as best as she can, for as long as she can, until it breaks through the grumpy mask she’s been trying to uphold for the last few seconds.

Dina ignores the jab. “You’re early,” she observes, taking in Ellie’s attire, particularly her weathered red and black flannel shirt she’s wearing over an equally faded black t-shirt, with the various patches sewed on to fix the holes that have been torn into the fabric over the years. “And underdressed.”

Ellie snorts. “Like you of all people can critic people over being underdressed,” she teases.

“You walk around with a towel once…” Dina dramatically complains, shaking her head in mock-disbelief. “Seriously… why so early?”

Ellie reaches for her backpack and pulls out an impressive plastic container. She sets it on the table. “Joel was being an ass… And, you know, I brought cookies,” she adds as an afterthought.

Dina takes in the sheer size of the container before raising an eyebrow. Maria had made quite a few for Tommy’s birthday, blaming the baby and the toddler for forgetting she had baked a batch already and baking another one… three times. Joel and Ellie had ended up leaving the couple’s house with quite the stash of desserts which they had no idea what to do with.

“For an army? I was planning to cook, you know, no need to bring enough food to feed us until next winter.”

“I had to make sure we had a back-up plan in case your cooking gave us food poisoning… again.”

“It happened once!”

“You want to have another option at the ready when you burn our dinner or not?”

“You want to kiss me again or not?”

Ellie knocks the container off the table in one swift motion, resting her elbow on the spot where the cookies used to be and leaning on her hand, staring up at Dina as if they had never been there. “No more making fun of your food, got it.”

Dina smiles, satisfied she won that argument. “You learn fast.”

“I try my best.”

***

Surprisingly enough, no pots ended up being repurposed as makeshift fireballs, no food was burnt, and no one got sick.

It’s easy to fall into their usual banter, and most of the anxiety Ellie had felt at the idea of calling this a date had vanished by the time they got to washing the dishes. This was no different than any other dinner that they had shared before and they had watched tons of movies, just the two of them, this should have felt the same.

Except it doesn’t. They both know what this is, and what happened between them to lead up to this night, and it tints every move they make, from their choice of conversation topics, to Dina’s choice of meal – a safe, foul-proof selection of re-heated beef stew that her mom had cooked for her, along with some mashed potatoes. Even Ellie’s jokes were carefully selected, straying away from anything related to the dance, kissing, relationships…

It takes until the dishes are cleaned and put away in the plastic rack to dry, and the box of DVDs Dina keeps in her bedroom closet is emptied out on the dining table, for them to even remotely brush the subject of… well, whatever it is they are.

“What do you want to watch?”

Ellie shrugs. “Don’t really mind, why don’t you pick something?”

“Why don’t you?”

“Because I picked the last time,” Ellie counters, recalling her horrible, horrible choice of an animated movie.

“I picked out our food,” Dina retorts.

Ellie raises an eyebrow, teasing. “Technically, your mom did.”

Dina leans back into her chair, shaking her head disapprovingly in what she probably was hoping was a discouraging fashion. Too bad the mirth in her eyes ruined the effect. “Alright, smartass. Why don’t we eliminate movies? Last movie on the table wins.”

She looks at the table. “Can we at least disqualify the ones we already know don’t work?”

By the time they put those back in the box – why Dina hangs on to them will always be a mystery to her – along with the ones they’ve seen already, there are only movie cases left out between the two of them.

 “You start,” Dina orders, eyes shining in the faint light from the ceiling lamp.

“Alright… Oh, I have one. What is your favorite dish?”

Dina raises an eyebrow. “Really Freckles, that’s the best you can do?” she shakes her head in mock disproval. “I expected more of you. Let’s see, favorite dish… that would have to be my stepdad’s chili.”

“Chili? Of all the things you could’ve picked?”

“Hey, chili warms you up, and I’m all for anything that’s going to keep me from freezing during the winter.”

“Okay, I’ll let it slide. You can eliminate one.”

Dina doesn’t even look at the plastic case she picks, she looks straight at Ellie as she tosses her favorite movie back into the cardboard box with a smirk on her lips. “Oh, you… You… You’re mean!”

“Oh yes, definitely. Evil, I’d say.” She leans in over the table, as if she was planning to share some big secret that she didn’t want anyone else to overhear. “So, when did you first realise you liked me?”

In retrospect, taking a sip of her drink right before Dina asked her question was an awful idea, as it suddenly refuses to go down her throat anymore. Ellie coughs a few times, hoping the water won’t come shooting out of her nose to the soundtrack of Dina’s uncontrollable laughter. “Do you want me to drown at your table?” she sputters, wiping the runaway drops running down her chin with the back of her sleeve.

“Who would I make fun of if you died? Now stop stalling,” she commands playfully, leaning back into her chair.

Ellie nervously rubs the back of her neck, remembering that moment of realization, remembering the sheer embarrassment she had been feeling at the time over sleeping in very close quarters with the very girl she had seen naked and fantasized in the shower about mere hours before. She fights the blush making its way to her cheeks – there’s no reason to be ashamed now, Dina had no way of reading her mind and she hoped the subject of that panic attack would never come up in one of Dina’s makeshift interrogations. “I… I don’t know… Maybe… Like a year ago?”

Dina raises her eyebrows in surprise – hopefully she doesn’t think it’s as creepy as it sounds.

“You’ve been doing this silent pining in your corner thing for a goddamned year?” she exclaims.

“I wasn’t silently pining! And besides, you were with Jesse, what good would it have done to do anything about it at the time?”

Dina smiles, looking almost bittersweet. “I see your point,” she allows, looking down at the laid-out DVD boxes still lining the surface of her table. “Think you’ve earned yourself two picks with this one.”

She could have chosen to pay Dina the same courtesy she’d shown her and pick her favorite movie to put back in the box – after all, she knows which one it is and she doesn’t particularly want to watch Avatar again for the what feels like the seven-hundredth time – but in the end, she settles for eliminating two that look like romantic comedies. No point in trying to compare this date to those ones, I’m already too nervous as it is.

“Good choices,” Dina comments with a smirk. “Those positively suck.”

“Alright, movie-critic, my turn.”

Dina pretends to hold onto the sides of the table. “Fire away, I’m ready.”

“You’re so dumb,” Ellie smiles.

“Dumb enough for you to make out with me again?”

“We didn’t make out! Don’t you try to confuse me, it’s my turn to ask,” Ellie backtracks, noticing how Dina had walked her right where she wanted her – flustered and reddening by the second. “When did you realise you liked me?”

Even as she says the words, it still feels unreal to think that Dina could’ve felt the same way about Ellie as she felt about her, stills feels like she’s going to wake up any second now.

“If you must know, I started suspecting I didn’t exactly feel the same way about you as I did before when I got mad at you for hiding your bite from me,” she admits. “But the moment I became really sure of it… do you remember our movie night? When you had to babysit Tommy and Maria’s kid and we ended up watching a movie here after? You tried to carry me to bed without waking me. That’s when I knew I liked you, and not just as a best friend.” Dina clears her throat, settles on her chair. It squeaks, and Ellie has no idea what to answer to that. “I’m going to give myself two movies for that.”

Ellie doesn’t pay attention to which movie she removes, but when she looks at the table again there are only three movies remaining between them. “Way to put my answer to shame.”

“It’s what I do best, Freckles. Say, when do you think I’ll get reacquainted with the enterprising, not-making-out-in-the-alley Ellie I met at the dance?”

Suddenly, Ellie realises that it is, in fact, possible to choke on thin air, to Dina’s amusement. “That’s your question?”

“Yes.”

“I assume she’s dead in a ditch somewhere around that alley,” Ellie answers, trying her best not to meet Dina’s eyes. “Floundering-Ellie is subbing in tonight.”

Dina pretends to think.

“Meh, I guess she’ll have to do.”

Ellie scoffs, repressing the smile threatening to break through her mockingly insulted mask. “Fuck you.”

She doesn’t miss the way Dina bites her lower lip slightly before feigning to stare appreciatively at her. At least, she thinks she’s pretending.

“I should hope so.”

“Dina, come on!”

She holds her hands up in the air as she giggles. “Sorry, Freckles, it’s just too easy to get you all flustered.” She leans her head sideways, looking at her. “That’s your last question. Better make it count.”

Ellie picks a movie and places it carefully into the box. She takes her time, deliberately slow in her movements, giving herself time to think, trying her best to ignore the way Dina’s gaze weighs heavily on her.

She knows what her next question will be, it’s been burning her tongue since they left each other after the dance… she’s just not sure she’s ready – or even wants – to hear the answer.

“What, huh,” she starts, then stops and starts again, feeling her face burning and her mouth drying up. “Where do you see this going?”

Ellie gestures at the two of them.

Dina nods softly, folding her legs under herself on the chair, then joining her hands in front of her. She plays with her fingers, tugging, pulling at them, takes one DVD in her hands, flips it over, places it back, and does the same with the other remaining one. “It’s a good question,” she concedes.

“I try my best,” Ellie jokes, trying to lighten the mood. “Look, you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to. It’s fine. I’ll even still allow you to pick the movie.”

Dina looks at the two movie cases in front of her. “You’re too kind.”

To Ellie’s surprise, she picks up the Avatar movie and drops it in the box, leaving her with a movie she doesn’t know in front of her, a comedy, if Ellie had to guess by the cover. She fiddles with the loose thread on the tablecloth.

“You really don’t have to, you know… answer. Forget I ever asked. Can we just drop this?”

Dina looks up, letting the thread fall from her fingers.

“No,” she refuses softly, and it’s so destabilizing to see Dina be anything but confident, anything but her bold, usual self. She feels bad for putting her on the spot. She knows if their roles were reversed right now, she’d be a blushing, blubbering mess with no answer to give whatsoever, because, honestly, she still has trouble believing she didn’t dream the dance and their following kisses.

