They move into the nearest spread of bushes, crouching low to the ground as the shrieks and clicks come closer. Tess can feel the pressure of the gun digging into her shoulder and side, the strain of her muscles remembering how to do exactly this as Maria shifts in close beside her and cocks her rifle. This close, she can feel the tension vibrating in the blonde, the smell of faint things like the sterile of laundry soap and the sweet of something like bodywash or her natural scent, but Tess zeroes in through the leaves on the blurry mass of Bear bounding forward with a snarl. The Clicker swings its hands out, spinning and whirling after the dog as he dances around it, barking and snarling and snapping at its ankles, ungainly somehow with its attempts of swatting the dog away.
“How do you wanna do this?” Maria breathes; Tess can almost feel the sweat prickling on the woman’s skin, smell the build of adrenaline and fear sweetening on her skin, but she grits her teeth and focuses more on pulling her hunting knife out of its sheathe.
“Nice and quiet,” Tess murmurs back, carefully maneuvering around the underbrush. “We don’t know how many more are around - we’ll keep the gunfire to a minimum until we know for sure what their numbers are.” She looks at Maria. “Watch my six.”
The blonde nods. “Right.” She shoulders her gun.
Tess creeps carefully around the bushes, knife gripped tight in her hand as she watches Bear herd the Clicker in circles, snarling and frothing at the mouth. She can smell the rancid, musty smell of decayed flesh and mold, overgrown and thick amidst the crisp green, and Tess presses her tongue to the roof of her mouth to keep the smell from lingering in her throat. There’s a rush of adrenaline sparking in her fingertips; everything looks brighter, clearer, she smells and sees everything that she maybe shouldn’t, but Tess doesn’t bother to linger on the fact as she holds out a hand, a sharp signal at Bear.
The dog goes quiet, darting to the side of the Clicker and drops to his belly, completely still.
The Clicker pauses, chittering and chirring in confusion.
Tess sucks in a low breath, and surges forward with deadly precision. One swing down, slicing perfectly through the space between its neck and shoulder. The smell of moldering flesh burns in her nose. She feels the blade of her knife lodge deep into the bone, shattering the clavicle, and as it shrieks and screeches, Tess wraps an arm around its neck, cutting off its inhuman wail as she twists the knife.
Something snaps, and the Clicker goes limp.
Tess steps back, dropping the body at her feet as Bear comes bounding to her side, sniffing around her anxiously. She pants, heaving shuddering, low breaths, and her head whips to the side where Maria is emerging through the bushes, gun still in hand. She grips the hunting knife and forces back the urge to snarl at the woman, stands with all of her body taut and ready to pounce until she fights away the near-overwhelming need to kill something else.
She takes another shaking breath, and slowly slides her knife back into its sheathe.
Maria steps to her carefully, after a quick listen for more Infected, eyes peering into her face with a mix of apprehension and concern. “You okay?” She reaches out to touch Tess on the elbow, and seems to reconsider.
She lays her hand on Tess’s arm, warm and soft, and Tess stares at the hand, trailing it up to the blonde’s face. There’s a vague, shuddering feeling in her spine, an instability that grips the muscles beneath her shoulderblades and clings there.
Her mouth twitches, wanting to curl into a growl, but she bites down on her lip.
“‘m fine,” Tess says. She pets Maria’s hand gingerly, and then reaches down to stroke Bear, scratching behind his ear for a job well done. “Let’s get moving before they send out a search party for us.”
Maria presses her lips together, watching Tess closely as the woman begins to trek forward, Bear ever loyal at her side as he trots just slightly ahead, ears swiveling this way and that. She doesn’t like the way Tess is carrying herself; shoulder too high and tense, her hand curled at her side as if she’s trying not to reach for something. There was a gleam in her eyes when she killed the Clicker, Maria could see it from her position nestled in the bushes - a wild, glazed look of animal instinct. Joel and Tommy had told her that it was nothing; that Tess was just as wild before her bite as she was after it, but still, she didn’t like the way Tess would jump every so often, or held herself as if she was fighting desperately not to give in to something brewing inside her.
“Hey!” Maria startles at the sharp voice, and sees Tess some few strides away, glaring back at her impatiently. “Pick it up!”
Okay, that has her bristling. “You’re not in Boston anymore, Tess,” she tells the woman, moving quickly up to match Tess’s pace as she pushes through the brush. “And I’m not Joel, so I sure as hell won’t be taking that kinda shit from you.”
Tess rolls her eyes, and makes sure Maria sees her do it. “In case it slipped your mind, Maria, we’re kind of trying not to be killed by mindless Infected,” she says conversationally, pulling herself up over a tall perch of boulders. She climbs with ease, hooking her fingers into natural divots and pulling herself up where Bear has somehow already found his way over.
“Don’t tell me how to do my job,” Maria snaps icily. “I’ve been doing this for about as long as you have, remember? Running a town, keeping everybody alive - that ring a bell?”
