The gates of Jackson looked the same but Ellie didn’t recognize anyone who was manning it. At first the guards had been skeptical of her, but when she’d dropped Maria’s name they had opened up and let her in. She wandered through the town, noticing everything that was different and everything that was the same. From the looks of it the population had grown significantly in her absence. By the time she reached the tavern she hadn’t seen a single person she knew. As cruel fate would have it, the first person she saw that she recognized was Seth.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said emotionlessly when she approached the counter.
“Nice to see you, too,” Ellie replied sarcastically. “Where’s Maria?”
“In the back.”
When Seth continued to stand there looking at her, Ellie prompted, “Get her, please.”
Seth moved just enough to be able to push open the swinging door to the back room of the tavern, turned his head slightly and called: “Maria!”
Ellie rolled her eyes. “Thanks,” she said coldly.
A minute later Maria came out and immediately saw Ellie. “Well I’ll be damned,” she said. “Look what the cat dragged in.” She came around the bar and gave Ellie a hug. “It’s good to see you. You’re looking well.”
“You too. Town looks great, too. Seems like you guys really blew up since the last time I was here.”
“About a year back we incorporated over a hundred survivors from a settlement up in Canada that burned down. They traveled all the way down here because they heard we had a good thing going.”
“You do,” Ellie said sincerely. “I’ve seen a few other settlements with the Fireflies, but only one was better than Jackson, and that’s only because they had a functioning merry-go-round.” The memory of dragging Abby on to the stupid thing and forcing her to sit on a ridiculous sparkling pink sea horse went through Ellie’s mind and she had to work to hold back her smile. “People as far off as Mexico have heard of this place. They talk about it like it’s utopia.”
“Oh, Ellie, flattery will get you everywhere,” said Maria. “Why don’t you sit down a while? Let me buy you a drink. What do you want? A beer?”
“No thanks. I actually can’t stay long, I just wanted to drop in and say hi.”
“Are you here on Firefly business?” Maria asked, pointing at the dog tag hanging around Ellie’s neck.
“No, purely a social visit,” Ellie replied. “The rest of my squad is waiting for me up near the creek trails. We’re passing through on our way east and they agreed to let me stop in as long as we’re here.”
“What’s the rush? Why don’t you have them come in and spend the night indoors? Plenty of space in the Inn, and I’ll even waive the fee for y’all.”
“I appreciate that, but we’re all used to roughing it. We don’t want to put you out.”
“It’s no trouble, I assure you. Feel free to change your mind at any time.”
“Thank you,” said Ellie, knowing perfectly well that there was absolutely no way the rest of her squad would be coming here. “Listen, can you tell me where Dina’s living now? I’d really love to say hello.”
Maria hesitated for a moment, then answered, “She lives with her wife Amanda up by the schoolhouse.”
A huge smile came over Ellie’s face. “She got married? That’s so great! How long ago?”
Clearly this was not the reaction Maria had been expecting. “Um, well, I suppose it’s been about nine months now.”
“Man,” said Ellie, shaking her head with wonder. “What a world, huh? Crazy how shit works out sometimes. Alright, thanks Maria. I should get going. Be safe out there, willya?”
“You too, Ellie. And if you ever want to come back, there’s always a place for you here.”
As Ellie left the tavern and set off towards the schoolhouse, she reflected on how different her life would have been had she decided to go back to Jackson after her mission in South America. It was hard to believe this town had ever felt like home to her. But the truth was that she’d never felt as comfortable here as she did by Abby’s side. There was simply no comparison between the two.
She found the mailbox labeled “Amanda / Dina / JJ” and headed up the walkway to the front door. As soon as she started down the path a dog began barking inside the house. From behind the door she could hear Dina asking the dog in an excited voice, “Who’s here? Who’s here Bobo?” Then Dina opened the door and her jaw dropped when she saw Ellie, bright-eyed and smiling, coming up the porch steps. “Holy fucking shit,” she said. “Ellie! You look great!”
