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Misty trees and dusty air

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      The air was still heavy with smoke, its bitter taste was the reason she woke up. A raw inhale back into reality. Ellie’s body throbbed with pain and the slightest movements only magnified it. She tried to push away the tarp that was covering her but a hand jerked to her side. An automatic recoil. She struggled to keep her eyes open. She just wanted to slip back into the darkness. Damp. That’s what it was. Her hand clamped against the hasty wrap, the blood was old and no longer warm. There was still a disassociation between that and her own pain. At this moment it could be anyone’s blood covering her torso.

      Ellie tried to again pull the tarp down. The light weakly filtering through in a soft blue tone. What should have been easy to throw off took all of her strength. Despite the sunlight, her vision darkened around the edges. The smells were stronger now, smoke, blood. It didn’t smell like infected. They had a certain rotten aura that followed. She licked her lip to find it had split. The taste of blood, dirt, sweat, and, “Dina.” Ellie’s voice was nearly gone as she crawled forward. “Dina?” Her voice cracked again. Her mouth was dry. Ellie couldn’t remember a time when it had been this bad. Tongue sticking to the roof of her mouth.

      There were voices. They seemed far away. Panicked even. She couldn’t make out anything over the throbbing in her skull. Every time she inched forward the pain in her side flared up again threatening to shut her down again. “Help.” She weakly called out pulling herself forward. There’s no way anyone could hear since her voice was nothing but a whine.

      Her brain struggled to process anything beyond the alarm bells ringing in her own body. Ellie sluggishly took in her surroundings. Her view mostly blocked by the buildings on either side of her. She could make out scorch marks on the house in front. Trash littering the street. This was home, barely. Just a few feet in front of her a rifle. Her rifle. She would never have thrown it in the mud like that. She got close enough to a wall to pull herself up. Ellie almost passed out again as she stood. Leaning heavily against the wall she stepped forward. One hand permanently pressing against her stomach. The other helping to keep balance as she relied on the support. “Dina.” She tried to call again. Where was she? Ellie was desperately swimming against the thick fog in her thoughts. She stood over the gun. The scope on top had been broken. Several pieces littered around it. Damn, that was a nice scope. Well had been. With it she could hit a clicker from a hundred yards away, Dina could manage twice that.

      It hit her. The last person to shoot the rifle wasn’t her. Dina had grabbed it long before here. They’d tried to run. Ellie stumbled forward, half thinking she should grab the gun. She might still need it. Her feet didn’t move where she wanted them to and she nearly tripped a dozen times in an attempt to run. Where is she? She had to find Dina. Ellie made it a few steps out into the open before falling forward. She couldn’t walk without the support of the wall. She hit the ground this time pain ripped through her body like a tree being torn in half. A shrill yelp escaped and she could hear steps coming towards her. The world went black again.

 

----X----

      “She’s waking up!”

      “Keep going. Where the fuck is that blood?” That was a familiar voice. “Come on Ellie. I know you can fight this.” She blinked up not able to make out anything other than a vague difference of color. A person with dark hair floating above her. Another form close by. Multiple people talking at once. It was hard to make out any specific voices but they were all familiar. Ellie’s eyes kept sliding open and shut. Each time the figures would jump in different directions.

      Dark hair. “Dina?” Ellie croaked fighting against her own body. No one really seemed to respond.

      A weak crying in the back. “I’m sorry I can’t get her to stop.” The low voice blurred in.

      The dark blur was gone the next time Ellie looked. It was just the others. She wasn’t able to place the voices and soon there were none.

----X----

      This time she was awake. A dull throb echoing off her ribs with each heartbeat. Ellie went to rub her eyes. Just that small movement re-sparked all the pain again. Her face was clean. Last she remembered it had been sticky, covered in sweat and dirt. This wasn’t her house or the clinic. Ellie stretched her legs out with an unintentional groan. They ran into the armrest of the couch. Dina’s couch. Why was she here instead of her own house? Sarah was in the armchair across the room. Back against the arm with legs pulled up onto the cushion. Dina would sit like that too. Sarah’s head tilted to the side resting on the back. A blanket was bundled oddly on her lap. “Jesus fuck.” Ellie squeaked after taking too deep of a breath.

      Sarah’s head immediately popped up. “Ellie.” She said turning and dropping her feet to the ground. “Thank god you're back.” Her voice was stringy as if she had been crying for hours beforehand. She stood up moving to a kitchen chair that had been set by the couch. The blanket in her arms was much more than that. The small fuzzy top of a newborns head was peeking out of the yellow fabric.

      “That’s.” Ellie struggled her mouth swollen. Sarah’s shirt was now lying flat against her stomach. “When?”

