When she closed her eyes and tilted her head to try and…make it an easier target she wasn't expecting to hear a heavy thunk to her left.
Now she knew from personal experience that waving an axe around when you are small is almost impossible, but she didn't think AJ's aim was that bad.
"Sorry Clem…I'm so sorry." She opened her eyes to see AJ, his whole body shaking and eyes screwed shut. She wondered if it was in an attempt to stop the tears streaming down his face.
It didn't work.
Her heart dropped.
Well, there was only one other option.
AJ's eyes flew open and he stared at her in disbelief, as if that was somehow worse than killing her. "But what about—"
"AJ." Clementine felt a little bad when he flinched at her no-nonsense tone. "What did I just say your job was?"
He looked away. "You said…my job was to live. But why can't you live with me?!" His voice cracked, "It's not fair!" and then he gave her such a heartbreakingly earnest expression, her composure began to falter.
She swallowed thickly, "Believe me kiddo, I wish I could. I wish I never had to leave, but this is just what happens sometimes."
"But it wasn't supposed to happen to you." His sobs started all over again, and she wanted to hug him. She wanted to hold him close like she used to. She wanted him to feel like it was going to be okay, that everything would be alright. That he was safe.
But he wasn't.
He wasn't safe with her anymore. She couldn't protect him from this. And that thought hurt her more than she was willing to admit. She'd promised his father she'd look after him; she'd promised his mother that she'd take care of him. She promised him that she would never leave.
She sucked at keeping promises.
"I'm so, so sorry kiddo." Her own voice cracked, "I wish I could've done something to prevent this but—"
"What if there is?"
Clementine eyebrows furrowed in confusion. "What?"
AJ wiped his eyes with the inside of his jacket and sniffed. She was suddenly wary of the look on his face. "Y-you said if someone cuts off a bite fast enough you won't turn."
So that's where he was going. "AJ, I'm already turning. It's too late." There wasn't anything they could do. She could feel herself growing weaker; she wasn't going to be here for much longer.
"Can we at least try?"
She stared at his white-knuckled grip on the axe handle. Would he try even if she said no? Probably.
Though she supposed he was right. The worst thing that could happen was that she died, right? She almost laughed.
Instead, she smiled wryly and shook her head "Fine."
"Really?!" AJ looked almost giddy. It was actually kind of sick, wasn't it? That he was happy she was giving him permission to amputate her leg.
God, this world they lived in was so fucked up.
Clementine's eyes widened when she saw him start to lift the axe, "Whoa, whoa, whoa there kiddo. Hang on a minute." He stared at her like she was insane, and she probably was since time was against them, but let the axe drop back to the floor anyway. She quickly dug into her jacket pocket and pulled out the flint she had found earlier that day and held it out to him. "Remember last year? When that man stabbed me?"
AJ furrowed his brow in confusion, and then it suddenly turned to anger. "Yeah, he was trying to steal the car."
She nodded with a half-smile, "Remember how we didn't have anything to stitch my arm?"
His eyes lit up in realization, "Yeah! You put your knife in the fire and used that instead! You said you ca-cah-tur-cahter-"
She grinned. She always found his butchered attempts at pronouncing 'big words' funny.
"I cauterized it. It means I burned my wound closed." She took a deep breath, her amusement sadly short lived. "AJ, I'm not going to be able to tell you what to do after you start cutting. Which means you need to listen to everything I'm about to tell you. Okay?"
AJ tensed then quickly nodded.
"Alright." She took another deep breath, and honestly couldn't believe she was about to instruct someone on how to chop off a limb. She remembered they used to be surgically removed, not whatever hell this was going to be. "Alright, help me with my belt. We need to make a tourniquet to slow the bleeding."
Together they managed to wrestle her belt out of its loops and Clementine leaned forward to wrap it around her leg. She was suddenly grateful to the New Frontier for finding her. As much as she despised them for stealing AJ from her, she couldn't honestly say it was time wasted. The only ones who seemed to like her were Ava and Lingard. Though since Ava was almost constantly with David, it was a given that she usually hung around the doctor.
Which meant she learned quite a few things about all manner of wounds, she just never expected to be doing something like this to herself.
She growled when she realized her arms felt like limp noodles. She finally gave up in her endeavor and looked at AJ. "I need you to tighten my belt; I'll tell you when to stop." He hesitantly started tightening the belt, cringing when she hissed in pain. Apparently, her leg wasn't as numb as she thought it was.
Just fucking perfect.
"Okay, stop. Take your knife and make a new hole in the belt, then go make a fire, put the knife in it and come right back."
