I haven't updated this since October last year? Damn.
I make another slight adjustment to the timeline in this chapter. It's so unimportant you probably won't even spot it.
OH! And it's taken me a long while to find it (curse ff.n's lack of PM search functionality) but the person who originally challenged me to write this fic was acepro Evolution! I wrote the first chapter before getting permission to use her name and since then I've just either not remembered or not had any success finding the original PM - but it's finally done.
The Obligatory Piggyback Fic
Sound cracked the world around him.
That sound meant danger. That sound meant death. Some small part of him felt like he should be doing… something.
"Mom." He saidbreathedthought. Where was she? He needed to… he needed to…
Stick with her, take care of her. Dad told him.
"I'm trying", he thoughtsaiddreamed. He felt her stomach under his hands - small and clumsy and shaking, slippery with hot blood - as someone (Joel?) with large hands and hard eyes turned away and shot shot shot shot
Shots, he realised, eyes slipping open and seeing nothing. He was hearing shots. Loud. Near him. Next to him? Joel?
Something moved in front of him. Human-shaped, but not quite… not…
His eyes closed, brow furrowing as his sluggish brain tried to push through pain and garbled memories. He felt his dad's hand on his shoulder, hot and tight and-
His eyes slid open. There was no hand, just a wound radiating pain and the heat of infection, flesh swelling tight against busted stitches.
Sound cracked the world again, muffled and distant.
The shape crouched before him. Made of shadows instead of skin, it lacked any real definition. He couldn't even tell what gender it was.
A hand lifted, palm-forward like it was warming itself before a fire. Maybe there was a fire, because something was burning him - literally burning him, searing the skin beneath his shirt spiking his awareness along with the pain.
He thrashed, clumsy and groggy, pawing at his clothing, his chest, scrabbling for the source of the pain. His fingers slid over the scarab he'd tried to give to his mother and wore now instead. It was burning him? What? He didn't understand and he couldn't get it off, the amulet seemingly fused to his skin and slowly sinking deeper.
The shadow's hand seemed to sharpen along with the pain he was in. It gained definition - fingernails, slender knuckles - and for just a second, as it stretched forward to cup his cheek-
He saw who it was.
Ellie shot another anxious glance at the teen beside her. Harry had started groaning softly not long after Joel left to clear a way forward. After she'd had to start taking shots, his groans had turned into fevered mutterings. It was obvious what they were about and her heart ached for him. It was easy to be irritated by his crappy attitude, easier still to forget there was a normal human being underneath it. A fourteen-year-old, like her, who'd just lost his mom.
She dealt with her losses by putting on a happy face, pretending like it didn't hurt. She guessed it made sense that someone else would deal with their shit in a different way. She just wished she knew how to help.
Sirius, being both a Wizard and a Grim, could perceive what Ellie could not.
There was something there, something lurking by Harry's increasingly fevered body, something pulling strength from him - a magical parasite maybe? Or worse, a malicious spirit. Biting back a growl, he tried to get a grip on the thing he could sense but not see - and failed. He tried bodily moving himself into its location, flaring his magic as much as he could in an effort to disrupt it - and failed.
His sharp nose caught the scent of burning flesh long before any human's could, and he pawed at his godson's chest before Harry himself began to.
Neither of them could dislodge the amulet as it burrowed into Harry's sternum. Tiny insectile legs stabbed and clawed at bubbling flesh, digging itself in.
He whined subvocally. He was far from the curse-breaking expert that Bill was, but even a Muggle could recognise the scarab as Egyptian and he knew that most Egyptian magic was focused on Death.
And now there was some thing using it to feed off of his helpless godson while he sat uselessly by.
Story of his miserable life.
