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_________________________

They don't talk on the drive to camp.

The station wagon Rick left her miraculously still runs, but she hands Daryl the keys and slides into the passenger seat, brushing out pretzel crumbs for the birds.

He's the one who knows where they're going.

She sneaks sideways glances, her eyes drifting from the deserted road ahead to different parts of his body in turn. (Of course he said he was "Fine," but she needs visual verification.) There's a long gash on his lower right arm and deep purple bruises on the side of his neck. The knuckles on his left hand are scabbed and oozing, little drops of blood that well when he grips the steering wheel until the skin beneath the scabs turns white.

He's so angry.

And she's sorry for that, she is, but right now there's no room inside her for anything besides relief, maybe even a quiet pulse of joy.

She has to look out the window again when the tears rise, stinging and unwanted. Determined, she blinks them back as she watches the trees flash past in a melded yellow-green blur and tries to push out of her mind every last "What if?" that's haunted her for weeks.

He's here.

He's breathing.

It's enough.

God, it's so much more than enough.

_________________________

It took him twenty-seven days to find her. (He knows. He counted. He told her, his voice shaking.)

Replaying the memory from this morning makes her heart slam and her hands sweat.

She'd come back from a crack-of-dawn grocery run to find him pacing the front porch of the house she'd been living in for the past few days, boots slamming the weather-beaten wooden floorboards, crossbow halfway up, ready.

Her eyes locked with his before she even switched off the ignition, and she'd made it out of the car, vertical, before she started shaking so badly that she didn't trust herself to step forward. Didn't matter, because inside a heartbeat he launched himself off the porch, threw the crossbow on the grass, and yanked her into his arms, her entire body smushed against his. She could feel the warmth of his shoulder on her lips, his choppy hitched breathing heating her hair.

They'd stood like that for a long time, both of them trembling and silent, until suddenly he'd coughed and whispered, "You're alright? Nothin's hurt?"

She'd tried to answer him fast enough, but her throat was swollen and her out-of-practice voice didn't work. His hands were all over her before she even knew what was happening, sliding up her sleeves to look at her arms, lifting her shirt to press her ribs, holding her face, her chin in his palms, while he rubbed rough thumbs over her cheekbones and finally stopped moving long enough to scan her eyes with his.

She swallowed and forced herself to say, "I'm fine. Nothing's hurt. I'm fine."

He'd leaned his forehead against hers and shut his eyes, fingers soft on the back of her neck. "Jesus. The fuck-." He took a deep breath. "Jesus."

He was quiet for another few seconds before he jerked his head up and said, louder this time, with conviction, "Get your stuff, whatever you wanna bring. We gotta go."

She'd bitten into her lip (hard, tang of blood on her tongue) before she answered. "No. I'm not going back."

And that's when it all went to hell in ten seconds.

_________________________

They pull into camp at dusk. A damp chill hangs in the outdoor air, vicious wet cold that seeps into her bones and makes her wonder if she'll ever be warm from the inside again.

She doesn't want to get out of the car, but it's only a few seconds before Lizzie and Mika are running full tilt toward her, yelling her name, blond hair flying everywhere, the only bright spots in the darkening mist.

She's barely got both feet on the ground before they're on her in a giant tackle hug. She feels small hands on her back, hears excited voices bubbling. It takes a few seconds before she manages to sort any meaning from the noise, but when she does, it's Lizzie's words, soft and anguished. "I told him, I swear I told him as soon as I found out he sent you away. I wouldn't have let him. I never would have-"

"Shhh, stop," she murmurs, holding the small bony shoulders tighter. "I know. We'll figure it out."

She can feel herself thawing, whether she wants to or not.

_________________________

The few hours between dusk and bedtime stretch, a seemingly endless expanse of awkward silences, choppy cut-off phrases, and minutes that feel like hours.

No one except the girls knows what to say to her.

Maggie can only look at her for nanoseconds at a time, filled with jittery darting excuses to walk away.

Beth touches her arm and says, "I'm so glad you're safe," quiet and sincere. But she too melts away quickly.

Michonne looks her up and down with clear admiration and says, "Don't know how you did it, but damn."

Tyreese gives her a startling bear hug, punctuated with, "I wish it'd worked out different. None of us knew-" She nods, vehement, needing nothing more than for him to stop.

Glenn hugs her too, tight, and says, "We missed you." The lump that fills her throat surprises her, makes it hard for her to breathe.

