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All the Promises at Sundown

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"I struggled for a long time with surviving. And no matter what, you keep finding something to fight for.”
-Joel Miller

 

“Don’t shoot! It’s Ellie.”

The man on horseback lowers the barrel of his rifle just enough to get a better look. He squints at the smallish form in front of him.

“Ellie?”

The girl nods. The man gestures for the two riders flanking him to lower their weapons. He notices the two missing digits on the girl’s left hand.

“Jesus Ellie. What happened to you?”

The full recognition in his voice lets her sigh. She lowers her arms as he dismounts from the horse.

“I’m fine. I need you to give this to Maria.”

Ellie pulls a piece of paper from her backpack and hands it to him. Mitch—Ellie recognizes him as a friend of Jesse’s—slowly takes the paper from her.

“Why not give it to her yourself?” he asks. “Everyone’s gonna be so happy to see you—”

“No.”

Ellie shakes her head.

“I’m not…I’m not coming back. Not just yet.”

Mitch blinks at her, confused.

“But—”

“I’m not ready, Mitch.”

There’s no room for questions in her voice. Mitch seems to understand. He nods and tucks the letter inside his jeans pocket.

“All right,” he says quietly.

Ellie gives him a faint smile and nods.

“You, uh, you’ve been watching the patrols, I take it?” he asks.

“Yea.”

Ellie swings her pack back over her shoulder. “I needed to wait for someone I knew.”

Mitch returns her faint smile to her. Ellie cinches up her pack.

“Okay then.”

The late summer heat hangs between them, until Ellie meets his gaze again, almost reluctantly.

“How’s Dina?”

“She’s good. Well she’s…doing okay,” Mitch adds cautiously. “She’s quieter. She misses Jesse, but I’m pretty sure she missed you more.”

Ellie swallows and looks down.

“And…JJ? How’s he?”

The mention of Dina’s son brings a smile to Mitch’s face.

“Oh man, growing like a weed. He’s starting to talk a little. Nothing spectacular, but definite words.”

Ellie’s face pinches together for a moment before smoothing over.

“That’s…good. Okay then. I’ll see you…sometime.”

Mitch nods, eyeing her with concern.

“Hey, here. Take part of this.”

He reaches into the saddlebag on his horse and offeres her half a wrapped-up sandwich.

“Nah, I’m fine,” Ellie says automatically.

“Come on. It’s way too much for me. And you’ve probably not had a ham and cheese sandwich in a while, I’m guessing.”

Ellie takes the sandwich from him.

“Thanks.”

“Yea.”

She watches as they continue on their patrol route, riding past her towards the east. The quiet left in their wake is as strange as their voices had been only minutes earlier.

Ellie lets out a breath and closes her eyes. Maria would get the letter, letting her know she was alive. She’d tell the others, tell Dina. That was what mattered. She’d done enough damage to Dina as it was. There was no sense in adding to that list by being so close and letting her wonder.

What am I supposed to do? Wait around and wonder if you’re fucking dead or not?

Ellie squeezes her eyes shut, trying not to see the tears in Dina’s eyes from that night. When she opens them she looks down at her hand, breathing in and out slowly until the shaking stops.

--------------

6 weeks later

Going back to Jackson tomorrow. Unless I chicken out again. I still don’t know if it’s a good idea, but I can’t keep on like this. Fall is coming. It’s getting too cool at night. Maybe familiar faces will at least distract me from seeing their faces.

I’m not ready. For any of it, for seeing her. But I feel like I’m going fucking crazy out here. Who knows, might end up right back out here anyway.

She shuts the journal and clicks off the flashlight. She pulls the blanket tight around her and stares up and the rock ceiling of the small cave she is in. It’s a big crevice carved into the rocky hill, perhaps ten feet deep. Enough for shelter and to hide her from random wondering eyes. Or other things.

This far from the city is relatively safe from infected but Ellie keeps her pistol and rifle next to her, and a shiv tucked into the holster strap on her leg. She tries briefly to sleep but it’s best to keep her eyes open. When they close, her mind takes her to all the terrible what-ifs, lost possibilities and the nightmares of her own making.

And always to Joel.

She is able to picture him as he was alive more often now. But the happier memories come with their own brand of anguish, making her heart ache for him. She wants him to look at her again with those tender eyes, to watch his fingers strum in that steady rhythm over his guitar strings. She wishes desperately to hear his voice: Good night, kiddo.

Ellie blinks, startled.

Her obsession with Abby has kept her from more than she had realized, because now the ache of missing him hits her full force. She truly, gut-wrenchingly misses him.

Yet even when she stops thinking about Joel she thinks about Dina instead.

Exhausted at last, she lets her tears fall, wiping at them and swallowing hard. Then she waits for morning.

--------------

Ellie chews the piece of chicken and forces it down. She can feel Maria’s eyes on her, especially on her hand. It’s awkward trying to hold a fork with three digits.

“Feels like my skull is burning, you know,” she says under the other woman’s stare.

Maria blinks and shifts in the kitchen chair, smiling apologetically.

“Sorry. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to stare. It’s just…we all feared the worst for you. I feared the worst, until I got that letter. It’s so good to see you, Ellie.”

Ellie chews on the carrots from the full plate in front of her. The meal looks and smells delicious but her nerves won’t quite let her enjoy it.

She’d made it back, making a beeline for Maria’s house among all the stares and greetings she received when she’d entered the gate. It felt too strange, too surreal, being around the townsfolk again. Her people. They felt like strangers to her. Now, sitting in Maria’s kitchen and eating a cooked meal for the first time in months she tries to act natural. Maria is the same old Maria, embracing her and almost crying (but didn’t, thank God). She was always good at sensing people’s moods, knowing when to say things and how much to say, and what not to say. Ellie is silently grateful the older woman wasn’t asking too many questions.

A sharp pang shoots through the side of her gut, making her wince. Maria catches it. She gets up from the chair.

“Are you hurt?”

Ellie quits rubbing at her side.

“It’s nothing much.”

“Let me see.”

“Really, it’s fine.”

Ignoring her words, Maria stands beside her and gestures for Ellie to do the same.

“Come on. Up.”

Gritting her teeth, Ellie slowly complies. She lifts her hoodie and her shirt, looking down.

“I keep stitching it up but it keeps opening.”

Maria’s face crinkles with worry as she gingerly touches the wound Ellie had gotten from the jagged tree in Santa Barbara. Looking at it now, even Ellie has to cringe slightly. She hadn’t realized the blood had soaked through her shirt yet again.

“Ellie this is serious. You need a doctor. It’s a wonder it hasn’t gotten infected yet. Finish eating and then we’ll go to see Luke…”

“Could he come here instead?” Ellie blurts out.

Maria looks up at her. Ellie shies away.

“It’s just…I’d rather not deal right now. With people, I mean.”

Maria nods.

“Okay.”

------------

The local doctor, Larry, cleans and stitches her up proper and gives her antibiotics. Ellie listens to his instructions, only half-heartedly paying attention.

“This was deep,” he was saying now, washing his hands. “Can I ask how you got impaled on a tree branch?”

She remembers the man’s face, his shattered legs as he pleaded for his life. She sees it now as if it were a dream, not recognizing herself.

You let me go, I’ll tell you where she is…I swear…

Ellie huffs out a breath and swallows.

“Got caught in a snare trap strung up in a tree. I swung into the branch. It was just another group of assholes.”

Larry smiles at Maria, surprised.

“Wow. You definitely gotta be one of those people with nine lives, Ms. Ellie. Good for you.”

His voice and demeanor are sweet but his words strike her hollow. He lifts her hand to address her missing fingers.

“And as for this, they also don’t look infected, but I don’t like this angry shade of red. I’ll give you something for this too.”

She mumbles out a ‘thank you.’ She stays long enough to answer a few more questions from Maria, namely what her plans were now that she was back. She doesn’t know exactly, except to say she wants to go home and sleep for now. But she knows what Maria was really wanting to ask. Finally she does.

“And what about Tommy? And…Dina? They both know you’re back.”

Ellie’s chest tightens up. She flexes her fingers, idly brushing over her wound.

“What did she…what did they say?”

“Tommy was beyond happy, of course. Feels like shit over everything though. I told both of them to give you time, that you’ll come around when you’re ready. Dina was relieved, to say the least. Didn’t say much but I saw it all in her face,” Maria adds softly.

Ellie tries not to think of Dina’s face.

“Tommy will have too many questions,” she says. “And Dina…”

She cuts off, looking up at Maria before saying miserably, “I don’t know. How is she?”

Maria sighs and pours herself some tea. She sits it down gingerly on the table, cupping her hands around it before answering.

“Well, she eats and sleeps and plays with Jesse Junior so I suppose you could say she’s fine, but…”

Maria gives a wan smile and shakes her head, looking out the window.

Guilt washes over Ellie like a dam breaking. Being here, hearing the confirmation of all she had worried about for weeks felt worse than she’d imagined. Ellie bites her bottom lip and stares at the floor, wiping her hands on the lap of her jeans.

“Fuck.”

“I’m sorry,” says Maria.

Her voice makes tears sting Ellie’s eyes. She clears her voice and raises her gaze.

“Do you think I was wrong?” she asks. “To go after Abby again?”

Maria simply gazes back at her for long seconds.

“Do I think it was wrong for you to go after Abby again, or to leave Dina? Is that what you’re really asking?”

Ellie drops her gaze. Guilt presses down on her again.

“I don’t know.”

Chapter Text

She doesn’t let herself relax until she’s safe inside her old house that evening. The sun is dipping below the tree line as she sits her backpack down in her bedroom. Everything is dusty. She is surprised Maria hadn’t already given up the house to others; newer members of the town or those in need of it, for one reason or another.

Everything is untouched, just as she’d left it the last time she was here.

She avoids the guitar in the corner by her bed. Instead she walks over to the cork-board above it and gazed at the picture of her, Jesse, and Dina for a long time.

She sleeps on the floor that night, unable to feel comfortable on a mattress.

-------------

For most of the next week she doesn’t venture out much except to Maria’s. She passes familiar faces and greets them all the same. They react to her all the same; smiles and warm greetings tinged with uncertainty. Some of them congratulate her on her revenge for Joel. Sometimes she feels their sympathy. Most of the time she feels their pity.

She never lets on that the story ended differently than they think.

She keeps her left hand hidden, stuffed down in a hoodie pocket or crammed into her jeans pocket, or lets her flannel shirt sleeve hang over it, despite the late summer heat.

Sometimes she wakes up at night and thinks she can still feel the two missing fingers there.

--------------

At first she doesn’t seek out Dina. She wants to avoid her as much as she wants to see her. But gradually she starts showing up at the stables, watching as groups come and go on patrol. She checks out the log posted on the wall and follows who Dina is paired up with. Twice she sees her with Mitch. She wonders if they reminisce about Jesse the way she and Dina did with Joel.

One morning she dares to go to the stables early, before anyone has arrived. The log has just been made. She hangs out for a long stretch and reacquaints herself with the horses and Eddie the stable-hand. He’s friendly and acts completely normal around her. Ellie finds comfort in petting the horses. They look at her unconditionally, nudging her with their huge noses, wanting attention. She brushes their manes, finding some small measure of pleasure in the act. Then she hears commotion as the first patrols of the day come into the stable.

She hears Dina’s voice as clear as crystal and her heart jerks in her chest, throat going dry. She could just stay in this stall. Dina wouldn’t see her. She could just bask in the knowledge that Dina exists, that Dina is alive and getting on with her life. But she can’t.

Ellie gingerly steps out of the stall. She tucks her left hand and its missing fingers tight under her arm. Dina turns the corner with four others. They all go quiet at the sight of her. Two of them greet Ellie with fragile hugs, glad she’s back. But Ellie scarcely acknowledges them, eyes fixed on the center of her universe.

Dina’s face drops. Her jaw goes slack and she looks as if she’s seeing a ghost. Then her brows furrow and Ellie watches some struggle in her face.

“Ellie,” she says at last. “H-hey.”

“Hey.”

Dina hugs her, also like she’s glass and might shatter. Ellie weakly hugs her back with her right arm only. Then there’s several feet of space between them when Dina steps back. Her gorgeous dark eyes are like liquid as she stares back at Ellie. It’s a hard stare. Ellie’s throat feels like it’s a locked box, incapable of speech.

“I read your note. It’s good to see you,” Dina says. Her voice is quiet but not quite soft.

“You too,” Ellie says back.

Dina looks away, presses and licks her lips tightly, before glancing back at her.

“I’m glad you’re ok,” she says.

Ellie nods. Locked box.

“I’ll see you around,” Dina says with finality. She walks past Ellie and joins the others to get their horses as Eddie pulls them out of their stalls. Ellie watches as she leads her horse out of the stable. Dina doesn’t turn around. Ellie watches her mount her ride and listen to their instructions for patrol. Then the gate opens and Dina rides through with the others.

Ellie leaves the stable, left hand shaking. She breathes in and out. In and out. Slowly.

------------

Dina’s face is emblazoned on Ellie’s mind the rest of the day. The look of pure shock, as if she didn’t believe Maria or her note that she was back. Or maybe Dina never expected her to show her face around her so soon. And maybe she shouldn’t have. Idiot.

She avoids the stable after that. But she finally caves in and passes by the Daycare Center one day. If she can just get a glimpse of little JJ she might feel better.

She peers in through the windows. It’s reading time and all the preschool-aged children are gathered around on their colorful floor mats, listening to a story. The room is as she remembered it; bright and cheerful, with scattered children’s toys on the floor and in pretty baskets on the shelves. The youngest children—the toddlers—aren’t paying much attention to the story. A woman—a friend of Maria’s—is watching them play. Her heart skips a beat as she sees a familiar chubby face.