Between him and the girl, they made it through - which was sure as hell a surprise to him. They moved on, unable to risk stopping. Unfortunately, Harry was completely out of it now and Joel had no choice but to half-drag, half-carry the boy himself. (Well he could've just left him and didn't doubt that Harry would leave him, but he wasn't quite ready to be that man again just yet.) The dog took point and, nervous though he was to let a dog lead them, they didn't have much choice. Elli didn't have enough meat on her to carry Harry's dead weight and the teen over his shoulder slowed him too much to be an effective forward scout. Luckily the dog was smart, almost impossibly so. It seemed to know both where they were going and that they didn't want to come accross any more hunters. Its superior senses let it lead them around enemies in their path when possible and signal to hide when it wasn't.
Despite the dog-led detours they were making steady, if winding, progress towards the bridge.
As slow hours passed however, he couldn't put off treating the kid any longer. Sweating and shivering, infection was plainly gaining a foothold - and that was something they couldn't afford. It was fucking stupid to go to ground in the midst of enemy territory - but it was stupider still to hobble on with a man down.
"Try'n find somewhere without any people." He muttered to the dog, still half disbelieving the animal could possibly be as smart as all that. "We need to rest up."
The dog nodded, snuffled about a bit and then began leading them away from the bridge. Twenty minutes later and they were in an office block filthy enough to have been left untouched since the outbreak first began. There were signs of looting, but very, very old ones.
"Good dog." He muttered, lowering the kid to the floor and starting his own scout. Most of the windows were overgrown enough that they could risk some light - at least during the day - and there were several plastic barrels of water in a storage cupboard that ought to be just fine for drinking, though he'd drop a couple of iodine tablets in them to be safe. He got back to find Ellie rummaging through drawers, a scavenged and moth-eaten coat draped over Harry like a blanket.
"He's really hot." She reported anxiously. "I found some aspirin, but nothing else yet."
"Every little bit helps." Joel reassured her, dropping his own backpack (and taking a quick moment to stretch his shoulders - he wasn't as young as he used to be - to search for the few precious broad-spectrum antibiotics they had. Tess had just picked up a new batch the week before she got jumped by Robert's guys.
He swallowed back the ugly, messy feelings that came with thinkin' about her and busied himself with keepin' her son alive instead. Jacket off, drugged water coaxed into him and a few mushy bites of a stolen MRE saw him set for the night. He cracked a bottle of water just for keeping his fever down, checked his wound, flushed and re-stitched it and then got his own affairs seen to. For the most part he just had a mother of a bone-deep bruise down his back from the fall on the elevator, but he'd been clipped by fists and bullets alike today, and those hurts were making themselves known.
He took a bottle of booze he'd meant to keep for a molotov and used it instead for some butcher's first aid while Ellie finished up her scavenging. She brought her findings back to go through: another comic book, Archie by the look of it. A bunch of markers, none of which worked, some sealed packets of biscuits, some money, a hole-punch and what looked like someone's diary.
"What's with the hole punch?" He asked, opting to tie off his scrapes rather than stitch. He didn't care if it scarred and none of them were deep enough to bother with further trauma.
"The what-punch?" Ellie followed his gaze and picked it up to examine it. Curious fingers soon found and peeled away the soft plastic base, spilling tiny white circles of paper onto her lap like snow.
The girl made a fascinated, delighted sound.
"What is this thing?" She asked, eyes shining as she glanced up at him before re-examining the device in question.
"It's a hole-punch." He answered flatly, amused despite himself - but melancholy too. Such a normal, forgettable thing was all but an ancient artifact now - within one generation of the end of the world. "It was used by office workers to make precisely-measured holes in paper."
The look she cast him this time was pure bafflement.
"Why? What for?"
"So's they'd fit neatly into ring binders." He shrugged, then winced as it pulled one of his wounds. "I had one at home, hardly ever used the damned thing. Most people did, though - at least before email became big."
He sighed, disheartened even more. He generally tried not to think about it, not to let it bother him, but… he was human. And humans had once been… so big. So important. They'd created a whole digital world that was greater than the sum of its parts - and which had vanished even quicker than they had, once the power stations went down and the satellites eventually followed them. He was sure some army centres still had local servers, maybe, but no civilians did anymore.
