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.
Chapter 2: observations
should probably mention that this universe is preceded by a fic called Common.....which I will be posting here later too
Everything hurts to move.
There isn’t an inch on either of them that doesn’t, and both Joel and Tess sound like dying whales or walruses when their brains decide they’ve had enough sleep. Tess fights it for as long as she can, moaning and groaning and whining into her human pillow that is Joel, but the man is already rolling out of bed. She grumbles her protest to him, murmuring any profanity she can think of with half a brain at him before lying completely still again; she feels like she’s paralyzed from the chest up from her wounds.
“Why are you getting out of bed?” she whines, flailing an arm up for the man that’s sitting at the end of the bed and massaging his neck tiredly. “Come back hereeee.”
With a quiet chuckle, Joel obliges her fussing, pulling himself up against the headboard as Tess crawls her way painstakingly up to his chest, flopping down with a purr as she nuzzles into the material of his shirt. She sighs heavily, fisting his shirt in her hand as Joel pulls her close without jarring the wounds on her back. He runs his fingers lightly along her arm, trailing whispering circles along her skin that has her purring into his chest, and Joel hums quietly under his breath.
“Y’know we oughta get out of bed by now. Ellie’s probably waitin’ on us for dinner,” he murmurs lowly to her, although he makes no move to release her or stop trailing his fingers over her skin. Tess’ steady breathing makes him wonder if she isn’t asleep already, but the woman makes a noise in her throat that he feels vibrate through his chest as she shifts about and burrows her face into his neck.
“She’ll be fine for another couple hours.” Her breath tickles his skin, and Joel feels her sigh again before her mouth is planting a brief kiss to his pulse. “I don’t wanna move.” Every flex of her arms burns; every breath makes her feel as if she’s swallowed fire, and Tess knows by the dull throb of her muscles and bones that this is her body’s way of reminding of her age.
She wonders what it must feel like for Joel.
Joel rumbles in his chest, leaning back against the pillows as Tess’ fingers start wandering through his hair. It’s obvious she’s not heading back to bed again, but the woman has herself planted stubbornly across him to keep him from moving out of bed too.
He’s not sure if he wants to get out of bed either.
He grunts when he feels his shoulders pop, groaning in his throat as it loosens some of the aching muscles, but leaves the rest of his sore and aching body mangled enough to think about his age. Tess’ hand strokes over his chest, patting it gently. “Y’okay, big guy?” It’s not the same teasing drawl she does every day; when his age and his worry for her and Ellie become something of a running joke between the three of them.
She’s quiet and gentle and openly worried - the side only he’s ever seen even compared to Ellie.
“I’m just fine,” he murmurs to her, and Joel pulls her close enough to drop a kiss in her hair and breathe in the scent of her musty-sweet hair. The scent of their week lingers in her dark tresses, but there’s always something underlying that will always be Tess. It’s the scent he falls asleep to and the scent to which he wakes, the scent that surrounds him as she does; her scent, her skin, her laugh and smile and eyes that blaze at him all hours of the day.
There’s only one thing he can’t stand about her. Just one thing.
He hates the sight of her blood on his hands.
The sun’s just about done setting, the last bit of purple and orange cracking through the shades when Joel hears the sound of footsteps on the stairs - heavier footsteps than the ones he’s come to recognize as Ellie’s. He sits upright carefully, eyeing the door as he reaches for the gun he keeps in the bedside table. Tess murmurs in confusion on his chest, cracking an eye open but Joel’s squeezing her arm reassuringly.
Someone knocks at the door; it opens a crack. “Y’all decent in there?”
“Tommy,” he sighs, and the door opens fully to reveal his little brother - all cleaned up and dressed marginally fancier than usual. Joel feels his brow arch high on his forehead as he gives Tommy a onceover. “The hell are you doin’ dressed like that?”
Tommy runs a hand through his hair self-consciously, smiling sheepishly at his brother. “Maria and I are havin’ sorta like a date night,” he tells Joel, and gestures to the woman seemingly unconscious on top of him. “I was gonna come by and ask if you wanted to come with us, but ah...I guess y’all had other plans for the night.” There’s a suggestive and knowing tone to his words, and Joel wonders if he can somehow convince Tommy to come close enough for him to punch his little brother in the mouth.
But then Tommy’s eyes grow sad, and his smile is dim as he stares at his brother. “You’re runnin’ yourself into the ground, Joel. Take some time off every now and then; live a little.” Tess shifts on Joel’s chest, and they’re both surprised at how far gone the woman is. They both know from experience how light of a sleeper she can be.
“Take her out sometime,” he suggests, and Tommy gives his brother a small smile before making for the door again. “Ain’t got nowhere fancy to take her, but I got a feeling that Tess wouldn’t mind sittin’ around with you and lettin’ you serenade her a little.”
Joel’s version of a goodbye is to flip him the finger.
Ellie comes knocking a little while later, peeking through the door carefully; smiling with relief at the sight of them both awake and lounging about. “You’re awake, great.” She pushes the door open with her foot, revealing to them the tray of food she’s painstakingly prepared and carried with extreme caution up the stairs because she’s so terrified of dropping it and ruining everything. Tommy had alluded to their state of utter exhaustion and basic shittiness when he’d stopped by, and of course the girl bustles about making a meal decent enough to hopefully give them enough strength to survive the rest of the weekend.
“Tommy told me you weren’t feelin’ that great still,” she tells them, and the pair make room for her on the bed. Keeping her shoes off the bed when Joel grumbles at her, Ellie lowers the tray down by his bedside table, wiping off her hands nervously as he inspects the tray. “It’s just some eggs and stuff, y’know. Normal stuff.”
Tess smiles into Joel’s arm when she sees the spread in front of them. It’s breakfast for dinner. “Looks great.” They can’t tell if she’s being serious, but she grabs the fork out of Joel’s hand and stabs at the eggs and beans. “I’m starving.” She puts it away fast enough for them to wonder if she isn’t trying to avoid letting her tongue taste it. She could just be as hungry as she says.
“Don’t drip on the bed,” Joel chides her, and takes his turn eating while Ellie sits at their feet, watching them with something between curiosity and worry. He takes his time chewing and bickering with Tess for the fork or when he thinks she’s going to drip, before he realizes Ellie’s awfully quiet and turns to the girl when she’s picking at her fingernails.
“Somethin’ the matter, Ellie?” Tess perks up at the question, resting her chin on Joel’s shoulder as she uses him as a personal resting board for her bad back. She watches with intrigue too; they stare at the girl long enough for it to be uncomfortable.
Ellie licks her lips, darting a glance between the pair and wondering which one of them is going to be the first one to avoid the question. She can kind of guess what it is - she’s not stupid -, but she’d like actual details. With a thoughtful tilt of her head, she stares at Joel and Tess curiously.
“What’s a date night?”
They blink slowly, glancing at one another. It’s certainly not a question they were expecting, but it’s certainly an easier question to answer than something like ‘where do babies come from’ (Ellie is fully aware where they come from). Although Tess seems just as confused as Ellie is; she tilts her head at the girl.
“Where’d you hear about date night?” she asks, and Ellie shrugs. The way Joel’s rather pointedly picking at his eggs and beans makes Tess wonder, and she turns to Joel too. “Care to explain, big guy?”
Joel clears his throat awkwardly, setting the fork aside as he tries to figure out why he’s starting to blush. “Well uh - date night’s somethin’ couples do together. Y’know, uh...” he scratches the back of his head. “Sometimes they go out to dinner or watch a movie or somethin’ just to - just to relax.”
