Daryl holds her until his legs are numb, ignoring the pressure in his bladder and the sun burning the back of his neck and the careful glances of those working hard at avoiding them. He listens to her cry, feels her hiccupped breaths beneath his hands as he watches the others haul away the bodies one at a time. They leave Sophia’s for last which is completely fucking cruel, he thinks, but he gets it. No one wants to touch her. Not because she’s tainted, but because they are. Because they all thought the worst even when they said they didn’t and now they feel guilty for being proven right.
When Sophia’s body is the only one left, Carol finally stirs, rising slowly from Daryl’s lap. She doesn’t look at him or anyone as she crawls on her hands and knees towards her daughter, her toes leaving thin trails in the dust behind her. Daryl knows he should look away, that he should get up and leave her alone with her very private pain, but he doesn’t. He can’t because he still remembers how he felt when he found Sophia’s doll in the mud, the way hope had bloomed sharply in his chest, filling a part of him he thought was long dead. It was a bright, clean thing – like Sophia herself.
He watches Carol touch Sophia’s foot, her ankle, her calf with trembling fingers. She traces the length of Sophia’s arm, the point of her elbow, the curve of her neck, her chin, her mouth, her nose. She reaches up and gently pushes Sophia’s eyes closed. When she reaches the ragged hole in the center of Sophia’s forehead, the one Rick put there, she pulls her fingers away, leaving them to hover in the air as she stares at it. After a moment, she threads her fingers through Sophia’s hair, working slowly through the tangles until it all falls around her head like a halo. She bends closer then, her lips moving swiftly to soundless words before she presses her lips to Sophia’s cheek, holding there a moment before finally pulling away.
When she looks at him, her eyes are dry and she meets his gaze unwaveringly. “Will you help me carry her?”
Daryl feels something tear a little inside his chest. This, little brother, is why it’s better not to give a shit. Hell, Merle’s voice echoes in his head, and Daryl can almost see his smirk, is other people. But Merle’s wrong. Giving a shit is all that’s left and he’s not like his brother.
He nods once, unable to speak, and pushes himself up. His legs tingle with renewed circulation and his feet feel heavy when he walks. The others are standing around them at a distance, watching like it’s some kind of fucking freak show. They’re probably holding their breath, too, afraid the slightest sound will cause this new, fragile reality to shatter like glass around them. He wants to scream at them to go away, to leave the three of them the hell alone and mind their own business, but he bites back the words. He reminds himself that there is no script for this. Even in this fucked-up world, kids aren’t supposed to die. So when it happens, everything gets tilted a few degrees, leaving those who are left holding on by their fingertips.
Carol watches him as he approaches, her hand still in Sophia’s hair. Her eyes are red and there’s an endless sadness behind them, but they’re not empty and he thinks that’s something. When he bends down to slide his arms beneath Sophia, he feels the wound in his side open up a little, but he grits his teeth against it. He straightens slowly, holding Sophia firmly in his arms, and tries not to think about how little she is, how she barely weighs a thing, how it doesn’t make sense that something so small can leave such a huge hole in the world. Carol stands with him, her hand on his, folding Sophia’s arm across her stomach when it falls.
“Thank you,” she whispers, looking up at him.
Daryl nods again, his throat tight, and turns his eyes away. He can’t look at her, not right now. He can’t let her see, can’t let anyone see what he’s not supposed to be feeling.
Carol picks a spot beneath the canopy of an old oak tree to bury her daughter – a piece of serene beauty in a dark and ugly world. Daryl starts to dig the grave by himself, ignoring the pain in his side and the warm ooze of blood he can feel seeping through his shirt. When others approach, trying to help, he angrily glares them away.
Except for Glenn. The kid doesn’t budge, doesn’t wither away under Daryl’s angry scrutiny. He simply looks at Daryl and says, “You’re not the only one who loved her.”
Daryl’s first instinct is to deny it, but he doesn’t. The words won’t come. So instead he says, “No fucking around. I want it done right.”
Glenn nods. They keep digging.
He really wants to make her a stone, something sturdy and strong to mark her final resting place, something that will remind people generations from now that Sophia Peletier lived on this earth and wasn’t just another nameless victim of whatever the hell’s gone wrong with it. But the best he can do for now is wood. He carves the inscription himself with the blade of his knife: her name and the year she died, nothing else.
It’s not nearly enough.
Carol asks him to sit with her until she falls asleep. He wants to say no; he’s not used to someone needing him for anything other than hunting and killing and it makes him feel like a stranger in his own skin, itchy and uncomfortable. But he stays; he doesn’t really have a choice. So he sits at the tiny table with his back to the window and stares at the Cherokee rose still sitting in the jar on the counter, looking almost as fresh as the day he’d picked it.
Mothers’ tears, the legend said. Something beautiful growing out of their sadness. It’s a nice story, but that’s all it is. He should’ve known better than to let himself believe it could be true.
That had only been three days ago. It seems like a lifetime.
And here’s the thing, the thing he can’t forget, the one thing that keeps repeating in his head like a needle stuck in a record’s scratch: Sophia was in the barn. She was in the barn the whole fucking time.
He has his hand on the flower jar when he hears her voice.
“Leave it,” she says.
Daryl turns his head, sees her looking back at him from the open bedroom door. She’s standing in the doorway, looking thin and fragile, her eyes seeking his in the darkness. He looks away, turns his eyes on the flower and lets go of the jar, tracing the petals with the tip of his index finger. He can feel her watching him.
“I’m sorry,” he says. He realizes the second the words leave his mouth that he’s been meaning to say them for hours. To his horror, his eyes fill with tears.
She’s next to him then, standing close, her hand on his arm. Her fingers are cold against his skin but he can feel the warmth radiating off the rest of her body. He can’t remember the last time someone touched him just because they wanted to.
“Daryl,” she says softly, and something inside him breaks. The edge of the counter is hard beneath his fingers as he grips it and his throat burns. He hasn’t cried since he was a child and he feels awkward and stripped bare, raw and helpless. He can taste the salt of his own tears and wills himself to stop, but he can’t.
Carol presses her lips to his shoulder and drags her fingers through the hair on the back of his neck. He feels her fingertips press into his arm and he reaches over, covering her hand with his own and holding on tight.
It’s just after dawn when he returns from his errand and finds Carol sitting next to Sophia’s grave. The air smells like grass and dew and freshly tilled soil and it doesn’t seem fair that days like this can still exist in the world, not after everything.
Her eyes fall to what he’s holding in his hand and she smiles. “Put them here,” she says, lifting her eyes to his face. She pats the soft dirt in front of the marker. “She’ll love them.”
Daryl kneels beside her and places the bunch of Cherokee roses on the ground, spreading them carefully with his hands until he’s satisfied with their arrangement. They look at it in silence for a while.
When Carol takes his hand, he turns his head to look at her. And when she meets his eyes and smiles, he doesn’t look away.