Fandom: The Last of Us
Characters: Ellie, Joel, Tommy, Maria, OCs
Warnings: Underage [please see A/N of doom in Chapter 1!]
Word Count for this chapter: 4765
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
The electrical fencing work was nearly complete now, but there were plenty of cinder blocks and mortar left for Joel and the rest of the fence crew to pitch in on the wall project. They weren’t able to obtain the quantity of fencing and barbed wire, or razor wire, needed to surround the whole farm as a security measure, so instead, they'd torn down the dilapidated paddock fencing and replaced it with electric (sans the barbs and razors). It would work much better than the previous fencing as a barrier for the livestock... which, at the moment, there wasn't much of. The group of people living there had unfortunately lost most of their crops and animals to theft. The idea was to fortify the place, then transfer some of the livestock from the Jackson farms; Jackson could easily breed replacements in the spring.
First, they needed to erect a wall around the entire place… turn it into a castle. The wall crew was destined to run out of materials before completion. The military was actually helping them out with supplies (a marijuana bribe to the right bastard was all it took for him to bring your issue to the right table), but the next delivery hadn't arrived yet. The government always finds a way to fuck with us, Joel would think -- but, to be fair, any number of things could have caused the delay.
If Joel had to guess, he didn't think the work would hold out for more than another day or two. Which was still a day or two too long away from Ellie... but he told himself it was a good thing. For her, if not for him. He was just fine with his over-dependence on her... and while he couldn't deny that he liked -- no, loved -- Ellie needing him, he wanted her to be... a little more well-rounded, he supposed. Losing Ellie would absolutely destroy him, and he didn't want that to be true for her if she lost him... which was how it would ultimately go down, if there was any justice in the world. Granted, that was a giant if there.
One of the leaders of the little group of survivors had whipped up a nice big lunch of elk stew for everyone. The dining table wasn't anywhere near large enough to accommodate them all, even with extra chairs squeezed in. Joel never ate there. He would have been fine going off by himself somewhere to eat, but usually, one or two of the guys sat close enough to him that conversation was expected. Today, it was just Yasmany, out on the back steps. He was six years younger than Joel, with a wife and a ten-year-old daughter back in town. Joel didn't mind him so much because he wasn't into small talk. Sometimes the dude would talk about his daughter, figuring Joel could relate… though of course, it was Ellie in the daughter role, not Sarah; Joel didn't make it a habit to discuss Sarah casually with people.
Yasmany, like certain others in town Joel could think of, kept forgetting that Joel and Ellie had only known each other for about a year... that Joel didn't know what Ellie had been like as a younger kid. And, although he still had some fatherly feelings for her, the non-fatherly feelings made him a bit reluctant to think about her being any younger, at times. He didn't exactly wish her older... that was like wishing her life away... plus, he enjoyed her child-like qualities: her enthusiasm for things, her curiosity... her innocence. When Yas asked him what Ellie had liked best in school, Joel was a little surprised to find that he had no idea.
"What's your best guess, then?" the other man prompted him.
Joel pondered that for a moment before answering. "Well... I know she wasn' crazy about the soldierin' stuff... except for target practice. That count as a subject?"
"Hey, why not. Buffy's real excited about learning how to shoot. I still think she's too young, but... no such thing these days, maybe."
The little girl was named after the Buffy that had popped into Joel's mind when he first heard her name -- the vampire-slaying one -- but she didn't look like that Buffy at all. She had dark hair and dark eyes, just like her daddy. Father and daughter both wore their hair in a ponytail much of the time, too… if the girl could only grow some face fuzz, she’d be the perfect ‘mini me.’ Joel glanced at the other man. "I think Ellie said she was seven or eight the first time she shot a gun. So your girl's a couple years behind."
Yasmany lifted the plastic tupperware container to his lips to drink what remained of his stew, then glanced at Joel. "Ellie tell you about the time Buffy asked if she could shoot her gun?"
That was news to Joel. "She did? When was that?"
"Hmm... a month ago? Just out of the blue asked her in the library one day."
"What did Ellie tell her?"
"That she had to get my permission. Or Jean's. Poor kid knew we'd say no. She didn't even ask us, just told us about it at dinner that night."
