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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.

Chapter Text

     It was an incredible shot in hindsight. Dina had found plenty of time to run through those few hours over and over in a never-ending and unchanging loop. Air slowly thickening from the smoke. Sweat beginning to drip down into her eyes as she took aim again and again. Whoever these people were they had a plan and a ruthless way to execute it. They just wanted Ellie? Bullshit. Their knives struck down anyone within reach. Hopefully, most of the kids had managed to get to the few hidden cellars in town. Another figure in a long cloak came into view. They were coming in bigger and bigger groups. There must be a part of the wall they’d managed to destroy. She was running low on bullets. Dina wasn’t too comfortable with the idea of hand-to-hand when she was outnumbered but it might come to that. She should have been invisible pressed against the wall.

     There’s no way in hell someone could have made the shot intentionally. A rebound or stray maybe. Dina leaned getting ready to pick her next target when the scope shattered. Plastic and glass suddenly expanding out. She barely had enough time to close her eyes to avoid the shrapnel. The rifle jumped from her hands thrown by the force of the blow. Dina swore reflexively covering her face but the pieces were already bouncing off the ground at that point.

     The cart shook abruptly and her eyes opened. The rough bag with pinpricks of light coming through. Surely by now she’d stop expecting to see something new. Her mouth and throat burned. A harsh chemical scent still clung to her clothes. One hell of a shot that had put her in shock just long enough. Damn reflexes and damn cheaters. The only way she’d been taken alive is because they’d cheated. Dina tried to keep her breaths deep and even. She’d tried to keep track of where they were going but she’d been unconscious for the entire first day. Dina could barely make out the sunrise through the rough hood. After getting thrown in the cart for god knows how many days she soon lost track.

     There was a handful of others they’d grabbed from Jackson. It was hard to tell who since they rarely took the hoods off the filthy bodies. Paul was there. Or he had been there. From what she could tell he tried to run and was shot. Dina didn’t even realize he had been there until she had to listen to the begging cries as he was left to die on the road. She spent hours torn whether or not she should even try to run. It was entirely possible there was nothing to go back to. Last time the hood was off she couldn’t even recognize some of the plants. In the slim chance, she managed to get away her odds of survival drastically decreased without any weapons or supplies. Hell, she’d be lucky to make it past three days. The cart rocked back again. The roads were getting worse. That or they’d left the old streets and were moving through the thick undergrowth. With the dense trees overhead she was losing the ability to track the sun for some sort of direction.

     Stay or run? Either way she was fucked. They’d kept her this long but it took effort to move this many people. As far as she could tell they’d already killed half the prisoners. If Dina had to guess, she was the only one who actually had answers. What would Ellie do in this situation? Probably try to run at every opportunity, punch everyone, bite, growl and struggle against the ties, just about anything to get herself killed. They’d maybe last two hours before she annoyed them to that point. Then again Ellie’s idea of wait for an opportunity was to run around with a lit Molotov in her back pocket.

     Dina had been pushing a little further just to see how much more lenient they’d be towards her. So far the answer was they won’t kill her, not yet at least. Dina shifted trying to find a non-existing comfortable position on her knees. The cart had been on a constant slant for well over a mile at this point. “Can you stop the cart?” She asked shortly. There was no need to hide the irritation in her voice.

     “So you can run?” A voice across from her growled. Dina hadn’t seen their faces enough to imagine who was talking. So far most the crew just looked like angry cue balls.

     “With this hospitality?” She said bitterly. Nice thing about having her hands tied behind her back is no one could see the permeant middle fingers spinning around when she spoke. “There’s been no breaks so far. Sometimes ladies have to piss.” There was no response other than an irritated breath. “I’ll gladly go here but you’ll get to share the puddle.”

     A softer groan before a short whistle. The cart rolled to a stop and rough hands were pulling her up. The hood was pulled off and Dina was met with a glaring sun. She blinked rapidly trying to adjust to the harsh light. A few others were being pulled from the cart and she was untied with uncaring force. “One minute.”

     “Jesus, that’s barely anything. Things are a bit bloody if you know what I’m talking about,” If there was anything she could count on it was that this always makes guys squeamish. His lip curled up adjusting the pistol hanging from his side. “Periods,” Dina elaborated trying to buy any fraction of time. “Fucking periods since you look confused. You all could have waited a day to firestorm the town but no-,”

     “Three minutes before you get shot.” He grabbed her shirt spinning her away from the cart. Each person was sent in a different direction to avoid any sort of talking. Dina walked out a few paces before crouching behind a wide trunk. That was barely enough time but it would have to work. She’d managed to work a metal edge off of a road sign at one of their last stops. It kept bending as she carved into the thick bark. She could barely say a few basic phrases in Hebrew and could read even fewer, but there was one thing she knew. Hopefully it would be foreign enough they wouldn’t recognize it should they feel the need to check. “שׁלום,” And a shallow arrow for the direction they were going. Dina shoved the metal piece back into her sock and quickly rubbed dirt into the fresh mark. Maybe someone would try to follow them. In an even slimmer chance maybe someone would find the marks she’d managed to leave behind.

----X----

     “Keep moving.” Dina was pushed blindly forward on trembling legs. She was surprised they were still attached after kneeling for so long they had lost all feeling. At some point she had even fallen asleep. Apparently days of exhaustion could do that to a person, even if they were crumpled in the corner of a constantly rocking cart. They didn’t let her take the hood off and poorly guided her through a building. No one said anything about stairs so Dina rammed her foot into the first step. They abruptly took the hood off before throwing her down into an empty room. Unable to catch herself Dina landed hard on one shoulder. Heavy steps followed behind and her hands were grabbed and cut free.

     “You couldn’t have done that before?” Dina complained against the floor. There was one guy in the room and another standing just outside the door.

     “Sit up.” A surprisingly high voice snapped before kicking her in the side. “Disgusting.” He sneered pacing around. “How could anyone dare to get close to one poisoned by the very demons that plague us.”

     Well, Ellie had warned her about some degree of people knowing. But these guys seemed a bit fanatical. “I’m sure you’ve seen a queer person before.” Dina snipped not even trying to hide the distaste in her voice, “Buddy boy out there doesn’t exactly seem to be the stra,”

     His hand shot out connecting with the side of her head. “Tell me where she went and you will be set free.”

     That sounded more like freed from this life. “You already killed her.” Dina desperately hoped that was a lie. The hope that Ellie was safe was really the only thing she was fighting for. “Sorry to disappoint.”

     He crouched in front of her eyes narrowed. “God may have poisoned the earth but it is our duty to cleanse it. Tell me where she went.”

     “Doesn’t sound like the God I know,” This time he punched her square in the jaw whipping her head to the side. He sat waiting for an answer. “You missed a spot.” Dina turned baring the other side of her face.

     “You have one more chance before I leave you here to rot.” She spat on the floor just missing his shoe. With a low sigh he turned out to the door.

     “There is one thing I have to ask.” He didn’t even turn to look. “Do you have to polish your head to get that glow or is it a natural grease?”

     He snorted in an ugly fashion looking to the other guard. “Let’s see how this one holds up without any food.”

     They slammed the door and Dina could hear a heavy lock going into place. “Fine by me.” She shouted. “I’ll be just as useful dead.” Maybe they heard maybe not. She waited a few moments before moving. Then a few more minutes until it was quite. She deflated turning to inspect the deep rope burns on her wrists. A tooth also felt a little wobbly, but worst comes to worst he didn’t knock it out.

     Dina must have stared at the door for two days straight. Not once did it open. Other than the occasional sound of someone walking by Dina was completely alone. There was a small window, completely boarded up despite the fact it was already too small for a person to squeeze through. Dina still spent a day trying to pry the boards off. A full day and there wasn’t even a wiggle to show for it.

     There was a slow leak coming down one of the walls. By bunching her shirt up against the wall Dina could collect a few extra mouthfuls of water each day. It wasn’t great but it was easily comparable to what she would be given with her meals. Whenever those came. Dina was adamant she would have eaten the wallpaper if there had been any. Maybe the previous occupant beat her to it.

     After a while time got much harder to differentiate. Barely getting any light from outside nor consistent interaction from the captors. Dina noticed that nearly all of them were older. The only ones that were young were treated with little to no respect. It didn’t matter what they did she refused to cry. They didn’t deserve the satisfaction. One day she just started counting trying to keep her mind occupied. She got well into the ten thousands. She couldn’t even begin to count the days. Best she could tell it had been around four months. Maybe even five. It was hot and humid that’s really all she knew.

     At least the hospitality of this little bed and breakfast was kind enough to include baths. That was quite literally a surprise. Two guys came in suddenly and wordlessly threw buckets of water over her. She’d barely had time to wake up as it rushed into her nose. Dina shot up coughing, “Jesus. You could at least warm them up a little.” That was the one comment she regretted in hindsight. They came in a few minutes later chuckling. This bucket had a heavy cloud of steam rising off the top. Dina braced herself as the boiling water hit her skin. ‘Im not here I’m not here’ it took all of her power not to scream. “Thanks.” She shuddered. They didn’t seem to enjoy the reaction and left pouting like children. Within minutes huge red patches covered every exposed part of her body.

     At first Dina had tried to keep fit and able to run at any given second. Little exercises to fill the time. Running laps in the small room. Then it turned to pacing. Some days standing up would be enough to make her head spin hard enough she couldn’t see straight for a full minute. In a way it made it easier to escape. Dina could focus on an empty stomach rather then whatever torture had been dreamed up for the day.

     The questioning eventually faded. They no longer asked about where Ellie was and she was really starting to wonder why she was being kept around. Does bait work if the fish is in a completely different lake? Maybe they getting tired of, “Fuck you,” as the only answer. Maybe they just wanted a convenient punching bag. She did her best to piss them off whenever they came. It’s the little things in life that really make it worth it. Screaming and shouting had never really phased her. Dina had already served her time with ill-tempered men. She’d lost count how many times she’d been thrown to the floor of the empty room. This time it was a split lip and swollen eye. If she tried hard enough she could curl up and imagine it wasn’t pain but something else. Maybe it was the heat of a blush and her lips ached from kissing Ellie for just a little too long. That was a good place. She’d just have to spend her time back there.

     A quiet night. They were in her room chatting after Ellie had come in after a late watch. Come to think of it she couldn’t quite tell who started it. Surely it was Ellie the way they were sitting. Dina couldn’t remember what had been so funny but they kept giggling and teasing each other. Hours of talking about nothing. There wasn’t a moment where they weren’t touching in some way. Holding a hand, one leg thrown over a lap, a kiss here, a kiss there, a hand scratching down her back. Neither of them had been drinking but the late hour was enough to make one tipsy. More kissing, more laughing. Ellie’s hair was a mess. Before they knew it the clock was reading well past three. “Shhhit.” Dina dragged now laughing at how unaware they’d been. “Shut up, I have to work tomorrow.” She smacked Ellie’s shoulder.

     “You mean today?” Ellie grinned drunkenly pulling her forward again. Dina grinned playing along letting Ellie’s lips move freely against her own aching ones. They feel asleep on top of each other, Dina woke up with a dead arm and crushing panic.

     “Soo,” Sarah frowned as Dina burst in the door of the clinic.

     “Sorry I overslept. Go home early if you have to I’ll,” Dina rushed words falling in a single string. Sarah crossed her arms unimpressed with the rambling.

     “Hey Ellie?” Sarah shouted through the still-open door. Sarah hadn’t seen her and was only making an educated guess. Like an idiot Ellie stuck her head in.

     “Yeah?”

     “Where were you last night?”

     “I was,” her eyes flicked panicked at Dina as her tired brain struggled to come up with something reasonable. “Home?”

     Dina cringed staring holes into the floor. For someone who kept so many secrets Ellie was usually a shitty liar. “Oh?” Sarah stood stalking forward. “Well, since there’s been that stomach bug going around we’ve been real busy. Thomas has been throwing up all day and I’m afraid I can’t clean it up.” She tactically rubbed her swollen belly starting the two of them down. This must be what mice felt like under the sharp beak of a hawk. “Since you’re so, well-rested surely you can help clean it up.”

     Ellie’s face was slowly turning to a bright red. “Yep. Yep will do that.”

     She scurried off leaving Dina alone. With a short glance up, Dina could see light bruises peeking out from Ellie’s collar. She bit her lip hoping there wasn’t smoke coming off her ears. Wow, the floor was so interesting today. Is that a new splinter? Sarah set a hand on Dina’s shoulder with a predatory tilt of her head. Her voice dropped into a threatening whisper. “Next time I’m coming in with a gun. You understand?”

     In hindsight, the whole exchange was something they would find hilarious years later. Ellie not-so-subtly implied they should shower together after the hours of cleaning. Dina should have taken her up on it. That opportunity might never come up again. “No. No.” Dina thought sharply. She couldn’t afford to think like that. Memories were the only thing keeping her intact but even those were starting to disappear. As soon as Ellie’s stupid little grin faded Dina knew she would crumble. She even missed Sarah’s teasing. Damnit she hoped she was alive too, and the baby. The baby would be what, three months old now? She hoped it was a girl. Oldest sons never seemed to live as long. Would it look more like Charlie or her own family? There were some traits that ran strongly on Sarah’s side. God, how long had it been since she’d even thought about all the cousins she’d lost. Dina rolled to her side and was jerked back to reality by a sharp aching in her ribs. She was sure it wasn’t broken but that could change given a few days. The pain was overwhelming, sometimes she wished she could cry but the tears never came.

     There was a point when something shifted. It was hard to place what it was but the people around her started to become a little uneasy. Dina started seeing new faces. Not because they felt like getting to know each other but because the ones that usually harassed her were disappearing. Mumbling in the hallway, more shouting outside. Wolves were lurking in the woods.

Chapter Text

     Abigail Whitney was the world’s cutest baby. Ellie was only a little bias in the matter. Tiny squishy cheeks and hazel green eyes that still had the baby sheen to them. They’d been spending plenty of time together. They already had plenty in common, unable to walk and sleeping all day. Sometimes she'd cry her little heart out and Ellie would have to agree. At first, Ellie didn’t want to hold her. She shouldn’t get to hold Abby before Dina had the chance to. That selfish thought evaporated within a day. Sarah was working herself to the bone to keep who was left alive and Ellie wasn’t about to add to that. Charlie was in an even worse spot. He didn’t get hurt but that made him one of the few able people to keep up on the rest of the work. Watchtower shifts, frantic patchy building, pulling together any food they could to bridge the gap until the next crops started coming in. Anytime they were home was like watching ghosts. Charlie even tried to walk through a wall getting back late one night.

     “Okay, how the hell did you do this?” Ellie questioned the tiny baby. Abby opened her mouth wide with a big gummy smile. How does such a little person make so much poop? All she does is drink milk, poop, and sleep. “Yeah, I’m talking to you stinker.” There was rarely someone for Ellie to talk to that wasn’t half asleep. They were going to be alone for a few hours while Sarah battled never-ending fires in the clinic.

     The first month flew by. Ellie was finally able to move around without hobbling. For now she was staying in Dina’s room. There was still a volatile mix of emotions being there without her. But it wasn’t as bad as Tommy’s house. The front wall had gotten a little cooked in the attack. According to May the holes in her room weren’t bad but she still had to tiptoe on some of the boards to get Ellie's things out. “What are we reading today kid?” Ellie sighed looking over the full shelves. Abby blankly sucked on her fist. Ellie reached to a low shelf jerking back with sudden pain. Her hand shot back to her stomach clutching at the old wound. 

     Boo stood quickly coming to her side. “I’m fine Bubba.” Ellie groaned grabbing a closer book. She wasn’t the best at reading emotions but Boo always seemed nervous around the baby. Which was funny considering he rarely was more than three feet away from Abby at any given time. He’d even follow Sarah to the clinic, which he hated, to keep an eye on her. He would even curl up under the crib when Abby was sleeping. “Come on,” Ellie clicked her tongue heading back to the bed. She never had to read for long before Abby fell asleep against her chest. Quick shallow breaths moved her entire frame. Once Abby was asleep Boo moved closer to rest his head on Ellie’s lap. “You're just jealous you don’t get all the attention aren’t you?” She scratched under his ears earning a low sigh, “Yeah I know bud.”

     Sarah was late again, and more than the usual hour or two. “Shit Ellie. I’m so sorry.” She leaned in the doorway rubbing the dark circles under her eyes.

     “Don’t worry about it. Abby ate everything you left.” Ellie stared down playing with the loose ties on her bracelet.

     Sarah sighed before coming into the room. She sat on the edge of the bed pushing her hair back. “You sure you’re okay?”

     “Yeah,” No. “My uh-“ Ellie pointed to the area she’d been shot, sometimes lovingly referred to it as bellybutton part two. “This is acting up again. I don’t think it’s anything serious.”

     If Dina had been here she’d already be haggling Ellie to take her shirt off. “You’re probably moving too much still.” Sarah frowned deeply rubbing her temples. “I’ll try to be here more tomorrow.”

     “Really it’s okay. It’s my fault-“ Sarah pulled Ellie into a hug. She immediately melted into Sarah’s shoulder.

     “Don’t take the blame Ellie,” Sarah mumbled pulling her closer. Ellie could already feel her throat tightening. “I couldn’t keep up without your help.” She let go far too soon kissing Ellie’s forehead. “Thank you.” She was just a few steps out the door when the radio crackled up. Sarah threw her head back with an annoyed whine.

     Ellie couldn’t keep waiting. As soon as she was able to carry a bag and run she was leaving and not coming back without answers. If she died before then so be it. Abigail deserved to have a full family. Ellie had already promised she’d have an aunt to tell all of her little secrets to. An aunt to spoil and tease her. Dina had to come home and meet her. And Ellie desperately needed that part of her family too. She allowed a little smile to creep onto her face. Dina would be glad to meet someone that was actually shorter than her.

—X—

     Ellie left with nothing but her personal weapons. She’d made May promise to help with the baby and talked to Sarah the night before but they were the only people who knew. She slid the glass door open ready to take off but Sarah was leaning against the wall. “You really think you can come in and out that door without me knowing?” Ellie froze fearing Sarah would hold her back. Instead, she held out a massive bundle of medical supplies.

     “I can’t,”

     “I’m in charge of the supplies. We have enough here.” Ellie still didn’t take them. “God, you’re stubborn,” Sarah said stepping around shoving them into the near-empty bag. One last hug before she whispered shakily, “Don’t be afraid to come home, Ellie.” A short nod before Ellie ran off disappearing into the dark night. The attackers had come from somewhere out west. She’d been forced to wait for two months but there were still few marks remaining. Bodies left behind and deep cuts in the ground. After the attack, they had noted that most of their shoes had a thick wax covering them. West and plenty of rain. That could be literally anywhere past Idaho. Once that trail ended Ellie had nothing to follow but her own gut and luck.

     Ellie had made it a few miles out when she heard a snap. She spun aiming at a streaked face. “Damnit Boo,” Ellie could have sworn he had been locked him the house, “Go home,” Ellie commanded pointing back but he didn’t budge. It was hard enough getting out without anyone seeing, she could try to run him back but, “You better be fucking careful, you hear me bud?” She broke. Boo's tail slapped energetically against the ground with a pink tongue hanging out. Once she started moving he followed behind with a silent and practiced gait.

     The decision to let Boo stay had paid off thousands of times. The company alone was nice as he wandered around. Sometimes he’d walk boldly in front as if to say, “That’s right I’m taking you on a walk.” Boos' hearing was obviously better than hers, Ears sticking up and stopping with a growl when something was getting close, at night it would be frantic licks to wake her up. Usually, the approaching being was just a deer. But when it was a group of people they could hide before they even came into sight.

     It wasn’t perfect by any means, especially in buildings and dense city areas. In the rare case someone got the jump on them Boo would run biting and tearing into whatever he could reach. One group was particularly bad. One of the fuckers threw him off kicking him in the side. The pained yelp grabbed Ellie’s attention, “don’t touch my fucking dog!” She roared. But Ellie she couldn’t do anything as a fist slammed into her cheek. The back of her head bounced off the floor again. Enraged she managed to throw the stout woman off and grab her gun. The wild shot still hit her head and Ellie was barely able to dive into the other assholes' legs before he hit Boo again. “Fuck!” A fist slamming into his head. “You!” A rapid flurry as she pounded him into unconsciousness. Blood coated his entire face but she still grabbed her knife stabbing down to make sure he wouldn’t move again. Ellie panted leaning over the mess trying to shake the ringing from her ears.

     “Buddy Boo are you okay?” He tried to limp forward and Ellie held a hand up. “No don’t move. I’m coming. I’m coming okay.” Boo whined softly before laying on the floor. A few of the deeper cuts were steadily dripping blood to the floor. “I’m so sorry.” Ellie’s hands were still shaking as she tried to clean them off and find her medical supplies. “You didn’t deserve that. You’re such a good boy Boo.” She continued talking to him in a steady stream of apologies. She wished he could respond to help fill the constant silence. Ellie ended up using more supplies for Boo then she ever would have for her own injuries.

     Checking over that she had gotten everything. Ellie noticed the pads of his feet were starting to tear from the constant travel. “I’m really just a fucking idiot aren’t I?” Ellie mumbled tearing up an extra tee she had. After covering the wounds she used the extra fabric to cover his paws. “Bet you never thought you’d get to wear shoes, huh bud?” Ellie laughed weakly. She still ended up carrying him for a full week before she trusted he could walk without a limp.

—X—

     “Annnnd go!” Ellie tossed the tennis ball down the street and Boo zoomed away chasing as it bounced across the broken ground. He scooped it up running back proudly. “Yeah, look at you.” She cooed trying to take it back. He growled hanging on tighter than the remaining green fuzz. “Hey, what’cha doing? Give it back. Give me the ball.” Ellie’s voice had risen two octaves since they had started playing. She shook back and forth and he stubbornly followed for a few more seconds before dropping with a bark. “Okay. Now you want me to throw it again? Make up your mind stinker.” Ellie sent it down the road again trying to avoid the massive potholes. They’d already lost a few balls to the sewers. The months were starting to wear her down. Two nights ago she woke in a cold sweat shooting twice at a wall. She swore something had been there but immediately berated herself for wasting the ammo. Keeping Boo entertained was something to help keep her mind in one piece.

     There was a night when he had disappeared for a few hours and based on the packed of wild dogs roaming around Ellie highly suspected there might be some illegitimate Boo babies in the future. Maybe that was just another story to help pass the time. Either way he brought back a rabbit so who cared if he ran other errands beforehand. Boo ran back and forth blissfully unaware of the world he could have lived in.  Ellie had even made a small backpack for him. It couldn’t hold much since she didn’t want to weigh him down but every little bit helped. Right now he was running around with a bottle of whiskey, tennis balls, and some extra clothes. Speaking of story’s, Could you imagine sitting in a room with all your raider buddy’s and a dog comes tearing in with a flaming moltav strapped to its back? Talk about a surprise attack.

     “Good boooy.” She chuckled scratching his head as he ran back for the dozenth time that day. “Get it!” The ball bounced off the hood of a car rolling down an alleyway. He took a little longer than usual to bring it back. Ellie sighed holding her bow ready and turning carefully down the ally. He was staring behind an old dumpster tail flicking around slowly. Ellie frowned slowly inching closer. He dropped the ball with a bark staring and waiting. He dropped his head down to his paws barking again and Ellie heard a different kind of gasp.

     “Boo come here.” She called rushing forward. He came back the few steps and Ellie spun around arrow half drawn.

     “Please don’t,” the weak voice shook. There were two dirty figures huddled behind the dumpster. “We don’t have anything.” Wait, three, Ellie noted the tiny wrapped bundle.

     Ellie immediately put her bow back over her shoulder hands in the air. “It’s okay. I’m not here to hurt you.” The still looked nervously at Boo who paced behind her. “Sit.” She commanded and he plopped to the ground. Although she was more than wary of what they could have been hiding from in the first place. “I can help but is something else I should be worried about?”

     “We might have been followed, I’m not sure. They never seem to give up.” The man shook. “They were going to take him. We couldn’t, couldn’t.” He stumbled.

     “It’s okay.” Ellie crouched down trying to make herself less intimidating. “Here.” She pulled out the remainder of a jackrabbit she had cooked the other night. He immediately gave most of it to the women before eating with a ferocity similar to an animal. In a way Ellie couldn’t believe it. Talking to real people that didn’t immediately want to kill her. Sometimes she wondered if she had forgotten how to do that. “I can help for a little bit if you tell me who’s following you.” They nodded slowly before agreeing. They moved slowly but to be fair Ellie didn’t know where she was going.

     They made it to a house on the edge of town just as dusk was falling. It was well overgrown but offered a sense of protection. They spoke of living under the mafia-like protection of a group. Strict rules and even harsher punishments. While none of that struck any particular bell Ellie had a gut feeling she was getting closer to whoever attacked Jackson in the first place. Cults flock together or something like that. Hell, could fireflies be considered a cult... Their child was just a few weeks old. Not thinking they would make it this far they were still deciding on a name. For now it was a tentative Luke. Maybe it would change, maybe it would stick. Either way, they were exhausted and more than thankful for a little help.

     Early in the morning Ellie got up to find more food for the little family. The best way to brighten someone’s day was a good breakfast right? It took about two hours but her and Boo were able to find plenty of small animals and some greens. As she came closer to the house a scream was cut short. “No. No no no!” Ellie ran towards the little building and the door was wide open, a figure with a long hood walked by. She immediately flew into a rage. Killing one, two, then a third. Only the first had the familiar long leather coat. Walking by the bathroom another body was already dead leaning on the wall, blood sprayed across the room. Ellie flew into the bedroom with a wild snarl. One more intruder stood over the women who was shielding the child with her body. He spun hearing Ellie’s roar but only saw a knife before it sank into his face. A few more wild punches before he finally fell. One swing went wide and hitting the window sill splitting a knuckle. That was enough to bring her back to reality.

     Ellie fell in front of the women. Damnit she had never asked for a name. They had only referred to each other with little pet names the few times they spoke. “Hey. Everything’s okay.” Ellie lied setting a calming hand on her shoulder.

     “Luke.” She coughed and blood spilled down her chin. On closer look the woman wasn’t going to last much longer. Ellie glanced down and the little boy wasn’t moving. She was afraid to look knowing the bullet that had torn through the mother probably hadn’t stopped. They were both so young.

     “He’s fine.” Ellie lied, “Let’s see if I’ve got something to help.” Every breath the women took was ragged and wet. She could tell blood was already filling her lungs. Ellie’s hands shook and she could barely open her bag. ‘What the hell am I supposed to do?’ There really wasn’t a right answer unless she could perform miracles. If that was the case none of this would have happened. If anything she was the opposite of a miracle. None of this should have happened. Ellie’s fingers hit the cool steel of the handgun she’d picked up a few days ago. Ellie’s face pulled tight hating her options. She quickly pressed the barrel against the women’s head, “I’m so sorry.”

     “Thank yo-“ Ellie pressed her eyes shut when she pulled the trigger. The women slumped forward.

     A pained vulnerable whine escaped Ellie and she walked out of the room arms crossed tightly against her chest. She paced up and down the hall ready to vomit. She just killed a completely innocent girl. She was already going to die but did that matter? “Fuck.” Ellie whimpered. Their little baby reminded her so much of Abby. Ellie’s face contorted going up and down the hall each breath shorter than the last. Why can’t these people just leave everyone alone? We had peace. We had something normal to wake up to. There was blood on every surface of the house. The wrath bubbled up again and she had no choice but to run to the body of one of the attackers. Kicking and swearing until her throat started to burn from the screaming.

     Ellie tore away from the body she needed to calm the fuck down before she did something really stupid. A little office had the body of the young man and another dead form. Ellie wheezed running out to the room at the end of the hall. She sat on the bed her entire body shaking as she struggled to breathe. She was starting to get light-headed and the walls were twisting in her vision. It took a few minutes of rocking back and forth before she could open her eyes again. Only now was she starting to feel the pain of the different cuts and bruises of going against an entire team of men. There was a fairly deep one just above her collarbone. She wiped some of the blood away staring at her dirtied hand. Even her own hands felt foreign. A glance to the side and a nervous laugh bubbled out of her. A guitar was leaning against the side of the dresser. Its dark wood was entirely coated with dust. She reached out grabbing it with a trembling hand barely able to lift it off the stand.

    “This is something normal. Normal, normal familiar thing.”  Ellie thought adjusting it on her lap leaving bloody prints on the cracked finish. God her hands wouldn’t stop shaking.  Ellie still tried to set up a basic cord. Her thumb dragged against the strings and it was horribly out of tune. A split second of a smile. She could fix this.“Normal. Normal. Familiar.” Ellie sat for a moment just savoring the sound of something that wasn’t violence or the dead ambiance of nothing. She slowly strummed again letting her ear decide how far off each string was. Something so habitual she could forget where she was. It took a few minutes to get all of them close enough. A few more tweaks until the last one was right. At least the vertigo was finally starting to settle down. Ellie sat slowly running through a list of cords until she was completely satisfied with each of their sounds. A few more deep breaths and she started playing. Simple, repetitive, normal. One cord after another until she started to fill the gaps with single notes. Ellie shook her hands out trying to get rid of the last of the jittering. She wasn’t sure of the song until the words started to follow. Ellie’s voice cracked and she was more than aware of how exhausted she was. “Familiar. Repetitive. Comforting. Comforting. Dina sitting beside her bed grinning. Normal.”  Movement flickered in the corner of Ellie’s eye and the last few words came out even flatter than the first ones. Ellie stared down still in shock.

     Joel leaned against the doorway wearing the exact outfit she’d seen him in last, “What are you doing kiddo?”

     She still wasn’t paying attention, grabbing the neck of the guitar shaking her head mumbling. Ellie shifted uncomfortably. He shouldn’t be here. He’s gone. Dead, gone, but here.

     Joel stood in the doorway looking down. “Are you really going to go through with this?”

     Fuck. Still talking. She carefully set the guitar aside. Ellie couldn’t bear the thought of breaking anything else today. One last look at the wooden body, her mind was still wanting to repeat everything that had happened. She had to find Dina but the whole world seemed to be against her. “I’m going to find and I’m going to kill every last one of them.” Ellie turned scowling back at Joel. Blinking again he was gone. Boo sat waiting in the doorway. Ellie pressed her eyes shut again rubbing them with two fingers. Joel’s ghost had been following her for a while. What would be left of her months from now?

--X--

     Ellie knew she was close. So irritatingly close. She’d spent nearly a month tracking through Oregon and taking out dozens of camps but that didn’t lead anywhere. Boo was more interested in scratching up against the trees. He had some weird habits being mostly raised around cats. Either that or he had gotten fleas. It had been a while since she had given him a proper bath, hopefully it was just the first option. She would feel all too responsible for the second. Ellie had been following him on and off the road for most of the day just to see what could be so interesting to a dog. She was sure he’d already pissed on half the trees in the entire state. “Again, seriously?” Ellie sighed. “I don’t do that. You’re just a gross little man aren’t you?” Come to think of it plenty of the guys she went on patrols with did the same thing. Taking a leak every ten seconds must just be a man thing. All the water must be stored where women keep their common sense.

     They weaved along their unusual path but on the next stop something caught her eye. A pattern sketched into the bark of a tall pine. Ellie moved closer stepping high over the ferns that covered every open space. Getting closer this wasn’t an animal scratch or random pattern.  The cuts already starting to fill with moss simply read, “Shalom,” with an arrow pointing down the crumbling road.

     Ellie’s knees buckled and she sat leaning against the tree tears falling freely from her chin. “Thank god.” She cried. “I’m coming Dina. Please be here still.”

Chapter Text

     'This is a game,’ Dina hummed tapping her leg three times, ‘Of concentration.’ Tap. Tap. Tap. ‘No repeats. Or hesitations.’ The building shook again with a loud boom. She pulled her knees up pressing herself into the corner. ‘Catagory is. Animals.’ Usually shouting didn’t throw her off. But this was different. The Seraphites killed plenty of people. But this wasn’t crying and begging. They were being attacked.

     Dina was a little more than anxious. One of the nearby buildings was on fire. Being locked in a burning room was high on her list of nightmares. ‘Dog.’ Tap. Tap. Tap. ‘Horse.’ Being such an unusual attack Dina had been staring out the few slivers she had when a bullet tore through the wall inches away from her leg. As much as the curiosity was eating at her she didn’t want to get killed by a stray bullet. ‘Cat.’ She thought. One hand tapping the simple beat the other holding onto the metal bit. Her ankle was scarred from hiding it so long. Sometimes she forgot it was there since all feeling had been lost.

     ‘Koala.’ She missed her koala. Heavy footsteps racing down the hall. Tap. Tap. Tap. Two shots from somewhere below her. Her hand was shaking from gripping the small weapon so tightly. ‘Chicken.’ The sounds of fighting were coming closer. The wall shook as a nearby door was slammed open, or shut.

     “Wolf!” One of their voices cried out. Others yelling and repeating the same phrase.

     ‘Giraffe.’ She must have zoned out because something was slamming against her door. Dina nearly jumped out of her skin at the noise. She weakly pushed herself up standing against the wall. Based on the sounds and muffled cries it had to have been someone’s head taking the beating. Whoever the fucker was they deserved it. A sudden silence. “Shit.” She whispered. Is this an opportunity or a death sentence?

     A quite scrapping as the lock was lifted and clang as it was dropped. ‘Duck, fish, hawk, rabbit, firefly, rabbit.’ She panicked as the door was thrown open. A figure wearing a familiar leather coat striding to the window. They seemed completely unaware of her presence. Dina’s heart pounded painfully against her ears as she ran forward. The shiv wasn’t going to make a clean cut so she had to get it right the first time.

     “Goddamnit,” They swore giving up removing the boards. Dina hesitated for a split-second but her arm was still swinging down, “Woah!” They turned just in time to doge and roughly grabbed her arm. Dina was painfully jerked forward as they prepared to throw her down but they froze suddenly.

     Dina spun her head back with a snarl but it turned to surprise as she was suddenly let go. That and,

     “You. I, uh,” They stammered. Soot painted everything a dark cloth didn't cover. But that wasn’t enough to completely hide her.

     “Ellie?”

     “Yeah. I. Dina? Holy shit,” Ellie ripped the mask down before grabbing both of Dina’s arms. “I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” Her mouth hung open as she kept looking up and down in disbelief.

     Dina stared back at the frantic green eyes still in her own version of shock. She couldn’t even remember the last time someone had said her name. “You’re real?” Dina shakily asked. It would be one hell of a dream is she was starting to feel in them now.

     “I think so?” Two short whistle bursts could be heard from outside. Ellie’s face dropped listening. A long note followed by another two short bursts. “Shit. We have to go.” She spun running to the door checking down the hall. “Think you can run?” Ellie crouched digging through the pockets of the bodies just outside the door.

     “Maybe.” Dina stepped uneasily out into the hallway. She could count on one hand the number of times she’d actually seen it.

     Ellie glanced up, “Is anyone else here?”

     “No,” Dina answered quickly. The last person from Jackson had been killed months ago. Or had it been weeks?

     “Hey,” a hand hit her shoulder and Dina jumped back. “Sorry.”

     “No, sorry, I’m just,”

     “You’re fine,” Ellie said but the worried look betrayed her words. “Put this on. There’s a window we can use.” Dina numbly threw on one of the heavy coats ignoring the still-warm blood on the collar. Ellie handed her a long knife and pistol as well. “We’ve got this, alright?” Ellie encouraged making her way down the hall.

     “Yeah.” Dina nodded following behind trying to find a comfortable hold on the gun. It was a shorter model then she was used to but it seemed far too heavy. Ellie moved silently keeping one hand against a wall. Her head tilting different ways as she listened and checked around each corner before moving past. It was eerily quiet compared to before. Dina could hear the dull electric buzz of the lights strung throughout the building.

     Dina stared out the window as Ellie rattled off a basic plan. A few small fires could be seen scattered around. Some intentional but more seemed to have been set by yours truly. Light rain, dense forests, random phrases graffitied on every other wall. It would have been overwhelming without Ellie’s voice grounding her. “Got all of that?” Dina nodded despite having nothing to base the directions on. The floor shook as a door below them was thrown open. “I personally don’t want to be around when they get to this floor.” Ellie strained shimmying out the window. A dull clang as she landed on the electrical box below. “Step.” Ellie quietly called up.

     Dina made one last check before following her. It was a long drop. Her arms were already shaking in the few seconds it took to get her foot set on Ellie’s outstretched hands. “I’ve gotcha.” Ellie assured guiding the next step to her shoulders. Dina finally jumped down to the box almost slipping on the wet metal. Since the next drop was shorter Ellie lowered Dina down. “You know, if I'd been born a guy, my name would have been Ladder.” A short half-smile as Dina’s feet hit the ground.

     “What?” Dina didn’t get an answer when a surprised cry came from out of sight.

     “Shit,” Ellie hissed jumping off the opposite side of the box. Loud whistles were abruptly cut short.

     A bald head stuck out of the window above, “She went out the w-!” An arrow pierced through his cheek and he fell back.

     “Let’s go,” Ellie said sprinting back around. She kept the bow in hand as they ran through dozens of narrow alleys. Within blocks Dina was wheezing to keep up. Ellie stopped abruptly. “Act nat-oo-ral.” She whispered before continuing out into the open with a brisk pace. Her bow half-drawn turning this way and that as if looking for an intruder. The seconds dragged painfully by as people ran in and out of their sights.

     The air was thick, humid, and so sweet. The light rain hitting Dina’s face might have been the best thing she’s ever felt. “Where’s the wolf?” A woman’s gruff voice called out running towards them. Ellie turned pointing her in a random direction. She looked away before realizing something was off. By then an arrow was already halfway in her chest. Ellie ran forward covering her mouth before she could call out.

     Dina held the pistol down watching the rest of the area. Shouldn’t there be more of them? She didn’t have time to wonder as another person came around the corner shouting, taking aim with a crossbow. She somehow managed to fire first. The bullet cut into his hip. Goddamn, the sights on her pistol were garbage. She managed to hit higher into his chest and he crumpled forward. “Wills?” Dina asked spinning to see Ellie standing over a second body.

     “Yeah, I know.” Ellie came up grabbing her arm before striding off again. The buildings continued to open up more and more leaving them exposed. Whistles were coming from dozens of different directions. “Fuck fuck fucking fuck.” Ellie harshly whispered speeding up with each step. Her eyes constantly moving to watch every inch around them. It didn’t help she was anxiously checking back at Dina whose breaths were far too fast and shallow. 

     “Shit.” Dina spat nearly tripping again.

     “You good?” Ellie checked pulling into another alleyway.

    'Yeah. I haven’t been trapped and starved for the last decade.’ Dina's brain flashed as she leaned heavily against a wall. They could hear a pair coming closer and Ellie crouched back against the wall. “Give me a sec.” Dina huffed joining her.

     Ellie nodded slowly eyes tracking Dina’s face with concern. She reached out for Dina's shoulder but froze just before she actually touched it. "I should have enough for that," She mumbled thinking to herself. Ellie reached under her jacket pulling out another arrow. Ellie bit her lip pulling various bits from different pockets and wrapping them around the head of the arrow. She carefully cut into the ends of two shotgun shells dumping the contents into the last layer.“We’ve just got to make it to the trees. Can you do that?”

     “I think so.” Dina struggled.  Come to think of it why didn’t she have a backpack?

     “It’s not a contest. Can you do it or not?” Dina nervously swallowed shaking her head. “It’s okay, I can carry you. This should hold them long enough.” Dina’s jaw tried to work out some sort of decline but the words never came. Ellie gave an encouraging nod, “Hey, we’ve got this.”