Dina leans forward and laces her fingers with Ellie’s. She can’t help but give them a soft squeeze, hoping it’ll help somehow. Maybe she can’t take back her question, but this, she can do. Ellie looks up from their joined hands to see her looking straight into her eyes and gone is the unsure girl of the past few seconds. This is Dina, the same self-assured, unafraid woman Ellie knows so well.

“Look, I don’t know where I see this going yet, but I know other things. I know I like you, and that I like spending time with you… and who knows, maybe I’ll even get you to get the hint and kiss me again,” she adds with a smirk, and Ellie’s stomach does somersaults as Dina squeezes her fingers back. “What I’m saying is, I don’t know where it goes yet, but I’m excited to find out. Aren’t you?”

It takes a moment for Ellie to realise that the question is meant for her – as if it could be addressed to anyone else when they’re the only ones in Dina’s house. “Yeah,” she mutters, beating herself up over her inability to come up with something better than the single word she managed to get out so far.

Dina shakes her head, amused, and pulls on Ellie’s hand as she gets up to get her to follow her lead. “Alright, Freckles. Movie time, come on.”

Ellie scrambles to her feet, sliding her chair back under the table as best as she can with one hand while the other one’s fingers are still tangled with Dina’s, and she’ll be damned if she lets go now.

“Dina?”

“Yeah?”

“Where the fuck did your couch go?” she asks, baffled at the emptiness of her friend’s living room.

It seems impossible that she went a whole meal without noticing how unusually bare Dina’s living room looked, but as she glances around, it does appear to be missing a very important piece of furniture. In her defense, the living room lights had been turned off since she came in.

Dina drops her hand and turns back to her, stopping dead in her tracks, and Ellie’s forward momentum from her dragging her along means that when she finally does stop, they’re almost pressed against one another. Her breath catches in her throat.

“Promise not to laugh.”

“I’m not making any such promises,” Ellie shoots back.

Dina rolls her eyes. “Promise not to laugh too much then?”

“Promise. Now spill.”

Dina hooks a finger into Ellie’s belt loop, pulling her closer until she’s pressed up against her, and Ellie’s left standing there, with her arms hanging uselessly at her sides, wondering how long it’ll take for her stupid brain to stop short-circuiting and get her stupid limbs to do something, anything again.

She’s never noticed before how fascinating Dina’s eyes actually are, how, if the light hits them just right, it makes tiny little flecks of lighter brown appear in her usual dark color, like miniature lighting bolts, and how the line running along the outside of her irises seems almost grey.

Or maybe she’s never been close enough to actually see it.

“After the dance, after you walked me back home, I was watching you walk away,” she starts, and she’s smirking, looking up at Ellie. “And I was backing away toward my room, and I kind of crashed into it. Poor thing didn’t exactly make it.”

Ellie raises an eyebrow in disbelief. “You broke your couch because you were staring at me?”

“In my defense, it was on its way out anyway.”

It’s to argue with that – Ellie’s sure she still has bruises on her skin from the springs digging into her back whenever they’d watch a movie – but it’s also hard not to imagine Dina tumbling over the back of the couch like a goddamned cartoon character. “You fell because of me?”

She sounds like a broken record, but she doesn’t care, because Dina’s looking up at her, and she’s smiling. “Kind of.”

Ellie grins.

“Would you say you fell head over heels?” she teases.

Dina cocks her head to the side, shrugging. “You’re a dork, but I guess you could say that,” she breathes out, almost a whisper, and her breath tickles Ellie’s chin as she speaks.

It wouldn’t take much for Ellie to kiss her, she’d only need to dip her head down to brush against Dina’s lips, but for the life of her, she can’t get her body to cooperate with her head, and Dina ends up pulling away with another eye roll.

“You’re so oblivious,” she comments, leaning against the wall. “It’s cute, most of the time. Right now, it’s infuriating.”

Ellie smiles apologetically. “Sorry?”

Dina shakes her head, but the faintest hint of a smile grazes her lips, making Ellie grin like a dumbass in return. “You really need to work on your game, Ellie-dear.”

“Consider it a work in progress,” she offers, her cheeks burning. “So, what are we doing about that movie?”

Dina looks behind Ellie, to the TV set in the living room in front of where the couch used to be.

“The way I see it, we have to options. We can bring my mattress out here, or we can bring the TV in there,” she says, titling her head toward the general direction of her bedroom. “Which one do you pick?”

“Oh, I, uh, I don’t have a preference,” Ellie sputters, and goddamn it when will her face return to its normal color? “It’s up to you.”

Both of those options have the common theme of them watching a movie in Dina’s bed, and just the thought makes her lose all her bearings. Dina laughs out.

“Calm down, Freckles, I’m not trying to lure you into sleeping with me just yet.” She ends her sentence with an exaggerated wink and Ellie starts wondering how many times her heart can stop before it doesn’t start again, and Dina is still laughing. “But seriously, if you’re not comfortable with that we can just sit on the kitchen chairs, or right on the carpet.”

Ellie smiles, because of course Dina would come up with an alternative. Not that it makes her uncomfortable in the slightest – quite the contrary.

“Hum, okay, bedroom I guess.”

“Good choice,” Dina comments, launching herself off the table and heading straight toward her room. “I’ll be waiting!”

Ellie stares at the spot where Dina disappeared, mouth hanging open in surprise. “Hey, Dina, care to help me out, here?”

She pokes her head out of the room, both hands busy tying her hair up into a bun now that it had mostly dried and wearing a smug smirk on her face.

“I’m sure you can handle moving the TV by yourself,” she teases, leaning against the doorframe to watch her.

“But it’s heavy!”

Dina raises a tantalizing eyebrow. “Heavier than me?”

“No.”

“See, your complaining would have been taken into consideration if you hadn’t decided to deadlift me and hold me up against a wall like, 72 hours ago.”

“Don’t try to pretend like you weren’t helping me out, you were holding on!” Ellie accuses, crossing her arms over her chest in response to Dina’s doubtful look. “The TV isn’t going to do that.”

Dina just shrugs, ducking back inside the room and disappearing once more, her voice sounding as if far away. “The longer you wait, the greater the chances of me falling asleep are.”

Ellie caves, and resolves to get her revenge another day.

***

For the life of her, Ellie couldn’t say what the movie was about. This seemed to be a recurrent theme whenever they watched a movie together – they would start it, Dina would fall asleep twenty minutes in without a fail, and Ellie would spend the rest of the time alternating between staring at the screen and staring at the sleeping girl next to her. Granted, there was quite a bit more of the staring at her friend than at the TV involved.

Kind of like now.

The movie had ended some time ago, and even the TV had turned off by itself since then, leaving the bedroom dark with only the moonlight reflected off the snow outside to help Ellie see.

She should leave – Dina’s asleep, and Joel’s expecting her back, and she’s fucking exhausted from her patrol – but she can’t bring herself to move. Because Dina is asleep, and she’s asleep on her shoulder, snoring softly into her ear, and Ellie would rather do pretty much anything other than wake her right about now.

Dina’s leg is slung lazily over Ellie’s waist, and one of her arms is resting on her shoulder. Ellie’s fingers draw imaginary lines on the small of Dina’s back, on that strip of exposed skin between the waistband of her pants and the hem of her shirt.

She thinks back to a time not too long ago, when she crashed at Dina’s place after walking in on Joel and Megan and her friend made her sleep in her bed instead of on the couch – looking back on it, she probably would have stabbed herself to death on one of the springs, like Dina had said she would, but she’d never tell her that.

Back then, she had tried her very best to avoid touching Dina at all when they slept, going as far as bunching up the covers to make a barricade between their bodies, and spent part of the night doing her best to forget about how very close, and warm, and cute Dina was.

It’s hard to believe that was only a few months ago, but now, they’re both lying in her bed, all tangled up, and Ellie pulls Dina even closer still, burying her face into her hair.

She stirs in her arms, stretching out like a cat and curling back up right after. “How much did I miss?”

Dina’s voice is heavy with sleep, and it’s rapidly becoming one of Ellie’s favorite sounds. “Like three quarters of it?”

Dina buries her face further into Ellie’s neck, groaning loudly as laughter makes Ellie’s shoulders shake. Her face is still pressed into the half-asleep girl’s hair, the familiar smell of her shampoo captivating her.

“Fuck. Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Ellie goes back to drawing patterns against Dina’s back, lazily, as if she’d done this all her life. “Did I wake you?”

“Maybe.”

“Sorry,” Ellie apologizes, not making any effort to move away from her, trying her best to suppress the smirk tugging at her lips. “Do you forgive me?”

Dina lifts herself up on her elbows, and Ellie can see the light from outside reflected into her eyes, and the sly smile tugging at her lips. “Only if you’re planning to make it up to me.”

Her breath is tickling her face and Ellie grins, bringing the hand that isn’t still placed around Dina’s waist up to her face. Her thumb brushes against her cheek. “I am.”

Dina smiles, raising an eyebrow as if daring her to make a move.

Ellie leans up and meets her lips halfway, smiling against her mouth when she feels Dina smirk into the kiss.

It’s different, kissing her in the darkness of her bedroom, as opposed to the busy dancefloor of the church or the cold and desolated alley. It’s like she has all the time in the world to map out Dina’s mouth, to figure out a rhythm between them, to revel in the taste of her and to be amazed at how it feels to have her lips and tongue brush against hers.

It’s a wonder she remembers to breathe at all.

Dina pulls back first, sleepy eyes searching her face. “About time you took the hint.”

“What can I say, good kisses happen to those who wait,” Ellie teases back, dropping her head back onto the pillow, smiling.

“Aren’t you smug.”