She sighs.The last thing she needs right now is to offend Joel’s sister-in-law. “I’m not telling you how to do your job,” Tess says, grunting quietly as she hops up, dusting her hands off before looking down at where Maria is staring at her still. “I’m just trying to keep us alive.” She lowers herself down flat on the rocks, and reaches her hand down to the blonde.
“C’mon,” she mumbles, wiggling her fingers. “I promised the old man I’d be home for our date.”
Maria presses her lips together again, shooting Tess a disapproving look still even as she’s reaching up, clasping the woman’s surprisingly iron grip and letting herself be hauled up the rocks. She takes a moment to brush herself off before looking at the other woman, taking in the way Tess overlooks the spread of forest greens and smatterings of homes in the valley before them. She wants to say something more about Tess’s attitude; about having to not be so up in arms all the damn time, about maybe being able to relax some around her and Tommy, but maybe Maria thinks it might be better to let things sit.
“So,” she begins casually. “What’re you gonna wear?”
Ellie heaves a ragged breath, bent double with her hands planted on her knees as she tries to breathe in relief. She wipes at her mouth with the back of the hand least smeared in blood, and tries to quell the rising nausea in her gut from the smell and sights in front of her. Joel appears at her side, rounding on her with a quiet worry as he claps a hand over her bowed shoulder gently.
“You alright?” he murmurs, and Ellie feels her mouth twist in irony.
“That was probably one of the grossest things I’ve had to do,” she breathes, and Joel chuckles as she straightens up, grimacing at the blood and viscera on her hands. “Giving birth is the worst.”
Joel lets out a low laugh. “Yeah, imagine what it’s like for the one doing the laborin’.”
“It’s not all like this, is it?” Ellie asks him. “I mean - humans do it different.”
Joel bobs his head thoughtfully, nudging her to the basin of water by the stable. There’s a mare in the stall they’ve just tended to, curled on her side and nuzzling her gangling newborn, licking off the traces of blood on its dark pelt. The stable smells of hay and shit and a thick layer of bodily fluids, but still somehow Joel smells most of all the sweet of the hay underlying. This is the third foal they’ve helped birth; the other four had been born unassisted to seasoned brood mares, but these little ones were born to new mothers. Younger fillies who nose and nudge their foals with a mixture of uncertainty and maternal instinct. Somehow it reminds him of a time when he’d held Sarah just the same - hovering anxious and fearful at the slightest breath and sound she’d make. The same roiling fear and giddiness that had filled him in those early days, when June had been discharged and they were left to their own wits.
A twisting sourness fills his mouth, and he moves off to clean off his hands, fingers curling in drying blood.
Ellie’s scrubbing down her fingers still, picking at the underside of her nails with a rag as Joel dunks his hands up to the forearm in the icy water and scrubs with no small amount of viciousness. “So, where are you and Tess going tonight?” she asks him eagerly, rocking from one foot to another. “You gonna take her out to that meadow with all the fireflies? Oh! Or the gully with the pretty flowers on one side?”
Joel shrugs, plucking the rag out of her hands to wipe down his arms. “We’ll see,” he says, tilting his head up into the dusty rafters, the swallow’s nests tucked into the corners. “You know Tess doesn’t like all that frilly stuff.”
“She says she doesn’t, but she totally does,” Ellie needles him, grinning at the man when Joel glances sidelong at her dubiously. “C’mon - she’s still a girl. She likes pretty things, she just pretends she doesn’t. She wants you to give it to her without having to ask.”
“I give it to her just fine, thank you,” Joel grumbles, ears burning when Ellie throws her head back with a guffaw.
“That’s so gross , you old perv!” She socks him on the arm, and Joel rolls his eyes at her as they wave goodbye to Tommy and Jean still inside the stall, helping the stumbling foal up to its first milk. “Seriously, you guys like fuck all the time and it’s kinda gross.”
Joel shakes his head disbelievingly, rolling his eyes up to the sky and praying for some kind of anvil to come down put him out of his misery. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talkin’ ‘bout, because I sure as hell didn’t mean - that .” Although he wonders if he shouldn’t scrounge up some scrap to soundproof their bedroom some, just in case.
Tess gets awfully loud sometimes.
“Well what did you mean then?” Ellie challenges him, bending to pick up a stick and tapping it idly along the fence as they make their way back down the path, through the small bloom of underbrush and up back into town. “What else could y’all be doing with all the moaning and grunting and the thumping -”
“That ain’t none of your business!” Joel says loudly, heat rushing fast and pink over his cheeks and ears, and he shakes his head at the girl as she goes running ahead, laughing at him. “Girl, I swear to God, one of these days you and Tess’re gonna put me in my grave early.”
Ellie glances back at him with a smirk on her lips and a gleam in her eye that he’s seen more than enough times on Tess’s face to feel an uncanny tremor in his gut. “ Early ? Old man - have you looked in a mirror lately?”
“Why I oughta kick your sorry ass out to the curb - Ellie, you get back here! Ellie! Don’t you run away from me when I’m yellin’ at you - Ellie !”