     “You could have sent a warning. A goddamn pigeon or something.” Dina wheezed. 

     Ellie’s face lit up momentarily.  “To be fair I didn’t even know you were here.” She whispered stalking forward.

     Dina paused confused “Why,” Ellie abruptly held a hand up. Her eyes tracking a random path on the ground as she listened for something. She slowly set the arrow on the ground pulling her knife out. Ellie dropped her hand with a flat palm, a sign to stay down. Dina could hear it now.  Steps coming closer.  They were in an uneven pattern, a sign that they were trying to remain undetected. Ellie didn’t let the blade spring out freely since the click could be enough to give them away. Dina forced her breaths to be as quiet and even as she could make them but that was causing even more of a burn in her chest. Closer. There was more than one person that was for sure. Ellie shuffled forward on her toes reaching for something on the ground. She worked a muddy shard of a mirror free and delicately held it out towards the front of the car. Her brows furrowed watching the small reflection.  If Dina didn’t take a decent breath soon she was going to pass out.

     A tall figure stepped past the front. Mid step Ellie struck out stabbing into the back of their knee. She left the knife jumping up long enough to grab their mouth and twist forcefully. The snap had a sickening quality to it. A low whistle coming from the other end of the car. Ellie waved for Dina to follow her before whistling a short pattern in response. As soon as Dina passed the front tire Ellie took off around the other side. The women had just come into Dina’s view when Ellie came up behind shoving the glass into her neck. A wet and sputtering gurgle was all that escaped.

     Ellie didn’t even wipe her hands off before running to grab the arrow she had made. “Those were just scouts. Get ready.” She nocked the arrow setting the end on fire. Ellie shot it up in a tall ark and threw the bow onto her shoulder. She scooped Dina up and ran. A sharp boom could be heard in the distance and a small fireball lit up the sky. There was going to be a mark left behind from that one. “Watch my back.” She gritted adjusting her hold. Ellie ran through the streets as if she had been born there. Dina had a wide view of the area behind them and awkwardly held the pistol in one hand as the other hung onto Ellie’s shoulders. Ellie’s steps bounced her up and down as the figures in the distance slowly shrunk.

     This was too easy. There’s no way they would be able to just run right out of there. The further they ran the odder the story got. Bodies. There were dozens they ran past. Sprawled on the ground, tossed into small streams. A broken arrow here, bent blade stuck in a trunk there. Some were older like they’d been dead for days. The trees started to warp together into one continuous blur. Thick vines crawled up the side of every building. In the darkness one could almost forget they were in the middle of a city. Dina vaguely wondered how Ellie was managing to sprint through the thick vegetation without tripping. The shouting faded quickly but Ellie kept running until her breaths were ragged. Then she kept running past that point. It wasn’t until she started to shake that Ellie finally slowed down.

     She set Dina down panting, “Holy fuck.” Ellie ripped off the heavy coat doubling over as she fought for each breath. “I really thought, I wasn’t going to make it today.”  Every exposed inch was glowing with sweat, “You weigh, less than,” A few more heavy gasps, “Beans.”

     Dina stood on wobbling legs trying to catch her breath from an entirely different reason. Names of stores she hadn’t seen before. Road signs pointing to cities she’d never heard of and, bridges. She’d never seen this many bridges referenced in her life. “Ellie? Where,” Her voice dropped into a whisper, “are we?”

     Ellie glanced up with pained eyes. Maybe it was due to the question or maybe it was the fact that Dina kept swaying back and forth like a drunkard. “Washington. A few miles from Seattle.” Dina was hit with a sudden wave of vertigo and could feel herself dropping.

     “Woah, hey,” Ellie panicked reaching out to catch her before she collapsed.

     Dina let out a sharp gasp as her hand hit her back. “Fuck!” She involuntary slapped Ellie’s arm away before dropping to her knees. “Fuck.” She whimpered again as pain spasmed through her body. It had never seemed this bad before but suddenly she was paralyzed.

     “What did I do?” Ellie panicked dropping down next to her hands jerking in the air unsure if she could help or not. “Dina?”

     It took over a minute before she could force out a response. “Wasn’t you.” She took a shaking breath with her forehead touching the damp ground. “Get this damn thing off me.” Dina’s voice quivered weakly pulling at the wet coat. Ellie nodded delicately undoing the heavy snaps and pulling the coat back despite Dina’s constant grimaces. In the dim light, Ellie could just make out a few fresh patches of blood soaking through her shirt. Another pained whine escaped with her next breath.

     Ellie assumed her heart had already sunk to its lowest point but now it shot three feet into the ground below them. “Hey,” she whispered despite the fact they were probably well out of anyone’s earshot, “Just a few more blocks. I promise we can stop there for a while.”

     Dina nodded slowly forcing herself up her face twisting miserably.  Now that all the adrenaline had worn off and reality was setting in for the first time in months. She was more than aware of her current state. Dina swore again as lifting her arm over Ellie’s shoulder pulled at the wounds covering her body.

     “Is this okay?” Ellie hesitated her arm hovering over her waist.

     Dina nodded biting her lip as Ellie’s hold tightened around her. It still hurt, just but not as much as everywhere else. “I’m fucking sick of this place.” She mumbled hobbling forward. 

     Within minutes the light sprinkle turned into heavier rain. Dina half wished she had the strength to keep the heavy leather coat on, but the other half was glad to feel the freshwater. At least that was proof this wasn’t a dream. Water was never this satisfying in her sleep. Ellie barely spoke other than the occasional check-in. Without warning, Ellie let out a low short whistle. A blur shot out of one of the buildings blending perfectly with the night. A few sudden barks broke the air and Ellie quickly commanded him to stay quiet.

     Dina blinked out of her daze staring down at the familiar face of Boo. His high pitched whines could barely be contained as his covered front paws kept kicking up wanting to jump at Dina. She half-smiled, “He's got shoes.”

     Ellie shook her head softly at the first observation. “Yeah, just wait till you see his backpack.” She forced open the remains of a glass door. Despite years of dirt and thriving plant life, an incredibly hideous carpet was still visible. Vines crawled through the racks of bright bowling balls. Retro-rollers was painted in thick curved letters along the wall. A few pins still managed to stand at the end of their lanes. “We should be able to wait here. They usually wait a few hours before sending anyone out.” Ellie said pulling into the back of the building. A row of heavy machines looked over her small camp. She helped Dina down to the thin bedroll. “I want to be out of here before they have time to come looking. Take what you need.” She said pulling out all the food and water she had and getting ready to step away.

     Dina panicked reaching out. “Don’t leave.”

     “Hey.” Ellie froze. “It’s just a few minutes. I need to make sure we didn’t leave a trail. Boo’s here, is that okay?” Dina nodded nervously scratching around his ears. “I’ll be back.” She reaffirmed.

     Dina curled back against the wall pulling Boo closer. She’d been fine being alone for months now but suddenly she feared losing everything for a second time. Or that she'd wake up again in that god-awful room. She pulled the cap off the bottle and was met with the coldest and cleanest water she had ever tasted. It took all of her power not to down the whole thing in one go. Hell, she was about ready to run to the nearest mountain spring and chug an entire waterfall. The random mix of food was alright but chewing was quickly becoming exhausting. “Hopefully you’ve been taking care of her.” Dina traced over the ghostly white streaks peeking through in his face. Even a puppy couldn’t live in this world without earning a few scars. The only reason she was able to pace herself was due to the extreme effort involved with moving. “Bubba Boo and Ellie Willy.” She tiredly mumbled resting her head against Boo's. Her entire body was starting to feel like it was turning into stone.

     “We should be good-,”

     “Jesus,” Dina shot up as Ellie popped into existence.

     “For now?” Ellie finished slowly. “You okay?”

     “Wear a goddamn bell or something.” Dina groaned dropping her head back against the wall.

     “Sorry, I’ve just gotten so used to,” Ellie set a hand back to lean on a shelf but instead hit a dusty trophy. “Ahh fuck,” she tried to straighten it and succeeded in knocking more odds and ends off the crooked shelf. “No, shit, stop it.” Ellie hissed trying to catch them before giving up and pulling her arms tight against her chest. A screwdriver teetered on the edge Ellie puffed out her cheeks glaring daggers. After much consideration, it still decided to take the leap.

     Dina couldn’t help but smile a short breath escaped that could almost be considered a laugh. Ellie awkwardly scratched the back of her neck staring down at the now littered floor. She could only assume there was a light blush but she could barely see her face under whatever combination of soot and mud that was still hanging on. “You know you look like a zebra?” 

     “I what?” Ellie blinked up before remembering. She ran the back of her hand across a cheek looking down at the black smudge. “Not going to lie, I forgot about that.” Ellie sighed coming to sit perpendicular from Dina. She started working through all the sections of the two bags. After multiple frowns and small curses Ellie gave up. She pulled the bottom of her shirt up and started scrubbing away at her face.

     Ellie had always been on the lean side but now Dina was starting to notice she was tilting more towards gaunt. Her arms uncovered by a jacket and stomach exposed, both peppered with scrapes and bruises. A large round scar sat just to the side of her belly button. Fuck, that has to be from... Dina snapped her gaze away taking another drink just as Ellie dropped her shirt back down.

     “Better?” Ellie asked softly. The entire front of her shirt had turned a patchy black and a few stubborn streaks tracked across her forehead. Dina glanced sideways more than elated to finally see Ellie’s face. Everything was better than she could remember. That goofy bend in her nose and curved jaw. The nick in her brow and those wonderful eyes.

     All Dina could manage was a small nod. “Still smell like shit.”

     “Yeah,” Ellie reluctantly agreed, “It’s going to be a bit before we can really get cleaned up. I don’t even, well,” she paused bouncing her head side to side. “Yeah, I only have one extra shirt right now. Going to have to work on that.” She trailed off leaning onto an arm. There was a long, tired pause. “Your back, should I?” A nervous hitch in her breath.

     “There’s probably a lot of old blood on this shirt.” Dina shifted uncomfortably. Lots of old blood, plenty of cuts, bruises, and whatever else she couldn’t remember. “There’s nothing to bad right now. I don’t want to, uh,”

     “That’s okay.  I’m just making sure,” Ellie rushed. “It just looks,” she tried to swallow a thick spot in her throat.

     She bopped Ellie’s arm with the water bottle. “You should drink something too.”  Ellie refused at first but Dina just poked her again and again until she took. “Let's just get home.” Her eyes were already drooping shut and her body was screaming for sleep. She managed to find Ellie’s hand before passing out. Dina wasn’t aware she had grabbed it until the soft squeezes were telling her to wake back up.

Chapter Text

     Ellie hadn’t been expecting Dina to pass out so quickly. Then again there were a lot of things she never expected. Hell, she dropped so fast Ellie should have checked if there was still a pulse. The rain was steadily pounding against the roof. Their soaked clothes weren’t going to dry anytime soon. Ellie needed to be careful about that. If the cold was getting to her Dina was already freezing, and that was on a normal scale. Now? Ellie frowned trying to find a comfortable spot without disturbing her. God, it was like she was sitting next to a whisp.

     Ellie highly doubted there would be a search party since she had more or less killed everyone. Whoever was left would hopefully be preparing to defend against an attack that would never come. Although part of her was itching to finish the rest of them. There were still ways she could leave a deadly parting gift behind. A sudden breath. Ellie could have killed Dina had she fucked with the water like she did with so many of the other camps. She could have killed her without ever even knowing. The Seraphites were awful but how many people had she killed compared to them? Ellie had no fucking clue what to do. Get Dina home, obviously, but for herself?

     A small shift. Maybe just a shiver. Dina’s hand tightened around Ellie’s. A hand That has easily killed hundreds. Ellie wanted to rip it away to keep her safe, but for Dina, it was the only link to something safe. Ellie swore trying to scrap together a plan and ignore the paradox. With the current conditions it would be near impossible to move without a light source. If anyone was searching for them it would be easy to spot. She trusted herself to doze off a few minutes at a time. Boo would wake her if anything got close.

     As soon as the rain started to lighten up Ellie snapped awake stretching her legs out. “Hey.” She squeezed Dina’s hand in a soft pattern, “Time to get moving.” Dina groaned with her face turning into an involuntary scowl as she tried to claw her way to consciousness. Ellie’s thumb traced across the back of her hand. Dina probably didn’t notice as she pulled away to run at swollen eyes.

     “What time is it?” Dina’s voice was rough.

     “Almost two,” Ellie said tying Boos bag into place and packing the few items she had making up the camp. “I know it sucks but I want to be out of their territory before the suns up.” Dina’s face was still stuck in a tired scowl as she rolled off the thin mat. Dina reached out poking Ellie’s cheek. “What?”

     “You’re the real one?”

     “Pretty sure.”

     Dina slowly nodded patting the side of Ellie’s face a few times for good measure. She breathed deeply before working her way up the wall. “Guess you’re in charge since I don’t know where we are. Something Washington, right?”

     “Yep.” Ellie popped throwing her bag on. It was almost empty after picking apart the camp for the last week. The remaining medical supplies would disappear just as fast once they were far enough away from trouble. “You need help?” She asked watching as Dina wobbled.

     She shook her head fiercely. “I’m fine.” That action was almost enough to throw her off balance.

     “You’re also a liar.” Ellie sighed clicking on her flashlight. She’d covered to top half so it would only light up the area directly in front of them. “Once we get a ways out I can send Boo off. Hopefully, you’ll have something better to eat before too long.”

     Dina nodded picking her way through the narrow hallway. Ellie stuck to her side matching the slower pace. Every little wobble and misstep made Ellie jump. “Keep staring and I’ll knock you out,” Dina muttered. As many times as she ran her fingers over the pistol tucked in her waistband she couldn’t get used to the feeling.

     “That’s fair.” Ellie’s mouth quirked up for a moment. The first miles passed in silence. Boo tended to stay at Dina’s side instead of drifting ahead like he usually did. Whenever he left the crescent of light he blended seamlessly with the night. The only way to keep track of him was the occasional click of his nails on exposed pavement. With the constant rain and humidity the massive city was closer to a jungle. Or at least what Ellie imagined a jungle would look like. Surprisingly Dina wasn’t the first to trip and fall into the dense ferns. “Shit.” Ellie was barely able to catch herself before kissing the ground.

     “You alright?” Dina asked watching as Ellie lowered herself the rest of the way down.

     She hadn’t slept more than six hours in the last two days. What she really needed was a definition of ‘alright’. A sliver of light managed to escape from under her shoulder. A long caterpillar slid in and out of her view. “There’s dirt,” Ellie warned standing and briefly brushing her shirt off.

     A quite thumbs up and they were moving again. Time slugged by in a painful and almost awkward way. None of the usual quips or fragments of hummed songs. They’d both managed to convince themselves it was entirely for stealth reasons.  Did they even know each other anymore? Ellie checked her watch, the sun should start rising within the hour. As she went to tell Dina Boo cut in front of her with a low growl, ears pressed flat against his head. “Damnit,” Ellie whispered grabbing Dina’s arm motioning to be quite. Though neither had said anything for the last hour. She clicked her light off and they pulled into the taller grass at the side of the road. There was a small car a few yards away but Ellie doubted it could cover both of them. Boo tucked down just behind her, ears still roving around. Ellie slowly took her hand from Dina’s arm to pull out her knife. She counted slowly. In a dense area like this Boo typically picked up on things half a minute before she could.

     Ellie saw them before hearing them. A group of four using hand-signals instead of the usual whistling. Looks like it was just a returning patrol with the direction they were traveling. Even if they’d missed the events of last night they seemed to be on higher alert then when she had first found the camp a week ago. Ellie reached out pressing down firmly on Dina’s knee. A silent, “stay put.”

     Ellie moved forward to a fallen post using the natural break to cross the street. The group moved closer. She crouched in front of the car disappearing from Dina’s view. They were adept to the environment stepping over the heavy leaves without having to look down. They didn’t even carry lights relying solely on the dim cast of the sky. They passed between the two.

     Had Dina not known where to look she would have missed Ellie too. She came around the back of the vehicle, knife and bow in the same hand. In a few quick and silent steps she ran up to the last man. Throwing an arm around his neck and jerking him backward as she drew the first arrow. It seemed like it would be an awkward angle but at this short-range, she didn’t need the full force. Before the others could even turn the first arrow had been fired. Ellie stepped back firing a second into another back.

     “Wolf!” One of them was finally able to cry after Ellie had already crippled half the group. Ellie took a few more steps back dragging the man with her. The three rushed forward and Ellie whipped her bow back jerking the knife across his neck she threw him down in front of the others, one tripped. The other got shot as Ellie’s now free hand had pulled the pistol high enough to fire one-handed. The shot echoed harshly breaking the dead air. With an arrow in his chest and the bullet that tore through his side the second man fell convulsing. She was already down to two.

     The man had already ripped the arrow from his arm and the woman was raising a heavy steel pipe. “James!” He shouted down the road.

     James? Fuck. Dina spun trying to find the fifth person. Running down the street was another with a long rife. He’d easily have an open shot at Ellie. No time to think. Dina grabbed a hefty stone ripping it from the mud and popped out of her cover flinging it with a roar. It completely missed but pulled his attention away from Ellie. She sprinted forward struggling to draw her knife. Glancing back she realized she knew the woman. And based on her reaction to Dina running into the open the feeling was mutual. Come to think of it, did Ellie seriously run out there with one bullet? That little shit.

     “That’s the demon!” The women cried out. “Don’t kill her yet.” She was interrupted by an empty pistol smacking against her face.

     The guys snarl shifted as if to say, “You can’t be serious, she’s the one trying to kill me.”

     James tried to aim at Dina but she was already at his side. She grabbed the barrel spinning into it. Her hip was enough to kick it out of his hands. Dina kept the momentum spinning around cracking the butt of the gun into his head. He whipped to the side with a grunt and stumbling back. Dina swung again clubbing his head. Ellie let out a gasp of pain but she couldn’t check. Ellie was still standing and that was enough. Dina brought the gun down again and the impact rattled up her arms. James finally fell to the ground dizzily trying to crawl away. He’d slowed enough for Dina to wrap an arm around his head. She grabbed his chin jerking it to the side. He slumped forward, probably not dead but he wouldn’t be getting back up without help.

     She barely had enough time to register what kind of rifle it was as she brought back the bolt. The two were on either side of her beating away. Ellie dodged or deflected most of them but both arms had blood dripping down them, “Down!” Dina barked. Ellie dropped to the ground without hesitation and the bullet tore a hole between the man’s eye and nose. “Shit.” Dina hissed barely hanging on as the recoil punched her shoulder back.

     From the ground, Ellie kicked up ramming her foot into the women’s knee. She fell back with a shout. Ellie rolled on top of her arm swinging up and down. Dina couldn’t see the women, only the trails of blood that flipped off the knife every time Ellie brought it back up with another cry.

     Exhaustion hit Dina like a train. She dropped the rifle hacking as her lungs struggled to pull in air. The hyperventilating is what pulled Ellie’s attention. “Whoa shit, shit, shit,” Ellie said hastily cleaning the blood off her hands as she ran towards Dina. “You hurt?” She asked grabbing and arm to help guide Dina to the hood of the car.

     “No.” Dina wheezed out shaking and oddly entranced by the white spots in her vision. She sat on the hood racked with dry whining coughs that kept stealing her air. Dina could already feel a hot spot on her shoulder; if that was the start of a bruise she would riot. She’d never had issues with recoil before. There were a few breaths and wheezes that tried to form words but her body wouldn’t allow them.

     Ellie sat with hands on her shoulders just as unsure of what to say, “Just breathe,” seemed like a dick move. She whistled sharply calling Boo over before commanding him to watch out. He ran off a few yards before sitting attentive to the surrounding area. “It’s okay, take your time.” She encouraged as Dina’s mouth struggled to shape something out.

     “Ff-ffuck.” Dina managed.

     “Yeah,” Ellie agreed before moving back to check the bodies. She quickly pat down their sides and emptied all the clips. She took a moment to compare guns and keep the best. The James guy was still wheezing on the ground, she took a moment to find the gap in his ribs and quickly pressed the knife down into his heart.  

     The first signs of the morning were finally hitting the sky, a faint orange line starting to light the horizon. “Hey, still good?” Dina nodded weakly. Ellie passed the last of her water and Dina drank what she could between weak breaths. In that time Ellie pushed the extra bullets down into their respective clips. She held Dina’s gun back out and she accepted with shaky hands. “We’ve got to keep moving.” Dina agreed slowly but still wasn’t in any shape to stand. Every time she looked up she wasn’t quite sure who was standing in front of her. More dry hacking coughs. It was probably good she hadn’t eaten anything yet. Ellie moved her backpack to hang off her front and she backed up to the car. “Be my little koala for now.” Dina groaned at the description but didn’t complain as she hung onto Ellie’s shoulders. She almost didn’t have the strength to keep her legs wrapped around her waist before Ellie hooked her arms under them. “Just uh, try not to throw-up on me.” She did her best to adjust her hold smoothly but Dina still let out a pained hiss.

     The first wobbling steps turned into a steady walk forward. Ellie could feel each struggling inhale against her back then the soft exhale on her neck. “Ellie,” Dina said softly.

     “Yeah?” Ellie turned slightly watching Dina in the corner of her eye. She couldn’t help but notice the pale scars wrapping around both of Dina’s wrists.

     Dina sighed resting her head down. Her hair fell loosely in front of her face and she tried to remember the last time it had gotten this long. “This is the first sunrise I’ve gotten to watch since we had that patrol together.”

     “Well,” Ellie tried to ignore the ache in her chest. “Hopefully it will be a good one.”

     “Maybe if you didn’t stink.” Ellie exhaled shortly tilting her head to the side to push against Dina’s. If she had the energy she would have smiled.

Chapter Text

     She felt like glass. Any misstep and she would break, shattering and revealing the hard truth behind the illusion. Ellie tried to focus on Dina and only Dina. She needed to get food for Dina. And she needed to get water, for Dina. Most importantly she needed to get her home. Even if that meant carrying her the entire way. Ellie would do it. She’d ignore the ache in her back and burning in her legs. The whispers and blurs in the corner of her vision. She’d been ignoring signs like that for months. A few weeks couldn’t cause any more damage. She’d also caused a lot of damage. Dozens of faces flicked through her mind, screaming, scowling, bloodied, swearing, infected, beaten, battered, she did that.

     Ellie took in a sharp breath, focus. Dina. She had become reckless about her own health fueled by a burning hatred. Sometimes only stopping long enough to eat in the middle of a slaughtered camp. That couldn’t happen again. She carried Dina well into the first afternoon the humidity didn’t help as sweat slid off her face. Ellie could occasionally feel a drop roll down her entire leg before soaking into her sock. The assholes had a defined territory that they rarely left. Ellie could tell the exact street by the sudden disappearance of their religious nonsense and graffiti. Dina was religious, but not like that. If Ellie saw one more “May she guide you,” plastered on a wall she would burn the entire block.

     “I can walk for a bit,” Dina’s words were staggered and quite.

     “’Kay,” Ellie set her down slowly making sure she had her balance before letting go. The energy it took to escape didn’t seem like much to Ellie. Now she worried about how much damage that could have added to Dina’s already broken state. “Well, if Boo’s been out this long that usually means he found something.” She tried to fill the silence.

     Dina’s head bobbed and she started to tilt sideways. Ellie grabbed her arm before she could fall, shattering. “Thanks,” She mumbled as Ellie worked under her arm still carrying half the weight as they staggered along. “When did Boo get so good at hunting?”

     “You’re the one that trained him.” Ellie tried to smile. That dog had saved her fucking life dozens of times from how he had been trained. Hunting, scouting, attacking. The only reason she was able to get any sleep was due to him. A few more miles and he came back with a grey rabbit hanging from his jaw. Ellie took it tying it to a loose cord on her bag and he ran off again. There was a store close by that she cleared out a few weeks before. At this rate, it could still take an hour to reach it.

     “Glass can bounce.” A much younger Joel brought up in the middle of an odd argument. Just once Ellie wanted to catch him on a lie about the old world. “Drop a marble and it won’t break.”

     “Bullshit,” A shorter Ellie responded.

     “I’m serious. It doesn’t absorb any force so it sends everything right back.” His physics lessons weren’t the most eloquent but Ellie did find a glass marble later that week. As soon as he was out of the room she flung it at the ground trying to break it. The marble flew back nearly taking out one of her eyes. It clattered back to the floor and Ellie started down in shock. “You could do that hundreds of times before it starts to crack. But once there’s the tiniest of crack the whole thing could break without warning.”

     The open backroom was littered with wooden pallets and the mushy remains of cardboard. Joel always has some sort of affinity for grocery stores. They’d been raided so soon after the breakout most people didn’t even bother to check them now. And he worked at one for a couple of years. There were a lot of weird stories that came from that. The tall ceiling was riddled with small holes and cracks. Smoke from a small fire would become so diluted it would be invisible from outside. Once the flames had taken hold of the damp wood water was the first thing Ellie needed to take care of. Ellie hopped out the wide bay door checking every few seconds that Dina was still in her sights. A shallow stream ran through the crumbling parking lot, a thin fabric stretched on the top of the pan helped filter out any twigs and moss. Since it had been a while since she’d seen Boo Ellie let out a short and sharp whistle for him.

     Ellie went back setting the pan on the fire and began pulling apart the rabbit. Boo came prancing in with a small quail. “Look at you, good job.” She cheered scratching his ears. Honestly, she hated birds. Chicken was acceptable, everything else could get fucked. Since he’d already managed to bring two rabbits Ellie roughly cut the bird open and pushed it off to the side for him. Boo dug in eagerly launching guts around the cement floor.

     The water had started to boil and she let it continue for a full minute before dumping it into her bottle. Looking back it seemed like Dina had fallen asleep again. Her head tipped to one side and chest rising and falling in a shallow pattern. Ellie set the rabbit into the pan and it hissed against the hot metal. After this it would take two more pans of water to fill both bottles. She’d just wait until after Dina ate. Ellie pulled her knees up resting her chin down listening to the faint crackling symphony. If she tried hard enough she could imagine some sort of melody for it. Ellie really missed having her Walkman. Although if she had packed it the thing probably would have been destroyed by now. “You okay?” A soft voice from behind.

     “Yeah,” Looks like Dina hadn’t fallen asleep just yet. “It’s a little early but we should be good staying here for the night.” Ellie pushed the cooked pieces to the side to make room to add more. “You get first pick.” She motioned.

     Dina gladly moved forward the few feet grabbing a piece, then another. It was still blazing hot and threatening to melt her tongue away but it was food. “This is kinda shit.” She announced trying to balance a piece on her front teeth as it cooled.

     A tired laugh and short smile. “Well, at least you’ve still got standards. Pretty sure this rabbit was older then Notch,” Ellie ate sparsely encouraging Dina to eat as much as she could. Which was still surprisingly little. Ellie would make sure to constantly push her to eat the leftovers. Dina yawned widely barely trying covering her mouth. Ellie reached out to pat her back but froze remembering what happened last time. Shoulders are fine, let’s just stick with that. “I set up a nice little spot here. Hopefully we can get a full night of sleep.”

     “‘Kay,” Dina mumbled letting Ellie boost her up to a space on top of one of the massive fridges. Ellie made the mistake of opening it the first time around. Luckily the smell had dissipated since then. There was a thin nest of blankets and Dina flopped face down with a content whine. “I’ll take anything that isn’t floor.”

     Ellie’s chest tightened scooting up to her side. “I can’t guarantee that every night but hopefully we can make it home in a couple’a weeks,” What was she supposed to do now? Try to keep Dina awake or let her rest. Would running fingers through her hair still be comforting or upsetting? Fuck. Ellie nervously bounced her thumbs together trying to think of some sort of distraction before the day got any longer. Dina turned barley managing to focus on her. “What?”

     Her mouth moved silently for a moment, “How long have I been gone?”

     Ellie breathed out trying to count. “Close to nine months.” Dina stared in shock, had her judgment really gotten that off. Ellie suddenly realized she’d barely told Dina anything about what had happened after that night. “Sarah had her baby,” she blurted, “they’re both fine, and so is Charlie. Henry was a little beat up and,” her mind was blanking just about everyone else. Joel... “Sarah had the cutest little girl. She was born right in the fucking middle of it all.”

     Dina's face was stuck between joy and guilt. Going through labor in the middle of an attack was the worst possible scenario and she hadn’t even been able to help. “W-what’s her name?”

     “Abigail.”

     Dina seized up voice starting to crack. “That’s, that’s my Mom’s,”

     “Yeah, I know,” Ellie whispered slowly. “She has the tiniest little hands. Well, had.” She laughed a bit, “Babies grow so fast she’s probably all big and chunky now. You’ll get to see her soon, Abby’s been missing her aunt.”

     Dina lit up at the thought. “How can she miss someone she’s never met?”

     “I made sure to tell her all about you. She’s going to have some pretty bias expectations.” Dina laughed. A short and pure note that made Ellie’s heart soar. Dina turned crawling forward just enough to set her head on Ellie’s leg.  Ellie wasn’t entirely sure what to do with her arms but Dina reached out stealing one in a loose hug.

     “If you’re not careful I’m going to end up with those too.” She pulled Ellie’s hand up lightly kissing the back. Her eyes briefly ran across the patchwork of scars. A few she recognized, most were new. Ellie rattled off a few more people and did her best to re-tell what had happed, but even her knowledge was limited. More than anything she kept circling back to Abby. For a few moments Dina didn’t even think of her own pain. She swore she had already slept ten hours in the last day, but now she was already drifting off again.

---X---

     She just needed time. Ellie gasped for air glancing at the heavy flames on the beam above. The six fireflies inched closer hands wrapped around their weapons. “You want my fucking brain right!” Ellie spat blood dripping off her lip. She jerked the pistol up, holding the barrel against her head. Her shaking hands causing it to slip on the layer of sweat. “Take another step and you’ll never see it!” Her hand was clamped so tightly around the stock her arm ached all the way to her shoulder. Ellie had no clue how many bullets were left. Maybe the thing was empty. Either way, if she pulled the trigger it would be a surprise. To her disbelief they all stopped moving.

     The flames crackled all around her and sweat was dripping freely, Ellie couldn’t help but laugh. It bubbled out of her unexpectedly. They actually stopped. The cackle tore through the air it was, unnatural, borderline inhuman. “You think I’ll go along with your shit?” She shouted again resetting the barrel on her temple. The flames swirled up again in a growing plume, “Come on, Come on,” she frantically thought. The heavy beam cracked finally falling sending a fiery wave of coals in every direction. A few had been crushed. Ellie was already hurtling away only feeling the sparks bite into her back. She flew out of the exit jamming the door closed. The ones that hadn’t been crushed would wish they had been. She cackled again, fireflies going up in smoke.

     “Ellie?” Dina’s tired voice called out.

     Dina wasn’t in her view and she nervously ran both hands through her hair again. Ellie did her best to uncurl from the tight ball. She had been more than willing to pull that trigger. She should answer before Dina panics, “I’m here.”

     “You okay?” Dina peeked over the edge and Ellie weakly smiled up.

     “Yeah. Just didn’t want to wake you up.” The rain was falling in heavy sheets and she could barely seem more than a foot out the bay door. Compared to the near-constant sprinkle this was an outright flood. “I don’t plan on leaving until this lets up. I got some better food if you’d like,” She didn’t even finish before Dina awkwardly flopped her way over the edge. Ellie tensed trying to help but before she knew it Dina was plowing through what she had cooked. she helped Boo down and he ran a few circles before jumping outside to lap at the pooling water.

     “‘Weird-ass dog.” Dina muffled devouring the first vegetables she’d seen in a month. She shivered trying to pull closer to the small pile of coals.

     Ellie snapped back remembering the part of the reason she had been up for so long. “I found this.” She grabbed a dark jacket before holding it open behind Dina. She looked back excitedly before pulling it on. Although her face flashed with pain as she moved her arms back too far.

     Dina struggled for a minute to get the zipper started but soon sat content in the oversized cocoon. “The hell is that?” She mumbled reading over the giant gradient orange stitching on the right sleeve. ‘SPICY.’ She frowned looking over at Ellie with her hands out.

     “Don’t give me that look.” Dina’s eyes narrowed furthering the look. “It’s the first decent thing I could find. I’ll take it back if you,”

     “Nope,” Dina's arms crossed rapidly as if she was hugging the jacket itself. “You didn’t take me out of hell just so I could freeze immediately after.” The cadence was there but her voice was always too soft and strained for Ellie to be entirely comfortable.

     “Well, speaking of cold.” Ellie scratched her head staring out at the downpour as Boo ran back in shaking the water off his coat before trotting over like nothing happened. “You’re going to hate me when I say this but now might be the only good time to clean up before it really starts to get cold.”

     Dina’s brows wrinkled staring outside before turning back to Ellie with a groan. “I know you’re probably right but,” She fell forward into her hands with hissing exhale.

     Ellie crouched down closer to her side. “Hey, if you don’t want to that’s fine.”

     “No,” she breathed heavily face twitching, “I need to burn this shirt.”

     “Okay.” Ellie nodded. “I didn’t want to push too far while you were asleep but we can probably find more stuff here. Let’s just get this over with and you can hate me later.”

     “I won’t hate you,” Dina said softly.

     "Well,” Ellie thought to herself throwing her bag on just in case, “That would change if you knew.”

---X---

     The store was massive compared to most the ones out in Wyoming. Hell, it was huge compared to some of the things in Boston. It took a few hours to sort through the remains but they were able to find a few things that weren’t completely torn up by moths or packrats. And out of that selection, some of the items even came close to fitting. Ellie washed out the extra clothes while Dina fell asleep by the fire again. She was trying not to be too off-put by how drained Dina would get just moving a few minutes at a time. Then again it had barely been more than two days. Hopefully, that would improve now that she was regularly eating. Ellie had just finished filling a larger tub with warmed water when Dina finally came back around. “You ready?”

     “No,” Dina sat unzipping her jacket but still playing with the metal end.

     “If it makes you feel better I already know what your butt looks like.”

     She snorted lightly. “Of course you do.”

     “Excuse me? How many times have we gone skinny dipping in the last,” Ellie clicked her tongue for a few beats, “Six years? I should be asking who hasn’t seen it yet.”

     “Doesn’t mean they remember it,” Dina said pulling the spicy jacket off and setting it aside pressing her eyes closed, “Wills,” Ellie looked up waiting. “It’s really shitty. Just try not to remind me.” She reached down grinding the hem between two fingers.

     “I won’t,” Ellie agreed and Dina pulled her shirt off in a quick motion grimacing as some of the scabs came with it. “Oh go, oha,” Ellie caught herself. “Oh-okay, okay.”

     Stained glass. That’s what everyone called it. But Ellie had never seen more than a few inches of it intact. It could take months to color and shape every piece until they could be fitted into the cohesive work. Sometimes it created images that were part of a greater story. Other times it was just an intricate pattern painstakingly built one piece at a time. When the sun shone through they would glow in all shades of vibrant reds and greens. But now, this window was a careless mash. Browns, purples, faded yellows, harsh red lines crossing without intent. They were everywhere from the tops of her shoulder to streaking below her hip. Dina did her best to wash off by herself.  Gritted teeth, pained whines in the back of her throat followed by a now steady shake of her hand. Her hair was the worse. Ellie didn’t even let her try to raise her arms before jumping behind to wash through it all. A stuttered “Thanks,” was all Dina could manage. Once the worst of it was done Ellie braided her hair up and set to work on the map of injuries.

     “Sorry.” Ellie apologized for the hundredth time pulling her hand back when Dina winced again. Ellie was nearly out of all the medicines she had but there was enough for the worst cuts. There was no way of guessing how they would heal. Dina sat hunched forward the occasional tear still falling off her chin and onto Boo. “I’ve almost covered everything.”

     “Okay.” Dina was trembling and it wasn’t just from the cold water. Fists, knives, bike chains, pipes. No matter how many times she told herself it was just Ellie the wounds seemed to speak louder.

     “Okay,” Ellie agreed leaning close to kiss the top of her shoulder. “That’s it. Let’s get you warmed back up.” Ellie reached to the small stash of shirts they had found trying to pick out the softest. Granted there was little to no difference between them. “Hope you like purple.”

     “Purples my bitch,” Dina mumbled pulling the tee on. She grimaced freezing for several seconds once it had settled over the freshly aggravated everything.

     “You,” Dina held a hand up before Ellie could finish the question.

     She begrudgingly pulled the jacket back in and slumped forward with a forced and deep breath. “This is fucked up,” Dina said starting to draw on the dirty floor. She needed anything to occupy her mind

     “You can just say you hate the jacket,” Ellie said quickly stripping down trying to clean up before the water started to reach freezing temperatures again.

     “I just,” She shook her head slowly. “People go so far out of their way to be shitty. I don’t know how to say it...” Dina looked back too tired to fully form any thought or emotion besides tired. “The fuck is that?” She squinted at a long mark on Ellie’s calf that stood out from the other injuries marking her body.

     “What?” Ellie paused awkwardly involuntarily trying covering herself with the tiny rag.

     Dina didn’t seem to notice as leaned closer. “You little shit,” her voice dropping off looking at the red rash framing a cut. “Did you get bit again?” She looked up at Ellie concern filling her face.

     “It just scratched me,” Ellie shrugged. “It wasn’t nearly as bad as the other two.”

     Dina held her gaze now biting the inside of her cheek. “It’s practically new. Does it still...?”

     Ellie shook her head. “It was only bad for a day.”

     Dina seemed to accept that, she looked up suddenly, “I never told them anything. Not one damn thing about you. Well,” she paused, “I think I made up some shit about a shellfish allergy. That’s the only thing that’s supposedly wrong with you.”

     “Sure?” Ellie stared back at the now murky water.

     I’m the distance she heard a window pop from the heat. She’d managed to infect almost half of the camp. Two days later mayhem broke out. Between the chaos and friendly fire, they’d almost managed to do all the work for her, including setting fire to most of their little base. Ellie just strolled in to take care of the stragglers. A woman crawled away trying to pull herself behind the heavy water barrels. “Not so fast,” Ellie pressed a foot on her back. “Where’s the main camp?” She said pointing her bow at her. She began spouting nonsense. “Where is it?” Ellie kicked down driving the women’s head into the mud. Still nothing. “Last chance before you get another hole in your back.”

     “Demons fill the world but nothing is more wrong than you.” She snarled spitting out more of the rhetoric that they all seemed to have memorized.

     Ellie frowned setting the arrow back in her bag, she’d be dead soon enough without it. Ellie walked to a half-empty barrel and tipped it over with a grunt. The cloudy water rushed out over the women who coughed and sputtered as the wave hit her face. She could barely make out an organic mass sitting in the bottom. “If you’re lucky you’ll be dead before you feel it taking over. If not you see what hell really feels like,” Ellie hissed before vanishing.

     “Ellie,” Ellie snapped back with a short hum. “Neked.” Dina poked her cheek before painstakingly scooting her way to the fire.

     Ellie hurried to wash off all the dried blood and dirt. It came off in an endless stream of brown water. She wished she had more soap to spare since the smell of smoke was still clinging to her skin. Glass comes in many shapes and forms the only problem is when it’s broken. It doesn’t matter if it was made to be practical or artistic. Once it’s broken it does nothing but cut.

