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: 6078
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
The problem with the blood trail was that it ended all too soon, and it didn't lead them very far away from the attack site. Whoever had gotten injured didn't appear to be hurt badly enough to bleed profusely. Obviously, that was good if it was one of the kids... but it could just as easily be from an Infected. Theo wanted to assist in the search as well, so that gave them five people -- five different directions to go. And Theo was better at tracking; Joel was content to let the man slowly decipher the smudges in the dirt while he and the others simply fanned out on horseback to look for the kids. Maybe Theo would find something they'd overlooked. Tommy and Maria hung back, too, for a different reason... Joel only caught a little of their conversation as he took off, but he gathered that Tommy was trying to talk Maria into going home instead -- probably because she'd retched at the scene. "I'm fine!" was the last thing Joel heard her say -- or yell, rather. All right, so maybe only four of us will be searching... although my brother sure is gonna have a hard time getting that woman to take it easy.
Joel had suggested that Tommy get the doc to tell her, in a doctor's orders sort of way, that she needed to rest more, and not do strenuous things like horseback riding; as it turned out, Tommy didn't have to, because the doctor had already cautioned her about riding. Apparently the risk increased greatly after the first trimester, and this last trip out to the sister farm was meant to be her last until after the baby was born, as they weren't sure how far along she was. No pregnancy book would explicitly advise against fighting Infected, but it was common fucking sense to read between the lines there. The woman was stubborn, but she wouldn't take unnecessary risks that could jeopardize the baby, and Joel was pretty sure Tommy would win this one. He knew Tommy would feel a lot better with Maria being confined to the town, at least, even if she wasn't exactly lounging around the house doing nothing.
If it were up to Joel, Ellie would never leave town, either, for the obvious reason that bad shit was much more likely to happen outside of those fortress-like walls. She'd finally been able to have a normal life, these past few months. A good life. Joel knew he worried about her more than was considered normal or healthy... and now it increased tenfold, knowing she was Outside. Did she come looking for me? I never should've left. Fuck that farm -- Ellie's my number one priority. I've gotta find her...
Yasmany headed northwest, Joel headed north-ish... northeast, but not quite the same direction they'd just come from. They couldn't simply follow the general trajectory of the blood spots, because the blood-shedder could've gone any-which-way from the last spot there... but north by some degree seemed the most likely direction, as the blood trail led them north and a little east, although just before the trail vanished, it zigzagged to the west. Had they been fleeing an attack from the south? That was the Jackson side... but they were far enough away from town that he wouldn't rule anything out. They hadn't seen any Infected as they rode in from the east, but again, it was a large, wide-open area... Joel was operating under the assumption that whether Ellie joined the hunting party under false pretenses or not, if she was with them once shit hit the fan, she would try to get to him... and she had a ballpark idea of where the sister farm was. The other option -- heading back to Jackson -- was probably more practical, but if she'd done that, she should have made it by now... unless she's hurt?
There was also the chance that she'd gotten lost. The sky was overcast now, but it had been pretty sunny most of the day... at least where Joel was. He didn't really know how varied the weather would be within that span of miles. Sunny enough that a kid with good direction sense would be able to tell where she was going, though... right? Or... what if she'd gotten separated from the little girl, and had to go look for her? Joel could tell her to run all he wanted... tell her to save herself, even at the expense of others... but he didn't think Ellie would leave a child behind.
Every minute or so, Joel called out her name. He didn't care if it drew the Infected to him. Hell, he wanted it to, assuming the pack wasn't too huge for him to handle. He'd killed probably a couple dozen or so single-handedly in Swan Valley recently (and he liked to think he didn't actually need the help he'd received towards the end). It seemed unlikely that a large horde of the fuckers could hole up in these woods for any length of time, given all the hunting in the area. Perhaps they were just passing through... and the patrols didn't happen to see them? Small groups could escape their notice as well, though; Jackson didn't exactly have military precision and resources. If the group wasn't large, Ellie could've dispatched them all by herself, he was sure of it... and there'd only been one Infected body at the scene. Which made him think she wasn't ever with them. Am I being objective about this, or just really fucking hoping that it's true?