"Never mind." He unrolled his bedding and lay gingerly down, body language making it plain that the topic was closed. He heard the girl sigh, but she followed suit - pages of her new comic book rustling as she read by the choked, dying light.
They stayed in that office block almost four days.
Harry's fever spiked, lowered and spiked again. He muttered, called out, even cried - but never woke. The bullet wound in his shoulder didn't look too bad but somehow the amulet the kid was wearing had become... stuck. He couldn't even pry it off with the flat of a knife, like it was somehow fused to the bone.
He didn't wanna know what kind of crazy grieving ritual the boy had performed before meeting back up with them. He wanted to yell at the kid for being stupid enough to let it go bad - but he figured, it probably wouldn't have done if he hadn't also gotten shot and badly concussed with a side of almost-drowning soon after. Instead, he bathed it and the blistered surrounding skin with alcohol and fresh water, leaving it open to the air to help it heal. When the need to keep moving grew too strong, he snuck into the hunter area of town to steal some food.
As much as he itched to pick up and go, the rest had been more than needed. Dark circles he hadn't even noticed slowly faded from under Ellie's eyes as the girl got some decent sleep and rest. Harry's fever eventually broke for good and by the third day he was aware enough to revert to his usual broody, moody self. The wound on his shoulder had closed too, Harry's youth giving him the sort of rapid healing that Joel was long past experiencing. He had Ellie remove the stitches, clean it and slap one of their few waterproof patches over the remainder.
Then it was time to go.
Unfortunately, their time in hiding hadn't unwound the hunters any. Instead of assuming their prey had escaped, they'd (rightly) assumed that they'd gone to ground - and they were looking for them.
"Ammo's low." Were Harry's first coherent words, checking over all their supplies as they packed up to leave.
"I know. Pickings have been in short supply." Joel answered. "Just means we'd better not trip over any more hunters."
They shared a brief, familiar look. 'Trip' in their lingo, meant to stumble over a group to their detriment. If he let Harry range free there would be no tripping - only an increase in their supplies by nightfall. But…
"I don't want you off on your own, not here." He shook his head. "This place is a beehive, and frankly-" he cut Harry's rejection short "-I need someone watching my - our - six."
He met the boy's eyes, simple and honest. He'd never been a man for pointless pride and he wasn't lying - he'd feel a hell of a lot better with Harry's pinpoint accuracy and almost supernatural senses at his side. After all, he was no Tess - Harry being out of sight didn't mean he was probably lurking nearby.
Green eyes looked away, dark head of hair nodding once.
Protect Ellie, listen to Joel.
Thank God for Tess' last words.
"Alright then." He stood, shouldered his backpack, cast an eye over the two kids following suit. "Let's move out."
They moved, slow and careful. Ellie dogged Joel's heels, Harry hers and the dog his. It made her want to giggle as she thought of it, how they must look like a little line of ducks trailing after Momma Joel - or maybe a heavily armed mambo line - but she didn't even have to try to stifle the humour what with nervous tension ruling her body instead. Twice, they only barely spotted hunters in time to detour around them. Once, a heavy truck with a gun installed on top roared past their hiding place, shooting down two unarmed people. She almost threw up as the hunters picked a dying woman over for supplies, only shooting her in the head when her whimpering moans started to become screams.
They weaved in and out of buildings, circling around the main street with its high windows and heavy fortifications for less-dense little suburbs. By afternoon daylight, the streets looked… sad, instead of scary. They ducked into a shattered building that looked like it used to be some sort of office supply store and across the road was a red bricked building with white columns, fancy curly metal chairs and tables and wide windows with the words 'Anna's Bakery' painted on them. While they waited for the sound of cars to move further away, she tried to imagine what it might have been like before the outbreak.
