She sees him differently, now.
Not in the way he fears, of course. Not in the way that shines in his eyes when Negan comes to visit them, as he is forced to stand there holding his awful bat while that fiend laughs. As he watches strangers confiscate what his family’s worked so hard for without a second thought.
Not in the way that puts a quiver in his voice whenever he must stand in front of his community, in front of these people who ignore him when he succeeds and hate him when he fails, and tell them that this is the way it is now, there’s no second chances, there’s no other option, there’s no way out. When his son glares at him as he tries to get through his young, rebellious mind that this is way it is now and everyone has to accept it, because there’s no going back. When he stares at her with hollow eyes and mumbles that this is the way it is now, that they can’t fight, that they don’t have the numbers and they’d never win.
Not in the way that slumps his shoulders when it is late and dark and they are alone, when he can barely look at her because he’s afraid of what she’ll think and he’s afraid of what he’ll see in her eyes.
Not in the way that etches lines in his face that cry out to her when the two of them are draped in silence.
This is my fault, I know I am weak, I know I am irresponsible, I know I have failed, please do not hate me, please do not think less of me, please do not think I’ve given up on you, on our family, I’m trying to protect us, this is my fault, please do not hate me, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
She sees him differently, but not in the way he fears. She could never see him that way, because that is not who he is; the version of him that exists in his head is a lie. It is a product of self-loathing and doubt, of exhaustion, of attempting to carry the entire world on his shoulders and the devastation that overcomes him when he fails. You are not Atlas, she wants to ask him, who made you carry the world in the first place?
She wants to ask him, wants to hold his head in her hands as he pours out his shame to her and then rub out the crease of worry between his brows with her thumb, run her lips over his skin and tell him that he is wrong, that is not who he is, that is not who she sees. He may be lost to himself right now, but she never doubts his strength. They may be on different pages regarding what to do with Negan, but she never questions his courage or his heart. Not even for a second.
She wants to show him that. She wants him to look into her eyes and see the truth that resides there.
You are strong, you are so strong, the strongest man I’ve ever known, you take abuse, you swallow pain, you lay at the feet of those who have cut you open and left you to bleed and thank them if that is what it takes to shield the ones you love, if that is what you must do to keep them safe, you put others first, you place yourself last, and that is not weakness, that is the greatest strength, you are the strongest man I’ve ever known, you are strong, you are strong, you are strong.
She wants to tell him he’s wrong, that the monster who exists in his head isn’t real, but she knows he would not believe her, so instead she caresses him and cherishes him and tries to love away his self-hate. She tries to find a way to stretch across the chasm between them and hold his hand.
She prays she can reach him.
She prays he can feel her when she does.
* * *
She sees him differently now, after they kiss, when she really touches him for the first time since their lives were shattered with the swing of a bat, save for the few hours they spent wrapped together immediately after the clearing, clinging to each other with the relief that the kids were alive and she was alive and he was, too.
She reaches out first because she knows that he won’t, that he doesn’t see himself as worthy of her love. He never has and probably never will, and this breaks her heart but it is who he is and who he is etched into her bones. She will never be rid of him and it makes her smile. He is etched into her bones and she is glad.
She kisses him because his body is heavy – heavy in a way that reveals fear and fatigue and loneliness. He thinks he is losing her, that she is slipping through his fingers. He thinks that the current pulling them apart is too strong, that she won’t come back to him, that they’ll never recover. She knows this because she knows him, knows him like the back of her hand, knows him like she’s known him forever. She knows because she can hear it in the cadence of his voice, in the sound of his breath passing unsteadily through his lungs. She can almost smell it on his skin.
She kisses him to remind him. I’m still with you, she’d told him once, and she’d meant it, with every fiber of her being. She still means it, will mean it until the day she dies and even longer, until Earth falls away and the universe collapses in on itself.
She kisses him and a wall falls down. The last wall that stands between them crumbles and they are laid out before each other bare. They are naked, vulnerable in a way they’ve never shown another person, and it is strange and terrifying, but air rushes over her in a way it never has before, and she’s never felt more alive.