Joel had been searching for maybe fifteen or twenty minutes when something in his peripheral vision caught his attention, and for the first time since the search had begun, he went into 'threat response' mode... but only for a moment. He holstered his gun immediately after he'd drawn it. What he'd seen was a ponytailed little girl... but her hair was too dark -- it definitely wasn't Ellie. Most likely it was Buffy, though he couldn't recognize her from that distance. She had ducked behind a large rock, perhaps not realizing he'd seen her... and not realizing he wasn't a threat. He urged the horse to canter in that direction, and dismounted a good distance in front of the rock, so as not to spook her further. Apparently she'd recognized him as he got closer, because she started running toward him before his foot even touched the ground. It IS Buffy -- and she ain't hurt! he thought with relief.
Joel was a little surprised when she hurled herself at him; he'd only seen her a handful of times, and had barely even spoken to the girl then. Besides that, she had struck him as kind of shy. "Whoa, easy," he said, chuckling a little as he hugged her back. "Are you all right? Let me look at you." He pushed her back gently by the shoulders and quickly looked her over. Dirty and disheveled, a few minor-looking abrasions... nothing serious that Joel could see. Her T-shirt had a hole along a shoulder seam, but it was clean enough that he suspected it was a pre-existing one, not a new tear. She seemed physically okay. "Does anything hurt?" he asked her.
"No -- but -- but..." Buffy bit her lip.
"But what? What is it, honey?" ...Is it Ellie?!
She looked up at him with huge brown eyes shining with tears... she looked so scared. Joel smoothed back a lock of hair that was plastered to her forehead; Ellie always found it soothing when he stroked her hair. "I need you to be brave for me, all right? Be brave. Tell me what happened."
She took a shaky breath. "It's Boo. I'm not s'posed to... he's... He got bit by one of those things. The Infected."
Shit. Joel vaguely recalled Ellie telling him once about a kid with that strange nickname, and the story behind it -- something to do with a little sister he liked to scare, not the slang definition -- but damned if he could remember who he was now. He'd probably recognize the kid if he saw him. "Where's he at?"
"I can't say," Buffy replied in a small voice.
Joel got the feeling she didn't mean it in the I-don't-know sort of way. "You can't say. Why not?"
She shrugged and looked away.
"We need to find him," Joel said gently. "He needs... help."
"But I promised I wouldn't tell," Buffy confirmed Joel's suspicion.
"All right. That's all right..." Time for a 'sometimes it's okay to break your promises' spiel? Invisible Ellie would think that was a hoot. Or maybe I can get her on a technicality... "You don' have to tell me exactly. Which way do you think I should go, if I want to find him? Can you tell me that? It ain't the same thing as leadin' me right to him."
Buffy hesitated, then pointed behind her. "Over there... not real far. He's hiding. ...Are you gonna kill him?" she added in a fearful whisper.
"No," Joel said immediately, although that was possibly a lie. "What about you? Any of 'em bite you anywhere? Or scratch you real hard... anythin' like that?"
She shook her head. "No... I got him away from there."
"You did, huh?" Oh God... "Did any of his blood get on you?"
"I don't think so...” She started pointing to various places on herself. "This is mine... and this... Maybe this on my shirt? I don't know what this is, here. Maybe dirt."
Joel inspected the spot she was referring to; it was small, and looked like a mixture of blood and dirt, but it was dried, at least. "All right. After you got away, did you... help him with bandages or anythin' like that?"
"No. He didn't want me near him."
Good. "Can I see your hands?" Joel requested. They were filthy... and he couldn't tell for sure that she had no minor cuts on them. Still, the chances of her getting infected that way seemed awfully slim -- especially if the only contact she'd made with the kid was prior to the infection beginning to spread through his bloodstream. "Don't touch anythin'... not 'til after you wash your hands. It ain't... sanitary. You understand?" Not that handwashing would help in that regard, but no sense in freaking her out.