“Do I have a reason not to be?”

Dina grabs a hold of the collar of Ellie’s shirt, shifting them so that Ellie is the one hovering over her now. “I might need a repeat performance to make an enlightened judgement.”

Ellie’s happy to dive down and oblige.

It’s funny how some concepts that she’s always though were absolute – like time, and distance, and the notion of needing air breathe – now seem relative when she spends her time with Dina like this. She thinks they kiss for a few seconds, but when she looks up, the clock on Dina’s nightstand begs to disagree. She thinks she needs air, but it turns out she doesn’t, not really, not when she can breathe her in instead.

And when they lie in her friend’s bed, tangled up together, quietly laughing at everything and nothing at all like no one matters outside the walls of the little house with the blue doors and window-frames, Ellie can swear the very notion of personal space stopped existing.

 

There are few things she’s sure of, when the first rays of sunshine hit her closed eyes and she buries her face into Dina’s hair.

She’s sure that they fell asleep at some point – a while ago, judging by how numb the arm Dina’s head is resting on is – but what she can’t figure out is when exactly her hand snuck into her friend’s shirt to rest on her stomach.

She’s quite sure she threw her flannel on the floor when she became too hot to keep wearing it any longer, and not on the sleeping girl in her arms, though it sure as hell looks better on Dina than it does on herself.

And as she opens her eyes to take in the soft glow of the early morning, feeling Dina stirring against her and realizing she unintentionally spent the night over, she’s a hundred percent sure of another thing.

Joel’s going to skin her alive when she finally makes it back home.

She presses her lips to the soft skin of Dina’s neck, smiling as a sleepy giggle escapes her when she turns around to face her, resolving to enjoy her last moments before her short life is abruptly cut short for missing another unspoken curfew.

Chapter Text

Ellie’s shoes feel like they’re made of lead instead of mostly canvas as she drags her feet all the way from the south gate to the bathroom of the house she shares with Joel, disregarding the way her feet drag in the melting snow and the thick, cold mud. Her shoes are already soaked through, it can’t get any worse.

She’s used to going on patrols and scavenging trips, she’s been doing it for well-over a year now. She’s used to the nearly sleepless nights, to the constant growling of her stomach, protesting her decision to survive on dried meat rations and whatever they managed to hunt or trap that day – she’s even used to the continual anxiety of expecting someone, or something, to leap out of every bush she walks by.

Most patrols or scavenging trips went off without a hitch, but when they did go wrong, they did so in a truly spectacular fashion. This one was no exception, and it left her utterly exhausted and even more banged up.

Every muscle in her body hurts and just lifting her arm to turn the front-door’s doorknob feels like a superhuman feat worthy of song and praise.

Ellie unceremoniously tosses her battered old backpack as far away from the door as possible, at the very end of the porch, and it lands with the familiar thud and jingle of a bag full of supplies – with a little luck, its smell alone would attract wild animals, they would tear it apart, and then she’d finally have an excuse to request another one from the storage building’s supplies.

She drags herself to the bathroom, on what Joel often described as ‘autopilot’ – stumbling along on muscle memory alone, avoiding furniture by sheer force of habit – and quickly closes the door behind her. The familiar click of the bolt sliding into place as she lets go off the handle is comforting. She doesn’t know why – it’s not like the slightly rusty mechanism could keep anyone out if they really wanted to get in, anyway.

She stumbles along, kicking off her ruined shoes in the short space between the entrance to the room and the floormat placed in front of the shower, and Ellie swings the glass door open to reach for the tap. The water starts running, freezing at first, and then scalding, just the way she likes it when she comes back from a few days of freezing her ass off on patrol.

Ellie breathes out a sigh of relief when the hot water touches her muddy and blood-caked hand, washing away some of the grime as the droplets run along her forearm and fall on the ceramic tiles. She leans against the wall next to the textured glass door and lets herself slide down until she’s seated on the cold tiles by the toilet.

She’s sure she left an Ellie-shaped smudge on the wall where her body dragged across the faded blue paint, but she can’t seem to give a flying shit about it.

Ellie shuts her eyes in a desperate effort to keep the images of the past four days from flooding in.

They were only supposed to be gone for two days at most. It was a quick job: travel to an abandoned mall a few miles north, scavenge anything that could be useful, and come back. Simple enough.

As it seemed to be the case with most of her patrols of the past few months, she was paired with Joel, to her utmost annoyance – she didn’t need a babysitter to follow her around everytime she left Jackson, but since she had come back from her last patrol with Chuck dragging his dead body behind and frozen to her very core, it was hard to convince him the supervision wasn’t needed.

Since it was a new route, and relatively unexplored territory, Jesse and Tommy had thought it best to send along another team to back them up.

Nathan was an older man, older than Joel, with an undeniable knack for hunting and as eagle-eyed as they came when he was on guard duty. Ellie had done a few watch shifts with him, and he was a reliable partner, albeit a little gruff along the edges – though after living with Joel for the better part of the last four years, the grouchiness left her pretty much indifferent.

William, the other half of the second patrol team, was Nathan’s second youngest son. Like his father, he shared few words with others, and even fewer comprising of more than two syllables, but he was nice enough, when he absolutely had to be. Mostly, Ellie remembered him as one of the numerous hopeful young men that had been waiting for her dance with Dina to end so they could swoop in and ask for one themselves.

After a harrowing day of travel, through melted snow, and mud and frozen dead leaves that were slowly thawing, the foursome had found out the hard way that the mall was far, far from being inhabited.

She gives up trying to keep the memories at bay, and they cascade over her, unbridled.

 

Ellie has seen a lot of abandoned places over the years.

Some of them looked to be frozen in time, like a child’s bedroom, with posters of colorful animated characters hanging on the walls and toys left on display in various places, unaffected by years upon years of abandonment, the thick layer of dust coating everything around her giving it an eerie look.

Some other had her downright frightened – when she thinks of the sewers they had travelled in, back in Pittsburgh with Joel, and Henry and Sam, or the underground tunnels in Salt Lake City, or even the freezing and barren room David’s people had held her captive in, she can feel it again. That dread, washing over her like a cold shower, rippling along her skin and leaving goosebumps over her skin, evidence of a fear she tried her best to ignore. Because being afraid means questioning her every move, second doubting herself, and none of them of them can afford it if they want to live to see another sunrise.

Others places felt like walking into a shrine to a culture that did not exist anymore, peaceful and grand at the same time. She supposes that was how people like Joel must have felt walking into museums, back before her time. She always felt a sense of peace when passing through those places, like the relics they contained, relics to a civilization she had no memories of, absolutely had to mean she was safe within their walls, free to wander and take her time to look carefully, almost with veneration, at the objects laid before her curious eyes.

But the most heartbreaking places had to be the ones that still held the panic of the Outbreak in them, the places where you could tell the furniture hadn’t been knocked over by scavengers trying their best to find the resources to survive in this world, or by the Infected, or even because of fighting. No, it was the places that just screamed desperation – the doll on the ground of a grocery store in the middle of an aisle, cars left lined up in disarray in the streets with the doors thrown open, some of them with the keys still inside. The places where she could almost see the ghosts of the men, women and children running for their lives, chased by abominations they did not have a name for yet, beasts that they had no knowledge of. Creatures that terrified them all the same.  

Looking at this drugstore, with its shelves pushed away from the doors – probably to allow for a quicker escape for the poor fucks that had been caught here when shit hit the fan, as opposed to the usual layout of furniture being stacked behind the doors and windows to keep people or Infected from coming in – she’s hit with that same wave of solemn acknowledgement for the people that, unlike Joel, or Chuck, or Maria, or Tommy, didn’t manage to escape their routine in time, and died with the image of someone that looked like them, but rendered feverish by a disease still unknown, tearing them apart as the last thing their eyes saw.

Though seeing the people she cares about go about those places – those that are old enough to remember their way of life from before, getting that nostalgic look in their eyes as they stare at an object that no longer holds meaning – she wonders, not for the first time, if they really were the lucky ones in all this mess.

Raiding the place was a thing of habit for all four of them. Instinctively, they spread out, covering every corner of the room, each of them working silently, methodically, to find the things they were sent out for – bandages, stitches, splints, anything they could salvage and fit into their backpacks.

Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Nathan going around the counter where a cash register was lying on display, broken into, as if money could buy anything now. She doesn’t think much of it. The space was half-way between their two self-attributed sections of the store, it was only a matter of time before one of them moved on to it. This way at least, she can take a little more time with her search.

She finds a pamphlet under one of the display shelves, describing the proper way to treat pneumonia – antibiotics, all with names longer and complicated than the next, and with side-effects that sounded even worse than the sickness itself.

Nowadays, even a common cold had the potential to be lethal. It seemed to her that every illness was curable, back then, if the pamphlets she had read so far were to be believed.

Ellie slides her backpack off her shoulders, intending to shove the pamphlet, along with the roll of skin tape she found earlier, inside one of the side pockets. Dina would probably find this interesting.

She hears a doorknob turning, faintly, followed by the deafening sound of a gun going off, leaving a ringing in her ears that drowns out everything else. The door behind the counter swings into the wall, its top hinge breaking off on the impact, and Nathan flies backward, crashing into the counter. She sees the specks of blood flying out of his back – the bullet’s exit wound – then two more, one on his upper back and another one on his lower back, along with two muffled pops.

He slides to the ground, out of view, and she realizes the two pops she heard are actually gunshots, her hearing just hasn’t recovered still. Her eyes take in the scene, as if in slow-motion.

Nathan sliding off the counter, to the floor on the other side where her eyes lose sight of him. The lights from a flashlight, shifting about the room, right next to her.

She counts one heartbeat. Two. Three. They’re her own, but they’re too fast, and her body’s frozen there.