JJ has grown, like Mitch said, but he’s still the same cute bean Ellie had held in her arms not so long ago. He’s walking better now, toddling over to another child with a grin on his face and clapping his hands. Ellie’s heart throbs with painful pleasure at the sight. Suddenly she’s aching to hold him, to smell his hair and to have his little hand wrapped around her finger.

“Ellie?”

Ellie jumps, knocked out of her thoughts. It’s Tommy, standing across from her. He smiles when she turns to him.

“Knew that was you,” he says. He comes forward slowly, cautiously. She had nearly forgotten Tommy’s own battle scars; the damaged skin around his eye from the bullet wound and his eyebrow hair, permanently gone now, stand out. But Ellie finds herself more eager than she realizes to hug him. They embrace and Tommy hugs her tightly. She fights off tears. She can’t help but to hug him with both arms, keeping her left hand curled into a fist against his back. She thinks she feels him heave a little, perhaps with tears.

“Can we…talk?” he asks her, rubbing the back of his neck. His eyes are like doe eyes, full of vulnerability and of things Ellie doesn’t want to talk about but knows she must at some point.

“Yea. Let’s go to my place,” she offers.

-------------

They sit on her couch, much the same way they had after Joel died. Tommy crosses his fingers together, leaning forward and staring at the floor.

“I’m sorry I came by the farmhouse that day,” he begins. “Dina was right. I shouldn’t have come to you like that. I knew you’d be tempted. I was counting on it. I shouldn’t have been angry at you when you said no.”

“Tommy, it’s all right,” said Ellie. “I wanted it…wanted her…just as badly as you did. I’m not angry with you.”

Tommy looks up at her, surprised. “No? Even after how you left things with Dina? And God knows what you’ve been through, tracking her down.”

He rubs his hand over his mouth roughly, looking at the floor again.

“Hey,” says Ellie, getting his attention. “I’m not angry. Besides, me leaving Dina wasn’t your fault. It was mine.”

“But you would’ve stayed if I hadn’t come around. You were happy there. I know you were.”

Ellie takes her time in answering him.

“I was,” she says slowly. “But if I’m being honest, I probably would’ve left to find Abby anyway. Someone else would’ve given me information. I was being a stubborn asshole. I was…selfish.”

She chokes up, swallowing away angry tears.

“I was too,” Tommy says softly.

It takes Ellie’s breath away how much he sounds like Joel.

Tommy shifts his boot under the table and kicks it. An empty cup Ellie had sat there wobbles and starts to fall off the edge. Without thinking, her hand jerks out and catches it. It’s her left hand. She winces inwardly.

“Ellie. Jesus Christ,” breathes Tommy. He sits straight and reaches out towards her wounded digits. The antibiotics have helped and the stumps are less red now, though she supposes they could have been bright pink and orange and Tommy couldn’t have looked less shocked. He looks at the stumps, thumb gently brushing over them. She lets him, then shies her hand away from him.

“They’re fine now,” she says. “The doctor gave me some stuff.”

Tommy runs his hand over his hair and leans back.

“Jesus. Infected?” he asks.

She hesitates. It would be easy to lie to him—the one out of the three people living who knew her secret—and say it was infected.

“No,” she says instead. “It was her.”

Tommy blinks and smiles sadly.

“Knew she’d give you a run for your money. Damn woman was built like an ox.”

And it was all right there in his words, Ellie knew. He assumed Abby was dead.

“She did,” Ellie said. “She put up a good fight.”

She clenches her jaw, trying not to see that beach in her mind.

I can’t let you leave.

I’m not doing this…I’m not gonna fight you.

Yes, you will…

“Well, it’s over now,” Tommy says. He rests his hand on her shoulder and gives it a squeeze. Ellie manages a smile at him.

He asks if she needs anything at all, even just to talk, he’ll be there. Before he leaves he pauses at the door.

“I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but…she stands outside your house some nights, for a few minutes. Looks into your window.”

Ellie sits up and sucks in a breath.

“I’ve been keeping an eye on her since…you know,” he adds softly. “Anyways, whenever you’re ready to get back into things, just holler.”

“Tommy?”

Tommy stops again in the doorway.

“Yea?”

Ellie walks up to the door, hand on the knob.

“Thanks.”

“For what?”

“I don’t know. Everything.”

They share a look and Ellie is grateful she still has a friend here. She almost tells him that Abby’s not dead, that she didn’t do it, but she can’t bear the thought of disappointing him.

That night she hardly sleeps. She lies in bed after turning out the lights, facing the window. It’s a little after 9:30 when a feminine figure appears outside, standing a few yards away from the house. She’s a silhouette in the moonlight but Ellie recognizes Dina instantly. Her eyes snap closed for an instant. She creaks one open and watches Dina watching her. She’s too far away to see into Ellie’s room with the lights out. She’s just staring at the blackness beyond the window, Ellie realizes. Tears fill her eyes. She wishes she could see Dina’s face.

Chapter Text

Ellie asks Maria if she can be a lookout. No patrolling, just watching, maybe shooting at infected from one of the ridges Tommy used to take her to. Maria agrees, saying that it will be good for her to stay occupied with a task. Ellie agrees, though there’s nothing that can take her mind off Dina for long.

Ellie says nothing about continuing patrols and Maria doesn’t either. Ellie is thankful.

She walks up and down the ridges in the following days. The job is relatively boring but peaceful. She spends an hour or so at each lookout, scanning the surrounding land with her scope. There are a few infected here and there to shoot but nothing alarming.

As she grows used to the job Ellie begins to appreciate the scenery again. Joel used to comment that areas like this with roads were called scenic overlooks in the old world. People would drive by and pull over just to take in the view or search for wildlife, maybe have lunch. It’s hard to imagine but Ellie does, thinking of how content those people must have been, how safe they must have been without even realizing it.

She starts noticing the different kinds of trees there are and finds some books in the makeshift town library about them. She’s always known pine, maple, and oak trees but she reads more, learns how to identify the leaves and bark of trees and of the birds that inhabit them. It keeps her interested enough and takes her mind off other things for a time.

One day she turns the corner in the dirt path and stumbles upon two does and a fawn. She freezes in her tracks and the deer do the same for several seconds. The fawn is older, its spots nearly gone, but it strikes Ellie that she’s never seen two does with a fawn before. Usually it’s just the mother and a fawn, or a group of deer. She watches as the two does bound off the path, tails high in the air. The fawn hesitates, still staring at her with its ears perked up. Then it leaps after the does and disappears into the thick underbrush of the woods.

Ellie stands there for several minutes after. She thinks of Dina and JJ back in town. She’s tempted to just stay out here, away from them. It’s almost painful to return to town and have them so close but so far away from her.

-------------

She’s sitting in The Tipsy Bison restaurant on a slow afternoon for lunch. She won’t come in during the evenings or when it’s crowded. Maria had finally convinced her to start coming out of the house more. And it was nice, to sit comfortably somewhere and eat something good in relative peace. People stopped by occasionally to say hi. She knew they were curious but too polite to ask. Mostly people left her alone. But then Dina walks in.

Ellie nearly chokes on the chicken sandwich she’s eating. Dina spots her immediately in the sparsely populated room and heads towards her.

Ellie swallows her food and washes it down with the glass of water, scarcely tasting it. Dina is wearing a pair of Bermuda shorts, which means she isn’t patrolling today. She has on a tight-fitting crop top, hair pulled back, all indications of just how hot it’s been lately. Ellie herself is wearing ripped jean shorts, but she keeps her flannel sleeves pulled down. She flops the sleeve self-consciously over her left hand and slides it into her lap as Dina approaches.

Dina waves her fingers at her and offers a tight smile.

“Hey.”

“Hey.”

“Mind if I sit?”

“Um, no. Go ahead.”

Dina slides into the chair, looking as awkward as Ellie feels. She sighs and crosses her arms on the table top, absently brushing her hair behind her ear. She looks at Ellie’s plate.

“That’s the most I’ve seen you eat in ages,” she says.

Ellie can’t get her heart to stop pounding in her chest.

“Yea. It’s a work in progress, I guess,” she answers.

“Hope it’s not a bigot sandwich,” Dina says with a hopeful, sly grin.

Ellie lets out a huffed laugh and relaxes somewhat.

“Better not be.”

Dina smiles a bit wider. She rubs her arm and purses her lips.

“I just wanted to see how you were. And to apologize.”

Dina’s big brown eyes look straight at her. Ellie blinks, confused.

“Apologize for what?”

“For being a bit of an ass when I saw you in the stable. I didn’t mean to act that way. I’m…really, really glad you’re not dead.”

For an instant Ellie sees the old Dina in her words and a touch of mirth. But Ellie shakes her head.

“You don’t have to apologize. You have every right to feel…however you feel. I’m…I was…”

She flounders helplessly, unable to express the magnitude of her shame and guilt. She stares down hard at the plate in front of her.

“Hey,” says Dina, a bit harshly, “Don’t worry about it. We don’t have to talk about anything right now. I just wanted to say hi. And if I see you around or you see me around, then ok.”

Dina shrugs almost carelessly. Ellie doesn’t know how to process her words. But she can feel the hidden anger in the girl across from her, hear it tinge her voice. And that’s perfectly fine. She deserves it, after all.

“Ok,” is all she can say.

-------------

Ellie continues as a lookout almost every day. She has practically taken over the job single-handedly by the end of the month. Tommy tells her she doesn’t have to, to work in shifts with the others, but Ellie tells him she prefers it this way. It gives her time to think. It’s half the truth, anyway.

When she returns to the town and away from all the trees and deer and sounds of nature she feels more and more as though the town isn’t meant for her anymore. Aside from Maria, Tommy, and sometimes Mitch and Dina, she rarely speaks more than two sentences to anyone. She spends most evenings at home. Sometimes she stares at her guitar. She knows it must be terribly out of tune by now. It’s been almost five months since she’s even heard a guitar and she wonders if she’d even recognize the correct harmonics of the strings.

She considers giving it away or simply throwing it away but she does neither.

She forces herself to out into town more often. She walks aimlessly around. Gradually she notices Dina more and more but she rarely approaches her. Dina does the same, waving or saying hi to her, asking if she’s okay but nothing more.

She gets in the habit of waiting for the patrol to return on the days she knows Dina is among them. She keeps her distance though, watching from the stable doors until she sees Dina ride in. Sometimes she returns with bruises or wounds. Inevitably there’s a report of a scuffle or firefight with a small group, but never anything too serious.

One morning Ellie sees Dina’s name has been marked off the log for patrol and replaced. She asks Maria about it.

“She’s sick,” Maria tells her. “Nothing major, just a common cold. But she’s sneezin’ her head off and has a bad headache. No good for patrolling.”

Ellie spends the rest of the afternoon considering an option. She makes some chicken soup and puts it into a thermos, wiping at the sweat on her brow. How fucking ridiculous, she thinks. It feels like a hundred degrees outside. Surely soup would be the last thing Dina would want?

She pines over her indecision a bit longer, waits until the sun starts to set and the temperature cools off. Then she walks over to Dina’s house.

Dina answers the door, unable to hide her surprise at her visitor.

“Hey,” says Ellie.

Dina’s eyes flit over her. “Hey.”

“I um, I know it’s stupid but I brought you some chicken soup. Maria mentioned your cold.”

She holds out the thermos with her left hand and shrugs, feeling the blood in her cheeks. Dina’s gaze seems to soften. She takes the thermos.

“Oh. Thanks. Actually, this is good.”

Ellie’s heart perks up the tiniest bit. The sounds of crying start up from somewhere upstairs. Dina glances over her shoulder.

“Ah. I put him down for a nap earlier. I wish he’d sleep like he used to.”

Ellie peers behind her and to the stairs, remembering how she used to love to get JJ from his naps, prancing around the farmhouse with him so Dina had time to clean and cook. She wants to ask if she can see him, but looking at Dina again something tells her not to. Her heart sinks.

“Well, thanks for the soup,” says Dina. “I’d better go get him.”

“Yea. Ok. I’ll see you.”

Ellie turns to leave when Dina calls to her. Ellie turns around.

“I just…thank you,” Dina says. This time her voice is like it was when it was just the two of them, soothing and warm. But then she abruptly steps back inside and shuts the door.

--------------

Ellie keeps Dina’s words and her voice in her head, grateful for them. If Dina could give her just that much from now on she thinks she can live with that. They might never be friends again, but if Ellie could just hold on to a kindness here and there it might work out.

Even so, she still spends most days away from town. She comes to wish she hadn’t gone to Dina’s house with the soup and Dina hadn’t thanked her. It makes it all the more torturous seeing her in town now, stupidly exchanging the same greetings, as though they were never more than this.

She dreams of Abby more and more.

She wakes up, covered in cold sweat and breathless. She turns on the light and grabs her journal, pen scrawling across the paper.

Abby. I keep seeing her hanging from that damn post. I could’ve shot her right then and there. But I didn’t. Why?

It was shocking to see her. Those Rattlers really fucked her up. Did I actually feel sorry for her?

I still don’t fucking know.

Could’ve shot her, could’ve attacked her after I cut her down. I thought about it. Should’ve, right?

Instead I forced her to fight me.

Why the hell did she let me go in Seattle? Why? Because she’s a better person than me

She slams the journal shut and tosses it on the floor.

-----------

She comes back from the ridges one day and goes to The Tipsy Bison for lunch. Today someone is at her usual table. It’s Dina. She’s eating a salad and motions for Ellie to come over.

“Been out on the ridges all morning?” Dina asks. She takes a bite of her salad.

Ellie’s heart is doing that fast thing it does whenever Dina talks to her now. She’s getting better at ignoring it, she thinks.

“I like it,” she answers. “It’s peaceful. Pretty.”

“It’s been awhile since I’ve been up that way. I’m kina jealous,” says Dina.

Ellie simply watches her for a long moment, trying to figure out why, exactly, Dina wants her here. Dina notices and raises her eyebrow.