She was supposed to be quarantined when she got back to town, as a precaution, but Joel didn't know if they'd actually do it. He and Ellie should've been quarantined when they got back from Swan Valley, too, as they had fought with Infected... and no one had even brought it up. Why not? Because I'm Tommy's brother? Because they reckoned we'd 'fess up if one of us got bit? Because there haven't been any problems with it in so long that no one enforces the rule... or even remembers it? If they ever got one of those scanner things that the military used, Ellie would never be able to leave town again -- or if she left, she could never get back in. Not without revealing her secret. But Tommy and Maria were aware of this, and he was sure they'd take it into consideration if presented with that option. She'd also be fucked if it was ever decided that people needed to be searched upon re-entry to the town. Although if Joel was with her, he could probably persuade whoever was on duty that the rule didn't apply to Ellie. And by 'persuade,' he meant to make it clear that he'd beat the shit out of anyone who touched her or attempted to look beneath any of her clothes -- and doing so wouldn't even arouse suspicion, since it was common knowledge that he was protective of Ellie.
At any rate, Joel thought this little girl seemed perfectly innocent and nonthreatening, and he didn't think she was lying about not being bitten. "So how did you get away?"
Buffy started talking at mile-a-minute speed, like Ellie did sometimes. "I hit the monster on the head, with a rock, it didn't die, but it stopped- it stopped attacking, like long enough for him to get away, he had the knife and he cut him, but not good enough, and there were more coming and someone was shooting -- John I guess, I dunno -- the only thing I saw was – it was like – like -- they were coming, and the knife, it wasn’t -- I think he was as scared as me cuz we just started running as fast as we could -- it was like a family of them -- we were scared, and we didn't know what to do, like how to -- we just ran away -- I never ran so fast in my life! We ran and ran and my side even started hurting but I couldn’t stop running – until we looked back and didn’t see them, and then we hid for a while just in case, but we didn’t see them after that." The stream of words came to an abrupt halt.
"Good... you did good," Joel said approvingly. He hadn’t quite followed the whole thing, but he got the gist of it. He wondered how near she'd been to John, and the boy who'd been killed... did she know they were dead, or had she been waiting for John to come find her? But more importantly-- "Where was Ellie when this happened? Where is she now?"
The girl seemed a little confused by the questions. "I don't know?"
"When did you last see her?"
"Like... yesterday, I think?"
"Yesterday! You mean she wasn' with you? She didn' come out here with you this mornin'?" Joel asked, his heart in his throat.
She nodded. "Definitely. I was the only girl. Did you find Michael and John? Are they okay?"
Joel didn't have the heart to tell her the truth. "Yeah, we found 'em. Your dad's out here lookin' for you. In fact, I gotta signal that I found you. Cover your ears, all right?" The girl did as she was told, and Joel fired a round into a random tree behind him. One shot meant kids, two or more meant Infected (and those were bullets that wouldn't get wasted on a tree). He put the gun back in its holster and waited for Buffy to lower her hands from her head. "We need to find your buddy."
"He might be gone by now," she said solemnly.
"Cuz of the bite. He might, um... run away or something," Buffy suggested, sounding a bit sheepish... although Joel might have guessed as much, given the little guy's reluctance to be found. "Maybe. I dunno. Maybe not,” she backpedaled.
The poor boy must be freaking the fuck out, Joel thought grimly. Well, Tommy could decide the kid's fate. That's why he got paid the proverbial big bucks, as they say. Joel just wanted to find the kid. "How long've you been out here? Since the attack, I mean."
She looked at him blankly.
"Did it happen before lunch, or after?" he tried.
"Before. Way before. I didn't eat any lunch cuz... we ran away from everything and John had the lunches in his bag. It's been a reeeeally long time."
"You must be hungry, then... an' thirsty." Joel offered her his canteen, then rooted around in his backpack. "I have an apple, if you want it?" He handed it to her when she nodded. "Good. So... it's been a few hours... more than a few -- maybe even eight or nine, yeah?" Long enough that the boy might start to turn, but he might have a day or so yet. The sun was just starting to set now, lengthening the shadows when it wasn't hiding behind the clouds. The wind made it feel a bit cooler than it was... but so far, no rain. Ellie would be cold... she wouldn't have thought to bring a jacket on a day excursion. Unless she'd planned on it being more than that...