It was really true. Though she doubted she’d ever be as physically fit as Abby, Ellie had been going with her for runs and doing morning exercises with her - be they sexual in nature or not. “Thanks,” she said, grinning. “So do you.”
“Ugh,” said Dina, rolling her eyes. “I’m a suburban mom.”
“Yeah, and it looks good on you.”
“Thank you. Well, come on in.” Dina stood back and let Ellie enter the home. It was small, but warm and cozy. It was clearly a place that was full of love. Bobo the dog, a large yellow lab, walked between Ellie’s legs a few times affectionately, wagging his tail enthusiastically. As Ellie was petting him, a painting of Dina and JJ on the wall drew her attention and she wandered over for a closer look. “Amanda did that. My wife, that is.” Dina held up her left hand, showing Ellie the ring on her finger. “Got married and shit.”
“I heard. Congrats, Dina. I mean it. I’m really happy for you.”
“Thanks. You know how I never could resist you artsy-type chicks.”
“Nope, you never could. She's obviously very talented - this painting is great. I love it.” Ellie turned away from the painting and looked around the house. “Where’s JJ?”
“Upstairs taking a nap,” Dina replied. “I can go get him.” She started to head to the stairs, but Ellie stopped her.
“Not yet,” she said. “I need to talk to you about something first. Let’s sit.” She gestured to the nearby dining room table, and she and Dina sat. Ellie set her backpack down on the floor between her feet, unzipped it, and began rummaging through it. “I brought something for JJ.” From her backpack she pulled out a small, hard plastic box. She set it on the table, opened the lid, and removed a tiny glass vial of clear liquid and a syringe, which she laid out wordlessly on the table before Dina.
Dina covered her mouth with her hand and leaned back in her chair, tears immediately flooding her eyes. “Is that what I think it is?” she said, her voice shaky.
Ellie nodded, giving her an understanding smile.
“Ellie… How… I mean, we’ve heard rumors but no one actually thought they were true!”
“Well, they are. But listen to me, Dina. No one can know about this, okay? He’ll have to hide it like I did until the Fireflies can start mass distributing it. Right now our resources are sparse so we can't have everybody coming to us and fighting over doses. We're all sworn to secrecy and only a select few Fireflies have gotten it so far - people who work with spores, people who have young children, rangers that are out looking for the supplies we need to make more, that sort of thing. It might take as long as a decade, but eventually we’ll be able to get it out to more people.”
“I can’t accept this, Ellie,” said Dina. “I mean, this is too much...”
“You absolutely can accept it, Dina,” said Ellie firmly. “I went through a huge ordeal for the Fireflies so they could make this. Everyone on my squad who lived through it is entitled to a dose, but obviously I don’t need mine and I want JJ to have it.”
This was not technically the truth. The dose was actually Abby’s. She had struggled with the idea that she was somehow more deserving of a dose than anyone else, and she had insisted on giving hers to JJ instead. To her it was the least she could do to even somewhat make up for the unrepentable sin of killing his father. She wanted him to be the first in a generation of children who would get to grow up safe from the risk of infection. Ellie understood where she was coming from and why she wanted to do it, but she also selfishly wasn’t willing to let Abby go unvaccinated. Unlike what Ellie had told Dina, Liz had never intended to give her one of the doses. After Abby had told her what she was planning to do with her dose, Ellie had marched right up to Liz’s office and demanded one to distribute at her own discretion, and she had injected it into Abby’s arm herself later that night.
It had been a surprisingly intimate and emotional event for both of them, and Ellie shivered, remembering…
“Okay, gimme that sexy arm of yours,” Ellie said as she finished drawing the vaccine into the syringe and set it down on the desk. They were in the room they shared in building six whenever they spent time in Avalon. Abby was sitting on the bed and Ellie was sitting on the desk chair facing her, their knees touching. When Abby rolled her eyes and put one of her arms in Ellie’s lap, Ellie ripped open a package with an alcohol swab and ran it over Abby’s bicep. Then she picked up the needle. “You ready? You’re just gonna feel a little pinch.”