Chapter Text

     Boo growled softly low in his throat. “Did you see that squirrel again? Huh? Bud, you're like eight times bigger than it.” Ellie said adjusting her hold trying to counter the constant squirming. He grumbled right into her ear. “Yeah, that’s right. If I wasn’t holding you back you would fuck him up.” Dina glanced over amused by the one-sided small talk. Boos' front legs stuck straight over Ellie’s shoulders as they waded through the turbid water. Boo growled again this time his lip starting to curl up. Ellie growled back.

     “Careful, you might be saying something about his mother.” Dina sloshed forward keeping a hand on Ellie’s shoulder for balance. The dark water was pushing past her knees. 

     “He started it,” Ellie turned but could barely see Dina over Boos head. “If you don’t agree you can carry the baby.” Ellie joked despite the fact she refused to let Dina’s carry anything heavier than a newborn kitten. Two weeks had passed and she was almost able to walk more than an hour at a time. She was doing better, in certain ways. Then again it was easy to improve upon zero. After the first week, Dina was at least coherent most of the day. By the second the nightmares started to pick up. Ellie was more than grateful Dina didn’t remember most of them by morning.

     They hit a shallow and muddy bank and Ellie set Boo down half expecting his dumb ass to dive into the nasty water she’d worked so hard to keep him from. He stretched briefly before trotting over to Dina’s side licking her hand until he got the scratches he wanted. “What time are we looking at?” Dina asked kicking a foot up trying to shake the water from her shoes.

     “About an hour ‘til sunset.” Ellie checked. The days were getting shorter and her flashlight was starting to flicker with each use.

     “I can make it that long.” Dina decided knowing that was pushing her current limits. It was that moment when Boos' ears flicked back and he growled taking a defensive stance. “What is it?” Dina groaned. They’d been in and out of the marshy river beds for days without any sight of another person. In this rural of an area that just left one option. “Where?” She asked shortly. Boo’s nose went straight up the steep side cut into the earth.

     They sat trying to hear what was above them. It took a moment to pick the slow and steady clicking out from the rest of the natural sounds around them. “We could head further down the river,” Ellie suggested miserably. She was getting a serious case of swamp feet. Just the thought of spending another day in the water made her sick.  

     “Still seem a ways off.” Dina frowned still listening with her eyes closed. “I can check.”

     “You sure?” Dina gave a short nod. Ellie held her hands out and Dina used them to climb up and stand on her shoulders. From there she was barely able to peek her head over the edge. She scanned back and forth slowly. Despite hearing the faint clicks there wasn’t any movement yet.

     “I can’t see shit. Get me up.”

     “Alrighty.” Ellie grabbed Dina’s leg to help push her over the bank. Even with the boost she still struggled to pull herself over. Dina checked again now that she had a better view.

     “Still good. Pass everything up and I’ll get something for you.” Dina assured sticking her head back over the edge.

     Ellie took the bulging bag off her back swinging it back and forth for the extra momentum. “Bag.” She called out before tossing it up over the edge. A low thud as it landed.

     “Got it.” 

     Everything went silent other than the occasional low growl from Boo as he sat. His tail occasionally slapping the ground displeased by the fact neither of his owners seemed to be bothered by the threat. Seconds rolled by and Ellie uneasily shifted her weight between feet starting at the looming wall in front of her. On a good, well-lit, not rainy day she would maybe have a shot at climbing this. “Dina?” No response. “Hey Dina.” A little louder and slightly panicked. Her gut dropped what the fuck happened. “Oh my God she’s passed out.” Ellie’s thoughts were starting to sprint laps between her ears and slowly spiraling into worse and worse scenarios. 

     A rope flashed out over the edge slapping against the wall. “It took a minute to find a good anchor.” Dina’s voice muffled in the distance. “Loop Bubba on before you come up.” Ellie clasped her hands behind her head trying to take a few calming breaths. She tied two loops into the end and hooked them around Boo before pulling herself up the wall. They reeled an unhappy Boo up last. “God Ellie you look like a ghost. Hopefully Sleeping on dry ground will do some good.” Dina shivered still rocking her weight between her feet. Water was still bleeding out with each movement. They followed the tall bank until the clickers could no longer be heard. There was barely enough time to set up a camp before the sun completely disappeared.

--X--

     The first time it happened scared Ellie. She was woken by Boo frantically licking her cheek. She jerked awake hand racing to the gun by her bag but Ellie soon realized it wasn’t a clicker or bandit that had woken him. Dina was lying on her side, arms and legs tensing randomly and breathing sporadic. The occasional syllable breaking from her lips. “Shit.” Ellie swore sitting up so fast her vision blurred. “Dina, hey.” She called out crawling closer.

     “No,” Dina jerked, “fuuh. C-can’t.”

     “Hey, wake up.” Ellie didn’t know where to start. She noticed the wet marks on her hands and cheeks. Boo had already tried to wake her up. Should she just wait for it to pass? “Dina it’s okay. I’m here.” She tried rocking her shoulder but that didn’t seem to make a difference. The stuttered words and kicking continued to increase. Her body was so tense that her arm was grinding against the ground and Ellie could see blood starting to seep from the shallow scrapes. “Oh fuck,” this probably wasn’t the best option but she was panicking. Ellie swore repeatedly grabbing Dina’s hand pulling her arm off the ground and shook her shoulder harder.

     Dina shot up with a shout. “You fucker!” Her fist shot out catching Ellie's jaw. She sat up breaths still erratic as her eyes bounced trying to make anything out in the moonlight. “Ellie?”

     Ellies face stung but it wasn’t anywhere close to a full blow. She nodded slowly moving forward. “I’m here Dibs.”

     “Ellie. Ell” She panted again and Ellie was starting to get the feeling she still wasn’t entirely awake. “You guhvvua,” Dina’s eyes were staying open just as well as her words were forming.

     “Yeah. You’re just dreaming. Come here.” Ellie tried to soothe holding a hand out. Dina stared through half-open eyes still unsure if she was going to trust that. Boo ran closer sitting at her side. Dina blinked again as if she’d just watched a ghost come by before shakily setting a hand on him.

     “Youvaere?” She reached out grabbing Ellie’s hand.  Another long unintelligible mutter. A few more shaking breaths and she fell forward resting her head on Ellie’s shoulder.

     “You’re safe now. I got you alright?” Ellie took her other hand sandwiching Dina’s. She didn’t say anything, just the occasional little groan as her breathing slowly evened out. “I’m here,” Ellie said tracing her thumb back and forth along her wrist.

     “Tired.” Dina eventually said with a sleepy slur.

     “I know.” Ellie cooed. “Just lay back down.” She nodded slowly as Ellie guided her back down. Dina’s eyes still bobbed up and down not deciding if they would stay open or closed yet. Ellie went to brush a stray hair away from her face before resting her hand lightly on Dina’s cheek. “Is that better?” Something was stabbing into Ellie's side but she wasn't going to move.

     Dina's face was still blank fighting a losing battle. There was one last mumble and Ellie still couldn’t make anything out of it. Ellie waited a few minutes tracing her cheek. She couldn’t remember a time when Dina’s hair had been this long. Maybe when they had first met, but it had rarely gotten to this point in the years after. God, how often had she seen her this vulnerable? Anytime they had nightmares it was alone, they would just run to the others' house after. Ellie probably spent a little too much time watching over a face that was finally relaxed. When she finally pulled back her palm felt unnaturally cold.

      The fire had fallen to a few sputtering embers. Ellie broke apart a dried branch slowly pushing in the pieces until small flames started coming up again. She closed her eyes resting back against a tree trunk. Her eyes stung but Ellie knew she wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep. It wasn’t the first night she’d spend alone, and it wasn’t going to be the last. Dina woke up with another headache. They were a little slow to start moving but Dina didn’t seem to have any memory of what she had been dreaming of. In the case she remembered, Ellie doubted she would have had the energy to hide it so well.

--X--

     “Let’s see what are you supposed to be?” Dina said to herself trying to push the leaves away from the plaque. It took some work to cut through the twisted vines but she managed to uncover most of it. “Green-winged macaw. Well you’re not looking so green anymore.” She squinted at the dusty vaguely bird-shaped blob up in the display.

     “What’s this one?” Ellie said wandering up behind her. The trek had become so monotonous Dina had practically threatened Ellie when she saw the signs pointing to a museum on the edge of the city. She more or less dragged Ellie an entire mile after she had already agreed on the detour.

     “It was a bird at one point,” Dina frowned trying to make out the faded picture on the sign. Anything would be cool compared to the grey pigeons and little round guys that bounced around. “Can’t even see it anymore.”

     “Why don’t you just get closer?” Ellie asked earning a confused stare. “Oh my god Dina,” Ellie stepped up onto the display. “Have you been following the ‘rules’ the whole time?” She grinned down at Dina who was rubbing her face.

     “I guess I kinda was.” Despite the half-collapsed roof and living trees growing between the fake ones, she had been abiding by all the signs and generally walking around displays as if she had paid.

     “Come on.” Ellie smiled holding out both hands. Dina reached out letting Ellie pull her up onto the display. “I’m going to have to call security now.” She joked as if the security desk wasn’t hanging halfway into the parking lot.

     They walked closer to the dusty parrot. Dina stepped onto a boulder that disintegrated into hundreds of Styrofoam chunks. “Look what you made me do.” Dina gasped.

     “I don’t know man. How much do you have to weigh to break a rock?” Ellie tossed back before ducking under the birds' perch.

     “Ha.” Dina followed with minimal amusement in her voice. Ellie held a hand out for her to wait and reached up shaking the bird. A thick cloud of dust billowed off and Dina ended up taking another step back to avoid eating it all. “It’s red?” Her eyes fell into a confused stare.

     “Sure is,” Ellie said still brushing off the final layers. “Damn. Looks pretty sweet though.” She paused tilting her head to one side. “Isn’t this the kind of bird pirates always have on their shoulders in those kid books?”

     “I think so,” Dina said noting how oddly familiar the foreign bird was. “I thought those were just made up since there're in kids books. Just like the bright pink and blue dogs. You know?”

     “This is huge though. Imagine carrying that around all day.” Ellie’s face dropped into the ‘bad idea processing’ look. She wrapped a hand around its body to pry it off the stand.

     “Ellie!” Dina gasped looking side to side as if they were about to get caught.

     “What?” She said still trying to peel it free her tongue peeking out from the effort.

     “Stop it. It’s hung on this long. Don’t be the asshole that just runs around breaking everything.” Ellie gave up pushing the misplaced feathers back down while Dina just shook her head. “This is why Joel doesn’t let you have nice things.”

     Ellie’s stomach twisted and she pulled a lip back awkwardly laughing along. She still hadn’t told Dina. “Oh, it’s got a friend,” Dina said pushing by to another form on the ground. She brushed off the other bird which was quite mangled compared to the first. “Okay, this one's green. The actual fuck?”

     “Naming things is hard. Why do you think there’s so many guys named Steve?” Dina took the second bird and reached to set it by the other one but flinched back as her arms got to a certain point. Dina pouted staring at the perch that was just out of reach. “Wills?” She looked over with pleading eyes.

     Ellie had to wonder just how she made them sparkle like that when she wanted something. “Okay, fine.” She sighed taking the green bird and setting it beside the other. It rocked as soon as she tried to take a hand away. Dina turned to cut one of the long strands of fake grass and handed it to Ellie. She wrapped it around the bird's foot tying it to the branch. It tilted suspiciously but remained standing. “You happy now?”

     “Yep.” Dina grinned staring at the two birds. It seemed like the widest and most genuine smile she’d flashed since being freed. “I was half expecting you to make it look like they were fucking.”

     “Hey,” Ellie turned with her eyes narrowed. “I don’t know how that works with birds.”

     “Likeyouknowhowitworkswithpeople.” Dina coughed conveniently looking away to avoid Ellie’s glare.

      “This is a museum. I can’t have it looking unnatural.”

     “Soo, no missionary?” Ellie sighed earning a snicker. “Let’s go check out the next room.” Dina practically bounced off the platform.

     “Okay, calm down kid.” Ellie teased. She turned back looking at the new spots of color amidst the dust. She almost jumped away feeling a hand slide on top of her own.

     Dina grinned gently pulling her along. “Come on. I don’t feel like complete shit today. Don’t want to waste it.” Despite the relaxed face Dina’s fingers still occasionally trembled in against their hold. Ellie wasn’t sure how her heart could keep tearing so many times. She’d done nothing to deserve her.

--X--

     They’d been following the set of train tracks for the better part of two days now. They were the same ones one of the longer patrols would wander down every few months. Dina was elated to finally recognize where she was. Just a few days away from home yet Ellie just seemed to be getting more anxious. “It’s not like I told anyone when I was leaving,” Ellie said staring at the steam floating off the small pan. “Well, just Sarah. And I made sure May would help with the baby.” Ellie seemed more off now than the last weeks combined. Even now she rarely looked up instead slowly tearing apart a dry leaf.

     Being alone for so long could do that to a person. Dina thought trying to ignore that she had more or less been dealing with the same problem. “Come on, it’s not like they’re going to leave you stranded at the gate. I keep thinking about eating an entire jar of jam with a goddamn spoon. Is that a weird first request?” Ellie smiled lightly. That statement wasn’t entirely true. There were thousands of things Dina was missing and even more she wouldn’t be able to do anytime soon. She missed Ellie in a weird way. She was right in front of her yet not at the same time. Everything hurt. From her feet to her head. Eyes still straining in the afternoon light and lungs burning after walking for more than a few minutes. Every few miles she’d start stumbling to the point that Ellie would have to carry her again. As soon as she hit a pillow she wasn’t going to be able to move for a month. Dina pushed up her sleeve checking over her arm with a groan. “Where the hell did this one come from?” Another light bruise starting to form. She would compare herself to a peach but even they didn’t bruise this easily.

     “Gnomes?” Ellie offered.

     Dina sighed giving up on trying to remember if she had bumped into something in the last few hours. It was even harder to place the scrapes that would show up on her face and hands. Surely those would have come from something semi-memorable. “At this point I think it might just be the wind.” It didn’t seem like too big of a jump that a leaf getting tossed up in the air could leave a mark. “Think we can make it in two days?” Dina said resting her chin on her knees.

     “That would be pushing it.”

     Dina took in a deep breath. “I’m finding it hard to care.”

--X--

     They were so close, Dina could practically smell it. Recognizing different paths and formations. Even closer there were marks in the trees from target practice, people writing names in the bark, a dick Ellie carved years ago just to piss off Joel. The sun was down and they were pushing late into the night, but damn-it, she wasn’t going to spend another day on the ground. Ellie’s flashlight was nearing its end. Pulsing between bright to dim every few seconds.

     “Careful.” Ellie panicked as Dina stumbled and almost fell over, again.

     “Obviously I was trying to faugha-“ Another root tried to assassinate her.

     “Okay seriously, slow down.” Ellie came up hanging onto an arm as Dina insisted on staggering along. “Jackson’s not moving.” Dina kept going with her tired and feral rush. Ellie’s light finally died.

     They stopped waiting for it to come back on but it never did. Something else entirely caught their eyes. Dina gasped sharply staring out at the light filtering into the trees. She stepped forward with a laugh. It was right there. The bright searchlights from a watchtower casting long ghostly shadows across her. “It’s here.” Dina’s voice cracked. Another step but her leg buckled. Ellie was barely able to keep her from landing face down. Whatever dregs of strength she had been pulling from were beyond empty. Every bit of forced energy had dissipated. “It’s right fucking there.” She said again with a hoarse growl.

     Ellie sat beside her as she collapsed with both hands on the ground. Even with one arm supporting her Dina was still barely managing to stay up. “Can you get back up?” Ellie asked softly. It took a few seconds of ragged breathing before she shook her head. “Hey, it’s alright. I’ve got you”. Ellie said helping Dina get her arms around her shoulders. She stood with a grunt pulling Dina up with her. “One more push and we’re done.”

     “I can’t,” Dina wheezed.  

     “It’s okay. You don’t have to.” Ellie scooped her up with one final effort. She moved forward slowly not wanting to trip with such precious cargo. The lights grew brighter and brighter until she could finally see the wall. Dina hung on as tightly as her body would allow. Despite the quivering she had just enough energy to turn her head to see. Only one wall keeping her away from her home. She turned back with a pained whine. “Yeah, you made it.”

     They had come right up to the main gate Ellie whistling for them to open the gate. They were met with two wide-eyed guards who might as well been looking at ghosts. “Did you call us in yet?” Ellie asked stepping back into the boundaries.

     “N-no.” Pat stuttered staring with his mouth agape.

     “Please don’t.” Ellie threatened. The last thing Dina needed right now was the entire town rushing out to see her. She worked her way down the empty street. Most of the houses were dark. Dina let out a small gasp every time they passed a space where something had been torn down. After they’d made it a good way through the town Boo broke off running towards the barn. He knew he was home. Ellie had no reason to stop him.

     As Ellie was about to turn Dina whispered, “Not my house. I can’t like, I don't want to wake up the baby.”

     “Okay,” Ellie whispered feeling Dina relax on her shoulder. “I’ll get Sarah tomorrow. How ‘bout that?” Dina hummed in agreement. Ellie came up to Tommy’s house. The porch was still the old blackened wood with smoke marks trailing under her window. There was a single light on in the house and Ellie paused with her hand on the front door. She swallowed not even ready to enter her own home. She turned the handle and pushed the door forward with that familiar creek.

     Maria was sitting with her back to the door hunched over the thick book they used for inventory. “Were you able to find more of the,” she turned stopping mid-sentence. “Ellie!” She gasped shooting up. The pen she was using rolled off the book streaking across the counter, “Wha- you? And,”

     “Hey. I know.” Ellie said holding a hand out as much as she could without losing her grip. “I know. Kind of a surprise. Is my room, you know, holey?”

      Maria leaned back against the counter still reeling. “We patched the worst of it. Still leaks like hell but.” She trailed off figuring the details were less than important.

     “Can you keep quiet about this? She’s still in pretty rough shape.”

     “She can still hear you talking.” Dina murmured.

     “I will, Dina” Maria paused again. “It’s good to see you back.” Dina nodded in return but the movement was likely lost in Ellie’s shoulder. Ellie carried her awkwardly up the stairs and entered her room. The faint burnt smell was still there but more overpowering was the feeling of being back. She set Dina on her bed and dropped her bag with a heavy thump.

     “Do you want to change at all?” Ellie timidly offered. Dina was already out.

Chapter Text

     Ellie anxiously ground the cuff of her sleeve between two fingers. There weren’t too many people out on the street yet but the few that did catch her weren’t trying to hide their surprise. Wide eyes followed by whispering to whoever was next to them.  ‘Act casual damnit’, she had to remind herself over and over again. Ellie’s heart was thumping away and she could feel the hairs on the back of her neck prickling up. This shouldn’t feel so wrong. She passed a crew pulling long planks from a cart building up a wall on one of the old foundations. What if they knew?  What if they knew the only reason all of this damage was caused because of her? Joel’s eyes tracked her as he leaned against the burnt remains of a wall.

     ‘Fuck off.’ Ellie glared at the ghost. ‘I’m here for Dina. I don’t need you judging me too.’ Dina was still asleep up in her room, hopefully. She’d feel awful if she had woken up and no one was there. Ellie walked stiffly trying to keep herself from running like a maniac.

     Ellie had already been awake for hours. She showered quickly in the still freezing water since the sun hadn’t been up to warm up the tank on the roof. The jeans were looser then she remembered but the blue and white flannel was still comfy and warm. When Ellie opened the closet she had to take a moment just to stick her nose against the few shirts and take in a deep breath.

     Jesse and Rodger were sitting on the front step of Jesses’ house. Rodgers arm was in a sling. They both visibly jerked back watching Ellie pass. She was about ready to throw-up as she came to the door. Ellie knocked lightly suddenly panicking that she hadn’t even thought of what to say. ‘Uh Hey, I’ve got one half of a Dina in my room. Long time no see?’

     The door was thrown open and Sarah shot forward clamping onto Ellie. “Thank god.” She gasped as they teetered sideways. “Your dog just made me shit my pants.” Tears already starting to brim her eyes.     

     Ellie froze up with her arms stuck to her sides, “Sorry, he took off before we really,”

     “We?” Sarah inhaled sharply, “Ellie, did you actually,” she stepped back still keeping her hands on Ellie’s shoulders. Her eyes frantically searching her face. “You found her?”

     “She’s here.” Ellie didn’t even finish before Sarah let out another cry ramming into her again. The force pushed Ellie back out into the street as Sarah kissed her forehead wrapping into another tight hug. They rocked back and forth with Sarah cry-laughing. She didn’t even have shoes on as she danced over the dirt. Ellie was trying her best not to shrivel up and die from all the contact.

     Sarah kept rambling between breaths. Dozens of variations of thanks and something Ellie was pretty sure translated to, “You fucking angel.” Still unable to escape Ellie glanced over her shoulder into the house. She could barely see Abby sitting on a yellow blanket chaotically wielding a wooden spoon. Her hair floating about in dark wild curls as she smacked the floor. Sarah eventually pulled back wiping her face and sniffling. “She’s here.” She repeated. “I’m assuming your house?”

     Ellie nodded, “It was closer.”

     Sarah shook her head chuckling again. “Is she okay? I mean, what happened. It’s been so long I don’t even know where to,” she trailed off again.

     “She’s not doing great,” Ellie’s hand was already kneading the edge of her shirt. She rambled somewhat intelligibly about what she knew. Sarah listened watching Ellie intently, whatever she was thinking was well hidden. “Don’t get me wrong. Dina wants to see you. Just  be careful about, everything.”

     Sarah took one more deep breath slowly nodding her head. “I’ll come over as soon as Abby’s eaten.” She kissed Ellie again clinging to the sides of her face. “Thank you.” Another forehead kiss.               

     “You don’t have to rush. I don’t even think she’s awake yet.” Ellie awkwardly backed away trying to distance herself from onslaught of affection.

     Sarah smiled weakly at the escape attempt. “Thank you Ellie.” She whispered again before drifting back towards the babbling infant.

     Ellie didn’t intend to run back but she couldn’t help it. She burst into the door and Tommy and Maria were in the kitchen talking in low voices. “We’ve got breakfast coming up in a bit,” Tommy called as Ellie plowed through the living room.

     “Oh great.” Ellie froze peeking out from the corner before disappearing upstairs. “Do you have any of the peach jam?”

     “I’m pretty sure there’s some around here.” Tommy stared back.

     “I don’t need any, that’s just her favorite, one.” Ellie swallowed breaking the awkward staring contest the three of them had entered. Tommy gave a thumbs before turning back to the small pan on the stove.

     Ellie tried to relax and not stomp down the hall. She opened the door and Dina hadn’t moved since she left. Ellie knelt by the bed softly poking her face. Dina’s brow twitched down. “Hey, Dibbles.” She poked again. As she slowly started to move Ellie stopped poking her and brushed back the stay hairs. “I talked to Sarah. She’s going to be here soon.”

     “To early,” Dina groaned.

     “It’s almost ten. You gotta get up and eat a little bit. You can sleep all you want after that.” Ellie encouraged laying her head on the edge of the bed.

     Dina reluctantly peeled her eyes open staring back at Ellie with a squinty glare. She reached one hand over poking Ellie’s head. “Sarah’s coming?”

     “Yeah. She has to take care of Abby but she’ll be here soon.” Dina hooked two fingers over Ellie’s dragging her hand closer. She lightly kissed the back of it.  “Foods almost ready. Do you want to shower or anything first?”

     Dina took an unenthusiastic breath, “Probably.” She took her time to push into a sitting position. Once there she paused with a very audible and pained groan.

     “I feel ya.” Ellie nodded sitting back on her makeshift bed on the floor.

     A short knock and Maria came in with two bowls of grits. One had a slice of bread generously slathered in a light jam. “We’re running a little short on some things so hopefully this good enough for you girls.”

     Dina’s eyes locked on to the toast with an intensity strong enough to start flames. “It’s better then what Ellie can make.”

     “So you have enough energy for that?” Ellie chuckled as Maria passed the bowl down to her. “I take it you’re not going to get mad at me for eating up here.”

     Maria rolled her eyes shortly. “That was only a rule because you wouldn't talk to people.”

     Ellie’s reeled back. “It what?” Dina snickered whilst inhaling the simple meal.

     “Hey, it was only partially my idea.” Maria smiled down but there was an overpowering sad undertone. “Sorry I can’t stick around longer I’ve got to run out to the sawmill and will be gone for a good part of the day. I know Tom wants to talk to you as soon as you’re able.” Ellie nodded a slow agreement. “Take it easy for now.” She waved stepping back out.

     “Do you know how bad it is to be called out by another introvert?” Dina muffled through a mouthful of absolute heaven.

     Ellie glared up with a betrayed pout. “Don’t get crumbs on my bed.”

     “Come on. You’ve done worse on mine.” Ellie paused staring at Dina for a full second before she picked up on how that sounded. “Oh god.” She snorted dropping the spoon to cover her mouth. “No! No, you know what I meant.”

     “Do I?” Ellie’s flicked up a brow. “Is there something you- want to do, Dina?” Dina broke out laughing the slightest bit of color coming to her face. As quickly as it started Dina stopped. There it was again, Ellie frowned. I’m a single breath Dina hopped from an emotional high to a blank slate. Ellie had found it best not to point it out. It mostly stuck out when she woke up in the middle of a bad nightmare. But lately, it had been showing up while Dina was awake. She blinked refocusing back on the food in front of her.

      “Is it everything you hoped and dreamed for?” Ellie asked as Dina finished up. She nodded happily patting her stomach. “I’m pretty sure half the things in my closet are already yours.”

     Dina stretched out setting the empty bowl on the nightstand her legs hanging off the side of the bed. She stared at her shoes that were neatly set against the wall. She’d never intentionally untied her shoes once in her god-dammed life, how did they end up like that? “I guess that’s your way of telling me to get out of these nasty things.” Dina groaned working to pull the dark jacket off. Her voice still carrying a crackly morning tone.

     “Hey, you can keep them on as long as you want. But we can burn the jacket later.”

     “Surprisingly, I don’t hate it.” Dina said tossing the spicy apparel towards the basket. It was a foot short of the target. She took a deep breath dropping her hands to her lap. “What’s the plan, get naked and talk about our feelings?”

     “If that’s what you guys are doing I’ll just come back later.” A familiar voice cracked in the open doorway. Dina’s eyes shot up and her face flickered through hundreds of attempts of talking. All she managed to get out was a pained squeak before crumpling. Sarah flew forward restraining herself only enough to not hit the spots Ellie had warned her about. She wrapped tightly around Dina pulling her into her shoulder. “You fucking scared me”.

     A shaking sigh. “Sorry.”

     “You’re not allowed to say that.” Sarah pulled back setting her hands on her face. “God look at you,” She sniffed brushing back tears and hair and kissing Dina’s head. “You’re such a mess.”

     Another overwhelmed smile. “You also lost weight.”

     “Ass.” Sarah sat on the bed pulling her close again. “I lost an entire baby’s worth,” A deep breath, “Chucks going to bring her later. She’s really into hitting things right now so I thought it was best to wait.”

     Ellie awkwardly stared at her thumbs spinning around each other. She stared at the empty bowl on the nightstand planning an escape. “I’ll just hang outside for a minute.” She stood grabbing the dirty dishes. “Is that alright?” She asked Dina. She held a hand out with a slow nod.

     “Don’t disappear again.” Dina whispered.

     Ellie took the hand with a small squeeze. “I won’t be far.” Ellie stepped out head spinning.

     “God what happened?” She could barely hear Sarah asking.

     Three weeks and Ellie had been too afraid to ask that. She’d pieced together and guessed at some things. Parts of her never wanted to know what pain her own existence caused. Dina was home. That’s what mattered. Ellie tried to convince herself while cleaning and putting away the dishes. The more she focused on her hands the less she saw the figures waiting in the edges of her sight.

     “Ellie?” Sarah’s voice called out. Ellie nearly managed to summersault up the stairs so was going so fast.

     “What’s up?” She did her best impersonation of ‘calm’ despite the overwhelming urge to grab her knife.

     “Can you grab some things for me?” Sarah asked sitting in almost the exact position she was in before. Ellie nodded eagerly needing away to dispel the sudden energy ripping her guts apart. She ran down to the clinic pulling the few items Sarah had requested. Maggie had to help since almost everything had been reorganized since Ellie had last been there. Even in that time it looked like they’d been unable to completely restock.

     Ellie dropped everything off and excused herself again. There was an awkward tension, or maybe she was just awkwardly tense. Fuck it, who knows. Ellie waited sitting in the middle of the stairway.  Another form of being stuck on the rhetorical fence. The hem of her shirt had become the most fascinating thing in the world. She could only hear mumbles, the occasional tired laugh or groan, the shower running at one point. Pretty soon thirty minutes had passed. Still, more murmuring, sniffing. Charlie eventually came in holding a wriggling Abby. His hair was just long enough for a short ponytail to sprout off the top of his head mimicking the one Abby had.

     “Hey good to see you.” He greeted softly coming up the stairs. He grabbed Ellie’s arm with a firm shake. “Are they still, uhh, sistering?”

     “Yeah,” Ellie nodded.

     “Do you want to hold this?” Charlie said with a lopsided smile holding Abby out at arm’s length. She flapped her hands up and down babbling a string of sounds.

     “Not right now.” Ellie shook her head preparing to be pressured into it. As cute as she was Ellie didn’t think she was ready for that after what happened to the last hundred people she had touched.

     “Understandable.” He flinched as she started wildly smacking his arms. Charlie went back down setting her on the floor. More time passed and she watched Abby crawling around exploring the new floor. Charlie racing over to stop her from gnawing on the power cord of a lamp. Joel chuckling in the corner at his attempts to keep her contained.  She’d climb up hanging onto the edge of the couch with little bouncing squats before falling back down. Everything was accompanied by strings of noise and the occasional reply from Charlie.

     Sarah started coming down and Ellie pressed to the wall to let her pass. “Is this seriously where you’ve been hiding?” Sarah sighed nudging Ellie with the side of her foot. Abby looked up and immediately held her arms out towards her babbling loudly. “Get up there.” Sarah said before heading towards Abby.

     Abby’s breaths picked up into excited bursts, “Ah-ma-ma-ma-ma!”

     “Yeah, you want to come up?”

     “Oogh-oogh.” Abby gurgled.

     Sarah scooped her up turning to Charlie. “Does Notch still need you?” Abby rested on her hip already behaving much better than when Charlie was in charge.

     “Yeah but it can wait. I don’t want to leave her on you if she’ll be in the way.”

     “It’s fine,” their voices hushed in a short back and forth. They both seemed tired and Ellie could tell it was from more than a baby. Sarah nodded sharply at something Ellie couldn’t quite pick up. “That works. Just remind me before you leave.” He nodded kissing her cheek. Not that Ellie had been watching. There was an edge on the wallpaper that was starting to peel off.

     “Ellie,” Sarah called out again shaking her head. “What are you doing? Go.” She shoo’ed again. Ellie sheepishly stood heading back to her room again. She lightly knocked on the door before coming in.

     Dina was sitting on the bed near exhausted. While she was mostly wearing her old clothes she had stolen one of Ellie’s favorite jackets. It looked like her hair had been cut short but it was hard to tell being wrapped in a tight over her ear. “Hey.” Ellie greeted softly sitting on the bed and scooting so her back was against the wall. “You dead yet?”

     “Probably.” She looked over with red timed eyes looking ready to collapse. “I don’t know if I’ll make it out of your room though.” Her gaze dropped with a shaking breath. Dina reached up folding Ellie’s collar back into place before letting her hand rest on her knee.

     “That’s alright,” Ellie assured letting two fingers curl over Dina’s. They sat for a few silent moments before creaking steps could be heard.

     Sarah stuck her head in. “Baby acquired.” Dina’s head popped up as Sarah stepped in with Abby on her hip.

     “Oh my god!” Dina chuckled staring at the round chubby cheeks. “She really does look like your old pictures.”

     Sarah grinned sitting on a chair she pulled from the side. “Really? I’m afraid she’s already acting like you. We don’t know what we’re going to do when she starts walking.” She set Abby in her lap and she unhappily screeched out. Sarah swore softly rolling her eyes, “God you’re picky.”

     “Ah-ba-ba!” Her feet kicked in and out as Sarah kept her balanced. “Pthbdbdbdbd.” She blew a raspberry.

     “Oh really? Keep that up and I’ll give you something to complain about.” Sarah said flatly.

     “Do I,” Dina stopped with a concerned frown.

     “You don’t have to hold her. She’s been a wiggly turd all day. In fact,” She set Abby up on the bed letting her sit by Dina. “This is Dina.” Sarah introduced slowly.

     “Hi.” Dina’s voice wavered as she reached out. Abby grinned slapping her hand down into her palm.

     “BA!” She cheered. Dina looked just about ready to burst into tears. Abby kept waving her arms up and down smacking the bed. She started to tip forward but Sarah pushed her back.

     “Yeah, that’s crazy.” Sarah agreed. Watching as Abby rolled over to crawl around Dina. “She knows how to make an entrance at least. I don’t know what I would have done if Tanner hadn’t been there. God, it’s hard to believe it’s almost been nine months.”

     Dina started down before swallowing. “Has everything else been fine?”

     “Yeah,” Sarah nodded. “She’s been healthy other than being born early. The first months were iffy but Ellie really saved my ass there.”

     Ellie glanced up at the mention, “It wasn’t that much. You still had to work every day.” She scratched over her tattoo. “Even I could only help a few hours a day.”

     “That was more time then I could have hoped for. I couldn’t have done that if I wasn’t sure you’d keep a good eye on her.” Sarah smiled as Abby practically crawled onto Ellie’s lap and stood hanging onto her shoulder.

     Dina stared back more than enjoying Ellie’s panicked look. “Just admit you’re a baby magnet already.” Dina turned covering a wide yawn.

     “I am not.” Ellie pouted back deflecting Abby’s hand as she tried to shove it in her mouth. 

     “I don’t want to wear you out more than I have to,” Sarah said. “Is there anything else I need to worry about?”

     “Not that I can think of.” Dina frowned. “I just don’t want everyone trying to come see me.”

     Sarah nodded slowly, “I’ll keep a baseball bat by the door. Take your time, I’ll be back around dinner time. Abby,” She called out. Abby’s head spun so fast her curls bobbed. She gasped before speed crawling back. “Take it easy.” She said leaning to kiss Dina and slowly introducing her name again.

     “Da-da.” Abby proudly nodded. Dina smiled groggily at the attempt.

     “Almost everyone is Dada right now.” Sarah agreed. “You’re not escaping this.” She said pulling Ellie forward and kissing her head too. “El-lee.”

     Abby paused staring for a moment before giving up hope, “Blehleh.” She rambled off.

     “Fucking nailed it,” Sarah said adjusting her hold. “See you tonight Dibs. Call if you need anything.” Once she walked out Dina slumped against Ellie completely drained.

     “You okay?” Ellie asked rubbing up and down her arm.

     A tired nod. “There’s just a lot, going on.”

     “I know,” Dina sighed burying her nose into Ellie’s shoulder. “Anything you need me to do?”

     Dina’s hand curled into Ellie’s shirt, “Can you just?” She didn’t finish but Ellie already had a decent idea of what she wanted.

     Ellie un-crossed her legs stretching out along the edge of the bed. Dina followed lying in the space that was left, one arm crossing Ellie’s stomach. “This alright?” Ellie asked folding her arm across Dina’s waist.

     She nodded melting into Ellie’s side. “Sarah, uhm. She said something about Joel.” She whispered looking up. “I’m not sure if that was entirely okay with you since you didn’t say anything before, but I-uhh,” Ellie’s reaction was more than telling. Dina could feel the tension pulling its way through Ellie’s body and the strained breaths. She reached out tracing Ellie’s cheek before kissing it “I’m sorry.”

Chapter Text

     Stuck. Useless. Broken. Dina shook her head hissing at the thoughts, “Healing,” She’d made it through three weeks of travel out of necessity. Blisters threatened to go to the bone since there was no fat in between. Her body had more or less decided to completly shut down since she was too dumb to do it on her own. Maybe it had been a week since they got back. Maybe just a few days. Hopeless. Ellie wasn’t here and she couldn’t blame her. If anything she was passed out in some remote corner. Charlie and Sarah were softly talking outside. It seemed unusual that they would both be home at this time of the day. A boxelder bug crawled its way across the roof. Slowly meandering in a warped path. Directionless. God, she was bored out of her mind.

     Several books were in her reach. Stacked and scattered on the nightstand. It took two days just to get to her own room. Now it felt like it would be years before she got out again. Who knew a person could be so sick of sleeping. Dina needed anything. Anything to prove she could still function. Dina pushed herself up as fast as her wooden joints would allow. The first book she grabbed was heavy enough it almost slipped out of her hands. The familiar pressure as it rested on her lap. It took a minute off confused staring before she realized the light was still off. Complaining from her back as she leaned over again. Turn and a click. Everything was in place, except the words. They floated on the page taunting her. As much as she tried to focus her brain kept blanking. It was either too much or too little happening at once.

     The boxelder fell from the ceiling flying across the room. Dina jumped at the sudden movement. Her heart pounded against her chest. Boos head perked up. Whenever Ellie was gone he’d claim the nest of blankets on the floor as his own. A few deep breaths yet the air never seemed to reach her lungs. Surely she couldn’t focus since it’s a natural medicine book. You can only read about poppy seed so many times before your eyes cross. Boo settled back down with a quiet sigh. Dina looked over the books next to her. None of them could keep her interested past the title.

     Too many textbooks. That’s what Dina decided the problem was. Her favorites were on the shelf just across the room. She didn’t need help. She didn’t want it. For Christ’s sake, they were just a few steps away. Weeks of steps. She could take four more. The golden lettering alone a wide spine spoke to her. “Satyr’s are people with long hairy goat legs.” The familiar voice filled the room, “They’re mischievous spirits that work to protect nature. And in this case demi-gods as well.” Dina laughed snuggling back against her mother’s chest listening to the fantastical story for the first time. Super-powers, demons and a God for each and every aspect for the world. There were so many unusual words and names, each would make her giggle.

     Dina was going to get that fucking book. She pushed the sheets off meeting the sharp and cool air. She turned letting her legs hang from the edge of the bed. The cold floor seeped through her socks. Fragmented. Defective. Damaged. “No.” Dina insisted. Just a few steps. She took deep breaths starting at the books. Small and easy. She pushed off the edge. One-step and her legs were trembling. Two and a Gunshot,

     Abby gasped her arm wrapping uncomfortably tight around Dina’s chest. Another shot. Screaming. They were running.  The street was on fire. Her mother’s breaths loud in her ears as Dina pressed her eyes closed. They were monsters. They were demons. Screeching and ripping apart anyone who got close. “Where is she?!” Frantic. Out of time. The forest was ablaze. Fire raining down as the trees shed their branches. Sarah struggling to keep up blood flowing down her cheek and dripping off her chin.

     Dina gasped trying to hold onto the nightstand. Her knees buckled. “Hama-“Abby's voice cut short and Dina was thrown forward rolling across the ground. A sharp gasp. Jacobs intense gaze suddenly fearful. Sarah was dragging her. Her small hand wanting to slip out of the hold. They ran staring at the body over his shoulders. A branch sticking from her back, blood dripping down his.