Why the hell is Ellie's name on the log? Did she leave AFTER this group, so her name's just on there right beneath theirs? If so, who let her out by herself, and why? No... there should've been another time stamp if she left after them. ...Though it could've been an oversight... either at the time, or when they reported the names to Theo...
But -- first things first. Joel slung the canteen back over his shoulder when Buffy had had her fill. "Let's go look over there. Did you see any more Infected after you ran away?" She said she hadn't, but Joel kept a hand poised over el Diablo anyway; the shot he'd just fired from his revolver might attract some to the area, and they weren't exactly going to be quiet now, either...
"Boo!" Buffy yelled, in between bites of apple. "Boooooooooo! It's Joel -- Ellie's dad! You can come out -- he's gonna help you!"
Joel felt a pang of guilt; there wasn't much he'd be able to do for the kid. He wondered if the girl truly believed he could fix this. That was part of the charm that kids had... the hero worship. It's a damn shame the hero thing is all just horseshit, and every kid has to learn that bitter truth sooner or later. Buffy was old enough to know what it meant to get infected, though... "How old is he?" he asked her.
"He's nine. Boooooooooo! Where'd you go?"
Joel called out to him as well. "It's okay, kid! I ain't gonna hurt you. I'm here to take you home!" He was already on high alert, simply from being Outside, so any movement would draw his attention. He checked the more obvious hiding places, like behind or beneath shrubbery, or the kid-sized pockets in some of the rock formations...
Nothing... until one such formation that he didn't even have to search -- a boy with freckled cheeks and shaggy brown hair jumped out in front of them before they reached it, perhaps in anticipation of being found and cornered. He was maybe twenty or thirty feet in front of them, and he did look a little familiar to Joel. "Don't!" cried the kid, even though Joel wasn't about to do anything in particular. The boy was holding a hunting knife in front of himself like he was wielding a sword, his hand trembling.
Buffy was about to run toward the kid, but Joel quickly grabbed her arm to prevent that. Not like the kid would instantly turn or anything, but... still. "Buffy, why don' you jus' stay back here with me... behind me."
"I just wanna give him the rest of my apple!" she protested.
"Let me do that. Are you hungry, son?" Joel held his palm out to the girl, and Buffy handed over what remained of the apple. He looked pointedly at the weapon in Boo's hand. "How 'bout I trade you for that knife?"
"No!" No hesitation there. “I don’t care about your stupid apple.”
He doesn’t trust me. Can’t blame him for that; I wouldn’t trust me either. "Please... I ain't gonna hurt you," Joel repeated.
"Boo, it's okay," Buffy chimed in. "He's one of the good guys. My dad works with him, so he's okay."
Joel found her logic there a bit suspect, but now wasn't the time for life lessons on that topic. He took slow, deliberate steps towards the kid. "You don' need that knife..."
"Yeah right," snapped Boo. "Didn't she tell you? Look at my neck! Look at it!"
Joel could see it from where he was: the puncture wound that would seal the poor kid's fate, the tendrils of blood forming a scarlet spider on his neck... a spider in a nest of ugly boils. Boo had other wounds, too... Joel noticed his T-shirt was torn and bloody on one side, and there was a hole in his jeans, which were also bloodied. The cartoon image on his shirt was patchy and faded, but Joel could make out the characters -- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Nothing appeared to still be bleeding... at least not copiously. It may have been this kid's blood that dotted the ground near the attack site, with his clothes absorbing most of it (if he wasn't infected, Joel would've wanted to take a closer look and see if stitches were in order anyway, but...). The boy's hands were also crusted with blood. It sickened Joel a little, to see that much blood on a child.
Joel stopped moving forward. "How about I just toss the apple to you then, hmm? Like playin' catch."
Boo stared at him for a second... and apparently decided it wasn't a trick. "Okay..."
He lobbed it to the boy. Boo caught it with his free hand and started gnawing on it. Buffy still wanted to get closer to him, but Joel held her back. "It's worse... right?" she asked Boo.