Ellie’s nose scrunches. “There’s nowhere to have dinner or watch movies here, so what’re Tommy and Maria gonna do?”
Uhhhhh . “Relax.” He scowls when he feels Tess burrow her face into his arm; to smother the smile and the laughter bubbling in her throat. “There’re things you can do outside.”
“Like what?” Tess questions, voice quivering as the man glowers at her benevolently.
He scowls at her again, but Ellie seems far too intrigued with this concept to care about the double entendre Tess is poking at. “Watch the stars, take a walk; sit around by a fire and just...relax, I guess.” He tries to remember the last time he’s done any of that, and it actually surprises him when he can’t think of a time. It’s not like he’s been working 12-hour days anymore....
“That sounds nice,” Ellie comments absently, and Tess hums in agreement wistfully. The girl’s green eyes perk up, bright with a realization Joel has a suspicion about because Ellie can be a good actor when she needs to be.
“Why don’t you and Tess have a date night?”
Chapter 3: negotiations
tess is not a date kind of person
“Date night, huh.” The man looks thoughtful.
The woman not so much. “Kid, I can barely sit upright without tearing into my own skin. The only ‘date night’ I’d like to have is with a bottle of the moonshine from Toby down the street.” Tess feels Joel rumble in his chest, senses his eyes probing at her face curiously, but even if he turns those big googoo eyes at her; she’s far too sore and tense to do anything outside of maybe walk to the bathroom.
Ellie rolls her eyes at the woman, huffing as she bounces slightly on the bed. “Not right now ,” she clarifies, shaking her head at Tess. You’d think for someone as sharp as Tess, she’d have figured it out. “I meant like - one of these days, when you’re all better and stuff.”
Joel tilts his head; Tess feels his jaw resting on the side of her head. “S’not a bad idea,” he chimes, wrapping an around around Tess’ body as she comes sprawling over his lap to get at the food and also to settle comfortably where her back isn’t straining from the pressure.
Date night has never really been a thing for them, and for good reason. How the hell do you find time for ‘date night’ in Boston when you’re running through buildings and tunnels trying to make sure you’re not pumped full of lead or mauled to death? He can’t lie and say the thought hasn’t come to mind a few times before though; he wasn’t lying when he said he was a romantic, and Tess knows that.
“You gotta admit, we need some time off,” he tells her, when Tess gives him a look. “You never took me up on that offer like you said you would.” He squeezes her waist gently, only enough to make her squirm ticklishly, and Tess huffs because she hates to be reminded of the last few things she’d promised him before they separated.
“I was a little pre-occupied with other things at the time, in case you forgot,” she mumbles curtly, and Joel feels her body tense. Immediately of course, he’s doing his best to soothe her; pressing a kiss to the side of her face apologetically and murmuring his apology into her hair.
She makes a show of straining away from him, but Joel’s obviously stronger than her even battered and broken, and the man growls quite like Bear when she shoves at him persistently.
“Aw, don’t be a sour puss,” he drawls at her, even if the humor doesn’t reach his eyes. Wounds are open and sore at the moment; physical and otherwise.
Tess makes a sound in her throat, and Ellie watches eagerly when she sees the half-smirk on the woman’s face. She’s come to recognize the many smirks and scowls of Tess; to run away when the corner of her brow twitches or when her jaw ticks like Joel’s does, or smile when her mouth twitches and her eyes narrow despite herself.
“I’ll think about it,” she says finally, and Ellie casts a speaking, expectant look at Joel - convince your girlfriend that she needs a night out with you, for god’s sake!
Ellie frowns at the woman, if a little disappointedly. “But you need a break, Tess,” she states, glancing sharply to where Tess’ face is starting to bruise. “You’re gonna start looking like Bear’s chew toy if you keep this up.”
Bear’s chew toy is a raggedy old teddy bear she found in a nursery once; emphasis on raggedy .
Tess scowls. “Stop with the compliments, I’m blushing already,” she retorts, and settles firmly into Joel’s side; jaw set. “I said I’ll think about it.” It’s her way of saying end of conversation, and if you try again, I’ll shank you with your own hunting knife.
Joel though, shrugs his shoulders. Ellie questions who wears the pants in the relationship, but then again - it’s always been a no brainer. “We’ll see then,” he tells Ellie, and nudges her away with a small, warm and grateful smile. “Get along to bed then, and thank you for dinner.”
Tess mumbles something along that line of thought too as Ellie gathers the tray and plate with a sigh, watching as Joel plants a kiss on Ellie’s forehead goodnight. She makes no move to do the same, even with Joel side-eyeing her expectantly, because she’s sure as hell not going to kiss the girl that basically called her a mangled teddy bear goodnight.
She’s going to kick her gently on the butt though.
Ellie stumbles forward towards the door, the tray clattering in her hold. She’s smiling as she goes though, because it’s just so Tess that it’s expected in some way.
With Ellie gone for the night, Joel turns all of his attention to the woman, wrapping around her even as she’s squeaking a protest and settling her gently into the mattress. He hovers by her side, smiling indulgently as she rolls her eyes and squirms and huffs at the physical display of affection; all the while snuggling closer into his body heat because the chill’s starting to seep in through the window crack.
“S’it such a bad idea?” he hums at her, as he’s pressed into her and she’s wrapping her arm over his chest and pulling him close under the covers. He’s her human wall from the cold, and Joel takes his job very seriously as Tess sighs into his chest and rubs her cheek into the sparse dark hair there.
She makes a confused sound, and he strokes his fingers along her arm distractedly; as he does every night. “Goin’ on a date with me.”
A hazel eye cracks open, peering up at his face. “You’re serious?” she intones flatly, and Tess pushes away from his chest far enough to look at his face.
Joel shrugs, maybe a little self-consciously. Insecurity about their relationship is not that familiar of a friend to him; not as much as it is to Tess at least - but sensing Tess’ hesitation about this particular thing makes his stomach roil uncertainly. It’s not just about being bruised and sore, that much he knows, and it’s gnawing at him inside because he knows.
They’ve always been that couple - on and off; partners and lovers that can love and hate each other just as aggressively as they kill competing smugglers. He’s never been able to put a definitive label on their relationship other than partner , because it encompasses all aspects of their lives already.
“I don’t know,” he mumbles, and he really doesn’t. “Just thought maybe you and I needed to relax, is all.”
She’s quiet, which makes him even more uncomfortably aware of how insecure he probably seems to her; or maybe she thinks he’s sulking, which could also be a thing he’s doing. So he just lies there holding her, hoping and praying internally that she doesn’t hear the rate his heart is pounding, or the way he’s swallowing nervously as Tess continues with her silent treatment.
Her fingers tap slowly on his skin, her palm spreads out over his chest, and Tess lifts her head wordlessly; presses her mouth to his and whispers the words against his lips.
“Next Friday; don’t get me flowers.”
She feels him smile into the kiss, but she does nothing to acknowledge it as she snuggles pointedly into his chest. Joel spends a good amount of the night grinning to himself like an idiot, and then wondering what he’s going to get her if not flowers.
Chapter 4: consequences
Tess is up and about by the coming weekend; three days of lounging about in bed makes the woman stir-crazy, even with Joel as company most times or Ellie entertaining her with jokes and drawings and little stories from her days out with Tommy and Maria.