     Fire. Pain. Broken. Dina’s breaths were picking up. “No, no, no,” She pleaded to whatever was listening. She was falling. Falling yet the floor kept getting further away. She was standing using the tension in the reigns to keep balance as the horse sprinted through the trees. A blinding flash and she couldn’t hear anything as the horse reared. Reigns slack. She was falling. The horse was falling. She tried to jump off but the huge white body still landed on top of her. Screaming but she couldn’t hear her own voice. Dirt flew into her eyes. The horse rolling across her legs. Blind. Pinned. Deaf. “FUCK!” Her throat was raw. Maybe it wasn’t making a sound. Someone pushed her head down and she struck out. Another ground-shaking rumble and more dirt was thrown across her. Hasty swipes at her face. Dina could barely see Ellie above her. Scowling as she worked to free her. Mouth moving but she couldn’t hear the words.

     Dragged. Pulled up. Scrambling to get away. Pain drove through every part of her. Dina’s elbow rammed into the wall. One more attempt to step forward. But she couldn’t stop the fall. Ellie kissed her forehead shortly. The only thing she could hear was muffled behind intense ringing. Ringing. Too much noise. Round and round the mulberry bush. The barn doors broke. Opening and closing with a grating screech. Screeching clickers in her home.

     “What the fuck?!” Ellie shouted as they came stumbling into the rendezvous. Dina was confused. She turned and Jesse was carrying her. “You fucking idiot.” She rushed towards Jess pushing him back. “What kind of shit-ass plan was that? You know we’re supposed to stay miles away from there. You could have killed her!”

Soft eyes with a hard focus. “I should have gone.” Ellie frowned trying to clean up her legs. They were torn and full of debris. “This one's gonna hurt,”

     Dina’s knees hit the ground followed by the rest of her body. Where’s Ellie? Too much. Too much going on in her head. She just wanted freedom. Abigail smiled softly watching Dina dance around the room. “Dance with me.” Dina sang.

     “Not today love.” Dina could feel the walls closing around her. Four people in a room. One person in a room. Too small. Too big. She couldn’t breathe. The noose tightening around her neck. Bodies surrounded her hanging lifelessly.

     “Where is she?” Dina refused to answer. Her toes barely staying on the edge of the bucket. Don’t fall off the edge. Over the edge. Over the edge. Nine. Eighteen. Twenty-seven. Thirty-six. Forty-five. Sarah fell over the edge. Blood on the ground. Blood in the water. Ellie breaking down unable to breathe. Something in her blood. Pushed over the edge. A razors edge. Which side is safe? None of them are. Abigail fell off. Jacob fell off. Sarah’s falling over the edge. A gray void kissing the edge. One by one they tipped in. Dina was screaming. She had to catch them. There was no one. She stood on a cliff surrounded by grey. Ellie’s falling. Ellie’s falling. Dina grabbed her hand. A branch sticking from Ellie’s stomach. The edge flipped. Dina was falling. Falling over the edge, screaming. She didn’t want to go. Another fell over the edge. The void was safe. The void was quite.

     “Dina!”

     Dina’s mouth was moving without making a sound. She wanted to scream, she couldn’t let them hear her. “I don’t want to.” She finally gasped out.

     “Dina.” Barking. Arms wrapped tightly around her. “Breath damnit.” Another strained cry as she tried to break free. “Dina please, you have to slow down. You’re going to hurt yourself.” Sarah spoke softly despite having every reason to panic. “Little one. Listen to me.” Sarah muttered tenderly. Different phrases, verses and prayers, small reassurances. Repeated in one language than the other. “Breath little one.”         

     “I can’t go back.” Tears were burning down her face. When was the last time she’d even cried?

     “Back to where?” Sarah softly prodded.

     “Don’t make me go back. I don’t want to be like Mom.” Sarah’s eyes widened momentarily as Dina pressed her face into her stomach. “I can’t stay here.” Dina’s voice shook.

     “Dina,” Sarah rubbed the back of her neck. “You’re not going to end up like that. You’ll get better.”

     A woeful cry. “What if I don’t?

     “It takes time. You’re still healing.”

     “I don’t want to.”

     “I know.” Sarah waited on the floor whispering whatever came to mind. Dina’s was too loud. Too loud then too quite.

*******

     Dina’s eyes snapped open frantically searching for something to hold on to. “Hey, slow down turtle.” Ellie was cradling her head with a tired half-smile. She’d woken up like this more times then she’d care for. “Anything good?” Ellie softly teased.

     Dina groaned trying to remember what bullshit she’d been going through this time. “Not that I know of.” She rubbed her face still feeling the rapid pulsing against her ribs. The dreams she could remember were awful. The ones she couldn’t were just as maddening. There was a night where it was just weird. Something about evading a clicker by hiding behind an umbrella. But that was just one out of dozens. The clock on her desk was reading just past midnight. “I’ve got to wander around for a couple of minutes.”

     “Alright,” Ellie let go heading to the little nest she’d built. None of them had spoken directly about it but Dina was finding it impossible to stay in a room by herself. “We could go throw some eggs at Jesse’s house.”

     “I’ll have to make it that far first.” Dina’s shoes were tucked neatly under her bed. It was almost weird coming back to find her room cleaner then she’d left it. She didn’t have a problem with the fact Ellie had lived in it for a few months. Tommy’s house was a reminder. Just another item on the list of, I’d rather not talk about. Dina threw a jacket over the red flannel she’d apparently fallen asleep in. She claimed it was hers since Ellie had never tried to take it back. That was almost four years ago. They slipped out the glass door slowly pacing through the empty street. Snow flurries were falling but so far nothing was sticking.

     Over a month and she still couldn’t believe how much Jackson had changed. Dina had thought about coming home a lot. The relief of coming through the gate. Seeing the faces of her neighbors and friends. Walking back down the streets she knew by heart. Instead, there were bare patches where homes used to be and piles of charred remains that had yet to be cleared out. Everyone was tired. They’d been rebuilding as fast as they could but there were still cases of three families crowding into the same house. An older couple was in Joel’s room. Dina still wasn’t completely sure how many people had died. The only way she’d find out is hearing random snips of conversation. Everyone had changed. Dina didn’t have to talk to them to tell. She could see it in the way people walked down the streets. A higher sense of alertness, shoulders pulled just a little too far back.  Hell, Jesse had even cut his called hair. He’d spent years cultivating that rat heap.

     Then the baby. She’d missed the first nine months of Abigail’s life. Sarah had always worked overtime caring for the town. Now her spider-mom senses were constantly working at triple speed. The constant strain was showing. Dina wanted to help. She truly did. But more often than not she was adding to that workload. It was infuriating. Her health was pin-balling back and forth between borderline dead and stumbling 2 am drunkard without the warming embrace of alcohol. “Is there a reason you’re heading to the fields?” Ellie broke her train of thought.

     Dina froze in her tracks. It took a full minute before she could even figure out where the hell she was since so many buildings were missing. “I was a little distracted.”

     “I can tell,” Ellie poked the space between her brows, “You’ve got your angry eyes on.” Ellie massaged her finger back and forth until Dina finally relaxed from the intense glare. “There you go. Now they’re just miffed.”

     “Stop poking my face.” Dina sighed turning to head back.

     “Yes Ma’am.” Dina gave a small laugh and the breath came out with a small white cloud. “It might be a little cold but I bet no one’s at the river. If you want to go skinny dipping tonight’s your night.”

     “Oh god,” Dina shivered just thinking about putting a toe next to the freezing water, “Only if you go first.” It only took a few minutes before Dina’s head was clear and the short walk was more the enough to kill the stray energy keeping her awake.

********

     Dina squinted still trying to price together where she with nothing but a dim glow. “Why am I in a closet?”

     “I don’t know. You just kinda ended up here.” Ellie sighed wearily. “You started sleepwalking which wasn’t totally crazy. You would do that before, before. But the last couple minutes were starting to get a little more aggressive. Also, I feel like I’m supposed to make a closet joke.”

     “Please don’t.”

     “Sometimes they just come out.”

     Dina groaned wishing she could blame the headache on Ellie. The more she thought about it the more her head started pounding. Her breaths picked up again remembering bits and prices of what she’d been dreaming about. “Shit,” she panicked knowing too well what was come next. “Keep talking.” She urgently tapped Ellie’s arm.

     “Wow okay. Never thought you’d tell me to do that, uhh” Ellie brought both knees up making a cocoon around Dina. “Movie plots. No?” Dina shook her head roughly. Ellie looked around blanking. The two hours of sleep weren't exactly boosting her creativity. The clothes hanging above and the narrow space reminded her of something else. “One of the first patrols we went on together. Well, I guess it was more like the tenth. We were fucking around and ran into what apparently was the last solid wall in the whole building.”

     “I don’t think I remember that,” Dina gritted trying to dig to any memories but the ones that were fighting to bubble up.

     “Fucking hell,” Ellie shouted as their efforts did nothing to move the beam trapping them in. “The hell are we supposed to do now?” It didn’t help the space was so small they couldn’t even stand. It was hard enough to move boulders but try doing so on your knees.

     “Start eating?” Dina offered before coughing. A cloud of thick white dust filled the air and covered most of their clothes, “A little fiber never hurts.”

     “You first.” Ellie groaned falling to her back.

     “You had a walkie right? We could try calling them and,”

     “It’s in my bag.”

     Dina’s face dropped remembering that both bags were on the other side of the room. “Great.” It was near pitch black and Ellie blended with the floor. Dina crawled over to rest her head on Ellie’s stomach. “They’ll be back in what, two hours?”

     “Hopefully.” They had no way to tell the time. What felt like two hours could have been as little as twenty minutes. Dina felt Ellie move. Her fingers rubbing at the medallion she always wore under her shirt. Dina had caught glimpses of it but never one good enough to catch the name.

     “That’s a firefly tag isn’t it?”

     “Hm?” Ellie paused. “Yeah.”

     Dina sat waiting for any sort of elaboration but it didn’t come. “Well, I’m assuming by it’s not yours. Is it a parent, friend, maybe a cute boy?” Dina tried to tease but Ellie just snorted at the last part. 

     “It was my friends. We snuck out did some dumb shit and attracted a ton of infected. She’d only been an official member for a few months. Then again,” Ellie trailed off. “Whatever she got to do at that time was probably better than being stuck in that bullshit school.” Ellie tried to come off as flippant but the whole thing but it seemed rehearsed. If there had been enough light Dina would have been able to get a better judgment.

     “Wait,” Dina waived for Ellie to pause. “That's is when I told you about my hamsa right?”

     “Pretty sure.”

     Dina’s brow perked up finally remembering something. She grinned letting her hand wrap around the bracelet on Ellie’s wrist. “Then you pissed me off, which was awful since we practically stuck in a coffin.”

     “I don’t think that’s what,”

     “Yes, it was.” Dina shot back bits and pieces from that day fluttering in and out of reach. She was slowly able to grab onto them piecing together that day. “Somehow we were arguing about God but I guess that’s what happens after four hours.”

     “Don’t start this again.”

     “I’m not starting anything. Just because you have opinions doesn’t mean they’re right.”

     “Same goes for you.”

     “Sure, but I’m not a shit about trying to prove you wrong.”

     Ellie groaned half tempted to pull the rubble on top of herself and fake death. Better yet, knock Dina out and say it happened in the initial collapse. “Okay sure, even if the bible is completely made up everything had some basis in reality. Myths don’t pop out of nowhere.” Dina said emphasizing every word.

     “That still doesn’t mean supernatural beings exist.”

     “They’re not supernatural! Or beings necessarily….”

     “The hell are you to talking about in there?” Joel grumbled picking away at the rubble from the outside. Apparently they’d managed to knock down much more than a wall.

     “Do you think there’s a God?!” Ellie shouted to make it through the barrier.

     “Kid I grew up in Texas. My house has an entire wall covered in crosses.” Both Dina and Ellie looked at each other for an answer. Neither of them could begin to pull that apart.

     “Okay but, your answer to ‘why would an all-controlling thing let the apocalypse happen?’ was ‘maybe he got bored’.”

     Dina snorted stretching her legs out as far as they would go in the cramped space. “It’s not like you can prove it wrong.”

     “I’ve stopped trying. Believe in whatever you want. Just don’t get mad at me when your prayers don’t get you out of soap making duty.”

     “I kind of like making soap.”

     Ellie’s head rocked back, “Since when?”

     “You know the first time I broke up with Jesse? Right around that time.” Ellie laughed abruptly before covering her mouth in a poor attempt of staying quite. Sarah would have their heads if they woke Abby up this early. “There was something else,” Dina had fully relaxed back down against Ellie. Each breath carried her along in a slow and steady rock.

     “It took three guys hours to dig us out. There was a lot of dumb things we ended up talking about.”

     “I think that’s when I figured out you liked girls.”

     “You didn’t figure it out,” Ellie rolled her eyes.

     “Yes, I did.” Dina smacked her leg. “Maybe I didn’t say anything then but, all those stupid little jokes. You would literally laugh anytime Joel told you to stand straight.”

     “I did not.”

     “You did and you still do.” Dina’s voice picked up, “You were always fucking obvious about it. Especially loitering around at dances. Don’t even get me started of the whole year you followed Kris around.”

     Ellie scoffed at the idea, “No?”

     “Come on. Just admit you had a tiny little crush on me since you were sixteen.”

     “Why, w-what is happening here?” Ellie could feel her face starting to heat up. Thank god it was dark.

     “You had a cruush.” Dina teased drowsily. For now she could pretend she was still a dumb sixteen-year-old.“You liked me. Like, like liked me.”

     “Did you just have a stroke?”

     A short laugh, “Kinky.” She could feel the slow and disappointing breath from Ellie. Once that faded from her face Dina slumped back against her chest. Ellie could talk forever if she got on the right track. Dina was more than grateful for the distraction it provided but, Ellie was still hiding behind her own words. Dina knew she was hiding all sorts of shit. But she also knew she wouldn’t have a chance if Ellie wasn’t there to keep her thoughts occupied. Old patrols, movie crack theory’s, more and more outlandish explanations for Jesse's hair loss. Dina wasn’t sure if the rest of the taunting actually happened or just continued on in fuzzy dream. She didn’t wake up to a comforting embrace or soft voice. Dina stared out with a pained frown. Ellie kept sleeping on the floor just a few feet away.

Chapter Text

     Talking to Tommy was, painful. He’d finally managed to corner Ellie one night desperately seeking some sort of explanation for the attack. It’s not like there’s an easy way to say, “A bunch of firefly’s teamed up with a cult to find and kill me. Don’t worry about another attack since both parties have been massacred plus or minus a few dozen other raider groups.” So Ellie did her best to skirt the details. Tommy seemed to trust he had what was relevant to the town and didn’t force any follow-up answers. That alone was a miracle. There were just too many things about Tommy that reminded her of his brother.

     Ellie still couldn’t sleep. At least before she could work herself to exhaustion and blackout for a few hours. But now she wasn’t doing anything. Days slugged by and Dina barely seemed to be improving. As good as everyone’s intentions were their initial reactions were to crowd the two and asked what happened. Both Sarah and Charlie had spent the first month shooing people away from their home.

     Sarah could hardly ask anything without Dina spiraling into an attack. That’s what had happened today. “Have you seen Abby’s sock? I swear she had two this morning.”

     Dina’s head jerked back eyes wide. “I don’t know.” She panicked breathes immediately starting to speed up. Sarah was just as surprised as she dropped everything to try to bring Dina back. There she was, exhausted, confused and now sleeping again. Ellie sat on the floor with Boo resting on her lap. She stared out the glass door watching the huge fluffy clumps of snow falling down. A tall drift had blown against the door and the few street lights cast just enough light to turn the sky into an endless parade.

     Eventually, Boo gave in hopping on to Dina’s bed curling against her legs. Ellie rubbed her red eyes trying everything she could think of to get them to stay closed. Anytime she got close to sleeping there would be a tiny shift or breath that was a little louder than the rest. Ellie’s body would spring back into alertness waiting for things to get worse. She could ever rest, just wait.

*****

     It was closing in on three months and she’d rarely left Dina’s side. As much help as she needed Ellie didn’t want to feel like a burden on the already struggling town. A general story had spread throughout the town but she could still hear whispers. A constant hissing buzz of whispers. People glancing away when she turned, ghosts constantly flicking in and out of her vision.

     Construction was one of the main things going on. So far it had been a mild winter allowing for the continued building of much-needed housing. About a quarter of the homes had been damaged or destroyed in the attack. Dozens of families were still packed together. Despite the need, Ellie couldn’t even begin to think about helping there. There were too many people and too much talking. More whispers more glances. Ellie picked up her pace to one of the far towers. At least up there people couldn’t stare. Ellie had found the afternoon shift worked best. Sarah would be home to watch Abby and keep Dina from spiraling. The mornings were the best. Sometimes Dina even felt well enough to walk along the edge of town before everyone else was up. She was determined to make a full lap around but so far they’d only made it to a quarter.

     Almost every-other night Dina would wake up in a panic. Swearing, sweating. Ellie had tried everything short of tranquilizers to help calm her back down. Sometimes she could catch Dina’s breaths starting to pick up and lay next to her before they got too bad. Talking softly, holding her hands. Even that was hit and miss adding more time to a sleepless night. Dina could never remember what they were about. There were so many walls built up in her own mind she had trouble moving from one topic to the next in a casual conversation.

     Now leaving behind afternoons. She’d wear down enough that Abby’s babbling was enough to keep her mind distracted. There was the rare chance she’d catch a few hours of dreamless sleep and have enough energy to read or start tying scraps of old fabric into a new rug.

     Ellie really has no fucking clue what to do. It seemed like nothing she did helped, and other times everything seemed plain hopeless. She’d also forgotten to bring sunglasses. The reflections from the snow were blinding. She stretched pulling her baseball cap lower. She really should try to think of something else that didn’t cause immediate stress and pain.

     Let’s see... there were some stray bison that hadn’t migrated as far as the rest. They’d be seeing that in the next couple of meals. One house had been finished -minus the plumbing since the ground was frozen. May did something. Was it a date? Ellie couldn’t remember shit about what had been happening in the last week. Dina had been up four nights in a row… and right fucking back to that.

     Ellie’s brain was just stuck in a permanent loop of, “Dina, Dee, Dibs, Duck-Duck, Dibbles, Dobby, Dick. The occasional Duke, Danny or Delworth.” The constant worry was wearing but what’s worse, that or walking in to find her curled on the floor in pain. Three months and she was just barely starting to regain some weight. Meanwhile, Ellie was slowly losing it.

     Ellie rubbed her face letting out a low groan. She just wanted two hours knowing Dina wasn’t on the edge of panic. One whole movie where she could forget and laugh without a sudden cut-off. She checked her watch surprised that hours had already passed. “Guess that’s what happens when you’re zoned the fuck out.” She thought trying to remember if anything had actually moved the entire time she’d been up there. The glare from the snow was overpowering now that the sun was starting to dip. She swung her feet over the edge, absently flicked the bowstring, hummed parts and fragments of different songs. The hours rolled by and there was a knock before the door behind her swung open.

     “Hey,” a brisk greeting from an overly bundled Jodi she dropped a small bag of supplies getting ready to set up for the night, “Long time no see.”

     “Yep.” Ellie agreed already heading down the ladder.

     Jodi’s head popped over the side. “I know you’ve got plenty to worry but I’ve been put in charge of the movie nights. Those will be starting up again Friday if you wanna come.”

     “I’ll try to come to one of them.” She probably wouldn’t.

     “There’s no pressure.” Jodi waved before closing the trap. Ellie dropped to the ground landing on the hard ice patch right under the ladder. A few more days without fresh snow and it would start to take people out.

     Was there a reason she had picked one of the towers furthest from her home? The walk back was excruciating. Her head was starting to ache from her eyes whipping back and forth between every little movement. It felt like everything had been stuffed with cotton on top of that. Head fuzzy, eyes burning, constant dull ringing in her ears. Hell, it might be in her lungs too. Each breath drew the cold air through restricted lungs. More people were out this time of day. She could see the whispers. Hear them. A constant buzz filling her head. A steady whine echoing around the damaged space. How could she hear them when they were hundreds of feet away. But it was there. Hundreds of voices building, all of them judging, all of them bitter, all of them trying to take her away. Whispered turned to shouts turned to screams ricocheting through her ears. Ellie could feel her muscles tightening and vibrating preparing to defend.

     “No. No. No. No.” She tried to pull herself out of it.

     “Coming down.” Someone called out before pushing a damaged beam off a rooftop. The charred mass fell slowly in her peripheral landing with a thunderous crack.

     Ellie took off sprinting. Mouth filling with a bitter acid and taste of smoke. Buildings blurred as she cut back to the wall. She threw open the small gate flying out barely hearing the confused shouts from above. She had to get out, away, far far away. Her feet kicked up sticky clumps of snow as she dodged past trees. Get away. Branches reached out catching at her clothes one whipped across her face drawing blood across her chin.

     A viscous black ball of energy filled her gut. It won’t go away until it’s used or she’s dead. Time warped as Ellie’s vision swirled. The bright light and short breaths caused the bare trees to bend into a black and white blur. But the world wasn’t so black and white was it. She tripped into a clearing looking for anything to use to get rid of the built-up energy twisting her apart. Hit something. Hit anything. The only thing around was the dark and bare trunks. No. No. No. her arms flailed punching through the air but there was no satisfaction in that.

     “FUCK!” The scream tore out loud enough echo in the trees. Ellie ripped her hat off throwing it to the ground. If only there was something else to throw. Thick snow covered everything and she kicked at it hoping to scream some sense into herself. “We’re done. We’re done with that!” Ellie shouted running both hands through her hair. A fine layer of sweat had formed across her face. Dozens, no thousands, of eyes were on her. The energy was aggressive, chaotic, crackling like lightning in her veins. “What the fuck do you want?” Ellie growled at the faces surrounding her.

     “Go away!” Ellie tore her jacket off throwing it at a tree. The arrows tucked inside it scattered across the ground. She ran up grabbing one and swung striking the side of the tree. The thin wood shattered without any of the recoil she had hoped for. She reared back with a tight fist. She needed the feedback. To feel any goddamned thing even if it was pain.

     ‘Dina would be pissed.’ One clear note rang out. Ellie’s teeth ground tightly together trying to move the tension. She forced her hand open setting it against the rough bark. Her fingers still curled back nails digging into the bark.

     “Kid.” Joel sighed walking towards her without leaving a print in the snow. “Don’t throw shit around like that. You’ll lose it.”

     “Is that really what you want to say?” Ellie barked. Her nails cutting deeper into the wood. Joel seemed intent on picking up a pair of cracked sunglasses. He carefully wiped the dust off with the edge of his shirt.

     “Well shit. Guess the grounds just harder here.” He grinned handing them back.

“You left me.” Ellie spun scowling at Joel. He leaned back undisturbed. She turned away only to see him on the other side of the clearing. Joel tiredly scratched through his beard staring down at a dead clicker. “You can’t tell me I’m wrong if you weren’t here to help!” She shouted again voice starting to go raw. “What the hell was I supposed to do?”

     He chuckled like she’d made some smart-assed remark. “Well, I guess you could call it that.” He stepped forward flickering in the rays of light peeking through the clouds. “But I think I can handle one more today.” He groaned rolling his eyes she could see the smile.

     The dark ball fizzled away like water hitting a hot pan. It shrunk from hot spikes to a cold weight in her chest. “I needed you.” She croaked out through a tightening throat. A few unsteady steps forward. The crowd surrounding her had disappeared. He stood checking an invisible mirror at the uneven haircut. “I fucked up.” Ellie could feel the hotlines on her face.

     “Well, you certainly tried.” He ruffled his coarse and now uneven hair. Joel turned looking at her pained face. “Come here,” he waved. Ellie stepped forward keeping a low and guilty-looking gaze. “A few weeks and no one will be able to tell. You said you wanted to learn how, the least I could do is be your practice.”

     The snow was starting to shine through his form. Ellie rushed forward, “No, I need more time. Don’t go.” Ellie frantically threw her arms out trying to catch the fleeting memory. Instead she fell into a nothing but a cold white.

     The barking was muffled despite feeling the warm breath on her ear. Ellie groggily rolled over squinting up at a black snout. Looks like God had finally come to judge her with his black and white paws. “How the hell did you make it this far?” A voice swam. God shouldn’t waste his time judging her. She already knew where she was headed. “Ellie you goddamn idiot.”

     If she was dead she really should be somewhere much warmer than this. “Sorry.” Ellie tried to push out through numb lips.

     “You’re freezing is what you are.” The figure crouched in front of her trying to brush the snow off Ellie’s already soaked front. “Come on numpty.” May towed her up and Ellie sluggishly walked along. She stumbled repeatedly in the deep snow but the constant support was under her shoulder. “You scared the shit out of me running like that. Worse when you were gone that long.” May huffed dragging Ellie through the snow.

     Ellie glanced over still trying to clear off some of the fog. Mays blue eyes rebelled against the stark colors around them. Red jacket still fighting against the fade of time. When did May get so tall? Boo trotted alongside glancing up every few feet. Even his dark eyes had a brown tone compared to the rest of his dark body. Ellie wasn’t sure if they even walked the entire way back to her house. She just saw a few choppy segments. May dropped her on the bed and for once she slept without dreams. Ellie could live in a space devoid of everything including color.

---X---

     Ellie rubbed her face and eyes. Every time she opened them the headache would come racing back. Someone had left a glass of water next to her bed. First thoughts on that were it wasn’t enough to drown in. She slowly dared to open her eyes. The glaring white and fuzzy outlines were still fighting for control. Ellie pulled herself up despite the throbbing in her skull. Her clothes were stiff and carried the off smell of soaking up water and not drying properly. “Godfuckingdamnit,” She weakly growled wrestling to get the long-shirt off. Death by shirt strangulation might just be the way she goes. When she finally threw it to the ground she flipped it off for good measure. The rest of the clothes weren’t nearly as aggressive but the fact that she had to wear them in the first place? Awful. Bulky sweaters. Awful. Freezing because of the current weather. Also awful. The headache threatening to boot her eyes out of her head. Still awful.

     Ellie managed to stumble her way into the bathroom. Other than the dried blood on her chin she looked somewhat presentable. She’d probably missed breakfast, and lunch? It was hard to tell just how long she’d been out. Hunger pains are survivable. She had somewhere else to be.

     “Where the fuck do you think you’re going?” Ellie was startled by the sudden figure at the end of the hall.

     “I’ve gotta go.”

     “No you don’t. I already talked to Sarah and she’s staying home today. Just. Like. You.” May poked Ellie’s shoulder with each word.

     “Fuck off,” Ellie tried to push past, “I’m fine.”

     May took a deep breath, “Ellie you’re not. You almost froze to death after doing god knows what out there. Do you even know why you ran off?” A silent glare. May saw the muscle along Ellie’s jaw twitch. “Dina’s fine. I’ll be sure to check-in and let you know if anything happens. Don’t try to push past me again.” She could tell Ellie was pissed but she was also exhausted. As soon as she tried to step forward again May ducked wrapping her arms around Ellie’s waist and throwing her over her shoulder.

     “The hell!?” Ellie smacked her back as she was carried off.

     “Okay, ow. I know you didn’t mean that.” She nudged open the door and dropped Ellie into her bed. “Ellie I love you to death but,” May ignored the glare being thrown at her, “You have to take care of yourself. You can’t keep bottling all your shit up ‘cause yesterday you turned into a massive shit-plosion Are you even listening?”

     Ellie turned back from staring at the window, “Fuck you man.”

     “Sure.” May nodded. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed but you’ve been back for three months and have lost weight. Ellie that’s not good. I’m just asking for one day. Minimum. Take care of yourself, try to figure out what’s going on, and manage the shit just a little better.” There was a long pause. “One day Ellie. I need you to say it.”

     There wasn’t an analog clock in the room but May could swear she could hear ticking. She sighed sitting on the bed next to Ellie. “You’re not okay. Just because you can hide it’s doesn’t mean it’s gone. Come on. Pull out those dusty comics, listen to some music, hell,” May spotted her guitar and scoot over enough to grab it, “Write some sappy song about how you feel. There are hundreds of those.” When Ellie was still playing statue May grabbed one of the pegs pushing the string out of tune. Then another. She set her fingers randomly and strummed an awful series of notes. The statue twitched. “Sorry I meant to hit this.” An even worse chord.

     “Don’t,” Ellie hissed.

     “Don’t whaaat?” She accompanied with even worse singing.

     “Give me that,” Ellie broke grabbing the guitar before May could defile it further. Her attention shifted entirely to fixing the strings that had been thrown off. There was a small voice said she should break the guitar over May’s head yet she couldn’t do more than hold it in her lap. Ellie closed her eyes running a finger up and down the smooth finish.

     “One day?”

     “Fine. One day.” Ellie snapped, “You really are an asshole.”

     “I had great role models.” May agreed patting Ellie’s back. “I’ve also talked to Myers and everyone in Misty’s house. If you go out the door or so much as crack that window they will shoot you. I’ll come by later to check. Maybe I’ll even get lucky and you’ll actually tell me what’s going on.”

     “Just go,” Ellie said softly eyes following one of the hundreds of lines on the light wood. May nodded and left without another word. Ellie could hear the front door closing and a few of the crunchy steps after.

     Tom and Maria were gone but the house wasn’t silent. The occasional sniff and cough from bellow. She didn’t really know the Myers that well. They were ancient by today’s standards. And they were in Joel’s room, all of his stuff had been taken out. She still needed to go through all of it and decide what to keep. The rest would be scattered and used throughout town. What would she even want to keep? A few of the shirts maybe that leather jacket. Well, he sort of almost died in that. Ellie’s finger tapped a familiar pattern against the guitar. It softly echoed in the hollow space. He’s gone. She had to accept that. He’s gone but she needed to stay here. Physically she was here but,

     Ellie put a hand over her eyes rubbing at both temples. The light was reflecting intensely up through her window. She had nothing to cover it and instead slid to the floor. The door was just a few feet in front of her. It’s not like the elderly guards would put up much of a fight. “What do you think I should do, huh? You always wanted to tell me before.” Ellie said to an empty room.

     Nothing. The house cracked and moaned softly. A few distant and muffled voices. Ellie sighed falling against the side of her bed. She pulled the guitar back into her lap. No songs or melodies were racing to grab her attention. “Maybe I’ll just play something to bring your dead ass back. You sure don’t seem to mind stalking me before.” It took a few seconds to remember the starting notes, Ellie half-smiled from the shaky sound.

     “Okay fine, fine stop threatening me would, ya?” Joel grumbled adjusting the guitar for the hundredth time. “There’s a reason that band never left the garage.” As much as Ellie teased his singing it really wasn’t that bad. There were rare occasions when she’d catch low humming and mumbled words as he worked alone. Ellie stared up with a smug grin. “Don’t give me that look. You try to do better.”

     He passed the guitar and Ellie held it awkwardly. “Sure just give me a second,” she cleared her throat, “Huuuuueeeyyy.” She growled out in a poor imitation. “I’m not sure what to do with the firewood though,”

     “Hey now, you burn that and I’ll toss you out the window. I said I’d teach ya didn’t I?”

     That’s it. That’s what the melody was. Ellie sat up straighter. “Don’t get mad at me if I change the lyrics. Most of them don’t make sense anymore.” It still took a few runs before she had the whole song again. There was a solid minute when she couldn’t even remember how to play one of the cords. Maybe one day wasn’t so long after all. After forgetting the cord two more times Ellie groaned gingerly setting the instrument aside. She really was fucking tired.

 

Chapter Text

     Dina could swear things were starting to turn. Until she woke up unable to breathe. She sneezed and felt her ears popping and they didn’t stop for an entire day. No one else in the family seemed to catch it, and she had no clue where she could have picked it up. Maybe it was just a garbage way if her body saying, “Immune system is locked and loaded again.”

     Sarah had done her best to keep Abby at bay for the last couple of days. Abigail didn’t give a shit about how one was feeling, she just wanted to play. Although she seemed to understand something was off. One day she had quietly dragged her blanket in and took a nap next to Dina. Boo was peeved about his spot being stolen but Dina was about ready to bawl at the tiny snores. Frankly just about anything Abby did put her on the brink of weeping. She was already stubborn and managed to sass back with the few words she had.

     “Da-na. Da-na. Da-na.” Abby chanted marching it wobbly circles around the living room.

     “What?” Dina asked leaning against the couch.

     “Ah-blbbbth.” She raspberried

     “Your right. Anarchy is the best solution.”

     “No anarchy before dinner,” Sarah called out from the kitchen table. She’d been pulling her hair out for days trying to figure out how to stretch their dwindling medical inventory out through the rest of the winter.

     “She’s on to us,” Dina whispered holding a finger to her mouth. Abby copied holding a chubby hand up to her face. “Anarchy starts at three. After that we can.” Dina turned sharply to smother a fit of coughing. At least it no longer sounded like her lungs were trying to escape.

     “Have you been drinking water?”  

     “No mom, I was working on my raisin impersonation.” Dina weakly retorted reaching for the forgotten thermos next to her. Having constant access to water was something she’d nearly forgotten about. She’s been sitting next to the thing all day and it was still full. “No, I can’t share this. You’ll get sick too.” She held her drink far out from Abby who kept reaching out for it. “Go ask your mom.” Dina encouraged as Abby started to pout and growl.

     “Make her ask Charlie, I’m busy.” Sarah teased but she was already moving towards them. “What do you want babby?”

     Abby pointed with a disappointed grunt that closely translated too, “Can you believe this? I want to take that bottle and spill all the contents on the floor but I’m being thwarted by some stuffy nosed fool.”

     “She was chewing on one of Boos feet the other day. I doubt you could have anything worse than that.”

     “Is that a compliment or an insult?” Dina’s voice crackled.

     Sarah’s mouth slowly drew up. “Yes.” She let out a short and tired laugh as she stretched. “I’m probably late on lunch. I’m surprised she hasn’t gotten cranky yet.”

     “What do you call this then?” Dina flinched as a small hand almost hit her eye. Abby was huffing determined to reach the thermos being held above her head. A wild grab swung around hitting Dina square between the shoulders, she inhaled sharply eyes clamping shut.

     “Neeowp!” Sarah shot over grabbing Abby mid-conquest. “No. Sorry. Sorry. Dina?”

     “I’m fine.” She gritted out forcing her breaths to stay even.

     “I wasn’t paying attention. I’m so sorry Dibs.”

     “Not your fault.” Dina felt sick and the pain sparked across her body. Her eyes were glued shut her everything was still bright. “Just give me a minute.”

     “You sure?” Dina nodded stiffly. Sarah kissed her forehead still trying to restrain an increasingly restless Abby. “Good lord kid I’m getting there.”

     Abby let out an indignant, “Bah!” While still trying to escape the undeserved imprisonment. Loose translation being she can and will destroy both of them.

     “I’m fine. It’s nothing.” Dina strained trying to ignore the ghostly taste of blood.

     “It’s not nothing.”

     “Just take care of your baby first. I can do this.” Her breaths came out short and choppy despite sitting still all day. Dina tried to wave her away when Sarah still hesitated to move.

     “Okay,” Sarah reluctantly backed up. “You don’t have to do everything alone.”

     “I know.” She swallowed dryly. “I just need, minute.” Dina closed her eyes again and didn’t realize Sarah had moved until she heard cursing behind her.

     “I swear I picked that up.” The cupboard closed.

     “You can go get whatever you need. I’ll be fine.” Dina nodded staring up as Sarah had appeared right in front of her. Fuck she was already losing focus. Next thing she knew the house was empty. Another forced breath, “Shit.” Dina hissed. She was alone, alone, “Shit.” She said more forcefully. She needed to be able to handle this by herself. Today wasn’t going to have the perfect solution but there’s was one thing she could think of. She ran to her room with stiff steps. Dina frowned digging through her dresser. Her hand hit against the small Altoids tin. “Thank god.” There was only a hand full of cigarettes. This wasn’t a sustainable solution by any means but it was something to clear her head of the never-ending background noise.

     Sarah shuffled as fast as she could down the packed snow. Abby was pouting with her head tucked against her shoulder. How great it must have been to live with no clue what was going on. And how great it would be to have full cupboards in the middle of winter. Sarah hated to admit she’d lately become a little too dependent on Chuck and Ellie to keep the house in order. She was barely keeping up with the rise of colds in the last month and had been sleeping with both eyes open.

     The roads were mostly empty. If anyone had time to lounge around it would be in the church or lodge since those stayed pretty warm. A familiar figure was running out of said church nearly slipping across a hard patch. “May!” Sarah called out.

     “Yeah?” She ran back bouncing from one foot to the other. For whatever reason she was only wearing a t-shirt. “Need me to watch tiny-terror?”

     Sarah declined quickly. “Have you seen Ellie lately or is she still, uh,” She faltered.

     “Oh, well,” Mays brows popped up for a second. “I haven’t checked today but yesterday I know she was about ready to go out again.”

     “Could you find her?” Sarah grimaced trying to avoid sounding distraught.

     “Is it Dina?” May was suddenly standing still despite the cold.

     The silence could be safe and comforting, sometimes it drove her crazy as her thoughts ran wild. Dina leaned against the wall watching the smoke cloud float up. The cigarette was burning down too fast for her liking but hopefully it would be enough. Someone was coming. She could track the soft crunching coming around the corner of the house. To light to be Charlie and not weighted to one side from Sarah carrying around Abby. Dina started at the open space taking in another draw. As soon as she saw the shoes Dina’s face lit up.  

     “Hey,” Ellie’s half-smiled coming around the corner. “Sorry I’ve been missing for a bit, it’s been,”

     Dina shook her head rapidly cutting her off and instead held her arms open. Ellie took the invite and was roughly pulled into a tight hug. Dina breathed sharply pulling in the comforting scent, “Are you at least feeling better? May said you caught the devil cold too.” Dina dug into Ellie’s shoulder not really even caring what the answer was.

     “Better, is true,” Ellie pushed out slowly. “Wouldn’t say I’m feeling great by any means.”

     “You’re telling me that?”

     “I, uh well.”

     Dina chuckled shortly saving Ellie from the pain of backtracking. “Come on. It’s not like only one person is allowed to feel shitty at a time.”

     “Mom said it’s my turn to use the shit,” Ellie mumbled. She immediately felt Dina’s smile on her neck.  

     Dina reluctantly pulled away to cough into her elbow. She mumbled a few choice swears finishing off the cigarette. “Did Sarah tell you to come?”

     “No,” Ellie answered easily.

     Dina absently kicked at the snow, she wasn’t lying at least. Dina turned back noticing a long cut under Ellie’s lip. “The hell is this?” She asked softly tracing the line with her thumb.

     “I think people call it a chin. Ma’am, just how much have you been smoking?”

     “Oh shut up,” Dina stated flatly glancing up. Ellie’s eyes were riddled with red lines and surrounded by dark circles. (Surprisingly, not the worst she’s ever looked.) But they seemed clearer than any time in the past months. They had both ended up staring. Usually by now, Ellie would have made some quip about. ‘are you looking at my soul?’ Or some awful joke like ‘need a map?’ Dina bit her lip looking back to the line and the way it drew a line to Ellie’s lips...

     Dina harshly averted her gaze and tried to clear her throat. “Did you get caught by one of the cats or what?” She turned sliding her door open. She kicked the side of the wall to get the snow off before going in.

     “Pretty sure it was a low branch I missed.”

     “Well it sure didn’t miss you.” Dina fell back onto her bed with a groan. She pushed her shoes off letting them fall into the middle of the floor. “If you’re the one that gave me this cold I will kick you out.” Dina weakly threatened as Ellie sat on the edge of the bed.

     “Pretty sure that wasn’t me.” A suspicious hum soon turned into a cough. Ellie floated her hand above Dina’s waiting for her to notice. She had figured out the hard way not to surprise her with most touches. Dina’s hand popped up grabbing hers before falling back to the bed.