Joel chuckled. He was proud of Ellie for that; he could just as easily imagine her swearing the girl to secrecy and giving her a private lesson. Maybe getting some lowlife creep like Max to help her get Outside for it so as not to attract attention in town. Then again, he didn't think Ellie would sneak a kid out there away from safety, either. He wondered if he should ask her about it. Except she'd done the right thing, and clearly didn't need a lecture. The version of Ellie that he imagined in scenarios like this was somehow linked to that niggling voice that made him worry about her for no good reason.
"She likes to read," Joel blurted in answer to the earlier question. "So maybe that's what she liked best in school... readin'... or, whatchamacallit... English class. That's what it's called, right? Sounds funny now."
"Right? 'Cause they don't teach 'em the language... or how to speak it, at least -- how to write it, and read it, though... yeah. Buffy just calls it reading and writing. But really they only just have the one class there. It's called school."
That was true. Education in Jackson was pretty basic and unstructured, intended for either young kids or those who maybe never lived in a place where they could learn. Ellie was at the age where because she already knew all the fundamental shit, she could pick a field of interest to study further... maybe do some kind of apprenticeship... but she seemed content with her farm and library duties. Other than the 'harvesting crap,' at least.
Yasmany stood up. "Catch you later, man. West side, remember."
Joel was down to the dregs of his stew as well. "It'll prob'ly be a couple hours still. Save some bricks for me." They'd eaten lunch a little later than usual, which Joel hoped would make the afternoon feel like it was going by faster. The faster this whole job went, the better. It was unbelievable, how much he missed Ellie.
He wasn't as experienced as the other man at masonry. That was kind of the fun thing about Jackson: they didn't have the manpower (or womanpower, as his invisible Ellie reminded him, although it was like 95% men) to divide people by specialization. Given his background in carpentry, the jobs he was assigned most often involved working with wood, but he did end up doing other things. Things that made him learn new skills. Hell, even some of the carpentry jobs taught him new things. Like how much of a pain in the ass it was that Jackson's frost line was nearly three times as deep as Austin's... and to have only manual post drivers... he'd had no idea how spoiled he was, back in the day. And most of the time, the people he worked with on carpentry jobs weren't as experienced as he was, so he'd get thrust into a manager or mentor role there. Sometimes, that was annoying as fuck, and he would rather have just worked alone, even if it meant taking longer to finish the job. Other times, he didn't mind. Like with nineteen-year-old Lucas, who seemed to have the disposition of an engineer more than a carpenter. If ever there was a kid who should've had the opportunity to go to college, it was him.
It took Joel less than two hours to finish his current job, and he decided to make a pit stop at the farmhouse before heading over to Yasmany's wall. He had just finished filling his water canteen at the spigot around the side of the house when he heard Tommy's voice. "Joel! You out here?"
"Over here!" Joel headed into the front yard. Took a sloppy swig of water and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand as Tommy approached... looking pissed off. Here we go... what now? But as Tommy got closer, Joel realized he wasn't pissed off -- just upset. And he was carrying Joel's backpack... what the fuck? A familiar panic threatened to take hold of him. Why is my first thought always the worst case scenario? "What is it? What's wrong?"
"Jus' got a call from Theo on the walkie," Tommy said grimly, tossing him the backpack. "He had to ride out far enough to get a signal. I need to go meet him halfway now. Somethin' happened. An' Joel... you'll wanna come with me."
SHIT. "What happened?" Joel hardly dared to ask as he shrugged into his backpack.
Tommy clapped a hand on his shoulder, then gestured for Joel to walk with him. "C'mon. Maria an' Yasmany are tackin' up the horses. John -- John B. -- he took some kids out huntin', for a lesson... they were hit by Infected. He's dead. So is Earl's boy, Michael."
"Christ." Joel started trotting towards the stables.
"The other two kids are missin'," Tommy continued, matching Joel's pace. "No one's seen these Infected... no one we've heard from, anyway. Joel, hold up a sec..." He waited for Joel to look at him. "Ellie... was with them."
Joel's heart plummeted into his stomach. "What? No -- no, she'd be at the farm--"
"Maybe it was her day off," Tommy speculated.
Joel hadn't checked her schedule before he left. Not that he even remembered what day of the week today was. "She don' need huntin' lessons, though, why would she... you're sayin' she's one of the missin' kids?"
"How do you know?"
"Her name was on the guard log. The other one not accounted for is Yasmany's little girl."