Joel’s moving about by the second day, so much of Tess’ time is spent in bed alone in the afternoons with Ellie’s comics or Bear sitting at her feet. As much as he’d prefer to stay in bed and keep her company, Tommy needs him out and around for patrols; Tess kicks him out of bed in the mornings even though she cuddles into the warmth he leaves behind and mopes around a little bit.
Most times when Ellie comes in with breakfast or new game she’s hunted, she finds the woman on her stomach with her nose buried into Joel’s pillow; avidly reading through the comic books. She smiles inwardly, nudging the woman up and slipping in beside her as Tess keeps the comic away and huffs at her. “How’re you feelin’ today?”
“Like I’m about to lose my mind staring at these fuckin’ walls all day,” Tess scowls, scrubbing at her face to get the listlessness off it. Bear sits at the foot of the bed, wagging his tail and panting happily as Ellie produces fresh oranges from the orchard. Tess raises an eyebrow at the fruit, taking one from the girl and sitting up gingerly and waving aside Ellie’s concerned look. “What’d you do with Maria today?”
Ellie chatters on about her day; Tess listens and comments where she thinks she should, eating little slices of oranges and handing Ellie pieces whenever she’s done with her own. There’s a less than pleased look on her face when Ellie mentions in passing about Maria wanting Joel to head a new hunting party, though Tess feigns indifference when Ellie eyes her perceptively.
“He’s not gonna though,” she placates the woman, even as Tess shrugs at her. “He’s letting Johnny go instead - he wanted to be around in case you needed him.”
Tess scoffs, brushing the orange peels off the bed covers and into the trash. “I’m not some damn china doll sitting on the edge of the shelf, y’know.” She stands on her feet, grimacing quietly when her muscles strain, and makes her way to the bathroom.
“Big guy wants to hunt, beat his chest, climb trees like me Tarzan you Jane ; I’m not gonna hold him back.” Ellie gives her a strange look at the reference, but Tess shrugs flippantly again. “I’m not his wife, Ellie - he can do whatever he wants.”
Whatever doesn’t include other women or men, though. It’s a clause they agreed on a while ago.
Partners tends to be a rather exclusive title.
Ellie rolls her eyes at the woman, trailing after her and leaning against the wall by the bathroom. Crossing her arms loosely, Ellie eyes Tess when she reappears out of the bathroom, still wiping her hands on a towel. “I’m just saying that he’s not gonna miss your date night.” There’s an emphasis sharp enough to almost be accusing; the teenager narrows her eyes at the woman almost threateningly.
“You remembered, didn’t you? You and Joel’re supposed to go out on a date night tomorrow.”
Tess rolls her eyes drolly. “Of course I remember - how can I forget if you won’t stop mentioning it every five minutes?” she retorts, but inside her stomach clenches at the reminder and her mind begins to question if this was a good idea to begin with.
Damn Joel and his stupid googoo eyes and cute Southern gentleman thing.
Ellie huffs at her, stomping her feet mildly. Really, it’s only because it’s like a challenge to the girl - with the two adults in her life being so emotionally stilted at times, she wants them to be able to go out, be with each other and relax.
Without worries, without responsibilities, and just...fucking be .
Who knew comic books could be so philosophical?
“C’mon, Tess,” she cajoles the woman, smiling encouragingly when Tess arches a brow and eyes her almost haughtily. “You can’t tell me you’re not at least a little bit excited for this?”
Of course she’s excited, she thinks. She’s too fucking excited for her own goddamn good, because she shouldn’t think about all the things she’d like to do with Joel together; it may not need to be movies and dinner or a walk in the park at night with him (but she does dream of days past like that), but it’s the thought of having not to worry about things. Of having to keep the distance between them as solely partner or lover or whatever it is that’s between them; there’s no barrier and no facade to keep in place.
Respite, quiet and kind respite from having to convince herself that he doesn’t quite love her just the same.
Pursing her lips briefly, the woman scowls at her, lifting her head to the sound of the front door opening. Bear goes barking down the stairs after it, and Tess raises a brow at the way Ellie’s face lights up happily when Joel’s low voice sounds from the hallway.
“Y’know if I didn’t know any better, I’d think you had a thing for the old man,” Tess quips, nearly smiling when Ellie’s face twists into a disgusted and offended look.
Ellie makes a gagging sound in her throat, shaking her head incredulously at the thought. “That’s the grossest thing you’ve ever said!” she cries, wrinkling her nose. “Joel’s like a dad to me - I’d be sick in the head if I liked him that way!” She stares at Tess when the woman shrugs her shoulders. “That’s so gross!”
“What is?” Joel appears in the doorway, a little mussed and tousled, but there’s a strange lightness in his face. He eyes Ellie first, and then makes his way into the room to where Tess is standing with her arms folded over her chest by the bathroom.
It’s as if gravity simply doesn’t allow him to be anywhere else; he’s wrapping an arm around Tess’ waist and helping her back to the bed even if she can walk fine, and smacks him across the chest as she insists this. “Did you tell ‘er ‘bout the time we had to hide out in the sewers again?” he murmurs to her, pressing a kiss to the side of her face, just because.
Tess makes a sound in her throat, her mouth twitching. “No, because that’s not something I like to keep reminding myself that I did.” She settles on the edge of the bed, waving aside Joel’s attempts at pushing her back to rest. She glares at him with an exasperated scowl.
“Seriously, if I stay in this bed any longer, I’m gonna shoot myself.”
Joel clicks his tongue at her at the mere thought, and settles down beside her as he’s shedding his button down and leaving it in a pile by the bed as Ellie comes to his side like a homing device and hovers by his battered shoulder. Even Tess is chiding at him for it, but the man merely musters a small smile. “You should see the other guy.”
Tess huffs, watching as Ellie disappears downstairs to grab their first aid kit before taking a closer look at Joel’s shoulder. She palpates the area around the most vicious looking scrape and bruising, brows pulling tighter together at the tenderness and the way Joel hisses. Her eyes snap to his face, narrow and reproaching even as the concern lingers.
“It’s nothin’,” he assures her, when he sees that look on her face and the way she’s pressing a little too hard into his shoulder. “I’m fine.” Joel tries for a smile that comes out as wan and thin as Tess’ patience for the way he sees to be running himself into the ground. He places his hand over hers, pulling it gently away from his shoulder and settling it in his lap instead. “S’nothin’ a little bit of ice won’t fix.”
Tess sighs, and surprises Joel when she has nothing to say about it, and instead presses her mouth to his cheek. He blinks, sitting there motionless as she kisses him; feels her squeeze his hand tight before releasing it and rising off the bed just as Ellie comes bounding up the stairs.
“I’m gonna take a walk,” she tells them, and Bear comes to her side with just a tap of a hand to her thigh. She smiles crookedly and somewhat strangely at them both, and pats Ellie gently on the shoulder as she passes the girl in the doorway.
“Take care of him for me while I’m gone, will you?” she murmurs, and Joel shifts at the disturbing accuracy of her almost dreamy, distracted words. “I won’t be long.”
Joel opens his mouth to call her back; to lift himself off the bed and stop her from leaving and asking her why, but she’s gone and so is Bear. He sighs inwardly, frowning at Ellie as the girl stares at him with the same confused and concerned look she must see on his face.
“C’mon now,” he says to her eventually, gesturing her over. “Patch me up quick and we’ll take a walk down through some of the old houses. See if there ain’t nothin’ in there we might need for tomorrow.”
Ellie’s eyes brighten briefly; she dabs the alcohol to his skin gently. “Are you gonna get her somethin’?”
