When Lee Everett opens his eyes, a little girl stares back at him.
The gun in her hand shakes, uneven breaths rattling in her ribs like a bird in a gold-gilded cage. Her face is filthy with blood and muck, though her eyes shine the colour of molten amber, dark and wolfish beneath the brim of the cap she wears.
She’s crying, he realises. Crying for him.
He tries to move forward, tries to take his hand and wipe the dirty tears from her face but his arm catches. The rattle of the cuffs is almost a comfort in the circumstances and suddenly he wants to laugh. Ironic how his life came about- started in handcuffs and ended in handcuffs. His parents would be so proud.
The girl’s eyes are shut now. She’s shaking from head to toe like a leaf in the wind and the gun clicks with every movement. In this moment, she looks so fragile. A baby bird that had fallen from the nest and never quite learnt how to fly.
All of a sudden, Lee is afraid. Not of dying, of course, but of leaving this little girl behind. She’s a tough kid, his Clementine, and he knows that better than anyone; she’s smart and kind and capable and hell to those whoever underestimated her. But even then, she is still just a little girl. He was supposed to teach her- protect her. Now he can’t even do that.
Stood still and trembling above him, Clementine chokes back on a sob and Lee’s battered heart wrenches. He’s too tired to speak, too drained to do anything other than look at her, committing every last inch of his little girl’s face to memory. (No, not his little girl, he corrects himself sadly, but near as ever could be.)
Her breath hitches, her fingers twitch on the trigger and Lee’s eyes slide shut/ He must not hear the gunshot because the next thing he knows, his world has exploded in a brilliant kaleidoscope of pain and darkness. The pain rushes through him like a bullet and the ice sets in his veins.
And Lee Everett opens his eyes.
He doesn’t hurt anymore, that much at least is obvious. The bite on his arm had burned like salt in an open wound but now he can’t even feel it. In fact, he doesn’t feel anything.
Looking around, he sees that he’s still in the police office. The only difference from before is that he’s standing without trouble, hands suddenly free from incarceration and the chill of the radiator gone from his back. Clementine stands only a few feet away from him, the gun still rattling in her grasp. Her eyes are closed, shut tight and turned away from him as if she can’t bear to look at him. He reaches out, murmuring her name.
But his fingers pass straight through her.
Lee stops and then stares at the place where his skin melts through her shirt. Alarmed, he tries to take hold of her arm once again but shifts straight through her with all the ease of a knife cutting through open air.
He doesn’t know how long he stands there, helpless and horrified as he watched Clementine's shoulders shake and shudder with swallowed sobs. When he finally turns around, dead eyes are there greet him. The limp, open-mouthed body is slumped against the radiator like a broken toy you might find in a thrift shop, red dripping from the rip in its forehead. There are handcuffs strapped around its wrist- it’s only wrist apparently, seeing as its other arm is missing below the elbow.
He’s not sure how long it takes him to piece it together: the blue shirt, the sticker-strewn walkie-talkie and the blackened blood that spatters its ripped jeans. He does eventually though and the revelation has him stumbling back, choking on the sour swarm of memories.
Most people wonder what they’ll look like in death. Usually, it involves a funeral, a pale body laid peacefully to rest in a velvet-lined coffin shrouded by flowers and tears. Sometimes it’s them- maybe older or maybe just as they are- confined to a hospital bed with a heart monitor flat-lining at their bedside as their arm drops limply to sterile sheets.
This is neither and if Lee Everett had still been alive, he probably would have vomited.
Clementine seems to take it no better than he does. She doesn’t collapse like he expects but rather squeezes her eyes shut again and turns to the door. Her tiny feet drag themselves across the room, scared hiccups breaking out in her chest as she tries not to look back. Lee himself can barely tear his eyes from his own corpse.
“C’mon, sweetpea, don’t look back. You have to find Christa and Omid. You have to, Clementine.”
She doesn’t hear him. Of course, she doesn’t. The living can’t hear the dead, after all.
A moan scratches itself from her throat; a silent plea.