Here I am, they say to each other, I’ve been destroyed. I am just broken shards scattered on the ground, but here I am. I can hardly breathe, but here I am. Take me or leave me, but please take me, take me, please don’t leave me.
He takes her. Of course he does, as if there was any doubt. For her, he is as solid as a rock in a storm. She clings to him and he never wavers, not once. He picks up every ruin that Negan leaves behind, holds it, regards it as the most treasured jewel and vows to protect it with his life.
She takes him, and this was always just as sure as him taking her. She holds him just as carefully, but he cannot see it, is blind to his worth. If she was trying to explain it to Judith, she would say that her father saw her as a princess, thought himself the frog, and forgot that the point of the story is that the princess is in love with the frog despite everything he hates about himself.
They take each other, pick up every damaged piece. They cut their fingers on the sharp edges of their hurt and pain, but they do not care because people suffer and fires burn to make way for something new. Blood drips from their hands but they do not care – he because he loves her so much and would do anything to make her happy, she because she loves him too and she knows they will heal together. They do not care because fires burn to make way for something beautiful.
She sees him differently after they kiss, and it is a revelation. It is a light that illuminates the darkest corners of herself, that leaves her in awe and roots him more deeply into her heart than anyone who’s come before him. To cut him out would be to cut out a part of herself. She would die without him, and that fact is terrifying but somehow she isn’t afraid. Somehow it fills her from head to toe, brings about a certain freedom, and she feels so light that she thinks she might float into a softness she’s never experienced before, one from which she’ll never recover.
She kisses him and tries to love away his self-hate, and when she pulls away and runs her fingers over the graying stubble of his beard, he looks at her in a way that makes her think maybe she’s finally started to succeed. A hushed thank you falls from his lips, and she almost asks him to stay home from his run, to kiss her again and then slip away into their room, to crawl under their covers and hold her and forget everyone and everything else, if only for a moment. But she knows that he couldn’t even if he wanted to, so she lets him walk from her and she stares after him longingly as she grips the walkie talkie he gave her in her hand.
She spends each second of his absence thinking of him, worrying about him, even though she’s busy with her own endeavors. She hasn’t been away from him this long since after the prison, and since she let herself admit how important he was to her, how much and how deeply she cared for him. She has to talk herself out of following him every couple of hours, and she spends the night without him clutching the walkie in her hand like it’s her only lifeline, her skin stretched tightly over her knuckles as she tries to close her eyes and find sleep that doesn’t come.
* * *
hearts still beating
The next night, she falls asleep to the sound of his heartbeat.
She smiles softly as she lies pressed against his side, her bare skin against his, his arms wrapped around her, hands settling possessively in the dip of her lower back, just skimming the curve of her ass. Her cheek rests against his chest, so she can also feel the steady pump of blood running through his veins, giving him life.
We’re the ones who live.
She can’t pinpoint that exact moment she realized that she wasn’t going to be able to do what she thought she could. The feeling crept over her, rather than hitting her all at once. It began in her toes and slithered up her skin before it planted itself in her chest, its roots twisting through her heart.
She had thought this would be just like all those weeks she spent looking for The Governor, and that this time she would succeed in her mission. She would not let Negan destroy her home, as The Governor had destroyed the prison. She would not let him kill anymore of the people she loved.
But the more time she spent in the car with the strange woman beside her, the closer she got the The Saviors’ camp, the better she came to understand that this wouldn’t be the same. That it couldn’t – not anymore. She couldn’t retreat inside herself like she had done months ago. It was impossible, because there were parts of her heart that weren’t her own anymore, that would forevermore exist outside her chest. One belonged to a baby girl with gentle blonde curls that eased the pain of losing Andre with each coo directed her way, with each tug of her hair and swipe of small, soft fingers across her cheek. Another belonged to the most resilient boy she’s ever known, one she’s watched grow up before her very eyes, the first person she allowed herself to love wholly and completely in this new, dead world.