Joel’s mouth twitches, and he swallows the hiss in his throat when the alcohol smarts. “Actually, I was figurin’ something to wear.”
Chapter 5: borrowed time
tess has problems with feelings
They go through three houses from top to bottom before they find a utopia of suits and ties - with more color and pattern combination than Joel can name. Ellie rummages through the slightly discolored rack of shirts, humming and hawing at the selection while Joel lingers on thoughts that fester and picks out a tie.
(Why, he can’t say, but he supposes it’s the novelty of wearing something so luxuriously useless.)
“Here.” He gets a face full of shirts tossed his way; Joel thinks to talk to Ellie about not taking after Tess quite so much before straightening out the choice of dress shirts.
He raises an eyebrow at a particular color. “Pink?”
Ellie shrugs. “It’s a decent color. Sometimes.” He need new shirts anyway - why does he care what color it is if he’s just going to cover it in grime and blood anyway?
“Tess wears pink,” she reminds him, watching as Joel unstraps his backpack from his shoulders and unbuttons his trust green shirt.
“Yeah well, she looks good in a goddamn burlap sack,” he mumbles, fumbling with the buttons somewhat. “When’d these buttons get so damn small -.” He gets it eventually, and Ellie drags him over to the dresser mirror. Joel frowns at his reflection, not entirely displeased with the color, though something just doesn’t quite...suit him with the purple.
He glares at Ellie’s reflection; the one holding up the pink shirt innocently. “I ain’t puttin’ that thing on, and you’re not makin’ me.”
The girl rolls her eyes in exasperation, but the pink shirt is taken away. “Y’know real men wear pink,” she says snidely at him, as Joel replaces the purple with the soft lime green; barely even putting it to his chest before tossing it aside again.
“Oh I’m ‘real’ enough already, baby girl,” he assures her lowly, slipping the faded blue shirt over his shoulders. “Any ‘realer’ than this; I might be a caveman.”
Ellie rolls her eyes again, shrugging. It’s mostly true; with the beard, Joel could make a convincing caveman. “You can be one for Halloween this year,” she tells him, and Joel snorts as he straightens the shirt, stepping back to scrutinize his reflection closely.
“Not bad,” he murmurs thoughtfully, and Ellie nods her approval. It’s a soft blue, not too light and not too washed out - a nice difference to his usual dark colors. It doesn’t fit him perfectly; there’s a little bit of space there, and Joel thinks that if he tucks it in or wears his muscle shirt underneath, it’ll do nicely.
Ellie tilts her head, peering into the mirror as she takes in the way he touches the shirt self-consciously; the way his eyes sort of dart here and there uncertainly. She smiles reassuringly, patting him on the arm. “You look good.”
Joel manages a smile in return, even if it doesn’t quite reach his eyes; he doesn’t know what he’s being nervous about anyway - it’s a simple night out with Tess. There’s nothing extravagant about it, not even a place for them to sit down for a nice dinner, just the two of them and a picnic basket and a little nook just by the lake.
(He’s been scouting for a place to take her all week - stumbling on the little nature nook seemed like a blessing falling out of the sky for him. He would’ve had to take her up to the dam otherwise, and running turbines do not make for romantic atmospheres.
Why is he even worrying about a romantic atmosphere is beyond him - it’s in his nature to please Tess; it’s not something he can simply shut off.)
Ellie pats her hands to her thighs, stepping back with a huff as the man slips the shirt off his shoulders once more. “So; you gonna get her get her somethin’ too? Flowers or something like that?” she asks him. According to Maria and Tommy, it’s customary for the man to ‘gift’ something to the woman; even if they’ve been together for a long time.
Joel chuckles, folding the shirt neatly into his backpack and shoving a few plain muscle shirts into it as well. He’s been needing a new one. “Tess ain’t much of a flowers kinda girl,” he states, and straightens with a pause, doubling back to the dresser.
Ellie watches, intrigued as the man starts pulling open the drawers, rummaging through whatever that hasn’t already been looted by the others. He seems to know exactly what he’s looking for though, tossing things over his shoulder without so much as a glance at what his hands touch. She arches a brow curiously - “did you hide something in there?”
“Just tryin’ to figure if I saw right,” he mumbles, before grunting in triumph when his fingers touch the bronze and crystal brooch. It sits an inch and a half long; its wings spanning more or less the same length - an elegant little dragonfly brooch simple and tasteful with dainty little crystals embedded into its spread wings. Forged maybe thirty years in the past, the bronze is aged but sturdy, and Joel can’t help but trace his finger along the curve of its wings and think of the woman he shares a bed with.
“What’s that?” The teen peers over his arm curiously, and Joel glances at her with a quiet little smile; shy almost, as he shows her the delicate thing in his palm - looking quite out of place in the callused pad of his large hand. Ellie’s eyes go wide and then she blinks, touching the brooch gently. “Is this what you’re gonna give Tess?”
She looks up at him expectantly, sees the awkwardly self-conscious mold of Joel’s face and almost wants to tease him for it. She doesn’t though; she nudges him on the arm with a feelingless punch and smiles softly. “It’s pretty.”
“Y’think?” He fiddles with it for a moment longer, then tucks it safely away in a bundle of a silk handkerchief he’s taken from the dresser too.
Ellie nods firmly. “Definitely. She’s gonna love it.”
While the others rummage and loot, Tess finds herself staring out at the eerily still waters of their makeshift lake; watches the gleam of the fading sun on the waters and the shift of swimming fish just underneath the surface. Bear skirts the lake’s edge, sniffing at bushes, bounding through the shrubbery to chase a rabbit or a squirrel of some sort.
Tess stands by the little dock, thumbing the smooth rock in her hand - a pensive frown curving her mouth.
She flicks her wrist sharply; watches the rock skip the water and hears Bear bark as if to rate the throw.
It’s...such a normal thing to do.
She can’t remember the last time she’s skipped rocks. She can’t remember the last time she’s done any of the things she’s been doing for months now with Joel and Ellie. A year ago she was still hustling smuggled goods underground; living every moment of her life as if death waited around the corner - and it did.
Hell, she’s been at death’s door already.
Now she’s standing around...skipping rocks.
Bear barks again; she jolts, turning to the dog where he stands at the edge of the dock, wagging his tail at her expectantly. He wants her to skip another rock, she figures, and obliges him as she picks up another rock from the small pile she has at her feet.
She skips it thoughtlessly, watching as Bear goes loping into the water after it, and frowns again. She’s not used to being this...idle and content. It’s not a familiar feeling to her; not the queen of the Boston underground. Former queen, she supposes, and almost sighs sadly at the thought.
Now they’re grunts; working under Tommy and Maria although not quite. It’s something like a battle for power but not really either - she’s good at certain things, and they’re good at others. It’s more of a sharing of power and authority, but Tess sometimes misses the adrenaline rush of her old days.
Nowadays she’s more worried about dinner and wounds, and keeping the door locked at night to keep Ellie from barging into their bedroom.
It’s like she’s reliving the past all over again. The calm before the storm, just like when it first hit twenty years ago. No one thought a thing about it at first; everyone thought for sure it was just another fluke, another anthrax scare.
Living like this; sealed off from the rest of the world almost - a little faux-bubble of security. It’s borrowed time, she’s certain of it. They’re waiting for the moment someone in town is bitten, and then what? Infection 2.0? Another escape from another hellhole and this time she might not live to tell the tale again.