“What? Do I have dressing-face?” she asks, glancing around and wiping at her chin. Ellie actually chuckles.

“No. I just…was there something specific you wanted?”

Dina looks down, suddenly pensive again. She twists her fork in her salad.

“Ah. No. Just wanted to see how you were.”

Ellie licks her lips and wipes her palms on her pants, mindful of her left hand under the table.

“Mind if I order one of those?”

She gestures at the salad. Now Dina chuckles.

“It is a restaurant, after all,” she says. “Not like I’m worried you’re getting fat, either.”

Ellie meets her gaze. This time Dina’s eyes match the mirth in her tone. Ellie smiles and orders a salad.

They walk to the Daycare Center afterwards to pick up JJ. It feels amazing to be walking and talking to Dina again, even if it’s just baby steps. Just this, just let me have this. It’s all I need or deserve, she thinks, pleads to herself.

Dina stops several yards from the Daycare. She sucks in a breath.

“If you don’t mind, I’d like to get JJ by myself,” she says. “I’m just not sure if it’s the best idea for him to see you yet…”

Ellie’s chest deflates. The feeling must have been evident on her face. Dina hastily adds, “I mean it’ll be confusing to him, to know you’re here, but not around all the time anymore.”

Their eyes lock and a touch of that coldness returns to Dina’s gaze. Ellie thinks it must be judgment.

“Yea, of course. I get it,” she stutters out. “It’s fine. I wouldn’t want that.”

She backs up, hands shoved tightly into her pockets.

“Ellie…”

The cold in Dina’s eyes didn’t translate to that single word, but it’s not enough.

“I’ll see you later,” says Ellie.

She turns and walks away, hoping Dina doesn’t speak again. She doesn’t.

When she gets home she lets out a long sigh and rests her head against the door. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.

-------------

There’s a meeting of all the patrol units the next day. Maria informs them there’s been a couple sightings of one or two strangers outside town. No one has gotten a good look at them, and it’s possible, she says, they’re just stragglers out scavenging. Still, she wants everyone to be extra cautious on their shifts.

Ellie doesn’t see much of Dina the next few days. She continues to watch little JJ through the Daycare window every time he’s there when she passes by. He looks so happy. Surely by now he’s forgotten all about her.

Her chest constricts at the thought but she tells herself it’s for the best. Dina was right. No use in getting him all worked up over her when they aren’t together anymore.

She dreams of Abby again. She sees her hanging from that post, her hair savagely cut off, her buff arms shrunken. The fighting spirit that was in her eyes is dead, replaced by a haunted look.

She’s got her hands around Abby’s throat, holding her under the salty water with all her remaining might. She’s got this. Abby is no match for her, not anymore. She wants blood. She wants death. And then she’ll get to rest in peace…

Ellie wakes up gasping for air. She feels suffocated and light-headed. She rips off the covers and sits up, swinging her legs over the edge of the bed and struggles to control her breathing. Her heart is pounding as though she’s ran a marathon. She goes to the bathroom and splashes cold water over her face, gripping the porcelain sink until her breathing calms. Deep, steady breaths. In and out.

She goes to her desk and flicks on the light and starts drawing. It’s harder to do with three fingers but not impossible. The sketching calms her nerves, gets her mind off Abby. All the sketches turn into Dina’s face. She picks up the last one and stares at it before crumbling it up angrily. She hates herself.

-------------

She reads the note pinned up on the bulletin board about Tommy’s get-together. A bonfire this weekend in his back yard for anyone who wants good food and some drink. Ellie remembers he and some others used to throw these little parties every now and then. It was a way to unwind but more importantly, he told her, it made them feel like a normal community again, like in the old world.

She doesn’t particularly want to go, but that evening Tommy shows up at her doorstep to convince her otherwise.

“Figured you’d want to take a rain check, but I’d really appreciate it if you came,” he tells her with a small smile. She can tell he still feels guilty, too.

“I dunno Tommy. I’m still not really in the mood for…all that.”

“I know. But maybe this is another step. Get out of your comfort zone for just a few hours. Your old friends, includin’ Mitch, are worried about you, you know.”

Ellie shrugs and frowns.

“I figured,” she mumbles. Then she looks up at him.

“Dina’s going to be there, isn’t she?”

Tommy runs a hand over his beard and nods.

“I think she’s gonna come, yea.”

Ellie rolls her eyes.

“Well so much for that, then.”

“Ellie, will you please just think about it?” Tommy asks sincerely. “I know it’s hard. Don’t come for her. Come for yourself. For me. For…him.”

She flinches away at the mention of Joel. Tommy rests a hand on her shoulder.

“Don’t turn into a ghost on me, you hear?”

Ellie forces herself to meet his gaze.

“Yea. I hear you.”

She spends the next couple of days brooding. When the night of the bonfire arrives, she reluctantly throws on her hoodie and heads over to Tommy’s.

Chapter Text

The night air feels good tonight. It’s definitely bonfire weather. She can see a hint of her breath as she makes her way towards the roaring fire, glowing yellow-orange in Tommy’s yard.

There’s a wide circle of various chairs all around the fire. It’s fairly late and people are scattered around in groups, talking, laughing, and drinking. It’s a good feeling in the air, even though she feels separate from all of it.

Still, the fire looks inviting, and Maria and Tommy are actually talking to each other. She sits down a few chairs away from them, taking a drink of the beer she’s picked up on the way.

“Hey guys,” she says.

Their faces light up.

“Hey sister,” says Maria with her old familiarity. “’Bout time you made an appearance. Can I get you anything to eat? Plenty of hamburger left. This one still knows how to cook, even without me,” she jokes, thumbing over to Tommy. Ellie smiles.

“That’s ok. Already ate. This is fine,” she replies, sipping the beer.

Tommy and Maria seem at ease with one another despite their split. It helps Ellie relax a little. Soon Mitch and his friends join them, each with a liquor-filled glass in hand.

“You kids go easy on that stuff, will ya?” says Tommy. “Once that bottle’s done, that’s it.”

“Well looks like this is it for us anyway,” says Mitch on the end of a laugh. “The rest of the bottle was confiscated.”

He turns and gestures towards Dina, who’s coming out of the house. Ellie sucks in a breath.

“Are my ears burning or is that just the fire?” she drawls out, all merriment in her voice. When Ellie twists in her chair she glimpses Dina’s face, all smiles and warmth, for an instant. Then Dina sees her.

“Oh. Ellie, hey,” she says.

Tommy is still talking about the liquor while Maria and the others chuckle at him.

“Nearly busted my leg getting to that bourbon,” he says, recounting the story of how he took on a clicker at the old liquor store to get the booze.

The only empty chair is beside Ellie so Dina takes it. She leans forward, elbows to knees, and takes a sip from her glass. She gazes into the fire. Long minutes pass and though the party continues on around them neither one of them speak to the other. Finally Ellie nods at her glass.

“You’re drinking bourbon?” she asks dubiously.

Dina cracks a grin at her, finally looking at her.

“Better than that disgusting scotch we found in that bar last year,” she quips.

“Anything is better than that,” Ellie agrees.

She sighs to herself, relieved. So far, so good.

They pass the time in a good way. Ellie starts on her second beer. She’s feeling it before she knows it. It’s been awhile since she’s had any alcohol. Her cheeks feel warm from it. Tommy is talking about JJ now and how JJ chased him all around the living room when he took Ollie the Elephant hostage one day.

“That’s so mean,” Maria exclaims.

Dina and Tommy laugh. Ellie even laughs.

“Hey D, wasn’t that when he said his first word?” Mitch asks Dina from her other side.

Dina nods. She finishes her glass in one long swallow.

“Yep.”

Mitch looks at Dina, than at her.

“Didn’t you say he said—”

“Ollie. The stuffed elephant. That was his first word,” Dina cuts in abruptly.

Mitch blinks, looking thrown off.

“Oh. Okay,” he says quietly. He throws Ellie a look again. Ellie notices Tommy is also looking at her.

“’Kay guys, what gives?” she asks.

She looks at Dina, who’s staring at the fire too intently. Her eyes are watery. When she feels Ellie’s gaze on her she sighs loudly and leans back in her chair.

“It’s nothing Ellie. JJ said his first word and it was Ollie. Isn’t that cute?”

“Dina—” Tommy starts. His voice is no longer playful but gentle and cautious.

“What?” she asks. “Oh come one, don’t spoil the night Tommy. Besides, I’m close to finishing off that bottle.”

She rises unsteadily out of the chair. She thumps Ellie on the arm, making her flinch.

“Come on Ellie. Have a drink with me.”

“I think maybe you’ve had too much.”

Dina rolls her eyes.

“Oh Jesus. Thanks, mom. Guess booze pales in comparison after the thrill of killing people all summer.”

Maria springs out of her chair, along with Tommy.

“Dina!”

“All right now,” warns Tommy.

Ellie slowly stands up. Dina’s words don’t shock her. It’s almost a painful relief to hear them out loud. Ellie stares down at the ground, feeling Dina’s eyes on her.

“I know. I’m sorry,” she says softly. She closes her eyes, wishing the stinging there was from the heat of the fire. “I’m so sorry,” she whispers.

When she looks up, Dina’s eyes are full of tears but her face is bitter. She shakes her head and wipes at her eyes.

“I need another drink,” she mutters and heads for the house.

“Ellie,” says Tommy from behind her.

“She didn’t mean that,” says Maria.

Ellie shakes her head.

“She did. And it’s fine. It’s not like she’s lying.”

Tommy’s brows furrow.

“That’s bullshit and you know it.”

The tears well up again. She turns and walks away from them, not listening to their calls to her. She sees Dina through the sliding glass door. She’s poured more bourbon from a nearly-empty bottle into her glass. She downs it. Ellie watches her.

She needs to get out of here, go back home for the night. Then maybe leave altogether. Everything that hurts deep down threatens to come out into the light, and she doesn’t think she can handle it.

Just then Dina turns and sees her. Ellie is frozen in place, heart sounding in her ears. Finally she forces her feet to move, to open the door and step inside Tommy’s kitchen. Dina sits the glass down on the counter-top, gripping it. The silence stretches between them. Ellie swallows hard before she speaks.

“Whatever you want to say to me, you can go ahead,” she says at last. “I won’t be angry.”

Dina lets out a mirthless laugh. She sniffs and looks at Ellie, sorrow and anger eclipsing her expression.

“I was so happy,” she says. “We were happy. And after Tommy left the farm that day, I knew, I fucking knew, what you were thinking. But I told myself it was fine, that you’d never actually leave to find her. But you did,” she adds in a broken whisper. “You broke my fucking heart.”

Ellie leans hard against the door, her hands in fists, one jammed inside her hoodie pocket. She tries to swallow it all down, the feeling rising inside her throat. Shame washes over her.

“I know,” she breathes out, choking back a sob. “I know. I ruined everything. I’ll leave. I’ll leave Jackson tomorrow. You won’t ever have to see me again.”

“Jesus Christ.”

Dina shuts her eyes and shakes her head. “Is that what you think I want?”

“Don’t you?” Ellie bursts out, sobbing.

Dina hesitates. She stares hard at the bottle of bourbon, then looks at Ellie’s arm.

“I want to know why you’re hiding your hand like that,” she says instead. “It’s not like I haven’t noticed.”

Ellie, caught off guard, shrugs helplessly.

“I’m not hiding anything. It’s cold out.”

“Bullshit.”

Dina reaches for her arm. Ellie, still up against the glass door, tries to shrug away from her.

“Dina stop. Stop!”

Dina wrenches her arm, pulling her hand out of her pocket. Ellie weakly drops her fist, exposing her three remaining fingers. Dina inhales sharply. All her anger vanishes.

“Ellie…”

“It’s fine,” Ellie strangles out.

Ignoring that, Dina gingerly touches her hand, fingers brushing over the two stumps.

“Oh my god. Ellie,” she says softly.

The door starts to slide open. Ellie pushes away from it. Tommy and Maria are there. Ellie takes her hand away from Dina. Tommy and Maria go still.

“Did you know about this?” Dina asks them, still shocked.

Tommy only nods.

“I didn’t want anyone else to know,” Ellie blurts out. “Especially not…”

She stops herself. She glances up at Dina, hoping she’s still mad. But she’s not. And it makes everything worse.

“How?” Dina asks.

She could lie, like she wanted to with Tommy. But Tommy was here and so was Maria. Fine then. Just tell the truth. Then get the hell out of here.

“It was Abby,” Ellie says. “It was her. We were fighting. I…she…”

Her heart starts pounding again and she feels the sweat break out on her forehead. The room suddenly feels small.

“I had her,” she continues, betraying herself. “I could’ve killed her right then and there. But she…she didn’t want to fight me. I made her.”

She closes her eyes. Shut up, shut up, shut up. She doesn’t.

“She was so weak, almost helpless,” she continues. All eyes are on her now. She’s struggling to control her breathing. Dina’s watching her, eyes wide. Tommy takes a step towards her. Ellie backs up into the living room.

“She was so weak,” she says again. “She just wanted to take the boy and leave. But I held a fucking knife to his throat…”

I’m not doing this…I’m not gonna fight you.

Yes, you will…

“…and I made her fight me. I had my hands around her throat. I could’ve done it.”

Ellie backs up until she hits a couch. She feels light-headed but she can’t stop now. It all comes out in a torrent of words between sobs.

“I could’ve killed her but I stopped. I couldn’t fucking do it. I let her go. I saw how I looked…if Joel had seen me…”

She finally stops. The panic attack blossoms fully in her chest. Her vision grows dim. Dina is right beside her, hands holding her up.

“Ellie, Ellie, listen to me. Listen!”

Her eyes are squeezed shut. She realizes vaguely she’s sitting on the floor, trying to curl up into a ball. Dina’s voice, right in her ear.

“Just breath, El, please. Just focus on breathing.”