She has to move, now.

Ellie dives behind the counter, on the opposite side from where the older man’s body crumbled to the floor. Sounds rush back to her ears, all at once, too much.

She hears shouts behind her, at least from two different people, and more gunshots.

“Fucking hell,” she growls, her back against the counter and her heart thundering against her ribcage. Her gun’s in her backpack, and her backpack is still by that shelf where she set it down by her feet. Out of reach, unless she crawls there.

Another gunshot rings out, and she sees the hole the bullet digs into the concrete wall where her head would have been if she had hesitated a second longer.

She can’t see Joel, or William, but she can see the reflection of the light on the barrel of her pistol, inside the open pocket she tried to slip the pamphlets in, glistening in the darkness like a beacon she can’t reach. “Fucking hell!”

The next shot rings out even louder than the previous one. The metal panel of the counter vibrates against her back and shoulder – whoever’s shooting at them is firing at the counter itself, and she prays, selfishly, that it isn’t because they saw her dive behind it.

She knows if they’re not shooting at her, they’re shooting at Nathan, and that’s not good.

She spots William, in the dark, laying flat on the ground, hidden from the view of the shooter. His eyes are trained ahead, so still, but not unseeing like the dead’s. No, they’re frozen in shock.

When she feels the warm liquid pooling around her thigh and hip and leg, and she shifts her eyes to the floor to see the rapidly growing pool of blood accumulating next to her, and under her, she understands.

There’s no way hell Nathan had survived this.  

She flashes back to a time when it was her own father figure lying in a pool of blood, and she could do nothing but watch, and pray, and hope for his recovery – she thinks of the time where it was Chuck’s blood she was kneeling in, after she had pulled the trigger and ended his life.

She feels her hand start to tremble, the same hand that had held the gun to his head.

She can’t think of it, not now.

Ellie crouches, a better position to react to the attackers’ moves, and winces when the side of the counter rattles again with another impact. She fucking hopes it holds up. Her hands are covered in blood by now. She wipes them on her jacket. Slippery hands are useless, and a liability.

She can’t see William anymore, and she assumes it’s because he regained some of his senses and hid more effectively. She hears footsteps coming closer – they can’t be Joel’s, he’s not stupid enough to expose himself like this, so they must be hostile.

“You’re sure there was another one?” she hears a voice say, behind her, and every one of her limbs tenses up. It’s close, too close, and she’s effectively unarmed compared to them. Her knife weighs heavily in the back pocket of her jeans.

It would be useless unless they ended up in close range combat, but she reaches back all the same. Her thumb brushes over the button, itching to press down on it, but knowing it would make noise and alert them to her presence.

“She was standing right there!” another voice answers, faster, as if justifying their statement.

“You sure it isn’t that dead fucker’s shadow you saw?”

“Fuck you,” the second voice snaps back. “She’ll hear you.”

Ellie grinds her teeth. Of course, she hears them. She’d be fucking deaf, and still, she’d hear them, chatting away.

But as they’re talking, it covers the sound of her shuffling back into the dark corner of the room, and she sneaks into the darkness provided by an overturned refrigerator, as far away from where they needed to pass to go around. She listens some more. She only hears two pairs of footsteps, slow, steady, calculating.

A movement catches her eye, at the end of the room. Joel.

He’s hidden behind some furniture, in the shadows, out of sight from the door, close to where she left her backpack. She knows he moved in a purposeful way, making her notice him without giving his position away to their assailants.

She knows what to do. They’ve done it enough by now.

Ellie holds two fingers – two hostiles. Joel nods, and retreats back into the shadows, though she can still see the faint outline of his shape. There’s no sign of William anymore.

Her hand stops shaking, tightening around the handle of her switchblade.

The two men – Hunters, judging by their clothes – have made their way around the counter, and are advancing toward Joel’s position. One of them has a pistol, and the other one wields a shotgun. She hasn’t heard it being fired before. God, she hopes it isn’t loaded.

He can’t retreat, that much she sees, and if they keep going this way, he’s going to have to face the two of them head on. She doesn’t like theses odds, even if he still has his gun on him.

A knife isn’t a long-range weapon, but it’s the only thing she has. And she’ll be damned if she doesn’t at least try something.

She clicks the knife open and launches it over her hiding spot like a hand-grenade. “Hey, fuckface!”

They turn around just it time to see the blade flying at their heads. One ducks, aiming at her approximate position, and the other is hit in the forehead – unfortunately, it’s with the handle side of the knife, and it only manages to get him to stagger a bit, but it distracts them long enough for Joel to leap out from his hiding spot and get the nearest opponent in a headlock.

They fall to the ground, fighting for the shotgun between them, disappearing out of Ellie’s field of view.

The other one starts turning, his pistol lifted, wavering and unsteady on his feet after the impact of her knife against his face, trying to aim for Joel without hitting his own partner.

Ellie leaps to her feet and grabs the drawer from the cash-register, ripping it out from the rest of the metal carcass as she takes off running, and hurls it toward the hunter. It collides with his shoulder, and the gun fires nonetheless, but away from the wrestling men it was aiming for.

“Over here, fucker!”

She crashes into him because that’s the only thing she can think of doing, and if he wasn’t already off-balance, it wouldn’t have done anything, but they tumble over a display under the force of the impact. She grabs blindly for the hand wielding the pistol as they’re rolling on the floor, each of them trying to pin the other one to the down and none of them succeeding at it more than a fraction of a second.

It goes off again before she can grab it, and it rains broken glass shards on her face. It’s a reflex to lift her arms to shield herself, but it leaves her vulnerable, and her opponent uses that instant to push all his weight against her body, effectively trapping her under him.

She hears Joel struggling somewhere near. He can’t help her.

“William, where the hell are you!” Ellie grunts as she struggles to move. He’s much heavier than her, and the added weight on her chest makes it hard to breathe.

She feels his forearm press against her throat, cutting off all oxygen from reaching her lungs. Ellie slams her palm into the man’s face, trying to drive her fingers into his eyes, and he tilts his head back to keep it away from her grasp.

Ellie sees the metal glistening into the darkness and grabs for it instead.

They’re at a stalemate.

Ellie’s arms are shaking with the strain of keeping the weapon pointed away from her, and the lack of air is making her head spin, and there’s too much pressure, it feels like her head’s going to explode any second now.

She reaches out with one hand, dragging her palm across the dusty floor while trying her best to keep him at a distance, and he’s so close now she can smell his breath on her face, can smell the sweat, the blood.

This can’t be how it ends, not now.

She sees black spots, and the fist she’s using to hold the barrel of the gun away from her face starts to falter as her lungs ache for air, making her chest shake in desperate search of oxygen.

Her hand closes around the strap of her backpack and she swings, as hard as she can.

He stumbles back, just slightly, and then she hears the familiar sound of hollow metal connecting with flesh and he collapses over her, fresh, hot blood pouring over her face as she gasps for air.

Another gunshot rings out.

“Get the fuck up,” William grunts, pushing the corpse off her and offering her a sweaty hand.

“About fucking time you showed up,” Ellie wheezes, massaging her throat and coughing as she struggles to turn onto her side. “Joel?”

Another pair of arms lift her off the ground, shoving her now-folded knife into one of her hands. “Right here.”

He’s banged up, for sure, but he looks fine, for the most part.

William stares at the pool of blood, by the counter, frozen. The pipe in his hand hangs loosely at his side, slick with blood and flesh and other stuff she’d much rather not think about.  

Ellie bends down to retrieve her backpack. The man who had been trying to kill her is lying face down, the back of his head cracked open like an egg, but she can see his features, notices the patchy beard and the slightest hint of baby cheeks remaining on his face.

He must have been her own age, maybe even younger.

She snatches up his gun, feels his pockets for good measure, though she only manages to find a few extra bullets in his coat.

“For fuck’s sake,” Joel grunts out through clenched teeth. He has made his way to the other side of the counter and he’s looking at his feet with a resigned, yet sorrowful expression on his face. William finally makes a move, a step forward to join him.

“I don’t think you want to see this,” he adds, and William stops in his tracks as he was taking a second step. Ellie notices how both his hands are shaking, his eyes unblinking, yet still trained on the pool of blood he knows belongs to his father. “There’s not much left of him.” 

William inhales, shakily, before nodding. “Can you hand me his watch?”

Joel dutifully bends down, retrieving the required object, and his gun and ammo and backpack for good measure. He rolls the watch in his hands over a few times as he rises. From her position, she can see the glass is broken, and the leather band is in poor condition, worn down and now, stained with blood. She sees the shadow cloud his eyes, for a second, and she gets it.

His own watch is a reminder of his dead daughter, and now, this one will be William’s memory of his dead father.

William reaches out a hand, closing his fist around the watch with trembling fingers.

“Let’s get a move on, before their friends find us here,” Joel calls out. He grabs the shotgun discarded on the ground and pushes past her.

Ellie couldn’t agree more.

 

It had turned out that the mall was home to a small faction of Hunters, and the ensuing gunfight to escape it attracted a whole fucking battalion of Clickers and Runners. Ellie could swear she even saw a Bloater in a storefront window, but they didn’t linger around long enough for her to confirm her suspicions.

After three days of walking, running, hiding, shooting and fighting off infected and humans alike with barely any sleep at all, she pretty much had the same energy level as the faded carpet she was sitting on. 

Ellie grabs the side of the vanity and pulls herself to her feet with a pained groan.

The reflection she sees in the mirror looks like the cover of some of the horror books she had browsed through no later than the week before, when she had to redo the inventory of the whole goddamned library.