“L-Lee… Lee, I’m really scared…”
She seems to realise only a few moments that there’s no one there to hear her. The tears swamp her again as she grips the gun tightly to her chest and Lee, all but a ghost, can do nothing but watch.
“I know, sweetpea,” he sighs softly. “Believe me, I know.”
He doesn’t know how long he follows her for. Time doesn’t affect the dead like it does the living and the years are mere moments in his memory as he watches Clementine grow.
At first, everything seems to go well. Just like planned, Clementine reunites with Omid and Christa, the couple watching over her with all the care and respect that Lee had been promised in life. The trio travel with a lightheartedness to them; Omid’s jokes act as stepping stones to something better while Christa’s rationality i is their saving grace.
And then, of course, the inevitable happens.
The sound of the shotgun in the empty bathroom is startling even as Lee watches the blood soak through the front of Omid’s shirt.
The younger man gurgles as he tries to look down to where the bullet had pierced him but where flesh had once been, now remains an empty cavity. Lee is struck helpless as Omid’s knees crumble beneath him and he slides down the wall, smearing blood across the tiles as he goes. He barely notices Christa’s entrance, barely notices the animosity that blooms across her face as another shot goes off and the stranger collapses with a wail. He doesn’t even notice Clementine’s ragged, guilty tears as Christa drops the gun and doubles over her pregnant belly. Instead, his attention is fixed to Omid- kind, funny, excitable Omid- whose corpse now lays frighteningly still on the bathroom floor.
Omid, who’s fuzzy ghost is stood only a few feet away from his.
“Oh my god… L-Lee?” The man’s voice is musty, distorted. When he looks up, Lee can see the sudden realisation dawn in the backs of his eyes. He takes a step forward but his feet don’t make a sound as his eyes dart from Lee to the body on the floor.
“No, no…” he mutters, slowly at first and then more frantic. “No, t-this isn’t possible. You can’t be here. This can’t be happening. This can’t… I can’t…”
Lee’s dead heart breaks for the other man, who stumbles over stale breaths and stuttered words as he struggles to fit the pieces together. Ever so carefully, he moves forwards and places his hand on Omid’s shoulder, solid and cold. It doesn’t even occur to him then but this is the first human contact he’s had since he died.
“God, Omid,” he says finally, “I am so sorry….”
And Omid crumples over himself and begins to cry.
Things only get worse from there.
Lee spots them first, spawning from the woods like ravenous walkers. Picking up a bundle of logs from the ground, Christa doesn’t even hear them coming. He tries to yell, but of course, she can’t hear him. She does stop though; her head snaps up at the faint rustle of eaves as one of the strangers brushes too close to the trees. She is just a second too late and that mistake already spells her fate- Christa looks up to meet the barrel of the gun that has been shoved between her eyes.
The meeting lasts mere moments. The strangers spit their questions and Christa answers them curtly until a voice shatters the tense quiet.
Clementine- his sweet little Clementine- stands at the edge of the tree line, her face bright with panic and determination as she readies herself for a quick escape. The bandits spot her and start to shout, startling the girl into ducking between the trees. Christa’s head snaps up at the sound of her name and she takes off as well, leaving Lee and Omid to watch in panic as the two are separated.
Lee has his decision made for him when he hears the older woman cry out and stumble. The sound of an impact is heard and then a single gunshot rings true, startling birds from the trees in blackened clouds. Christa is suddenly silent. Lee hears Omid give a horror-struck cry of mourning.
He doesn’t need to check behind him to see what’s happened and bites back a shout of rage as he turns on his heel and sprints after Clementine.
The chase only lasts a few minutes but every second seems to crawl. Clementine, for what it’s worth, doesn’t even stop to take a breather and Lee’s heart threatens to jump from his chest as she manages to throw her pursuers into the arms of the incoming walkers. But his relief is fast to dissipate; Clementine crawls backwards through the mud and tumbles into the rushing river behind her, swept away by the strength of the current.
Lee follows without hesitation.
That’s how, hours later, both girl and ghost find themselves pacing the span of a damp, rickety shed.