The kid took a few tentative steps toward them. His eyes were light in color... hazel, or gray... and they were shiny with tears. "See for yourself. This is... this is probably the last..." He interrupted himself by biting hard into the apple as the tears started sliding down his face.
Buffy was a little sniffly, too. "It's bigger now! Can you do something?" she pleaded to Joel. "Can you stop it?"
Joel sighed. "No." He tried to make eye contact with Boo. "But I can bring you home, to your family." It was against Jackson protocol to bring an infected person Inside, but... he was just a little boy... surely someone, maybe multiple someones, could guard him. Someone who could do the deed when the time came.
"No you can't! The guards will kill me!" Something in his eyes shifted... hardened. "I'm running away. I have to."
"No!" Buffy cried. "You'll turn into one of those monsters!"
Boo scowled. "That's better than dying!"
"But then you'll-- you'll kill people!" she replied plaintively.
"I don't wanna die! I'll go far away. Away from town. You can pretend you never found me."
Joel's heart ached for the boy. How could he explain to him that when he turned, he wouldn't even exist in the way that he knew? That death was the better of two incredibly lousy outcomes? "You don' really wanna do that," Joel said slowly. "You didn' run when you could have."
"Cuz of me -- I was scared of being out here by myself," Buffy explained. "And he at least has that knife, see."
The thought of the two kids alone in the forest, scared of the monsters that might find them, the infected one protecting the other... Joel was damn close to getting a little teary-eyed himself. The situation was just so utterly heartbreaking.
"But then later he told me to go away and leave him alone," Buffy continued. "I didn't know where to go. And I didn't wanna leave him. So I stayed close to here."
I could just blow his head off right now... end it quick and painless... Except he couldn't. Not only because of the young girl next to him who would have to witness it, but because... he just fucking couldn't. What if someone had done that to Ellie after seeing her arm? Sure, this kid was most likely going to turn... Joel didn't know of any strain of the virus that would start to fester like that and then somehow stop. But he wasn't God. What did he know? Maybe there were different kinds of immunity. Or maybe Ellie's bite had done the same thing... although Boo's looked worse. Like the infection had begun to extend beneath his shirt as well as up his neck.
Tess also came to mind... what if she'd given up too soon? She'd made the choice to sacrifice herself for them. 'Suicide by cop' to give Joel and Ellie a better chance of escape. It was too painful to play the 'what if' game there... and to regret the things left unsaid. There had been no time for that, really... but even so, the regret was there, if he chose to indulge it. At any rate, Tess had chosen to die; Boo hadn't. And he was just a fucking scared-shitless little kid.
Joel heard someone yelling in the distance. "Might be your dad," he said to Buffy.
"I bet it is! DADDY!!!" she bellowed. "I'm over here!" She started running in the direction of the voice.
Joel didn't try to stop her this time. "Don' go past the horse back there!" he called after her, though he doubted she'd pay him any mind in her excitement to find Yasmany... and the other man was probably close enough to them that it really didn't matter if she stayed in eyeshot. Then he turned back to the boy. "You could've run right after I found her. An' you didn'."
"I thought y-you might s-see me," Boo said tearfully, chucking the apple core behind him. He was still grasping that knife like it was some kind of lifeline.
"You wanna sit an' talk, instead of goin' back home?" Joel held up his hands. "I ain't gonna shoot you. I promise." At least for now... "You shouldn' be alone."
The kid tried to snicker but it came out funny on account of the tears. "Why does it m-matter? They already g-got me!"
Goddamnit. "I meant... for your own... for you," he said softly. "'Cause it's hard to... you shouldn' have to..." I don't even fucking know what to say to him. Nothing I say is going to help him one little bit.
Boo returned to the large rock that had helped shield him from sight. The boy kicked at it a couple times, and then just slumped to the ground, leaning against it. He was still clutching the knife, but no longer in a threatening stance. Joel approached him cautiously. "How 'bout if I jus' sit over here by you? That all right?"
"Don't come near me!" he warned.