“Are you being serious right now?” Abby said dryly. “You have literally stabbed me in the arm with a switchblade. I’m pretty sure I’ll be fine with a fucking needle.”
“Yeah, but I wasn’t in love with you then, so I didn’t feel bad about hurting you. But now? You hurt, I hurt.”
Abby smiled, her heart melting with love. “Don’t worry. I can handle it.”
“I know you can.” Ellie took the needle and performed the injection the way Doc had taught her. The injection site didn’t even bleed when she pulled the needle out and set it aside, but she rubbed Abby’s skin with a cotton ball anyway. Then she leaned forward and kissed the spot. “Now you’re just like me,” she said softly. “And you have no excuse not to grow crazy old and die of old age with me.”
“Wasn’t looking for one,” Abby replied, and she pulled Ellie into her lap and kissed her. "You're a miracle, Ellie. You know that? I don't know what I did to deserve this, but you are a complete fucking miracle."
Everything that had led them here flashed through Ellie's mind, and when she looked at Abby she knew that she had also considered all of that history before speaking, and yet she'd still decided to say it. "Well, whatever you did," she said, "I'm really glad you did it."
"Yeah," said Abby with an incredulous chuckle. "Me fucking too." She wrapped her arms more fully around Ellie and kissed her again as she allowed herself to fall backwards on the bed, bringing Ellie along with her.
Ellie was shaken out of the memory when Dina reached across the table and took her hands. “Thank you,” she said, tears rolling down her cheeks.
“You’re welcome,” responded Ellie, glowing with pleasure. If she hadn't already been sure that she was on the right path in life, this moment would have convinced her. All the suffering and pain that had led her here was completely worth it. Now more than ever, she was certain that this was exactly what she'd been put on this earth to do. "Go get my little potato buddy.”
JJ cried when Ellie stuck him with the needle, but she quickly ducked down afterwards and blew a raspberry into his tummy, and soon she had him shrieking with laughter. She sat on the floor and played with him and Bobo while she spent a little time catching Dina up on her life with the Fireflies - her travels with them to find supplies had taken her to all sorts of interesting places. Eventually the topic got to where Ellie had known it would: Her personal life.
She and Abby had agreed that it would be best not to disclose their relationship to anyone in Jackson. Ellie had been worried that this would offend Abby, but as usual she was totally understanding about it. There was no reason to dig up old wounds with the people here. It had been hard enough for Ellie to change her mind about Abby - there was no hope that it could be done for people like Dina and Maria in the short amount of time that they would be spending in town. So when the topic came up, Ellie was intentionally vague with her answers.
“Have you thought about settling down and starting a family?” Dina asked. “Are you seeing anyone?”
“I am in a relationship, but I don’t know that settling down is in our future,” Ellie answered.
“Why not? Is it not serious?”
“Oh, it’s serious - permanent, even,” said Ellie. “But we’re happy doing what we’re doing. We’re fighting the good fight, and the nomad life suits us. It keeps things interesting, you know?”
“She travels with you?”
“I never go anywhere without her.”
“Except Jackson, apparently,” Dina pointed out.
“True. This was something I needed to do alone. I’m sorry you won’t get a chance to meet her,” Ellie said, knowing damn well that Dina had already met Abby on that night in the theater in Seattle. “She can be a little prickly at first, but I think you’d like her once you got to know her.”
“If you like her, I’m sure I would, too.”
Ellie checked her watch. “Well, it’s getting late. I should get going.” She reached out and pulled JJ against her chest, hugging him for all she was worth. “Bye, not-so-little-anymore spud. Do me a favor and live to be the world’s oldest person, okay?”
“Okie,” said JJ in his tiny toddler voice.
