She didn't know when she'd memorized the sound and weight of his footsteps. She couldn't say what they had sounded like before she'd learned them. How much had his footsteps weighed when she'd first met him? Surely they had gained weight since then, become more burdened, more scarred by the things he'd seen, the threats that have been made to him and the threats he's made. The soles of his feet were scarred by the things he's done, so they pressed harder on the ground.
But as he approached her from behind, they got lighter. Lighter. Just they'd been that stale afternoon when she and Carl had been balancing on the track rails in competition over the last piece of candy.
His footsteps got lighter as he approached her, and she couldn't help but smile despite her current state of mind. He'd hacked into a man's skull earlier, yet his feet weren't weary as they came down the steps. He didn't drop his weight next to her. Instead, he glided down.
But his voice. His voice was the window to the tension, the weariness, the heaviness.
She was already looking at him, of course. Still smiling. Those steps had told her that he wasn't coming over to talk life or death. Not at first.
But she'd bring them around to it.
"I'm….fine." The obvious lie made her chuckle. She chuckled because when did it get so easy to want to say that she wasn't okay?
"I thought we didn't do that," he said, briefly looking at the dark woods that pressed against the church before his eyes were back on her.
She already knew.
"Lie about how we feel."
"I didn't realize we'd established a rule about it."
"You established it."
She wanted to ask when. When had she established it?
It was dark. Very very dark. It ate the blue in his eyes. And still, she could picture them dancing.
His mouth was open, and his body swayed.
He had the answer. Maybe he didn't know her question. But he had the answer.
He wanted to tell her.
She just needed to ask.
She looked at the woods. "I'm not...fine. I don't know why I said I was."
"And Daryl, Carol, and Beth. Sasha, too. Glenn and Maggie."
When she looked at him, he was still looking at her. "My stomach is in knots."
Now he lowered his gaze. "It's another transition."
"A bad one. I don't know when we'll have another good one."
"When was the last good one?"
"Woodbury. We let them in. We can't do that anymore."
He looked at her. Swaying. Not with anticipation. Dread. "You mean I can't."
It was a question. Was that what she meant?
"We can't. We're holding. We can't….build anymore." She looked down at the sword resting between her legs, her long-time third arm. "We can only….hold. Hold off. Hold on. Brace."
"Your stomach is in knots."
His voice sounded closer. He hadn't moved, but his voice sounded closer. He said it like he was hugging her.
She closed her eyes and shook her head. "Being separated….."
She dropped her shoulders in a sigh.
There it was again. Her eyes were closed, but there it was again. The sway. He had something to say. But he wasn't….he wasn't going to say it.
He wasn't going to say it, whatever it was. She couldn't say it, what she was thinking. What being alone again, the thought of being alone for an indefinite amount of time again, had made her realize about this group. And what this current seeping fracture was doing to her mind and her emotions. Where had Daryl and Carol run off to? Why was Abraham so pig-headed, forcing Glenn and Maggie to follow him off a cliff?
Because that was what it was. If they weren't together, if any one person was out of her sight, out of hearing distance, then they'd fallen off a cliff. That had been the looping image in her mind as she'd walked with the dead after the prison had burned.
Where was Beth?
Bob was dead.
And then….not a sway.
Something solid. Over her hand. Soft at first. Then suddenly firm.
She yanked her hand away, and loosened the other one, and the sword thumped and bumped on the steps.
He shifted. Let out out a quiet breath and stared at the space between the trees.
No sway. But his jaw. His jaw was moving side to side, and he was blinking.
She didn't see this. But she felt it. He was….he was about to close. She knew it.
The hand she'd yanked away. She brought it to the other and….at the wrist….she unclasped her glove. She tugged the tip of the middle finger. Then she pulled the tip of the middle finger. The glove snapped off.
Exhaling, she set her arm at an angle on her knee, just like it had been when both of her hands had been holding the katana.
Only this time, her palm faced up. Fingers subtly twitching.
And she faced forward.
He could close off. Retreat. Leave. Not physically. Emotionally. Mentally.
But he stopped blinking. Jaw stopped moving. He'd heard the tug, the pull, the glove snapping off.
She straightened her spine and squared her shoulders. Maybe she would leave. Not emotionally or mentally. Physically.
But then he looked at her.
And he looked down.
And then...something soft, at first. Then gradually firm.
The gradual buildup wasn't smooth. His hand was insecure over hers, open, close, open, close, the pads of his fingers rough, his touch too soft, like it's been too long since he last held someone that wasn't….Judith.
Because even Carl he more clung to than held. Hugs tight and pleading, please don't change, hold, brace, be normal, do not degenerate, let me do that.
No one else in the group needed holding. Not like this. Not from him. Not since….since….
He calms….the group.
He exhaled, probably frustrated by how out of practice he was. Degenerate.
Closed her hand over his.
It's not hard. But she doesn't say that. He wouldn't appreciate that right now. Couldn't. She wouldn't have. Before Andrea? Truly, before Carl? She wouldn't have appreciated someone telling her that it was easy to hold something that wasn't the last shred of her sanity.
What he was doing now, she'd once done it when Beth had handed her Judith.
When she looked at him, he nodded. And nodded. She was the one pair of eyes who saw the degeneration and thought: it's temporary.
"It's gonna be okay," he said, his voice dragging over gravel.
He dipped his head to look into her eyes, eyebrows raised, and she chuckled. Short. But she chuckled. Her shoulders even moved forward.
"Yes," she said.
"That knot ain't here to stay."
She nodded, believing him. Not about the knot not being here to stay, but about his promise to do his best to untie it. Because that was the promise. That was what this nod, this dipping of his head, this raising of his eyebrows, said.