"Shit." Yas had just mentioned how excited the girl was to learn how to shoot. He didn't say she was taking lessons, though, and Joel had assumed Yasmany would be teaching her himself... shooting, at least, as he claimed he wasn't much of a hunter... but it still fit. Ellie, on the other hand... "You're sure? Sure it was Ellie?"
"Yes! Why would I tell you if I wasn' sure?"
"Why wouldn't you tell me if there was even just a chance she might be in trouble?" But he didn't want to pick a fight with his brother right now. They started trotting again. "I jus' don' get why she'd be out there."
"...Maybe she was helpin' out?"
How fucking weird is this after that lunch conversation?! Joel didn't want to believe it. Ellie knew that Michael kid somewhat... from the house, as the family was over there regularly... shit, Earl... Joel felt a pang of grief for the boy's parents, but his thoughts rapidly switched over to Ellie again. Ellie hadn't been hanging around the house lately since Tommy and Maria weren't there... maybe she'd seen the kid in the library, or even down at the farm (what with the extra help for harvesting), and he'd invited her? Joel had never once heard her talk about Buffy, but maybe the little girl still wanted to shoot with her after they talked about it that day, so she had invited Ellie?
And I did tell her to keep busy, Joel recalled. Maybe that's all she was trying to do...
The four of them were soon ahorse and headed back somewhat towards town, their direction skewed more west than southwest. A lot of Tommy's horses had transported workers and materials to this sister farm, so it was no problem for each of them to have their own horse. It would help them cover a wider search area in the least amount of time.
The plan was to meet Theo and follow him to the attack site, then fan out from there, hopefully with some tracks or clues to help guide them. With any luck, they'd find the kids along the way. Joel had to resist the urge to make the horse gallop the whole way; it was a fairly long ride back.
He couldn't help but remember the last time something like this had happened... Joel hadn't had quite as far to ride then to start looking for Ellie, as they'd already gone from this farm back to the dam, and that's where Tommy had gotten the call about Ellie leaving town. Now, he was about an hour and a half away from the dam, and though they were taking a different route (into the vast hunting territory), the time would be comparable -- it would likely be more than two hours before they even reached the dead bodies. Two agonizingly long hours. He'd been worried about Ellie last time, but the circumstances were different. For one thing, he knew where she'd gone, he just had to find a way to catch up to her. For another, she hadn't gone missing -- after a fight with Infected, no less. Apparently they knew it was Infected who attacked them because there was a dead Runner at the scene, too. Just one. How many others had there been, and where were they now?
Joel didn't have all his gear with him, but at least he had more than what he carried around town. Two guns, fully loaded, with a little extra ammo and a couple other explosive devices in his pack. He wondered what Ellie had brought out here with her. A gun, no doubt. John's rifle had been found at the scene, although it was a good fifty feet or so away from his body, which struck Joel as odd. Where had Ellie been when this happened? How many Infected had ambushed them? Enough that Ellie would grab the girl and take off running for their lives?
Maybe Ellie hadn't even been there... maybe she was just using the hunting lesson as a means to get Outside... why? To come see me? He'd only been gone four days. She'd managed without him for twice that long, the first time. She'd never been to the sister farm and only had a vague idea of where it was... not that that would necessarily stop her... and maybe she'd found someone in town who could describe how to get to the farm. Joel had asked if they'd taken any horses out, and Tommy didn't get on the walkie to ask Theo if he knew -- he just said he doubted it; the horses were all in use these days. Even Ellie's favorite, an ornery beast named Spirit, wasn't available for her to ride in the afternoons. The horse had grown on Joel some, but he had to admit, Spirit didn't possess the ideal temperament for field work... Ellie probably could have talked Esther or whoever down at the farm to part with him, if she'd wanted. Or maybe she intended to walk the entire way. It wasn't like they hadn't walked thousands of miles farther.
Or was this just wishful thinking on his part, hoping that she wasn't with the group? Whether or not Ellie was out there alone or with another little girl, she could be in danger no matter what she was doing. He had to remind himself that this was Ellie, not some helpless kid; she could take care of herself. He would just feel a whole hell of a lot better if he was able to protect her. And after what happened last time, hadn't she promised not to go Outside without him again? He couldn't remember now if he'd actually made her promise that, or if it was just understood. ...or meant to be understood. Sometimes one of them would assume things like that about the other, and then later find out they weren't on the same page about it. If she was mad at Joel for being gone, maybe she'd think 'fuck that' anyway and just do what she wanted... and it wasn't like being mad at him would dissuade her from trying to find him, either. With two of the party dead, they likely hadn't had much chance to react (would Ellie let her guard down out there? Had she forgotten already?), or it was a large enough group of Infected that Ellie and John couldn't hold them off.