Her skin throbs pointedly; the bite sometimes seems to have a mind of its own, and it frightens her. She touches it, brushing her fingers over the healed mark gingerly - feels the grooves of where teeth had sunk and her flesh had worked in a frenzy to mold over.
“Borrowed time.” She doesn’t realize she’s said it outloud until she hears her own voice; starts at the low sound of it.
It doesn’t sound like her.
Her hand drops away from her neck, she turns to where Bear’s standing at the water’s edge again, wet and standing over the rock she’d skipped like a proud catch. She lets herself smile at the dog; he won’t know the difference between a grimace and a smile anyway.
“ C’mon, you giant mutt. Let’s go home. ”
It’s just about sunset when Tess makes it home; she can smell dinner from the front porch, something fried and greasy.
Country fried chicken, she guesses.
They’re living with a man from Texas, after all.
Bear’s practically drooling as she opens the front door, weaving between her legs like a big hulking missile as he makes his way straight into the kitchen to the source of the scent. Tess feels her mouth twitching when she hears Joel’s booming voice hollering at the dog, and makes her way into the kitchen.
She finds him shooing Bear away from the stove with his foot, a chicken breast between a pair of tongs in one hand and a bottle of home-brew in the other.
“Boy, get outta my kitchen ‘fore I fry you up for dinner!” he grunts, and finally Bear slinks away with his tail between his legs; whining in disappointment. Joel huffs at his retreating back, lowering the chicken back into the plate before turning to Tess. He blinks at the sight of her, as if he’d only just realized she was standing there, and his mouth curves in a corner.
“‘Bout time you came home,” he tells her, stepping towards the woman and pulling her in for a kiss. “Was just about to send Ellie out to go find you.”
Tess leans into the kiss only briefly, until there’s a rather greasy scent coming from his shirt. She wrinkles her nose at him, shoving at his chest until Joel releases her with a mildly hurt pout. “You smell like oil,” she says, and the man lifts his shirt to his face for a whiff.
Joel shrugs. “Ain’t nothin’ like that time with the skunk.” He smirks when Tess scowls at him indignantly, turning away to turn over his sizzling chicken as Tess brushes past him; stealing his bottle of brew from his grip.
“That damn dog needs to learn to pick his prey,” she grumbles, sipping the home-brew and making another face at the aftertaste and the memory. Bear had been so eager to hunt with them; Joel had insisted that they teach the dog how to point and retrieve with them, but the dog’s feral instincts had led him into the den of a skunk instead.
By sheer luck, Joel had been spared from the foul spray of gross - Ellie and Tess, not so much.
They spent a week trying to get the scent out of their skins, and even then the stench lingered in their hair and clothes. Tess and Ellie had to sleep outside for most of the week, until the worst of the smell had faded off. It’s by some miracle that someone in town had baking soda at hand, and after some jury-rigging of baking soda, moonshine, and melting a bar of soap together, they get the stench off once and for all.
Joel never brings Bear hunting with them again, and Tess starts to doubt Toby’s moonshine making skills.
Presently the man chuckles at her, setting a plate of crisp fried chicken in front of her on the dining table. “Well, here’s hopin’ he learned his lesson,” Joel remarks, and takes the bottle from Tess’ hand; fingers brushing in a slow linger as he slips the bottle out of her hold much slower than necessary.
Tess tilts her head up to him, thrusting her chin out with a crooked grin as Joel steps into her personal space; corners her against the table with his hips and his hands slipping to either sides of her. “Somethin’ you need, Tex?” she murmurs lowly, eyes glazing over when she catches sight of the predatory heat of Joel’s gaze.
She sucks in a breath despite herself when he presses into her firmer, feels the stir in her veins as he lowers his face down to hers; a hair’s breadth apart. She can smell the brew on his breath, the scent of fried chicken and oil on his skin and shirt - the low heat radiating off his body.
The thrill runs stronger in her stomach, curls tight in a ball. “Joel...” There’s something between a temptation and a warning in her voice; she’s probably protesting for the sake of protesting, but her hands come up to his broad chest, pushing gently.
“Your chicken’s gonna get cold.”
Joel’s mouth twitches, and he groans lowly as he pulls away. “Damn it, woman,” he grouses, taking a long pull of his brew. “Sometimes you’re just plain wicked, y’know that?”
Tess shrugs innocently, picking at a piece of crispy chicken. “I’m hungry.” She peels off a piece of chicken, popping it into her mouth and chewing heartily. A low moan rumbles through her chest at the burst of flavor, and Joel scowls deeper at her. Tess smirks, sucking the tips of her fingers into her mouth as she palms Joel’s chest with her clean hand, standing on her tiptoes to kiss him briefly.
“Tastes almost as good as you do, Tex,” she purrs, and pulls away just as Joel leans down again - turning her head to the sound of stomping footsteps.
“Aw yeah, chicken!” Ellie whoops, and Joel groans as he drops his head onto Tess’ shoulder. She glances at them; curling her mouth in confusion at the way Joel grumbles into her shoulder and the way Tess smiles none too demurely at her. “What?”
Joel straightens with a sigh, moving away from Tess. “Nothin’ - let’s eat ‘fore the chicken gets cold.”
Ellie eyes them suspiciously, forking a piece of chicken onto her plate. “You guys weren’t gonna do it in the kitchen, were you?” She shudders at the thought - it’s where all the food gets made!
“That’d be unsanitary,” Tess says, peeling apart her chicken with her fingers. “We’d probably put down some sheets first.”
The girl squeals the same time Joel palms his face, growling through his fingers. “ TESS!”
Chapter 6: sonne
Maria and Tess go on patrol. Tess is testy.
She finds him sitting out in the living room later in the night, illuminated in the moonlight against the windows; he’s slouched over on the couch, fiddling with something small in his hands. In front of him on the coffee table, she can see the dark shape of his gun, next to the same array of tools that always sits out at night when Joel can’t sleep.
Something needs fixing.
The moonlight casts the shadow across his face, draws from the dark growth on his face to shield itself from her, but Tess has come to know the shape and mold of Joel’s face long before this. Eyes shut, immersed in the dark; holding her breath in water, in her dreams - she knows him in the madness no matter what.
He jumps; it amuses her to see the guilty furrow of his brow or the sheepish warmth of his eyes when he turns his body to her. Bare-chested from bed still, it’s almost as if he’s baring his heart to her without thought - without hesitation. She thinks it’s something worth pondering on, but not at the moment.
Tess settles into her place on his lap, fitting there as she always has - effortless and like coming home. Her arm wraps around his broad shoulders and Joel leans into the offered crook of her neck and shoulder, kissing the soft skin there where his lips had marked once before earlier in the night. She’s dressed in his shirt, oversized and maybe washed a few times too many, but she loves it and that’s that.
“What’re you doin’, old man?” she asks, the skin of her cheek is pressed to the side of his head; cold from the sheets she’d been pressed into, and his skin warm because he’s a walking furnace always. She tilts her head down to watch him curiously - what could need fixing so badly? “Ellie break the hook off one of the fishing rods again?”
Joel chuckles in his chest, shaking his head mildly; wraps an arm around the woman’s slender waist possessively as he abandons his little project on the coffee table to pull Tess closer to him. “Nah, just - fixin’ up a little somethin’ for ya. Y’know...for tomorrow night.” He glances at her shyly then, and Tess thinks she just wants to kiss him and punch him in the arm because he isn’t allowed to be cute - he’s supposed to be her bear.
The big grizzly fella who likes to cuddle in bed and makes little cute things for her out of wood.
He’d been a carpenter once.