     “You do anything exciting or were you too busy trying to breathe too?” Dina worked her way back to sitting.

     “Well, I guess I was able to practice a bit. Turns out all my guitar calluses are gone. That kinda, sucks.”

     Dina nodded inspecting Ellie’s hand. There were no new cuts or bruises just dozens of small scars. She was still working on memorizing the new patterns. “Now that you say it I should probably try to play more too.” Dina’s eyes moved to her bracelet. The leather was getting worn but the charm still shone brightly. At times Dina didn’t even notice it since it blended in with the edge of the dark tattoo. Dina could draw the entire outline with her eyes closed, including the scar hidden below it. Ellie sighed her fingers curling between Dina’s. She could swear they could talk more in silence than any other way.

     “...wear if they go another day without salting the roads,” Sarah grumbled coming in the front door.

     “Last I heard all the salt was used to make Sarah’s bed.” Ellie snipped under her breath, that earned a short chuckle from Dina. There was a heavy clatter as Sarah dropped a heavy bag on the main table.

     “Don’t touch any of that you butt.” She presumably threatened Abby. “Dina, you alive?” Her voice rose shortly after.

     “Now she censors herself,” Dina whispers glancing up and Ellie was already smiling. They’d already placed bets in weather Abby’s first official word would be ‘Shit’ or ‘Damnit.’ At this rate neither of them would have the honor of teaching her anything inappropriate. “I’m good,” Dina called back out. More random noises as she shuffled around. “Are we supposed to help? I don’t know if I can even get up in time.”

     “I don’t know. It’s your house,”

     “No. No,” The sound of multiple things hitting the floor and high pitched giggle. “You little shit.”

     “There it is,” Ellie sighed hopping up to help. “PDA,” She warned before kissing Dina’s cheek. Ellie disappeared from sight and Dina was frozen in place. That one was real…

     “Don’t worry about it.” Dina could barely pick up the quite conversation from her room.

     “I’m not worrying, I’m helping.”

     God she missed subtle smartass Ellie. Dina eventually went back to collect the thermos she’d left behind and crashed onto the couch. It didn’t take long for the two of them to put everything away. Ellie turned to Dina puffing her cheeks out into a goofy little face before heading back

     “Lee-lee.” Abby wobbled behind with a bottle clutched in both hands.

     “What?”

     “Lee-lee.” She called more forcefully raising one arm into the air. Ellie stared down at the expectant toddler. There was always a moment of hesitation. Dina could more than understand where she was coming from. But on the other hand how can you say no to a baby.

     “Come on, you’re never going to walk if you keep cheating like this.” Ellie groaned as she hoisted Abby up.

     “She just likes to feel tall,” Dina said watching the overly cautious steps Ellie was taking.

     “Is that your excuse too?” Ellie flinched back as Abby went to drink from her bottle by throwing her entire head back.

     “Hey.” Dina smiles Ellie worked her way back down while holding Abby. “You wish you could hold me all the time.” She mumbled into the top of her own mug.

     “Is that supposed to be a butt joke?” Ellie’s voice had dropped as well.

     “You’re always the butt of my jokes.” Dina tried to keep her face flat but broke as soon as Ellie started chuckling. Abby joined in with her own giggle. She had no clue what was happening but her gaped smile said otherwise. Dina’s eyes suddenly unfocused and her face dropped

     “Everything good?” Ellie set her hand just above her knee.

     Dina glanced back confused, “Hmm?”

     “Ahhaahaa!” Abby copied one more time before settling down on Ellie’s lap to finish her drink.

     “Sorry. I,” Dina shook her head, ”What were you saying?”

     “It’s okay. I bet you’re just tired from keeping up with Lil Ab-bab all day.” She tried to encourage. Abby excitedly glanced up at the mention of her own name. Dina’s frown didn’t seem to move as she grabbed Ellie’s hand again. Abby slid off Ellie’s lap wandering around the room. She came back dragging a small book and dropped it into Ellie’s lap. She pointed intently at it.

     Ellie smiled glancing back to Dina “You want me to read?” Abby’s eyes bore into her soul as she sucked on three fingers. When Ellie picked up the book Abby’s gaze broke and she climbed her way back onto her lounge chair, also known as Ellie’s lap. “Are you going to help?” Ellie teasingly asked Dina.

     “I sound like a dying duck.” Dina croaked opting to get comfortable on Ellie’s shoulder. “You better do all the voices too.”

     “That’s pushing it.” Ellie have her hand one last squeeze before going to properly hold the book upright. Ellie picked a random page to start and started reading through it Abby would ‘help’ and turn the page at arbitrary intervals by grabbing Ellie’s hand with her own slobbered on one. Ellie would comply and do her best to keep Abby from accidentally tearing the pages. After a few minutes Abby started to settle down and soon fell asleep against her chest. Ellie sighed with relief and turned to find Dina was already out. “Oh-no.” Ellie chuckled at her predicament.

     Noting the sudden silence Sarah came by to check. “You’ve done the impossible Ellie.” Sarah stretched her arms above her head. “I’m half tempted to join.”

     “I think I’m out of room.”

     Sarah smiled tiredly. “Keep the little one asleep until Chuck gets back I will owe you.”

     “I stopped keeping track of those.” A short nod and Sarah disappeared to take advantage of the quiet moment. Ellie sighed leaning over to kiss Dina’s forehead. She rested there for a moment searching for something to say but it’s not like Dina would hear it. Ellie smiled before turning back to the book, she loved this series.

     Ellie silently read through a few more pages before Dina mumbled into her shoulder. “Come on. I like this part.” Ellie’s breath hitched, thank god she hadn’t said anything sappy. Dina nudged her again. Ellie cleared her throat before softly continuing to read out loud.

*******

      “Hey, she’s going again.” May reached over flicking Ellie’s arm. Her brows dropped setting her fork back down.

     “Dina, hey,” Ellie softly shook her knee but got no response. Dina was hyper-focused on an invisible point. A table on the other end of the building broke out into a loud round of laughter and cheering. Dina’s neck tensed shoulders shuddering. “Well shit.” Ellie pushed her plate away scooting closer on the bench. She knew she wasn’t ready to be in this much of a crowd but Dina insisted on having lunch in the old ski lodge. She was getting sick of being cooped up all the time. Dina’s breath hitched suddenly, “Get them to shut up.” Ellie said still trying to get Dina’s attention.

     May hopped up throwing a half-eaten roll at the offending table, “Hey!” One of the younger guys complained.

     “Huizep.” May zipped her hand sharply over her mouth. Zack laughed throwing the half-eaten roll back.

     “May.” Ellie gritted back trying to at least get Dina to move. Dina dropped her head into her hands with fluttering breaths. “Hey let’s try to get outside.” A few other tables were starting to notice the silent crisis. Jesse was the first to silent his table before getting to the teens.

     “What’s happening?” Dina shakily asked.

     Ellie relaxed the tiniest of fractions. “You’re fine, just getting a little overwhelmed. Can you stand up?” A slow nod.

     Jesse stood up storming to the far table of teens. “Shut the fuck up.” He growled.

     “Make m-,” Zack taunted back but was met with a firm chokehold. The rest of the table finally paused.

     “You little jackass,” Jesse said still keeping a firm hold on the struggling snot.

     May pushed open one of the side doors as Dina was guided out. She looked bewildered more than anything. “Almost there,” Ellie said steering Dina to a stack of boards. She sat still trying to steady her breaths. “It’s okay Ducky.” She knelt so her chin was just above Dina’s knees. May stood at the end of the alley steering away from any prying eyes.

     Dina’s mouth opened but a quite whine escaped instead of words. Why was this happening? Such a violent yet un-namable feeling welling up in her stomach. “I shouldn’t have come here.” Her breath billowing out in a white cloud. She could feel her eyes starting to water. Dina couldn’t tell if it was from the cold or something else.

     “No, don’t say that. You wanted to try and you did.” Ellie took one of her hands slowly running a thumb across her knuckles. “It went better than when I tried to jump off the cliff the first time.” Ellie grinned up at her. Dina snorted wiping her nose with the end of her sleeve. “You laughed then too.”

     “You were such an idiot.”

     “But thank god I float right?” Dina chuckled lightly. She could still hear the slap when Ellie landed flat against the water. Another long sniff. Ellie caught May's eye mouthing ‘jackets’ with a small motion. She nodded running back into the lodge. “Should we go back or just wait out here for a while?”

     “I don’t know.”

     “That’s alright.” Ellie sighed dropping her head onto Dina’s knees. If she blinked for too long she easily could have fallen asleep. Ellie could hear the door opening but didn’t move. Her toes were starting to complain from the awkward crouch. “You don’t have to stay out here,” Ellie said to May as she dropped off their jackets.

     “It’s not like I have anything important to do in there.” She wandered a few feet away before ending up on lookout again.

     Ellie stood up stretching before her legs could lock into place and pulled on her worn hoodie. Dina’s jacket was holding up a little better but the university logo was nothing but a ghostly impression on the front. “Your strings uneven.” Ellie grinned before pulling the ties down. She didn’t stop pulling until the entire hood had closed over Dina’s face just leaving a nose and mouth. “Fixed it.” Ellie proudly declared sitting beside her.

     A stuffy giggle. “You’re so stupid.” Dina slumped back against the wall not bothering to fix her hood. The snow was starting to melt and seep into her jeans. She didn’t want to go home yet but it was freezing here. Ellie was playing with her hand and Dina couldn’t tell what she was doing. She pushed open her hood to see the bracelet tied back onto her wrist. “Ellie?”

     “It kept me alive through plenty of shit, but right now I think you need the extra luck more than I do.” Ellie nervously smiled up.

     Dina stared down for a moment before laughing softly. “Hopefully not for too long.”

Chapter Text

     Ellie had really been trying to not hover over Dina at all times. She was recovering slowly but there were still moments that scared Ellie shitless. When Dina said she wanted to the spring harvest Ellie almost cried. She finally felt good enough to go to one of the disorderly parties, that was huge. They’d come in a little late picking at the array of food left out on two long tables. More surprising Dina had downed two glasses of homebrew while they watched the surrounding chaos.

     “When did Jess start playing?!” Dina's voice barely rose over the music.

     Ellie looked up to see him manning the bass. She laughed just as confused. “Guess he needed to find something useful to do.”

     “Do you think that’s supposed to be his rebound girl?” She shot back earning a laugh. That had been a running joke for months after they had broken up. “Oh god, look at her go.” Dina laughed pointing out Abby who was energetically jumping around to the music. If she danced any harder she might just hop out of her tiny overalls. Dina’s smile was still subdued compared to past parties but she was at least laughing freely with whoever was nearby. They stayed on the side for the most part. Ellie filled her glass again, Dina managed to drink half of it when she wasn’t looking.

     Dina had been sitting on her hands for a while now. Eyes closed as one foot tapped on the floor. Her head bobbed slightly as she hummed along. Ellie breathed slowly drawing it all in. Damn, she was beautiful. Ellie caught Henry’s attention from across the room. She knew Dina wasn’t going to ask anyone but he could convince her. She waved him over and he nodded with a huge thumbs up before starting to pick through the crowd. When she turned back she noticed Dina turning away. “What was that?” Ellie called her out.

     “Nothing,” Dina said staring down at her lap. Ellie leaned across the table watching as she bit her lower lip.

     “You sure?” Ellie pushed again her mouth quirking up in a smile. She rocked the empty glass on its side. “I almost thought you were staring.”

     Ellie chuckled feeling the dull kick to her shin. She didn’t say it but Ellie could still hear it, “Asshole.” The glare just made Ellie chuckle more.

     “Miss Dina,” Henry bowed. He’d slicked back his hair for the event betraying the gray strands that were starting to overtake it. “I couldn’t help but notice you haven’t had a single dance yet. I don’t think I can sleep soundly with that.”

     Dina looked confused for a minute before turning back to Ellie. “Come on. I doubt you came here just to watch.” Ellie couldn’t help but grin.

     She paused for a few seconds before slowly accepting his hand. Ellie shooed her off like the old maid she was. Maybe the alcohol was finally working their favor. She leaned forward resting her chin on her hand watching the two. It wasn’t anything crazy, no backflips or dizzying spins but she couldn’t deny the wide smile that had worked its way onto Dina’s face. The song ended and moved easily into the next. Henry had gotten her to start, Charlie managed to dance two whole songs with Abby in one arm.

     There was a heavy sigh across from her. “Such a dork.” Ellie looked over to see May with a full plate. She hadn’t even noticed her approach. “You’ve been staring like a goddamn idiot all night.”

     “And how would you know? By staring at me? May you’ve really got to be more open with yourself.”

     “Oh fuck off.” She waved. “It’s not like you’re subtle about it,” she flicked her braid back over her shoulder, “She’s been pretty bad compared to normal too.”

     “I’m sorry,” Ellie stopped looking up, “Compared to normal? Since when have you been keeping tabs?”

     May rolled her eyes downing an entire mountain of potatoes and gravy. “Are you fucking serious? Me and Sarah had ongoing bets on who would kiss who first for years. The only person that was surprised was hetero-Jessual over there.”

     Ellie snorted going back to rocking the glass back and forth. In hindsight, there were plenty of signs that should have been obvious. She was still debating on another refill or not. The crowd broke into a short applause as the current band stood bowing. There was probably going to be a break for everyone to eat before the next batch of people got up to play. These parties often ran until the food was gone. It was an effective way to clear out all of the old food stores as they started packing the new stores. Everyone left drunk, stuffed, and happy. Speaking of which, Ellie noticed Dina bow out and leave through a far door. She didn’t want to run following, just yet. “Who won?”

     “Who do you think? Sarah nailed it. She made me dust the entire clinic. There’s so much shit up in that attic," May huffed at the traumatic memory, "I think Henry and Evelyn were pretty close too,” May moved closer as more people started to pack into the limited tables.

     Ellie was pulled into different conversations and greetings. None of which followed what she was expecting. Several people asked if she would be playing anything tonight. Apparently they were missing out on the improvised battles or small duets, “Come on it hasn’t been that long. I swear I’ll get up there eventually.” Ellie tried to argue

     “It’s been over a year! People were threatening to raid your room just to find some scribbles of a song.” Ellie zoned out for a few minutes joining the occasional banter on an auto-pilot. It really has been over a year hasn’t it? Dina still hadn’t come back. The next group was beginning to play softly as people finished up there current round of snacking.

     “Do you want in?” Someone else asked shuffling a deck of yellowed cards.

     “I’m, I’m good.” Ellie declined standing up and giving her seat to someone else. She rinsed the glass out and set it back on the table before heading out. The air was cool in comparison to inside the church. She stretched her arms over her head with a groan. Dina wouldn’t have gone too far, unless she was panicking. But for once Ellie doubted that was the case.

     Ellie clicked her tongue a few times surveying the street. A few people milled about with drinks or cigarettes in their hands. The smell of smoke always reminded her of certain things. Ellie could still hear Gramps laughing at her as she coughed her little baby lungs out. He didn’t have any kids of his own but had slowly worked to adopt the whole town anyways. Did anyone know his real name or was Gramps legally born that way? She thought slowly wandering down the street. There was that night during the snowstorm… Ellie bit her lip trying not to blush at the memory. She couldn’t remember the blunt so much but she and Dina had a lot of, alone time.

     Ellie was pretty sure she knew where Dina would hide. The stables were close enough one could still hear the music wafting through the air. Two dirty light bulbs struggled to light the entirety of the wide building. Most of the stalls were empty. The horses were going to be working all night to pull lumber in from the sawmill. They’d rest while the people spent all day rebuilding. “Turtle duck?” Ellie hummed walking through the wide aisle. “You here?”

     She finally spotted Dina nested in a space between two hay-bales. Dina glanced up momentarily from the gray tabby in her lap. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to run out like that.”

     “You don’t have to apologize,” Ellie said softly leaning against the bales.

     “There’s, a lot of people,” she stated absently petting the purring cat, “I don’t know it just got loud all of a sudden. If that makes any sense.” Dina’s mouth twitched down.

     “You stole my excuse.” Ellie earned a short smile. “I can walk you back home if you’d like.”

     Dina pushes a breath out and it buzzed through her lips. “Dunno. I just needed a minute.” She stretched and gave the cat a little push. It hopped from surface to surface slowly working its way up into the rafters.

     “You’ve already been out here for about fifteen. Jess isn’t playing anymore if that helps.” Dina chuckled sitting up straight and dropping her legs down. “But I have to say, you haven’t forgotten how to dance.” The soft light and dusty air almost made the space look like a movie. Not one of the cheesy action movies Joel liked, but one of the ones Dina dragged her out to see projected on the wall of the old ski lodge. The kind of movies that would make Ellie drowsy and she would wake up on Dina’s shoulder.

     “Shut up.” Dina smiled staring down. Her feet kept bouncing against the side of the bale.

     “Really, you were. I thought you had grown wings, you were floating out there.” Ellie complimented feeling her heart rush at every one of Dina’s little reactions. If she asked about the blush Dina would more than likely blame the alcohol. Maybe that was true, “Dance with me?” Ellie prodded slowly wrapping her hands around Dina’s. They rested on her lap and she could see the corners of Dina’s eyes starting to wrinkle up.

     “You can’t dance.”

     “That’s a little strong. I can,” Ellie paused, “just not well.” She started pulled Dina’s hands up slowly swinging side to side, recklessly out of tempo compared to the faint music. “Come on.” Ellie wiggled her hips jutting one side forward, and the other back with a hop.

     “Ellie.”

     She hopped again sending clouds of dust up as her feet shuffled back and forth. “I’m serious, come on.” Ellie taunted lightly. She moved like the bars on a train wheel, without the grace of the circular sweeps. Ellie worked backward slowly pulling Dina up. “Look at me dancing like a fucking professional.”

     Dina followed awkwardly, laughing as she was pulled from side to side. “More like a fucking idiot.”

     “Hey,” Ellie gasped in mock surprise, “could an idiot do this?” She started adding squats every other beat.

     “Your living proof,” Dina chuckled before pulling her hands back. “Stop it.” She shook her head before trying to catch one of Ellie’s arms.

     “No.” Ellie sang wiggling in the middle of a self-generated sand sandstorm.

     The distance Dina had created managed to make the whole display worse. “Stop. Stop it.” She chased Ellie trying to hold her still she finally succeeded grabbing each shoulder and standing on Ellie’s feet. “No.” She said inches away from Ellie’s face.

     Ellie stared her down before flashing a lopsided grin. “If I’m the bad dancer why are you stepping on my toes, huh?”

     There it was, that cocky attitude just starting to peek through her words. That one little act Ellie loved to play. They were standing awfully close now weren’t they? Dina looked up at her face, soft in the light, waiting for her,

     Dina stepped back and dropped her hands abruptly. “Sorry.” She said dropping her head forward into Ellie’s chest.

     “Whoa, hey,” Ellie’s voice immediately drew back into a gentler tone. “Too much?”

     “No. No, I just can’t,” her head shook against Ellie and Dina could feel her eyes starting to burn. “I can’t be the person you want me to be.” Her voice was already starting to disappear as uneven breaths took over.

     “Dina, no. Don’t worry about that.” She tried to comfort. Dina threw her arms around Ellie pulling her as close as she possibly could. Ellie slowly returned the hug, one hand scratching slowing just under Dina’s neck. “You don’t,”

     “I want to,” she took another shaking breath, “I want to be with you. And kiss you. It’s just,”-Ellie started rocking back and forth slightly holding on as she shook, “It’s so fucking hard. I hate my stupid fucking brain. It always feels like I’m never going to get better.”

     “Dina,” Ellie cooed. “I’m not going anywhere.”

     “I can’t even fucking cry right.” She complained sniffing heavily.

     “Be easy on yourself,” Ellie said lowering her head against Dina’s. “It’s going to take time. I’ll wait as long as I have to for you.” She whispered still rocking side to side. She could tell Dina wasn’t upset in a sad or hurt way. She shook with anger, even if it was geared towards herself. The song that was playing was one of the longer ones. She could barely hear it now. A little slower and softer as whoever was on banjo played slowly dropping through the notes to jump back up again. Rise and fall, rise and fall. It had always seemed like a sad song compared to others. Full of longing, a want to be free,  It was very familiar to both of them. The last time they had danced to it, well that was an intresting night. “I love you,” Ellie said softly before kissing Dina’s temple. “I’ll love you tomorrow and every day after that.” She kissed her cheek before tucking her head down into the crook of her neck humming along softly.

     They stood together for quite some time. Eventually, the music faded entirely and people must have started to head home. It was even longer before Dina noticed the rocking had a pattern, at some point it Ellie had started leading her in a slow box step.

Chapter Text

     Ellie’s brain screamed watching as the two carried May off. One had grabbed her shoulders and the other was holding her by the belt wrapped around her feet. “Let her go you bastards!” Her voice tore as she struggled with her own predicament. With a grunt she threw her elbow back into his stomach and was met with a huff and wave of sour breath. He still refused to budge and the arm tightened around her throat. “I’m not, giving, you fucking, shit.” Each word punctuated by another elbow.

     “Come on.” He growled harshly to himself. Getting impatient? What a dick.

     A harsh twist of her body and Ellie was finally able to throw him off his balance. She brought her knee up kicking back like a horse. His grip loosened as soon as her foot rammed between his legs. “You fuck!” She roared grabbing the arm and throwing her body forward. The momentum carried him along and he crashed to the ground in front of her. Ellie dove for the machete on the ground as he tried his best to recover from a fetal position. He was able to force an arm away from his crotch to block the blow. It wasn’t enough to stop the blade as it cut deep into his arm moments before sinking into his face as well. Ellie ripped the blade back and he slumped to the ground, one hand still clutching his pants.

     “May!” Ellie shouted racing in the direction they had dragged her off. Her breaths were burning in her throat, “May!” She tried again vaulting over a fallen tree. The sun was just starting to come up giving barely enough light for her to avoid running into a tree.

     “Ell! Don’t you fucking-“May's voice was forcefully cut off. Ellie raced towards the sound already assuming the worst. Ellie broke into the tiny clearing as May broke free from the person at her shoulders and hit the ground hard. She frantically fished out a pistol from under her coat aiming at the ugly bastard still dragging her by the feet. A third attacker appeared aiming a rife down realizing she was about to blow his buddy’s brains.

     “Over here asshole.” Ellie barked moments before throwing herself into his side. They fell to the ground and the rifle went off sending the bullet high into the trees. The splintering could be heard a second before Mays’ shot. This wasn’t the most thought out attack. Ellie grimaced as the guy grabbed a fist full of hair and slammed her head into the ground. She let out a sharp yelp as her head bounced off the ground. A painful ringing immediately followed the impact. Ellie had barely managed to hang onto the machete and swung catching the meaty part of his calf. He let go with a loud curse and it was enough for her to roll off and jump up. Holy fuck she was dizzy. In the corner of Ellie’s eye she could see two figures and their horses tied to a tree. Well, that explains where the rest of the group went.

     A blonde flash coming up behind and Ellie ducked as a bat flew over her hitting the guy in the head. The bat rang with a metal ‘tang’ and May struck again before the note had faded out. “Ducktape? Really!?” May gasped tearing the gray strip off her mouth.

     “Focus man.” Ellie shot up trying to keep a grip through the blood that was starting to pool in her hand. She stabbed down at the spinning form in front of her. Looking back the third and final person was scrambling towards the rifle on their hands and knees.

     “I am focused!” May was already flying towards them. She swung the bat down and around like a golfer, it connected brutally under their chin. The force carried them up into the air a few inches before falling face down in the dirt. May brought the bat high above her head and slammed down again. She sat waiting over the body for a moment daring it to move. “Well,” her lip curled to blow a long strand of hair out of her view, “I’m keeping this.” May slowly relaxed her shoulders and let the bat bounce against her leg.

     Ellie sighed rubbing her forehead. There was going to be some lovely bruises to compliment the headache. Maybe this world would be a little better if everyone would stop hitting everyone else in the head. It’s a miracle anyone had the brains left to survive. “I’ll start pulling. Do you wanna help our idiots?” Ellie pointed at the rest of the group with the machete.

     “Oh, that’s where they went.” May's voice rose to make sure they could hear it. She stepped closer to Ellie first, eyes quickly running up and down checking her injuries. “Is this your worst?” She lifted Ellie’s elbow to get a better look at the cut running along her bicep.

     “Pretty sure. I’ll clean it up in a second.” May nodded backing off to the two currently tied to trees. Ellie knelt next to the first body wiping her hands across her jeans a few times before starting to dig through the various pockets. Usually she was numb to the whole dead person thing but the lingering body heat making her queasy today. “Hey what does that revolver use?” Ellie called out pulling a handful of random bullets from a zippered pocket.

     “Three fifty-sevens,” May replied untying their almost stolen horses. Of course she went for the horses first.

     “Really?”  Ellie paused for a second, “Where the hell did you get that?”

     “I don’t know, some barn? Works pretty well.” May habitually tucked a stubborn strand of hair back in as she stepped around to Benson. “So much for keeping watch.” She ripped the tape off his face and was met with a pained groan. Reaching around she pulled a strip off Jackson too. They both kept their eyes downcast with shame or possibly embarrassment. Based on the swelling of their injuries they easily had been here for the better part of an hour. “Any excuses you’d like to try?”

     “Jackson went to piss.” Benson blurted out as if that cleared everything up.

     “Hey,” Jackson’s glare was really weakened by a swollen eye.

     “What? I was on watch and let you walk out a bit. Not my fault you were distracted by your own dick and didn’t notice them first.”

     “Oh my god,” May rolled her eyes cutting through the ropes that were pinning them down. “Next time you’re holding each other’s hands.”

     Ellie snorted listening in on the passive beating of the two. She worked through the second persons clothes. Turns out the ugly one was a lady the whole time. Sorry lady. Overall the group didn’t have much, even the clothes weren’t worth keeping. Considering they were trying to take them alive must have meant they were some sort of low-end slavers. Or maybe kinky cannibals. Who knows what drives people these days.

     “I thought it was him coming back!” Benson’s hands flew out as soon as they were free. May was going to give both of them shit for the rest of the day and Ellie wasn’t going to stop her. Both guys had fucked up leaving them vulnerable.

     Ellie was almost done with the goblin lady. A few mystery pills, a small flask. The roll of tape would be used in much better ways than keeping people quite. The bickering was still an ongoing hum in the background. A wheezing breath caused every hair on Ellie’s body to stand. It could have been the wind itself that made such a faint sound but she was already preparing. A reaction that had been so deeply ingrained she had forgotten about it. “Fuck!” Ellie rolled sideways hearing the bullet whine by. Beardy wasn’t dead and he was armed. There wasn’t time to think, only survive. A sudden burst of energy clawed through her body taking control as the machete came down and up and down again. It screamed loud enough to echo around her bones. So much hate towards those who take without a thought. The hatred grew like a red wave building up and racing towards the shore. Up and down. Bits of gore were starting to fly up as the body broke down.

     “Woah! Ellie, what the fuck!?” May sprinted forward, “Knock it off.” She shouted wrapping her arms around Ellie’s waist and roughly pulled her back. She caught a hard elbow on her hip bone. “Hey, listen to me. Listen to me Ellie.” May tried her best to keep an even tone and kept a firm hold as Ellie struggled to break free. “He’s not one of them. Ellie.” May stepped back again dragging her along.

     Ellie breaths were ragged, much more so then they were a few seconds ago. She shook her head trying to see through the red haze. “Wha,” Ellie blinked at the remains in front of her then looked down at the blood spattered up her arm. “No,” it was covering her entire front, warms spots on her face. “No,” her voice trembled as soon as May loosened her hold. Ellie’s grip failed and the dripping blade fell to the ground. “Damnit,” Ellie doubled over arms crossing tightly. “DAMNIT!” She shouted again dropping to her knees. 

     The two guys were staring over in shock. “It’s still your watch.” May barked back waving to them to turn away. Benson gulped snapping his attention in the opposite direction. A short punch and Jackson followed.

     “I didn’t want to do that.” Ellie shook now on the ground. “It wasn’t supposed too,”

     “Hey, I know.” May spoke softly setting a hand on Ellie’s trembling back.

     “I thought I was ready. To come back. They were gone. I thought it was gone.”

     “Ellie, you’re okay. We’ll head back and report them. You know thieves are common around here.”

     “But,I,”

     “We can’t go back and fix it.” A few silent moments passed and she worried Ellie had completely shut down. There was a slow and nod in response. May glanced back to see Benson checking over his shoulder. A blazing glare and he snapped his attention away for good.

     Ellie looked down noticing the bloodied bracelet on her wrist. Her hands started trembling more violently than before. “Come here,” Dina beckoned her closer. Ellie obliged with a raised brow. She felt a hand pulling at her own. Dina tied the bracelet onto her wrist. “You know just how dangerous these patrols get.” She said with an overly serious frown. “You better bring that back to me.” Ellie was just starting to get back into some of the shorter routes. Every time she left Dina would give her the good luck charm. Every night when she returned the bracelet would find its ways back onto Dina's wrist.

     “Don’t tell her.” Ellie’s voice was raw with worry. She would rather die than disappoint her. She’d tried so hard to keep everything hidden. To keep her safe. But she’d fucked up. She’d fucked up again and again.

     “I won’t,” May promised working to clean the blood from Ellie’s face.

---X---

     Clean bandages were ironic at times. Often times the long strips were made up of old and worn t-shirts. Faded graphics were still visible clinging to the soft fabric wrapped around Ellie’s arm. It wasn’t often you’d actually get perfect white, even, and clean bandages. Ellie focused on an undefined space between the air and floor. She didn’t like what she saw when her eyes were closed. Rooms lit up by flares, forms slowly running towards her. A finger ran back and forth along bruised knuckles. Her arm still stung but it was an even number of stitches, if that could be considered a good thing. It didn’t matter where she looked. There were hundreds of smaller cuts, scrapes and bruises covering her body.

     Everyone else from the patrol group was already gone. Ellie had sat on the table waiting for something to abduct and fly her away into the abyss of space. She did not want to go home, wherever that even was. “Hey.” A hand touched her face and Ellie jerked back reaching for a gun that wasn’t there. Dina drew back surprised by the reaction.

     “Sorry.” Ellie deflated crumpling into herself again. 

     “It’s alright.”

     Dina touched her again lightly pushing Ellie’s chin up. Ellie closed her eyes as Dina’s thumb ran over some of the fine scratches running along her cheek and jaw. “You’re not supposed to be here.”

     Dina hummed softly, “The more Sarah tries to hide that you’re involved the more I know that you were involved.” Ellie frowned deepening the crease between her already low brow. “Great sentence, I know. It didn’t help your patrol was the last one back.”

     “Did they tell you?” Ellie whimpered softly. She was starting to realize just how hard it was to focus both eyes at the same time.

     “What? You ran into some bandits and had to kill them. That’s the first time since you’ve uh,” she momentarily bit her lip back, “Been back.”

     “Something like that.” It had been over a month since she’d started taking up small patrols again. They’d run into clickers and people before but she’d never lost it. Not like this.

     “Turtle-duck.” Ellie glanced up confused at the out of place statement. At this point she felt like her head was resting entirely in Dina’s palm. How could something be so comforting and painful at the same time? “You know why I picked that?”

     “Because of Avatar.”

     “Sort of.” Dina smiled softly trying to cheer Ellie up in the slightest. “They just prove that having a hard shell doesn’t mean you can’t be cute.” She paused waiting for the reaction but was met with a sigh and slight head-shake. “No? I thought that was clever at the time. At least pretend you like it.”

     “Mmh-hu. It was great.” Ellie nodded slowly wanting nothing more than to be able to fall asleep on Dina’s hand.

     “God, I see how it is.” She laughed lightly. “If you want me to leave just say so.”

     That jolted Ellie awake faster than a shot of whiskey. “Don’t leave.” She panicked reaching out and grabbing Dina’s arm.

     “Whoa hey,” Dina eased setting a hand over Ellie’s, eyes still wide at the sudden movement. “I’m not sure what you thought I meant with that...” Dina trailed off. She knew Ellie had been holding back on almost all of her problems since they’d gotten back. Ellie would go miles out of her way to prevent putting any more of a burden on her but Dina knew everything was still just festering. That still cut deep, was Ellie truly worried she’d leave if she knew? “Okay Ellie,” Dina slowly worked out of her grasp and cupped both of her cheeks before setting their foreheads together. “I know you’ve done some shit that you’re not proud of. No one’s perfect in that sense.”

     Ellie tensed uncomfortably hands gripping the edge of the table, “I don’t want to,”

     “Ellie,” Dina said firmly while still brushing soft circles with her thumbs. “I’m able to help you again. You don’t have to tell me everything but please, please talk to me. I’m not going to leave because of something you did to survive. Weirdly enough, I feel like we’ve had this conversation before.” She laughed awkwardly.

     “I don’t want to hurt you too.” Ellie’s voice dropped and her lip quivered. The nervous energy was doubling by the second. “I did really awful, fucked up things. I’ve killed so many people and today,” A sharp breath shook her entire body. Sometimes it was just easier to kill then take a longer path.

     “I know I’ve lost count at some point.”

     “No,” Ellie pulled back looking sick. She wanted to rip Dina’s hands-off and run, run until her shoes wore down to the soles of her feet. Then her feet wore down to the stubs of her knees. “I killed hundreds. Fireflys, bandits, those cultists, militias. There were days when I forgot I was even looking for you. I can’t,” she frowned at the ground shaking her head. “Did you know you can take pieces of a clicker that’s throwing off spores and use it. It’s like blowing a goddamn dandelion and I’m the only person in the world that can pick it.” Dina’s face went blank as she listened, she’d be lying to say she’d never wondered about the actual properties of the fungus once it had grown. “There’s so many ways CBI can be used. I started to see other animals with it too. It’s not just the people. There were, there were rats, dogs, even a few bigger things like deer. They were deep in places no one’s been in decades but they’re there. I was there. I’m just,” Ellie shuttered.

     “I’m not going to force anything from you.” Dina tried to encourage but Ellie looked up sharply knuckles turning white.

     “All of these things should be terrifying but they never bothered me. But I’ve always been scared of,” Ellie stared forward with panicking eyes. “Being immune has done nothing but help me be a shittier person.” A long rattling breath, “I’m fucking terrified of what I’m able to do.”

     Dina stepped back rubbing her face hand stopping to cover her mouth for another minute “Okay.” She said after an uncomfortably long pause. Ellie followed every movement waiting for some sort of judgment. An ultimatum. “I’m not afraid of you Ellie,” Dina whispered.

     “You should-”

     “No.” Dina cut her off sharply. “You don’t get to decide what I think about you. You. I, uh,” she exhaled with a small huff. Her lower lip tucked back jaw slowly working back and forth as she tried to string her words together. “I don’t want to start a lecture about what I think. Pretty soon it would sound like me telling you what to think of you.” Dina closed her eyes with a long breath. “That would be hypocritical and make me sound a lot like Joel.”

     A pained half-smile. “He did like to do that.”

     “And how often did you actually listen?” A small twitch but no answer. “My mom liked to say that when she was nineteen the hardest decision was deciding what kind of apples she could afford. I was twelve when I had to kill my first clicker. How is it even remotely fair to compare to which of us is a better person?” Dina took a deep breath sitting on the table next to her. “You did horrific things and I spent the same time wishing I could do them. Being dealt a bad hand is one thing, judging how someone uses it is another.”

     Ellie had at least loosened her death grip on the table. Dina reached managing to coax her into letting one hand go. Dina kissed a scraped knuckle. “I can say a little bit of what I personally think but you have to promise something first.”

     “What?” Ellie’s voice barely made it out of her own mouth.

      Dina moved so both thumbs were running on to of Ellie’s hand. “You have to promise you’ll believe that what I say is one-hundred percent the truth. Is that fair?”

     Ellie frowned before slowly nodding. “That’s fair.”

     “And promise that after this you’ll go home and rest.”

     Another tired pause, “Okay.” Dina slowly wrapped her arms around Ellie’s torso and pressed her head against the side of her face. A deep breath, she moved slightly kissing just under Ellie’s ear. Dina didn’t have to say anything since it wasn’t her words that Ellie needed.

Chapter Text

     She had promised to stay in her room most nights unless otherwise asked. Days had passed since the patrol but Ellie’s mind still wouldn’t stop racing and replaying what she'd done. Just because she was home didn’t mean she could sleep. She didn’t want to wake Dina up either. On the other hand, sitting outside her door seemed like a fair compromise. Ellie brought her knife back working to shape a little block of wood. “Can’t you do something productive with all that energy?” That’s what Joel would have said. Ellie was going to make a bear. Or at least that’s what she had initially tried to do. She’d roughed out the general shape but already knew it might change to a cat. It’s what the wood wants, not a testament to her carving skill. It didn’t help that the knife’s blade was chipped and cracking to hell. It should have broken hundreds of times over by now.

     “Shit.” Ellie groaned as one of the blocky cat's legs splintered off. Change that to stubby skunk legs. Or maybe a really, really small bear. Her creative insights might just win. Ellie set everything back into her pockets and started massaging her hands. How were all the old farts able to whittle all day? Every twenty minutes her hands started to cramp up.

     The curtain was barely open and Boo pushed them aside with his nose. His ears perked up excitedly and a little pink tongue shot out. “You’re awake too?!?!? Awesome!!” Ellie just assumes everything was exciting for dogs. She couldn’t see it but she could imagine his tail whipping around until it started to blur. Boo was easily the third best person she knew. Without warning his attention was pulled and he disappeared back into the room. Ellie could barely hear a low murmuring.

     “Maybe it’s nothing,” Ellie tried to convince herself setting her ear against the glass. The mumbling faded off for a second, and then she could hear Dina swear sharply. Ellie threw open the door rushing to the bed. She flipped on the nightstand lamp and pulled the sheets back before Dina tried to strangle herself with them. “Hey. Get up.” Ellie squeezed a shoulder. “Dina.” It didn’t take long but it felt like hours. Between Ellie and Boo’s licks Dina finally shot awake.

     “Where-“ she stumbled out. A few moments of rapid blinking and staring around the room. 

     “Hi.” Ellie greeted at the confused stare she was getting.

     “Why are you here?” A deep swallow as she tried to get her breathing back under control.

     “I was just wandering around. Guess I have good timing, or bad,” Ellie watched as Dina curled up, setting her head on her knees. “You okay?”

     Screaming. Pain. Swearing. Pain. A constant and endless loop. “Peachy.” Minutes passes and it didn’t look like she’d be given the relief of forgetting just yet. Dina stood slowly walking to her dresser grabbing the first items she could reach before throwing a light vest on top. “I think I just need to walk this one off.” She turned towards the door pausing. Dina went back pulling open the top drawer and grabbed her holstered pistol.

     An odd choice but not so in comparison to the last time she went out unarmed. “Anywhere in particular?”

     “Nope.” Dina easily tied the gun into place and pat the side of her leg and Boo hopped off the bed ready to go. Ellie shut off the light and they noticed a glow coming from under the door. “Might as well let her know,” Dina mumbled turning to go through the hall.

     “Everything alright?” Sarah asked noting the parade. Abby sat in her lap solemnly sucking on a frozen rag.

     “Yeah. Is Babby still sick?” Dina asked stopping in the dim circle of light.

     “Fevers down but she’s still not too happy about the teeth coming in.” A long breath and Sarah set her elbow up to lean on. The dark circles had more or less become permanent residents on her face. Even Abby started to drowsily tilt only to be caught with a practiced hand. “Maggie said it should clear up in a few days. Just do whatever your doing.”