      “Tell me about it. Of all the times to come she really picked a good one.” Her mouth twitched up for a moment but couldn’t hold a smile. “Here.” She held up a glass of water supporting it with one hand since Ellie’s were still shaking. She tipped it back waiting as Ellie coughed and sputtered. That alone made her dizzy to the point of seeing spots.

      Ellie whipped the corners of her mouth with the collar of her shirt. Looking up she noticed how gaunt Sarah seemed. Her eyes bloodshot with dark circles hanging below. That was just the surface layer of how utterly exhausted she looked. “What happened?” Ellie asked. Something big, obviously. Despite all her efforts Ellie still couldn’t pull anything together.

      “We were attacked. Wasn’t just raiders either, they had a plan. I take it you were one of the first ones to be shot. It’s a-fucking-mazing you made it after bleeding for so long.” Sarah left the glass in Ellie’s hands as the infant made a few soft squeaks. She wasn’t even big enough to cry. Sarah absently started rocking back and forth. “Plenty of the town is gone. A lot of us are,”

      “Where’s Dina?” Ellie gasped. She hadn’t seen her in far too long to be a coincidence.

      Sarah’s face immediately tightened. She turned to the side mouth turning down as she took a shaky breath. Even she wasn’t ready to say it, “We don’t think she’s dead,” there was a painfully long pause, “yet.” Ellie shook still not understanding what was happening. After a few hard breaths and swallows, Sarah continued. “A few people saw them leaving. Taking a bunch with them. She, she was one of them.” Ellie tried to sit up but Sarah’s hand shot out holding her down. “Don’t move.” She hissed. “It was hard enough to put you back together.”

      Ellie could feel her eyes getting hit with water. “What about Joel? Tommy? M-m,” her jaw shook.

      “Maria’s at the clinic still,” Sarah answered staring at the floor. There was a pause too long to just mean she was thinking. “I don’t think we’ve found Tom yet.”

      “Where’s Joel?” Ellie asked again her voice wavering. Whatever the answer was she was already prepared to not like it.

      Sarah kept her eyes downcast and slowly shook her head. Another long breath, “He’s gone.”

      She felt another weight crash into her already breaking chest. No, no! There’s no way he could go. Joel was the strongest fucking person she knew. He couldn’t have just disappeared while she was passed out on the side. “We have to go get them.” If there was a chance they could still save some of their friends, family, Dina, they had to go now. Ellie pushed herself up to her elbows with a grimace cutting across her face.

      “Ellie don’t.” Sarah said trying to pull her down.

      “I can save her.” The first tear started to fall. “I have to go,” Ellie argued trying to push back.

      “Ellie!” Sarah gritted. “Ellie damnit, stop moving.” Her fist had curled into her shirt as she tried to hold her still. Even in the weakened state, Ellie was slowly overpowering her but Sarah knew the strain that would put on her injuries. “For the love of god. Ellie, if you truly love her you have listen to me!”

      That drove like a stake in her heart Ellie froze turning to Sarah. There really wasn’t another way to describe it was there? How desperately she needed to know she was safe. How badly she just wanted to have her by her side right now. Just imagining a world without Dina had given her. “I can’t live without her.” Ellie’s voice cracked and the tears started falling dropping one after another. “She, she’s,”

      “I know. Ellie you can’t do anything until you heal. You have to lie down.” Sarah’s voice was soft but still held a commanding edge. “Listen to me.” She slowly fell back breaths tearing her throat as she cried. Sarah knelt kissing her forehead before resting her own against it. “It hurts, but I need you to be patient. Please, you have to rest.” Sarah stayed next to Ellie for a long time as she cried through god knows how many horrid thoughts. She only got up to leave when her own child started to whimper against her chest. She left kissing her head again and whispering a small prayer. Just as she was turning away Ellie’s arm rose and she saw the bracelet on her wrist. She was brutally struck with just how close Dina was to her. That bracelet was one of the few things her sister had managed to hold onto since they were children. Sarah’s eyes burned with much more than fatigue as she was forced to step away. She still considered both of them to be children.

----X----

      Ellie’s head dropped slowly looking down at the arrowhead protruding from her side. A look of confusion as if to say, ‘that’s not right.’

      “Were almost to the gate. Keep going damnit!” Dina encouraged half dragging her. How the hell had they gotten that close to the wall without being seen? Bullets whined around them. Coming from the trees behind them and the wall in front of them.

      “They hit me.” Ellie finally realized still stumbling along.