The other is held by him. If someone had told her that first day they met – that day full of hostility and suspicion – that he would come to mean to her what he does, she would’ve laughed. She would’ve thought they were crazier than her, and she had regular conversations with her dead boyfriend. But he had snuck up on her, wormed his way into her hardened heart slowly and persistently, without her realizing it. And now she couldn’t bear the thought of life without him. He was her best friend, the love of her life.
He was her partner, in every sense of the word. She wanted him here, beside her. She wanted to do this with him. She wanted them to be together and united, always.
She couldn’t be by herself anymore. She didn’t want to be.
So she’d gone home.
She’d turned the car around, drove back to Alexandria. She found Carl and Judith, the children that were hers in every way that counted, and held them. And then she set out to find him.
And when she did, she poured out her heart and her soul. She grabbed his hand and pulled with all her might, tried to free him of this darkness Negan had heaped upon him. She entreated him passionately, desperately, with the only words she had left.
Me and you, she’d said. The two of us. She needed help from the rest of her family too, of course, but he was her first priority, as always. She needed him with her on this, before she could even begin to think about anyone else. She couldn’t do this without him. She wouldn’t.
She needed him to find his spirit again, to find himself. She needed him to come back to her.
And he had.
In the back of her mind, she supposed she’d always known he would, but that didn’t reduce the sweet relief that washed over her when she saw that fire that she loved so much back in his eyes. It didn’t stop tears from filling her eyes, but she welcomed them, embraced them with open arms. For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, they came from something other than sadness and grief. They came from the same joy that lit up her face with a wide smile that mere hours ago she feared she’d never experience again.
He’d reached for her at the same time she reached for him, and she kissed him and kissed him and kissed him. She conjured up every bit of emotion coursing through her being and poured it out of herself and into him, and then she took him home and made love to him. And when she’d held his face between her palms as their pulses slowed and breathing steadied, firmly telling him, “We’re going to be okay,” she truly believed her words for the first time, and she could tell by the glint that shined in his eyes even in the darkness of their bedroom that he did, too.
She smiles again now, remembering it and everything else, from the couch to finding him and Carl after the prison to standing at the back of an SUV with him as he tossed her the keys to the vehicle with some cheeky remark that almost sounded friendly, and she thought for the first time that things might work out differently with him than she’d expected.
We’re going to be okay.
Her words echo in her head, and with every passing second she believes them more. She twists herself closer to him. The world that still had enough good in it to give her this – to give her him – would not be so cruel as to take it from her. To take her entire life, heart, and soul away from her again.
We’re going to be okay. We’re the ones who live.
She feels his steady breaths blow against the top of her head, and before she joins him in slumber, she lifts herself from him, props herself up on her elbow and hovers over him. The peace she sees on his beautiful face makes her heat swell. She brings her hand up to brush a stray curl from his forehead before trailing it down the side of his face to caress his cheek, her thumb sweeping across his skin gently.
Her love for him overwhelms her as she gazes down at him. This man, who can be so rough and savage and ruthless, who she’s seen covered in blood more times than she can count, is so precious to her. So dear. This man that lies under her is so gentle and warm and loving and good. That is his heart. The brutal, hardened man who fights and kills so often is who he has to be, to protect his family and himself. But the man who is before her now – this good, good man – is who he is.
He stirs under her touch, and she freezes. She regrets rousing him from the first restful sleep he’s gotten in a while, but before she can pull away, one of his hands shoots up to hold hers in place against him. He hums softly, his eyes still closed.
“Don’t stop that. It feels nice.”
His voice is deep and gravelly, as it always is just after he wakes, and a wonderful chill runs down her spine. She smiles as his eyelids flutter and reveal bleary blue eyes that stare up at her.
“What are you doing awake?”
She shrugs, drops her face almost bashfully.