Warm, probably. The trees growing out of the fancy pots probably used to be sculpted, like the bushes in her old fairy tale books. There would have been a smell of fresh baked bread wafting out every day, people walking by breathing deeply to enjoy it. People sitting outside would have had shopping bags, silk dresses and glasses of wine while they waited for their… bread? She supposed? To be baked and served to them. Did bakeries make anything other than bread? She wasn't sure.
But it would have been warm, and safe. Cars would have rolled past slowly, friends would have spotted each other in the street and stopped to chat, kids would have run around the table legs making nuisances of themselves…
Joel jostled her, moving on ahead. She cast one last look at the place - no longer warm, just a cold, hollowed out shell that would never make such nice smells or draw happy people to sit outside it again. It would only get more overgrown and eroded, have animals nest inside it, gather muck and dust until its name couldn't be read or the window got broken. It was just as dead as the corpses lining the streets outside it.
She looked away, focusing only on following Joel. She'd never thought about buildings like this in Boston or back home. They'd been all busted up, sure, but still full of people. Out here… everything had just been left as it was. Everything spoke of before, instead of now. She'd never really realised what she was missing out on, until now.
"C'mere, Ellie." Joel beckoned her closer, standing under a fire escape fixed to a building next to the latest barricade blocking their way forward. She took his boost, surged up and dragged it down, the unused metal screeching sharply and stopping with a rattling clang. She went up first, then Harry, then the dog - lifted by Joel and dragged up by Harry and scrambling all on its own. A handy truck let them jump straight over the railing to the other side, where…
"Woah. This brings back memories." She nodded at the squat, gated building at the end of the parking lot they'd landed in. An old metal sign tacked onto the chained gates proclaimed it to be a FEDRA-run military prep school. "I used to go to one of these."
"Military school, huh?" Joel kept moving and Ellie fell into line behind him, sneaking looks back over her shoulder and wondering what it would have been like, if she'd been sent here instead of Boston.
"Just another way of saying 'orphanage', really." She mused. "I wonder what happened to all these kids."
"That place's been out for a good stretch," Joel observed. "They ain't kids no more."
But they would have been, when this all went down. Ellie didn't say. If she'd been one of them - would she have been evacuated? Conscripted as soldiers started losing the fight for the city? Would she have ducked out and joined the Fireflies, only to be betrayed by the city's civilian mob later? Or joined the citizens and become a hunter - assuming she even made it that long, wasn't killed for being a breeder in a world with little food and less contraception. She let the conversation die as they walked through an alley, afternoon sun cut off and the air chilly. They were just about to leave it when a heavy truck rolled past, the large gun up top swivelling around. Joel ducked down behind an overturned bin and Harry yanked her to the floor behind a pile of garbage. She held her breath for more than one reason, all of them praying nobody inside had spotted them first.
It rolled past, slowly but without opening fire.
They detoured through the building next door, not daring to cross the open street. Inside was barely better, as a few men could be heard calling to each other - reports and gossip from other areas mixed in with banter and reminiscence.
Joel gave Harry the nod and the teen slipped away - a sharp gesture making the dog hang back at Ellie's side. It drooped, but obeyed. She scritched its ears in silent comfort.
They waited silently. Ellie had long since learned her lesson about nervous chatter and kept her mouth shut and her breathing shallow, training her own ears to be as good as Joel's. She listened to footsteps moving throughout the building, trying to place location and numbers. She didn't hear Harry making any kills but the voices that had been sharing a conversation slowly whittled down until the two left started sounding nervous. One was calling their friends' names, but the other had gone silent. Dead? Or sneaking?
Joel crept closer to the doorway - then lunged to catch an arm swinging a crowbar from the other side. A twist got it away from him and a punch winded his attacker - but not before the hunter shouted a warning. A shove to the ground and a boot to the head silenced him for good, too late.
"Stick with me, Ellie." Joel ordered, moving faster now as distant voices slowly came closer. An engine roared and she hit the dirt as the deep thump of a military-grade machine gun broke the air around them. Slugs pounded the wall on their left, some breaking through in clouds of brick dust and shards of glass. .50 calibre, at least.