      “Yeah no shit,” Dina said spinning to fire off the rifle as Ellie went through the small opening in the fence. There wasn’t any real need to aim since the first two were so close. The wood behind her head splintered. It was obvious they didn’t care about her. She ducked through the gate slamming the door behind. At this rate, it wasn’t going to hold.

----X----

      “Evening Dina.” Benson nodded before heading up the ladder. She flashed a quick smile of acknowledgment leaning against the leg of the tower. He reached the top knocking on the door. It swung open and he disappeared. The sun had gone down just a few hours ago. Someone must have called in sick for the rotation to have gotten this far off. She counted the seconds tapping a finger against her arm. Another figure started coming down and her face immediately lit up.

      “Isn’t past your bedtime young lady?” Ellie heckled over her shoulder.

      “Assuming I have time to sleep, sure.” She said walking up to the ladder. Ellie jumped off skipping the last few rungs. “Hey.” Dina greeted leaning on the opposite side now. She rested her chin on one of the steps face framed in the gap.

      “Hey? Is that really why you waited out here?” Ellie’s head tilted with that half-cocked smile. She leaned forward kissing Dina lightly.

      “Gross,” Dina teased with her face scrunching up. “Do you always go around kissing girls this late?

      “Only if they’re cute.”

      “Oh, well,” her mouth flattened as she held her hand under her chin. “A-thank-you-a-very-much.” She slurred swinging around the ladder. “I want to show you something.” She took Ellie’s hand and started dragging her towards the small opening in the wall. Dina whistled in two short bursts opening the narrow gate under the tower. Benson responded in a similar fashion. Dina made her way along the outer wall for a few yards before breaking away. Her hold on Ellie’s hand and arm wasn’t tight but she grinned feeling a little squeeze around her palm.

      “Soooo, do I get any explanation beforehand or?” Ellie asked following behind voice just loud enough to be heard. “Is it boobs? Are you showing me boobs?”

      “Don’t be crass,” Dina snorted. “But, I’m going to say this with all the sincerity in my heart. I really hope you’ve seen those before.” Ellie looked down with a surprised gasp. Dina chuckled motioning for Ellie to quiet down as the got to a small rise that had been cut by the river. She crawled on top of a branch that dipped low to the ground. “Oh and, technically you can see Uranus right now.” Dina squinted up pointing out a pinprick in the sky.

      “Wow. Myanus.” Ellie sighed staring up. “How do you think it managed to get all the way up there?”

      Dina rolled her eyes flicking Ellie in the head. “That’s not what’s important. I believe I just won a bet.” She scoot to the side as Ellie came up. “I found the mama bear.” She pointed down to the water. Ellie stared down at the darkness not seeing anything. “I swear the den is around here. I was out a few hours ago so hopefully, we can wait and see.”

      “Waiting.” They sat overlooking the area for some time. Legs slowly swinging back and forth in the air. Ellie adjusted her rifle moving the strap to her opposite shoulder so she could inch closer to Dina. When she did so Dina automatically let her head fall onto her shoulder. “What do you plan to do with your free day if Mama shows up?”

      “Oh you know. Fulfill all my womanly desires and take a nap.” Dina mumbled. “Nothing is more satisfying than sleeping in on a day you usually work.”

      “You could have been sleeping now instead of making me sit in this tree like a damn squirrel.”

      Dina hushed her by blindly holding a finger to her mouth. It smacked into Ellie’s nose instead. “Don’t you dare try to logic me.” A snap an animal grumble pulled their attention down again. A big black bear sauntered out into the open. “Suck it turtle duck.” Ellie gave her a questioning glance but Dina was already distracted. She beamed watching as the two cubs trotted behind in a line. They walked through the water crossing to the clusters of bushes. Even from a distance the Mama was massive. The two cubs were probably equal in size to Boo. They watched the family munching away for a good minute trying to remember the smallest details of the adorable little cubs.

      Dina kissed under Ellie’s ear before stretching back up. “Enjoy your extra clinic day.” She hopped down landing and throwing her arms in the air like a gymnast completing her routine. Ellie slapped a high-five into her hand destroying the desired effect. “Do you want to come to my house tonight? May took Boo to the damn and I’m going to be sooo, lonely.” Dina playfully rocked to the side.

      Ellie hummed preparing to jump down when a third voice appeared. “You’d be better served to leave alone.” They snapped to see a hooded figure standing uncomfortably close. Ellie reached for her gun and he held a hand up. “I’d be careful about what you do next. We don’t have to hurt anyone if Ellie comes with us.” Two more figures stepped out of the shadows covered in thick leather coats. An immediate cold chill overtook their blood.

