James slowly approached the school's front gates, feeling more anxious with every step. He stopped to survey the school before he entered. An intense longing filled his chest, so strong that it was almost painful. He felt both afraid and hopeful at the same time.
I doubt that Clem will forgive me - how could she, after what I did?
But I have to try.
He spotted a group of kids sitting by the picnic table. Clem saw movement in her peripheral vision and turned to meet James' eyes. His hands were trembling from nervousness. He stepped forward cautiously, unsure of whether she would allow him into the school. Clem gestured for him to come in and she stood up, grabbing her crutches to meet him.
James felt his stomach drop when he noticed she was missing a leg. She gave him a small smile as she approached him, but he was too shocked to smile back at her.
"Clementine- your leg..."
"It's a long story. But I'm okay," she assured him.
"Were they able to treat you here? I could-" James' tone was frantic. He couldn't help it - he had seen so many people die in the past.
"It's all taken care of. I'll tell you another time, okay?" Clem motioned for James to follow her and grabbed her crutches again, moving away from the group. He walked slowly beside Clem as he could tell that she was still learning how to use the crutches. He was still concerned about her leg but he tried to focus back on the reason he was here.
As they walked, her eyes moved downwards to James' injured hand, which was wrapped in tape instead of bandages. She noticed that there was some dried blood on the tape.
"Is your hand okay?"
James blinked, taken off guard. "My hand? O-oh, it's... it's fine. Don't worry about it."
Clem didn't exactly believe him, but she allowed him to drop the subject. She lead James to a secluded spot at the side of the school, where they sat on the steps leading to a side entrance.
There was a tense silence between them as James struggled to find the words to start his apology.
"I'm glad you came back," Clem said tentatively, and James could tell that she was nervous as well. He was surprised that she still seemed to care about him, from the way she asked about his injury. He could understand why she was nervous as she didn't know how he felt - or whether he was still upset with her.
James took a deep breath and finally spoke. "I... wanted to apologize. If you'll let me."
Clem gently nodded for James to continue, her expression anxious but still soft, as if she wanted to see the best in him.
"I'm sorry... for what I did," James' voice wavered, as if he was suppressing emotions still threatening to come to the surface. "At the time...I thought I had lost everything. And I was blinded - I couldn't see, I couldn't think... I kept seeing my past, my people... I kept seeing myself, as a child, in AJ. And I wish someone had... taken me away back then - saved me from all of that pain. I thought you were like them. But I should have waited... I should have talked to you instead."
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
"You've been kinder to me... than anyone else has ever been. And I broke your trust - I hurt you and AJ and Tenn, an innocent boy... And I'm so sorry. I'll never do anything like that again. I swear it."
Clem frowned sympathetically, trying to meet his eyes. James kept his gaze locked on the ground, too ashamed to face her.
"I'm sorry too, James. For telling AJ to shoot. For the things he said. I'm not like your people but I - I made a mistake that day."
James found himself clasping his hands together to try to stop them from shaking. He felt a wave of relief as Clem spoke but he felt as if he didn't deserve her kindness at the same time. He listened intently as she continued.
"You're right - AJ shouldn't have been the one to deal with her. And he went too far. I've spent so much time... worrying about if I've been a good mom to AJ. What he did, what he said... it really scared me. I've tried so hard to raise him right but I know I've messed up. I was still a kid when he was born... I had a friend who taught me how to raise him at first. But he died and AJ was taken away from me after that - it took me a long time to get him back. AJ has never been around other people before - he's only known me, his whole life. I've been trying to teach him how to empathize... but it's hard for him. Still, I know he cares about other people. He thinks of you as his friend, you know."
James felt a strange sensation in his chest, as if his heart was being twisted and pulled. "He does?"
"He told me so."
They were both silent for a moment. James felt like there was a lump in his throat, stopping him from speaking. He was so afraid that he had broken his friendship with Clementine and AJ - he could hardly believe that he might be able to repair the relationships after what had happened. Despite how upset he had been, he couldn't stop caring about them.
"I think I understand your philosophy - more than you know," Clem said. "The friend I mentioned... his name was Kenny. I met him at the start, before he had killed anyone. Then I saw him change. I saw something break inside of him - when he killed someone and kept going after he was down. After that, he was never the same. I was never the same. So I know that you're right. I wanted to protect AJ from that pain more than anything. But on that day - I made a mistake."
Clem's voice wavered, betraying her emotions.
"I've always hated... having to hurt anyone. It makes me feel sick. Seeing AJ do it... is even worse. I wish I had protected him - I had a chance, but I messed it up."
James could sense how hard it was for her to talk about this, how much pain it brought back to the surface. He was relieved to see that Clem was the same kind person that he had grown to care for - not someone violent like his people. "I... I'm sorry, Clementine."
"My friend Lee told me... 'Bad things happen to everyone, and it's hard to keep being yourself after they do.'"
James immediately remembered the name - the person Clem had mentioned she had lost, outside the barn. "Sounds like he was a smart man."
"He was. I wish he was here to help me raise AJ... but all I can do is try to teach him the same things Lee taught me. I know that means... teaching him to use the least violence possible - for his sake, and everyone around him. I... try really hard to be a good mom to AJ, you know. To protect him. I'm not perfect, but I'll always try my best, I promise." Clem's voice seemed desperate, as if the thought that James saw her as a bad mother to AJ had been weighing on her mind a great deal.
