Dina's spirits lifted somewhat when she finally got back to Jackson. It felt good to be back, to return to the place that had been home for a long time… where she had not only grown up, but had first met Jesse and Ellie.
Perhaps in the long run, returning here might have been the best thing anyway. There was safety in numbers and Jackson was a lot more secure and well-guarded than the remote yet overly-exposed farm. For the sake of J.J., it may have been better to get back to a place where Infected would have less of a chance to attack or destroy what they had built.
Dina had to remind herself that Ellie was immune, at least. It would give her more of a chance to survive out there than any other person Dina had known, but there was no immunity against bullets or other kinds of weapons. The enemy that Ellie so desperately sought was not an Infected being…
"No," Dina murmured so softly to herself that even she could barely hear her own voice. "Ellie is infected… with hate, ever since Joel was killed." Was there truly any cure for hate or the lust for revenge? On a deep level, Dina had hoped that their love could have been a cure. It should have been enough to take the place of hate and revenge, if only Ellie could have tried harder to let it.
Dina wasn't going to kick herself or say she didn't try hard enough, though. She did. They had the closest thing to perfect they were going to get on the farm and Ellie was the one who decided to throw it all away.
As she moved deeper and deeper into the city, away from the gate and its watchers, she soon found herself seeing more and more familiar faces. She greeted them as warmly as she could, but she just wanted to keep moving. She had to get J.J. in out of the cold for a while and she needed to replenish her supplies, she had used up everything during the trek to get here.
She soon spotted none other than Maria, who still appeared quite strong and healthy, moving with the agility of a woman half her age and bearing herself with a confident blend of motherly and matriarchal qualities. The moment she spotted Dina with the young child in her arms, she immediately gave the younger woman a strong, warm embrace and offered to hold her adopted nephew for a while.
Dina whispered her thanks, grateful to be invited indoors to sit down. The three of them were soon seated around a warm fire, sipping water and eating sandwiches while Maria tended to J.J..
Once the child had been put to rest comfortable in the spare room, Maria and Dina began to talk.
After Dina laid everything out on the table that had happened, Maria sighed and shook her head. "That asshole," Maria growled. "I should've known he would pull this shit."
Dina regarded the older woman for a long moment. She began to realize that the reason why Maria herself hadn't come to visit was because she was trying to respect the young couple's personal space and wishes to distance themselves from everyone. Perhaps it was even a big part of the reason why they rarely received visitors to begin with… Maria had a lot of influence in this town and she no doubt prevented it, especially if she had any say in it.
"Tommy said that you guys both decided to separate for a while," Dina gently nudged.
"Yeah," Maria took a deep drink from a bottle, having switched from water. She offered to pour her companion a glass, but Dina politely declined just in case she chose to breastfeed her son later. "I kept trying to help Tommy forget about what happened to Joel. I did everything I could to distract him from it or find things for us to do together that would make him happy, but he would always go back to trying to find Abby."
Dina nodded knowingly. "For a while, Ellie seemed to forget about Abby after we started our life on the farm. She would just keep having these dreams and flashbacks about Joel, and I would try to keep telling her to remember she was on the farm and we had a good life. I tried to help her stay in the present."
"But one visit from my idiot husband," Maria finished for her, "and she decides the only way to stop the nightmares is to go after Abby… again."
Dina felt her throat constrict, barely managing a nod. Her voice had shut down.
Maria tipped her head back with the bottle and finished downing the contents. A small part of her knew that she was going to regret this later, but this was one of those times where she needed the heavy stuff to dull her inside. Otherwise she would have been much closer to being livid… possibly to the point of throwing Tommy's favorite rifle through the window.
Besides… they didn't want to disturb or distress J.J. too much. This was going to be a period of adjustment for him, too.
"The next time I see Tommy," Maria growled in a slurring way, "I'm gonna hit the good side of his face so hard it'll match where he was shot." She threw the empty bottle in the nearest corner where it crashed and shattered loudly. J.J. stirred enough in the other room to gurgle and coo a tad, but thankfully didn't seem too bothered by the loud noise.
"It wasn't just him," Dina pointed out. "Ellie made her own decision."
"But my fool husband left to push her to do what he couldn't do himself," Maria snapped. "I should never have kicked him out."
Dina's brow furrowed in puzzlement. "I thought he said you both agreed-"
"Yeah, well, I told him that if he wasn't gonna fucking give up on chasing Abby one way or another, to get out. I should've known he would take off and go to Ellie. What I should've done was throw his sorry ass in one of the cells for a night with only bread and water."