It's not as if she hasn't known, from the moment her fingers pulled the handle of the car door and met a wall of resistance instead of the expected click and give, that if she ever shared space with these people again, the easy camaraderie, the smiling and joking and black humor, would be gone. She just hadn't realized it would feel this bad, that she'd have a crawling sensation up the back of her neck, a persistent pounding in her temples, and the almost overwhelming urge to vanish.

Again.

Some earlier version of herself would have been compelled to offer help, would have automatically thought up something soothing to say to everyone, something to fill the dark, uncomfortable silences and help get rid of the shifty awkward eyes.

This version doesn't really give a shit. In fact, she's at least peripherally aware that at some point, she should probably give some thought to the pulse of something close to pleasure she experiences when yet another person fails to meet her gaze or says something spectacularly stupid to cut the quiet.

After dinner, when she's helping Beth clean up (she appreciates, deeply, the way Beth explains instructions about the way they do things now as soft asides murmured under her breath, without Carol having to ask), Rick reappears, asks if he can speak with her for a second.

Her fingernails make five crescents into her palm as she follows him to the edge of camp, a few yards past the bus.

He still can't make eye contact, but he manages, "Carol, nobody knew the whole story. You could have spoken up at any time, but you lied, and-"

"Shut up." Shit, that's not what she thought she was going to say at all, but she says it again. "Just shut up." She stares at him with wide angry eyes until he has no choice but to look at her. "Some things can't be fixed," she continues, making sure she doesn't give in to the impulse to look away. "We both screwed up. But it's done. We can figure out a way to coexist here, and we will. I'll stay out of your way, you stay out of mine, okay?"

He pauses for a beat and then says, his voice thick, "Yeah, okay." Her heart smacks too fast and blood rushes in her ears.

It feels good though, cutting the bullshit. Really good.

_________________________

After Rick ditched her in the cul-de-sac, she talked to herself almost nonstop for something like two days, a stream-of-consciousness monologue about whatever it was she happened to be doing or thinking, unless there was walker activity in the area, in which case she remained quiet until she got rid of the threat. But when she realized she was literally providing a real-time narrative of what she saw outside the car window (That brown house looks like the one the Michaelsons used to live in. Oh, I haven't seen roses in that shade since before we left Atlanta. Those people still have the flag on their mailbox up. God that's really sad.), she . . . stopped talking.

Completely.

She hadn't spoken another word until Daryl found her.

For years, Carol had equated silence with cowardice, mousiness, inability to self-assert.

Now, as she watches Rick walk away, his shoulders angled forward as if something might be pushing them down, she realizes that silence also has the capacity to harness immense power.

She can withhold. She can control what she does and doesn't say. She can refuse to make it easier for anyone else to rationalize or explain away Rick's poor choices, or her own.

For years, she was silent out of fear, out of compulsion.

Now she's silent by choice.

It feels empowering.

It feels strong.

_________________________

"Carol, you can read to us tonight!" Mika stands on the bottom step of the bus, bouncing up and down on the balls of feet. There's a tiny smack each time her heels hit the soles of her blue plastic flip-flops. Her pale green pajamas, at least a size too small for her (if not two), are ruffled at the neck and sleeves and splashed with giraffes and neon polka dots. She clutches a pathetic-looking stuffed animal under her left arm. The thing is so ancient and well-loved that Carol can't even decide on its species.

Could be an otter. Maybe a bear.

She doesn't want to read. She wants to take four Advil to stop the throbbing in her skull and curl up in a ball with her forehead on her knees, someplace where she can't feel multiple sets of eyes tracking the movements of her body every time she shifts her weight or slaps at a bug on her arm. But she forces herself to smile at Mika and asks, "What're you reading?"

"This one." Lizzie appears on the step behind Mika, holding out a book. After her chilly river bath, her blond hair hangs smooth and damp on her shoulders, just like her sister's, but that's the only present similarity. The instant Carol steps forward to take the book, the girl's arms wrap back around her chest and her shoulders curl inward, as if she's trying to make herself smaller, occupy less space, be less visible. She looks vaguely at Carol's forehead or her ear, rather than meeting her eyes. In the tiny moment when Carol does manage to catch Lizzie's gaze, she hates herself for the white-hot bolt of gratitude that lances through her when she's reminded, again, of all the things Sophia doesn't have to face because she's dead.