"Shit." She muttered. They'd received basic training on these things at school. They packed enough power to punch through most cars, let alone people. The force with which they hit could turn even one bullet to a non-lethal area into a crippling or killing blow.
They kept low and ran. More shouting and an explosion seemed to draw some attention away from them, but not enough. The hunters weren't stupid, they knew they were facing multiple opponents. Joel took one man out with a running tackle that cracked his head open against the floor, the dog savaged another and Ellie stabbed her switchblade into the downed guy's neck before she could talk herself out of it.
The man's screams changed pitch, became gurgles as his lifeblood spurted out in time to his heartbeat, then stopped.
The dog looked around, ears cocked and nose sniffing, then abandoned them without a single backwards look.
Shakily, Ellie wiped her blade off on the man's pants and folded it, looking up to see Joel just finishing off a third hunter. He looked back at her, eyes dark and tired but didn't say anything. Just jerked his head and turned away.
Swallowing, she followed.
They climbed, more following the hunters' obvious paths than going in any direction they wanted to go. The street was too dangerous and most doors - even doors to the toilets - were blocked off. Who knew what they'd do if there was nowhere to go once they got to the roof, but there weren't many other options. They wound in and out of rooms, Joel's back getting tenser as they kept finding dead ends. Eventually they took an open window and climbed out onto the fire escape. There was still an echoing thud-thud-thud of gunfire just a street or two away, so they headed up instead of down. Some hunter-laid planks gave them access to the next building over and she wondered (hoped) if they ran all the way down the street like that, building linked to building.
"I hope Harry's okay." She worried, trying for the low-tone that Joel said was quieter than just whispering.
"He'll be fine." Joel muttered back, a platitude she clung to. It was true that Harry kept showing up - but no matter how badass he was, he wasn't bulletproof. The hunters only had to get lucky once.
They edged along just-barely-wide-enough ledges built into the opposite building, aiming for an open window. She pressed her back to the bricks and didn't look down at the two storey drop, climbing into the room - a bedroom - with relief-shaky legs.
They crept on and for once she couldn't even look at all the strange shit around her. She was too scared to wonder what was inside a beautiful, gold-inlaid polished wooden box or steal some old candles or rifle through their wardrobe. She stuck to Joel like glue and tried not to hyperventilate as they moved through the room then out another window leading into the alley. The fire escape there was twisted and broken, nowhere else to go but the ledge that lead out to the street - but there was another open window at the end of it. They edged along and she almost had a heart attack as the humvee from before cruised to a halt directly ahead of them. The heavy gun on top swivelled to face them.
"Oh shit!" She gasped, terror clawing at her lungs, the world going over-sharp and bright.
"It's okay, they can't see us!" Joel's reassurances fell on deaf ears. She stared the gun down, just waiting for it to lift and shoot her down. It was only when the jeep rolled on, the gun swivelling again to look forward, that she even noticed the warm weathered hand holding her own. She startled, wide eyes snapping up to meet Joel's.
"Just a little further." The man murmured. "We'll take a break inside the next room, okay? Just come on, a little more."
"Right," She gasped. "No fainting off the ledge, way too lame a death."
His lips quirked, just a bit, before he turned back and led the way in. She side-shuffled after him, a low-grade tremble starting up in her entire body that very well could see her falling to her death if she didn't get inside right now.
Joel ducked in - and was grabbed! She scrambled in after him, a fresh surge of adrenaline making her blind to anything but his attacker. She grabbed her knife and flicked it open - a little stiff from drying blood - and raised it to stab Joel's attacker in the back. A violent swipe of his arm caught her, knocking her on her ass even as he hissed at the slice her knife left.
It was enough. Joel took the distraction and ran with it, slamming his attacker back against the wall before fisting his hair and throwing him over his shoulder, onto the ground where he laid into him with his fists.
Attacker down, Ellie looked for more - and saw the kid. Younger than her, dark skinned and with wide white eyes behind a trembling gun.