“I…I just wanted to be with you. Look at you. I guess…”
She trails off, laughing self-consciously. She hasn’t done this in such a long time, cared for someone so deeply and openly.
“Hey,” he whispers, and she lifts her head to look at him again.
The emotion she sees on his face knocks the breath out of her. Because it is what she feels, mirrored back to her. They’ve always been good at communicating without words, and she can see what he feels for her etched into his expression as plainly as if he’d carefully written it out on paper and then read it to her word for word.
She’s not alone. He’s in this with her. They’re together, and there’s no reason for her to be shy.
“I missed you so much,” she murmurs, and her voice cracks as she feels tears well up behind her eyes once more.
He embraces her then, locks his arms around her and crushes her to his chest so tightly that it almost hurts, but she doesn’t mind. If anything, she wants more, she wants him closer. She’ll always want him closer, and she’ll always want more because she will never tire of him, never have enough of him.
He buries his head in the crook of her neck, starts to drop soft kisses against her collarbone.
“I missed you, too,” he whispers against her skin, and she winds her fingers into his hair, presses her face against the top of his head.
They lay like that for a few moments, enjoying the comfortable silence between them, the contact their bodies make, the feel of being together physically, emotionally, and intellectually once again. But he moves, pulls her down his body slightly so that their faces are aligned, and leans back into the pillows so that he can look into her eyes.
“But you’ll never have to miss me again,” he promises, and she knows that he means it with everything he is, and a few tears escape and fall down her face before she leans down and kisses his nose, and then presses her lips against his. When she pulls away, she nestles her cheek against his. She turns her head, moves her lips along his jaw, the stubby hair of his beard pricking her lips.
“I love you.”
The words slip out of her mouth before she can stop them, before she can even think about them. But they’re true and she’s so overcome by him in this moment, by the solace of having him back in her arms, by her affection for him that fills every cell in her body.
Still, her heart skips a beat and she gasps sharply in surprise and fear; she doesn’t do this. She doesn’t put herself so far out there, she doesn’t say it first, she refuses to be so vulnerable, even did in her life before. When she had no reason to be afraid or anxious.
But she feels his arms tighten around her and his head turn so he can bury his nose in her hair and inhale her. And she’s reminded that there’s nothing to fear, that he is here and he is hers. This is different – different than the old world, different than anything that’s come before.
“I love you,” he declares back to her. “Always have, and always will.”
And the statement is so blunt and direct and him. It’s perfect. Her life before had been filled with so much art and poetry and opulence, that she’d sometimes forgotten the value of just telling things the way they are. Sometimes the most important things are best said in the simplest of terms.
His words are perfect, and he is perfect. Perfect in his imperfections, and perfect for her.
She smiles, somehow intertwines herself with him even more and in some strange way – despite everything that’s going on, despite their mourning, despite the danger and death and fight that is ahead of them – she thinks this may be the happiest moment of her life.
Neither move. They hold each other, fingers running like feathers over skin intermittently, reveling in each other. Their heartbeats slow, they match their breathing, and soon both are on the cusp of sleep.
And she feels it again, that profound conviction, curling in her stomach.
They’re going to be okay. All of their family, Alexandria and The Hilltop, are going to be okay. But especially the two of them – him and her. Rick and Michonne. The world wouldn’t take him from her. She wouldn’t allow it.
We’re the ones who live.
* * *
rock in the road
Their bedroom becomes their sanctuary.
It starts the night they return from their whirlwind outing. They’d gone to The Hilltop, visited The Kingdom for the first time, cut down a herd of walkers, put up with a visit from the Saviors, and found yet another new community in the process of getting back Gabriel, all in the span of two days. She’s tired just thinking about it. Her head is still reeling from all they’ve seen and learned, thoughts racing with the new possibilities and strategies for their upcoming war with The Saviors, and she quickly voices one to him. Rather than responding, though, he freezes, with his button-up halfway down his arms. She looks at him strangely as he pulls it back up and snaps it up quickly. He walks across the room and grabs her robe from a hook inside the closet, tossing it to her before moving to the doorway, since she’s already stripped out of her dirty clothes. He cocks his head towards the stairs in a silent request for her to follow him.
