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Misty trees and dusty air

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     It was a shame all the bike paths were overgrown. Just about every guide book she had seen over the years had gushed about the trails that used to cover the mountains. Dina stood coasting down the slight incline. She could barely avoid people, lord knows what would happen if she tried to drag a bike up one of the cliffs. She could probably convince Ellie to do it... and would also be in charge of scraping her remains off the trees. It was finally getting cool enough to wear jackets and flannels throughout the entire day. More specifically wear Ellie’s flannels. It’s not like she was home to stop her. That fucker was already a week late on an already long patrol. Dina turned a little too fast and the bike tire skidded across the ground. The messenger bag swung out nearly pulling her to the ground. Dina grimaced checking over her shoulder hoping no one saw what just happened.

     Reaching the clinic she set the bike against the wall and stepped into an empty room. “Dibs?” Sarah called out hearing the door.

     “Yeah,” she headed towards the voice.

     “You’re just in time. Chuck brought in the last of the things from the greenhouse while you were out.”

     “That’s great but were’s Tanner?  You said you were going to take it easy.” Dina criticized. Every available surface had mountains of greens and herbs on top. Even standing on a chair Abby was barely taller than some of the piles.

     “He’s been covering for three weeks straight. Working one day isn’t going to kill me, or Tuck ,” Sarah pat the sleeping head of the infant tied to her chest. “Now that your back I’ve got all the help I need. Isn’t that right?” Abby nodded slowly. Her tongue poked out as she surgically separated flower stems from their bulbs. The task could easily be completed without the knife. But ever since Ellie had given her the tiny blade she took every opportunity to use it.

     Dina sighed clearing out the dirtied bandages and supplies from her bag. “Convenient how you decide to show up after a week of having to deal with Marcus’s ass.”

     “I heard about that,” Sarah grinned, “If I see him I’ll have to offer a seat.”

     Dina snorted quickly refilling the bag and setting it in its place. “I don’t know if he’ll leave his house for the next year.  For some reason getting dragged half a mile behind a horse is embarrassing. You should have seen his face when Tan-tan had to pull all the gravel out.” Dina quickly ran through the major injuries that had come up in the past weeks. Sarah’s eyes lit up hearing about the, less than intelligent ones. The gossip would fade in and out as they worked through all the plants and herbs. Sarah had stepped out to nurse and the room fell quiet. “Only a week late. Only a week late.” Dina’s mind started to echo again. Every single person she talked to felt the need to bring it up. If something bad had happened to Ellie she felt like she would know. So far, no universe induced stomachaches, so good?

     “I forgot to ask,” Sarah muttered coming back. She set Tucker into a small basket and pulled up a stool for herself. “Have you checked with Burt lately?”

     “Yeah. He was going out to check the bees later today. We should have plenty of honey by the end of the week.” Dina started grinding the never-ending supply of roots down.

     Sarah nodded massaging her knee with both hands. “Abby, what’s honey good for?”

     Abby paused for a moment staring off, “Everything?”

     Dina smiled shortly, “She’s not wrong.” It was such an easy pattern to fall into. Prep and store different poultices. Set flowers and leaves onto wide screens to dry into various tea’s. Convince Abby to take a bite of something for her to angrily spit out a bitter plant.

     Time slid into the late afternoon when something finally happened. “First of the patrol groups are checking in,” Sarah turned picking up the radio, “Nothing major but we’ll be sending some your way.”

     “No problem. We’ll be ready.”

     “Aren’t you supposed to be home?” They shot back with a sigh, “The first patrol managed to run into the Canada group on the way back.” Dina froze listening intently to what followed. “They’re unpacking first but a few might stop by later.”

     “Can I,”

     Sarah waved, “You know you don’t have to ask-.” There was already a dust trail leading out the door.

     Dina tried not to cackle madly as she raced towards the stables.  She turned off the main road sneaking through a few narrow alleyways. Canada patrol was unpacking first and not sending anyone immediately to the clinic meant no deaths or life-threatening issues. She crouched peeking around the corner. A cluster of horses with large bundles tied to each saddle. A few stable hands were helping to unload all the supplies but Dina kept searching. May walked out stretching her arms widely. She turned laughing at an unseen figure. Dina’s heart picked up excitedly waiting for a certain face. May grabbed two of the horses pulling them along.