"If you try your best... that's all you can do. That's all I could hope for." James met her eyes, giving her a weak smile. He remembered trying to convince Charlie to stop killing, even begging him, to no avail. He had refused to even try. Clem's sense of humanity shone through in her words - he could see good in her still, after everything. But there was still a weight on his shoulders - a question he needed to ask her, even though he was terrified to hear the answer.
James braced himself, closing his eyes. "Do you think you could ever forgive me?"
To his surprise, Clem answered quickly. "I forgive you, James. You're human. We all make mistakes."
He was so relieved that he felt the sting of tears behind his closed eyelids. "Thank you," he whispered, his voice weak.
"James... I wanted to apologize, too - for the people and walkers that died. For putting you through hell. I know it must have been... horrible for you."
"I appreciate you understanding that - and being so kind."
Before he opened his eyes, Clem nervously asked him the same question. "Do you... forgive me?"
James blinked back his tears, meeting Clem's eyes. "I do. You're... special, Clementine. I'd be honoured to have a friend like you. If you'd have me."
"Of course I would," she smiled, getting a brief smile out of James in return. After a moment, he looked concerned again.
"Do you think AJ would forgive me?"
"I think he would. You know, I've tried to teach him about trauma - how he has it, how the kids in this school have it. I'm sure he would understand that you have it, too."
James was shocked. He hadn't expected her to know much about the subject, let alone to have taught AJ about it. "Really? I'm... I'm glad. I've... never talked about it with someone who understood before. I only learned about it from reading books."
"I knew a doctor, once, who taught me about it. I'm glad you... know about it, too. I thought you would - you know about a lot of stuff."
"I've lived alone for a long time," James said. "I've wandered pretty far - come across some useful books along the way."
"If you want... we could talk about it sometime," Clem asked, her tone hopeful but uncertain. "I know it's... not the happiest thing to talk about, but I could tell you what I know, if you're okay with that, and maybe you can tell me what you've learned. Whatever you feel comfortable with, I mean. I wanted to learn more about it and - Dr. Lingaurd said talking with people who understand can help you, you know, feel better."
"I... think that would be nice."
Their eyes met and they shared a hopeful smile. James was so happy to feel a connection to Clem again. Her kindness and empathy was such a rare and precious thing, he never wanted to take it for granted.
"The offer still stands, you know. You're welcome to live here, with us. None of us would be here, or even alive, if it weren't for you and what you did for us."
James' expression quickly changed as he became overwhelmed.
"That's... really kind of you to offer. And I'd like to, Clementine, but I..."
"What is it?"
"My past... was so dark, for so long. I don't - know how to talk to people anymore, how to be with them. All I've got are... memories from when I was a child."
Clem could tell that James longed to be with other people, but fear was holding him back.
"Can I tell you what it's like, living with the kids?" She hoped that telling him what to expect could ease some of his fears.
He nodded slowly.
"Well, we all have our own rooms. We eat together and take care of each other. We talk about the past - before walkers - a lot. Other than that, we play games to keep everyone's spirits up. Talk about what we remember, things that happened here, things that might never happen. AJ and Tenn like drawing together. If it helps, you can stay close to me or AJ when you're with the others. In time, I think you'll really like them. Especially Tenn - he reminds me of you."
"Do you really think... I can be part of the group?" James felt hopeful, no matter how hard he tried to suppress it.
"I do. Really. They're good kids. If you want to tell them how you feel about walkers, when you're ready... I can help, if you want. I can be there with you at least or help explain if you need to."
James was at a loss for words. He didn't know how to respond to kindness like that. "Thank you, Clem. That means a lot to me. I wish I could explain how much."
He took a moment to think, taking deep breaths to try to calm down. The fear was still there, but he pushed it to the back of his mind. "If you'll have me... I would like to try. To be with the group. Just visiting, for now, if that's okay. Until I'm ready."
"I'm glad," Clem grinned, ecstatic that he had accepted the offer. "They'll be happy to see you. They all wanted me to tell you thanks, for saving us."
James let out a nervous laugh, feeling truly happy despite the anxiety he felt.
"I... I want to apologize to AJ and Tenn. Are they...?"
"Would you let Ruby and I take a look at your hand first?"
"Oh, it's - it's fine, you don't need to..."
"We need to make sure it's not infected and wrap it with proper bandages. We've got supplies in the school. You'll have to follow me." Clem pushed herself up, grabbing her crutches. She knew the only way to get James to accept help was to give him no other choice.
"I'll take you to AJ and Tenn after, okay?"
"O-okay," James agreed, standing up to follow Clem. "Thank you, Clem."
He breathed a sigh of relief as he followed closely behind her. He finally felt as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Most of all, he felt a deep bond with Clem. He could barely believe that he hadn't lost his friend, after all. He knew that he would probably never meet another person like her and he cherished their friendship.
Although he wasn't ready to live with the group permanently yet, he hoped that he would be able to one day. One step at a time, he thought to himself. Even the thought of being able to visit made him feel elated. The future looked brighter than it had in a very long time.