She wanted to laugh at how obedient he was being. Lately, he had been questioning her more and more to the point where she almost wished he was still little and just accepted that her word was law. Well—she watched as he tried to create a spark—little-er. She wondered if he could remember the time where she spent almost two hours showing him how to start a fire. She remembered how impatient he was.
AJ hesitated to place the knife onto the miniscule flame he managed to produce. Instead, he got up to grab more hay.
Though that smile fell when she saw him finally place the knife into the small fire and scurry back to her side. He slowly reached down and picked up the axe and they locked eyes. Clementine suddenly felt her stomach drop. She knew she'd given it minutes ago, but it seemed to finally hit her as to what she'd done.
She had given a five-year-old permission to chop off her leg. A small child that was barely strong enough to hold the axe over his head for more than a few seconds.
God, this was going to fucking hurt.
She really hoped AJ didn't hear how hard she swallowed.
They held each other's gaze, both completely serious. She really hated that he was going to do this; that he wanted to do this. This wasn't something a child should ever have to do! She wished Violet was here. If she hadn't hopped the fence, then she could've been the one to deal with this. It would probably be over faster too.
"Okay AJ," Clementine sighed, "After you cauterize my leg you need to leave alright?"
"Wait, what? No! Clem I—"
"AJ!" She quickly cut him off. "You need to go. You need to get Ruby and the others and bring them back here. Do you understand?"
He suddenly found the ground more interesting than looking at her, "But I can't leave you."
Clementine really wanted to hug him.
"You have to."
She saw his little hands tighten around the axe handle before he raised his head and nodded.
"One last thing AJ." Clementine smiled, "I love you."
AJ's hardened gaze faltered for a moment, then he raised the axe. "I love you too."
Then all Clementine knew was pain.
Clementine came to with a gasp.
She felt her heart drop when she registered the familiar sound of a horn and the vibration of a train car beneath her.
Guess I didn't make it.
She slowly sat up and found herself the same age she last left Lee at, which was odd. She usually appeared as her nine-year-old self, not her nearly seventeen-year-old self.
She blinked in shock when she saw that her left leg was gone.
Clementine snorted, "Figures God couldn't be bothered to send me off with both my legs."
"Who said you were dead?" Lee's voice chimed in from behind her.
She turned to look at him with a half-smile and witty remark until she registered the sight of him.
"You look like shit." She couldn't help it, but before she could apologize, he laughed.
"You don't look much better yourself."
That's when she took another look at herself. Really she could only see her hands, but still, her skin tone definitely wasn't supposed to be that pale.
"Huh." Clementine really didn't know what to say. "Any idea why we both look like we did when we died?"
Lee chuckled and dropped down beside her, "Again, who said you were dead?"
She snorted, "So, what? I'm on the verge of death, and for some reason, my mind decided to have a dream depicting us in our final moments?"
He shrugged, "I don't know. Probably."
Clementine rolled her eyes before they drifted to her missing leg. It was interesting how it was just…gone. As if someone had taken an eraser to it. The leg of her pants didn't even have blood on it.
She turned to see Lee was also looking at her missing leg with an unreadable expression.
"Did you ever regret not cutting your arm off?"
Lee sighed heavily, "I was always afraid of you asking me that."
Wait…this was all a dream, right? It was just a manifestation of her memories of Lee so why would 'Lee' be afraid of anything? He was one of the strongest men, if not the strongest, she'd ever known.
As if hearing her thoughts he just lifted his eyes and sent her a smile. That's when it hit her; these dreams weren't entirely made up of her own imagination, were they? Lee really was here, or at least he was here now.
Lee chuckled at the blatant disbelief painted across her face, "I never wanted to tell you. I was afraid you wouldn't want to wake up if you knew."
Clementine hated that he was right. Before AJ came along she didn't really have anything to live for, she was just an empty shell going through the motions of surviving. The "oh so innocent" little girl who had high hopes in the kindness of others had her harsh reality check the moment she'd been kidnapped by a madman seeking revenge for something that wasn't entirely their fault. She lost even more of her innocence when she pulled the trigger on a man the first time.
At least her first kill hadn't been Lee.
He cleared his throat, probably an attempt to get her to stop dwelling on the darkest time in her life…which he was apparently quite privy to. Her eyes narrowed slightly.
"So back to your original question," he quickly changed the subject, "I didn't used to."
She tilted her head. "You didn't?"
"Yes." He sighed, "If I had taken it off right away then maybe I'd have lived, but I left it for hours. I honestly didn't even think about it until I woke up with Kenny, Omid, and Christa all ready to decide for me."
Clementine was suddenly bombarded foreign images; memories that weren't hers.