     “Where is she?” Dina’s brain growled. Another group came walking back to take more bags off the horses. Her eyes locked onto a short figure and her smile shot wide enough to hit her ears. Ellie hardly ever wore hats and that might be the reason it took so long to spot her. She had a solid blue button-up that looked new too. Dina was practically vibrating waiting for her opportunity.

     Ellie nodded listening to the awkward and rambling explanation “....I’m not sure what I did but it’s starting to crack. The forge has been behind since they’re working on another generator. I know you just got back but,” she noticed the blur racing towards her and barely had enough time to prepare.

     “Hey.” Ellie laughed stumbling from the flying hug. She wrapped an arm around Dina’s waist as she settled on her hip.

     “You’re late.” Dina immediately scolded trying to clean some of the dirt off Ellie’s face.

     “I know, Sorry.” Ellie cooed. She looked up dumbly admiring Dina. “I uh,” Ellie cleared her throat looking back to Tye who was now staring at the dirt. “You’re broken knife sucks but I’ll have to check it out tomorrow. Right now I really have to kiss my wife.”

     “Is that what you’re going to do?” Dina taunted squishing Ellie’s cheeks back and forth.

     “I don’t know, can I?” Ellie’s brow popped up. Dina was still nodding as she fell into an excited series of kisses. “I fucking missed you.” Ellie grinned her face still getting bombarded with kisses.

     “No shit dumbass.”  

     An unfamiliar face unknowingly stepped out right next to the pair. He froze awkwardly unsure of where to go. Ellie turned with Dina. “Oh fuck off Pierre, remember that time you stabbed me!?” He threw his hands up hiding back in the stable. Ellie turned with a short laugh, “He’s actually pretty cool. Oh and, do you want a compound bow? We got a ton that are practically new.”

     “You know I’m shit with those.”

     “That’s exactly why you should take a cheater one.” Dina groaned at the idea but it was hard to look irritated and hug Ellie’s head at the same time.

     Dina spotted her bags among the piles of supplies that were getting set to the side. As painful as it was she managed to let go and gather Ellie’s things. “You’re late but you at least made it back in time for Family dinner.”

     Ellie’s face lit up at the mention of food that wasn’t dried or pulled from the coals of a campfire, “Whose cooking?”

     “I think it’s Henry's turn.”

     “And I spent all this time trying not to die.” Ellie sighed grabbing her last bag despite Dina’s attempts to balance everything on her back. They broke away from the group, which had more than doubled since leaving months ago. “Speaking of family, did Sarah,”

     “Yeah,” Dina excitedly nodded. They unintentionally sped up as if there was a prize for the first one home. “The baby came a week after you guys left. He’s already a big chunker,”

     “That seems rude,” Ellie laughed setting her arm across Dina’s shoulders.

     “Sarah’s the one that keeps calling him that. But once you see Tucker you’ll understand.”

     “Oh, I can’t wait.”

     “He just sleeps all day so you didn’t miss much.” Dina rapidly continued, “Abby is already starting to miss having all the attention.” They tried to avoid the main roads but there were still a handful of people that warmly greeted Ellie back. She did her best to respond to all of them but would fall into a Tell-tale fatigued stare as soon as they passed. “Soo, anything cool on your side?”

     “Sure, but I think I’m going to wait until dinner since that’s all anyone’s going to ask about.”

     “Come on. One little thing?”

     “Rock.” Ellie generously answered.  It wasn’t until the front door was shut that she dropped whatever small act she had and let out a long groan. Taking a deep breath she started dropping everything onto the kitchen counter. “Not going to lie, I think I’m going to shower and then pass the fuck out.” There was a final rattle as she unclipped and dropped the long machete from her belt. “Loving the redecoration though.” She noted the pillow fort taking up most of the living room.

     Dina laughed coming closer. Ellie thought it was a hug but she instead pulled a forgotten pistol from her waistband. “Abby insisted on sleeping over so I wouldn’t get lonely. But I think she’s just smart enough to sleep where the baby isn’t.” Dina slid the top back popping the bullet from the chamber and flicked the safety on.  She set the gun aside turning her attention back to what was really important. Dina let her hands slide up Ellie’s shoulders, “You smell like shit.”

     “What,” Ellie acted surprised, “I fell into a pond like four days ago.”

     Dina pursed her lips into a frown, “Stinky.” She confirmed already pulling Ellie into an eager kiss. The earlier one didn’t count as the first. Not when there were so many people watching. Here they had all the time in the world. Dina wanted to hold her down and kiss every bare-inch right then and there but she had to stop to laugh at the mental image of leaving little clean marks along Ellie’s dirty neck.