"I'll jus' stand here then." And try to think of what the fuck I'm supposed to say. He hadn't thought of anything before he heard the clop-clop-clop of a horse approaching behind them. "That'll be Buffy's dad... don' worry," he assured Boo. "He won' hurt you either." Joel pivoted so that he could keep both Boo and the approaching horse in view.
Yasmany pulled up on the reins as he neared Joel. Buffy was seated behind him. The dude's face sported the biggest smile Joel had ever seen on him. He gave Joel a nod. "Hey, man... thanks."
"I didn' do nothin'," Joel replied. He really hadn't. He sure wished he could do something... something for the boy.
"You picked the right direction," Yasmany countered.
"Jus' dumb luck."
The other man looked at the boy on the ground... He don't know what to tell him either. Words are so useless sometimes. "Why don't you take your girl home?" Joel suggested. "I got this."
"...You sure?" Yasmany seemed hesitant to leave, but Joel would bet the farm that the man would rather get his daughter to safety than hang out with an infected kid.
"Go on." Joel waved him away.
"Bye Joel! Bye Boo!" Buffy called to them as Yas started to turn the horse around. Joel wondered if she realized it was likely the last time she'd see her friend. ...alive, anyway...
Joel would rather be looking for Ellie than hanging out with an infected kid himself; it was starting to get dark, and he didn't know if Ellie even had her flashlight. If she were trying to find him, she probably would; she'd have her backpack, and he'd trained her to keep it clipped to the strap. If she was just on the hunting trip, expecting to be back before sunset... he hoped she would bring the backpack, but she might not. When they were together, she often didn't. But that's because she knows what I carry around. Surely if I'm not with her, AND she's going Outside, she'd be more prepared...
He hoped Tommy or Theo would show up soon. He thought about firing another shot in case they needed help finding him, then thought better of spooking the poor kid by pulling out a gun. Maybe Yasmany could help direct them. He decided to come just a little closer and sit on the ground at what he deemed a 'safe' distance... safe for both of them. Boo didn't object.
Joel sat with his legs folded up, in a position where his knees served as armrests as he leaned slightly forward. "If you wanna talk..." he offered again.
Boo's face had sort of glazed over, and Joel wondered if maybe he was already turning... but he reckoned the boy might just be in shock. Overwhelmed by the knowledge of what was going to happen to him. Life was so fucking unfair that Joel couldn't stand it sometimes. If the universe operated with any sort of divine logic, Joel would have been dead by now, maybe a hundred times over. It wasn't right that he should outlive a nine-year-old kid. Or thirteen-year-old Sam... or his own daughter, for chrissakes... he knew thinking that shit didn't do anyone any good, and how many times had he lectured Ellie about her survivor's guilt? Still... it was hard not to think such things when the injustice was staring you in the face.
Joel still had no fucking idea what to say to the child, so he tried to imagine what Ellie would say. She would probably whip out that goddamn joke book. Maybe he could remember some of them. The first one that came to mind was the one he didn't like... the stalemate... it wasn't even funny. Actually, none of them were funny. The one about my shelf... my self... a book falling... He liked that one only because Ellie had laughed at herself for fucking it up. That was why he remembered it.
He didn't want to tell lame jokes. He also didn't want to say anything to upset the kid, who was sitting there, calm as anything, staring off into space. Ellie got that look on her face sometimes... when she wasn't really there. Where did you go, little guy? Wherever it is, it's probably better than reality. Maybe you should just stay there.
Tommy was the next of the group to arrive, using the same 'GPS' system; Joel hollered back to him to help Tommy pinpoint his whereabouts. The yelling seemed to snap Boo out of his reverie... or la la land... wherever the fuck he'd gone. Joel wanted to greet his brother out of Boo's earshot... "Son, that's my brother, comin' this way. I'm jus' gettin' up to meet him. Don' go nowhere. I'll be right back." Joel stood up and moved slowly away, continuing to keep an eye on the boy. Though if he wants to make a run for it... should I just let him? ...No. No, that wouldn't be right. He should see his parents. If it was Ellie, I'd want to be with her. He would want someone in his position to bring Ellie home to him, not let her run off to spend her last moments alive -- or her last moments sane -- all by herself. Boo didn't appear to be preparing to bolt, though.