"Maria." Dina put her arms around the older woman, comforting her. Both of them knew that she didn't mean a damn word she was saying, the liquor had removed any filter for the flood of bottled up emotions she'd had inside for a long time. "You can't keep someone locked up if they choose not to stay, even if they want to do something fucking shitty or go chasing after something. Sometimes you just have to let them make their own decision, and if they choose to go… you let them go. Just make sure they know what the consequences are."
Maria inhaled deeply, closing her eyes as a fresh pair of tears streamed down her cheeks. She relaxed slightly as Dina continued to hold her, resting a head against her shoulder. Both of them needed this right now, both of them knew exactly what it felt like to have a spouse replace the love in their heart with the poison of vengeance and hate.
"Well," Maria finally said at one point, "at least I know my asshole will be back eventually. He can't go that far nowadays and he knows it. But there's no telling what shape Ellie will be in when she returns."
"If she returns," Dina said bitterly.
"You sure you don't want any of the good stuff? I got another bottle back there somewhere."
"No, it's not good for the baby."
"Then I'll have some."
Dina put a hand on Maria's wrist as the older woman reached for the cabinet. "Don't you think you've had enough?"
"Right now? Not nearly." Maria brushed the younger woman's hand aside like an annoying fly and reached for it again.
"How many have you had already?" Dina asked. "Were you drinking before I came?"
"Define 'a little'."
"I don't fucking need you to watch over me or lecture me for my drinking habits, Dina! You don't have to have any if you don't want it, but don't get in my way." Maria snatched another bottle out of the cabinet and returned to her favorite chair.
Dina slowly sank down in the seat across from her, frowning. "Have you been drinking like this ever since he left?"
"Yeah." Maria tilted her head back and seemed to gulp down a quarter of the bottle in one take. Since when had Maria of all people become able to drink like a fish?
There had to be more going on here. "Maria, is everything okay here in Jackson? What's going on?"
Maria leaned forward, letting out a heavy sigh. Whatever front she had successfully put on in public when Dina had first arrived had completely vanished, revealing nothing but an older woman with a drinking problem… possibly a bit broken up inside, too. "Our settlement was attacked about a week ago by a small horde of Infected, we're not even sure where they came from. We think they had a nesting ground somewhere near here that we overlooked, or maybe there were a few people hiding out who became infected. They stormed the gates and some of them managed to get inside… they killed half of our horses and tore twelve people apart, infecting at least twice as many others."
"My God…" Dina breathed, suddenly wondering if this place would be truly safe for herself and her son after all. But there was no place truly safe in the world, you just had to do the best you could to protect yourself and those around you.
"We fixed the damage the best we could and burned the bodies, after putting our infected friends out of their misery," Maria went on bitterly. She took another great big drink from the bottle and belched in an un-ladylike way. "Tommy got really angry after it happened. He felt so helpless because he couldn't fight, and I made him stay behind a barred door with the children and elderly."
Dina was beginning to see the fuller picture now. That was what triggered Tommy into action. His very home settlement, the only place where he had originally felt safer than anywhere else, had been violated in the worst way possible. Now the only thing he had left, so he felt, was an unfulfilled desire for vengeance… he thought it would bring him peace if only he could get it, even if he had to get it through someone else.
Would Ellie have still left if she'd known what had happened here? Could she have been persuaded to come here instead? It would have still meant a move from their peaceful and happy farm, but at least they would still be together.
"Tommy doesn't even realize what he's given up," Dina finally said, giving the older woman a meaningful look.
Maria nodded, her pupils dilated. She did the best she could to look at Dina directly, though she couldn't quite meet her gaze. "Ellie doesn't realize what she's given up either."
After a long moment of silence, during which Maria finished downing the rest of the bottle, the older woman finally asked, "So… what you plan to do now?"
"I would like to move everything here. It sounds like you guys could use some more supplies anyway, and you can have our sheep," Dina said.
"S-sure," Maria slurred. "You can t-take whatever h-horses and p-people you n-need to help y-you move here. Just t-take…"
With that, Maria slumped over in her chair, unconscious.
Dina gently hefted the woman and half-dragged, half-carried her to her room and deposited her in the bed she once shared with Tommy to sleep it off. The woman was going to have one hell of a hangover when she came too, but there wasn't much Dina could do about that for now.