She slips the robe over her body and ties it at the waist quickly before padding down the stairs after him. She finds him in the kitchen, grabbing a glass from the cupboard and walking over to the sink.
“Is everything okay?” she asks, the puzzled look that came over her in the bedroom still on her face.
He turns on the faucet and fills his cup with water, then lifts it and drains the liquid in one gulp. He sets the glass on the counter and wipes the leftover moisture from his lips with his forearm before turning to her, nodding his head slowly.
“Yeah. Yeah, it’s just…”
He trails off, dropping his head with a heavy sigh before lifting his eyes to look at her.
“If we’re gonna talk about him – Negan, I mean…”
She doesn’t even let him finish before she moves over to where he stands, placing her hand on his back and rubbing in gentle, soothing circles. She frowns slightly as she stares at him, his head turned towards the floor once again. All this information and planning, the weight of what they’re preparing to do, has been going non-stop for hours on end, and after two long days away from home, it’s no wonder he needs a break. She does too, if she’s being honest.
“We don’t have to talk about it anymore tonight,” she assures him quietly. “I’m exhausted. I’m sure you are, too. And it’s been a lot to take in. So we should breathe a little and just…not think about it for a while.”
“It’s not that, although I do agree that we should call it a night for now,” he murmurs, lifting his head up and looking at her as the left corner of his mouth rises up for just a moment before he becomes all-business once again.
“It’s not that I don’t want to talk about it. I mean, we’re gonna have to talk about it.”
He pauses, his eyes flicking towards the stairs.
“Just not in there,” he tells her. “Not upstairs. I want to be able to forget about it in there. Or try to, at least. I need to have a space where none of that stuff exists. Where it’s just me and you. I really need that. I think we need that.”
He lets out a dry chuckle, and then turns and falls into her, gathering her against his chest in a tight hug. She wraps her arms around his back and burrows her face into his chest, as she feels his lips press against the top of her head.
“I might go crazy if I don’t have that.”
She rests her chin on his chest and tilts her head up to meet his gaze, and his eyes are warm as they stare down at her. She drops a kiss on the underside of his jaw and then lifts up on the balls of her feet.
“I love that idea,” she whispers.
“As much as you love me?”
She giggles at the wry smile on his face, and pretends to consider this for a moment.
“That’s a tough question.”
He pouts, and she can’t resist reaching up and running her fingers over his pursed lips as she laughs again.
“You’re the one who asked.”
She lets the quiet linger a bit, and makes sure she captures his full attention before answering. His blue eyes bore into her brown ones, anticipating her next words.
“I don’t love anything as much as I love you,” she murmurs lowly, seriously, and she waits to catch a glimpse of his smile before leaning in and kissing him slowly.
When they part, she brings up her hand and runs her fingers through his curls.
“So when we’re in our bedroom, no Negan, and no fighting. No Saviors or anything like that. Just us.”
“Just us,” he agrees.
She smiles and places one more quick peck on his mouth before stepping back. He reaches out, entwining their fingers, and she nods towards the stairs.
“Take me to bed. I’m tired, and I want you to hold me.”
He smiles once more, and lifts their hands between them, kissing the back of her wrist before pulling her along.
And that’s how it starts. They stick to their agreement with ferocious tenacity, as neither of them have ever been known to do anything halfway. They keep their room pure from any mention of death and destruction. As soon as they lock the door behind them each evening, and cocoon themselves into their heap of blankets on the floor, they let all their stress and fear rush from their bodies until nothing but joy is left between them.
No matter how gloomy or bleak their prospects may seem outside, in their room – their place – where nothing exists except him and her and their love for each other, everything seems brighter.
And again, she thinks that when everything is said and done, and the final minutes of her life are wasting away, she’ll look back on those nights spent with him as some of the best times of her life.