     “’ Kay,” Dina replied softly, “Don’t stay up just for me.”

     The slight smile broke before Sarah could finish, “I think I can trust Boo enough that you’ll make it back. I’m not so sure about the other kid.” 

     “You’re probably right.” Ellie agreed ushering Dina out the door.

     Dina stepped out and made a series of lazy turns. Boo was a professional wanderer and her current path put that to shame. A few gray swaths covered most of the sky. The moon was a large blur and only a few stars were clearly visible. Dina suddenly perked up turning, “Did they fix the west gate yet?”

     “Most the wall’s still missing.”

     “That’s basically the same thing,” Dina said cutting towards the wall.

     “I think we need to talk about your definition of same.”

     “You know what I meant.” She waved.

     Ellie looked over with a long hum, “You sure about that?” A light groan was all she got in return. Fixed in apparently Dina’s terms was a gap four people wide. A hasty patch had filled the space while the tried to recover the rest of the town. Eventually that patch was covered with tall snowdrifts. Only now was it finally getting built back up to standard.

     Along with the watchtower above someone had to stay on the ground. Kris was settled in a mini-fort of construction supplies. “Little early for a walk.” She greeted balancing a long blade between her knee and arm-stub. The soft hiss of metal as she ran a wet stone along the edge.

     “Maybe we just got a late start.” Ellie offered.

     An amused smile. “Hasn’t been much movement tonight. Don’t go too far out.”

     Dina led on and the dull scrape of the honing soon faded. There were dozens of small exits on this side of town since the river was a popular spot for a multitude of chores and hangouts. “Last time I left town you got shot.” Dina stretched her arms out in a wide ark before clasping her hands on top of her head. “Kinda weird.”

     Ellie had been in and out multiple times but never on this side. Weird was one way to put being a few hundred yards away from the spot you almost died.

     “Everyone always says the first anniversary is the worst. I didn’t notice until Sarah said something. Even that was months after the fact,” From here it was almost impossible to see over the short waterfall. The tree they had sat in was the only visible thing besides the overcast sky. Dina rested against a large flat boulder staring down at the fading scars that still wrapped around her wrists. “Even now part of me questions if it even happened. Fucking weird to have such a divide between what I keep forgeting and what keeps coming back.” With a low breath Dina set her hands back and hopped up to sit, she laughed suddenly remembering something. “You almost lost an eye here.”

     “That’s a one way to say; sorry I almost killed you, Ellie.” Ellie said leaning back, the boulder hit just above her waist. Being a well-known spot the rock was a common base for capture the flag or king of the hill. Given any ounce of freedom all the kids would go ape-shit grabbing the biggest sticks they could find. They were no exception to that,

      The rock wasn’t a rock but territory under attack. Dina swung down with a cry and Ellie went to deflect, accidentally diverting the blow straight at her face. “Noo,” Her voice crawled in slow motion watching the inevitable happen. The end of the heavy staff crashed into The side of Ellie’s nose.

     Dina immediately dropped her branch, “Fuck.” Ellie hissed covering her eye, blood was already rolling between her fingers.

     “Oh shit shit shit.” Dina panicked dropping her weapon and it rolled off the side. “I’m so sorry. Is it bad?” She rushed closer carefully peeling Ellie’s hand back to check the damage. “Okay, okay uhhhh,” she dug through the small bag they’d brought. Dozens of little eyes stared up at the scene. She and Ellie were supposed to be watching the younger kids not the other way around. Dina was able to pull together enough fabric to press against the gash high on Ellie’s nose. “I’m so fucking sorry.” Dina apologized again.

     Ellie laughed with one eye closed and a thin trail of blood starting to come off her chin. “How the hell am I supposed to explain this one?” The cut was so close to her eye they couldn’t really put stitches in or bandage it together. It was followed by a ghastly black eye that lasted weeks. Ellie had hundreds of scars. Dina was responsible for one.

     “God, we did such stupid shit. Half the gray hair in this town is because of us.” Dina laughed heartily letting her head drop back. A deep breath as she stared up into the sky. Ellie couldn’t help but stare at the way the muted moonlight fell across her face. She was in awe of the way the shadows exaggerated Dina's cheekbones and swept down her neck. One could mistake her for being asleep if not for her fingers steadily tapping against the cold stone.

     Ellie eventually found the little project in her pocket and started working again despite the low light. Dina noticed and made a small remark about the ‘wolf in progress’. Ellie just gritted her teeth in agreement. She’s just going to have to decide the animal when it was finished. Assuming it even made it to that point. It was a comfortable silence with only the occasional deep breath breaking the pattern. Ellie found some sort of rhythm slowly working to wood away when her knife slipped off cutting into the side of her thumb. “Ah fuck.” Ellie pouted shaking her hand out.

     “Careful.” Dina scolded grabbing Ellie’s hand. The cut wasn’t deep and a single drop of blood was struggling to form on its edge. She tugged her hand up kissing the injured finger. Dina paused for a moment her eyes closed. When they opened she turned staring Ellie down intently.

     “It’s not that bad I swea- uh,” she was cut off as Dina leaned forward kissing her. It was rushed, their teeth clacking together as Dina pushed in. Ellie could feel her heart bungee out hard enough to give her whiplash. Her breaths stopped as she tried to keep up. Dina pulled away almost as suddenly as she had started.

     Dina’s hands immediately covered her face and her head shook back and forth, “Wait no, nonono.”

     Ellie stared back nearly in shock from the sudden outburst. Her blood pounded through her ears, “You good?”

     “Yeah I’m fine. Just, give me a second. Just,” Another short breath as she pulled into a frown.

     “Did you forget how to, or?” Ellie tried to tease but her heart was too busy flying away. She imagined a confused hunter watching it whiz by silhouetted by the moon.

     “Shut up, I’m trying okay? This is just really, fucking, hard.” Dina groaned her hands slapping down into her lap.

     Ellie couldn’t help as her smile grew. Dina had really just kissed her. She was so relieved she might start crying. “Is there anything I can do?” She tried to keep her voice from cracking. Dina looked over, red starting to seep into her cheeks. What a wonderful color that was. Ellie set a hand on either cheek resting her head against Dina’s. “Do you want me to start?”

     She felt Dina’s head bob up and down in a shy nod. Ellie pushed forward lips hitting Dina’s softly. She inched closer slowly thumbs starting to brush across her cheek despite the tips of her fingers starting to go numb. Ellie kept going feeling no resistance as she lightly played on Dina’s lips. There was so much she needed to tell her. How desperately she needed to connect again. Just how long she’s been holding back every bit of love she’d wanted to give. She felt Dina’s hand sliding around her back, her nose starting to push harder into her cheek.

     Ellie dropped an arm around her shoulders pulling her closer yet pulling back just long enough to pull a shaking breath. Ellie kissed her again and again wanting nothing more than to never have to let go. If only she could tell her how much everything hurt and how badly she had needed her. She’d craved being close again. She needed her love and support despite everything telling her she didn’t deserve it. Ellie wasn’t sure if she could hold everything back for much longer. Her thoughts were anything but soft, being alone hurt too much. When Dina’s tongue dragged against her lip Ellie completely lost it.

     “Fuck.” Ellie whimpered in between breaths.

     “You okay?” Dina whispered back kissing her again. Ellie nodded not wanting to stop but she was starting to shake. “My God Ellie.” Dina paused watching tears that were streaking down Ellie’s face. “You’re not the one that’s supposed to do that.” She kissed her cheek.

     “Shut up.” Ellie sniffled. Dina melted grabbing Ellie’s collar kissing her for several long seconds. When that ended Ellie couldn’t let go diving back for another. “I missed you, okay.” She snapped despite the watering puppy eyes. Dina laughed falling into her neck. Ellie hastily tried to clear the tears away but they just refused to stop. Dina couldn’t stop laughing and the sound echoed through Ellie’s body. She gave in kissing Dina’s ear before resting her head against hers. At this rate she’d have to be carried back in a bucket.

     Dina swayed back and forth pulling Ellie with her. “Ellie,” She eventually breathed sitting up and using her sleeve to dry Ellie’s face. Dina tried to hold back giggles at Ellie’s odd pout and stubborn sniffles. Dina couldn’t deny just how much her own eyes were starting to burn. When she couldn’t she hide her wide smile Dina had to bury it in reassuring kisses along Ellie’s jaw. There were days that would still hurt but they were getting easier. Easier. How easily they fell into each other again and again. Dina could hear everything.

     The grey light of dawn made it easy to watch the near drunken stumbling coming back to the town. “Must have done a lot of walking.” Kris teased. They pointedly avoided eye contact walking past her.

     “You think it’s going to rain?” Dina wondered inspecting the patchy sky.

     Ellie shrugged. “Ask Gramp’s about his knees. He’ll be sure to tell you the weather.” An awakening town. People stiffly moving past windows, some already sitting out drinking from steaming mugs. A hot drink sounded wonderful considering the cold threating their noses. Dina headed for the backdoor of her home. “You need anything?”

     Dina stopped staring at the ground before turning. “You didn’t sleep at all last night, didn’t you?” Ellie shrugged nonchalantly. “No. Bad answer.” Dina reached up brushing a hair off Ellie’s cheek. She bit her lip for a moment watching Ellie's eyes, “Don’t worry about me. Go home and get some rest.” Dina rocked onto her toes stealing one more kiss.

********

    "This is a first," Dina sat scratching behind Boo’s ears. She hadn’t even been woken from a nightmare. There was easily a few hours until sunrise yet she couldn’t fall back asleep. For once she was completely and fully awake. Why it couldn’t happen at a better time was the real question. Dina waited for the better part of an hour and still wasn’t feeling tired. She bit the air with a growl. Boo copied snapping back. “Fucking weird Bubba.” Dina chuckled to herself fully giving up and sliding off her bed. All else fails she could try to run a lap around the wall. Dina hummed a little tune to herself wandering through the streets. She couldn’t quite place what song it was, Ellie would probably be able to guess. Dina wondered if she was awake. She better not be. “You know what,” Dina muttered to herself. It really was a good thing Boo didn’t care if she talked to herself. She veered off towards Tommy’s house. Rounding the corner Dina rolled her eyes seeing that the light in Ellie’s room was already on.

     “Go home,” Dina waved Boo off. Rather than leave he decided to hop onto one of the wicker chairs on the porch. Dina took a deep breath starting down the short roof. It was an easy climb she’d done hundreds of times nothing to worry about. She grabbed onto the support stepping up onto the railing. Her arms flopped onto the shingles but she struggled to pull herself up. “They must have made the railing shorter.” Dina groaned finally managing to swing a leg up and onto the edge. She finally worked her way onto the roof breathing far heavier then what was called for. What was more surprising is the fact Ellie hadn’t noticed the limp fish attempting to break in yet. Ellie wasn’t in bed but Dina could see the top of her head sticking over the mattress. Dina worked the stubborn window up and made it about halfway before Ellie noticed the sound.

     She quickly turned pushing her headphones off. “Dina hey,” Ellie scrambled to the window helping to open it the last few inches. “You okay?”

     “Yeah, yeah I’m fine,” Dina tried to quell the worried tone as she slid into the room feet first. “Please tell me you at least slept more than four hours,”

     Ellie scratched her cheek, “Pretty sure I got somewhere around there.”

     Dina shook her head dropping onto Ellie’s bed. The floor was littered with scraps of paper and notebooks. Ellie’s guitar was leaning against the bed. “You’ve been busy.” She stared out over the sea of scribbles, “Anything new?”

     “Not really new new. There’s plenty of things I was working on before and I’m trying to remember where I left off.” Ellie carefully stepped over the spread pages sitting back on the floor. “I guess I was trying to break down another album but I'm starting to get sick of it.” She grabbed a notebook flipping back a few pages and handed it to Dina, “Do you think you could play this?”

     It had taken a few years but Dina more or less knew how to decipher Ellie's messy writting. “I should be able to. What key is it in?”

     “I don’t fucking know.” Ellie hummed a series of notes, “That one?” A lost stare from Dina, “No? Okay. I really need to get to one of the pianos to figure it out.”

     “We could use the one at Henry’s place,” Dina slid off the bed to sit next to Ellie. She tried to hide the wide grin as she continued, “Right after I’m done helping Sarah.”

     Ellie perked up, “Helping as in working, at the clinic?”

     A soft nod, “It probably won’t be much. I’m hoping to at least get two hours in.”

     “Don’t sell yourself short, that’s great! I can finally get all the hot gossip again.”

     “Gossip? The most exciting thing that ever happens is when someone accidentally breaks their own nose.”

     “Exactly.” Ellie had started absently picking at her guitar. The sounds were short and muted by a sock pushed under the strings.

     Dina snorted shaking her head slowly. “I hate to disappoint but I’m probably just going to be making medicinal goop the whole time.”

     “I’m sure I’ll be the one using it eventually.”

     Dina smacked her shoulder, “Don’t jinx yourself.”

     “Too fucking late,” Ellie smiled down at the ground. She was close to a song she’d actually want to show off. She closed her eyes trying to play through the chorus in her head. She lightly tapped against the body of the guitar. “I also think you just asked me on a date.”

     Dina froze for a moment, “I guess I did.” She shook her head with a small laugh before resting on Ellie’s shoulder.

     “I mean it’s kinda weird that you chose to go to your adopted uncle’s’es house, but okay.”

     “Oh fuck off,” Dina flicked Ellie’s arm. God how she missed the stupid back and forth. Ellie turned to kiss her forehead and Dina scrunched up her face, “Gross.”

     “Shut up or I’ll lick you.”

     “Why is that the next thing you go fo-“ Dina squeaked trying to duck away as Ellie chased her with her tongue sticking out. She rolled to her side to maximize distance with the least amount of effort.

     Ellie sat straight again with a half-smile. “I warned you didn’t I?” If she didn’t get this song figured out her brain would explode. Ellie didn’t mind when she watched her practice. Hell, Ellie had spent months transposing Dina’s favorite Beatles album to guitar just because she knew she would sing along.

     Dina laid back on the floor listening to the quite playing. What was infinitely more entertaining was watching Ellie’s face. A small pouty frown when she hit a wrong note. The way her eyes would light up at seemingly random moments. The elusive smile as she would pause and take notes. Dina flipped through some of the notebooks only able to recognize a portion of the song titles. One page had been blacked out. "Through the Valley." What on earth could have been so wrong about it that she’d destroy the page? Ellie breathed sharply pumping her fist out excitedly.

     “I got it. I got it. I got it.” She frantically grabbed a second notebook scribbling away. Dina sat up trying to peek at what she was writing but Ellie turned blocking her view. “Fuck off, you might make me forget what it was.” She mumbled her brows dropping even further. “Okay,” Ellie dropped the book her hands excitedly spinning in the air again. “That’s been bugging me for weeks and I finally fucking got it.”

     Dina held her hands up quietly applauding. “Will there be any preview performances?”

     “No. Well maybe. But not until I’m able to actually hear it all together first.” Dina scooted closer resting against Ellie. She adjusted a dozen times not quite able to find a comfortable spot. Ellie picked up on that almost immediately, “There’s are a couple of songs you haven’t heard yet,” she lifted her guitar up and pulled Dina’s legs across her lap. “Well, I guess you’ve heard some of them but not my versions,”

     Dina set her chin on Ellie’s shoulder watching her ramble along. There’s was everything to what albums she was going to try to adapt next to writing an over the top country-styled song making fun of the town quirks. Words tumbled from her mouth and her hands continued to play through random riffs. Dina once listened to her talk about their favorite tv-show for a whole two hours. A show that she’d introduced Ellie too and had already watched dozens of times. Ellie cleared her throat abruptly resettling the guitar on to of Dina’s legs. “God, you let me get sidetracked,” Ellie said as if there was a track to begin with.

     “You’re fine.”

     “Okay. Okay. Okay,” Ellie set her shoulders back. “I’m super close on this one I just need lyrics. Or just make it a duet, I’m not completely sure.” She started playing quietly.

     “Is it Wonderwall?” Dina teased. Ellie rolled her eyes elbowing her. She plucked along glancing over at Dina every few seconds. She started humming along quietly. Occasionally breaking into softly singing random syllables. Ellie had always been so shy about singing but her voice could be so light and airy. It would fit right into the end credits of an old romantic movie. If Dina said that out loud she would probably get smacked. But how could she not become hopelessly lost watching Ellie? Dina set a hand on Ellie’s cheek turning her to the side. She kissed her catching a surprised note with her lips. Dina was sure she’d never kissed anyone like this before. Her other hand was already tangling into Ellie’s hair. It wasn't until a soft pleading moan that Dina remembered where she was. She inhaled sharply pulling back just enough to speak without her lips hitting Ellie’s. “Sorry,” Dina whispered, “I should have let you finish.”

     Ellie swayed for a moment. “It’s,” She pushed her guitar off to the side, “I’ll start over later.” Dina sharply pulled her back in. It was a good thing she was already sitting down because, holy, fuck.

Chapter Text

    It had been a quiet night for the most part. Wolves singing in the distance sending clean notes through the air. It had been sprinkling on and off. Had Ellie not been working she could easily drift to sleep with the natural symphony. She’d made it back to the night watches, a personal favorite. Most people found them even duller the then day but taking in a deep breath of the sweet air just reminded her of better days. Sitting by a small fire in the middle of nowhere, Joel would constantly say he wasn’t that good of a singer in-between broken verses. He easily could have been in a band before everything. She liked to imagine it as one of the bands with long and awful hair. Church roofs, late patrols, sleepless nights. It seemed like this was the only time when the world would slow a touch. Ellie was finally able to wait up here without digging too deep into certain memories. A slight breeze blew through and the rain started falling again. It had picked up enough that she didn’t hear the soft steps coming up behind her until the last moment. Ellie turned seeing Dina with her head down.

    “Hey,” Her eyes followed suddenly concerned. “Everything good with the clinic?”

    Dina waved her hand out with a slow head shake. She slumped to the floor with a sigh facing away from Ellie. Dina grumbled slightly before leaning so they were back to back. Ellie tried to look back but couldn’t see much without stretching awkwardly. Dina had pulled her legs up against her body. “You cold?”

    “No.”

    She didn’t seem shaken or stressed in any way so Ellie didn’t push the matter. Ellie stared back out into the misty trees. The extra breaths blending in with the rest of the ambient sounds. There was the occasional shift from Dina but it was still a good amount of time before she really said anything. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Dina gave an irritated sigh undoing her hair so she could run her fingers through it.

    “Bad day?”

    “No. Sort of? Maybe all the rain is starting to throw me off,” She shook her head again. “I might have panicked again. Millie came in with a little scrape. It should have been easy but I saw the blood and just kinda,”

    Hearing her voice start to speed up Ellie crossed an arm over her shoulder to reach Dina’s, “Shut off.” Ellie finished. That’s one way they’d started to put it. Ellie tried to joke that Dina had left the building if someone came over at a bad time. “You at least stayed all day didn’t you?”

    “Close to five hours.”

    “Hey that’s good,” Ellie cheered softly. “You’ve doubled since last month.”

    “Well, Sarah’s just making me clean and grind stuff. I just about ran when Tyler had to get his cast off.” She dropped forward with a grown. “I feel like I’m not even helping.”

    “Yeah well, I sit in a box and stare at nothing all night. At least people use the stuff you make.” Ellie waited but was met with another silence. “Do you want to come over here ooor,” she held out until it turned into a weak drone.

    Dina caved pushing herself around to lay with her head on Ellie’s leg. “I don’t like feeling like everyone has to babysit me. It fucking sucks.”

    “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Whenever I babysit Abby and I have a blast.” Ellie said brushing out Dina’s hair. She could never understand how it could all fit into a neat bun.

    “What, are you just going to babysit me the rest of your life too?”

    Ellie absently ran her thumb back and forth on Dina’s cheek as she scanned the never-changing pines. “I don’t mind taking care of you.”

    A short pause. “Shut up.”

    Ellie rolled her eyes looking back down. “Come one. You at least try to help. That kid is hell-bent on destroying anything that’s not tied down.” She dipped to kiss Dina’s forehead. “It’ll get better and you probably won’t even notice when it does. I’d say you’re cuter but…”

    “Hey.” Dina laughed swatting at Ellie. “There’s no way that’s fair.”

    “Of course it’s not, Abby beats you by a mile.” Ellie was barely able to finish under the onslaught of weak punches.

    “Take that back.” She chuckled, “You won’t think that when she starts talking.”

    “You know, that’s exactly what I thought when I met yo-“ Dina’s hand shot up under Ellie’s jaw pushing her head back. “Ooohohoou.” Ellie sang out despite Dina’s attempts to silence her.

    Dina dropped her hand once Ellie had stopped. “You still owe me a shift.” She said rocking her head around to get more comfortable. Ellie frowned for a moment trying to remember where that had come from. “One of the long patrols radioed in and should be here tomorrow afternoon. I don’t know if I can, handle that.”

    “As long as they don’t show up to early I’ll be fine.” Ellie agreed. Her feet swung back and forth as she spun a strand of dark hair around her finger. She couldn’t place what bet or promise the extra shift had come from if her life depended on it.

    “How late are you supposed to be up here? I thought you started at eight.”

    “I did. Jess is coming up at three.”

Dina’s face twisted staring up. “What kinda freak night owl are you?”

    “You don’t have to stay up here.” Dina’s stare turned into a more critical glare. Her breath came out in a long choppy groan like a cat that didn’t quite know how to purr. “Dibs. Go home if you’re tired.”

    “I’m not.” She stubbornly rolled to her side. Within minutes she was snoring. Between the soft rain and even softer touches Ellie wasn’t surprised.

    About an hour in a crackle on the radio asked for Ellie specifically. “What’s up?”

    “Can you pull to the second line?” Sarah asked.

    “Yep.” Ellie paused her current pattern of running up and down Dina’s arm to flip the radio away from the line most the town was on. “Alright.”

    “I just needed to check if Dina was with you.”

    “Yeah, she’s asleep up here.”

    A longer pause and she could imagine Sarah’s sigh of relief on the other side. “Alright, I’m not sure what happened but she disappeared on me then Chuck said she never came home. I’ll come get her if you need.”

    Ellie bit her lip hovering over the talk button. It felt weird to be talking about Dina when she was right in front of her. “Don’t worry about it. We’re on Anderson’s roof. We’ll probably end up at my house since it’s closer.”

    “Alright.” Another odd pause on Sarah’s end. “Thank you Ellie.”

    That was, weird. “I take it this isn’t the first time you’ve disappeared,” Ellie asked carefully trying to move Dina’s head to restore some amount of circulation to her leg. The rain was starting to pick up and long streams were falling from the corners of the roof. Ellie gingerly worked her jacket off to avoid disturbing the passed out Dina. She dropped the jacket on top of her trying to stretch it out as much as she could. “Then again we used to do that all the time. Is that the normal you’re trying for?”

    Obviously she didn’t respond. Ellie spent the rest of her watch in silence trying to think if there was ever a normal in the first place. The more they tried to fake it the more disjointed everything became. You could put on a smile every day but still feel completely lost at the unspoken turmoil inside. Normal shouldn’t include constant violence, but it did. No matter how hard they tried to maintain peace someone felt the need to destroy it. The only people with a clean conscience were either infants or already dead. “I’m I ever going to be comfortable living with that?” Ellie wondered for the hundredth time that day alone.

    She did her best to zone out as she scanned back and forth and fell into a pattern of stroking through Dina’s hair. Finally a gruff voice sighed behind her stomping up the last steps. “Why does it always seem like we get the shit nights?” Ellie looked back as Jesse was shaking the water off his coat. He paused noticing the extra body. “Is she alright?” He motioned with concern.

    “Just a long day,” Ellie said trying to shake Dina awake. “Let’s go.”

    Dina rolled her head back. “Cold,” A tired growl.

    “I know that’s why I’m trying to get you home.” More complaining as she helped push Dina up. A quick glance down showed that Jesse was a good ten minutes early. That or her watch was way off.

    “You got everything?” Jesse set his light bag down and checked over the towers rifle.

    “Yep.” Ellie was still trying to coax Dina down but she sat leaning against the rail with a glazed stare. She gave up and turned for Dina to climb onto her back. Sloths move faster than Dina, it at least that’s what Ellie guessed.

    “So you don’t have anything for the rain?”

    Ellie nodded hopping a bit to get a final hold on Dina. “We’re just going to my house. It’s not that bad.” Before she had finished Jesse had pulled off his top coat.

    “You’ll be soaked before you get to the bottom.” He threw it over the top of both of them. “I’ll just pick it up tomorrow.” Ellie glanced up to say something but was distracted by a distant flash of lightning. “Go.” Jess shooed.

    “Jeez, I’m getting there.” Ellie groaned at the motherly gestures. She ducked down as she stepped out from the cover. She was immediately grateful feeling the heavy rain pounding away on the thin layer. “Thanks Jess.” She called back.

    “Tell him to go fuck a cactus,” Dina grumbled into her shoulder halfway down the narrow stairs.

    “I will not.” Ellie chuckled power walking towards her home. Good thing Jess was a literal giant. The coat was just long enough to cover both of them.

----X----

    “Come on. You could at least try to set her up.” Dina begged as Ellie brought another cup of water up.

    “You’re telling me to do that?”

    “You’re the only person she listens too. Just imagine what a cute couple May and Ben-.” She was cut off by the water being poured on her face. “Hey.” Dina sputtered.

    “Oops,” Ellie said knowing exactly what cheap tactics she was using.

    “Ah damnit,” She rubbed vigorously at her face. “You got soap in my eye.”

    “Hopefully that’s the one you’re using to see non-existent futures.”

    “It’s not impossible,” Dina tried to argue. “They’ve gone on practically every patrol together for the last year.”

    “If I get soap in your mouth will you stop talking? Just theoretically.” Ellie reached forward scrubbing through her hair.

    Dina tried to keep the annoyed pout but it was hard to do that when her instincts wanted her to start purring. “Theoretically I could pull you in.”

    “Sure. I dare you.” Ellie scoot forward on the side of the tub. Everything was more than clean, she was just messing around at this point. “She’s eighteen,”

    “So?”

    “So,” Ellie was rocking Dina’s head back and forth just to see how far she could go before earning a ‘what the fuck’ stare. “She’s old enough to figure that out without help.” Dina took a breath to refute but Ellie beat her to it. “No. Also, why do you think I would be any help? A third of the people I’ve kissed died immediately after. I don’t know how to count you in there. Maybe bump that number up to a forty-seven percent.”

    “Please keep your pseudo math away from me.”

    “Just wait until I get learned on the multiplifractions.”

    “Oh god.” Dina groaned closing her eyes as another cup of water was poured over her head.

    “If you’re so adamant about it you should do all the work.” Dina brought a hand to the surface of the water flicking up at Ellie. “Hey.” She laughed but her eyes filled with fear seeing Dina’s hand start to cup.

    “Lee-lee.” A small voice called out and the handle shook. Ellie’s eyes narrowed as she slowly turned away.

    “One second Abbs.” She reached out drying her hands and fully expecting to get a handful of water thrown at her back. Luckily it didn’t happen, yet. Ellie opened the door crouching down. “What is it?”

    “Stuck.” Abby was struggling to hold up a heavy boot and little wooden car. “Help me.” She held the car out and the boot fell to the floor with a thunk. “Uh-oh.”

    “It’s okay. Let’s see what’s wrong.” Abby had managed to get one of the long laces wrapped around the axels of two wheels.

    “Boken?” Abby kept stepping in place nervously watching the events in front of her.

    “It’s not broken,” Ellie assured unwinding the string. “You just have to be careful where you drive.” One wheel free but she couldn’t quite figure out how Abby had managed to get the knot behind the second. It took some finessing before she managed to loosen it up enough to pop the lace over the wheel. “There you go.” Ellie handed the car back and Abby gasped excitedly.  “Yeah. It’s all good.” She grinned clutching the toy close to her chest before running back down the hall. “Abby wait.”

    “What?” She turned staring back before remembering with another gasp. She ran back in the toddler way where each step pushed her up more the forward. She threw an arm over Ellie’s head for a short hug.

    Ellie laughed at Abby’s interpretation of what had been forgotten. “Oh, thanks,” She lightly pat her back, “Can you take the boot back?”

    Abby looked up for a few seconds before grinning widely. “Yeah.” She grabbed the top of the boot dragging it behind her as she took off again. It only made it about halfway down the hall before she dropped it again.

    “Close enough.” Ellie shook her head. Either Abby had already forgotten it or she considered the job done. She closed the door turning back to Dina who was staring back with a dopey smile. “What?”

    “You're being cuute.” She sang with a little shoulder wiggle.

    “Shut uuup.” Ellie wiggled back before sitting on the edge of the tub again. “Stop it.” Dina didn’t and still beaming up at her. Ellie sighed grabbing her chin pulling her into a short kiss.

    “Just admit you like babies already.” Dina teased hitting her nose against Ellie’s.

    “I never said I didn’t.”

    “You wanna make one?”

    “You know that’s not possible.”

    “We can sure try.”

    Ellie groaned pulling away. “I will drown you.”

    “With love.” Dina finished her brows managing to do an unbroken wave. “And then in nine months,”

    “Oh my god.” Ellie gave up standing and swiping the curtain closed. She could hear the water sloshing back and Dina cackling on the other side.

-X-

    Dina froze reaching out for Ellie’s arm. The iron grip immediately set Ellie into protection mode. “Jesse left his bike.” Dina stared at a distant point.

    “What?” That was nowhere near what Ellie was expecting.

    Dina’s mouth popped into a cunning smile. “Come on,” Dina whispered pulling Ellie to the side of the road. Her steps were overly plotted as she watched every movement. “We’re going to steal his fucking bike.”

    “We.” Despite the feigned reluctance Ellie was already completely onboard.

    “Yeah. Keep up.” Dina’s grin widened peeking into the window of the old lodge. She chuckled evilly to herself sprinting over to the handful of bikes. She zeroed in on a blue mountain bike. Or at least it was blue at one point. She crouched down grabbing the lock her tongue peaking out as she flipped through the numbers. She cackled again when it opened. “That idiot never changed the code,” there was a loud round of laughter, one voice was partially recognizable. “Oh fuck.” Dina pushed the bike out to Ellie taking a few steps back into the street.

    Ellie happily obliged throwing her leg over the frame. “Dude What are you doing? Hurry up.” Dina wound back and threw the lock onto a neighboring rooftop. Ellie started peddling hearing the group come closer. Dina let out an excited squeak running up behind and jumping into the pegs.

    “Go go go go,” Dina rapidly whispered smacking Ellie’s shoulder to emphasize each syllable. She was already going as fast as the crowded street would allow. “Pardon!” Dina shouted trying to help clear a better escape path.

    “Where are we even going?” Ellie shot back.

    “I didn’t even think we would make it this fa-ah!,” They hit a pothole and tilted precariously to one side. Dina saw her life flashing before her eyes and all she could do was hang onto Ellie’s shoulders. Ellie barely avoided death and kept the bike upright. “Holy shit.” Dina threw her head back laughing freely.

    It was such a pure sound Ellie almost crashed the bike for real. She could feel goosebumps despite the summer sun burning through her shirt. “I bet we could get it into the stables rafters.”

    Dina gasped excitedly, “Fuck yeah we can.” Ellie set the new course and Dina was giggling the entire way. They skidded into the wide doorway, “Hey Notch,” Dina casually greeted dismounting from the bike. “Promise I’m not here to cause trouble.” She lied already searching for supplies

    “Is that your story now?” He didn’t even glance over his shoulder.

    “Yep Yep Yep. Keep facing the other direction and you can say you never saw me.” She grabbed a short length of rope and started climbing up the remains of an old tractor.

    “Isn’t dinner at your place tonight?” Ellie asked her fingers tapping on the handlebars.

    “Pretty sure.” Ellie could barely see the smile on the side of his face. Damn Notch was good at the whole turning a blind eye thing. “Hopefully I’ll do a bit better at containing that tornado of a kid this time,” Dina grunted jumping up and grabbing one of the heavy beams.

    “We’ll do our best to keep her distracted.” He nodded whistling as he walked out one of the far doors.

    Ellie turned to the odd grunting noises. “Don’t help me.” Dina’s face was scrunched up as she sat with her legs still dangling in the air. She growled painstakingly pulling herself up one limb at a time. “Jesus fucking Christ,” She huffed working her way to the center of the room balancing on the wide supports.

    “I could have tied the bike up by now slowpoke.”

    “Fuck off.” Dina dropped one end of the rope down to Ellie and she quickly tied the bike up. She whistled shortly when she was done and Dina hauled it up and secured it. “Do you think there’s a way to rig it to fall, but only on Jess?”

    “Sure. You’d just have to stay up there and throw it at ’im.” Dina snorted as she hung off the beam then dropped to the ground. She didn’t quite stick the landing but Ellie was able to catch an arm before she fell on her ass. “You good?”

    “Hell yeah.” She quickly brushed the splinters and dust off herself.

    “Dina!” A distant and irritated voice called out. Her face flashed into a smug little smile before bolting towards the door.

    “Hey. You can’t just leave me.” Ellie chased after her. Her cheeks were starting to burn from the permeant grin plastered to her face.

    “Leave you? I was never here. You can even ask Notch.”

---X---

    Dina had left her door open just a bit. The light breeze had brought the day to a near-perfect temperature. The afternoon sun was bright enough to cut through the sheet she’d tied up. A perfect little fort for the day. “Knock knock,” Ellie said louder than the actual tap on the door. “Are you hiding?”

    Dina shrugged but the movement was invisible under her tent. “No.” She caught the shadow moving across the room and couldn’t help the smile that drew across her face.

    “Can I come in?” The slightest indent as Ellie poked the sheet.

    “Yeah. Just be careful. I’d hate if you ruined all my hard work.”

    Ellie chuckled sliding under the low roof. “Is that what you call it?” She froze watching the lamp wobble as she pulled too hard on the sheet.

    “Ohhh. Don’t you come in here breaking my house Williams.”

    “I didn’t realize you moved in. I would have brought something over.” She slid under the sheet slowly working her way closer.

    “Snacks are always welcome.”

    “Sorry but, it’s just me.”

    Dina rolled her head over with an impish twist of her lip. “That’s what I said.” Ellie’s eyebrow perked up at the implication. Dina stared back up with a laugh.

    “Sooo?” Ellie waited.

    “So?”

    “You just got back from your first patrol. How was it? Hopefully you didn’t make this little bubble out of the shame of failure.”

    “The what?” Dina blindly set her arm out finding Ellie’s hand after a few attempts. “It was fine and boring as hell. Apparently Jackson and Bri have a thing going on. Thanks for warning me about that before I got stuck with them two for days.”

    “That’s the first I’ve heard about it.”

    “God. Consider yourself lucky. It’s never taken so long to decide who will take the first watch. I felt like I was just in the middle of a staring contest the whole time. Even May was about ready to go toss both of them in the river.”

    Ellie chuckled turning to her side. “Let me guess, the bubble’s supposed to keep them out?”

    “God I hope I don’t have to look at them again.” There was a longer pause and Dina turned to see an idiot beaming at her. “What?”

    “I’m just proud of you.” Ellie grinned. “Going on patrols. Throwing Jackson into rivers. My little ducks all grown-up.”

    “Oh shut up.” Dina groaned lightly hitting Ellie’s side. She licked her lip trying to keep the smile down. “You know what the real problem is?” Ellie hummed. “Your face.” Ellie’s brow dropped quizzically, “I think it needs to be like right, here.” Dina waved a hand in the air just above her head.

    Ellie leaned up on her elbow still trying to avoid hitting the sheet. “Right here? That seems a little weird.” Dina stretched her head up but was barely coming up short. “So you’re doing crunches now? I still want to hear more about this patrol.”

    “Come on. We followed the river for a few miles and came back. Same patrol that happens every other week.” More lazy stretching towards Ellie.

    “And what does my face have to do with that?”

    Dina gave one more attempt her tongue sticking all the way out and barely missing Ellie’s chin. She fell back to the pillow with a thump and a pout. “You should maybe scoot just a ‘lil bit closer.”

    Ellie brought up her lip causing her nose to scrunch up in an infuriatingly adorable way. “Nah.” She looked back at the high-intensity puppy eyes grinning. “What? I’m just really interested in the last three days.”

    “Just let me kiss you already.”

    “Jeez just say so. It’s not like I can read minds-“ Dina gave up on the lazy approach hooking an arm around Ellie’s neck pulling her down. There was no resistance as Ellie just as eagerly dropped.

    “I missed you.” A whisper between short gaps.

    “Yeah.” Ellie was finally able to get rid of the teasing smile falling into a familiar pattern against her lips. As much as she loved to play with short teasing kisses Dina kept pulling her closer. The soft sounds still made her blush. This was building quickly. Ellie reached out drawing her tongue across Dina’s lower lip to me met with a happy little hum. Shivers rolled through her body.

    “You closed the door right?”

    “I’m not sure.” Dina’s fingers started to curl up into her hair. An excited breath and Ellie pushed off her elbow rolling on top of her. Dina’s back arced up her other hand coming to grab around Ellie’s ear. Both of her shoulders were pressing against the flimsy roof. Breaths were already turning into short huffs. Neither of them were allowing time to breathe. More. Each kiss teasing the other's mouth to open further.

    ‘P-ting’

    The soft noise caused both of them to jump. “Noo.” Dina laughed at the fallen sheet. Their shared tent had turned into a shared pocket. The sheet hanging from Ellie’s head made her look like a nun making Dina laugh even harder. Being so close to her smiling face Ellie couldn’t help but join. “You look, you,” she couldn’t find the air to speak. “Shit.” Dina giggled trying to wipe the moisture that was starting to pool in her eyes. Ellie dropped down setting her face against Dina's neck. “Ohho-no.” Dina wheezed now being crushed.

    “What?” Ellie laughed again at the noise she’d accidentally squished out of Dina.

    “I don’t know.” She cackled rocking Ellie back and forth. “Get off me.” Dina was finally able to squeak out between breaths. Ellie rolled back but not before leaving a few kisses behind. Dina covered her face still battling the lingering giggles. “What the hell just happened?”

    Ellie pushed the sheet off exposing just how red they had both turned in such a short time. “There’s two fucking dumbasses in the same room. What did you expect?” Dina laughed again her hand covering her mouth. Her shirt had ridden up and Ellie couldn’t help but run her hand across her exposed tummy.  

    “Where do you think you’re going with that?” Dina asked with a roguish grin.

Chapter Text

     It had taken months to get to this point but Ellie was finding the repetitive work quite satisfying. Take the red hot metal and hammer it out on the anvil. Work until the color started to drop to a dull orange. Put it back under the coals until the whole piece warmed up again. Sometimes there would be five people pounding away at the same time. Making a chaotic yet comforting sympathy of noise. The most satisfying part was dunking the pieces in a tub of water creating a sizzling cloud of steam. Heat, hammer, repeat.

     “Behind,” Will ran past with a glowing blade that was easily four times the size of the little project she was working on. He pushed it into the tank staring intently as the colors changed beneath the water. Will let out a mad cackle pulling the now dark metal out. “Still straight.”

     “That’s a surprise coming from you.” Ellie tossed back before drinking as much as she could while her knife got back to temperature.

     “You’re the one to talk.” Will set the unfinished blade aside and started reorganizing the dozens of tools and tongs scattered across the floor and tables. “Think you’ll be finishing today?”

     “Hopefully. I’m still not quite sure about the fit-up.”