All the things she'll never have to see.

All the things she'll never have to feel.

All the things she'll never have to do.

Carol swallows to snap out of it and glances down at the beat-up book in her hand. The bottom half of the cover is gone, and she can tell that if she holds it wrong, a large chunk of pages will fall right out. She squints to read the title. Dolphins at Dusk, one of those Magic Treehouse books she used to check out of the library by the half dozen. Lizzie's way too old for them.

Carol forces a smile and steps toward the bus door. "I've missed reading to you so much. Show me where you two sleep."

_________________________

It almost sends her into a borderline claustrophobic panic attack, the unfamiliar sensation of having two small warm bodies pressed up against her, both of Mika's hands on her forearm, as if maybe holding on tight will prevent a nightmare repeat of the past month.

The younger kids sleep on the bus, with two adults standing guard. Easiest way to make sure they're packed up and ready to go if something happens in the middle of the night, Beth had explained, handing Luke a clean t-shirt.

Carol's voice is already so strained from unaccustomed use that her throat swells and burns with every word, but she ignores the pain and reads, almost smiling as the details of the story come back to her. There is, after all, something comforting about the fact that each of these books have exactly the same plot. No surprise twists. No wondering what's around the next page, the next corner. And after a few minutes, she feels the tension sliding from her shoulders, feels her heartbeat moving back into normal range, feels the panicky sweat on her neck and forehead evaporating.

When they're three chapters in, Lizzie rests her head on Carol's shoulder and slips her small fingers into Carol's free hand.

Tears sting the edges of her eyes. (Sophia used to sit exactly like that, and when Lizzie’s hair is wet, it’s exactly the same warm, soft brown.) Her voice cracks and she has to pause for a deep, long breath, but the wave passes and she dives forward into more words, hoping the girls will write the lapse off to exhaustion.

She hadn't realized how badly she needed to touch another human being.

_________________________

After she finally gets the girls settled, extra hugs and tucked in blankets and Lizzie's whispered, I was so scared he'd never find you in her ear, Carol steps off the bus and presses her hands to her face, wishing there were an off switch for the ceaseless noise in her brain. She can't finish one thought before three new ones body tackle it, until everything inside her mind feels like a screwed up football game.

She never understood football anyway.

She searches for the handle of her knife (cold against the smooth fabric of her shirt), checks the magazine on the semi-automatic Daryl handed her in the car (Gun he gave you's a piece of shit. Ten rounds in this one, and it won't jam. I checked. Put these extra clips in your pocket.), and wanders off toward the edge of camp. Scanning the selection of trees in front of her, she picks a huge white pine with a spongy bed of needles surrounding it in a neat circle. She drops her backpack and sinks to the ground, bark against her back.

God, everything in the camp seems so loud.

The smack of boots as Maggie and Bob walk the perimeter, rifles ready. The rise and fall of voices drifting from multiple conversations, punctuated by an occasional burst of muffled laughter (it's ingrained in them all now, the instinct to keep quiet). The rush of the river behind her and a little to her left, probably more animated than usual after almost a full day of rain.

Her first night alone after Rick left her, she hadn't slept at all. Okay, she might have slipped into a doze for three minutes a few times, but nothing more. Every sound compounded her panic at facing this terror completely on her own. Every owl hoot on the wind, every floorboard that snapped in the cooling night air, every rustle of an animal or god knows what that shook the bushes.

After a few days, when the situation had started to seem less like a waking nightmare and more like her new reality, she'd learned to string up booby traps, multiple loud defenses against walkers or, even worse, other people.

And suddenly, for the first time in her entire life, she'd learned to appreciate the quiet.

She'd never been alone long enough to cultivate this skill, and even when she was alone, quiet had scared her, had been something to run from, something to shove away with TV or the radio or crowds at the mall. She used to leave The Food Network on all day just to have background noise until the squeal of bus brakes announced that Sophia was home.

This quiet was new.

At night she'd close her eyes and listen to the soft rush of the wind, to the rustle of the sheets she'd “stolen” from people who'd never need them again, to the muted in and out of her own breathing.

At first, the new quiet was terrifying. Alone in the dark, she was powerless to stop the questions from rising up, haunting her with such visceral power that she could see the words printed in her mind.