Clementine fingers the bloodied bite-mark on her arm- the dog clamps down on her flesh with a guttural growl, raking its jowls across her arm- and Lee watches her sullenly, mind still trying to catch up to everything which has happened so far. The bandits, the river, the dog, Christa and Omid and now this. Locked in a hut in the woods with a festering wound on her arm and a group of paranoid strangers outside probably discussing her fate.
To say that Lee doesn’t understand would be wrong. He is far from unfamiliar with the desperation caused by hunger, by the constant looming fear that the dead are at your door. The apocalypse inspires little trust in people and it is with this thought that he tries to keep calm with the shed door locked behind them.
That doesn’t mean he’s not angry though.
He catches another glimpse of Clementine’s wound. It’s yellower around the edges now and while the bleeding has staunched, there is something distinctly sickly-looking about it that has him hissing in sympathy.
“Shit, Clem… You’re gonna have to get that patched up and soon.”
And while she can’t hear him, her face tells him that she agrees.
She does get it patched up, in the end. It’s just not in the way Lee had expected.
As Clementine drags the needle through her bubbling flesh again, he is suddenly reminded of his own accident and looks down at where the space at his left elbow should be. The pain had been unimaginable, the unforgettable edge of that blunt axe hacking through sinew and bone.
“I’m so proud of you, sweetpea…” he murmurs as he passes a ghostly hand across her back. It makes him feel a little better, even if he knows that she can’t- and hopefully never will- hear him. “Just keep at it, okay? You’re almost done…”
As if on cue, the girl snaps the thread with a wild grimace. She shudders and heaves a ragged breath of finality as she inspects her work. It is not a pretty sight, but Lee is pleased to see that the wound looks significantly less infected than before.
“Good enough,” Clementine mutters to herself.
She grabs the bandages gingerly and begins to unwind them around her fingers but fumbles. The spool of fabric drops to the floor and Lee watches it rock closer to the open hatch in the wall. She bends to pick it up. Lee sees the shadow of something dark move across the hole before a pair of rotten hands are wrapped around Clementine’s ankles, a walker’s collapsing face forcing itself through the gap in the shed’s defences.
It’s almost like something from a horror movie.
The walker takes a brick to the face and does down, letting Clementine- who looks indescribably tiny- shove it back with the jagged reach of the garden rake. The walker stumbles into the back wall of the shed with a gargle and wrenches itself across the thing spearing through its open stomach. Clementine, panting with ragged emotion, wastes no time in yanking the discarded hammer from the sidelines and bringing it crashing down against the walker’s skull again and again and again until the thing finally goes still.
Right on cue, the shed doors swing open.
Lee lets himself bask in the satisfaction of seeing the cabin dwellers go wide-eyed and pale, awe and disbelief in their expressions as they watch Clementine back away from the gurgling corpse, the bloody hammer tumbling out from her grip. Her face is splattered with blots of blood and guts as she turns and her eyes brim dark with fire.
“I am still. Not. Bitten," she bites out. "I never was! And you left me out here to die.”
It’s not pride, he tells himself as the cabin crew collect themselves, it’s not. But as Clementine stands tall against the strangers’ distrust with a corpse pinned to the shed wall behind her, he finds it hard to feel anything but.
Lee knows better than to hope now. He knows that things are going to go wrong when he sees the man on the bridge. He has a sort of sixth sense for this kind of thing now, and he is unsurprised- if not bitter- when the man goes toppling into the river courtesy of a neat-packed bullet to the neck.
His name is Matthew and he’s unusually chatty for a dead man.
“Wait, so you’re not actually her dad?”
“Nope. I found her at the start of all this.”
“Damn, that’s one hell of an undertaking. Ever regret it?”
Matthew whistles and leans back. Lee casts him a bemused glance as he does so. He still isn’t quite sure what to make of this new companion of his. He seems perhaps a little too nonchalant about the whole ‘death’ thing.
“Okay, so… where are her parents? If they’re dead, shouldn’t they be here?”
Lee can only shrug. “I don’t know what to tell you, man. I’ve been asking myself pretty much the same thing ever since I got here. You’d think there’d be ghosts everywhere by now but you’re the first new person I’ve seen in months aside from Pete and Andrea- uh, Nicks’ mom.”