In a life they can’t stand to remember.
She smiles despite herself; a coy, warm thing that softens her face more than the look in her eyes does already. “Oh yeah? What’d you get me, Texas?” She reaches out for it, but Joel clasps it tighter in his fist, jerking his hand away from her with a click of his tongue. Tess pouts at him childishly, for show more than anything else as she gets a grip of his fist, wriggling her fingers into the gap of his knuckles. “Aw, c’mon, Joel,” she cajoles him, batting her lashes sweetly at him. It’s not so much sweet as it is deceptively cunning, and the man grunts at her. “Just a little peek?”
“Hey now,” he chides her softly, chuckling under his breath as he pulls his hand away from her, tumbling back onto the couch with her when Tess leans into him harder to reach for it. They land on the pair of battered pillows at the other end of the couch, laughing in the quiet moonlight as Tess wriggles her way on top of him and Joel does his best to keep her in place. “You just gotta wait til’ tomorrow, sweetheart,” he says airily, even as he’s grinning up at the woman hovering above him. The grin on his mouth widens when he sees her roll her eyes, and Joel tightens the arm banded around her waist, slipping the little brass trinket back into the little makeshift pouch he’s made out of the silk handkerchief.
Tess huffs, pushing herself upright against his chest when Joel sits up just enough to tuck the little pouch into the pocket of his pajama pants. Briefly she contemplates wrestling it out of his pocket (she has slender, dextrous hands that can fit into places), but Joel doesn’t really give her much time to scheme when he’s suddenly pulling her down to him and kissing her soundly.
She leans into the kiss languidly, humming against his mouth as her thighs straddle his waist; grinning against his lips when his hands start to find their usual path under her shirt. “Hey now.” She reaches for them, pushes them off of her skin and manacles them the best she can over his head; eyes gleaming. “You’re just gonna have to wait til’ tomorrow, sweetheart.”
Joel groans in his throat, slumping down into the couch in defeat as he watches Tess move away from him, eyeing the sway of her hips in the moonlight. “You’re a wicked woman, y’know,” he grouses after her, as he pushes himself off the couch and ambles on after her up the stairs.
Tess pauses at the top of the stairs, glancing down over her shoulder at him with a smug, coy smirk. “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
“Joel! Joel, get up!”
There’re frantic hands tugging at the covers; small and insistent hands that pinch his skin when he doesn’t wake up fast enough for their liking. He grunts, lets his eyes snap open in the dark to the hovering face of the now-fifteen year old whose hands are now gripping into his bare skin and tugging. “What -?”
Ellie hauls him upright before he can realize - he doesn’t quite know when she’d gotten so strong -, and shoves him towards the bathroom. “Get up, we’re supposed to go help Tommy and Jean with the horses! They’re foaling today!” The girl can barely contain her excitement, although the sleep-hazed man finds nothing exciting about watching and helping animals come out of other bigger animals. He’s had enough experience with sticking his hand up places from his childhood.
“’s that what got your panties in a bunch?” he mumbles grouchily at her, around a white foamy beard and minty spittle. “I promise you, Ellie, you ain’t gonna be this excited when you’re the one pushin’ a bowlin’ ball out of your uh….parts.” He rinses and spits, and wipes away the cold bite of the water from his face, and the slow burn of his cheeks.
The girl waves him aside, nudging him impatiently towards where his jeans lie haphazardly by the bedside. “Not gonna happen, old man. I don’t plan on having babies ever.” She bounces on the bed eagerly, like an overgrown child hopped up on candy, and watches as the man struggles into his jeans, and then pauses when her words click somewhere in his mind.
“Where’s Tess?” Joel’s brows pull low; he frowns at the cold space of the tangled sheets - the dent of her body still left in her wake beside where Ellie sits comfortably on his side of the bed, warmed still by his body. It had only occurred to him through the fog of sleep, when Tess hadn’t immediately threatened painful and ugly death unto Ellie for waking them, that his much beloved partner was missing.
It doesn’t help that Ellie’s starting to sound more and more like her every passing day, either.
Ellie blinks, and Joel watches closely as a familiar light of recognition comes to the girl’s eyes, and she shoves a hand into her jeans pocket. “Oh, right! Well, she was gone by the time I got up, but I went down to let Bear out and I saw this on the dinner table.” She brandishes a little fold of paper, passing it to the man when Joel readily reaches for it.
The man frowns deeper, squinting slightly in the dim light as he makes out the familiar scrawl of Tess’ writing. ‘ Don’t freak out -- just out with Maria on patrol. Took Bear with me. See you at lunch. xx’
“I thought Maria’d be up at the power plant today,” he murmurs, looking up at Ellie, but he finds no answer there when she shrugs.
“Dunno. But come on!” She hops up off the bed, bounding out of the room. “Baby horses!”
She’ll have to admit -- walking out with Maria like this hasn’t been something she’s liked doing. Not on her own like this; without Tommy or Joel to mediate the peculiar bubbling apprehension between them. Tess figures she knows why, even if Maria isn’t glancing at her every once and awhile, watching her when she calls to Bear or shifts the rifle over her shoulder.
The underbrush crunches loudly beneath their boots, branches bending and creaking and bushes rustling as Bear goes rifling through them curiously along the path. The day is pleasantly cool this early in the morning; it’ll be the middle of fall soon anyway, and the town’s beginning to make food stores for their harvest to keep for the winter. Tess takes in a slow, deep breath, and relishes the crispness of the breeze that flits through the trees. It’s been almost a year, she thinks - a year since Joel and Ellie had made the journey back east to Boston and found her holed up in their apartment with fraying threads of sanity left. A year of finally letting go of the Boston underground she had reigned over for so long; Queen above all, even for all of the power Marlene had touted as top Firefly. When Marlene needed something, she went to Tess.
The memory of the woman puts a phantom throb of pain pinching at the bite.
“So.” Maria’s voice makes Tess twitch, and she casts a sidelong look at the woman as they path along the running stream. “Tommy says you and Joel are headed out tonight.”
Tess is torn between smirking and bristling. Whatever she does with Joel is strictly their business alone, with some prying and prodding from Ellie, but the kid would always been an exception. She looks at Maria from the corner of her eye again, and shrugs. “If we get time.”
Maria makes a sound between a huff and a scoff, amused and indignant. It’s a sound Tess would make. “It’d be nice,” she says, and then the blonde moves ahead in long strides across the leaves.
“Yeah, because there’s a movie in the theaters I’ve been meaning to catch up on,” Tess drawls after her, taking one big step over a boulder in the way as they trek up over the hill. Bear is somewhere down the way, scaring some poor rabbit to death, and Tess pauses at the top of the hillside, gazing out over the expanse of green land and the dim flicker of the power plant’s lights in the distance.
“A picnic might be nice,” Maria says primly, eyes cool and scanning the horizon ahead of them as Tess casts a look her way. “Time alone together. Ellie’s been bouncing off the walls about it, I figured I’d check and see if you needed us to watch her while you were out.”
Tess chortles. “The kid’s fifteen. She can handle herself.” Although deep down, she knows the uncomfortable roiling in her stomach isn’t so much gas as it is a very quiet worry about leaving Ellie alone. More for the safety of everybody else than Ellie’s, she tells herself. The kid could be a menace at times. She glances at Maria for a moment before saying carefully, “appreciate it, though. I guess.”
Before long, Maria shakes her head, exhaling in a long, exasperated sigh. “We’re practically in-laws -”
“We’re not married,” Tess says sharply. “I’m not his wife.”