She does. She has no idea how much time passes before she opens her eyes again. The world is back in focus. Her heart is still thumping but it’s slowing down. Tommy and Dina help her stand. Maria has a glass of water. She picks it up with trembling hands. When she thinks she can talk again she carefully sets it down.

“I let her go,” she says in a steady voice this time, glancing from Dina to Tommy, then to the floor. “I’m… sorry.”

“Ellie, honey, no,” says Tommy, taking her by the shoulders. She can’t bring herself to look at him.

“Listen to me,” he continues, undeterred. “She’s not worth it. Losing you, it’s not worth it. Please tell me you understand. Ellie?”

“He’s right,” says Maria from close behind. “Jesus, Ellie. You didn’t fail anyone, sweetheart. Don’t you dare think otherwise, not for a second.”

If she keeps staring at Tommy’s green flannel shirt and listening to his voice, feeling those big hands, she can imagine it’s Joel. But he’s gone. Ellie raises her eyes.

-------------

Dina walks home with her. She stays close, closer to Ellie than she’s been in half a year. Sometimes their arms bump. Ellie is aware of it. She focuses on it so she doesn’t have to focus on anything else.

Dina opens the door when they make it to Ellie’s house. Ellie sits down on the bed. She lifts up one trembling hand and takes deep breaths.

“You gonna be okay?” Dina asks softly.

Ellie lets out a shaky breath. “I think so. Thanks for the walk.”

Dina doesn’t move. Ellie flexes her fingers and drops her hand, looking up at her. Dina is watching her, concerned.

“I can stay if you want,” she says.

“N-no. That’s ok. I’ll be fine alone.”

Dina is giving her a hard look now, mouth set in a tight line. She seems to have sobered up. She turns around and closes the door.

“Yea well, too bad. I’m staying anyway.”

She sits down beside Ellie. Ellie recognizes that look in her eye, the stubborn look that says she’s made up her mind.

A part of her is grateful beyond words.

“Ok,” is all she says.

Dina leaves just long enough to tell Maria to watch after JJ that night. Ellie is in bed when she returns. Wordlessly she watches Dina take off her shoes and pants and crawl in next to her.

“Good night,” she says. Her mahogany eyes are steady and warm.

“Night,” replies Ellie. She turns to face the window. She’s too exhausted to dream that night.

Chapter Text

The next morning she manages to sleep in past the dawn. When she awakes Dina has already taken JJ to Daycare and has already returned.

She’s surprised Dina came back at all. She rolls over to Dina’s side and stretches.

She recalls how she used to lean over to sniff Dina’s pillow, loving the smell of her shampoo. Hearing the sounds of Dina cooking in her kitchen now, Ellie does this again. Her stomach flutters as she recognizes that same smell. Guiltily she quickly sets up and gets dressed.

The smell of eggs and bacon greet her nose as she finally gets enough courage to wonder into the kitchen. Dina turns around at her and smiles.

“Hey there. Morning,” she says.

“Morning,” answers Ellie, rubbing the back of her neck.

“I made bacon, eggs, and there’s actually enough yeast at the moment for bread. So toast,” she adds cheerily.

Ellie squirms in her seat.

“Smells great, but you didn’t have to,” she replies.

“I know,” says Dina in a neutral tone. She arranges food on two plates, her back to Ellie. “I wanted to.”

When she turns around there’s nothing in her face to betray what she’s thinking, what she’s feeling. Despite everything, Ellie wishes she knew.

They start on their plates. There’s a few minutes of silence and Ellie is glad their mouths are too full to talk. Dina takes a long swallow of water and goes a little still. Her hand stays wrapped around the glass.

“About last night,” she begins, “when we were around the fire and talking about JJ…”

Inwardly Ellie cringes. She shovels another mouthful of scrambled eggs into her mouth and chews.

“I lied about his first word,” says Dina after a beat.

Ellie looks up at her and their eyes lock.

“It wasn’t Ollie,” Dina continues in a low, fragile voice. “It was Ellie.”

Ellie sets down her fork carefully and sits back.

“Oh,” is all she can manage.

“We had just moved back,” says Dina. “I was unpacking. Everything was a mess. We were in the bedroom and he found a picture of you I hadn’t framed. He was just sitting on the floor, slapping the picture of you and saying ‘Ewwie.’ When I went over to see what he had he just kind of…went still and gave me this look. I swear it was like he was trying to ask me something.”

Dina’s eyes fill with unshed tears. She looks at the ceiling and wipes them away.

“That’s why I didn’t want you to see him,” she says. “I knew how excited he would be.”

Ellie drops her head and closes her eyes. God, she really has ruined everything, hasn’t she? JJ’s first word should have been a happy moment. Instead it made Dina miserable.

“I’m sorry,” she says at last. “I wish it would’ve been Ollie instead.”

“Will you shut up?” Dina says. “That wasn’t your fault, dummy.”

Around the small barb she sounds almost kind, if Ellie can believe her ears. As if she’s glad that ‘Ellie’ was her son’s first word. Ellie sighs and rubs the back of her neck again, thumping an arm down on the table.

“I just…I don’t know what to be sorry for and what not to be sorry for anymore,” she says miserably.

Dina reaches across the table, fingers alighting gently on Ellie’s wrist. Holy shit. Ellie sucks in a breath. The bracelet Dina gave her is still there. She’d grown so used to it, she’d forgotten to take it off when she arrived back in Jackson. Had she wanted to take it off?

Dina’s fingers touch the blue beads interwoven between the leather band, eyes lifting to look at Ellie. For a moment it’s too easy to let the moment overtake her, to believe that she could regain all that she had left behind.

The gunshots make them both jump in their chairs. They scramble to the door and window. Someone is running up to the house. It’s Sandy, one of Dina’s friends. She’s nearly out of breath, armed with a shotgun, when they open the door.

“There’s a big horde of infected on the southside, heading this way. Came out of nowhere. Get armed. Come on!”

“Jesus,” breathes Ellie.

Ellie races into her bedroom. Dina is right behind her. Ellie pulls out a rug from under the bed, where multiple firearms are laid out and ready for use. They both grab pistols and rifles. Ellie takes some shivs and Dina grabs a hunting knife.

“What the fuck?” asks Dina as she checks her ammo. “How the hell could there be a horde?”

“I don’t know. Unless they’ve been flushed out from somewhere,” Ellie offers, just as baffled.

More shouts and gunfire rings out as they leave the house. People are beginning to run everywhere, grabbing guns, rushing young children indoors. The dogs are all barking. Ellie and Dina follow the people running towards the front gate. They see Tommy up ahead. He waves them over. Despite his limp he still moves fast.

“Tommy,” Ellie pants out. “What’s going on?”

“At least twenty or thirty of the fuckers,” says Tommy as they near the gate. “They were spotted through the trees, all running this direction out of the clear blue sky. Jesus. Devon, Erica! Grab those old FEDRA grenades and come on!”

The gates are opened enough to get through. Several people on horseback go through first. It’s only a couple of minutes before Ellie hears them open fire.

“They’re so close,” breathes Dina.

They follow the riders out into the open field outside the gates. Ellie gapes. There are infected coming right for them and they’re worked up into a frenzy. Runners are leading the horde; at least ten or so of them. She sees clickers and stalkers not far behind, all of them making a hellacious cacophony of noises.

“Ellie,” says Tommy, grabbing a grenade that’s handed to him. “I need you to use your scope. We can’t let that many of them reach the gate!”

There’s no time to consider or argue. Ellie rolls the rifle off her shoulder. There’s an old stack of pallets to her left. She jumps up on them and bends her knee to the ground, eye going to her scope. Dina is close by, firing off shots from her pistol at the first wave of runners.

Ellie forces her attention away from the other girl and focuses. She aims and fires. A runner drops, just a hundred or so yards away. They’re coming on quickly. She takes in big breaths of air, feeling like she’s suffocating. Her head goes light. She closes her eyes and shakes her head.

“Not now, goddamnit,” she mutters. She can’t do this now. She opens her eyes and does her best to ignore the panic attack. Her next shot hits nothing but dirt.

“Fuck!”

She clenches her teeth, trying to blot out the flashes of Jesse and Joel and Abby. More gunfire, more shouting. Ellie opens her eyes. There’s enough firepower around her now to help even the odds. She struggles through it, begins working on the clickers next. To her they’re the most dangerous. She takes down four before she has to reload.

“Stalkers!” comes a cry from the edge of the trees nearby. “Look out!”

A shrill scream follows. Ellie looks up in enough time to see a stalker ripping into one of them at the throat, blood spurting everywhere. She makes her hand into a fist repeatedly until it stops shaking.

She re-loads well enough and takes aim again. Dina and Mitch are calling out to each other, zig-zagging and firing as the horde grows closer.

Ellie takes aim and drops more infected. They’re getting too close for the scope. She drops the rifle and pulls out her pistol. Someone throws Moltovs into the infected. Fire explodes into them. They scream their nightmarish, shrill cries. The ones who don’t catch the brunt of the shattered bottles keep running, burning all the way.

“Come on, we’re halfway through! Let’s finish ‘em off!”

Maria’s voice cuts through the chaos somewhere to Ellie’s far right. She was right; there is an end to the number of infected now coming at them. People throw themselves into physical combat against what is left. Ellie jumps off the pallets and opens fire, taking down as many as she can with headshots. Dina is right beside her, helping to take down the stalkers that keep popping out of the trees.

Two runners are coming at them. Ellie knocks one off with her pistol. The second is only inches away from her. She takes out her knife and stabs it in the throat before it can do more than take a swipe at her.

“Ellie!”

Dina’s alarm causes her head to snap to her left. To her horror there’s a clicker coming at her fast. The runner on the other end of her knife is still alive. Gritting her teeth, Ellie jerks the blade through its throat, then stabs it. The oncoming clicker lets out a high-pitched shriek as she struggles to pull out her knife and back up. It’s about to bite her. But then it bursts into flames before her eyes. Dina has hit it with a Moltov. They regroup with the others and finish off the remaining infected, leaving a field full of bodies.

Orders are given to scour the area for stragglers. The rest of them head back.

“Thanks for that save,” says Ellie, wiping the blood off her knife.

“Of course,” says Dina. She nods at Ellie and for the time being there’s only the thankfulness of each other between them, of still being alive.

Tommy, Mitch, and Maria are still on two feet as well as they re-enter the community gates.

“I can’t believe she let you out there,” Dina remarks as Tommy limps along beside them, just behind Maria. Maria turns and rolls her eyes.

“I tried to stop him,” she says.

Tried,” Tommy emphasizes with a grin.

“We still don’t know where the hell they all came from,” says Mitch. “A horde of that size should’ve been spotted a long ways off. Something spooked them.”

“Or someone,” says Tommy darkly.

They have little time to discuss it further. A cry rips through the center of town. A group of men and women comes running toward them. Alarmed, Maria runs on ahead and asks what’s the matter.

“The children! The babies! They’re gone!”

The relief Ellie felt over conquering the infected drops away into dread again as she exchanges a look with Dina. The woman talking to Maria is practically ranting, hysterical. Someone has taken all the children from the Daycare. The words have scarcely left the woman’s mouth when Dina’s hand grips Ellie’s arm like a vice. They lock eyes.

“Ellie,” Dina breathes. “JJ…”

Together they join the group of people running toward the Daycare building. They re-load their guns. The windows to the center have been smashed in. Ellie is right behind Dina as she jumps over the window. Maria and Tommy come in from the front door, its locks blown off.

The space is a mess of toys and knocked over shelves. The babysitter that day was a man named Jeff. He’s dead on the floor. His throat has been slit wide open. There’s a note pinned to the top of his shirt.

“Oh god, oh fuck…” Dina moans beside her. Then she’s screaming out JJ’s name, along with others, desperate to know where their children are.

Ellie feels light-headed. She stares down at Jeff’s body as Maria removes the note. Her heart is pounding in her chest. JJ is gone. JJ has been taken from them. How many kids had been here this morning? She balls her hands into fists until her fingernails cut into flesh. But there’s no time for herself just now. Dina is sobbing in the next room. When she comes back she’s walking almost doubled over, holding her stomach. Ellie goes to her, gently takes her arm and helps her into the room. Maria is reading the note out loud with trembling hands.

My name is James. My group has taken your children. We have no intentions of harming them. We need a permanent place to stay and your community fits our needs. Meet us at your front gates now to discuss an agreement. Leave all your weapons behind. If you attempt any attack at all, remember we have your children.

“It was a setup,” Tommy mumbles, shaking his head. “They sent those infected towards us on purpose. A fucking distraction. Goddamnit!”

“But how?” asks Maria. “How is that possible?”

“Who cares right now?” Dina cuts in harshly. “We need to meet them.”

“The whole thing could be a trap,” says Mitch. “Clearly whoever they are, they’ve been watching us, this place for a while. Knew exactly where the Daycare was and how to sneak in while we were distracted.”

Dina sobs again. Ellie brushes her hair away from her face. It’s the first time she’s touched her in months.

“It’s going to be ok,” she says softly. “I swear it will be. We’ll get him back.”

She turns to the others.

“We have to go meet them, right? There’s nothing else to do yet,” she says, scarcely believing her own ears. She should be suggesting a counter-attack of some sort, but it’s clear they don’t have the upper hand. And little JJ…

She clenches her jaw, trying to keep her anger down as they leave the Daycare and head towards the gates again. Dina is clinging to her the entire way.

---------------

The field outside the gate looks startlingly different than it did only a few minutes ago.

Ellie hears the sound of running engines before the gates are fully opened. There, sitting in the middle of the field, is a military hummer, a jeep, and a large U-MOVE truck. Surrounding the vehicles are various men and women, perhaps ten or fifteen altogether, she thinks. They aren’t dressed in the military or paramilitary gear of FEDRA or the WLF, but they’re just as heavily armed. She sees several AK-47s.