      “What do you want?” Ellie said every muscle already winding up. They already gave off the vibe of a group that didn’t tell the truth. And she was sure Dina hadn’t called her by her name since they’d left the safety of the wall. Dina glanced back brows twitching. He didn’t answer before she flew forward tackling him to the ground. Ellie took the few seconds to jump down. Her knife was in her hand before her feet hit the ground. She dropped cutting across his throat in one line. Dina reached out grabbing the pistol from Ellie’s waist trying to hit one of the others. The smaller figure was backing up preparing an arrow while the other was running towards them.

      “I’ve got bow.” Dina called out before letting out a long piercing whistle. If the tower hadn’t already reacted to the gunshot someone would definitely act now. Ellie rolled to the side as the first figure swung a long blade across the air.

      Dina fired hitting near her target just as an arrow whistled past her ear. “Fuck.” She gasped jumping to the side. Ellie had just popped up landing a punch on under the jaw of her attacker. As her head whipped back Ellie plunged the knife into her chest. The person with the bow was running back into the woods. Dina squinted confused before catching a glint deeper in the trees. “Ellie!” She ran throwing Ellie to the ground as the shot rang through the air.

      They landed hard Ellie swore as a bullet cut deep into the side of her thigh. “You good?” Dina said loading the rifle that was still strapped to Ellie’s back.

      “Motherfuck.” Ellie groaned. Close enough. Dina aimed laying on top of Ellie and managed to hit what she assumed was the bow user based on the cry. There was movement everywhere in the trees. Just how many people were they dealing with? She fired half blind at were the scope flare had been. There was a pause that was just long enough to scrabble to her feet and drag Ellie along.

      “We’ve got to get out of here now.” Ellie hopped forward taking the rifle off. There was some sort of remark but Ellie's words were a jumbled mess as she leaned onto Dina. They half ran half stumbled back to the gate. Dina could see a few people peeking through spots in the wall taking shots at the attackers. She was going to have to put a whole lot of trust in them if they were going to make it back. “Talk to me Ellie.” She called shooting back the aim was off only using one arm but it must have hit something important based on the scream.

      “Fine. Just keep,” a sharp gasp. Dina’s head whipped to the side to see a barbed arrow point sticking out from Ellie’s stomach.

----X----

      Ellie’s breathing was already getting sporadic, a bad sign that she was rapidly losing control. “Hey, Hey just look at me alright.” Dina tried to calm her as they pulled into the first bit of cover after coming in the gate. There was too much blood to get a decent grip on the arrow. One that was probably meant for her. It took two tries to break the point off. She snapped the back off too so it wouldn’t get caught on anything.

      “Look.” Ellie croaked tilting her head up. Dina followed to see a leather jacket coming around the corner with a pistol. She ran towards them yanking their arm down and forcing the trigger. The bullet hit the intruders foot. In a fluid motion, she brought her elbow up under their chin and took the pistol. In the span of ten seconds, they had been disarmed and killed with their own gun.

      Dina turned to see that Ellie had slipped further down the wall. Hands shaking as she pressed down on her side. “Stay with me Ellie.” Dina panicked rushing back again.

      “I, always want to do that.” Ellie’s voice was starting to fade out.

      A rattling boom shook the ground Dina’s arms instinctively shot up covering her head. “Jesus! What is with these people!?” She gritted pulling off her top shirt and cutting it into long strips. Come to think of it that blast was on the opposite side of town. Either they moved fast or the town had been surrounded the entire time. She was calling bullshit on the ‘We just want to take Ellie and leave the rest be.’

      “Ow.” Ellie winced as Dina packed everything she could around the arrow shaft.

      “Sorry.” Dina pulled the makeshift bandage down tight earning another high pitched breath. “I’m so sorry. Ellie can you hear me?” A slow nod but her eyes weren’t quite focusing. “Do not under any circumstance take that arrow out. Do you understand?” Another nod. The gunfire was starting to surround them. The glowing burst of another explosive flashed down the street. Things really were heading south if they were burning through bullets like that. Dina leaned forward urgently kissing Ellie before she completely lost consciousness. This better not be the last one. “I love you, Ellie.” She whispered quickly and kissed her forehead. “Don’t move, just wait for me. Okay?”

      “’kay,” Ellie sputtered mouth struggling to move. “oveuw.” Dina took a long breath staring at her. What was it, pain, grief, longing? Ellie couldn’t remember but that last image of Dina would haunt her. She stood up pulling a tarp off a woodpile and threw it over Ellie.

      ‘Wait for me.’ Ellie had blacked out almost immediately after. ‘Wait for me.’ Sarah left her sight and Ellie cried up looking at the roof. She wasn’t coming back, and Ellie couldn’t do anything but wait.