Tommy took Joel's cue and dismounted by Joel instead of the boy. He'd given his walkie talkie to Maria when he'd convinced her to go home, so he couldn't call Theo to direct him, nor could he check in with Jackson or the dam for news on Ellie. Joel gave him the run-down of finding Buffy and Boo, and explained Boo's predicament.
"You ever have this happen here before?" he asked Tommy. "Never heard of anyone gettin' infected since we got here."
"Can't say I have. Maria did, I think, or her dad... before I knew 'em. There used to be more Infected in the area than we see nowadays. If we can get him to come back to town, we can quarantine him. Let the family decide how they wanna... shit, this is gonna kill Mitch an' Caroline... an' little Caitlyn. They prob'ly won' want her to see him, she's only five years old... but... I think they'd wanna say goodbye. Don't you? If it was you...?"
He'd thought of Ellie before, in the hypothetical, but he was in fact a parent who had lost a child. He hadn't gotten much of a chance to say goodbye to Sarah... she'd died so fast... but if she'd gotten infected, he would have wanted to stay with her until the end. To comfort her in whatever small way he could. Joel felt his guts wrench... a lump rising in his throat. He nodded. "Go talk to him," he managed to say.
He followed Tommy over to the rock, but stopped short of it, allowing Tommy to engage the kid while he hung back -- ready to shoot if needed. Boo was now standing, pointing the knife at Tommy warningly. But he seemed to relax after Tommy spoke to him for a minute. Tommy always says and does The Right Thing... sanctimonious little shit. I bet he'll get the kid to agree to come home.
Boo didn't agree to it before Theo arrived, however, and again he went into defensive mode as the newcomer approached. Joel filled Theo in on what had happened, and Theo surrendered his walkie talkie to Tommy, debriefing him on the relevant communications. He'd already known that Boo was missing because his parents were concerned about the hunting party's late return, and had found out from the gate what had happened. Maria, back in town, had then relayed to Theo that there were now three missing kids. "Funny thing about it was his name wasn't even on the log," Theo said.
"The girl told me she never even saw Ellie," Joel reported with a snort. "She didn' go out with them. Did you see the log yourself?"
"Nope. Billie read it to me."
"Maybe she can't read worth a damn, then. Ellie might not even be out here." He could ask Tommy to track down the guards on the early shift and see what they could tell him about Ellie leaving, if it was even Ellie... maybe someone in town could go find her and report back to them... they were close enough to town now that Joel could go look himself, but they hadn't found any Infected yet, and... well, it felt like returning to town would be giving up on her. Even though he didn't know for sure if she was Outside. He knew she was safe if she was in town, so...
"Or maybe Gavin was half asleep when they left?" Theo suggested... jokingly, perhaps.
"They're both skinny kids... freckled... long hair... the boy's isn't ponytail-long, though. And it's a lighter brown, not red-brown. Nah -- I don't see how he could mistake Eli for Ellie."
Eli... Ellie... "What? Who's... is that Boo's real name?"
"Yeah...." The same idea seemed to be dawning on Theo. The two names sounded very different, but on paper... "And you know that son of a bitch can't spell. He put my name down as T-H-O-E once -- the guys who came on next started calling me Tho."
"Tommy!" Joel could see that his brother was talking to Maria on the radio, but he interrupted him. "Tommy, does North Gate have a radio yet?"
"Maria's with them now."
"Ask them to read it again."
"The log. Just ask them!"
Tommy obliged. Billie's voice crackled through the walkie talkie: "It says 8:45am, Hunting lesson, north-slash-northeast, less than 3 miles... John B... Michael... Buffy... Ellie. Over."
"Ask her about the last one," Joel urged. "Is the handwritin' hard to read or somethin'?"
"Billie, how certain are you about that last name? Over," Tommy replied.
"Well... maybe a little uncertain... there's a letter missing. E - L - I - E. -Oh hey, you know what's strange? Boo's name isn't even-- ... ... ... do you think they meant ELI? Not Ellie?"
Joel didn't know whether to scream in exasperation or laugh in relief.
~Continue to Chapter 8~