Her hair is dirty, looking more of a dark brown than her usual auburn, and it has leaves and branches stuck in it, as well as blood and mud and dust and God only knows what else. All her clothes have turned a gruesome brownish color, and the nauseating blend of substances covering her shirt cracks open like a poorly made cast when she slips it over her head – useless now, unless they found a revolutionary new washing technique in the next few hours.

Ellie looks down. Her jeans are a thing of the past too, mostly torn to pieces from the knee down – they were barely holding together anyway, but good pants are a scarce resource around Jackson and it annoys her to have to throw away yet another pair.

Maybe she could salvage the shoes? Good shoes were so rare to come by, even more uncommon than pants…

I’ll look into it tomorrow morning. Or evening. Whenever I wake up.

Ellie strips of the rest of her clothes, leaves them in a pile on the floor in a corner of the bathroom to be thrown out later and steps under the warm stream of water. She can’t stop the sigh of satisfaction that escapes her lips when it touches her skin, taking the dirt with it as it runs down her body and pools around her feet before disappearing into the drain. Ellie closes her eyes, the blood and mud that had turned her hair a few shades darker now cascading down her face and she knows from past experiences that having blood in her eyes burns like holy hell.

She stays like this, completely still, for a few more blissful seconds, and when she opens her eyes again, the water pooling around her feet is back to its usual transparency.

Ellie reaches for the bar of soap on the metal rack hanging from the shower head and finishes scrubbing away the rest of the dirt, but the sting of the soap seeping into the various cuts and abrasions on her skin makes her realize how beaten up she really is.

The injuries are mostly scrapes and bruises, but she discovers a still bleeding gash on her left hip, roughly the size of her thumbs. It doesn’t look too deep, and she suspects her hipbone probably stopped whatever tore her flesh from doing any more damage. On their trip back – their escape, if she had to use a more accurate term to describe it – she knew her side hurt worse than anything else, but she didn’t think it was that bad, and at that time there was no way for her to know if the blood on her clothes had been hers or not.

It had probably happened when she half-slid, half-ran down the side of a muddy riverbank while trying to reach the relative safety of the untamed Wyoming wilderness, but it also very well could be from her fall down the stairs when they were fleeing the occupied mall, bullets whizzing by and shouts reverberating behind them. She thinks she remembers landing quite painfully in a ditch, too, though the memory is hazy at best.  

Fucking malls, nothing good ever happened in or around them.

Still, from what Ellie asses, the injury isn’t bad enough to postpone her sleeping plans by much, but still substantial enough to warrant a trip to the clinic sometime tomorrow, maybe even requiring a few stitches on the widest and deepest part of it. For now, though, it can wait.

She steps out of the shower regretfully, only to scowl when she’s hit with the realisation that all her towels are upstairs, in her room, thrown haphazardly on the desk chair or hung on the hooks behind her door, and she’s in the bathroom, standing in front of the mirror, dripping all over the tile floor.

Joel is not home yet anyway, as he had insisted on going with William to break the horrible news of her husband’s death to Nathan’s unsuspecting wife – now widow, Ellie thinks with a pang of guilt – and putting her old clothes back on is as far from being an option as it is possible to be.

In the end, after spinning around a few times in a last-ditch effort to find something to wear and deciding that even the floor mat is too nasty to wrap around herself, she decides to just walk out like this. After all, she’s just one door down from the narrow staircase leading up to her attic bedroom and she’s home alone.

There’s bound to be at least one clean and dry towel somewhere up in the mess she likes to call a bedroom, she is sure, as well as some bandages to rudimentary patch up her side until tomorrow. One look at her reflection in the fogged-up mirror tells her that, along with her trip to the clinic, the task of combing the bird’s nest on her head will also have to wait until morning.

Maybe I’ll just shave it off. Can’t have tangles in my hair if I don’t have any left.

Ellie steps out of the bathroom, looking both ways out of habit, making sure the coast is clear. The air is cold against her skin, in stark contrast to the hot and humid environment she just left.

“Joel?” she calls out, her voice echoing off the walls.

She gets no answer, unsurprisingly. He isn’t home yet, or, if he is, he must be fast asleep already.

Ellie quickly dives into the staircase right next door, bolting up the twelve steps to her bedroom, almost tripping on the desk chair that always rolls into the middle of the room because of the slanted floor.

She shuts the door behind her, not bothering to turn on the light as she goes. She knows every dent in the loose floorboards, knows the precise layout of the furniture around her, even the exact location of every discarded sock adorning her carpet. Ellie doesn’t need to turn on the light, she sees the room from memory alone.

She blindly finds what she thinks is an old shirt on her dresser that she uses to pat herself dry.

Ellie’s eyes burn from exhaustion, and probably from having so much dirt and blood coming into contact with them too, and her head pounds and she can almost hear her mattress telling her to lie down.

She just moved on to drying her face when she hears the faintest rustling behind her, and her blood turns cold in her veins.

For a split-second, she’s not Ellie. She’s not seventeen, she’s not in the safety in her own bedroom.

She’s faced with a threat, and it’s all that matters.

In less time than it takes to form a coherent thought in her mind, she has turned around, grabbed the spare knife she keeps behind the lamp on her dresser, and launched herself at the source of the noise, on her bed.

It’s someone alright, just… not anyone threatening her.

“Woah Ellie, it’s just me! Put the damn knife down!” comes the struggling voice under her, heavily shaded with sleep and confusion. “Good God, woman, you’re heavy.”

And as her eyes finally focus on the “enemy”, Ellie realizes that she’s pressing Dina down into the mattress, with one of her forearms tucked forcefully against her throat, under her chin, and the hand holding the blade raised high above them, ready to strike. Both of Dina’s arms are raised in front of her in protection, or surrender, but her eyes are still clouded with sleep and don’t look able to focus on any precise thing.

“What the fuck, Dina!”, Ellie exclaims as she drops the blade. It lands on the carpet with a dull thud. “I could’ve fucking stabbed you!”

Her heart feels as if it’s trying to beat its way out of her chest and she sits down on her bed to try to bring it back down to a normal rate. She’s used to being sneaked up on, but she certainly wasn’t expecting to face any intruder in the comfort of her own home. She’s getting rusty.

So this is what a heart attack feels like, she thinks to herself. “Are you okay?”

Dina is still on her bed and she’s rubbing the sleep from her eyes, now freed of Ellie’s grasp.

Suddenly, her eyes seem to register the scene through the ambient darkness, and a sly smile stretches her lips. “Well, that’s not a great way to be woken up, but I could get used to the view,” she chuckles, her eyes unapologetically roaming over Ellie, still naked.

With a yelp, the taller girl grabs the sheet Dina is lying on and pulls it to her chest to at least try to cover herself, sending the shorter one tumbling to the floor, still laughing. She feels her face, neck and chest turn red from embarrassment as Dina continues to roar with laughter, almost wheezing now.

She presses the fabric closer to herself, and foolishly hopes Dina will let the matter go if she acts like it doesn’t bother her. Of course, she doesn’t, because she’s Dina, and teasing her has been a long-time favorite pastime of hers. The crimson color she can feel her face to be can’t be helping her case, by any stretch of the imagination.

If Ellie could escape through the floorboards, she’s pretty sure she’d do it.

Since their first date, they had kissed a lot, and even made out few times – according to Ellie’s definition, this time, which Dina had agreed was a little different than hers – but they hadn’t gone any further than that. Certainly nothing involving this much exposed skin.  

Not yet, anyway.

This was absolutely not how she’d imagined being naked in front of Dina for the first time would go. None of the scenarios that had ever played out in her mind had turned out like this, not even remotely close.

“Stop laughing,” Ellie grumbles, still hugging the sheet to her chest and trying her goddamn best to make sure it covers all of her, now.

“You should have seen you face!”

She continues to giggle, albeit more quietly now. Ellie takes it as her signal to retreat further away on her bed, pressing her back against the wall. The skin on her face, neck and chest seems to be radiating heat from blushing so hard.

Dina wipes a few tears of laughter from the corner of her eyes as she finally pulls herself to a sitting position on her carpet.

“What the hell are you doing here anyway?” Ellie asks in a desperate effort to change the subject. “I thought you’d be in bed by now.”

It was no secret to anyone in Jackson that Dina valued sleep over pretty much anything else, often opting to take a nap during her breaks from her shifts at the clinic and being late at least a day out of two because she wanted to sleep in for “five more minutes” that always ended up turning into fifty.

It made sense to assume she was sleeping soundly even before the sun went down, especially on a week like this one, where she knew Dina was scheduled for the early morning shift at the clinic. 

Dina finally quiets down, her expressing turning darker, and Ellie regrets ever asking the question.

 Even if it’s at her expense, she loves hearing her laugh like this, carefree – not that she’d ever admit it. They’re both silent for a while, long enough for Ellie to consider resorting to one of her trusty old jokes to lighten the mood. The wall is cool against her back and her wet hair is dripping on her sheet, making big damp spots that would no doubt be uncomfortable to sleep on later. Outside, the wind is howling, and an owl is hooting somewhere in the woods on the other side of the nearby fence.

“You were supposed to be gone for two days, three days tops,” Dina finally says. “It’s been five.”

“We ran into some trouble,” Ellie starts to explain, but Dina cuts her off, and she realizes her speech is nowhere near finished.

“I told myself not to worry when you guys didn’t show up for dinner two days ago, that you were going to be there by sunset, but they closed the gates for the night and there was still no sign of any of you,” she continues, and her eyebrows scrunch up together. Usually, Ellie finds it cute, but today, it only manages to send another pang of guilt through her. “I told myself you guys were running late and that you’d decided not to travel at night, or that maybe there was an obstacle in the route, and you had to take a detour.”

Dina pauses, taking a breath.

“Yesterday morning, when I woke up, you still weren’t there.”