He waves to the back of the group where two pearlescent figures can be seen straying close to Nick’s slumped and shamefaced stature. Matthew’s expression grows a little sour and Lee winces. Yeah, he’d kind of expected that reaction.
“Maybe it’s just a walker thing.”
Matthew shrugs. He doesn’t look convinced but neither is Lee, really.
They travel for some time this way; ghosts trading stories and theories like they are handing out food rations. It’s entertainment at least, especially when the only thing you can do as a ghost is walk and talk. (Honestly, even fighting walkers becomes preferable after a while.)
By the time they reach the cabin, night is falling.
The rest of the group lags forward, but Lee stays with Clementine and Luke as they try to gain a vantage point. It’s almost fun, watching the two shoot half-hearted comments back and forth. It isn’t quite teasing, it isn’t quite familial, but there’s still something nice about it. Lee likes Luke. He’s trying his best and he seems like a kind and level-headed guy, if not a little drained of optimism.
Then Lee hears the cabin doors burst open and the familiar sound of a gun cocking and suddenly people are shouting. Luke startles at the commotion and runs over to help, leaving Clementine to drop down the ladder as quickly as she’s able.
Lee follows close behind, non-existent heart rolling into a thunderous thrum of fear.
He fades through the crowd as usual, picking through the wary, angered faces of the cabin crew. When he reaches the other side, he is faced with a welcoming party; a balding man, calm but frowning disapprovingly, a younger woman of south-asian descent and a baseball-wearing man sporting a grey beard and age lines.
This last one he stalls at, mind working at hyper speed as he tries to comprehend what- or rather, who- it is that he's seeing.
“Holy shit…” he says but only the dead are there to hear him.
He looks almost the same as when he’d left him back in that alleyway. He’s older now, somehow greyer, but very much alive and Lee nearly laughs at it all. Kenny- who should be very much dead- is somehow still alive, while Lee’s rotting corpse is chained to a grill in a police station.
“You know that guy?” Matthew asks and it takes Lee a second to register the question at all.
“Yeah… Yeah, I know him.”
Clementine does too and apparently she remembers him just as well as Lee does.
She hangs back for a moment, eyes wide and shining beneath the brim of her hat. Kenny, pale-faced and mouth open, doesn’t look any better. In fact, if Lee could say any better, the other man looks like he’s seen a ghost.
The irony of that isn’t lost on him.
Clementine flings herself forward. Kenny catches her and holds her tight against his chest, head bowing to rest against her hat. They both tremble but Lee doesn’t focus on that- he knows that they’re trying to shut out the onslaught of bad memories- instead he searches for the forgotten light in their eyes as they pull apart. It is a light that he hasn’t seen in a very long while.
Behind them, Walter smiles. The cabin group appears confused but the tension is slipping, mending itself.
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
The pair embrace for a little moment longer, and the rag-tag group lets them, watching silently and with questions in their eyes as they finally pull away and just look at each other. For a second the world seems brighter; Kenny is smiling, Clementine is finally starting to glow again, and Lee Everett begins to feel right again knowing that his little girl is in safe hands.
And then the light in Kenny’s eyes clouds over.
“Clem… Where’s Lee?” The man is careful about the way he says it, a certain desperation leaking into his tone that takes Lee aback for a moment. At least before he remembers that Kenny hadn’t always seen him as the enemy.
Clementine shifts at the question, her gaze dropping in shame and guilt. Kenny sees the change instantly. He rocks a little on his knees and the blood seems to run from his face. Regret, sympathy, despair; there’s enough emotion in those eyes to make Lee feel almost flattered.
“Oh, shit… Fuck, darlin’, I am so sorry…”
Clementine smiles sadly and doesn’t seem to know quite what to say. Neither does Kenny apparently. His eyes are suspiciously watery as he clears his throat and places a comforting hand on the girl’s shoulder.
“I, uh…” he swallows and straightens, “Are these people with you?”