Standing in front are two figures, a man and a woman. They’re wearing bullet-proof vests. She immediately labels them as King and Queen Assholes. They speak.

“Hello there,” says the man, casually shifting the semiautomatic in his hand. “My name is James and this is Darlene.”

Ellie notices the woman—Darlene—looks stony-eyed but nervous, eyes darting around their group.

“What do you want?” Maria asks harshly as she steps forward. The man—James—focuses on her. He shares none of Darlene’s nervousness, only a subtle smugness.

“And you are?” he asks.

“Maria,” she answers curtly.

Ellie is acutely aware that Dina’s grip on her arm hasn’t wavered as she looks over to Maria. Maria is staring down James as she calls out her name.

“Well Maria,” James begins, “We want what you got. It’s that simple. I do apologize for the deception with the infected, but you and yours have to realize, we’re in desperate need of a permanent home. These old U-MOVE trucks, well, they make for nice holding pens for infected. Now that this one is empty, your children are in it. Y’see, there’s too many of us now. What you see here is only a fraction of my people. Jackson is ideal for us, from what we’ve seen. All I ask is that you leave peacefully and you’ll get your kids back, perfectly safe and sound.”

“And where the hell do you expect us to go?” Tommy cuts in. “You see how many we are here. It’s suicide for us to leave.”

“Well now, I am sorry about that,” says James. He says it with same calm as everything else, as though he’s asking to borrow some milk. Ellie hates him.

“But,” he continues, “Y’all are capable people from what we’ve seen.”

She hates him, hates his fake courtesy, his smugness. Yet she is so tired of hating. She had dared to be hopeful, to think she could settle back here and be near Dina and Tommy and live life the way things had been, before Joel was killed. Now all that was threatened once again.

She thinks she probably doesn’t deserve the peace she wants.

But Dina and JJ deserve every bit of peace.

“You’ve got two days to get your affairs in order,” James is saying now. “We’ll meet back here, at this time. If you try anything or resist, well, nobody here wants bloodshed. ‘Specially with so many little ones so vulnerable.”

Beside her, Dina lunges. Ellie just manages to grab her.

“You fucking bastard!” she screams.

Ellie can’t remember the last time Dina has sounded so enraged. Mitch and Maria both step towards her protectively as James and Darlene turn to her with their guns. Everyone tenses.

“Hey, hey,” Ellie says quietly to Dina, gripping both her arms. “Dina, stop! We’ll get them, I swear.”

Ellie turns Dina’s cheek towards her. She forces herself to look squarely into those big brown eyes. For a moment she feels a familiar chill run through her.

“We’ll get them, I swear,” she says again.

Dina calms down. Eyes that had been so fixated on their new enemies now fixate on Ellie. Dina swallows, tears streaking her face, and nods once.

-------------

They all return inside the gates, quiet as mice, until the gates are shut.

Everyone starts talking at once until Tommy sticks his fingers in his mouth and whistles.

Ellie listens as they try to come up with a workable plan. Dina stands next to her, also listening. She senses a shift in the other girl, so palpable she can almost feel it. Dina’s face slowly becomes calm and calculating. Ellie doesn’t take her eyes off her for a second, not even to acknowledge the others.

The sounds of vehicles roar to life as James and his troupe start to leave. Ellie’s mind is racing. She starts to speak but Dina beats her to it.

“I’m following them. Now.” says Dina, grabbing a revolver and checking its chamber. There is no hesitation in her voice, no trace of wild emotion now. Just the calm and collected Dina Ellie remembers.

“They put the children in that truck, after they released those infected from it,” Tommy says earnestly. “God knows how many other infected they may have stashed—”

They argue. Ellie waits.

Tommy objects to it all. Mitch wants to go with Dina. Maria reminds them their ammunition supplies are now depleted from the infected attack. Ellie keeps looking at Dina.

“I’m going with her,” Ellie interjects loudly. “Just the two of us. We can be stealthier than anyone else. And there’s not enough supplies for a bunch of us to go anyway.”

Tommy objects again but Maria cuts him off.

“It’s not your call, Tommy,” she says softly. Now she turns to Dina. Ellie looks at Dina, trying hard not to beg this allowance.

“Ellie, you don’t have to do this,” says Dina in a low and steady voice. The look she’s giving Ellie makes Ellie want to jump in front of a bullet for her.

“Yea, I do,” Ellie replies flatly.

There’s no time to debate any longer. James’ troupe is gaining distance, plowing through the fields outside and heading east. If they’re going to do this, Ellie knows, it’s now or never.

If they can sneak into the group’s encampment under the cover of night and take the U-MOVE truck for the children, they just might be able to haul ass and return to Jackson with its most precious cargo.

The others are still concerned, especially Tommy. Ellie hugs him before they set out.

“And if this crazy, half-assed plan doesn’t pan out?” he asks her. “What then? You’re as much a daughter—”

He cuts off. Joel’s unspoken name hangs between them. Ellie feels a stabbing pain in her chest at his raw emotion. It’s been too easy to forget how much Tommy cares for her.

“It’ll work because it has to,” Ellie says.

She must get JJ back to Dina. And if that means she dies trying, so be it.

She keeps that thought to herself as she and Dina head out.

------------

They quickly grab as many supplies and ammo as they can and take a single horse, galloping until they catch sight of the small caravan of military vehicles in the distance. Dina is riding up front and guides them to the edge of the woods. They follow the caravan carefully and say little.

They fall into a more or less steady cantor behind the caravan, making sure to keep their distance should any of James’ people bother to look behind them. Ellie allows herself to relax a little. Her back hurts from staying ram-rod straight on the horse.

She keeps her arms wrapped around Dina’s waist. She can smell the shampoo in the other girl’s dark hair as her ponytail bobs in front of her. She watches a trickle of sweat roll down Dina’s neck onto her shirt collar.

They ride for several hours like this. The afternoon is late when the caravan finally stops. They’re at an old farm silo. She and Dina watch from the cover of the woods as the group clamors out of the vehicles and inspects the silo and surrounding areas.

Two people attend to the back of the U-MOVE truck. Its doors open and the whines and cries of the small children inside echo out. Beside her Dina gasps softly. The man and the woman step inside the truck and through her scope Ellie makes out a large diaper box, well-worn and now full with what looks like baby food sticking out its top. She tells Dina, feeling relieved. But Ellie senses Dina’s body tense beside her. She wants to reach out, to at least put an arm around Dina’s back. She wants to hug her, to place a chaste kiss on her neck and make endless vows to her.

“Hey,” she says softly instead.

Dina looks at her, angry tears brimming in her eyes.

They both jump when one, then two gunshots go off. They watch as two men drag out the fresh corpses of infected from the silo. Ellie watches James as he talks to the others. She grits her teeth.

“Fucking sonofabitch,” Dina says behind her. Her voice causes Ellie to jump. Ellie says nothing. They watch a few minutes longer as everyone seems to either take lookout positions or settle down in and around the silo for the night.

“Guess we should eat and get some sleep too,” Ellie offers at last, dismounting from the horse.

Dina only nods, sliding down almost reluctantly from the saddle. She starts rummaging through the saddlebag for food.

“I’ll do a quick check,” says Ellie, indicating their own surroundings in the woods.

Dina nods and says softly, “Ok.”

Ellie makes a wide semi-circle around them, careful to stay crouched and hidden from the encampment as the sun slips below the tree line. There’s no sign of infected or people. When she returns Dina is still standing where she’d left her, looking ready for a fight.

“Ellie listen,” Dina says. “As soon as it’s dark enough we can move in and take them out, one by one. I know those two assholes have snipers set up, but I think we can do it.”

“No, no way,” Ellie shakes her head.

“But if they return to their camp it’ll be worse,” Dina says, fire burning in her eyes. “Here’s there’s less of them…”

Ellie puts her hands on Dina’s shoulders to still her.

“Listen to me,” she says. “I know JJ is right there, but it’s too risky. If they even think we’re here…they might hurt the kids. We have to wait.”

She winces as she says it, but Dina looks as if she’s been stabbed. The truth of Ellie’s statement sinks in on her face and her shoulders go limp. She breaks gently away from Ellie and turns around, arms crossed. Again Ellie fights the impulse to reach out. If she thought even for a second that Dina might accept her, she would. But why should Dina?

Slowly Dina nods in agreement and turns back.

“Ok then. We wait.”

------------

The moon is high in the sky and neither of them sleep, lying down on the thin sleeping bags from their packs. Afraid to risk smoke from a fire, they have a spare flashlight turned on between them. Ellie doesn’t dare look at Dina’s face. She stares up at the stars, ignoring the bright call of the moon and all its memories that contain Joel: the museum, the Apollo capsule, that cassette tape.

She turns instead to thoughts about their situation and starts talking out loud.

“We’ve got, what, seven Moltovs in the second saddlebag and that one grenade Maria’s patrol found,” she says. “So that’s enough to light at least some of their camp, enough to distract the ones who are still alive by then. But only if we can figure out how to get the kids out of there first…”

“How many do you think there are?” Dina cuts in quietly.

“Well if they want Jackson then I dunno, maybe fifty strong. Maybe more. We’re gonna have to map out a route before we go in. Get a good look around, see how well guarded the kids are.”

Dina says nothing. Ellie dares a glance at her when she can’t stand it anymore. Dina is also staring up, brows furrowed hard. Ellie can still see the glint of tried tears on her cheek through the beam of light between them.

“I’ll um, I’ll take first watch,” Ellie says. “Get some rest.”

She stands up, tucking a pistol into her pants. She walks down the small knoll they’re on and takes a deep breath, steadying herself. The temperature has dropped since nightfall and goosebumps run down her arms.

“Ellie.”

Ellie jumps, startled. Dina is standing behind her. Her eyes have adjusted to the darkness enough to see Dina’s face.

“Do you think you’ll be okay?” she asks, rubbing the chill air from an arm. “I mean, your panic attacks…”

Ellie kicks at the roots in the dirt below her.

“Yea, I’ll manage. I have to. For JJ.”

Dina stands beside her.

“We might not make it,” she says softly. “This is a long shot.”

Her voice breaks. She raises a hand to her mouth. Ellie can’t bring herself to disagree. Instead she remembers her hands around Abby’s throat. She remembers the force of her own hands, pinning the other woman down. She remembers hating herself doing it but doing it anyway. Her throat begins working even as she tells herself to stay quiet.

“When I was fighting Abby at that beach,” she begins, “I thought of Joel, playing his guitar. It was the night of the dance, right after.”

She can feel Dina’s eyes on her now, her attention focused.

“I…I thought about him alive, for the first time in I don’t know how long,” Ellie says, feeling the lump in her throat grow. “He was alive and he looked at me and…and I saw what I was doing. To her.”

There was so much blood between the two of us. Liquid red, floating in the water.

Ellie pinches her eyes shut.

“I was a fucking monster,” she breathes out at last. “Even before that. I was…I wanted to kill them all.”

Her hands clench into fists. She feels the soft flesh of her two stubs press into her palm. She re-opens her eyes. Dina is facing her, inches away. Her eyes are tender and full.

“Yea, well, remember that Disney movie?” she asks, attempting a casual shrug. “Beauty and the Beast? He was a monster too. But he was a man before and he turned back into one at the end.”

Ellie lets out a chortle and wipes fast at her eyes. But maybe I’m supposed to stay cursed. She clears her throat.

“Well, I’m gonna find a spot to watch them from, just in case. You should try to sleep a little.”

Dina grabs her before she can get far, spins her around and hugs her tight. Ellie inhales sharply. Dina is all around her suddenly, arms thrown behind her neck, face buried into Ellie’s neck.

“I am so glad you’re here,” Dina sobs.

Ellie fights back the tears in her eyes. She’s frozen, doesn’t know whether to hug her back or just stand there limply, like she’s doing. Dina pulls back and looks up at her. Ellie inwardly curses as a stray tear rolls down her cheek. Dina’s fingers reach up and gently wipe it away.

“You are not a fucking monster,” she says. “You fucked up. You fucked up a lot and badly. But you’re not a monster.”

“How…” Ellie stops herself, tries to get a grip. “How do you know?” she asks in a cracked whisper.

Dina’s eyes search every inch of her face, gaze never wavering.

“Because I don’t think I could ever love a monster this much. Even when I wanted to hate you, I never did.”

Ellie can hardly breathe.

“You…you don’t hate me?” she squeaks out, voice sounding small and fragile to her ears.

Dina’s brows furrow as she quickly shakes her head. Her hands brush against Ellie’s sides.

“Jesus, no, Ellie. I just thought…I wasn’t enough. And that’s why you left.”

Dina’s gaze flickers to the ground. Ellie feels her heart beat hard in her chest as she sucks in air.

“You are enough,” she manages. “You’re everything. I was just too fucking lost to see it. I am so sorry.”

It’s all she can say. She’s repeated those same four words in her head like a mantra for weeks. Dina nods, swallows hard.

“I know.”

Their foreheads touch, breaths mingling in the cool night air. Ellie feels like a balloon that’s finally deflating after being too full for too long. She’s trembling, partly from the cold.

“I just…I’m so scared now,” Dina says in a choked sob. “I can’t lose him.”

“We won’t,” Ellie says. “I’ll do anything it takes.”

And then Dina is kissing her on the lips. It’s wet with tears. Ellie’s heart leaps to her throat for an instant. Dina doesn’t stop though. She keeps on kissing her, until Ellie’s lips part. Dina tastes like salt and mint. Her kisses grow almost frantic as her hand wraps around the nape of Ellie’s neck, drawing her in. Ellie pulls back, alarm bells sounding off.

“Dina wait…” she pants out.

Dina’s eyes are wide and desperate.

“Please,” Dina sobs, “Please. Just touch me.”