Her voice is quiet now, barely above a whisper. She’s still sitting on the carpet, her arms hugging her legs and her chin resting on her knees. Her eyes seem so far away from Ellie in this moment and it makes her feel as if she’s out of her reach. One of her bruised hands unclenches from the sheet and reaches for Dina’s, giving it a reassuring squeeze. I’m okay, she wants to say, you shouldn’t worry so much.

But the words remain stuck somewhere in her throat, her guilt keeping them from escaping.

The shorter girl climbs into bed with her, and Ellie holds her tightly in her arms, breathing in deeply the scent of the flowery shampoo she uses. Dina is a little bit shorter than she is, maybe an inch and a half at most, so with her sitting on her own folded legs like this, she ends up being just a little taller than Ellie. Her wet hair is dripping over them both, but neither of them care.

“I thought you were in trouble,” Dina continues, her voice muffled because her face is nestled in the crook of Ellie’s neck. Her lips are moving against her skin as she speaks, and she feels a shiver go down her spine. “I thought you were dead.”

“You know I’d just come back and haunt you if I died. You can’t get rid of me that easily.” Dina pulls away and Ellie feels like she’s put her hand in a bear trap when their eyes meet. “Sorry, not a good time for jokes,” she apologizes quickly.

“Donny overhead James say that only three of you had come back.”

Ellie’s heart sinks as she imagines what must have gone through Dina’s mind just a few minutes before. She hadn’t thought about any of this when she made a beeline for her house upon their arrival, only thinking of how utterly exhausted she felt and how much she was just itching to wash the blood and grim off her skin, but now she bitterly regrets not making a quick stop by Dina’s place on her way home, if only to tell her that she’s alright, and not to worry about her.

“I ran straight here,” she continues. “Joel was headed up the street, with William, I think, and he saw me coming from a mile away. He told me you had gone home already, so I figured I’d just wait for your stupid ass there.”  

She punctuates her statement with a playful punch to her ribs to let her know she isn’t mad, not really anyway, but she very nearly jumps out of the bed when Ellie bites back an uncharacteristic yelp of pain. She feels warm blood soaking her sheets almost instantly. Great, now it’s bleeding again.

“Did you start working out when I was gone? You hit harder than you used to,” she jokes, disregarding the way Dina’s eyes immediately scan her for injuries.

Ellie tries to play it off like it’s nothing, but she knows there’s no use in lying to Dina. She’s heard her lie to others too many times to be fooled.

“Let me see,” Dina orders, her eyes are wide and staring at the red stain getting bigger and bigger by the second. There’s no room for discussion, and it isn’t a suggestion.

“It looks worse than it is,” Ellie mumbles, her face turning red again at the thought of being naked in front of her for a second time that night. Once was already plenty enough. “It isn’t that deep, I promise.”

“I don’t care. You can either let me look willingly, or I’ll knock you out and do it anyway.”

“Alright, alright, no need to get this bossy!”

Ellie moves closer to the edge of the mattress. This is a fight she’s already lost, and not one she’s particularly eager to pursue anyway. Besides, she does need to get this looked at.

Dina briefly turns around to go turn the light on and Ellie jumps on the occasion to put on the shirt she had used to dry herself before she had been scared her half to death. It’s wet, and it clings uncomfortably to her skin, but it’s better than nothing, or the sheet. She’s a bit more comfortable now that half of her is covered with actual clothes, but she doesn’t like seeing Dina worry so much about her.

The shorter girl flips the switch on the wall and the light on the ceiling fan turns on, flickering slightly. She’s going to need to find a new lightbulb soon.

Dina puts her hair up in a bun before rolling up her sleeves and kneeling in front of the bed where Ellie is sitting.

“Do you mind?” she asks, gesturing to the sheet Ellie had kept close to her shape.

Ellie clears her throat. This means nothing. She’s just trying to assess the damage. “Sure.”

She lifts the hem of her shirt up and lets the sheet hang down a bit, just enough to reveal the side of her hip and part of her stomach.

The injury looks much worse than it feels: the open wound itself is barely an inch, maybe an inch and a half in length, but the full wound is a few inches longer. It is deep and wide and bleeding at her left hip and gradually transitioning to a large scratch, angry red in colour and swollen, on the soft space between her hip and ribs.

Her hip bone had probably stopped whatever is was that had pierced her skin from making anymore damage. Under all the blood, the area around the deepest part of the wound is purple and blue.

Her hip kind of looks like a dartboard, with its circular shape and different colors.

“Oh my God,” Dina breathes, frowning. “What happened to you?”

“Honestly, I have no idea,” Ellie answers, and she’s not lying. “Might’ve been a branch, or a rod. Or a rock. I don’t really know for sure, I was busy running for my fucking life.”

Dina’s hands softly press on the skin around the injury, trying to understand the internal extent of it, and Ellie tries her very best not to forget why she’s doing it.

It’s a purely medical interest that makes her fingers dance across her stomach, really, it is.

Ellie dutifully answers her questions. Yes, she had cleaned the wound as soon as she had been able to – no need to tell her it had been mere minutes ago. No, she wasn't aware of the exact circumstances of her injury. No, she did not think whatever had punctured her skin her had been clean. Dina's face is so close to her that Ellie can actually see the trail of goosebumps travelling along her stomach wherever her breath touches her skin.

She thinks she might start blushing again.

It wouldn't matter now anyway, because Dina is way too focused on the task at hand to even care to make jokes about getting her all flustered again.

After she’s satisfied her injury is far from life-threatening, Dina gets up and marches down the stairs. By the sound of it, she went straight to the bathroom, and the cabinet doors slamming against the wall as she throws them open gives her position away.

For a few seconds, she hears nothing, and then the sound of running water, followed by slow, careful footsteps coming back upstairs.

Dina walks in, balancing both wet and dry towels, disinfectant and the first aid kit Joel always kept stocked in the bathroom. She sets her improvised med-kit down on the desk chair, which she rolls closer to herself and the bed, and sits on the carpet with her own legs folded under her for a little extra height.

“I’m going to need you to lie down.”

Ellie groans. “Do we have to do this now?”

The ice-cold stare she sends her way gets the message across as well as any combination of words would have, and Ellie places both the pillows so she can lie comfortably on her back without arguing any more. 

Dina had insisted on having a pillow of her own at her place for when she slept over, well before they had started dating. It had actually been used for a while as a Dina-scented body pillow that Ellie could spoon with while she was pining over her apparently very heterosexual best friend, although she would never admit to having ever done that.

Now, it just smells like her, and it means they don’t need to share Ellie’s lonely, deformed pillow, though they end up sleeping so close anyway that whether or not they had two perfectly good pillows at their disposal didn’t matter anymore.

Dina scoots closer to the edge of the mattress and methodically lays out the contents of the first aid kit on the sheet next to Ellie's left thigh. Needles, thread, disinfectant, bandages, medical tape, to name a few. She looks up at Ellie with those big brown eyes that she can never resist, and she melts. “You're sure you don't want to go to the clinic? I could give you something for the pain if we went there.”

Ellie shakes her head and puts her hand on Dina's, keeping it in place as she had grabbed the disinfectant.

“You don't have to do this, we'll just patch it up for tonight and I'll go get it stitched up tomorrow morning”, she offers quietly. “I haven't slept much at all since we left, I just want to shut my eyes for a few hours.”

She knows she sounds whiny, but all her limbs feel heavy, her head hurts and her eyes are burning from the lack of sleep, and compared to all of that, the injury really isn’t that bad. Dina nods in understanding, but that doesn’t mean she’ll let the matter go that easily. “If you don't get it fixed a soon as possible, it'll scar worse.”

Ellie smirks. “I thought you found my scars sexy.”

Dina never made a secret of her fascination for the different marks of past injuries scattered all over her body, and Ellie often noticed her tracing the lines of the bite mark hidden under her tattoo, or the scar on her eyebrow, or the one on the bridge of her nose from her encounter with David four years ago. Or any of them, really.

Whenever she found a new one, she would ask about the story behind it, and, most of the time, Ellie couldn’t remember how it had happened. Sometimes, she’d make up one, just so she’d have something to say.

Somehow, Dina always knew which ones were a product of her imagination and which ones weren’t.

Ever since their first date, she’d been finding new ones on a regular basis, as her fingers got more and more curious. Not that Ellie was complaining, or anything.

“What I'd like is for you not have anymore of those, if possible. Knowing your reckless ass, that's just wishful thinking but still, a girl can hope,” Dina's grumbled response pulls her out of her reverie as she starts disinfecting the wound. It stings, but Ellie focuses much more on the feeling of her cold fingers against her stomach. It's all she thinks about, really.

It’s not the first time she gets sutures done on an injury, but it’s the first time she has something that pleasant to focus on. She barely feels the needle dig its way in and out of her flesh. Barely.

“Care to tell me what happened?” Dina asks. Her eyebrows her scrunched up in concentration, and she has part of her bottom lip trapped between her teeth – something Ellie has noticed her doing when the task at hand required a great deal of precision on her part. It’s endearing.

Ellie winces as Dina tightens her stitches. “Shit hit the fan.”

“And?”

“Mall was occupied. Nathan got shot, he didn’t make it.”

Dina nods, unmoving save for her fingers, still working on closing up the wound lining Ellie’s hip.

“That doesn’t explain your neck,” she remarks after a moment of silence.

Ellie exhales. She can still feel the pressure of the strong forearm against her throat, still feel her lungs aching, burning with the need to breathe. “One of them jumped me, pressed his arm down on my throat. It doesn’t feel as bad as it looks.”

“You look like shit.”

“Thanks?”

“You’re welcome, dipshit.”

Ellie laughs. Dina has to stop her work because the chuckles make her whole body shake, even the area she’s doing sutures on. “You’ve been spending too much time with Joel,” she teases. “You’re starting to talk like him.”