“Maybe not yet,” Maria replies, turning to face Tess finally, and one-on-one they size each other up, shoulders squaring as they posture slightly, rifles held tense on their shoulders. They stare at each other for a long beat, until Bear’s loud barks break them from the death glare. “I said practically - I know you’re not married.”
Tess rolled her eyes. “We’re fine the way we are.”
She shoulders her rifle tighter, shoving past Maria resolutely as Bear’s barks become more urgent. “It’s none of your business anyway,” she says over her shoulder. “If I wanted a ring on my damn finger -”
A searing pain cuts into the meat of her neck, the bite flaring in sparks of hot agony and electric ache. She stumbles to a halt, hissing sharply through her teeth as she reaches a hand up to clasp it desperately. Maria’s calling her name and saying some other shit, but Tess can only feel the hot skin under her fingertips, throbbing in time with the sound of her heart.
“Maybe we should head back and rest.”
She hears a low, groaning sound, and Tess feels the bite pulsing again. “Shut up,” she grits, wiping her brow on the back of her clammy hand.
Maria huffs. “Look -”
“Shut. up.” Tess’s eyes are bright now, searching for something in the woods, darting and flitting like a combination of a feral hunter and the skittishness of a fragile doe. “Gear up. Be ready to shoot.”
Maria eyes her warily, going straight for the bite as she grips her rifle tighter. “You okay?”
Tess rolls her eyes again. For fuck’s sake. “Infected,” she says bluntly, jerking her chin at the range of abandoned houses lined with lush greenery. “Nearby.”
She’s just about to reach for her own gun when she hears the booming snarl of Bear combined with the shriek of a Clicker.
Chapter 7: rose red
Tess and her spider senses
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 !”
Chapter 8: shroud
Joel and Tess get ready for their big night out
I've been in the hospital for 4 days. I can feel the edges of my mind rotting.
“That thing’s got ruffles on it, Maria.”
“Ruffles are texture! It flatters the body.”
“Well, it sure as hell doesn’t flatter itself.”
“Okay, well how about this one?” There’s some rummaging, and Maria pulls out another dress from the closet to hold against Tess.
Tess wrinkles her brows disconcertedly. “That’s not a dress, that’s a - pile of - straps!”
“I remember it used to be called something like a bandage dress,” Maria says, tilting her head down to inspect the mangle of black and blue straps. “Figure-hugging. Shows off your curves.”
Tess rolls her eyes. “Shows off everything else too, by the looks of it.”
Maria makes an exasperated sound, tossing the bandage dress onto the bed beside Tess. “You’re being difficult on purpose,” she says, shaking her head as she rifles through piles of blouses and shirts. It’s not wrong to want to dress up every once and awhile; it’s not like they don’t deserve time off. Of the crew that work the wall in the settlement, Joel and Tess have built up quite the reputation as hard-headed workaholics.
And that’s saying something, given the reputation Maria had built for herself.
She grabs a handful of clothes off the rack and dumps them onto the bed beside Tess. “Alright,” she huffs, planting her hands on her hips. “We are not leaving here until we get you something to wear.”
The midday sun beats down over the sprawl of golden wheatfields; toasted dry in the late summer and grown tall enough for the little ones around town to get lost in. Joel takes a mighty swing with his scythe, clearing a path down one row before he bends to gather the bundles that fall at his feet. It’s a quiet, speedy process between him and Tommy, each working through a good portion of the field while the others bend low to gather the cut wheat into decent-sized bundles.
At some point in the day, Joel sheds his shirt, wrapping it tight around his waist and feeling the sweat drying on his skin the same time the sun burned him a darker shade. He swipes his forehead against his arm and takes another swing.
“So,” Tommy says from across the way, grunting quietly as he swings the scythe. “Where’re ya gonna take her tonight?”
Joel grunts pointedly, throwing his weight into the next swing. “Somewhere nice.”
“Well, where? Ain’t a diner ‘round town or a movie to take her. What’s ‘nice’ to you?”
He gives his brother a sidelong glare, sweat gathering over the deep ridge of his brow. “What’s it to ya?”
Tommy grins at him crookedly, shrugging his shoulders as he goes back to trimming the field. “I’m just curious ‘bout how you’re gonna pop the question -”
The scythe in Joel’s hand plunges into the earth with a heavy thud, and Joel leans on it heavily as he turns to glare at his brother. “Don’t tell me you’re gonna get on my ass about this too.”
“ Too ?” Tommy echoes, eyebrows lifting in surprise. “Who else is on ya -”
“You damn well know who,” Joel grumbles, wiping at the sweat on his forehead. “Bad enough I get it every time I get home; can’t ever talk about nothin’ else whenever Maria’s got me alone.” He tugs the scythe out of the ground and takes another brutal swing.
Tommy continues on easily, swinging in careful, neat rows as he watches his brother brutalize his way through the field. “So what’re ya gonna wear?” he calls after Joel teasingly.
“Whatever I damn well please,” Joel shouts back. He reaches the end of his row, and drops the scythe to crouch down by the wheat. He gathers it in his arms and binds it into a bundle with twine, muscles working as he throws it onto his shoulder.
Tommy appears beside him with a lazy grin, scythe over his shoulder. “You damn well better wear somethin’ smart. And get a trim while you’re at it.” He brushes his own chin. “You look like fuckin’ Paul Bunyan lately - how’d Tess let ya get away with that?”
Joel reaches to his beard almost protectively, stroking the scruff before turning away from his brother. “I like it,” he says gruffly, tossing the bundle onto the cart piled high with wheat. “And I don’t need her permission to grow my own damn beard, lil’ brother. I ain’t whipped like you are.”
“Yeah you are,” Tommy needles him, tossing the scythe onto the cart. “You even hadta ask her if you could help me out by the town last week.”
“That’s just bein’ polite,” he says. “I know my way ‘round havin’ women in the house, remember? Maybe you’d sleep less on the couch if ya took a couple lessons.” He rolls his eyes at his brother, wipes at a stray drop of sweat building on his cheek. “‘s not like I gotta tell ‘er when I eat n’ shit n’ sleep.”
“Well, that’s cause she’s already there when ya eat n’ shit n’ sleep.” Tommy claps his brother hard on the shoulder, squeezing it to jostle Joel. “C’mon, Joel, you can say it out loud already -”
Joel brushes his hand off, rolling his eyes as he climbs up onto the seat of the cart. “Don’t push your luck.” He grabs the reins and reaches down a hand to haul Tommy up onto the seat beside him. “C’mon - ‘fore your wife gets on my ass for keepin’ ya out so long.”
Tommy grins. “So she’s your wife now -”
“Boy, I swear to God -”
“You really don’t have to be here, y’know.”
Ellie bounces eagerly on the bed, sitting on her hands and leaning forward with a grin as Tess stares at her through the mirror. “Are you kidding me? I wouldn’t miss this for the world!” Jeez, like she’d miss the date night she had to remind the woman about.
Tess rolled her eyes. “Don’t you have better things to do? Hang out with some punks? Shoot shit off a fence with Max?” She smirked when Ellie blushed at the name, turning back to the mirror to eye the dress critically.
Maria smirks from beside her, arms folded as she jerks her chin at the dress impatiently. “You’re stalling. Just get the damn dress on so we can see.”