Yelling into a walkie talkie, passing out, waking up on a cold medical table in a place she'd eventually come to know as a morgue, with Kenny holding a bone saw against her—Lee's—arm.
"You thought it was too late." She realized.
He shook his head, "I knew it was too late." He smiled wryly, "I've never passed out in my life. The…poison from the bite had already spread too much. I was done either way." He laughed, "At least I had both arms to help me find you."
Clementine winced, "I'm still so, so sorry for believing that man had my parents. If I hadn't been so stupid—"
"Stop dwelling on it."
She paused at his firm tone, "What?"
He sighed, "I don't blame you for what you did. I honestly should've been more upfront and told you that your parents were most likely dead—"
"I probably wouldn't have believed you anyway."
"You were just a kid, kids make mistakes." He nudged her with his shoulder, "Plus you've learned from your mistakes."
Clementine laughed bitterly, "Yeah after I got more people killed."
Lee grasped her shoulder tightly, "That was not your fault." She opened her mouth to protest, but he cut her off, "What happened to Omid was the result of a skittish girl playing the part of a robber. And what happened to everyone else was because of a madman. You unfortunately just got caught up in a fight that wasn't yours to begin with." He smiled, "Besides if you never found them then you never would've met AJ."
That got her to crack a smile, "You're right." She suddenly frowned, "He probably would've been turned into a monster, a spitting image of Carver."
"I'm sorry you had to go through that."
Clementine shook her head, "It wasn't your fault and you were gone long before I ever met him." She grinned, "If there's one thing that you, Christa, and the apocalypse taught me it was how to be tough."
She leaned back to rest her weight on her hands and stared at the trees whizzing by in an endless loop. Was this what they called 'purgatory'?
"I remember I used to hate that Carver said we were alike. It wasn't until later that I realized being a leader was scary, but he was ultimately right." She smiled wryly, "A lot of people aren't capable of making the hard decisions, let alone carrying the weight of the consequences without it crushing them." She laughed, "Was this how you felt?"
Lee shook his head at her bitter humor, "All the time."
Clementine's eyes dropped down to where her leg disappeared again.
"Do you think AJ can do it?" She whispered. She thought back to the first decision he made on his own, "Do you think AJ can shoulder that responsibility? He's so young and confused."
Lee wrapped his arm around her shoulders and tugged her to rest against him. Clementine breathed in his scent; it was as comforting now as it had been years ago.
"Do you think he can?" She could feel the deep rumble of his voice beneath her ear.
"I don't know." She thought about how angry he'd been with her when she stopped him from shooting Lily, "He gets so angry sometimes that I'm afraid he'll become like Carver and start to have his philosophy of killing; without mercy."
Lee squeezed her shoulder.
"I-I want to believe he can but without me there to help guide him…I just don't know." She let out a dramatic sigh, "He promised me that he would never like killing. Obviously he has trouble keeping some of them," she gestured to her missing leg.
Lee actually laughed, like a full belly laugh. "Why do you sound so surprised?"
"What do you mean?"
"You were the one who raised him." He smirked when her jaw dropped, and she pulled away before shoving him playfully.
"Jerk." Still, she couldn't help but laugh too.
"You know, I watch you sometimes." Lee admitted, "You might not see it, but he's more like you than you think."
"I wish he wasn't." She scratched her left bicep idly, "I don't want him to make the same mistakes I did."
"You need to make mistakes to grow." Lee gently reminded her, "Plus he's still young, and young children are notorious for having a temper."
Clementine raised an eyebrow, "How is that supposed to make me feel better? I doubt it's normal for a five-year-old to know how to use a gun."
Lee rolled his eyes, "You say that like a nine-year-old knowing how is any better."
"Listen, Clementine, you taught him so he could defend himself, just like how I taught you so you could defend yourself." Lee sighed, "Now while you may not have used that skill just for self-defense—" Clementine cringed, "You need to believe that he won't. Or at least believe in him. Believe that he's capable of seeing and learning from his mistakes, just like you did."
Her shoulders slumped, "I don't know if he can."
Lee squeezed her shoulder, and she raised her head to see him smiling at her. "I do."
"I already told you." He smiled softly, his eyes so full of love and affection she found herself tearing up. "It's because he's yours."
Her breath hitched.
"AJ may not be your child by blood, but you raised him as if he were." Lee raised his other arm and cupped her cheek, his thumb swiping at tears.
When had she started crying?
"He's as much your child as he is ours."
Clementine gasped and whipped around to find two people she hadn't seen in a long time.
"Hi, Clementine. It's been awhile." Rebecca spoke gently, her hand gripping her husbands, Alvin.