     “What?”

     “Just a stupid thought.”

     “Isn’t, isn’t that all of them?”

     “Oh fuck you,” She playfully shoved Ellie’s shoulders back. “So much shit comes out your mouth your ass must get bored.”

     “Gross,” Ellie frowned, “You kiss that mouth.”

     Dina bit her lip and slowly shook her head. “God you’re annoying.”

     “Try looking in a mirror.”

     Dina closed her eyes with a deep breath. She could never win against the sheer force of stupid facing her. “Just get cleaned up already. I also believe you said something about getting stabbed.”

     “Just a little,” Ellie assured wandering off to the bathroom. She unbuttoned the dirty shirt trying not to pay attention to the way her clothes were miraculously spread throughout the house. “Hey catch,”

     “Wha-“ Dina caught a face full of the sweaty fabric. “Agh, dick.” She spat throwing the shirt in the general vicinity of the laundry basket.

     Ellie snickered stopping in front of the mirror. All things considered, she didn’t look awful. She peeled the gauze off her side wincing as the tape pulled up a few small hairs as well. The wound was perfectly framed in the clean spot left behind. “Not bad.” She mumbled to herself.

     “Let me see it.” Dina swatted her to turn. She poked around the surrounding ribs and inspected every suspicious point of swelling.

     “If something was wrong I would have noticed already.”

     “Because you’re so good at noticing things.” Dina side-eyed quickly flicking a leaf out of her hair.

     “That does not count,” Ellie argued leaning back against the cabinet. Dina hummed checking the scattered cuts and scrapes along her torso. A long mark streak pulled her attention and she started rubbing Ellie’s stomach without thinking.

     “The hell you doing?”

     “Sorry,” Dina snapped back, “for a second it looked like you had a bit of a happy trail going on. Turns out it’s just more dirt.”

     Ellie broke into a cackle, “God, you’re weird,” She sighed rubbing her eyes. “I love you so fucking much.” The tired smile drifted away as she glanced over Dina. “Are you doing alright?”

     “Yeah. Yeah, I guess it was fine. There was a bad thunderstorm that really fucked with my head for a few days but,” Dina shrugged,” Its not like I was alone at any point. I wish I could have gone but I’m sure we’ll be able to head back in a couple of years.”

     “It won’t be that long.” She assured taking her hand, “I would say next time we can tell Sarah to ‘get fucked’ but that’s what caused the problem in the first place.” Dina laughed shortly. “There were some beautiful places we passed through. And the route we spent so long planning out? It was almost fucking perfect.”

     “You messed up my planning?”

     “Hey, there were a couple ’a missing bridges. Fight me.” Ellie challenged. “But maybe do that later. Right now I’m seeing two of you. Which frankly is two too many.” Dina rolled all four eyes. Ellie smiled bringing her hand up and kissing the back. “I promise to do everything I can to make it back next summer.”

     “You don’t have to promise anything.”

     “Already did.” She kissed her knuckle again. Ellie worked the bracelet from her wrist and tied it back onto Dina’s. “As beautiful as all that was I’d still rather look at you.” She whispered with a shy smile.

     “God your,” Dina couldn’t find the word to finish the thought as a hand cupped her cheek pulling her in. Cheesy. If they stood any closer they might as well have been wearing the same shoes. Ellie kissed her slowly reacquainting herself with each curve of her mouth. Her hand brushed down along her face before settling at the dip at her waist.

     Dina could feel Ellie relaxing further with each breath. Falling further and deeper into each kiss. “Hi.” Ellie softly greeted kissing her jaw.

     “Hi.” Dina smiled as more light kisses tickled her neck. She set a hand on Ellie’s chest feeling the slightly cooler metal of a fine chain and ring sitting at her collar. And she could feel a slight sway before Ellie started tipping to the side.

     “Shit!” Ellie’s hand shot to the cabinet hard enough to make the draws rattle. Dina managed to keep enough of a grip that she stayed standing

     “Are you tired or drunk?” Dina cackled as Ellie sheepishly righted herself.

     “I, shut up.” She woefully hid behind a hand.

     Dina bit her lip trying to keep the laughter to a minimum. “Didn’t mean to knock you off your feet,” She teased kissing an uncovered temple. Ellie let out a pained groan. “Get your cute little butt in the shower already.” Dina encouraged before stepping out. As soon as the water started running she scrambled to clean-up. She never considered herself messy per-say, things just didn’t get put away when Ellie was gone…She sniffed one shirt just to be sure before folding it back up. Dina brought a full outfit into the bathroom and set it on the counter for Ellie. She double-checked that each gun was unloaded before setting them into a tall cupboard. She had sorted through most of one of the bags before Ellie came back out and unceremoniously flopped onto the bed.