Where was Daryl? Who was taking care of the girls? What had Rick told everyone about her absence? Would she be by herself forever? If so, was trying to stay alive even worth the effort? And if it wasn't, did she have the balls to do anything about it?

But gradually, despite being so lonely that she couldn't think about it for long without danger of losing her shit completely, despite the constant torment of all the things she couldn't know, she learned to appreciate the silence. She learned to listen to the rhythm of her own breathing, to relax when she heard the wind kick up, to make it through another hour alone by remembering the melody of a song she loved.

"Need help gettin' settled?" Daryl's voice startles her so much she drops the pinecone she's holding. She sighs, realizing that she's already let down her guard, subconscious awareness that other people are watching out for her.

She lets her eyes drift over his face, filled with a fresh wash of relief at the fact that he's really here, standing in front of her with muddy ripped jeans and dirt smudged on his jaw. She wishes her stomach would stop doing that weird twisting dropping thing every time he walks within fifty yards of her. Crap, just focus on the question. "Yeah. I'll grab my tent from the car if you wanna help me put it up." She stands and brushes the pine needles off her ass.

"I thought-" he says, and stops, his thumb fiddling with the sleeve of his jacket.

"I can do it myself," she blurts out as an add-on.

"Bet you can." The sound of his voice is like Valium; for the first time in forever she wishes he'd just keep talking, about anything, so she can listen to the low rise and fall of his blending words, one more comforting reminder that she has him back. Well, sort of.

She waits another second to see if he's going to add anything, but he doesn't, so she reaches over to grab her pack.

"Wait."

"What's wrong?"

He blows out a breath and then says, words strung together, "I'd feel better if you slept in my tent."

The cough that escapes her lungs is involuntary. He doesn't look like he's joking, but his words make no sense, so he has to be. Keeping her voice light, she gives up something she hopes is remotely like a smile and says, "That'd certainly get everyone talking."

Without even a pause, he says, "They know."

That's when she figures out he's not joking at all.

"You told Rick we were sleeping together?" She squints at his face in the near-darkness, pain lancing through her temples again and spreading out behind her eyes and down her neck. The bright flicker of hurt that dances over his features is there and gone so fast that anyone else would probably write it off to imagination.

But he's not fast enough for her, and she instantly regrets her choice of words.

The noise Daryl makes in his throat is caught somewhere between a chuff and a sigh. He shrugs. "No. But he figured it out pretty quick around the fifth day I spent tryin' to find you from dawn 'til dusk."

"Oh.” It's such a stupid response, but she has no idea what to say to him now, no idea how to get him to forgive her for not wanting to come back.

"Look, sleep where you want," he says, angry eyes staring right into hers. Still, they soften when he adds, "I can't stand not bein' able to-" A pause. Quiet. The heel of his boot jams into the dirt. "I like knowin' where you are."

Now everything aches, not just her head. Her throat's compressing, but she nods and makes herself say, "Okay. Where's your tent?"

He holds his hand out for her pack. When she gives it to him, he shoulders it and jerks his head a little to the right. "Over here. Got some shitty pumpkin seed trail mix if you're still hungry."

She follows, almost running to keep up with his long strides.

_________________________

"You warm enough?" His voice is gravelly and exhausted, but it still surrounds her like warm honey, like the exact sound you'd get if you combined everything left on this godforsaken earth that makes her feel centered and safe.

Loved.

"'Cause I can get another blanket."

"I'm warm," she says quickly, aware that "fine" wouldn't be specific enough for him. "This blanket's great." (Of course he gave her the nicer one -- thicker, no holes.) "Thanks."

"Tell me if you need anything." She has her back to him, but she can hear him fidgeting, adjusting his body on the thin mat beneath them. "Sure you're not hungry? Didn't eat nothin' at dinner."

She feels the first tear slide from the edge of her eye and track a silent path into her hair. Praying that she can keep her voice level, she says, "I'm just really tired. It's been a weird day."

"Yeah."

He doesn't try to touch her.

She isn't surprised, and at least ninety-seven percent of her is grateful. She feels like that annoying block stacking game Sophia used to insist on playing over and over again, one tiny jostle away from the collapse of her whole structure.

As the minutes expand, she closes her eyes and finally lets herself revel in gratitude for everything she's gotten back today. Outside, the wind whips through the white pines, the river hums, and a woodpecker drums out faint taps in the distance. Inside, Carol squeezes the blanket into her hands and listens to Daryl's breathing, not yet even with sleep, but for her, right now, the most comforting sound in the universe.