She pulled away from Lee to swipe at her eyes, a short watery laugh making its way out of her throat.
"Hi 'Becca, Alvin." She laughed again before gesturing to her leg, "I'd get up to greet you properly but…"
Rebecca laughed, "You're taking a missing limb pretty well for a kid." However, her mirth didn't last long. "I'm sorry you had to go through that."
Clementine shook her head slowly with a sad smile, "I promised you and Alvin I would take care of him didn't I? Besides, it's just like you said." She raised her right hand to show off the name permanently inked into her skin. AJ. "He's just as much mine as he is yours."
"I'm…sorry if I didn't raise him the way you'd hoped."
This time Alvin spoke. "You did your best and given everything you've both gone through I think I can speak for both Bec and me when I say you did a good job with him." He shrugged, "For what it's worth, we're proud of you."
Clementine didn't want to ask but—
"Yes. Even though he's…killed people."
The teenager groaned, "You're just as nosy as Lee aren't you?"
All three adults laughed merrily at her grumbling.
"It's hard not to know when you broadcast your thoughts so…vividly." Rebecca teased, causing the teen to slump.
"I'm proud of you too," Lee spoke up, another smile on his face.
Clementine mustered a smile for him then turned to look at the couple behind them.
"If you're so nosy then you know how much it means for me to hear you say that, right?" She sighed, "I always felt a bit…wrong when I started thinking myself as his mom because he was yours so what claim did I have to him? Hearing you two say that…just…thank you."
Since they were having so much fun poking around in her thoughts, she decided to intentionally broadcast how grateful she was. She was rewarded with all three adults staring at her with wide eyes that quickly became teary.
Rebecca let go of Alvin's hands to quickly close the distance between them and dropped to her knees, throwing her arms around the girl's shoulders. Clementine's breath hitched at the sudden assault of affection, returning the hug as best she could. Then she felt a hand land on her shoulder and looked up to see it belonged to Alvin.
She swallowed thickly before allowing herself to cry. While she didn't like Alvin and Rebecca as much as she loved Lee, it was still comforting to be wrapped up in a hug. Especially a hug initiated by the parents of her little boy.
Suddenly a train horn sounded, completely shattering the mood. The three adults shared a look between them before stepping back almost in unison, Lee lagging behind to pull her into a tight hug before standing.
"So how do I get to the afterlife with only one leg? Or am I doomed to sit here forever?" She joked.
"Sorry Clem, you can't come with us just yet," Lee spoke with a smile.
"Yeah, you have someone waiting for you." Rebecca smiled. "Never forget though Clem, even if we weren't together long—and briefly hated each other—you're still family." Both she and Alvin waved before making their way into the shadows of the train car and disappearing entirely.
Clementine's brows furrowed. What did Rebecca mean?
The train horn sounded a second time.
Lee smiled sheepishly, "Sorry Clementine, I really have to go." He ruffled her hair before pulling away and slowly backpedaling towards the shadows of the train car. "Don't be afraid though. We'll see each other again someday, but there's someone who needs you."
Clementine's eyes widened.
"Are you saying that I can—?"
"Good luck. You have a long road ahead of you sweet pea."
And before she could say another word, the train horn sounded a third time, just as Lee disappeared into the shadows then suddenly all Clementine knew was pain.
Fuck, why did she hurt so much? And why was the seat of her pants wet? Did she collapse in a puddle? She hadn't done that since she was little and didn't quite have the stamina needed for a survivor yet.
She shifted a little and fought to open her eyes. It didn't take her long to remember why she was in so much pain…and why her pants were wet.
It was strange laying eyes on her ruined leg, her boot and flesh split clean to her ankle.
It was weird seeing how the torn skin around the gash had turned a sickly, black color.
It was surreal seeing that it lay more than ten feet away, closer to the barn door than the rest of her.
She didn't exactly know why the sight of her dismembered limb didn't disgust her. Not even the fact that she sat in a pool of her own blood with the remains of her left leg being a charred stump seemed to phase her.
She almost didn't notice the walkers banging on the pen doors around her despite their awful snarling as they tried to get to her. Her eyes lazily drifted around the barn, and she wasn't sure if she was imagining it, but there seemed to be less of them than there were before.
That didn't make sense.
Fresh blood drew walkers in, and she was sitting in a puddle of it. There should've been more hanging around.
Maybe she shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth.
Suddenly she heard a strange sound, it sounded an awful like Willy, but that was impossible. He was back at the school. Still, it seemed whatever the noise was caught some of the remaining Walker's attention, and they wandered off after the loud noises and cries that she suddenly hoped she wasn't imagining.