Clementine nods. The shadow under his eyes recedes as he stands and casts a weary smile towards the rest of the group.
“We can talk inside.”
Pete chimes in from behind them, “Great! I just started dinner.”
The rest of the group, weary from their travel but still cautious of these strangers, trade looks of uncertainty. Clementine’s hopeful smile must inspire some kind of faith in them because finally, Carlos gives a sigh of defeat.
“Are you sure you don’t mind?”
“It’s gonna storm soon. Please, come in."
There is still a lingering tension as they enter the cabin, but it is soon dwarfed by wonder. Christmas lights are strung from one corner to the other, the fireplace is lit and glowing warmly and there’s soft music playing from a radio at the side. It’s almost normal.
Until suddenly it isn’t.
He takes a step back, taking in the two figures standing across the deck; a small, stout woman with dark blonde hair and the young boy who is perched at her side. The woman’s eyes are wide and wet though her face is pale with surprise. It takes him a moment to realise that both she and her child are shimmering with that strange ethereality mirrored across his own skin. It takes him even longer to recognise them.
His mouth suddenly feels very dry.
The woman steps forwards but her footsteps are silent on the wooden slats. He hears her breath hitch, her hand raise up to cover her mouth in that same, soft-mannered way that he had always come to associate with Kenny’s begotten wife.
“Oh, my god, Lee? Is that really you?” the woman murmurs disbelievingly and Lee fumbles for a reply.
“Y-Yeah… Yeah, it’s me.”
The veterinarian makes a sound between a sigh and a sob before moving forwards and pulling him down into a soft, gentle hug. Lee, fighting a wave of unnameable emotion, hugs her back and suddenly feels overwhelmed with guilt. If only he’d been a little faster back at the motor inn. If only he’d stopped Duck from getting bitten, then maybe he could’ve stopped Katjaa from-
He stifles a sigh and moves away. He goes to speak again but a hint of pearly movement catches his attention.
A familiar boy peers out from behind the plump veterinarian with wide-eyed childishness. Lee is instantly assaulted by the image of a paler, much sicker looking child, laying limp and pale against a tree trunk. In his mind the boy’s eyes are tainted yellow; that same putrid shade of death that always signalled a walker’s beginning and a person’s ending.
Now that same boy is standing only a few feet away from him, small and quiet but whole again.
“Hey there, Dick Grayson,” he says and smiles best he can. The boy blinks at him slowly, seemingly unsure of what to do or say so Lee makes the decision for him. He raises a slow hand for a high-five.
This action seems to bring Duck back to himself and the boy startles. Some of the life drains back into his eyes. It’s not much and the uncharacteristic silence is still unsettling but Lee can’t help but feel that he’s made a start, especially when the boy touches his palm against Lee’s.
“Hey, Lee…” Duck mutters back and the pair share a small smile. Katjaa looks on with a gentle expression of her own.
“It is good to see you again, Lee,” she says after a moment. “Although I wish it were under different circumstances.” She steps forwards and her hand touches his shoulder, a grateful smile gracing her lips. “We saw what you did for Duck in the woods that day… You have always been a good friend to us, and for that I cannot thank you enough.”
Lee’s eyes flutter shut. “I just… I just wish I could have done more to help you… Both of you.”
Katjaa draws back to shake her head at him, eyes bright and clear. Her tone is a little sharper when she says: “Don’t say things like that. You did everything you could and more. Kenny probably wouldn’t be alive without you, and neither would Clementine.”
Lee stops and looks over to where Kenny and Clementine are. The two survivors are sat murmuring quietly to one another. Both of their eyes are suspiciously wet, although their smiles are soft with relief and awe. And to think only days ago Clem had been locked in a shed with a needle sawed through her own arm.
“Somehow, I get the feeling that she would have been just fine without me.” The feel of a hand on his back makes Lee jump and he swallows a sigh. Katjaa only offers him a small smile.
“It is alright, you know,” she says softly and her accent lilts even in death. ”I think that they will be alright now.”
Lee straightens a little. He tries to smile but the curve doesn’t reach his eyes.
Somehow, he just can’t find it in himself to believe it.