A gun pointed right at Joel.
"Joel?" She cried, nervous. Joel didn't respond, vicious blows to the guy on the ground deafening him to anything else. "Joel!"
A shadow flickered at the corner of her eye and instinct more than anything else had her shouting "Harry, no!"
Joel looked up, fists bloody, spotted the gun and the kid and eased slowly back. Harry, barely an inch behind the kid and with one hand wrenching the gun (or rather, the wrist it was attached to) up and away, didn't bury the knife he held in his other hand between the kid's ribs.
He kept it ready, though.
The man on the ground looked between them all, pained and startled - and afraid.
"Hey now… let him go, alright?" He addressed Harry, staying on the ground with his hands spread and his face bleeding from Joel's blows. "He was just lookin' out for me. Sam? Let the gun go. Let it go."
After a long second, the kid's grip loosened and the gun fell. Harry snatched it out of the air and stowed it away, stepping back but keeping his knife in hand, ready.
The man looked up at Joel, who took some steps back himself.
"It's alright," the man said to the boy, still looking between them all but his gaze always returning to the kid. "They're not the badguys." He looked at Joel, then Harry. "And we aren't, either."
Joel just nodded, something like understanding in the non-homicidal set of his body - and the hand he extended to help the man up.
Harry didn't react at all, glittering green eyes just keeping a sniper's watch on the two strangers.
"Man, you hit hard." The guy half-whined, hunched over a little as he tried to lighten the mood.
"Yeah, well… I was trying to kill you." Joel said flatly.
"Yeah, I thought you were one of 'em too." The man agreed. "Till I saw her. I don't know if you noticed, but they don't keep kids around." Brown eyes flickered to Harry, just once, like he wasn't quite sure whether the obvious youth actually counted as a kid or not. He lifted a hand for his own kid, who came to stand under it - and his wary protection.
"You're bleeding!" The kid cried, twisting under his arm to look.
"It's nothing." The man dismissed, pushing his shoulder lightly to make him turn back around, opening up the kid's backpack to grab some gauze which he quickly wrapped around the wound.
He did it without letting a single one of them out of his field of view, head turned slightly to keep Harry in his peripherals.
"I'm Henry, this is my little brother, Sam." Henry introduced them. "I think I caught your name was Joel?"
"Ellie." She introduced herself as she tucked her knife away, glad to see a friendly face. She barely caught the jerk of Joel's arm, but understood it as a warning.
"Where's the rest of your group?" Joel asked, words suspicious but tone managing to be conversational.
Oh. She felt stupid as she realised - just because they said the hunters didn't keep kids, didn't mean they actually didn't. Maybe they weren't so friendly after all.
"They're all dead." Sam said flatly.
"Hey," Henry elbowed, frowning down. "We don't know that."
Sam turned away, sullen and tired.
"…There were a bunch of us." Henry continued. "Someone had the bright idea of entering the city, look for supplies. Those fuckers ambushed us. Scattered us. Now? We're just tryin' to get out of this shithole."
We can help each other, Ellie bit back the words. If Harry hadn't grabbed Sam before he could shoot, Joel might be dead now. Maybe her too. She didn't think they were hunters, though. They were… nice. Normal.
"Safety in numbers?" She suggested instead, only to get a quelling arm pushing her slightly back and behind - like Joel really did think these guys were hunters - or at least a threat. Even if they weren't hunters themselves… she didn't think Joel would let them live on a 'maybe'.
"She's right." Henry offered. "All the exits to the city are heavily guarded - most of the damn barricades were put up by hunters, not soldiers. They ain't there to keep infected out but victims in. If either one of us want a chance to get through 'em alive… we probably need each other - cause there is no getting around them. We've looked."
Joel stared him down, Henry holding up well until finally, the greying man nodded.
"Fine. Show us." He agreed.
Henry nodded his head, half sarcastically. "Follow me."
Lil Egyptian scarab comes into play. I'm glad I decided not to keep Tess alive. What do you reckon?