It’s an exhausting few weeks around town. With the summer heat rising high and scavengers and bandits getting desperate, there’s an influx of occurrences that need tending to. Bandits get brave and sloppy; Ellie doesn’t see Tess and Joel for any longer than an hour or so at night and into the morning when they come home too exhausted to do anything else but collapse into bed.
They don’t let her come with them, and for some reason Ellie can’t find the righteous indignation to fight their decision. Being out all day in the heat is not something she’d want to do anyway, she so spends her days with Maria or Tommy at the plant doing patrols.
After a peculiar encounter with a runner wandering into the town lake to soak, Ellie finds them for once at home before she is; tending to wounds by the kitchen counter.
Joel is shirtless as Tess stitches a flesh wound for him; Ellie thinks they look like shit, and she lets them know. “You guys look like a bloater trampled on you.”
Tess smirks, but it comes out more of a wince - she’s so tired her bones ache. “Sure as hell feels like it.” She seals off the stitching and gives Joel a pat on the shoulder that isn’t black and blue. “You’re all set, big guy. Care to return the favor now?” She moves aside for Joel to hop off the counter, and it’s when she turns around that Ellie sees the extent of the damage she’s taken while out on duty.
“Holy shit, Tess!” Ellie gasps, and even Joel seems visibly troubled by the state of the woman’s back. From shoulder to shoulder, the woman’s skin is scraped raw and peppered around the edges in black and blue; the scrapes travel down one arm, from where Ellie thinks Tess must’ve put her arm out to stop herself from being dragged further.
By what, she can’t say, but Ellie knows that the sinking feeling inside her stomach is usually not a very good sign of things.
She rushes to the woman’s side, grasping her arm gently as she stares worriedly into Tess’s weary and bruised face. “What happened to you?!” She guides Tess onto the counter from Joel’s orders, gentling the woman down as Tess smothers a hiss and a growl when her tender skin comes into contact with the cold surface. Tess makes an effort of waving her attentions aside; growling rather harshly that she doesn’t need to be babied by either of them, but Ellie is so immune to the woman’s temperamental moods that it flies over her head harmlessly.
“Sit still or you’ll keep hurting yourself,” she huffs at the woman instead, and Tess scowls when her body betrays her and obeys. It worries Joel and Ellie. “What happened?” Ellie repeats, and glances expectantly at Joel when Tess scowls again.
“Ambush,” is all the woman will tell her, and sits restlessly as Joel cleans her wounds and stitches what’s necessary - all with the same look on his own bruised face. She glances into his face, watching the frown deepen with each wound he cleans and his eyes grow darker with something between guilt and annoyance and pain whenever she flinches.
“You should’ve waited for me,” he mumbles gruffly, and it’s one part petulant, two parts irritable, and three parts tortured as he wraps the gauze around her thin shoulders. He flinches in time with Tess when she muffles a whimper, and his fingers graze her skin apologetically even as another part of his brain maliciously whispers that she deserves it. He hates himself for thinking it, and he’s already wallowing in self-loathing then because he knows that he doesn’t believe that for a minute, but sometimes he just wants Tess to realize that everything that hurts her hurts him.
Knowing that he couldn’t keep her from ripping her back open like this - because he was too busy saving his own ass - makes him that much more internally outraged.
He wonders about his blood pressure for a moment, and realizes from Tess’ sharp flinch that he’s tightened the gauze too hard around her body. Mumbling an apology, he takes a breath before loosening the gauze enough for movement. With a sigh, he finishes dressing her wounds, grasping her shoulder for a moment before he turns away to put the kit away and to clean his hands of her blood.
Tess slides off the counter, reluctantly clinging to Ellie’s shoulder gingerly as the girl keeps to her side faithfully. As much as she wants to shrug off the battle wounds and walk off to drown herself in a bottle of whiskey and some cuddle time with Joel, she can’t stand upright without toppling over, so Tess swallows a significant amount of her pride, and lets Ellie guide her over to the stairs. “I’m okay,” she breathes, patting the girl’s shoulder awkwardly as she begins to make her way upstairs.
“You’re not fuckin’ okay, Tess, you’re beat up,” Ellie mumbles stubbornly, but the woman brushes her protest aside as Joel appears around the corner. She steps aside when Joel nudges her with his shoulder; watching anxiously as the man takes her place and slips his arm around her waist and throwing her arm over his shoulders.
Tess sighs, leaning gratefully into the man’s hold as they hobble upstairs together. “I just need to sleep it off,” she assures the girl, though Ellie doesn’t believe a word she says.
Joel grunts quietly as they reach the top of the stairs, jerking his head at Ellie when she stands uncertainly by his side; unsure if she wants to touch him and help him or to run to Tommy and get more help. “Just get the door open,” he murmurs to her, and watches as the girl has the door open before he can blink. Shifting his hold on Tess, he glances down at the woman. “Go downstairs and get the whiskey from out the cupboard, will ya? Bring it on up with a glass.”
“And uh -.” Ellie pauses in the doorway expectantly; Joel’s eyes are low and speaking. “Take your time.”
Nodding shortly, Ellie zips down the stairs; Joel takes the opportunity to ease Tess down onto the bed, murmuring soothingly to her when she hisses and swears and hates everything that exists. “There now,” he soothes, settling beside the woman as she doubles over onto her knees, breathing heavily to quell the pain. They sit quietly for a moment; Joel doesn’t let go of her hand just yet, and when she squeezes it briefly it seems to act like a pull-string on a talking doll.
“You scared the shit out of me, y’know that?” He sighs, sweeping a hand over his face; his shoulders sag a moment, and Tess lets out a heavy sigh of her own. “You can’t keep runnin’ around playing hero all by yourself anymore, Tess. It’s gonna put me in my grave early if I have to keep thinking about what kinda monster’s gonna get you before I can stop it.”
“So don’t think about it,” she tells him quietly, and Tess lets herself pull their joined hands onto her lap. “I’m still here, aren’t I?” She tries for a disparaging smile, but Joel can only feel that much more upset. “It’s gonna take a lot more to put me down.”
He grunts, reaching out to brush away the bloody tendrils of her hair out of her cleaned wound. “Maybe if you quit bein’ a smartass out on the field, I wouldn’t have to worry so much,” he retorts, and finds his mouth twitching when Tess chortles in her throat. The mirth is there only for a second; he’s back to frowning at her like he’s not sure who to blame more.
Ellie returns with the alcohol and glass, and she sits on the floor by their feet as they pass the glass between the two of them. Tess offers Ellie a sip at one point, and Ellie nearly gags to death on the fiery taste. She sits around with them, watching over their prone bodies as they collapse on the bed; Tess lying on her front and sprawling over Joel’s chest as she always does.
(But also because she can’t lie on her back and Joel doesn’t sleep on his stomach anyway.)
They’re out cold by the time she’s done tugging off their shoes and tucking a blanket over them.