Her voice makes something shatter in Ellie’s chest. Dina kisses her again and Ellie lets her. She responds in kind to Dina’s body language but never oversteps. Dina is growing hot all over. Her lips and her hips, grinding into Ellie’s, are making Ellie hot. She feels it in her groin. Dina’s tongue plunges eagerly into her mouth and Ellie feels the sensation shoot down between her legs. Dina’s hands ride up under her shirt, feeling her breasts, all with the same frantic movements. Ellie is still uncertain. She wants so very badly to comfort Dina. If her touch can even begin to make things right between them, maybe it was worth a shot.

Ellie finally gives in, mouth moving to suck hard at the pulse over Dina’s neck. Dina gasps. Ellie moves them back to a sleeping bag, hands on Dina’s hips. She yanks on Dina’s belt and Dina drops down with her. Ellie kisses her mouth like she’s found a desert rose. She tastes Dina again and again. Dina is bucking her hips up and unbuckling her belt, fingers fumbling. Her need is palpable and Ellie frantically helps her, yanking down her jeans just enough. Dina grabs Ellie’s hand and pulls it to her underwear. Ellie hesitates, catching her eye.

Dina’s face is flushed, eyes blown back.

“Please,” she says again.

It punches a moan from Ellie. She slides her fingers inside Dina’s underwear, vaguely aware they’re a familiar pair of boy shorts. Dina pulls her into a hard kiss as Ellie’s fingers skirt down farther, past soft curls to touch the soft nub there. Dina gasps again, mouth open. Ellie rolls her fingers over it. Dina spreads her legs as wide as her jeans allow. Ellie stifles a groan. She swiftly yanks out her fingers and sticks them in her mouth, wetting them. Dina is panting, hands pulling at her from everywhere. Ellie slides back inside the boy shorts again, going straight down until she’s at Dina’s entrance.

Dina bites down on her bottom lip as Ellie gently penetrates her. As soon as her fingers are in she hooks them and moves. Dina gasps, hips bucking, desperate for more. Ellie fucks her, pulling out her juices and spreading them over Dina’s clit.

“Fuck,” Dina bites out.

Ellie can’t tell her own heavy breathing from Dina’s anymore as she rubs her clit, faster and faster. Dina’s body tenses all over, breath seizing in her lungs, eyes screwed shut. Ellie clamps a hand over her mouth as Dina lets out a loud moan. Ellie doesn’t let up. Dina’s face goes slack, eyes fluttering, nostrils flaring. Ellie gradually slows down and takes her hand from Dina’s mouth.

Ellie buries her head in the crook of Dina’s shoulder, panting hard. Dina is still clinging to her, white-knuckled. Their eyes meet again.

They say nothing. Ellie doesn’t trust her voice at all. But Dina is looking at her with a new calm, though fresh tears streak her face.

Ellie dares to kiss her forehead. Then she sits up, straightening herself. She swallows several times before speaking.

“I’d better go check their camp.”

Dina doesn’t reply, still breathing hard. Ellie gets up and looks out at the farm silo. All is quiet. Everyone appears asleep. She stands and listens to the woods around them. Quiet, save for the frogs and crickets.

She returns to their horse and sleeping bags. Dina hasn’t moved but the flashlight is turned off. Ellie can’t tell if her eyes are open or not. Then Dina’s voice cuts through the chill air softly.

“Come here.”

Ellie hesitates, then walks over. Dina is in the sleeping bag, gesturing for Ellie to join her. Wordlessly Ellie does so, facing away from Dina because there’s tears in her eyes again. Dina fits herself in close around Ellie’s backside, arm coming around her waist.

Ellie doesn’t let herself fall asleep the remainder of the night. She wants to remember this, remember Dina wrapped up with her like this. She doesn’t know if it will ever happen again. She doesn’t even know if they’ll survive this.

Chapter Text

She must have dozed off, because she wakes to the distant sounds of toddlers crying.

Ellie sits up quickly and looks around. There’s a fog around her. Dina is at the top of the knoll, lying belly-down in the tall grass and peering out at the farm silo. Ellie rouses herself and joins her. It’s just after sunup, though the sun is little more than a yellow ball, obfuscated by fog. Even so, most of the fog has already started to lift from the scene down below them.

Dina has the scope trained on the U-MOVE truck. She tells Ellie she’s caught glimpses of the one called Darlene bringing more food to the kids. There’s already a guard posted on top of the truck with a sniper as the rest of James’ people prepare to head out.

“They can’t be more than a few hours away from wherever the main camp is,” says Ellie as she feeds the horse while Dina splashes water over her face. “Maybe less, if they expect to make it back to Jackson tomorrow.”

“We can’t lose sight of that truck,” says Dina.

They don’t have long to wait before the caravan starts to pull out. She and Dina are ready. They follow behind, tailing the vehicles and staying hidden as they had the day before. It’s tricky, because there are larger gaps between wooded sections now and they are forced to fall further behind a few times. But then, after a couple of hours, they re-enter a more heavily wooded area. Ellie watches as the caravan turns and heads straight into the woods, narrowly clearing two tall pine trees.

“We’re getting close,” she whispers from the front saddle.

Behind her she feels Dina squeeze her thigh just a little.

Ellie waits until the roar of engines is faint before following between the pine trees. She slows the horse down to a walk. Then the engines are gone altogether. They dismount and walk the horse, stepping carefully.

Ellie is almost afraid to blink as she stares on ahead of them. She becomes aware of how tense she is, of how the tiniest sound around them makes her jerk. She picks up on voices somewhere ahead. She motions for Dina to stop.

“Stay here,” she whispers.

Dina nods, understanding. She waits as Ellie scouts on ahead.

Ellie double-checks all her weapons; the pistols behind her back, the knife at her leg, the shotgun on her back. She’s done this so many times there’s a strange comfort in it.

She comes to a leafy thicket with a fallen, moss-covered tree. On the other side she sees human movement, hears the voices clearer.

Ellie ducks down close behind the thicket. She crawls on her belly to get through enough to see. The woods open up, and here is where she sees James again. There are a few other vehicles around. A makeshift barbed-wire fence closes in the area, close to some shanty-town-like shacks. Old barrels serving as fireplaces. A stream cuts through the middle of it all. Her eyes locate the U-MOVE truck, parked on this side of the stream, in the back of the clearing. There’s a single, long shack near it.

She watches a few minutes longer, hears clips of conversation from James to the others.

…Weren’t followed at all…

Six kids altogether, think they’ll comply…

They’ve gotta be low on ammo, shouldn’t be much of a resistance…

…get the kids quiet, don’t want to attract infected.

Someone approaches close to her from her left. Ellie freezes. It’s Darlene. James approaches her, both of them only a couple of yards away.

“I don’t like this,” Darlene says. Her voice is like liquid and full of emotion, not at all like James’.

“I know honey,” James replies. “But you know we need that town and all its resources. They’ll move out. We did the same thing five years ago and it worked, didn’t it? And you got to keep little Anthony.”

Ellie’s face snaps up to Darlene and James. Darlene is nodding sadly.

“But he’s gone now,” she says bitterly.

“Well, you can have a new one,” James says.

Ellie’s eyes widen in horror. What the actual fuck?

She’s heard enough. She waits for them to move away, then crawls back out. When she’s out of earshot and eyesight she quickly picks her way back to Dina and tell her what she’s seen and heard. When she tells her about Darlene and James, Dina’s eyes widen with the same horror. She shakes her head.

“Uh-uh. No fucking way.”

Dina glares out towards the encampment as though she’s ready to charge through it. Ellie tugs her arm.

“Come on, D,” she says softly.

They walk further away and close to the two pine trees.

“Here’s the kicker,” says Ellie. “There’s only three or four other people who were already there. James lied about their numbers. From what I can tell, this is it.”

Dina takes a deep breath and nods.

“That’s a relief. So now what? Did you get a good look around?”

Ellie has memorized the layout. She uses a stick and some dry dirt to make a map for them. She draws in the U-MOVE truck. Dina looks at everything carefully.

“The stream splits up the camp,” she says. “And there’s plenty of cover. If we can sneak in around to the other side of the camp tonight we could light it up all at once with the Moltovs, yea?”

Ellie thinks and slowly nods. They know they need to make certain the truck and the children in it are secure before they start doing anything.

“I’ll handle the Moltovs,” she says. “You take care of anyone around the truck. Make sure the kids are all right, then get in and go as soon as you get the chance.”

“But you’ll need help,” Dina insists. “You can’t throw all those Moltovs without getting spotted.”

Ellie shakes her head. “No. Leave everyone else to me. I’ll follow as soon as I can…”

Dina’s brows knit together, her face pained.

“No fucking way! I’m not driving off and leaving you here!”

“Dina.”

Ellie swallows down the lump in her throat, hand on Dina’s cheek. She looks the love of her life in the eyes.

“You get JJ and you go. You don’t stop. Understand?”

Dina is still shaking her head, tears in her eyes but she’s quiet. Ellie hates this, hates that she’s once again the reason Dina is in pain. She cups Dina’s face with her hands and kisses her.

“I’ll be right behind you. You go, I go, remember?”

Dina nods and swallows hard, hands clutching Ellie’s wrists. When she looks up again her face is determined, eyes set as they search Ellie’s.

“You’d better be right fucking behind me.”

-------------

They wait for the sun to go down.

She was the best thing that ever happened to me

I was the worst thing that ever happened to me

Can I do this one thing right?

If I lose them, I lose the light.

Joel, what would you do? What wouldn’t you do What should I do?

-------------

The children in the truck still whine but grow quieter as night sets in. They are checked on often. She watches as three fires come to life in the barrels.

One is on the other side of the stream.

James’ people have settled in but are ever diligent. She has to stay low to the ground. The two snipers patrol around the camp constantly.

They wait longer.

The people huddle around the fire after dinner, laughing, telling jokes. Singing songs. Drinking. More of them retire to the shacks. She keeps track of their numbers. Only nine of them outside now. Two people always guarding around the truck, even at this hour.

She watches James. He stays out with the others, still armed.

It’s close to midnight when the camp has died down almost completely.

The sniper is setting on a chair on top of the U-MOVE truck. The other is leaning up against a tree across the stream, asleep and snoring. Two women are around the fire barrel across the stream, talking quietly amongst themselves. James is sitting in front of a shack, picking at his nails with a knife. Darlene, she knows, is in the shack, probably asleep.

Ellie plans her moves over and over. There’s a cold sweat on her forehead but her hands are steady.

In fact, she feels amazing. And it terrifies her.

She begins moving in a wide arc around the camp, mapping out all possible escape routes, looking at the place from different angles. She makes it across the stream. Her backpack is full of glass bottles; each full of liquor and each carefully wrapped and separated from one another. She pulls one out.

She finds a good spot at the edge of the clearing, behind the thick trunk of an oak tree. She leaves the backpack open and pulls it across her stomach. She knows precisely where she will throw the first few bottles. The one going into the fire barrel will be the zinger.

She waits, looking across the way at the U-MOVE truck. The sniper on the top will be the beginning. She watches as Dina appears in the darkness, crouched up against the back of the truck. There was a guard on that side of it. Dina’s figure means he’s gone now.

Dina takes out the second guard on the exposed side of the truck. Ellie’s practically grinding her teeth and cutting her nails into her palms as Dina painstakingly makes certain no one is looking over towards her before making her move.

The guard goes down silently, throat slit first, then stabbed. Next she heads to the truck’s rear again, going up.

Time seems to stop when her added weight causes the truck to shift ever so slightly. It’s enough to make the sniper turn in his seat, but blissfully he doesn’t rise. His mistake. Dina is on him, lightning-fast, stabbing him in the side, then the stomach. He’s struggling, but her hand is clamped down around his mouth.

Heart hammering, Ellie looks over at James and the two women near the fire. They’re not looking. James has stood up and gone around the side of the shack to piss. The snoring sniper is still asleep by the tree. Ellie looks back to the truck.

The sniper is now just a body on the top of the truck. Dina is shaking her hand as though in pain. Ellie smirks. Asshole must have bitten her.

Dina jumps off the truck after dangling the guy’s legs over the side. Ellie watches as his body is pulled down and out of sight, leaving a blood smear behind, though barely visible unless you knew it was there.

There’s no way to open the back of the truck without making too much noise—a point they had thought of—so Dina sneaks over to the passenger side and opens it. Ellie winces when she thinks she hears the door, but a quick look to her left shows no one else has heard.

Ellie holds her breath. Seconds tick away as Dina climbs in slowly. Ellie can’t see her inside the truck’s cab. A minute passes, then another. Then Dina re-emerges, leaving the passenger door open as she jumps out. Ellie hopes to God she’s managed to find the wires necessary to hot-wire the thing, if there were no keys around.

Dina re-appears at the back of the truck. She peers around the corner and Ellie follows her gaze. The two women are still talking quietly. James has sat back down again, but he’s looking out towards the truck. Ellie’s grip on the glass bottle tightens. She readies her lighter. Her breath sticks momentarily in her throat. She looks back at Dina. Dina can’t see her at all or exactly where she is, but she gives two thumbs up. Ellie lets out a breath. In and out. Slow, deep. Her eyes re-focus.

She moves fast, standing up and lighting the first Moltov and launching it through the air. It sails into the shack farthest away and hits its mark, exploding. The two women scream. Ellie is already lighting the second bottle and throwing it. It strikes a little low on the fire barrel but still manages to hit it. The running women are engulfed. The explosion catches more of the shack on fire.

James is up and shouting, grabbing his AK-47 as others come running outside. Ellie sends the third Moltov on its way, aiming for the bastard himself. James ducks and runs just as it hits the shack behind him. James is yelling and pointing at the truck. Ellie lights and throws the fourth, running out into the clearing. She hears the truck’s engine come to life.

Gunfire erupts near her. She zig-zags, blindly launching the fifth Moltov towards the sound of the guns. Screaming. Running. The clearing is on fire by now.

“There she is! Get her!”