Kissing him on the top of his head and then rising up off the floor, Ellie said, “You too, Dina. Live until you’re so old your tits sag all the way to the floor, alright?”
Dina laughed. “I’m sure Amanda will be super into that.” She watched as Ellie swung her backpack onto her back and then walked with her to the front door. “I don’t know how I can ever thank you enough, Ellie. Because of you, he actually might live to be the world’s oldest person.”
“Just be happy. That’ll be thanks enough.”
“And you? Are you happy?”
With what was easily the most genuine smile Dina had ever seen her manage, Ellie replied, “I can honestly say that I have never been happier than I am now.”
“I could tell that the second I saw you. I'm really glad for you. Whatever your lady is doing to you, she’s obviously doing it pretty fucking well.”
“You have no idea,” laughed Ellie. She reached out and pulled Dina in for a firm, warm hug. “Bye, Dina.”
Ellie gave her one last grin and a wave before heading off down the path.
There was one other place Ellie wanted to go before returning to her squad. The cemetery was quiet and still, the sound of birdsong floating down from the trees. She approached Joel’s grave and sat down cross-legged in front of it, reaching out to trace the carvings of the letters in the stone. “Hey Joel,” she said. “I wish I could visit more, but I think of you all the time. Lots of stuff reminds me of you. Any time I smell coffee, or hear a guitar, or see a dinosaur… It’s like you’re right there beside me.
“And Joel, Abby reminds me of you. I honestly don’t think I’ll ever make up my mind about how that would make you feel. Some days I think you would be so angry with me for being with her that you’d never forgive me. But most days… Most days I think you would see how happy I am, and you would find a way to deal. All you ever cared about was my happiness.
“That night, on your porch, I told you I wanted to try and forgive you. Well, I do, Joel. I forgive you. And Abby… I forgive her, too. I had to do it, because I didn’t want to tear myself apart by being angry like I did with you. I regret not forgiving you sooner. We could have had so much more time together. And I can’t allow myself to make that mistake again with Abby. So I hope that, wherever you are, you’re okay with it.
“I guess that’s all I wanted to say. I miss you, Joel. And… I love you.” She reached out again and traced his headstone. “Bye.”
She rose, took one last look, and then turned and began briskly walking back to the front gates, ready to go home to Abby.
The creek trails were a little harder to navigate than usual because there had been a lot of rain recently. Ellie found Abby taking advantage of the higher-than-usual water level by sitting on a rock with her bare feet in the water. She was completely absorbed in whatever book she was reading, but even still, when Ellie snuck up behind her and playfully covered her eyes she knew immediately who it was. Abby batted Ellie’s hands away with a laugh, marked her page, and set the book aside. “You came back,” she said with fake surprise. “I was worried you’d decide to stay.”
“Were you really?” asked Ellie, sitting down beside her on the rock.
“No, of course not,” said Abby easily.
“Good. I do have a confession to make, though.”
“I kissed a boy - more than once, too.”
“You bitch!” gasped Abby, putting a hand over her heart. “How could you?”
“I know. I’m a big old cheater. I kissed his head, I kissed his arm where I stuck the needle, I kissed his belly and both his hands.”
“BOTH? Unforgivable, Ellie.”
“I know,” Ellie repeated with a sigh. She wrapped her arm around Abby’s lower back and rested her head on her shoulder. “You did a good thing, Abs. Dina was very grateful.”
“It’s nothing. I couldn’t keep it for myself. Wouldn’t have been right.”
“It’s not nothing, okay? Maybe it won’t fix all the wrongs, but it certainly doesn’t make them worse.”
“That’s the idea, right? To stop making things worse than they already are.” She turned her head and kissed Ellie’s forehead. “How was it with Dina?”
“Why? You jealous?”
Ellie laughed. “It was good, actually. She’s married, has a really cute little house and a big old dog. I’m happy for her.”
“What did you tell her about me?”