Joel tried to stay optimistic; he couldn't allow himself to think anything gruesome had happened. He just couldn't go there. It would only drive him crazy, and he needed to stay alert and focused. Ellie might not even be out here at all, he reminded himself. After Tommy had initially pumped Theo for a little more information on the walkie talkie, it was mostly quiet. There was no need to talk amongst themselves, and the wind made conversation a bit difficult anyway. Tommy and Theo occasionally checked in with each other on the walkie to gauge the other's location. When it was estimated that they might be close to each other, they used Jackson's version of GPS: Tommy would let out a 'whoop'-like call at the top of his lungs, then wait for Theo's reply on the walkie... or not, if they still weren't close enough. It was better than wasting ammo to accomplish the same thing, especially when they didn't know how many Infected might be roaming in the area. Tommy also insisted on being the one to do the yelling because of the threat of Infected; the four of them were better prepared to handle it than Theo as a single rider, should the call attract a group of enemies.
After the third call at intervals of about five minutes, Theo acknowledged that he heard it, and had them turn southwest. Joel thought it wouldn't be a bad idea to put up some sort of signage throughout the area, something that would make pinpointing locations a little easier. There was really no way to describe places to differentiate one from another... it was all trees and boulder-sized rock and shrubbery. Not even any little houses or other landmark type things to go by, and the river was too far south. But then, shit like this really didn't happen all that often... When they got even closer and Tommy shouted again, Theo hollered back, and in this manner, they finally found each other.
No Infected so far. Is that good or bad? Joel wondered as they followed Theo through the forest. Maybe Ellie's killed them all by now. She really did have remarkable skills, and Joel felt more than a little proud of her. He had taught her a lot in terms of mechanics and making the best use of her resources, so that gave him some bragging rights... but she'd already possessed qualities that couldn't be taught -- like guts, and smarts.
She can protect herself just fine without my help, Joel tried to tell himself. But if anything happens to her... ... ...
He kept himself in the present moment as much as possible. Maria rode up alongside him at one point and asked how he was doing. "You seem... calm," she observed.
"I ain't convinced she's really out here," Joel admitted. That was what he wanted to believe, and it could very well be true. "Maybe she took the little girl back to town."
"Maybe," Maria agreed. "Or maybe she's on her way. We're not in range yet for the gates to let us know... and Theo has North Gate's radio, so if they come in that way, we won't know it right away."
If Ellie was alone, and there wasn't a dauntingly huge number of Infected, Joel thought she'd be more likely to kill them than run; this was their home turf, and while it was technically the military's job to dispose of Infected, the citizens of Jackson took it upon themselves to keep the county clear. It would be unlikely for them to come across any Infected beyond Stage 1 -- Runners, who were relatively easy to kill, at least in small numbers. Ellie was immune, so physical contact with them wasn't as risky for her as it was for everyone else. Not that they couldn't hurt or kill her -- it just wasn't game over for her if she got bitten. But what would she do with a little kid in tow... particularly if the kid was traumatized from witnessing the attack? And, again, maybe he only assumed this attitude as a given, but he'd tried to instill in her that it was okay to run... to let others play the hero, especially if she was greatly outnumbered. They'd done it plenty of times on the road themselves. I do recall her rolling her eyes at me at least once during a conversation on that subject, though...
And Infected weren't their only enemies, of course. They were mindless monsters... and humans could be just as brutal, but far more cunning (the stupid ones didn't live long out there... unless perhaps they had smart companions). Bandits -- or hunters, as he tended to think of them -- were much more likely to catch her off-guard. To sneak up on her, perhaps wait until she was particularly vulnerable before attacking. They could also underestimate her, he reminded himself. They do that A LOT. But... still. I need to find her. I won't be at peace until I'm holding her in my arms again. Joel felt that part of his dependence on Ellie was due to the fact that he just never completely trusted that she was safe, even in town, unless he was with her. Although that logic was flawed, too -- how many times had she almost gotten killed on their trip? She wasn't necessarily 100% safe with him. It was a mental thing; he believed that she was. Felt that she was. For that reason alone, he could never be truly content when not in her presence. But there's no reason to think there are any bandits/hunters/whatever-the-fuck... it's only Infected... -right. 'ONLY.'