She’s closing in on the truck, but the ground in front of her flies up in the air from gunfire. She dodges, forced to fall back towards the woods. The truck’s tires squeal, kicking up more dirt as it heaves forward. Pain shoots through Ellie’s shoulder and she falters.

“I hit her!”

Ellie grimaces, feeling the bullet lodged inside her. She pushes through it, struggling to light the last Moltov. The lighter doesn’t want to work. She curses.

“Come on, come on, goddamnit!”

More gunfire coming for her. The glass bottle shatters as it’s struck and she immediately lets go of it, leaping back as hot flames lick her face.

“Fuck!”

She runs backward and away from the fire, then dodges to the right, pulling out her pistol and firing at two men coming towards her. She drops one with a bullet or two to his leg. The other is on top of her before she can react. It’s James, ramming into her. He means to overtake her physically but Ellie cracks him in the head with her pistol.

“You fucking bitch!” he roars.

She shoots at him, running backwards. He shouts and pivots awkwardly as a bullet lands in his side. She hears the truck leaving somewhere behind her. James is pulling out a pistol. He fires just as Ellie trips over a body. An AK-47 clatters at her feet. She goes down just as James fires and misses her. Ellie picks up the gun and pulls the trigger. It’s still got bullets.

“Fuck you!” she roars at him.

James gets hit, over and over. She nails him in the face and he’s gone. She scrambles to her feet as the remaining survivors come at her. Ellie breaks out into a run, wincing as her shoulder throbs as if on fire from the bullet wound. She manages to pull out the grenade.

She runs as fast as she’s capable of, until her legs and lungs start to burn. She pivots around, pulling the pin free from the grenade and launches it into the people firing on her and the truck now. They see it and nearly topple into one another to turn and run but it’s too late. The grenade goes off and the gunfire stops.

Ellie runs after the U-MOVE truck. She realizes with a jolt how frantically she wants to not be left behind. She realizes she doesn’t want to die.

Miraculously, the truck slows.

She catches up to it, running to the passenger side. It’s still open.

“Get in!” Dina shouts.

She does so and the truck speeds up again as a few more bullets burst into its side. Ellie looks back to see a single man behind them firing. She watches as a clicker finds him and finishes him off.

“Are you ok?” Dina asks.

“Yea. Just keep going,” says Ellie.

More infected are emerging from the woods, drawn by the noise. Dina presses on while Ellie goes behind the cab and into the back.

A large crib and a play-pen have been placed in the back, and in them are their six missing children, crying and scared but otherwise unharmed. Ellie immediately dives her hands in and picks up the dark-skinned, cherubic boy who is reaching towards her and crying her name, “Ewwie! Ewwie!”

Ellie picks him up and hugs him tight.

“It’s ok, baby boy, I’ve got you,” whispers to him, pressing her cheek against his and kissing him.

“I’ve got you. Oh, god.”

She’s crying and shaking but smiling as she looks at little JJ.

“Shit!”

Dina’s voice cuts through as the truck suddenly swerves hard and skids to a stop. Ellie thinks she sees someone in front of them before they’re gone.

“What is it? Dina!”

“Motherfucker,” she hears Dina mumble heatedly.

Ellie places JJ carefully back in the crib, shushing him softly and trying to comfort his friends as she hears Dina open the door and climb out of the cab.

Ellie follows Dina outside. There’s a woman, who Ellie had glimpsed in front of the truck. Now she’s holding her hands up, face half-burnt, pleading with Dina. It’s Darlene.

“Don’t shoot! Please. Let me go with you. I didn’t want any of this, I swear to God!”

Dina hits her in the face with her gun, keeping it trained on her.

“You bitch,” she seethes out, cocking the hammer.

Ellie sees the scene playing out in front of her and knows she must stop it.

“Dina wait.”

Dina points the gun angrily at Darlene, who flinches. Ellie now sees nearly half her body is burnt. She has no weapons.

“She was with them!” Dina shouts. “She was with him.

“Please,” Darlene sobs out again. “I know we did a horrible, unforgivable thing. But I regret it all. I never knew he would do those things. I…I just wanted it to end.”

Dina shoves her hard. She goes down to her knees, hands still up in the air, begging. Ellie steps forward and places her hand on Dina’s arm. Dina yanks away.

“Ellie. She’s one of them. She helped kidnap our son.

Ellie steps in front of Dina, planting herself between the two of them.

“I know,” she says softly, looking into Dina’s raging eyes and seeing herself. “I know, but not like this.”

Angry tears brim in Dina’s eyes.

“But she deserves it!”

“And she’ll probably die anyway, like this,” Ellie presses on. “But it doesn’t have to be your doing.”

She sees Dina begin to falter, but still Dina shakes her head, tries to move past Ellie, gun still aimed. Ellie shadows her movement. She steps in and touches Dina’s cheek.

“Please don’t make the same mistakes I did,” she says, barely above a whisper.

That gets the other girl’s attention. Dina blinks and looks at Ellie. For long seconds the only sounds are Darlene’s sobs. Finally Dina lowers her gun. Ellie sighs and turns to Darlene.

“Get out of here,” she says.

--------------

Ellie takes over driving. Dina immediately rushes to the back. They drive all night and make it back to the gates of the community the next afternoon, the gas sitting on empty. Dina has not put JJ down at all, save to comfort the other children.

The entire town is there to greet them inside the gates. Cheers erupt when the children are brought in, along with hugs and lots of attention on her and Dina. Ellie accepts it all as graciously as she can.

After the initial fanfare is over, Tommy approaches her.

He looks at her for a long minute and Ellie begins to wonder if he’s somehow upset. But then he wordlessly pulls her into an embrace. Ellie closes her eyes and breathes him in. He’s not his brother, but Ellie remembers she loves him, too.

When he pulls away he’s looking at her a bit too intently. Ellie tries to laugh.

“What?”

Tommy smiles, looking as if he’s trying hard not to cry.

“Joel would be so proud of you today. Well, he’d yell at you and say it was a stupid idea, but he’d be proud.”

Ellie manages to nod, too overwhelmed to speak.

Chapter Text

The next several days are passed in blessed peace for Ellie. Being with JJ again is like a breath of much-needed fresh air. All of Dina’s earlier reluctance is also gone and she lets Ellie do whatever she wants with the small boy. Ellie is like an older playmate with him, reading to him, showing him words with his blocks, pointing out planets and constellations and even launching into mini-lessons on space history.

Ellie feels unbelievably content when she’s with him. Each day the small boy reminds her more and more of both Dina and his late father Jesse. She actually loses track of time some days, until Dina calls her.

Every now and then she catches Dina staring at the two of them. Her face is beaming, her eyes bright and warm. That dopey smile tugs on her face and all Ellie can think is that she’s too lucky for all this.

One night after JJ has fallen asleep in his crib, they stay up on the couch and watch a movie Dina has found tucked away in her closet. It’s called Bound, about a lesbian ex con who falls for the girlfriend of a Mafia member. Dina tells her it’s the first queer film she ever watched.

When it gets to the sex scene Ellie feels her throat go dry and a familiar tingling between her legs. Dina is already sitting close to her, thighs touching. Ellie glances at her with a raised eyebrow. Dina grins.

“Now this is hot,” she says.

As soon as the scene is over Dina stops the movie and starts kissing her.

She doesn’t realize how hungry she’s been for this until it’s happening. Dina’s lips pressed into her own (sweet and soft), her hands caressing Ellie’s face (touching her just the way she remembers), and eventually Dina’s leg pressing between both of Ellie’s as she climbs on top of her.

Ellie can hardly stand it. She whisks Dina to the bedroom and they shed their clothes, quickly at first, but then Ellie slows them down. She lets her eyes sweep over every inch of Dina’s skin, re-acquainting herself with every freckle and every scar. Her mouth begins to roam. Dina encourages her until Ellie is mapping out all of Dina everywhere she can, eliciting small moans from the other girl until Dina grows impatient with want.

Ellie slides down the bed until she’s between Dina’s legs and takes the first taste there. It sends a pleasant shock through her system when she finds how wet Dina is.

The next half hour is nothing short of bliss for Ellie as she works Dina into a climax, savoring every involuntary movement, every noise that is punched from the back of Dina’s throat.

She ignores her own burning desire. Dina is more than willing to help her out in that department, but Ellie just smiles, tracing over the newer scar on Dina’s shoulder and kissing her gently.

“Next time,” she says. “Let’s finish the movie.”

-------------

Next time turns into next time, and another next time, and another.

Winter is fast approaching. The leaves begin to fall and the town begins stocking up on supplies. They’ve nearly re-stocked all the ammo lost from James’ gang by Thanksgiving.

Maria asks her again if she wants to start patrolling again. Ellie has kept pushing the thought from her mind. She says no. Maria doesn’t push, but everyday afterwards Ellie feels guilty.

The nightmares are still there. And when she thinks about confronting infected or people, her hand starts trembling.

Once, after returning from a trap with some rabbits early one morning, she’s spooked by the sudden appearance of one of the dogs. It comes running at her, barking loudly. It belongs to a friend of Mitch’s; a Labrador Retriever. Ellie drops the rabbits and jerks out her pistol. Her heart is in her throat as she remembers the vicious dogs of the WLF, jumping on her and wanting to tear her to shreds, the shouts of the WLF alerting the others…

“Whoa, stop! Ellie!”

It takes a minute for her to register Mitch yelling at her. The dog has stopped in front of her. It cocks its head at her and hesitantly wags its tail.

“Ellie, hey, it’s ok,” says Mitch, slowly stepping not quite in front of her and the raised pistol. “It’s Bruno, remember?”

Ellie looks at the dog again. It’s not vicious. It wants to play.

She hears her own heavy breathing, sees it puffing out in front of her in the cold. She lowers the pistol.

“Jesus, I’m…I’m sorry,” she mumbles, trying to clear her head.

“It’s ok,” Mitch says softly, too softly.

Ellie inwardly curses herself all the way home.

--------------

She begrudgingly tells Dina about it that evening as Dina is dressing for bed. Ellie leaves her nightclothes untouched on her pillow, face brooding.

“I knew it wasn’t one of their dogs, in the back of my mind,” she says, sitting on the bed. “But I still freaked out.”

“You said it was running towards you and barking,” replies Dina, shrugging into a tank top. “It’s understandable.”

Ellie frowns and shakes her head. She sighs and flops back on the bed.

“Here,” says Dina, picking up a book from the small table across the room. “Tell me more about the Apollo 11 spaceflight.”

Ellie takes the book from her. It’s a history of spaceflight, something she brought over from her own neglected home. Ellie smiles and scoffs.

“I’ve told you about ten times already. You’re not that interested.”

Dina shrugs. “You’re interested. So I’m interested.”

Ellie opens the book and flips through the pages.

“How about…hmm…how about the first woman in space,” she says instead.

She knows Dina is distracting her on purpose but she can’t help but feel a little grateful for it. Even so her mind keeps wandering back like a boomerang to other things.

When her history lesson has concluded she shuts the book. Dina is snuggled up next to her on the bed. Ellie thumps her head back on the headboard and basks in the physical closeness of it, breathing in the scent of shampoo on Dina’s hair. But.

“Maria asked me to patrol again,” she says at length. “I told her no. I should’ve said yes.”

Dina fiddles with the bracelet on Ellie’s wrist.

“She was just asking. I’m sure she understands.”

“But I should be patrolling,” Ellie continues. “I need to be helping, contributing. I need to stop being such a pussy about everything…”

“Hey.”

Dina’s voice is harsh. She lifts her head and sits up straight next to Ellie. Ellie sighs and looks at her.

“You are not being a pussy,” says Dina seriously. “You’ve been through some shit, Ellie. More shit than most people here have. It’ll get better. It’s just going to take time.”

Ellie thumps her head back again.

“That all?” she asks dubiously.

She can feel Dina watching her, scrutinizing her. She knows how much Dina wants her to talk. Really talk.

But where in the hell would she start?

Dina’s lips are on hers again and Ellie melts into the contact. Dina kisses her slowly and softly but not without some heat. Ellie sinks into the bed, letting Dina’s mouth and tongue do as they please. She wants this, wants Dina just like this. Her touches are the only thing that let Ellie completely relax. She wants to make Dina happy in every way she can, just for these small comforts. She needs to try and make Dina happy, after everything she’s put the other girl through.

It’s this last thought that always causes her hand to either grab or push away when Dina begins wondering below her belt.

Ellie is keenly aware of where Dina’s hands are attempting to sneak to. Her body betrays her thoughts and she can feel herself grow wet. When Dina unbuttons her jeans Ellie brushes her hand away, kissing her extra hard. This time, however, Dina abruptly breaks away.

“What?” asks Ellie, breathing heavily.

“You know what,” Dina says softly.

“I’m fine,” replies Ellie as she tries to kiss her again, but Dina pulls away, mahogany eyes keenly watching her.

“Yea, you’re always fine,” Dina says with disapproval. “Except you’re not. Why won’t you let me touch you? Really?”

Ellie sighs and shrugs.

“I’m just…I’m waiting.”

“For what?”

Ellie shrugs again, buttoning up her pants and sitting up on the bed, back to Dina.

“For this feeling to go away.”

Dina sits close behind her. Her hands come around to Ellie’s hips.

“What feeling, Ellie? I need you to talk to me. Please. You can’t keep shutting me out.”

Ellie winces, hearing a note of pain in Dina’s voice.

“I don’t mean to,” she says. “I don’t want to.”

Dina’s breath is on her neck alongside a chaste kiss.

“Then don’t. Talk.”

Ellie struggles for what to say, but all of her carefully-chosen bricks for her wall seem to have crumbled at last. And she’s so very tired of constantly building them back up. Even Joel hadn’t been able to peek through her cracks the way Dina does. Ellie licks her lips.