     “Let me check,” he came up behind her. Ellie pulled out her knife flipping the chipped blade out. Will pulled her piece from the coals to compare. “I think you’re good. Just clean up the lines a bit and I’ll help with the heat treat.”

     Ellie nodded switching to a lighter hammer. A few more rounds of brushing the scale off and shaping the finer details in. Will was practically breathing down her neck the whole time. “Would you just take a picture already.”

     “I might. Tristen’s been here two years and I still don’t trust him to make more than nails and horseshoes. You,” he sniffed loudly wiping an imaginary tear, “You understated the craft.”

     “Get lost,” Ellie kicked back but only managed to catch his apron. When she forced it under the coals again he came closer watching the heat like a hawk.

     “Right there,” Will called. Ellie grabbed the steel taking note on the color before dunking it. The steam hissed into the air threatening to burn her fingers. Then again everything in the building threatened to do just that. He whistled as she brought the now grey metal out. “You might be able to squeak out a finish.”

     “As long as I don’t mess anything up, right?” She didn’t even check the clock as she was absorbed by polishing and sharpening the knife. Will went back to his projects for the day and eventually became another buzz in the background. It wasn’t until she ran the edge across a leather belt she noticed the time. Ellie swore under her breath. She might have lost track of time but her arms wouldn’t. Looks like that’s just going to be a tomorrow problem. Ellie pulled her switchblade back out inspecting the worn blade one last time. It was almost sad taking it apart. Almost. Using the tiny screwdrivers was always a treat. For now she was a giant playing with the minuscule tools of mortals, “Ah fuck.” She watched one of the screws bounce away.

     “All good there?”

     Ellie’s head popped up a little too soon hitting the underside of the table. “Just fine.” She frowned rubbing the back of her head. With all the pieces accounted for she set the new blade into place praying it would line up with the handle. The first screw went in, then the guard. A wide grin as the second screw lined up. When everything was back into place she closed it. A small shake and nothing was rattling or loose. A deep breath as she pushed the release. The new blade shot out silently and Ellie couldn’t help but chuckle proudly. “It’s good.” She cheered thrusting the knife into the air.

     Will let out an enthusiastic cheer throwing on his bag. “Not bad timing either. We might just make it to dinner.” Ellie threw the old blade into a scrap bucket before following Will out. With each step she repeatedly opened and closed the blade. It was a little heavier than before but she could easily get used to it. The gate was already starting to open letting the group from town in. The so-called shift change was really more of a glorified buddy system. Wills face immediately brightened seeing one of the faces about to head home. “Evelyn!” He shouted out.

     “Shit,” She groaned trying to hide behind her hand.

     “My love. How are you? You haven’t responded to any of the letters I’ve sent.” Will teased loudly. She ducked out the gate as soon as she was able. Will matched his pace ensuring they walked side by side the entire time. “Long time no see. How’s the family? How’s the wife? How’s the cat?” He rattled off.

     “I swear to god if you try anything you’re getting the worst servings for the next month.” They bickered fervently and Ellie had to hold back snickers at some of the insults. The friendly feud was never anything short of entertaining.

     “Where there’s a Will there’s a way.” Will proudly spat. “Hell right now you’ve got both Will’s.” He turned unexpectedly yanking Ellie into the conversation.

     “I’m not joining in any of you arson.” Ellie claimed.

     “Oh come oon,” He grabbed Ellie’s shoulder, “You’ve got a great track record. Like smoke bombs in the kitchen. You remember how much Kris loved that?”

     Evelyn rolled her eyes. Love was a very close opposite to the reactions of that event. “That was entirely Dina’s fault. I just happened to be in the same room at the time.” Ellie stumbled along.

     “You just helped steal the sugar, right?” Evelyn teased.

     Ellie couldn’t believe the crossfire she’d been pulled into. “The hell guys? That was years ago.”

     “Kris still complains about the smell to this day.” Evelyn dramatically held a fist over her heart.

     “And I’m the one who has to listen to you complain about the complaining.” Will copied the gesture. They both broke into a round of laughing. The four other people heading home had conveniently broken off walking a good hundred feet in front of them.

     “My god,” Ellie mumbled rubbing the bridge of her nose.

     “Okay sorry. Sorry Ellie. I’m sure you’re a mature non-flame setting adult now. You just need to keep track of that other gal.” She barely finished before breaking into another giggle. Evelyn finally took a deep breath, “Speaking of which, any thoughts on the extra houses?”

     “The what?” Ellie’s head jerked back.

     “Willard!” She gasped smacking his shoulder, “You’ve spent all day in the same room and you didn’t tell her?”

     “I was busy,” He jumped back avoiding another hit. No distance was enough to avoid the insults. “Jeez, okay. I forgot.”

     “Forgot what?” Ellie was still struggling to follow.

     “Henry said there’s enough supplies for two extra block-houses. After that all the new construction is over.”

     “And,” Evelyn eagerly waved her hand out.

     “Henry thinks you and Dina should claim one.”

     Ellie’s breath was slammed from her chest. A few strangled sounds made it out of her broken mouth. “We’re, we’re not,” she wasn’t sure how to finish that thought. We’re not married, or really fuuuuu, “What about Neilson’s?” She tried to swallow the sudden horse-sized hairball in her throat. “They were all stacked in Tanner's attic last I heard.”

     “You need to get your hearing checked.” Evelyn flicked her head, “They finished their repairs a solid month ago. If you ladies need anything it’s your own space. A block would be perfect.”

     “I don’t know,” Ellie’s head was reeling. Sure they spent practically every day and meal and patrol and night together, but. But what? Why wouldn’t they live together? Things were finally settling and Sarah probably wanted to get Abby out of the living room. It’s possible that’s always been an option... “Maybe,” her voice cracked, “We can definitely talk about it.” Wow did the town seem real close all of a sudden.

     “Oh of course do that first.” Evelyn took off, “Just know, all four of us have agreed that the chances of the building combusting with the two of you in it at the same time has drastically decreased in the last few years.”

     Maybe they were still talking but Ellie’s brain was gone. It had been replaced with an all-consuming static. Of course she wanted to. But that had always seemed like a dream she wasn’t allowed to have. The gate swung open and she wasn’t sure where to go. Home? Where exactly was that? She might as well have been walking through Jelly. “Lee-lee! Lee-lee!” An excited squawk caught her off guard.

     “Yeah Lee-lee’s back.” Dina waved with her free hand and was immediately mimicked by Abby who was sitting on her shoulders.

     “Fuckfuckfucknonofuck.” Ellie panicked. God she wished she had been given at least a few hours to think about what had just happened. “Hey,” Ellie greeted as Abby kept excitedly chirping out her name. Ellie wasn’t about to shout this conversation so she hopped over the fence walking along-side Dina and the young mare she was working with.

     “Did you just get back?” As soon as she was close enough Dina reached out rubbing her face. “Never mind, the soot tells no lies.”

     “It’s not like it’s easy to avoid.” Ellie leaned forward kissing her forehead. “Can we talk about something,” She was cut off by insistent calling from Abby. “What? What do you want?” Ellie’s voice had picked up a lighter tone. Abby’s small hand waved her closer before pointing to her cheek

     “You forgot her kiss.” Dina chuckled crouching down a bit.

     “Oh alright. Didn’t mean to leave you out Babby,” Ellie apologized kissing her cheek with an exaggerated “Muah.” Abby giggled happily kicking her feet out.

     “Careful there,” Dina grabbed onto her legs before she could fall off her shoulders. “What were you trying to say?”

     “Do you,”

     “Lee-lee,” Abby called out again. “Helpin the harse.” She pointed to the steed in training.

     “Wow. That’s great.” Ellie could feel her stomach starting to eat itself. “What would you think-,”

     “Tommy was talking to me earlier.” Dina eagerly said at the same time as Ellie. “Sorry, you started first.” She shook her head.

     “No it’s fine. It’s not real important.” Ellie awkwardly rubbed a sore spot on her shoulder.

     “Tommy asked if we wanted a house.”

     “Harse.” Abby agreed.

     Ellie blinked trying to catch her own words as her brain kept getting tossed around, “That’s what I wanted to talk about,”

     “I said yes.”

     “You-,” Ellie’s face had probably been red since she left the dam but now she could see the heat radiating off.

     Dina came to a slow stop turning the horse with her. “Is that not okay? I figured it would be best not to wait since there’s no way it will stay empty. It’s still going to be a few months before it’s finished,” She trailed off looking back at a now frozen Ellie. “Duck-duck?”

     Ellie’s eyes snapped back up. “No. I mean yes. Yes to the house.” She swallowed, “A house for, like we’re, just,” A wide smile broke across her face and she couldn’t help the laughter bubbling up from her chest. “You really just said yes, right there,” Ellie mildly rambled to herself.

     “Ellie,” Dina melted watching the flustered display. “It was the easiest choice I’ve ever made.”

     Ellie let out an almost squeaky, “Ah!” before rushing forward and embracing Dina. “You really like me that much?”

     “Of course I like you.” Dina shook her head laughing. The young horse anxiously jerked its head back against the bridle. “Spoons might have some different opinions.” Ellie stepped back apologizing profusely.

     “Spoons. Spoons. Spoons.” Abby chanted.

     “I bet you could never guess who named this guy.” Dina glanced up at the toddler “Abby, what did you name the other horse?”

     “Fuck.”

     Ellie’s brow dropped suspiciously and Dina just snorted. “That’s right. Fork,” Dina held a finger up to her mouth.

     Ellie smiled but she couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the rapid fluttering in her chest. “I love you.” She blurted out.

     “I love you too.” Dina chuckled as she started biting her lip. One finger lifted up beckoning Ellie closer. “Hey, I’m almost done here.” Her voice dropped into a low whisper,” Maybe if you wait a bit we can clean up together.” She popped up into a short kiss.

     “I, I can wait.” Ellie stumbled over her words and every step on the way back to Tommy’s house. The closer she got the more she realized she couldn’t wait.

********

     Apparently she’d been too optimistic in thinking there would be a fourth and final matching chair in this mess. Rumor has it all this furniture has been in the clinic attic for decades and was haunted by the hoarder that left it there. Ellie was pretty sure the ghost's name was Susan. “Hope you’re not working too hard.” Her face lit up seeing Dina in the doorway.

     “Where the hell have you been this whole time?” Ellie rubbed her neck in an attempt to stop the beads of sweat from rolling down her back. A foolish effort considering her shirt was already soaked.

     “Getting water for my duck.” The glass was already fogging up as water condensed on the outside.

     “It took you three hours to do that?” Ellie playfully elbowed her before chugging like her life depended on it.

     “Had to make the ice myself. I would have helped with some of the bigger stuff but Abby keeps trying to barricade me in.” She quietly laughed to herself. “Do you have any clue how hard it is to pack when a pissed toddler keeps throwing everything back out of the boxes?”

     “Does she know she gets the room once you’re gone?”

     “You try explaining that.”

     Ellie smiled more than glad for the break. She had no clue how the time had passed so quickly. It was overwhelming but at the same time seemed like nothing was changing. She cupped Dina’s cheek pulling her into a slow sweet kiss. “We’re really doing this?” Ellie whispered letting her thumb trail along her face.

     “You better not back out. Abby is the town’s most passive-aggressive three-year-old. I don’t know where she gets it from.”

     “I think I’ve got a pretty good idea where it comes from.”

     “The hell are you talking about?” Dina pushed her hand away. She hopped up inspecting the jumbled mess, “What else are we looking for? I know there was a decent nightstand somewhere in here.”

     “I think May grabbed one already. I was too distracted with finding that damned last chair.” Ellie had already been distracted and she wasn’t trying hard to get back on task. She wrapped an arm across Dina's stomach, “All else fails we come back later.” She pulled her back kissing just below her ear.

     Dina shrugged her off with a wide grin. “If you don’t finish moving we won’t have anywhere to stay.”

     “You could just come to our place. Your beds already been moved.”

     Dina turned setting a hand on Ellie’s chest pushing her backwards. “Are you trying to imply something, Ma’am?” Ellie’s back hit the wall. Dina bit her lip trying to hide her smile.

     “Maybe,” Ellie reached up running her thumb along the curve of Dina’s mouth. “Just know that you’re absolutely involved.” It had been over two years since they’re first kissed yet Ellie still couldn’t control the butterflies that would race through her stomach when they got this close.

     “I swear to god if you try to take the good napping couch,” Sarah kicked the door open. Dina huffed her head falling into Ellie’s shoulder, “Oh, am I interrupting something?”

     “Kinda.” Dina could feel Ellie tensing but pushed down telling her to stay put. Sarah stared back with a cheeky half-smile. She bit down on an apple slower than any human ever would. The drawn-out crunching was the only sound in the dead silence. “Do you need something?”

     “Nap couch?”

     Dina spun to face her, “Of course we took it. You can still use the red one that’s buried in there.”

     “It’s not as comfy.”

     “Not my problem.”

     Sarah leaned against the door frame happily making her home in the awkward tension. “Is my baby sister trying to fuck?” She teased.

     “God!” Dina threw her hands out, “Don’t act like I haven’t caught you before.”

     “I don’t recall anything like that.”

     “We’ve lived in the same houses for over a decade. Don’t you even start,”

     “Literally don’t know what you’re talking about.” Sarah took another long bite, “I’m celibate.”

     Dina’s head shot back. “I’m sorry? Care to explain that child you birthed a while back?”

     “‘‘Twas a gift,” Sarah threw her hand up for emphasis, “From God.”

     Dina turned back to see Ellie with her arms tightly crossed and jaw tense as she tried not to laugh. “Get out of here!” Dina could feel more hairs popping free from her bun with every word.

     “Okay, fine.” Sarah glanced at the door her grin widening. Dina noticed just too late and ran for the closing door. “Have fun.” She cheered before shutting them in.

     “Fuck!” Dina attacked the unmoving handle.

     “Wait, wait. What just happened?” Ellie came up behind her.

     “She locked us in.”

     “Locked? How,” she stared at the doorknob, “Why is that on backwards?”

     “I fixed it when I was twelve, cut me some slack. She’s just taking her sweet sweet payback.” Dina groaned letting her head thump against the door. “I’ll explain later.”

     “No, I think I can guess.” They tried to find something to pick the lock but miraculously managed to fall short in a room full of literally everything. After the failed efforts Ellie approached with a different plan, “If we’re doing the time might as well commit the crime right? You’re good at being loud and annoying.” Dina wasn’t sure if that was supposed to be a compliment or an insult. Ellie started thumping her fist against the door in a steady pattern. “OH OH GOD. FuCK.”

     Dina clapped a hand over her mouth, “Dude!” She whispered.

     “Come on. There’s a whole patrol down there right now. You know it will piss her off.” Ellie moaned loudly. “DON’T STOP. OH MY GOD.”

     Dina wrapped her arms tightly around Ellie cackling. “HUUUA. AHHW. AHHHHWHA.” She obnoxiously added.

     “Yeah, there you go,” Ellie snorted still managing to keep the steady pounding. Dina couldn’t help but add a few real kisses in between their theatrics and stifled giggling. They managed a solid minute before angry stomps started coming back up the stairs.

     “Window window!” Dina pushed Ellie towards the escape route. She made one last, “HUUUUAAAAH.” Before dropping to the street below. “She’s going to fucking kill us.” Dina cackled running towards her house.

     “Wrong one.” Ellie beamed pulling her the other direction.

*********

     In a way it was surreal to have an entire set of matching glassware. Breaking into storage units could be pretty hit and miss but either way it was like Christmas. Ellie unwrapped another mug tossing the paper onto the pile. There was a growing collection of all sorts of cups, plates and bowls covering the counter. They probably only needed to keep half of it. There’s wasn’t even an oven in the house so they wouldn’t ever be hosting, right? Ellie wondered where all the energy she’d had the last two days had disappeared to if this is what her brain was stuck on.

     “I thought you said you were done for the day.” Dina yawned her bare feet patting across the floor.

     “Couldn’t sleep.”

     “For a second I thought the house already had packrats. Turns out it was just,” Dina picked up a handful of discarded wrapping and aggressively crinkled it up into a ball, “You.” Dina tossed it at Ellie’s chest.

     Ellie closed her eyes realizing how dumb she was. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you up.”

     “I usually sleep like a rock.” Dina hugged Ellie dropping her head onto her shoulder. They’d worked nonstop yet every corner still looked like a small explosive had gone off. “Is the clutter stressing you out?”

     “Kinda.”

     Dina stretched covering another yawn, “Well, guess I better get back to work then. I’d feel like an ass if you did all the work while I was asleep.”

     “You don’t have to worry about-“

     “Vidiiupbuda. What’s bugging you the most?” Ellie waved vaguely to the dishes covering all the available counter space. “Alright. Finish unwrapping everything and I’ll start washing.”

     “There’s so much stuff,” Ellie frowned trying her best to keep some sort of organization, “Do we really need all of this?”

     “Well, we have the room,” Dina paused filling up the sink, “I’d say it’s best to wait a few months then get rid of what we haven’t used.”

     We. We. Us. We. Us. Ours. Dina made it seem so easy. The way she talked about a future they had no guarantee of. A few months. What if it was only days, but what if it turned to years. Ellie wasn’t sure how she managed to keep working even though her hands were trembling. Dina chuckled sliding a plate into a cupboard, “What is it?” Is it me? Is it me?

     “You know how Henry was in charge of building this?” Dina reached up slapping the top shelf, “He made sure everything was four inches shorter than usual.”

     “He what?” Now that she had pointed it out Ellie realized she could actually lean comfortably against the counter. “What a dick.” She snorted. While it seemed like an endless task she was reaching the bottom of the last box. She un-wrapped a large mug with bold lettering. “This one's yours.” She passed it along to Dina.

     She read it over with a quizzical smile, “World’s number one dad? If anything that’s you. Unless,” she paused a wicked smile crossed her face, “Are you saying I’m your daddy?”

     Ellie’s mouth dropped, “What no, gross!”

     “I mean I know you’ve got issues but,”

     “Okay no, that’s getting sent out.” Ellie tried to snatch it back before Dina could get any more ideas.

     She chuckled dodging away. “No, it’s mine. It lives on the top shelf except for the random Tuesday’s when you decide to take it.”

     There were so many things implied there Ellie was about ready to slam Dina into a dumpster. Not even one of the nice dumpsters. “Ass.” Ellie gave up turning away with a half-smile. It didn’t last long as her senses were bombarded with a never-ending list of what still needed to be done. She managed to fall back into a steady pattern.

     Dina reached out with her foot to get Ellie’s attention. “Come dry for me.”

     Ellie jumped being pulled from her own personal world. “Yeah, Yep. Yep yep yep yep.” She was only now realizing her hands had turned black from the ink.

     Five yeps? Dina’s brow furrowed at the telling sign, “How long have you been up? Be honest.”

     “Uhhh well,” Ellie’s lips twitched to the side, “You went to sleep and I, didn’t?” 

     Dina wanted to knock her unconscious with a plate then and there. “Jesus,” She cringed closing her eyes for a moment. Dina tried not to count the number of times Ellie rubbed her tired eyes with the palm of her hand. Or the way she would stare off into space before shaking her head to focus again. If there was one thing Dina knew for sure it was that Ellie wouldn’t ask for help until her head was rolling on the ground three feet from the rest of her body. And that was only for physical injuries. Ellie would brush stress aside like someone would sweep leaves into a corner and hope the wind finished the job. Unfortunately for her, there was always a shit-ton of leaves and they would occasionally combust into spectacular flames. “May said she’d be back to help tomorrow afternoon.”

     “Mm.”

     Dina wasn’t entirely sure how long it took to scrub every inch of every dusty dish. She could feel her fingers starting to prune up from the water. Ellie moved mechanically to dry and place each item up into the cupboards. Dina washed one final cup and stepped away to dry her hands. “Plan on-“

     “Shit.” Ellie’s hiss was closely followed by breaking glass. Dina jumped onto the countertop as clear shards skittered across the floor. “Fuck, sorry. Sorry.” Her eyes frantically searched back and forth.

     There was a rush of joy that filled Dina’s chest, “Lee.”

     “We don’t have a fucking broom!” She panicked trying not to step on any pieces.

    And it looks like all the leaves were starting to smolder. “Ellie,” Dina said firmly but she couldn't help the smile that crossed her face. “It’s okay, really.” Ellie stared at her with wide eyes. With this reaction, you’d think someone had been shot.“If anything it’s good luck.”

     “How is it lucky? You don’t have shoes and you sometimes sleepwalk and I can’t even clean this up.”

     “Hey,” Dina scoot her way past the mess. “Come here.” She had the wild eyes of a wounded animal. As soon as Ellie was within reach Dina pulled her in closer, “I’m going to kiss your dumb little face alright?” A confused nod and Dina kissed her forehead. “Calm down,” A soft kiss on her cheek, “Take a big fucking breath because that cup isn’t going to kill you. Frankly, you already killed it.”

     A pained whine. “Shhhh it's okay. Dina assured. “Your stress is starting to stress me out. I know this is a big change, sometimes I can't even wrap my head around it. But right now what do I have to do to get you to sleep?”

     “I need a broom.”

     “No, we’ll worry about that later. It’s four-fucking-AM and you need to lay down. Don’t make me sit on you,” She threatened wrapping her arms and legs around Ellie. Dina nuzzled against Ellie’s cheek for a moment. “You know this is going to take more than a day to finish. How about this,” Dina pulled away enough to see Ellie’s face, “What two things are we finishing tomorrow?”

     A delayed frown.“I don’t know.” 

     “Pick two things. We could finish bringing everything in, finish the kitchen, living room is the worst but we could try to power through all of that.”

     “If another box comes into that door I will fucking die.” Ellie sighed dropping her forehead onto Dina’s, “Once everything is set in the kitchen it won’t move again.”

     “No more stuff is easy. Finish the kitchen, great.” Dina could swear she could hear Ellie’s brain clanking away as she was forced to set an actual tangible goal. “What’s the second thing?”

     “Clothes.”

     “More specific.” She pushed gently.

     Ellie took in a deep breath, “Make sure everything has a spot in the closet so you stop taking all my shirts.”

     “Okay.” Dina could make no permanent promises about the theft since Ellie’s entire collection was based on comfort alone. “We’ve got our battle plan.” She firmly poked Ellie’s chest, “Once the sun is up I will steal every god-damned broom I can find. Until then there's one more thing you need to put away."

     "What?"

     "Me." Dina grinned hugging a little tighter. Ellie groaned lifting her off the counter, "Oh shut up. You fucking love it."

Chapter Text

     “Abby scoot.” Dina waved at the toddler who was standing in the middle of the couch. She looked over with a wicked and toothy grin.

     “No!” She shouted clinging to the back cushion.

     “Oh come on. You can share.” Ellie said grabbing her little waist pulling into her lap. “What are you going to do now?” She rapidly poked her sides and Abby squirmed back and forth with a squealing laugh. Dina took the distraction to finally get her spot on the couch. “Ahhhhhhrrrr.” Ellie taunted tickling like a monster and making dozens of mushy adorable sounds she would never admit to.

     “No. No noooo!” Abby gasped between breaths. “Mom help!”

     Sarah didn’t seem to care as she finished off the dinner Abby had taken three bites of and left on the table. “Oh no.” She said flatly dropping into the chair across from them. “Did you ask nicely?”

     Abby panted staring up at Ellie with wide eyes. Her fingers wiggled threatening to tickle again. “Stop ‘namit!” The room fell silent. Dina burst out laughing.

     “What did you say?” Sarah’s eyes narrowed. Abby rolled off Ellie’s lap with a speed barely recognizable by the human eye and launched down the hallway. “I don’t think so!” Sarah charged after her.

     Charlie came in knocking the dirt off his boots paying no attention to the panicked toddler screeching in the distance. “I missed something?”

     “Abby swore.” Dina filled in for him.

     “Who taught you that, huh?” Sarah called out at a giggling Abby.

     The three outside mumbled in unison. “You did.”

     “So,” Charlie started unperturbed, “Over three weeks. Did you guys find anything?” He took the recently vacated chair.

     Both Dina and Ellie took a breath to start but froze noticing the other. “You go.” Ellie nodded setting her arm on top of the couch back.

     Dina started crossing a leg under the other. “I’m kinda surprised it took this long to send someone out to Missoula. We’ve known it was up and running for years. May wasn’t too happy to go back but there weren’t any issues.” her finger tapped on her side. “Ellie stayed outside with the horse and Boo. May and I had to do the blood tests and sit in quarantine for two days. Other than that, just a typical military town. They did have a flour mill up and running, Tom seemed really interested in that. He’s hoping we can work up something to trade for that in a few months. Is that everything?” She turned to Ellie.

     “Don’t look at me I was sitting in that garage the whole time.”

     Dina chuckled. “We tried to think of a way to sneak you in.”

     “What about the horse?”

     “Papaya could figure something out. She’s more resourceful then you’d think.”

     “In terms of a horse.”

     Abby came running back in pushing hair out of her red face. “Hi.” She ran up hugging Charlie’s legs. Sarah followed shortly after grumpily sitting on the arm of the chair. They had a few random tales from the last weeks. A clicker here, a weird tree there. Abby ended up on the floor attempting to comb every inch of Boo who tiredly tried to play dead through the whole endeavor. Charlie excused himself to go clean up after working the stables all day. As soon as he was out of sight Sarah started going off about some idiots that stopped in town for a few days. How were they still alive? No one was sure.

     “One second.” Sarah jumped up heading out of the room.

     Dina slouched a hint of a frown starting to show. “May said she’d drop our stuff off right?”

     “Yeah.” Ellie nodded checking that Sarah was still gone. “You doing okay?”

     “I don’t know. Probably just tired.” The statement didn’t feel entirely true. Dina’s brows dropped watching the fireplace.

     “Well, it is late. We can head home and maybe, find something else to do?” Ellie suggestively wiggled.

     Dina smiled shortly. “Misses Williams, are you trying to flirt with me?”

     “Misses?” Ellie kissed her temple, “You and I both know it’s not physically possible for me to flirt.” A quiet laugh as Dina turned towards Ellie. She set a finger under her chin pulling Ellie into a small kiss. She kept pushing it just a little longer.

     “Okay, you were,” they quickly backed away from each other, “The fuck was that?” Sarah glared with cup in hand. “Are you kissing in front of my baby?!”

     “No.” Dina innocently stared back.

     Sarah came forward grabbing a pillow and smacked Dina. “You’re not allowed to do that.”

     “Hey,” Dina laughed under the light assault.

     “Don’t kiss in front of my baby. She’s not allowed to know about that until she’s eighteen.”

     “Eighteen?” Sarah froze waiting for Ellie to finish. “That seems kinda, high.”

     “Dude how old were you when you finally kissed someone?” Dina teased hugging the pillow before she could be hit with it again. “Ellie, you were what, fourteen?”

     “Yep.”

     “Do dares count? I could technically say thirteen,” Dina held out In case she remembered differently. “Fifteen if you skip that one.” Sarah was still stuck glaring between the two. “Did you really not kiss anyone until you were eighteen?” Dina prodded again.

     “Chuck!” Sarah shouted behind her a muffled response could be heard from upstairs. “Come here!”

     Reluctant steps thumped halfway down the stairs. All they could see was bare legs and a red towel. “What?”

     “When was your first kiss?”

     “What?” The confusion was clear in his voice.

     “Like how old were you?”

     “Right on my seventeenth birthday. Why?” Both Ellie and Dina were cracking up on the couch. Sarah was ready to kill all three of them.

     “Wait, wait let me guess.” Dina grinned. “We got here when you had just turned twenty-two. You and Charlie flirted for like a million years before anything happened... I’m going to say late twenty-three? God you’re a nerd.”

     “I am not answering to any of you.”

     “Twenty-three sounds about right.” Charlie agreed disappearing again.

     Sarah swore loudly ripping the pillow from Dina’s arms to launch it up the stairs. “I’m three.” Abby drowsily added holding up four little fingers.

     “Not for much longer Babby,” Sarah said giving up hope on the scoundrels surrounding her. “I should probably let you guys go. She won’t sleep until you’re gone anyways.”

     “No.” Abby pleaded jumping onto the couch to lay on Dina’s lap. “Stay here?” She begged with wide eyes that soon shut with a tired blink.

     “Hey, we’ll be back tomorrow. You can’t have a party if you’re sleepy.” Dina gave a sympathetic pat on top of her messy curls.

     “I can come to your house.”

     “No,” Ellie cut in helping Dina escape the adorable trap. “Our house is stinky.” Her lip curled with emphasis. “But you can come tomorrow.” Abby followed with lopsided and heavy steps as they grabbed their jackets. Boo also saw his chance and stood, a handful of little ribbons and bows fell off his side.

     “I don’t think anything is planned to happen until dinner. Will made sure of that.” Sarah said pulling Abby up so she wouldn’t try to run out the door.

     “Uncle Will?” Abby’s gaze shot up.

     “Yeah. He’s coming but only if you go to bed.” Abby frowned still trying to weigh the two options. She gave up tiredly falling onto Sarah’s shoulder. “Take care guys. But don’t you dare bring any more bad ideas.”

     “Wouldn’t dream of it.” Dina waved letting the door close behind her.

     “I wouldn’t call any of my ideas bad,” Ellie muttered setting her hands in her pocket.

     It wasn’t late by any means but the air was still cold enough to keep most everyone inside. A few stubborn patches of snow still clung to the sides of buildings. Dina pointed up, “Guess what? Uranus.”

     Ellie glanced up at a completely overcast sky and Dina took the moment to throw her foot back into Ellie’s. “Hey,” She squeaked stumbling for a few steps. “Get a new joke or I’ll kick Uranus.”

     “Please do.”

     “Gross.”

     “You started it.”

     “Oh I absolutely did not.”

     Dina’s grin eventually fell as they hurried to their home. Their backpacks were set on the floor just inside the door. Ellie tossed her jacket over the couch already heading towards the small fireplace. “Just jump in the shower. I’ll take care of everything out here.”

     Dina didn’t have to be told twice. Thankfully the water wasn’t freezing but Ellie was still taking forever. How could such a pyro struggle to start a fire? Other than the water hitting to floor it was eerily silent.

     “You nakey?”

     Dina snapped up from staring at the water swirling down the drain. “No Ellie, I’m fully clothed in here.”

     “Won’t say I haven’t done it.” Ellie pushed the curtain open a few inches holding out a full glass.

     Dina took the cup pushing the curtain a little further. Ellie had one hand over her eyes, “Would you just get in here already?”

     Two fingers slid down and Ellie peeked through the gap, she gasped, “You lied.” Dina rolled her eyes taking a long drink. A few purists in town fought that it shouldn’t be called whiskey. It tasted questionable, burned going down, and got you more than drunk if you weren’t careful. “Okay, hopefully you didn’t have too much fun without me.” Ellie stepped in swearing as the water hit a wide patch of road burn on her side.

     “You good?”

     “Almost forgot about that.” She poked at the tender spot on her hip. “Assholes.” A quiet mutter. Dina set the glass up on the high windowsill in exchange for soap. “Stop that,” Ellie swatted her hands down as soon as she started washing her hair. “That’s my job.”

     “Jeez okay.” As much as she tried to sound irritated Dina fucking loved it. “Is it bad I wanted to get stuck in Missoula for an extra week and miss everything?”

     “I don’t think anyone could argue that’d be wrong.”

     “I didn’t ask if it was wrong.” Dina leaned forward wrapping an arm around Ellie’s waist. “It’s not like it’s her fault but damn it’s a hard reminder.” Just a few inches from her nose a wide scar banded across Ellie’s shoulder. If she stepped back there would be another on her stomach with a matching one on her back and hundreds in between. Dina couldn’t even see most of her own but on bad nights she could feel them still. Reminders were constant and often un-forgiving. She closed her eyes focusing on the fingers running across her scalp.

     “It’s not bad.” Ellie paused with a short laugh. “Who the hell has even been to a good birthday party?”

     “I had one.” Water running through her hair, a kiss on her forehead. Dina wished she could stretch the moment out longer.

     “Well, in that case there’s a high chance tomorrow isn’t going to be the one that sticks out. Next year will probably be about the same. Maybe Charlie will catch his shirt on fire again. That was pretty fun.”

     Dina shivered the water already starting to run cold. “I can’t even remember last year.”

     “It wasn’t great.” Ellie tapped her arm lightly and she backed up letting her finish cleaning up.

     Dina grabbed the glass to finish the last of the whiskey. What she could remember was only in the words of others. “I’m just hoping I’ll sleep the whole night.”

     “Hey. We’ve been working hard to just make it a normal day like any other. All else fails I say I have diarrhea and we leave.” Dina snorted abruptly a hand shooting to her mouth as she tried not to spit out her drink.

     “That’s your go-to excuse?”

     “No one questions thAT.” Ellie spun slapping the water off as it suddenly switched to freezing. “Goddamn tanks.” She shivered.

     Dina laughed throwing a towel over Ellie’s face. “You deserve the cold shoulder.”

     “Ohhh,” Ellie groaned, “Fuck off.” Dina’s smile eventually faded as they scurried out trying to limit the time their bare feet spent on the floor. The little fire was trying its best but it would take some time before the house warmed up. Until then or complete exhaustion they waited on the living room floor. Ellie’s hair was barely long enough that Dina could braid it back, the ends shot out with goofy little puffs.

     “Can I convince the bartender for one more drink?” Dina balanced the again empty cup on her ribs.

     “Bottles empty.”

     Dina stretched back not wanting to surrender Ellie’s leg turned pillow. Dark alcohol still took up the last quarter of the mason jar. “I hate it when you’re right.” She pushed her cup off to the side and it clinked against the other empty glass. At this point if she had aimed for the table there was a high chance she’d miss it. “Happy birthday to the cutest fucking kid on the planet.” Ellie shifted slightly and for some reason her brain took that as upset. “Hey it’s okay,” Dina reached up slapping the side of her face. “You’re cute too but I don’t know when your birthday is.”

     “Okay?” Ellie chuckled. “Didn’t we officially decide on March 32nd?” Dina’s eyes narrowed trying to figure out just what was wrong with that.

     “I thought it was April.”

     Ellie pushed a stray curl off her face. It would more than likely spring back in a few minutes. “Dina,”

     “Okay fine,” Dina sat up, “I’m changing it to February. Oops, look at that. I forgot to get you something, asshole.”

     Ellie cracked up again at the passive-aggressive move. “I’ll cry about it later.” Dina couldn’t hold her frown under Ellie’s gaze.

     “Stop that.” She crossed her arms turning away. Dina’s ears were burning from alcohol and sitting next to a fire. There were absolutely no other reasons,

     Ellie was kissing her neck in a slow small line across the back. She paid extra attention to the few scars that peeked past the edge of Dina’s shirt She didn’t get much farther before Dina spun catching her mouth in a fevered rush. The lingering taste of alcohol was still there but Ellie was better. This year the bottle wouldn’t be empty by the end of the night. Granted it did break after catching a stray elbow.

Chapter Text

     “That library seemed pretty good. If we head back soon I could easily set a few snares before the sun goes down.”

     “You really have a thing for libraries don’t you?” Ellie teased stepping onto a shelf to reach the top.

     “First off,” Dina popped, “You started that.” She flipped through a stack of folders. There usually was no value to the information but sometimes there would be keys and other hidden items. Granted half the time you couldn’t find what the keys even went to.

     “You’re going to have to be more specific. But it doesn’t matter since it’s always your fault.” Dina snorted flipping through the pages of a magazine. She stopped reading through one of the articles. Ellie grinned stalking up behind her.

     “You would think-“

     “Yah!” Ellie shouted grabbing Dina’s sides.

     “FUCK you.” Dina jumped tearing the corner off the page. She shook her head at Ellie’s smug little smile. “No really, go fuck yourself.”

     “Not unless you fuck me first.”

     “Christ,” Dina groaned throwing the magazine at Ellie’s chest, “This is why no one ever wants to run patrols with you.”

     “Awe, but you do.” Ellie bit her lip setting her hands on Dina’s hips.

     Dina stared back, “Don’t give me that look.”

     “What look?”

     “The ‘I’m I little bastard’ look.” She said seriously before popping up to kiss Ellie’s nose. Dina slipped out of her hold moving on into the building. “Is the little bastard coming or not?” She called out moments before a gagging sound could be heard.

     Ellie followed and was met with a pungent smell. “Holy shit.” Her face warped into disgust.

     “There’s a lot more then shit going on.” Dina dry heaved again. “God, where is it even coming from?” They scurried down the damp hallway briefly peeking into each room they passed. The further they went the more putrid the air became, “Fuck man. This might be worse than your old room.”

     “Are you fucking kidding? Of course this is worse.” The door was knocked off the hinges of the last room. A steady drip of water could be heard. “Christ,” Ellie sighed inspecting the three half-rotted bodies on the ground. Dina immediately spotted a rifle and pulled it from remains.

     “Do you think the smell killed them?” She asked pulling the bolt back. Her face was stuck in a permanent scowl.

     “It might of.” The far wall was bulging out. Water slowly bled through the drywall, an ironic term at the moment. Mold covered every possible surface. Ellie rolled a body over with her foot finding a few bullets. She noticed a perfectly round hole in the skull. “Duckey,” Ellie could feel the hairs on her neck prickling.

     “Yeah?” Dina walked to the bubbling wall and poked it with the end of her rifle. The wall rippled and a steady stream of water started spraying from the place she’d touched.

     Something was wrong. Very, very wrong. Ellie checked the second body. Another hole in the skull and larger exit on the far side. Three suicides. The water came out faster as the wall started to disintegrate. One corner had small spires of mold growing out. Except it wasn’t mold, “Mask! Mask! Mask!” Ellie shouted pushing Dina away from the rapidly disappearing wall. Dina was still fumbling with the straps when the first clicker punched through followed by a cloud of spores.

     It screeched horribly as a wave of brown water washed across the floor. Ellie ran to intercept the clicker as it charged towards them. She pulled her machete off her bag slashing down across its chest. “Fucking hell!” Dina shouted behind her moments before a moltav flew into the now exposed room. The glowing fireball lit up dozens of forms. Some humanoid, some much larger.

     “Holy shi-“ Ellie didn’t get to finish as she was thrown back by the first clicker. She swung the blade around in a wide ark taking its head off. Dina was taking shots at the infected coming towards the hole in the wall. “Just fucking run.” Ellie wished she could follow her own advice as two more clickers started swinging at her.

     Dina swore loudly as the rifle clicked signaling an empty chamber. “Little stuck here.” She swung it around clubbing the infected in front of her before throwing the rifle down in favor of a long hunting knife. A large ball was thrown into the room exploding into another cloud of spores. “Why are there so fucking many?” She lit her last Molotov launching it into the room again. “Come on,” Dina ran helping Ellie up. She hadn’t even seen her fall. Blood was running from her nose and a dark spot was overtaking a shoulder.

     Ellie gasped for air as they tore down the hall. The spores where thick enough to make her cough. Several clickers were funneling in behind them. There was no cover or way to throw them off. “Do you have any more mol-“

     “No.” Dina’s mask was fogging up to the point that condensation was starting form on the inside. The screeching was a never-ending echo behind them.

     “Shit. I think I have a bomb but we're in a fucking basement.” Ellie slipped again nearly falling. With her shoes soaked she might as well have been running on slime. A gunshot as she tried to slow a clicker down with their dwindling supplies. Two more shots and empty clicking. Another loud swear. “Just keep running!” She shouted as if that was the least obvious thing to do in the moment. “Motherfuah!,” Ellie slammed into the wall as a clicker caught her leg. Then there was a second, and a third fighting to rip her apart.