“I told her you’re really fucking good in bed, and that’s why I keep you around.”
“So, the truth, then.”
“Exactly,” Ellie said. In a more serious tone, she continued, “No, I just told her that you make me crazy happy, and that the life I have now is the best I’ve ever had. And you’re the biggest part of that. You know that, right?”
“Yeah, I know,” replied Abby with a contented smile, which widened when Ellie swung her leg over and straddled her lap, resting her wrists on Abby’s shoulders. “Oh, hello there,” she said, wrapping her arms around Ellie so her hands were resting on the small of her back. But her smile faded when she saw the uncharacteristically serious expression on Ellie’s face. “What?”
Ellie put her hands on either side of Abby’s face, looked her directly in the eye and said: “I love you, Abby. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to express how much. Choosing to be with you was by far the best, healthiest decision I ever made. And I was only able to choose it because you offered. Because you were so honest with yourself and so forgiving with me. So thank you for being brave enough and smart enough and strong enough to do that first, because I don’t know that I ever would have been able to.”
“Oh, Ellie,” sighed Abby, utterly lovesick, “if you think that it was ever possible for me not to forgive you, you clearly don’t understand how in love with you I really am. I couldn’t be with you unless I forgave you, and I’d never wanted anything as much as I wanted to be with you. So even though I knew it would be scary and hard, I couldn’t stand the idea of doing nothing about it.”
“No, that’s not your style.”
“Nope. And right now I really want to kiss you, so I think I’ll probably have to do something about that, too.”
“Oh, well I can handle that for you,” said Ellie, and she ducked her head to follow through. She brushed her lips lightly across Abby’s once, then returned for a long, leisurely kiss that made her whole body sing with pleasure.
They separated only because they heard a voice from nearby say: “I am seriously getting so tired of walking in on you guys making out.” Lev put his hands on his hips and glared. “You’d think after two years you’d be able to tone it down a little.”
“Have you ever looked at this girl with your eyeballs?” Ellie asked him, waving her hand in front of Abby as though she was presenting a prize on a game show. “Just fucking look at her. What am I supposed to do when she looks like that? I’m only human.”
“Jesus Christ, Ellie…” Abby groaned in embarrassment. “Really?”
“Well I think it’s sweet,” Brandy said, linking her arm with Lev’s and leaning against him.
“There, see?” Ellie said. “It’s sweet.”
“Honestly, Lev, you should probably just get used to it, because it’s gonna keep happening for sure,” said Abby. “Sorry, bud.” She reached up and patted Ellie’s cheek. “Okay, let me up. We need to hit the road if we wanna be out of range of all the patrols by nightfall.”
Ellie climbed off her, then offered her hand to help pull Abby up. She waited for Abby to put her boots back on, toss her book in her backpack, and swing the backpack over her shoulder before offering her hand again - the one missing two fingers. Abby immediately took it, entwining her fingers with ones Ellie still had, not at all phased or upset by the damaged hand.
The four of them began walking east, away from Jackson and towards their distant destination, a research hospital in New Jersey that the Fireflies had gotten a tip about. The rumor was that there was a large amount of supplies that could be used for making vaccines in the heavily spore-filled basement of the facility - a problem that was no longer an issue for the four remaining members of Squad Fight The Fungus. They always kept a vial of Doc’s now fully effective cordyceps toxicity antidote on hand just in case, but it was highly unlikely anyone would encounter that issue. Nowhere on earth were the spores as bad as they had been in the now-destroyed Porto Velho - and most likely never would be again, thanks to the Fireflies.
As they left Jackson, Ellie thought once more about the city and all its inhabitants. If she ever came back here, it would be with enough vaccines for everyone. Enough to really make a positive impact on the world. But for today, for now, this was enough. She looked over at Abby, who gave her a dazzling smile and squeezed her hand tighter.
Oh yeah, thought Ellie, a return smile lighting up her face. This is definitely enough for now.