With a long-suffering sigh, Tess reluctantly obeys. She takes great care of undressing from the bottom up; keeping her body angled away from Ellie and Maria when she’s topless until she can tug the dress up over her bite. It’s one thing to be pushed around by these two, but Tess isn’t ready to flaunt the ugly scar eating into most of her right shoulder just yet. It’s hard to believe she hasn’t worn a dress in - how long has it been? Fifteen, twenty years? The softness of the material against her legs is almost surreal; ticklish, almost.
She shimmies into the dress, smoothing her hands over the material self-consciously; she’s grateful for the fact that they’d somehow managed to find something with a collar, even if it was sleeveless. It’s a miracle that the women still cared enough about their body hair - Tess cherished that capability like wealth in Boston. You only ever could keep things trimmed and neat when you had the right tools. Coming here, nestled into the woodlands, Tess had come upon a hidden stock of inn supplies, and much of it were disposable razors.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, she remembers vintage pictures of her grandmother in dresses like these - conservative but figure-hugging. She blows out a steeling breath and turns to them slowly. “Well?”
Ellie’s eyes are wide and gleaming, her mouth spread in a grin. “You look hot!”
Maria gives her an approving onceover, her eyes lingering on the generous length of Tess’s legs. She quirks an eyebrow with interest. “You’re smoother than a baby.”
Tess smirks at her. “I like to keep my business in order.” She even winks. “I can cut you a good deal.”
The blonde gives her an equally wicked smirk. “Joel’s a lucky man.”
“Okay, that’s gross,” Ellie interrupts them, shaking her head and wrinkling her nose at the thought of Joel and Tess in bed. “Can we not talk about old people having sex? It’s bad enough I have to hear them -”
“Anyway!” Tess blurts, heat flaming under her skin. “Are we done here? It’s seriously just like every other night, y’know.”
Ellie flaps her hands, bouncing off the bed and mill around her with a hair brush. “It’s a special night! You guys haven’t had time alone since we got here.”
Tess shrugs easily, holding herself twitchingly in place as Maria touches her hair and Ellie fusses with the collar of her dress. She leans away from the girl’s hold slightly, but Ellie gives her an understanding look and adjusts the collar high enough to cover the bite.
She gives Ellie a weak smile. “Thanks.”
Ellie inclines her head. “You want me to go tell Joel you’re ready?”
“Sure,” Tess nods, and Ellie scurries out of the room. With the teen gone, Tess peers into the mirror critically at herself. It’s almost like she’s looking at a completely different person; she doesn’t feel like herself, feels less like herself since they got here, but this is taking it another step further. She doesn’t understand why it makes her skin crawl, or makes the fluttering in her stomach spread like the first shot of bourbon down her throat.
It’s just Joel .
“You’ll be fine,” Maria says patiently; she’s brushing out Tess’s hair, untangling the kinks in the curling ends of it. She gentles the bandana off, and Tess nearly shivers at the loss of it - she feels naked without it, never goes through her day without it on her head, except in bed. She doesn’t think anyone’s seen her without it on, except Joel and Ellie. “It’s just a date with Joel.”
“I know that,” she says defensively, folding her arms over her stomach. “I’m not - nervous about it.”
Maria’s eyes meet hers in the reflection of the mirror, and the blonde smiles at her wryly. “Sure.”
Tess rolls her eyes. “Look, we talked about this. It’s just - the old man, alright? He likes doing these things. Makes him feel - I don’t know.” She shrugs her shoulders a little helplessly. “Makes him feel good. I like making him feel good.”
It’s the first time she’s ever said it out loud, but she does.
It doesn’t matter that it makes her feel good, too.
Maria nods her head understandingly, stepping back to look at her again. “You don’t have to explain yourself,” she tells Tess. “I know what it’s like. I’m married to his brother, remember?”
Tess gives her a thin smile. “Guess so.”
The knock on the door startles them both, and they look over just as Tommy’s head pops up behind it. “Y’all decent in there?”
“Would it matter if we weren’t?” Maria retorts, rolling her eyes when her husband appears fully, grinning that grin of his as he ambles over. She leans her cheek out for a kiss, poking him slightly when he lets out a low whistle at the sight of Tess.
“Well, well, Miss Laroux,” he croons, eyeing her up and down. “Don’t you look mighty pretty.”
“Keep it in your pants, Miller,” Tess says, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear as she moves off to the bed. She grabs her gun and stares at it for a long moment - where the hell is she gonna stick it?
Tommy grins lasciviously from behind her. “Won’t be sayin’ that at the end of tonight - ow!” He jerks aside when Maria thumps him solidly in the ribs.
“Maria, get your man outta here before I put a bullet between his eyes.”
The blonde tugs at her husband’s arm. “C’mon, Romeo. Let’s get down there before Joel paces a hole into the carpet.”
Sucking a breath, Tess gives herself one last pat down before trailing after them out the room.
“Jeez, Joel, you could sit down for a sec, she’s not climbin’ out the window to get away from ya.”
Joel gives Ellie mild glare, walking the length of the living room one last time before standing off by the side of the stairs. He can’t help the way his hands are sweating, or the way his stomach’s in knots - it’s been decades since he’s had to do this, and by God he was gonna do it right. He grips the bouquet of wildflowers in his hand and tries not to crush them as he makes out the sound of footsteps and Tommy’s voice from the top of the stairs.
“Here she comes,” Tommy calls out, gesturing grandly behind him.
Joel rolls his eyes, opening his mouth to spit something at his brother, but then he sees her.
It’s like the room falls away under his feet.
“Tessa…” The name comes out like a prayer; reverent, soft, like the first time he’d touched her and kissed the constellation of freckles on her skin. Like the first time she’d shown up at the wall, soaked in the rain and like a ghost, come back from the dead. “Goddamn….”
Beautiful, then and now. Beautiful always.
Tess makes her way down to him with a shy, uncertain look on her face; a flush darkening the brand of freckles spread over her cheeks and nose. He fumbles out a hand to her, feels their fingers slip together as naturally as they always did, but something about tonight made the touch come alive.
She gives him a little smile from the corner of her mouth. “H-ey yourself, Texas.” She comes to stand in front of him, staring back at him with the same amount of delight and surprise. He’s wearing a shirt the deep shade of burgundy, barely; his hair brushed back and neat, his beard trimmed. He looks as new to her as she does to him.
“Um -” Joel thrusts the flowers forward, blushing hard under his beard as she takes them from him. “I know ya didn’t want flowers, but I uh - I saw these comin’ back from the wheatfields, ‘nd -” he shrugs. “They were pretty.”
She looks surprised, if a little wary, but there’s a warmth in her eyes that she’s only ever been able to manage when she looks at him. “They are,” Tess says softly, touching the pastel yellow petals. The heat in her belly has spread up to her chest, rising up into her neck and cheeks as she looks from Joel’s reverent face to the crowd of three openly grinning at them.
She squints at them, tugging Joel’s hand slightly. “Why don’t we get outta here?”
Joel nods readily, offers her his arm, because that’s what you do on dates, right? He remembers that much. “Let’s go.”
“Y’all have a good time tonight,” Tommy tells them, walking them out onto the front porch. The grin on his face is about as shit-eating as he can get it. “Don’t worry ‘bout comin’ home if you don’t wanna - we’ll take care of Ellie.”
“Hey, I’m like fifteen,” Ellie protests, but Maria shoos them off.
“Have fun,” she grins, giving Tess a wink.
Joel blows out a breath at them, but when he meets Tess’s eye, they share a giddy grin.
“So, Tex,” Tess says, and when he looks at her again in the soft light, it’s like she’s come back into herself again. “Where’re we headed?”