“I’m waiting to stop feeling guilty,” she says at length. “I want things between us to be like they were before I ruined everything. But…”

Ellie stops, shaking her head and swallowing an invisible rock in her throat.

“…I don’t think I’ll ever stop feeling like this. Maybe I shouldn’t.”

“Jesus, Ellie.”

It’s almost a moan from Dina. She wraps her arms around Ellie tightly now and Ellie fights off tears. Yet somehow Dina’s presence gives her some strength.

“I killed a pregnant woman,” she says in a small voice. “I didn’t know she was pregnant but I shot her. And Nora…fucking hell…”

The flashes come to her: Owen’s friend, lying in a pool of growing blood. Nora, curled in front of those doors and coughing while she raised that pipe and beat her to death.

She lets out a sob. Dina has completely wrapped herself around Ellie from behind. She’s quiet though, and Ellie keeps talking.

“I fucking beat her to death,” she chokes out. “I started hitting her and I didn’t stop. I pulled her down into the spores. I told myself she was going to die anyway. She wouldn’t give up Abby. So I beat her. And then Jesse…”

She stops again, feeling the blood of shame rush to her cheeks. She feels like she’s suffocating again. She gently tears herself away from Dina and walks across the room, unable to look at her but unable to shut up either.

“I got him killed,” she sobs, “I know you don’t think so, but it’s true. If I hadn’t killed Abby’s friends she never would have came for me. And you…”

Ellie’s leans heavily over the desk across the room, nails digging into the wood until they ache.

“You were pregnant and sick and I fucking left you in that theatre. I should’ve never done that. It was so fucking stupid!”

Anger floods through her and she knocks the table lamp brutally off the table. The bulb busts as it hits the floor with a heavy thud.

“Ellie…”

Dina approaches her but Ellie backs away. She still can’t look her in the eye.

“And Joel…,” she breathes out.

She wants to curl up into a tight ball somewhere dark, squeeze her eyes shut until she sees black and orange spots. She should stop now and spare Dina all this. But Dina is right behind her. Fearlessly she wraps herself around Ellie again. Ellie squirms in an attempt to break free but it’s weak.

“I told him I’d try to forgive him for what he did,” Ellie hears herself sob out loud. “It was the night of the dance. I fucking told him I’d try. And then she…she took that away from me.”

Ellie lets out a wail, unable to control herself any longer. She crumbles up like paper, going down on the floor. Dina is there, holding her all the way down.

“Ellie. Ellie listen to me, shh.”

Dina is pushing damp hair away from Ellie’s face, wiping at her tears.

“Listen to me,” she repeats over Ellie’s sobs. Vaguely Ellie is aware Dina is crying too. Well, perfect, she thinks darkly.

“Ellie, Joel knew you loved him. He knew.”

Her words spark all over her chest and Ellie sobs again.

“But how could he?” she asks desperately. “He knew how mad I was. I kept pushing him away. And he died before I could ever tell him.”

She buries her face somewhere in the folds of Dina’s shirt, too ashamed to look at her. Dina holds her and says firmly, “He knew, Ellie. You have to know that’s true.”

“He’d be ashamed of what I did.”

“He would understand why you did it all. And you stopped, Ellie. That’s the important part. You stopped yourself.”

Dina pushes back Ellie’s shoulders so that Ellie has to look at her.

“You still have your humanity, okay?”

Ellie looks at her for a long minute.

“You really believe that?”

Dina nods, her expression warm.

“Uh-huh. I have proof. There’s…me. And there’s JJ. When I see you with him…”

Dina shakes her head, eyes tearing up again.

“…It helps some of the hurt of missing Jesse go away. You’re a fantastic mom. And you saved him, Ellie. You saved them all. And how many times have you saved me? And Joel? And others? Besides,” she adds with a quirky smile, “How else was I gonna explain your crooning out ‘Take On Me’ in Seattle to Mitch?”

Ellie’s eyes widen.

“You didn’t!”

“No, I didn’t,” Dina replies with a self-satisfied smile. “Gotcha.”

Ellie scoffs, smiling. She can’t even bring herself to say ‘shut-up’.

They rise off the floor. Ellie dries her face. Dina lifts her chin with a hooked finger and kisses her tenderly on the lips.

“You deserve to be loved,” she says. “And you’re going to let me show it to you. Right now.”

Dina’s voice is like warm butter sliding down Ellie’s throat. Dina kisses her again and keeps kissing her, until Ellie feels herself all worked up again and the kisses are hot and heavy. Dina starts to unbutton Ellie’s collared shirt. She makes it to the last button and pushes the fabric off Ellie’s shoulders. Ellie lets it fall to the ground. She watches Dina’s eyes roam over her exposed skin, kissing her chest as her fingers deftly push up on Ellie’s sports bra. Ellie pulls it off. Immediately Dina’s mouth closes over a nipple, sucking it gently into her mouth. Her tongue flicks over it and the sensation shoots straight down between Ellie’s legs.

She lets Dina maneuver her to the bed and push her back on it, taking off her own shirt and bra. Ellie moans lightly when Dina presses their bodies together, feels the distinct sensation of Dina’s nipples over her own hardened ones. She reaches blindly behind Dina and grabs her ass through her pants, tugging. Dina responds by grinding herself into Ellie’s crotch. The new friction goes to her underwear, rubbing against her clit just barely and Ellie sucks in a breath.

Dina continues on in this manner for some time until Ellie thinks she must be dripping with moisture between her legs. She gasps when Dina licks a stripe from her navel up to her cleavage, the cool air left in her wake giving Ellie goosebumps and hardening her nipples even more.

Dina’s hand is at the top of her jeans again. Ellie feels her blood start to pulse as she hears the muffled snap of her button coming undone. Dina slides her hand inside and rubs her fingers over Ellie’s center. They both moan at the heat and moisture there. Ellie bucks up, wanting more.

“Ellie,” Dina whispers in her ear, voice thick.

Ellie bucks up again and drives her tongue deep inside Dina’s mouth. But Dina doesn’t change pace. She rubs over Ellie’s clit through the cotton until Ellie thinks she might go insane from need.

“Dina, fuck,” she finally pants out.

Dina lifts her head just enough to look down at her, cheeks flushed.

“Can I touch you?” she whispers.

Ellie nods in earnest, eyes fluttering.

“Please.”

Dina sucks in her own bottom lip, clearly pleased. Ellie’s whole body feels like a furnace now, her pussy throbbing for attention.

Dina slides down her pants and Ellie kicks them off. Her underwear soon follow.

“Up,” says Dina, and Ellie quickly pushes herself up completely on the bed. Dina kisses her way down Ellie’s taunt frame, down, down, past Ellie’s navel and to the slight nest of curls below. She skirts around, kissing Ellie’s inner thighs and Ellie groans in frustration, one hand a fist in the sheets while the other tries in vain to guide Dina’s face right where she wants it.

Dina suddenly latches on to the innermost part of her thigh, right next to her folds, and sucks hard. Her teeth scrape skin and Ellie starts panting, squirming over the sheets. Her mouth feels like cotton as another wave of heat rolls over her. Then, at last, she feels Dina’s tongue flick over her already swollen nub. Ellie inhales sharply. Dina’s touch stays torturously light, flicking and teasing her clit and her entrance. She’s so wet it’s almost embarrassing. But the little hums coming from Dina say she thinks otherwise.

“Dina, please,” Ellie begs shamelessly now.

She raises her head to see Dina’s eyes peeking up at her from between her legs, heavy-lidded. They disappear as Dina ducks down. This time she takes all of Ellie into her mouth at once, tongue flicking over her clit and lapping over her entire hot center.

Ellie wants to scream. She resists, moaning loudly instead. She opens her thighs as much as possible, hips moving as Dina explores her for the first time in over a year. Ripples of pleasure shake her. Then Dina’s mouth moves away. Ellie whines loudly in protest. But when she opens her eyes (when did she close them?) Dina is kissing her way back up to Ellie’s face. Her movements are more hurried now, growing a touch frantic. Ellie wants to pull out Dina’s hair and her own by the time Dina’s fingers find her center. Dina sucks in a breath.

“Fuck, Ellie…”

Ellie is loose enough for Dina to slip in two fingers. A high-pitched noise escapes over Ellie’s lips as Dina enters her and fuck, it feels so good. Two warm digits explore her soft round insides, wiggling to and fro. Ellie grabs Dina’s face and pulls her into a fierce and sloppy kiss. Dina’s fingers never waver and soon Ellie can only pant into her partner’s open mouth.

Dina pushes in deep and fucks her, but it still isn’t quite enough.

“More,” says Ellie. Her eyelids flutter again. She sees Dina through a sex-induced film.

“Oh babe,” Dina moans. A third finger squeezes its way inside her.

Ellie’s eyes roll back in her head. Her body pushes up off the mattress ever so slightly. She feels unbelievably full now. Dina fucks her faster. Ellie manages to swallow between gasps. Her breathing grows short. She opens her eyes fully for a moment and drinks in the sight of topless Dina, breasts heaving with effort and coated in a soft sheen. Ellie squeezes her eyes shut, ready to explode. Fingers pound mercilessly against her until she feels it crashing down over her.

“Fuuuuck,” she wails as her climax hits her.

“That’s it babe, come for me,” Dina is whispering into her ear. “Come on.”

Dina works her through it, slowly edging back out of her. Once the iron grip of her orgasm begins to pass Ellie’s lungs open up and a slew of imaginative curses comes out of her mouth.

When her body finally goes limp, Dina’s fingers are just barely touching her, rubbing softly. Ellie listens to their joint huffs of breath. Dina kisses the sides of her mouth. Then she pulls her hand up and away. Ellie sees it, grabs hold of it and sucks her fingers into her mouth. Their eyes meet. Dina ruts her crotch over Ellie’s leg, panting hard suddenly. Ellie’s eyes widen, an eyebrow arched up.

“Did you just come?”

Breathlessly, Dina just nods. A fully-formed grin breaks out on Ellie’s face and she huffs out a laugh.

“You…shut it,” Dina says, grinning.

---------------

Been almost four months since I came back. Dina and JJ are both great. I think I might even be doing great.

I went out on a patrol for the first time yesterday. Almost freaked out but I stopped myself.

I still see them in my head sometimes, but it’s better now. I can think of Joel and all the good memories there. He said something to me a long time ago, that no matter what, you have to keep finding something to fight for.

I think it’s Her. And JJ.

She starts doodling another sketch of Jesse Junior, now one of literal dozens. But her pencil stops when music drifts to her ears. It’s not coming from a CD or a record player. It’s an acoustic guitar. Ellie blinks and gets up. She follows her ears into the living room, but the sound is coming from JJ’s play room across the way. Tommy must have stopped by. She’d been too engrossed in her journal to notice.

But when she walks into the room Tommy is nowhere to be seen. Instead she sees JJ, sitting up and clapping merrily, a bit of drool on his chin. He’s grinning at his mother seated on the floor in front of him. Dina is playing the guitar.

She stops when she sees Ellie and ducks her head a bit with a hesitant smile.

“Hey.”

“Hey,” replies Ellie. She can’t help but pause to take in the scene.

“Wow,” she says at last. “That, um, that was good.”

Dina strums another chord.

“Yea?”

“Yea. I didn’t know you were moonlighting as a guitarist though.”

Ellie sits down next to JJ, who pats his palms over the guitar strings and squeals. Dina runs a hand through her hair and shrugs, dopey smile on her face.

“I may have been practicing sometime between the farmhouse and saving the kids. Just simple stuff, though. I found this old music sheet book out on a patrol.”

She reaches down next to her and produces said book. It’s dog-eared and worn, but most of the pages are well intact. There’s notes in some of the margins, in Dina’s handwriting. Ellie can’t help but smile.

“Damn.”

She raises her eyes to Dina’s, mixture of surprise and a bit of pride there. Dina presses her lips together.

“So, I was thinking,” she beings slowly, “Between the two of us, we can still teach him how to play. When he’s much older, of course.”

Her eyes turn to her son. Ellie has scooped JJ up on her lap. He makes air firsts at the guitar and yells out as if in agreement. Ellie remains silent, watching him, brow furrowed.

“I would completely understand if you don’t want to,” Dina continues quickly, worry in her tone. “And if you don’t want me to play it, I absolutely won’t. It was just an idea…”

“Dina.”

Dina cuts off and Ellie can practically see her swallow.

“Shut up,” says Ellie. Then she cracks a grin. “Sounds good to me,” she adds. She grabs JJ’s little hands and strums them over the guitar.

“What do you think, little dude? Wanna make some sweet music one day?”

Dina lets out the breath she’d been holding, rolling her eyes at her girlfriend.

“You’re such an ass sometimes.”

Ellie smiles cheekily.

“Well I’m with you. My bar is pretty low.”

“Oh you’re lucky you have a kid in your lap right now.”

Ellie lets JJ crawl off her, on his way to his blocks, the guitar just another toy for now. Dina launches a pillow at her face before Ellie can react.

“Ow! That was hard!” Ellie protests, rising up.

“It’s a pillow,” retorts Dina. “And you have a very hard head. It’s fine.”

Ellie grabs hold of her and pinches her ass through her pants. Then she sobers and kisses her girlfriend softly.

“Thank you. About the guitar. I…I know I can’t play anymore, but I really miss the music.”

Dina sits her arms on either side of Ellie’s shoulders. She starts swaying her hips as though there were music playing now. Ellie puts her hands on Dina’s hips, swaying with her.

“All my stuff is still at the farmhouse,” she muses.

“You want to go get it?”

“Or maybe…we could move all of this stuff back out there?” she asks hopefully. “What do you think?”

Dina narrows her eyes, nose crinkling adorably.

“I think,” she replies with a smile, “That is a distinct possibility.”

***

All the promises at sundown
I meant them like the rest /
All the demons used to come around
I'm grateful now they've left

--Ellie's journal/"Future Days" lyrics by Pearl Jam