     “Heeeeeeey,” Ellie called out holding her arm into the air.

     “Calm down I’m coming.” Dina scoot into place and Ellie’s arm dropped onto her lap.

     “I was gone so long I started to forget what your face looked like.” Her voice muffled by the pillow.

     “You mean after two days?”

     “Hours,” Ellie corrected, “Glad you didn’t decide to go marry someone else once you finally got rid of me.”

     “Well, about that....” Ellie smiled lightly. Dina brushed back a stray hair and let her fingers scratch down the side of Ellie’s head and cheek. The shaved patch she liked to keep was now a soft fuzz. “There were just so many good options.”

     “Was it crippled Laura or great-great-grandpa Mike?”

     “Obviously Mike.”

     “I always knew you had a thing for back hair.”

     “Ohh fuck you,” Dina flicked her ear. Ellie flinched back with a soft chuckle. Dina watched her eyes fighting to stay open as she absently rambled along. “Ducky,” Dina finally interrupted.

     “Mmm?”

     “Go to sleep already. I’ll still be here tomorrow.”

     Ellie grumbled softly. Somehow every movement caused her to sink further into the mattress, “Don’t forget to wake me up for dinner.”

     “I won’t.”

—X—

     They hurried up to the door already bickering about being late. “I didn’t forget,” Dina defended, “I just wasn’t awake either.”

     “I’m still blaming you.” Ellie knocked shortly even though she could have just walked in. Small steps could be heard running up to the door and it was thrown open. “Hey,” She waived.

     Abby’s eyes went wide as she jumped forward, “Ellie!” She cheered clinging to her, “Your back. Did you bring me anything? I’m learning to play the guitar. And mom lets me use the knife,” she rattled off. Ellie did her best to keep up as Abby dragged her away. The table had already been set but it seemed like they’d barely made it in time. And by barely Henry was calling everyone in before Abby had made it down the hall. She pouted angrily not being able to show off any little projects she had. Instead she forced her way into the seat next to Ellie’s. Charlie was one of the last in the room with the baby on his shoulder. Ellie’s face immediately lit up she turned to Dina with a dopey smile.

     “Yeah, I know,” Dina said. The dinner was probably one of the calmest get-togethers in recent memory; mostly because a third of them had just gotten back from the long patrol. They took turns detailing the events of the last weeks. Evelyn very energetically went through the first encounter with another town. Of course, Ellie was the only one to get stabbed. The tense moments of frantic Spanish barely being close enough to their French. They were all guilty of painting themselves as heroes. Except May who just kept trying to fuck with Benson’s storytelling. Everyone ate until they were stuffed then debated who would take the arduous task of finishing the last few bites. Dishes were slowly cleared and they slowly migrated onto the more comfortable couches and rugs.

     Ellie had gotten hold of Tucker and refused to let go. Dina leaned onto the table completely enamored by the way Ellie coddled him. Tommy and two of the newcomers dropped in. They had gotten into a rather intense discussion of radio towers and setting up a long-range connection between the two towns. Ellie’s serious face wasn’t enough to cover up her constant rocking dance. “You better not be plotting to steal my baby.” Sarah teased coming up behind her.  She not-so-sneakily pulled down the neck of Dina’s collar.

     “What the-“ Dina smacked her hand away. “Why?”

     “Just checking.”

     “For what?”

     “Oh, you know,” Sarah impishly tried to get past Dina slapping defenses.

     “We’re not a pair of fucking rabbits if that’s what you’re trying to imply.”

     Sarah laughed giving up on her stupid game. “I will say, she makes a great babysitter. Just wait until she starts talking to him.” Dina smiled softly staring down to the tabletop. They sat for a few moments before Sarah turned abruptly, “Who cares what I have to say. What are you doing back here still? Go. I’ll make one of the boys finish cleaning up.” She shooed her off.

     “Jeez okay.” Dina gave in. There were easily four ongoing conversations across the small area. She made her way to Ellie’s side with a small poke. “You planning on sharing the baby anytime soon?”

     “Nope.”

     “Okay.” Dina took one of her jacket strings and pulled it all the way down.

     She glared at Dina unable to fix it since both hands were occupied. “You fucker.”