It took a while for them to ride back in to the right part of the forest, and then Theo still needed to find the exact spot. They were close enough by then to call in to Jackson for an update -- no Ellie sightings. "Can someone go check the farm or the library an' make sure she ain't there?" Joel asked Tommy.
Tommy shook his head. "Her name was on the--"
"I know, but... maybe the guard was wrong. Maybe they don' know what Ellie looks like well enough from the tower... maybe it was someone else who looked like her."
"Who else looks enough like her, Joel?" Tommy reasoned.
"I don' know! Just... Hey! Theo!" Joel waited for the other man to slow his horse a little in response. "You talked to them, right? Who was on duty?"
Theo was slightly older than Joel, white-haired and grizzly. A decent hunter and fisherman. That was about all Joel knew about the guy. "It was Billie and Josh," Theo answered, reining in his horse to a complete stop. Everyone else circled back, too, so that they were all pretty much forming a ring. "But they weren't on duty earlier -- it was Gavin who logged the outing."
Gavin... does he know Ellie? Joel couldn't recall the two of them ever being in the same space, and Ellie had never mentioned him. The dude may have had to ask Ellie her name in order to log it. Maybe it was someone pretending to be Ellie... SHIT, is that grasping at straws or what?! He could think of no reason for anyone to do that.
"Joel, I don' wanna panic the town by lettin' on that somethin's amiss out here," Tommy said. "We jus' need to find the kids. Hopefully the Infected, too, but I'm more concerned with findin' the kids. You wanna head back an' see if Ellie's in town? You go on. Otherwise... I say we look for at least an hour or two first. Or maybe Maria can go..."
Maria piped up immediately. "No -- I don't want to go back until we know what we're dealing with. We know about John, and Michael... but..."
"I don' wanna go back to town either," Joel chimed in. "If Ellie's there, she's safe anyhow, an' whoever's out here..." He sighed. "It's prob'ly Ellie. I'm jus' wastin' time tryin' to think of how maybe it ain't. If your girl's out here..." He looked at Yasmany, who hadn't spoken a single word since they'd left. "We'll find her." He almost tacked on a 'don't worry' to that, but those ridiculous words died on his tongue.
The other man looked pale and... blank. He just nodded at Joel curtly and turned his horse away, back in the direction they were heading. Joel followed suit, and Theo charged on ahead. After a couple minutes of riding, Theo hollered back at them, "This way! It's right up this hill, I know it!"
It was more of a slight incline than a hill, really. Joel found himself growing a little more apprehensive as they continued to play follow the leader. He'd encountered plenty of dead bodies in the past couple of decades... created plenty of them himself... he was fairly desensitized to the sight. But one of these belonged to a child... that twisted his guts up a little more than the usual variety of corpse did. The trepidation increased the closer they got. And he knew Ellie wasn't there, he knew that...
He knew that. He did. They wouldn't have gotten the description so wrong that she-- that maybe one of the bodies at the scene would actually be--
NO. Jesus Christ -- you gotta cut that shit out, Joel. She's NOT dead. You have to find her, and to do that, you have to keep your wits about you. Imagining his baby girl that way was not conducive to that. He had to be strong.
Joel could see the carnage from a distance... and as he got closer, he felt a wave of relief wash over him: Ellie wasn't there. Her backpack wasn't there... nor any of her weapons, or anything else that belonged to her. If she was out there, she would have a gun on her, at the very least; Infected didn't loot people's shit the way humans did. Seeing the fresh corpses of the two Jackson residents, one around Joel's age and one only eight or nine years old... it made the tragedy real. He couldn't look at them for more than a second. Whether it's Buffy and Ellie or two other kids, I have to find them... before THIS happens to them... they'd been alone out there for hours. Possibly all day. Probably scared shitless, possibly hurt...
And now he was cursing himself for not knowing exactly what Ellie's shoe prints looked like. The grass was thick enough in places that it was hard to make out any tracks in the dirt, but in those places, the trampled grass could be some indicator of direction. Joel didn't have the patience to try to decipher all that right now. He wanted to search the woods... to cover as much area as he could in the least amount of time -- to keep fucking moving -- not scrutinize the land inch by painstaking inch. Hopefully, it wouldn't come to that.
One path was more easily identified as a good trail to follow: the grassy one that was dotted with blood.
~Continue to Chapter 7~