Dina’s eyes are glaring, unamused, but she has the corner of her lips just barely tugging upwards. “You’re going to get yourself into a mess much worse than you can handle one day, you know that?”

Ellie pauses, the laughter dying on her lips.

“I know.”

Dina looks back down to the stretch of exposed skin, black and blue, bloody flesh halfway sewn back together.

I’m sorry, she wants to say. It doesn’t come out.

“I’m expecting the full story tomorrow morning.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good.”

It takes only a few minutes for Dina to finish sewing up the wound and Ellie has to hand it to her, she knows her shit. The stitches are just tight enough so they don't feel like they're on the verge of tearing the skin on each side of the wound, like some she’s had in the past, but still bringing together neatly the two flaps of bloody flesh. She's had enough of those in her life to know good sutures from bad ones, and these are among the best.

Dina gets up, closes the first aid kit and picks up the bloody rags she used to soak up blood and keep it from staining her mattress.

“I'll let you get dressed now,” she says as she closes the door behind her. Ellie thinks she saw her blush as she was leaving, but she’s way too tired to investigate this any further.

Ellie gets up, drags herself to her dresser, pulls out some underwear, puts it on and falls right back down on her bed in sheer exhaustion. The water is running in the bathroom and she tries to stay awake until Dina comes back in the room, but she ends up being half asleep already by the time she feels the sheet she had been using cover herself up being moved and a tired voice telling her to make some space.

She doesn't know how, but she manages to press herself against the wall and shift herself onto her back, allowing Dina to slip under the covers and snuggle into her good side. In her half-asleep state, Ellie smiles and kisses the top of Dina's head. She doesn’t think she’ll ever get tired of feeling the girl’s body against hers. The flowery scent of her hair is everywhere. It’s intoxicating, but in the best way.

“Thank you,” Ellie mumbles.

She feels Dina drag herself along her side, and when she opens her eyes, she finds herself staring right into Dina’s own, almost shining in the dark with their intensity.

“Hi, you,” Ellie whispers, blinking the last of the sleep away from her eyes.

The woman above her smiles softly back at her. “Hi.”

Dina lets her eyes travel down along her face, and her fingers brush against her cheekbone. Ellie winces. Another bruise I didn’t notice. They keep journeying south, following the shape of her nose, then her lips, then her chin and jaw.

Dina’s gaze travels lower still, to the purple skin of her throat, wrapping all the way around and stretching down to her collarbone. Her fingers follow the same path her eyes travelled, a few seconds later, and her fingertips brush against the bruised skin there. Her touch is light, featherlight, to the point where Ellie isn’t sure she’d notice it if she wasn’t awake and watching.

“Does it hurt?” Dina asks, barely over a whisper, her breath tickling Ellie’s chin and mouth while her fingers feel like they’re setting her skin on fire everywhere they meet.

She could lie, pretend she hasn’t struggled with speaking or swallowing for the past three days. She could repeat that it looks worse than it feels, could say she’s had worse before, but what would be the point? There’s no use in lying to her.

“Sore,” she states, plainly, simply.

Dina nods. “I see.”

She bends down, and Ellie can’t see her face anymore, but she sure as hell feels her lips on her throat, kissing the battered skin there, letting her tongue dart out every so often.

Ellie’s breath catches in her throat when Dina’s mouth stills over the familiar spot beneath her jaw, on her pulse point, where she knows she can feel her heart beating against her lips. “How does it feel now?”

“Getting better,” Ellie breathes out as she feels Dina’s lips begin moving again. “Might need a little more time before it feels okay.”

“Greedy thing,” she scoffs, kissing her way back up to Ellie’s lips. Dina pulls back too soon for her liking. “I’m glad you’re okay.”

Ellie smiles, runs an equally bruised hand through the dark waves falling upon her face, brushing them away from the eyes staring down into hers.

“Me too.”

Ellie leans up to steal another kiss from her lips.

It’s hard to tell if her head is spinning because of it, or general exhaustion. Whichever it is, she’ll happily let it happen again, and again, and again.

Dina pulls back first, sneaking a finger between their lips, pressing her back down into the mattress. “No, no. I’m still mad at you.”

“Even if I make it up to you?”

“Still mad.”

“Even if I bring you breakfast in bed?”

“Tempting, but still mad.”

“How about if I promise not to get hurt again?”

Dina raises a disbelieving eyebrow. “Ellie.”

Ellie smirks as she pulls Dina down with her, draping the covers over them both, shielding them from the cool air of her bedroom – she really does need to fix that window before next winter, though if the pretense of keeping warm gives her a reason to hold Dina close under a pile of blankets, she’s all for procrastinating those repairs a little while longer. Her hand settles on the small of her back, reaching for the soft skin underneath her shirt and drawing patterns there, circles, waves, swirls, lines, anything that crosses her mind. She feels the goosebumps appear on Dina’s skin at the touch, and it pulls a grin from her lips.

“How about I promise to teach you how to cook to make up for being an insensitive ass?”

Dina snickers into her neck. Her leg is wrapped around Ellie’s waist, careful not to brush against the newly made sutures adorning the skin of her hip, and her fingers toy absentmindedly with the chain of Riley’s tags. “What the hell did I do to end up with such a dork as a girlfriend?”

Girlfriend.

Ellie’s fingers still on Dina’s back. The word echoes in her ears, again and again, until it loses all meaning. “What?”

Dina nuzzles her face more comfortably against Ellie’s shoulder, not paying attention to the way the younger girl’s brain seems to be short-circuiting.

“You heard what I said,” she mumbles. “Is that okay?”

Girlfriend.

She’s Dina’s girlfriend. Dina is hers. It sounds right.

That’s what they are, really, they just hadn’t gotten around to putting a word on it.

“Yes,” she whispers back, a stupid grin on her face that she has no intention of hiding away. “Very okay.”

She feels Dina smile against her neck.

“Good. Now please go to sleep, Freckles.”

For a while, they are quiet, and the only sounds Ellie can hear are Dina's steady breaths and the wind howling outside. Even considering her battered body and stitched up wound, Ellie has rarely felt as comfortable as she does in this moment, slowly drifting off to dreamland with Dina pressed against her side. She’s almost asleep when she hears her speaks up again.

“Ellie?”

“Yeah?”

“You really should find some bedsheets with fewer holes in them. From my angle, it sure wasn’t leaving much to the imagination, dear.”

Dina’s laugh fills the room, and it almost makes up for the embarrassment. Almost.

Chapter Text

The repeated sounds of a gun firing reach her long before Ellie makes the familiar turn to head up the street to her house. She recognizes the pattern of the shots – steady, evenly spaced, unhurried.

Someone’s doing target practice in the field by their house, and as she rounds the corner, she sees the faint outline of a woman wielding a riffle, standing impossibly still in the dying light of the early evening, the sides of her unzipped jacket flapping lazily in the slight breeze.

Ellie keeps walking up the hill, never speeding up her pace. She knows who’s up there already.

She watches with undivided attention as Dina pulls the bolt back, tucks the riffle against her shoulder, and her index ghosts over the trigger. She watches her exhale, eyes fixed on something Ellie can’t quite see, just barely out of her field of view. She stills.

The gunshot rings out, and Dina doesn’t move at all, doesn’t even flinch.

It’s like watching a statue fire a gun, as weird as it sounds, but it’s the only comparison Ellie’s mesmerized brain can come up with.

“Are you done gawking at me, Freckles?” Dina teases, finally lowering the weapon.

Ellie smirks, her feet carrying her the rest of the way, and she’s grinning like an absolute moron by the time she reaches her girlfriend.

Girlfriend.

Her girlfriend.

The word still feels surreal to think, let alone say out loud, but it felt so right on her tongue the few times she dared whisper the words, alone in the dark. Ellie doesn’t think she’ll ever get used to the fluttering feeling she gets in her stomach everytime she stops to think about it.

Dina is standing at one end of a deserted field, endless seas of timid, brand-new and old, dried grass alike, and mounds of snow stubbornly refusing to melt stretching out in front of them, as far as the eye could see. The wind gently blows the loose hairs that escaped her bun away from her face, and the setting sun casts shadows upon her face, accentuating the angles of her nose, cheekbones and jaw.

“I’m not gawking at you,” she offers dismissively, even if, yes, she had indeed been. “Besides, my girlfriend’s much prettier. Have you seen her anywhere?”

Dina raises an eyebrow, defying and teasing at the same time. She has dirt on her face, smudged across her cheeks and forehead in uneven lines, a tell-tale sign she had come straight here after her patrol. Ellie reaches out and wipes the smudge by Dina’s lips with her thumb.

“I don’t know, maybe she’s off trying to find herself a new girlfriend? Her current one’s a huge dork.”

“Shut up,” Ellie chuckles, pressing her lips to Dina’s for the briefest moment, over all too soon. The rifle stands between them, digging into Ellie’s ribs, cold despite the warm sun still barely shining over them. As was the case with most early spring days, the sun warmed them when it was out, but the temperature dropped drastically as soon as it set behind the treeline. “I missed you.”

Dina smiles before repeating her movements from before, bringing the rifle up to eye-level again, and Ellie takes a step back. “Of course you did, I’m a delight,” she whispers, ever teasing. From her new spot, Ellie can see the target her girlfriend – her stomach does somersaults again – had been aiming at.

It’s a spoon, balanced on a bale of hay that had been forgotten there before the snow had hit, last winter, so far away from their position that Ellie has to squint to see it properly.

It shines in the last rays of sunlight, only for a moment, and then another gunshot deafens her, and the spoon flies off faster than Ellie’s eyes can follow. It’s only then that she notices the glint of other utensils, lying around the hay. Targets she had hit before Ellie had made it home.