     “Ell!” Dina spun trying to find an opening to shoot.

     “Keep running!” Ellie’s voice tore out followed closely by another yelp of pain.

     Fuck they were all to close. Dina roared diving into one of the infected trying to tear it away from Ellie. She succeeded but fell hard onto her back with the clicker above her. Rotted stubs of teeth were all she could see as it screeched into her face, bloody saliva spattering onto her mask. Dina fought for air trying to force her knee up to get some space from the clicker as its arms swung down with more force then humanly possible.

     “Dina no!” Ellie shouted finally getting a decent hit in with her knife. She heard glass break. “Dina!”

     The arm swung down again. What was a small crack turned into a fist-sized hole in her mask. Dina gasped turning to avoid the next hit. Pain exploded in her temple but that was nothing. The blow had knocked the inner portion of the mask off of her nose and mouth. She would have sworn loud enough to break a lung but that’s the last thing she needed to do in the spore filled hall.

     Ellie managed to throw one clicker off. In the short frame of time, she could see the broken mask barely hanging to the side of Dina’s face. “Fuck!” She panicked trying to rush forward but was thrown back. She felt something inside of her snap. Ellie let loose a feral roar grabbing onto the hard crown and then the head sideways as hard as she could. A dull crack could barely be heard and the infected fell limp. “Dina!”

     “Shitshitshitfuckshitfuckfuckshit,” Dina’s brain sped off. Her lungs were already starting to burn as she held her breath. It was getting harder to hold back the clicker with each second. Dina’s hand finally slipped and the clicker learched forward mouth open and she couldn’t stop it. Another hand was shoved into the clicker’s mouth and it was harshly pulled to the side. A loud crack and the clickers jaw broke and fell swinging open. She could hear Ellie’s battle cry and the thing was finally thrown off her chest.

     “Come on,” Ellie hooked her arms under Dina’s shoulders dragging her down the hall. Dina eventually got her feet down and woozily ran alongside her. She could barely keep track of where each stair was as she tried not to pass out. “Hang on. Hang on.” Ellie anxiously encouraged digging for the small bomb she had. If any of the other infected caught up Dina was not going to make it. She shoved the wire down onto the watch battery and tossed the explosive down the stairway before scooping Dina up. Her eyes were glued shut and her face starting to turn red. “Almost out, hang on. Hang on Dina.” Ellie barely hit the top step before the bomb went off.

     Dina’s nails were starting to dig into her arm. She wasn’t going to last. Ellie’s brain was racing for any way to move faster. Could she CPR this? She’d been breathing the spores in for the last minutes there’s no guarantee that she wouldn’t just pass them along. Dina’s eyes shot open desperate for good news but they could only see the spores still drifting through the air. Ellie had never seen such a look of pure panic before. A weak exhale as her lungs couldn’t take the pressure anymore. “Oh fuck,” Ellie barely thought before her mouth was on Dina’s pushing as much air as she could into her lungs. Dina seemed just as surprised as she was but it’s not like she could say anything at the moment.

     The air was clearing but it wasn’t enough. Any amount of spores was too many. Ellie could feel her heart beating out of her chest seeing the exit. Ellie turned so her back slammed into the door and took most of the impact falling into the street. Dina was thrown off wheezing and coughing as she skidded to a stop. Any swears had been reduced to a weak whine as she pulled in every ounce of air that was physically possible. With what little strength she had she pulled off her outer shirt being sure to keep it inside out.

     Ellie rolled to her knees trying to regain her bearings. “Why did you do that?” Ellie gasped. “Dina why did you do that!? You almost got yourself killed. You should have kept running. What the fuck were you thinking?!”

     “You were trapped.” Dina coughed out trying to blink away the white spots.

     “You can’t do that! It almost bit you and the sp-“

     “You stuck your entire hand in the thing's mouth!” Dina snapped back, “You’re telling me that!? She wasn’t sure what was going on as she gagged coughing violently again.

     “It would have killed you. You’re not immune!”

     “Being fucking immune doesn’t keep you from getting ripped apart!” Dina screamed back loud enough that there was an echo off the buildings. She sat gasping for air while Ellie was frozen in silence. She wasn’t sure what it was she saw in Ellie’s face. Something dark. Incredibly dark. Blood streaming from her nose turning her teeth red. Dina hated it. She knew it wasn’t Ellie but she was still fucking scared. Ellie’s jaw twitched and she swore softly. She swore again pulling her top shirt inside out rushing forward. Dina roughly kicked her shoulder, “Don’t fucking touch me.” She strained. Ellie looked like she’d been hit by lightning. She sat in a frozen shock, realization finally crossing her eyes. “Wash your face off.”

     “Okay.” A nearly silent reply. Ellie moved to sit pulling her knees up. She buried her face into her hands still taking shaking breaths.

     Dina could feel her throat tightening. They needed to keep moving to make it to the library before sundown. Dina forced herself to stand only to be met with a wave of vertigo. She had to wait before opening her eyes again. The horses paid no attention as she dug through the bags and found her water. She swished the first mouthful around trying to clear out all the dirt she’d managed to eat. Despite downing half the bottle there was still an acidic feeling left over. Ellie still hadn’t moved. “Come on.” Dina dropped the water at her side before heading back to the building. She did her best with the surrounding materials to block the door before painting giant orange letters across the wall, NFCTD/SP+++.

     Ellie had managed to get most of the grime off her face but there were a handful of dark spots that were still growing on her shirt. “You were going to die for me.” Ellie’s voice cracked. “Don’t do that.”  A small line of blood threated to roll down her lip again.

     “You started it.” Dina helped pull her up and cleared the blood from her nose. “Did you get bit?”

     “I don’t think so.” Ellie glanced up at the scrapes along Dina’s temple, “That’s going to bruise like a bitch.”

     “I doubt it will top the one from Maley’s.” Dina smiled weakly. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.” She couldn’t thank enough gods that they hadn’t gotten too far from the library. The ride back was deathly silent. It wasn’t until after they had a small fire going that they really started checking over the new wounds. Dina was lucky by comparison. Just once she wished they could come back from a patrol without Ellie becoming a patchwork quilt of bruises.

     “Fucking hell,” Ellie hissed flinching as the alcohol hit a particularly deep cut on her collarbone. Dina ignored her keeping the cloth firmly over the spot.

     “Hold.” She switched with Ellie and set up the rest of the supplies from the med-kit. Dina used the last of the alcohol to clean her hands and soak the needle. Ellie looked away as she closed up the wound.

     It wasn’t until Dina covered it up again that Ellie opened her eyes again. “I’m sorry.”  Dina’s brow dropped. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you.”

     “It’s okay.”

     “No it isn’t. You scared the shit out of me but that isn’t a good enough excuse. I don’t know what I would do if you died.” Ellie pulled her shirt back on with a wince. Her voice dropped even lower, “I’m not fucking strong enough for that.” In just about every single way Dina was stronger than she could ever hope to be.

     “I’m still here aren’t I?”

     Ellie’s eyes were starting to burn. She looked at Dina guiltily, “You could still be infected. I might have given you a straight shot of spores.”

     She didnt want to think about the fact she easily could have been set on death's door with our without that breath. Dina packed away the few things they could re-use, “I’ll take the first watch.”

     “Dina,”

     “Ellie,” She turned back, “If you did there’s nothing we can do about it now. You might as well get some rest before I start turning.” Dina smiled shortly.

     “Don’t joke about that.” Her voice wavered.

     “Okay,” Dina held up her hands, “Apology accepted and I won’t say anything else about that. Though I’m still taking the first watch.”  Ellie eventually backed down slumping onto a dusty couch.

     Dina made her way to a broken window overlooking a small courtyard. The horses would be fine being tied down for the night but they’d had their fair share of bandits on these patrols. Dina slid down the wall and set her rifle on the ground. There was a whopping one extra bullet she’d managed to find in one of the bags. If anything actually happened in the night she was going to have to come up with one hell of a bluff. That was assuming she could think through the pounding in her skull. Dear god was this headache not leaving her alone. Dina pat down the inner pockets of her jacket, “Where the hell are you,” She mumbled. The small tin had been buried in a handful of screws and bolts. Four blunts sat in the bottom. She could have sworn she was down to two. Doesn’t matter. She seriously wondered what happened to smoking for fun and not because everything fucking hurt. If she did happen to take in a few spores maybe there’s a chance this would clear them out. That or she would be the world’s chilliest clicker. Oh God, what if they lit up an entire plant in that basement. Would it affect the infected?  She laughed just to be met with an angry pulse of pain. “Oh fuck off.” She groaned at her own head.

     Ellie wandered over her head still hanging down. “Can I sit with you?” One hand kept playing with the edge of the bandages on her shoulder.

     Dina nodded. “Don’t worry. This isn’t because of you.” She held up the remains of the blunt, “Do you want one?”

     “No.” Ellie sat unusually stiff with one thumb running over the other.

     “Hey, it’s okay. Sarah and I yell at each other all the fucking time. You’re not going to hurt any of my feelings.” Ellie still looked like a kicked puppy with her gloomy face. Dina sighed holding out an arm, “Come’ere.” Ellie scoot in the last few inches resting her head on Dina’s shoulder.

     “Sorry,” Ellie said again. Dina kissed her forehead as soon as she had settled. She honestly didn’t know what she would do without Dina. She eventually moved to curl up against Dina’s side hoping to get some amount of sleep. Almost immediately a hand was scratching up and down her back. Ellie wanted to cry just thinking about how much she loved her. That thought took off faster than any song she’d ever written. Her head raced already pulling together ideas, hopefully Dina couldn’t feel her heart skipping every other beat.

Chapter Text

     Giddy. That’s really the only word she could think of to describe it. Ellie juggled the two rings around in her pocket occasionally sliding one partway up her finger. It had taken plenty of trial and error to forge such small pieces. Not to mention she could only work on them when nobody else was in the shop. Countless sleepless nights and rushed dinners as she worked out every possible kink. They had to be perfect. They’d been living together for over two years. Ellie needed to make it official. Dina talked to her first, kissed her first, said I love you first, and a hundred other things in between. Ellie absolutely wasn’t going to let her be the one to propose. This was her choice. The one decision to flip off the world and every other demon that's taunted her since birth. She’d never wanted anything so badly in her life.

     Finding a matching set of old rings was nearly impossible, let alone ones that fit. Ever since she’d first saw one Ellie had fallen in love with the idea of pioneer rings. But a single nail wasn’t enough. She’d stashed them by the handful to practice. Taking three or four at a time twisting and fusing them together to get a Damascus pattern. It took a dozen attempts before she could get the process down. Then another four just to decide which types of steel would look the best. Ellie’s heart almost stopped the day Dina surprised her with lunch. She dropped the practice ring into a quench tank and was never able to find it.

     Gemstones really weren’t practical, but with the right heat treat, Ellie was able to work in faint blue and purple tones into the pattern. She’d spent weeks thinking about nothing but finishing them. Her heart fluttered just imagining how it would look when Dina could finally wear one. The tall walls were getting larger and Ellie’s chest grew tighter and tighter with each step. Why was she so nervous? Hell, they’d been joking about getting married since they were sixteen. There’d never been a day she’d doubted Dina would say no. Absolutely nothing could go wrong,

     A loud shout pulled Ellie from her thoughts. Her hand fell to the pistol on her hip. “Who was that?”

     Tommy’s eyes searched the area, “Not sure,” he frowned. The little group huddled together taking slow steps towards the town. He pulled a walkie talkie up about to speak before it shot to life.

     “They’re coming from the trees! Take cover!”

     “Shit,” Ellie turned just in time to see a massive blur. She didn’t even feel the pain before everything went dark.

-X-

     “Hey, hang on Lee-lee.” A voice drifted through the heavy static. Ellie really liked that voice. “Come on. I know you want to wake up.” She was barely starting to register light caresses on her nose.

     “Dina?” That’s what Ellie tried to say but it came out much more like muffled dying.

     “That’s it.” Ellie managed to crack open one eye. Despite the curtains being pulled down and all the lights being off her head was hit with a hot spike of pain. She let out a pained whine. “Yeah, you managed to get a pretty good concussion.” Dina was keeping her voice low and soft, “That’s what? Number thirty-seven. Amazing how you can still walk straight.” Ellie could barely keep her eye cracked open for more than a few seconds at a time. “Can you hear me?” She tried to answer but her mouth refused to work. Dina kissed her forehead wrapping her hand around Ellie’s. “Squeeze twice if you’re dead.”

     Ellie squeezed her hand twice.

     “That sucks.” Ellie could feel the bed shift as she moved again. “If it helps no one else really got hurt. You just had your usual Ellie luck kicking in.” There was a long breath, “Do you want me to keep talking or is it giving you a headache?”

     One squeeze. The first option. It still took a few minutes before Ellie could focus on anything. Dina rambled on explaining to the best of her knowledge what had happened. “You’ve been out for almost two days and I didn’t draw a single dick on your face. Do you have any idea how hard it was to avoid that temptation?”

     A short huff of air which was the closest Ellie could get to a laugh. She turned to see Dina lying next to her. Three short squeezes. Dina copied back. Ellie swallowed her whole mouth feeling swollen, “Two days?” Ellie’s voice crackled.

     “Yeah. One more and I would have thrown your defective ass in the mulch pile.”

     “Rude.” She slowly smiled staring back at the familiar face. Ellie leaned as close as she could without aggravating her headache.

     Dina closed the distance giving her a short kiss. “You really need to get some water back into your system. Let’s get you sitting sleeping beauty.” She pat Ellie’s shoulder sitting up first. “Tried to do this a few hours ago but you passed out again. Least you seem lucid now.”

     “That’s encouraging.” Ellie groaned as Dina helped pull her up. She threw an extra pillow behind her back before helping Ellie settle. Ellie lifted a shaking hand to feel the dressings covering the side of her face. “I didn’t see who threw the rock. Could have been you.”

     “As fun as that sounds I like your face the way it is.” Dina handed her a mug, "Or was at least."

     “I know you fucking did it.”

     “Shut up and drink your poison.”

     “You’re so hot when you’re trying to kill me.” Ellie sipped on the water watching the funny gnomes dance around in her vision. Ha gnomes. Something was nagging the back of her fuzzy head. Something really important. Something that was probably related to all the burns on her hands. If only she could focus over the ringing, “Shit!” Ellie jumped checking her pockets. Except they weren’t there.

     “You good?” Dina held her hand out waiting for Ellie to pass out again.

     “I’m fine,” Ellie stared intently at the basketball shorts she was wearing. “Where’s my pants?”

     “Okay? Maybe you should lay back down-“

     “Pants.” Ellie blurted.

     “They’re outside. Even unconscious you managed to roll into the only mud puddle.”

     Ellie crossed her arm tightly over her chest trying to drink water like a natural human person. She wasn’t sure how but all of her insides seemed to be vibrating. She had half a plan, one full concussion, and no time. “Guess I’m just cold. Have you seen the fuzzy green pajama pants?”

     “It’s June.” Dina paused waiting for a response but Ellie obviously want satisfied with the answer, “They’re probably buried under your hoodies.”

     “Please?” Ellie innocently tried.

     “Okay fine,” Dina reluctantly scoot off the bed, “but if you start complaining it’s too hot I’ll knock you out again.”

     Ellie quietly set the mug down waiting for her moment. Dina opened the closet struggling to get to a bin on a high shelf. Ellie slid off the bed sprinting towards the door. She made it about three steps before the gnomes came back. She stumbled sideways hitting the frame. “The hell!?”

     Has the kitchen always sat on such a weird angle? Ellie threw open the front door and was blinded by the noon sun. Her vision was primarily white spots, she would’ve thrown up had there been food in her stomach.

     “Ellie!”

     Ellie ran faster stubbing her toe as she swung around the side of her house. “Pants? Pants!” She mentally cheered finding her jeans pinned to the clothesline. She shoved her hand into the pocket pulling out a single ring. She pat down the other pockets as if the other could have somehow teleported.

     “What the fuck is your problem?” Dina huffed catching up to her.  Ellie spun her hand clenched behind her back. “Are you hiding something?”

     “No.” Maybe hand behind the back was a little obvious. Dina was swearing in Hebrew now. That was never a great sign but Ellie had stopped listening. The other ring was on the ground right by Dina’s foot. Her eyes went wide snapping away. Fuck this just keeps getting worse. “Think I’m going to throw up.” Ellie fell forward on to Dina. She stepped on the other ring now met with the problem of picking it up. “Fuck.” Ellie went limp falling to the ground; she’d picked that tactic up from Abby.

     “Whoa hey,” Dina did her best to help slow the fall and was now kneeling in front of her. “Deep breaths.”

     Breathing was the last thing on Ellie’s list. She was able to grab the ring as Dina rubbed her back. Does partially faking debilitating pain count as lying? Ellie hated the thought of lying to Dina. “Oww,” she groaned loudly drawing her hands to her stomach. She still had no fucking pockets. But Dina did, “Oh god.” She said both out of pain and an intrusive idea. Were the terrible ideas included with the brain injury? “I’m fine. I’m fine. Juuust peachy.” Ellie reached around patting Dina’s back one hand dropping lower. “Oh, that’s your butt. Sorry. It’s really a nice though.” She slipped the rings into Dina’s back pocket.

     “God you’re fucking weird.” Dina groaned helping Ellie as she unsteadily stood up again. This time Ellie tipped over for real. “Hey no,” Dina side-stepped forcing a shoulder under Ellie’s chest. It took some skill but she was able to carry Ellie back without her feet dragging on the ground. “Seriously what the hell were you thinking?”

     “I thought there were bees.” Ellie groaned internally at the horrid excuse. “You’re pretty.” She kissed Dina’s ear trying to rely on diversion instead.

     “God they really scrambled your brain.”

     The next hours were excruciating. Anytime Dina left the room her heart rate went through the roof. Ellie had to woo her into watching cartoons before she had a chance to get the rings back. Dina had fallen asleep on top of her and Ellie could see the outline in her pocket. The little immature voice in her head had the audacity to snicker. Ellie inched her hand down Dina’s back. This was high on the list of the most stressful moments in her life. Watching cartoons with her soon to be fiancé softly snoring on top of her? Awful. Completely and uterly awful. Ellie reached the pocket and slowly scooped the rings out.

     “What are you doing?” Dina mumbled. Ellie stammered shoving the rings under the couch cushion. “You’ve been staring at my ass all day. You trying to get kissed?” Dina’s head popped up with a dopey tired grin.

     “Maybe.” Ellie held her open hands out. She guessed that was true in a very long-term type of way.

     Dina cupped her cheek. “I might do some other things too.” She whispered before kissing Ellie. Ellie kissed back as hard as she had to cover up the fact that she was a dirty liar.

     Was that the right moment? Did she just miss it there? Ellie had been seconds away from dropping to a knee before Jesse came around the corner with a large patrol group. There was no way Ellie could have proposed while she still had the concussion. What if things got frisky and she had to take a break because of a blaring headache? She couldn’t do it on a day Dina had woken up from a nightmare. Granted that only happened once every few weeks. The list of arbitrary rules just kept getting longer.  "Will you marry me?" That phrase had been going through Ellie’s head so much she was starting to wonder if the words were even real. Ellie stared into the mirror trying to psych herself up. Today was the day. Today was the day. Today was, “First!” A naked Dina came tearing in behind her jumping into the shower. “Are you coming or not?” She stuck her head out with a smug grin. Tomorrow is the day. Tomorrow is the day.

     When was bad enough. The how was going to be the reason she would have gray hair before she turned twenty-four. Something big and elaborate? Charlie was the reason an actual rule had to be made banning horses inside any building beside the stable. It could be small and private in their own home, but they lived there. Maybe in a group of close friends. Like when they had dinner at Sarah’s “Hey could you pass the potatoes, and commit the rest of your life to me?”

     “Did that wall do something to you?” Dina teased kissing her neck.

     “Hmm?” Ellie shook her head noticing the hand dragging along her bare chest. “Sorry, long patrol.” She melted back into Dina’s touch. Cause of death, the world's coldest fucking feet.

     She could imagine the worst-case scenario and hundreds more like it. Her lifeless body on the ground and Dina rigidly taking everything from her pockets. The watch from her wrist. Another tear falling and leaving a spot on her shirt. A few bullets. Dina pocketing her knife. Reaching in and finding two matching rings. Would that be the moment she breaks down wailing over what could have been? Day’s quickly turned to weeks and Ellie still couldn’t figure it out.

     “What do you think I should do huh?” She whispered aggressively scratching around Boo’s ears. Gray hairs were starting to highlight his nose and ears and spread across his sides. “You’re an old man now. You should have some advice.” His tail shot back and forth with excitement and Ellie kissed the top of his head. They’d started leaving him home for most patrols since it was getting harder and harder for him to keep up. “Ahhh I  love you too Bubba.” Ellie rolled onto her back accepting the vicious attack of kisses.

     Dina snuggled closer the smile still hanging onto her lips as the credits of the movie rolled. “Can we agree that this was actually a good sequel?”

     “Well, we’ve never seen the first one,” Ellie said. The main menu popped up on the lighting up the room. Most people were already filtering out of the lodge. Benson moved to the computer closing out the window. The projected desktop was plastered with dozens of folders.

     “Good lord. Who’s been in charge of organizing pictures?” May gasped pushing Benson aside to get a better look at the mess.

     “Apparently no one,” Ellie called out. They should probably head home but the oversized beanbag was so comfortable.

     May grumbled to herself clicking one of the folders. A few dozen recent photos flashed across the screen. Mostly people hanging out and swimming in the river. “Okay, that’s easy.” She quickly renamed the folder from a random series of numbers to the previous month and a year. “There’s no way in hell I’m going to fix all of these but,” her voice rose to be heard by the remaining people, “Who wants to choose the next folder?”

     “Third from the top left corner!” Jackson shouted. May selected the next batch of pictures to find photos that had to be at least a decade old. A small group standing by one of the generators. The rest were still overgrown.

     “Holy shit is that Tommy?” Someone laughed pointing out the lanky and unusually clean-shaven face. May flipped through a few more. Before and after pictures of houses being repaired. A small field with sprouting crops. A group photo in front of the very lodge they were sitting in.

     May haphazardly moved from folder to folder. Some had breathtaking pictures of nature and animals. People unknowingly being the subject of something beautiful, goofing off on patrols. Blurry pictures of baseball games. It was more than apparent that anyone could grab a camera whenever they felt like it “Hey now there’s something.” May paused on a photo of what seemed to be the whole town at the time. “Look at that little imp.” The cursor circled around a small face. “God Dina, were you five?”

     “Fuck off,” Dina groaned. “I was at least thirteen in that.”

     May turned to a new bruised target, “Jesse what the hell is going on with your face?”

     “You do look like a dwarf.” Ellie teased nudging her shoulder.

     Dina rolled her eyes, “I was taller than you at that point so shut. the. fuck. up.” A round of laughing and jeering as the slide show ran on. The occasional face no one could recognize. Traveling parties that somehow managed to get documented in the brief time they stayed. There was plenty of laughing and teasing but just as prominent was the softer whispers.

     “Ah shit man, I miss Randy.”

     “Wasn’t she the one that got bit?”

     “I bet Eugene is still getting blazed up there.”

     Joel seemed to have a knack for avoiding the cameras. But anytime he wound up somewhere in the background Dina’s hand would tighten around Ellie’s. A few more people started to trickle out as it grew later.

     At first Dina seemed entranced. She could be considered one of the original citizens, her or Sarah were practically in every photo. Ellie was just about as well documented being dragged behind Dina. There was the occasional video. One in particular was a short clip of people frantically throwing sandbags up as water pushed through the middle of town. Everyone was red-faced and soaked wading through the floodwaters. It got to a point where there wasn’t a single picture with just one of them. Two teens passed out in the same hammock. A group of grinning faces covered head to toe in mud.

     “What the hell am I doing?” Dina squinted at a picture of everyone standing on snow-covered ground. Her and Ellie were barely able to fit in the same oversized jacket.

     “You’re stubborn and forgot the meeting was outside.” They were seventeen. Dina was fourteen. They were sixteen. They were nineteen. A photo at one of the dances. Just on the edge of the shot, Dina had an arm thrown over Ellie’s shoulder. Her other hand pushing back a stray hair. A bright flash in their faces,

     “Aw, you guys are gross.” Bri ran off harassing whoever else was still in the room.

     “Hey!” Ellie complained. She wasn’t sure when she picked up on the change. It was similar to cats puffing out their fur when they weren’t quite sure what was happening. Dina’s questions started picking up. Each time she seemed to become more ridged.

     “What’s going on?” Her brows dropped at the uproar of laughter as a series of pictures showed you her versions of themselves grimacing and doubled over in pain.

     “That’s the first time they finally got a batch of serrano peppers to grow in the greenhouse. Of course, they didn’t tell any of us they were spicy.”

     A twitch of a smile but her mind was already somewhere else. “Where is that?”

     “Meyer’s basement before the house burnt down.” Ellie did her best to keep up with every photo. May closed out putting an approximate date on the folder before entering the next one. Dina sat up watching the bright photos. The entire town was crammed into the church. Charlie dipping Sarah back into a kiss. Her hair was intricately braided as she danced through the crowd. Dina stood abruptly striding out the room. Ellie scrambled up following her. “Hey, what’s happening?” She softly called out. There wasn’t and answer but she could hear sharpening breaths.

     Dina pushed open the door stepping into the cool air. “I can’t remember anything,” she gasped. “I can’t remember my own sister’s wedding.”

     Ellie ran the few steps to catch up, “Hey, heey,” she grabbed Dina’s shoulders rubbing her hands up and down her arms, “Calm down alright? I’m sure you remember. You were with Paul almost the entire night,”

     Dina’s face twisted again, “Who?” She barely pushed out.

     “Paul?” Ellie was taken aback, “You had a crush on him forever even though he’s two years-“

     “He’s dead. He was taken that night but they killed him before, before,” Dina’s eyes were flickering around and never quite focusing on Ellie.

     “Okay,” Ellie steered her to the side of the building, “Hey, where’s your head at? Stay with me.”

     “Paul’s dead,” Dina whispered again.

     “Dina don’t go there.” Dina’s eyes were starting to fill with water. One tear streaked down her cheek. Ellie held the sides of her face her thumbs tracing over her cheeks. “Listen to me. You spent hours braiding Sarah’s hair and making the flower crowns. We practiced for weeks to get all the songs right but you ended up dancing most of the night. Sarah and Charlie were so tired they fell asleep in one of the booths and no one noticed.” She kissed Dina’s forehead.

     “I can’t remember any of that.” She shook.

     “It will come back.”

     “It’s already been years. It’s not going to,”

     “It doesn’t matter alright? You’re home. You’re safe. We have plenty of time to go through all those pictures and I’ll try to explain every last thing I can remember about them. Maybe you’ll start to remember more. If neither of us remember we can make up some random bullshit.”

     Dina took a deep shaking breath, “You’d really go through all of those again?”

     “Of course I would.” Dina closed her eyes trying to regain some sense of control. “Where’s your head at?” Ellie checked again.

     “I’m here.” She assured.

     “That’s good.” A few more deep breaths. While the streets were empty it was anything but quiet. Chirping and buzzing from all the night bugs filled the air.

     Dina looked up inching the slightest bit forward. Ellie nodded letting her move the rest of the way into a comforting kiss. Dina eventually took Ellie’s hands from her face. She stared down at their intertwined fingers. “Your hands are shaking,” She noted.

     “Maybe you scared me.”

     Dina’s head tilted to the side, “No...” her brows dropped trying to figure out Ellie’s reaction.

     “I love you.” She couldn’t help saying it. Ellie took a deep breath, for once her tongue didn’t feel like it had swollen up. “I don’t think a picture could ever say that. It doesn’t matter if I know the first day I fell in love with you because everyday something happens that makes me fall even harder. I will always be here for you.” One hand moved to her pocket. There might as well of been two indents burned into her skin they’d been there so long. She laughed shortly, “I still don’t know how you can even stand me. I’m such an asshole.” Dina laughed at that statement too. Ellie brought her hand up kissing the first knuckle before lowering it again. She didn’t have to look to find the proper finger. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to say how much I love you. I want to be your wife. I want to be with you forever.” She slid the ring on and let go of Dina’s hands.

     “Ellie,”

     “I want to marry you.” Ellie could feel the whole world freezing in place. Dina brought her hand up looking at the silver band. Her eyes were wide and her jaw dropped. Da-dum. She couldn’t hear anything other than the blood pulsing through her ears. Da-Why isn’t she saying anything. Fuck. Did I say something wrong?” Dum. Da-dum.

     Dina threw her arms up over Ellie’s shoulders, “El,” she gasped unable to finish the last syllable. Her lips crashed against Ellie’s.

     "Why isn’t she saying it? Why isn’t she saying it?” Ellie panicked. “Is that a yes?” She sputtered as soon as Dina backed away.

     “Of course it is.” Dina hugged tighter burying her face in Ellie’s neck.

     “Dear god. Say yes before I explode.”

     Dina started laughing. “You put it on the wrong hand.”

     “What?”

     “You put it on my right.”

     “I,” Ellie glanced down, “Fuck.” She could feel her face starting to burn. She took Dina’s hands again taking and putting it on her right, left left leeeft, hand. Dina was covering her mouth with her free hand to smother her laughter “Will you marry me?” She awkwardly tried again.

     “Yes.” Dina nodded her own hands were shaking now. Tears were falling at a steady pace. Only now was she realizing just how long it had been since she’d cried actual tears of joy. “Are, are there two?”

     “Oh, yeah. Yeah,” Ellie fumbled pulling the matching ring out. Instead of catching it she accidentally slapped it to the ground. “God fucking damn-it,” she hissed. This was becoming painfully familiar. She when’s to pick it up but Dina held her back.

     Dina took a knee dusting off the ring, “Ellie,” Her brow quivered, “Fuck. What am I supposed to say?” She awkwardly laughed. “Why is this so fucking hard?” She laughed harder trying to clear the tears that were now blinding her.

     “Right?” Ellie’s voice cracked.

     “Okay, okay,” She took a shaking breath, “Ellie Williams, you are a stubborn asshole,” Dina took Ellie’s hand, “But I am going to wife you so fucking hard.” She set the matching ring into place, on the proper hand. The straight face she had managed to hold disappeared when she saw Ellie starting to snicker. Dina’s head dropped onto Ellie’s hand and she swore again. “Stop laughing,” She laughed.

     “I’m not,” Ellie took in forced and staggered breaths. Dina looked up and she had to bite both lips to contain another outburst. “Come on.” She turned her hands to help Dina up.

     “God,” Dina shook. Her mouth kept moving but she couldn’t find the words if her life depended on it. She grabbed Ellie’s face catapulting to her toes. The force of the kiss pushed Ellie back but she managed to keep up with the excitement. It took a few tries before they were able to get all of the giggles out of the way. One hand dropped and Dina pushed Ellie back until she was against the wall. Forever. She really was going to be stuck with this idiot forever.  Ellie wrapped her arms around her lower back smiling into the next kiss.

     “…wouldn't worry about it until tomorrow.” The lodge door swung open as the last stragglers finally left. Ellie grabbed Dina dropping low against the wall. They both waited with wide eyes and pounding hearts. Part of the group broke off heading home they could still hear the other half chatting just out of view.

     A stifled breath as Ellie tried not to laugh. Dina pointed down the alley and they cautiously shuffled along the wall. “Come on,” Dina whispered taking her hand and speed walking away. Each stride was longer than the last and the smile on her face kept growing. Both hands wrapped around Ellie’s as she dragged her away. The moonlight caught her ring and Ellie was overcome with every possible feeling. Just as there were at their door Dina turned and Ellie couldn’t help but kiss her again. And again.

     “Okay wait, wait,” Ellie laughed blindly tried to find the handle.

     “Mmh no,” Dina mumbled kissing her chin and jaw. She somehow managed to open the door despite having her favorite obstacle in the way. The door closed and Dina’s eyes shot wide for a moment. Her voice dropped into a low whisper as a hand wrapped around Ellie’s neck, “I have a really bad idea.”

     “What kind of bad?” Ellie knew what kind of things usually followed that look.

     Dina grinned still dragging Ellie towards their room. “Sarah might kill me kind.”

     “Care to indulge me?”

     “Oh I’ll do that too,” She taunted, “But I really think I’ll save it for tomorrow.”  Ellie could vaguely recall the morning patrol they had signed up for. She already knew they were going to be late.

-X-

     Sarah crouched in front of the oven staring at the roast through the foggy window. Ellie had been waiting for a moment just like this, “Oh shit,” she hissed intentionally dropping her ring. Sarah turned in time to see Ellie frantically scooping it up.

     “What was that?” She stood staring Ellie down. Sarah knew damn well what it was.

     “Nothing,” Ellie said as fast as she could shoving the ring back into her pocket. This plan was devious and plotted by a devil known as Dina.

     “Ellie,” Sarah’s voice dropped into a whisper and she checked that no one else was around. “Are you going to,” she waved her hands through the air.

     “Ch-ch, Shhh,” Ellie frantically spat. Ellie didn’t have to fake nervousness since there was a high chance both her and Dina’s heads were going to get liquefied by a bat. “She doesn’t know.”

     “Oh my god,” Sarah lit up, “Really?” Ellie nodded vigorously.

     Henry stuck his head in the doorway, “Tables all set. Should I start gathering everyone?”

     Sarah shot up straighter and stiffer than a railroad track. “I think it’s going to be a few more minutes on this.”

     “Alright,” He nodded disappearing back into the loud living room. Ellie grabbed the sheet of roasted squash making her escape as well.

     “Hey,” Sarah whisper-yelled, “Ellie wait.” Ellie shook her head and didn’t respond. That was going to drive Sarah crazy. She set the pan on the long dining table. Dina was sitting on the floor with Abby and May. Everyone else was crammed on the remaining furniture chatting away. They had these big dinners every month or so. Tonight was one of the rare times no one was missing. Ellie wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad thing. Dina caught her attention with a slight brow raise. Ellie winked back.

     “Hey Chuck, will you come help with this?” Sarah called out. He managed to unpack himself from the couch. Charlie disappeared into the kitchen and there was no doubt Sarah was going to tell him what she saw. Within a few moments the room filled with the savory aroma as they carried in the roast. Potatoes and onions filled the bottom of the pan. As soon as it hit the table everyone started gravitating towards a chair.

     “Well come on. It’s not like you’ve never been here before.” Charlie said pulling out a seat for Sarah. It was nearly impossible to avoid elbowing someone as they took turns dishing up. Every time Ellie glanced up Sarah would less than subtly look away. Dina noticed that pretty quickly as well. She grinned into each bite managing to not react to Ellie’s hand on her leg.

     “They’re changing the patrol routes again. Do you know what’s going to be new?” Evelyn asked.

     Dina was the first to answer. “The city we’ve been going through has been pretty quiet the last while. Patrols are going to start pushing further east for the next few months. I was actually the one that proposed it.” Dina added slyly. They both noticed Sarah’s jaw twitched and had to keep themselves from giggling. Dina was a master sneaking in every reference she possibly could. “He’s a dead ringer of a shot,” Or, “That has to be one of the most engaging series I’ve seen.” Sarah looked ready to snap her fork in half.

     Ellie played her part by randomly checking her pockets or scooting her chair back. “Dina? Will you,” she paused for no reason other than her own sick enjoyment, “pass the water?” Dina’s fingers were rapidly tapping against Ellie’s hand as she tried to keep a straight face.

     They waited. They waited until everyone ate their fill and started cleaning up. They waited until the leftovers were put in the fridge and May and Notch took care of the dishes. They waited until steam could be seen rising off Sarah’s ears as veins popped one at a time. Everyone was settling back down. A few were flirting with a deck of cards but hadn’t dealt anything yet.

     Dina gave a subtle nod and Ellie cleared her throat. “Dina,” She grabbed her hands pulling her to the center of the room. “There’s something I have to ask you.” Kris was the first to catch on her eyes widening suddenly. She tapped Evelyn setting off a game of telephone. “We’ve known each other over eight years. And I’ve been in love with you for most of them.” Sarah was practically vibrating in her seat. “We’ve joked and teased but it’s time to make it official.” Ellie dropped to one knee.

     “What are you doing?” Dina sharply whispered. Ellie reached towards her pocket. “Ellie, we’ve talked about this.” Her eyes frantically searched the room. Dear god she hopped her acting skills were enough.

     “Dina, will you marry me?” Ellie presented the ring perfectly. A few gasps could be heard and a borderline inaudible high pitched squeak.

     Silence. Dina stepped back.

     “Dina?” The room was dead as everyone held their breaths.

     “Fuck.” She whispered harshly before storming off. Dina barely managing to catch a glimpse of the stunned faces. She forcefully grabbed the handle of the front door throwing it open,

     “What!?” She heard Sarah angrily shout. Dina froze biting her lip. She turned back to Ellie who collapsed onto the floor cackling. Dina started snickering just as quickly. “WHAT?!” Sarah slammed a hand down on the table causing Dina to laugh even harder.

     “You were right!” Ellie gasped struggling to pick herself up. There was still plenty of double and triple-checking from the rest of the audience before any of them joined with their own chuckles.

     “I told you it would work.” Dina rushed back high-fiving Ellie before helping to pull her up.

     Sarah sat with her arms crossed fuming. Charlie was torn between laughing or taking her side. “What the actual hell?” She seethed.

     Ellie put her ring back on and threw an arm over Dina’s shoulders. “Soo yeah,” Dina was beaming as she pulled a thin silver chain from under her shirt. “I can only make that joke once.”

     Sarah stormed over, “You bet your ass you can only make it once. This is how you tell me! Not when, or how?”

     “Three days ago.” Dina offered to appease the beast she had created. Sarah grabbed a pillow smacking Dina at full force. “Ow!”

     “You. Little. Shit!” Sarah wound back again. Ellie pulled Dina close turning to take the hits. “Fucker!” Two more swings. “Ellie I swear to god if you don’t move your ass I will poison both of you.”

     “Sorry,” Ellie whispered stepping away.

     Sarah grabbed Dina throwing her onto the couch where she was met with the full force of every blow, “Nooo!” Dina laughed shielding her face. Sarah was running through every curse in existence and managing to make up more. May had clamped her hands over Abby’s ears and Notch was covering her eyes.

     “Did you make those?” Will casually asked coming closer to inspectEllie's ring.

     “Yeah. Getting the twist right was a bitch,”

     “Don’t encourage her!” Sarah spat back before resuming her pummeling. “I’m going to shove a spoon so far up your ass you’ll be able to scoop ice cream with your nose! You goddamn shitfaced jackass of a motherfucker.”

     “Lee!” Dina muffled.

     “I’ll tell you what I used later.” Ellie turned to see Sarah full-on smothering Dina. “Ookay,” Ellie forced her way between the two. She caught a solid hit to the head. “I know it was a shitty joke but I’d prefer it if you didn’t kill her.” She flinched as Sarah swung again. This wasn’t fair. She was obviously going for headshots.

     “Say the thing,” Dina panted tapping her side.

     “Oh yeah,” Ellie remembered, “Stop hitting my fiancé!” She immediately giggled at the feel of the word rolling out of her mouth.

     “God. Honestly, how long have you been wanting to say that?” Dina giggled back. They had become surprisingly unaware of the barrage of blows.

     “Too fucking long.”

     Sarah took one more hit before angrily dropping the pillow. “You fuckers better keep your doors and windows locked.”

     Henry cleared his throat tapping the cards on the table, “So, am I dealing you guys in or not?”

Chapter Text

     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.”