Out of nowhere she heard multiple thumps not too far to her right and rolled her head towards it. Her eyes slowly opened (when did she close them?) and found Violet, Ruby, and AJ watching her, the two teens holding weapons. Clementine smiled.
"Hey, guys, what took you so long? I was getting bored just sitting here."
Before she could really react the little blood-covered boy charged and latched onto her side, nearly bowling her over and almost causing her to go deaf in her right ear when he cried "Clem!" directly into it.
Still, she didn't complain.
Instead, she wrapped her right arm around him and pulled him closer to her side. She didn't care that he was getting blood all over her clothes and neck, all she cared about was that he was here. That she was still here. And despite the threat of too much blood loss and the potential infection that awaited her, she knew she wasn't going to die. She was very aware of the presence of a few more hands pressed against her shoulder, head, and hand and while she couldn't see them, she knew Alvin, Lee, and Rebecca were all here offering her the strength she needed to keep her heart beating.
"Oh my god, I thought-I thought you were going to die. I-I almost got lost halfway to the school b-but I made it and oh god Clem, I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry!" AJ continued to cry into her throat, and she felt her left hand being squeezed.
Clementine pulled him a little closer, her voice dropping into a whisper as she hushed him. "It's okay AJ. I'm alive, see? You made it in time." She tilted her chin down and nuzzled his hair, "You saved me. Thank you."
Even though his crying seemed to get harder, she knew they were tears of joy rather than guilt or sadness. Okay, maybe a little bit of guilt.
"Don't be scared, kiddo. I'm going to be fine, I promise."
"I don't know about that, Clem." She turned to find Ruby crouched to her left and eyeing the mess of her leg. "You've lost an awful lot of blood. It's a miracle you're still alive let alone conscious and aware of your surroundings."
Clementine glared at the redhead when she felt AJ stiffen in her grip. The other girl had the decency to look sheepish before she inspected her leg. The young teen tried not to cry out when Ruby's hand hooked under her knee and gently coaxed her into raising her leg. She blinked in surprise.
"What is it?"
"Your bone it looks like it's…nevermind." Ruby shook her head before she reached into a bag Clementine hadn't noticed. She pulled out a thick cloth that she quickly wrapped around the girl's leg then tied it off, the knot making her wince. "I can't treat you here; we have to get back to the school ASAP."
"I thought you told me you'd make it back to the school?" Violet sighed dramatically, "Yet here you are, lazing about and making us come give you a chariot ride home." Then she started picking off the walkers still banging on the pen doors.
"Sorry." Clementine smiled and cheekily replied, "I thought you'd be happy being my knight in shining armor."
"Smartass." Violet laughed before calling over her shoulder, "Some warrior princess you turned out to be."
They pointedly ignored the bewildered stare that Ruby was giving them because really, they must be insane to be joking around at a time like this but it helped. It made them all feel like everything would be okay. Or at least it made her and Violet feel like it'd all be okay.
Louis chose that time to drop down from the loft. He examined the barn, briefly looking disturbed by the sight of Clementine's decaying amputated limb, before he finally looked at the injured teen. His brows furrowed in concern until she gave him a smile over the top of AJ's head. Louis hesitantly returned the smile before coming over and held out his arms in front of him, miming…something.
"Willy and Aasim are distracting the walkers that were hanging around outside." Ruby stood and nodded towards Louis, "As much as I hate to admit it, he's the strongest out of all of us so he's going be carrying you to the cart. It's not too far from here."
Ah, that made more sense. Still…
"You're terrible at charades." Clementine teased, chuckling at Louis' mock offended look. He pointed at AJ then made a shooing motion and she sighed. "Hey goofball, you have to let go so we can get going." The young boy tightened his grip, "C'mon now kiddo, it'll only be for a little while."
AJ pulled back enough to look her in the eyes, "Promise?"
She smiled and kissed a clean patch of skin on his forehead, "Promise."
He very reluctantly let go and moved out of Louis' way.
She narrowed her eyes at the older teen's cheeky grin as he hoisted her into his arms. Clementine imagined if he could speak, he'd be making some remark about carrying her like a princess. Maybe even a crack at her weight that would definitely earn a slap to the arm.
"We're clear." Violet finally called before opening one of the pen doors and cautiously creeping out of the large hole in the barn's wall. She looked around briefly then sent them a thumbs up.
AJ, Violet, and Ruby shared a look, and Clementine realized they were all ready for a fight. Walker guts weren't exactly sterile, and even the smallest possibility of it seeping into her wound would make all of AJ's efforts—all of their efforts—in vain.
Still, the presence of the three phantoms remained, so she didn't worry.
They'd make it.
She'd make it.