It was scary how accurate Dina was with a riffle.

“Tommy’s going to have your head for wasting good bullets like that,” Ellie notes, massaging her ears in an effort to get the ringing to stop.

Dina finally lowers the rifle and swings the strap over her shoulder. “No. These are my personal ones, they’re not from the armory.”

“Personal ones as in, found on patrol and meant to be added to the inventory?”

Her girlfriend turns to her with a sly smile on her lips. She slides a hand up along Ellie’s arm to her shoulder, lets it get lost in the baby hairs at the nape of her neck – she knows it never fails to send goosebumps down her spine. Every time.

“Are you going to rat me out?” she breathes out, her voice dropping into that husky seducing tone she likes to use so much, and her lips move against her earlobe as she speaks. She must know it drives her insane, she must.

Ellie gulps. “Maybe I didn’t see you.”

***

She’s rarely been this glad not to find Joel waiting for her upon returning home.

It doesn’t take long after the door shuts behind them before Dina is all over her, kissing every inch of skin available, pushing the collar of Ellie’s hoodie aside so she can make her way down to her collarbone. “I missed you too,” she whispers against her lips, barely a sigh, barely audible over the sound of heavy breathing, but still, it pulls a grin from Ellie’s lips.

Her hands drop from Ellie’s body. There’s the familiar rustle of clothes being taken off, and Dina’s light jacket falls between them. Her fingers get lost into Ellie’s hair and they tug slightly at the strands she has a hold of.

“Well, I am a delight,” Ellie mumbles, echoing Dina’s words from a few minutes earlier, even though she knows they fall on deaf ears.

It seems so unreal to her how, in such a short span of time, her fingers have grown accustomed to this, coming to rest on Dina’s waist and hips as if they’d always belonged there. How dragging them along her sides feels so natural, how her hands tangling into the dark waves feels so right, and easy.

What she can’t get used to is the way her girlfriend’s touch never fails to set her skin on fire. Every time they kiss, it makes her head spin, and every time, she swears she’s going to pass out any second. Ellie never does, though.

She doesn’t realise she’s being gently pushed back into the living room until her thighs hit the back of the couch and she would have tumbled over if it wasn’t for Dina’s steel grip on her hoodie.

“Are you going to invite me upstairs or are we going to settle for the couch again?” she whispers, gently nibling at Ellie’s earlobe.

That girl will be the death of her, for sure. 

“Thought you liked the couch?” Ellie whispers back, tightening her hold on her girlfriend’s waist.

She can’t help it, really. The occasion is too good to pass up, Dina is leaning up on her tiptoes and thus, is only keeping her balance by her precarious hold on Ellie’s shoulders. The shorter girl recognizes the sly smile on her lips, but not fast enough to move away in time.

“Ellie, I swear to God I’ll…”

The rest of her sentence is lost in a strangled cry as Ellie grips her hips and flips them around, tipping her over the back of the couch, just barely avoiding Dina’s flailing hands from bringing her down too.

Dina bounces down on the cushions a few times upon landing, the look of utter betrayal on her face worth so much more than the cold shoulder Ellie will no doubt get after that stunt. “You’ll what, now?”

“You’re such a dork,” she pouts, crossing her arms over her chest and sinking deeper into the couch.

“This is one of the reasons you’re with me, isn’t it?”

“The only reason, dork.”

Ellie leans against the armrest, chuckling. The laces of her sneakers are caked with mud and it falls to the floor in patches as she begins to untie them.

“How’d your patrol go?”

“The usual. Boring stuff. Jesse complained. Simon said some stupid shit.” The springs complain under Dina’s weight as she shifts behind her. “It was a long day and a half. Wish you would have been there.”

Ellie snorts. “What, there weren’t enough Infected trying to eat your face, already? You know they’re attracted to me.”

Dina’s breath tickles the back of her neck. “Not as much as I am.”

“Are you going to let me take off my shoes first?”

“If you hurry up.”

The first shoe bounces on the carpet as Ellie unceremoniously drops it and immediately gets to work on the second one.

“Hey, Freckles… Can you hold something for me?”

Ellie keeps her eyes trained on her sneaker – stubborn tangled laces, not coming undone despite her best efforts – as she extends her hand out in a wordless answer.

She only looks away when she feels something soft and light being pressed against her palm.

And promptly forgets all about her shoe.

Because the thing that Ellie is holding is Dina’s dark blue t-shirt, bunched up in a ball, and if it’s clasped carefully between her own fingers, that means it sure as hell isn’t on her girlfriend.

Sure enough, when Ellie turns around, she’s greeted by the sight of Dina very much not wearing a shirt and looking very much amused.

She’s leaning back on her heels, right behind her, and sporting that victorious grin of hers she gets whenever she manages to do something that effectively leaves Ellie unable to come up with a coherent response.

Like now, basically.

“What are you doing?” Ellie blubbers, her face heating up. She’s trying her best to keep her eyes on Dina’s face, because she knows she won’t be able to find any words at all if she lets her gaze wander any lower. Surely, she’s seen Dina without a shirt on enough times by now to stop being so flustered… “Joel could come back any second.”

Dina sneaks an arm around her shoulders and presses her chest flush against Ellie’s back. “I told you to hurry up, didn’t I?” she whispers in her ear, placing a fluttering kiss to her jawline.

The way she can feel her – all of her – pressed against her back is exhilarating. And so incredibly distracting.

“Let me put it this way,” Dina continues. Her fingernails scrape against the skin of Ellie’s throat as she shifts her face closer to her own. “The longer it takes you to kick those off, the more clothes I lose out here instead of up there.”

As if to emphasize her point, she pushes her t-shirt out of Ellie’s hand to tangle her fingers with hers and bring their intertwined hands up to her own shoulder.

Her skin is warm, and soft, and Ellie can’t breathe anymore. Dina sneaks Ellie’s fingers under the strap of her bra, and inches them down her arm along with the garment until the younger girl’s arm can’t go back any further.

Ellie can’t help but turn around and kiss her.

Dina chuckles huskily against her mouth, and she feels her wiggle her arm free of the strap. “I’ll keep going, so are you going to take off those shoes and bring me upstairs, or are you going to let Joel walk in on us again?”

Ellie winces at the memory. Not that Joel had seen much of anything on that day he had come home from patrol a few hours early – thankfully, they’d still had all their clothes on, but there was no mistaking that there would have been a few less if he had walked in a little later.

Dina takes her silence as hesitation and pulls back ever-so-slightly. “What do you say, Freckles?” 

Ellie stands up, clasping Dina’s hand and pulling her to her feet.

“Fuck the shoes.”

 

There are always tons of tasks that need to be done in Jackson around springtime.

There are fields that need clearing, buildings that need fixing after the harshness of the winter, and with more people working comes more injuries. It doesn’t mean there’s more people to work – unlike plants, new workers don’t sprout out from the ground with the season change – so, for a few hellish weeks, the residents of Jackson’s days stretch out endlessly in front of them.

Dina’s been working at the clinic for hours upon hours during the past two weeks, in addition to her usual shifts on patrol, and Ellie had been assigned more patrols and watch shifts than usual, so the few hours they’d managed to squeeze in to see each other had ended with them collapsing in exhaustion, just to wake up the next morning and do it all over again.

They had almost gone on that last patrol together, but Ellie had been swapped for Simon at the last minute. She heavily suspects Joel had something to do with it.

It doesn’t matter now, as Dina kicks open Ellie’s bedroom door open from where it was just resting against the frame, ajar. It doesn’t matter, because how could time fucking matter when it feels like it stopped altogether when they entered her room?

They almost trip on the various objects and clothes lying on the floor between Ellie’s door and her bed, too busy with each other to pay much attention to where their feet go, until Dina drags them both down unto the mattress.

They collapse in a tangled mess of limbs, kind of crushing each other until Ellie manages to shift most of her weight onto her left side, leaving her right hand free to roam about the uncovered skin on display.

There’s something endlessly satisfying about having Dina pined underneath her like this, breathless, eager, willing, kissing Ellie relentlessly until the only thought she can muster is trying to come up with new ways to inhale air without breaking apart.

“You’re wearing too many layers,” Dina whispers, her lips immediately going back to Ellie’s as soon as the words are out of her mouth.

She sounds as breathless as Ellie feels, her voice husky and low and sending her heartrate into overdrive. As if to emphasize her point, she pulls on the hem of her hoodie, hitching it half-way up Ellie’s back before settling further back into the mattress.

It doesn’t take much more than that for Ellie to pull away and send it flying across the room, quickly followed by the shoe she hadn’t quite managed to kick off until now. They could fall off the face of the earth, for all she cares, as long as it doesn’t keep her away from Dina any longer than she absolutely has to be.

The only thing she feels anymore is the way Dina is so impossibly warm against her, the only things she cares about anymore are trying to get even closer and keeping her hands on the soft skin beneath her fingers.

If anyone asked her how much time had passed since they had stumbled into her room, all breathless kisses and roaming hands, she’d have no answer to give, other than that however much time it had been, it was nowhere near enough. Everything spins, yet stands still, and everything is blurry, yet sharp.

She’s burning up.

The next time Ellie opens her eyes is because Dina is wiggling out from under her to stand next to the bed. “I want you,” she whispers, and her eyes are burning holes into Ellie’s. “So much.”

The last of the light is dying outside and it bathes her skin in a warm orange glow, tell-tale of the inevitable nightfall about to engulf their little town.

Ellie wishes the words would have come out of her mouth a little less strangled than they do. “Are we, are we doing this?”

Dina’s eyes hold a smile that rivals the one on her lips as she takes a step closer to Ellie’s legs, swung over the side of the bed, and reaches down to her belt. The buckle falls open under her deft fingers, working with practiced movements, and she makes