His body always runs hotter than hers, and even from a few feet away she can feel the radiant warmth rising off his skin. Mixed in is the faintest trace of the cologne she gave him maybe a week before everything went to hell. Michonne found it for her on a run (Carol had said she liked spicy scents, and with her typical flair Michonne came back with something called "Dreamer," by Versace).

Carol even tied a green and silver ribbon around it as a joke. Daryl looked so surprised when she handed him the small glass bottle, every part of his face flashing confusion as to why she'd think to just give him something. She hits replay on her mental DVR (damn, she misses her DVR), and hears him say, pretending to be gruff while muffling a smile, Oh now I'm s'posed to smell like the damn boxer-wearing dickheads in those Old Spice commercials? She'd laughed and twisted the fancy copper-colored top off, using her fingertips to dab a little on the pulse points of his neck (she could see his heartbeat, she wanted to feel it on her lips) and at the opening of his shirt. She'd leaned in and whispered to him all the other places she planned to put it later, and she can still feel the vibration of her name against her throat.

Carol.

That was the last time she heard him say her name.

It wasn't even two months ago.

She hasn't offered permission, but the tears don't care. They slide from the corners of her eyes and land on the fleece blanket; she imagines little circles of sadness. She figures maybe it's revenge for all the crying she didn't do once she slammed that station wagon door.

The tears Rick watched her wipe off her face were the last ones she cried.

Until now.

Every cell in her body is so damn tired.

Behind her, Daryl scoots a couple inches closer.

She stays extra still so he won't change his mind. After a few more minutes, she releases the blanket from her clenched hands, lets her shoulders relax, and finally falls asleep unafraid for the first time in over a month.

_________________________

There's pretty much nothing that isn't awkward and uncomfortable about Carol's first few days at the camp.

She deals with the discomfort by staying fantastically busy. Up every morning when she hears Daryl heading out to hunt. (Maybe there are twelve oceans of emotional baggage between them, but that doesn't stop him from asking her, the moment she opens her eyes, You sleep alright? Need anything before I go?) Helping Beth with breakfast and laundry. Working on math and reading with the kids. (Mika's a brilliant reader; Carol loves watching her quiet patience when she helps the younger ones.) Skinning whatever Daryl brings back.

Waving away offers of help, because well.

She'd rather do it herself.

Hershel’s absence adds another layer to the mess of emotions she already can’t deal with, a gaping tear in the fabric of their universe. She sees the the way Maggie and Beth hold themselves now, the invisible weight she knows from experience will never fully lift.

Lizzie and Mika stay close, too close sometimes, but Carol forces herself not to pull away because she gets it. Their father's gone. She was gone. Now she's back and it's not mysterious that they want to sit next to her, that they make up nonsense stuff to ask her about, that they bring her hair ties and ask for braids when a ponytail would be just as easy.

Sometimes, her mind slides sideways, and for a flash the hair in her hands is Sophia's, soft and smooth and clean.

Those are the times when she wants to turn it all off again, clamp the feelings closed so the pain stops making it hard to breathe, the times when she remembers that there were a few small advantages to being entirely alone in the world.

Instead she smiles, kisses Mika's cheek, and says, "You want green or blue today?"

_________________________

At first, Rick sticks to their agreement.

He does his thing, she hers.

They occupy the same general space, but they don't speak.

Because she's discovered a perverse streak she didn't realize she had, she makes eye contact with him whenever possible, just because she knows how much it bothers him.

It's honestly fun until one morning, when she's sharpening knives and has successfully managed to make Rick vanish just by staring at him, she glances up and catches a glimpse of Daryl's face.

She's grateful to be seated, because his expression feels like the emotional equivalent of the physical recoil when Ed punched her in the stomach without warning, exploding pain and no air.

Daryl walks away without a word. Watching him leave, she's so filled with the desire to hit something (probably herself) that she puts the knife down and curls her hand into a fist.

She's not the only person whose relationship with Rick shattered the day she drove away and didn't look back.

_________________________

Rick’s chopping wood when she finds him a few hours later. She’s pretty sure her resolve will evaporate if she hesitates, so she strides forward and asks, when he pauses to rub the sweat off his forehead with the back of his sleeve, “Would you like some help stacking that?”

He stares at her for a minute, like maybe she decided to confess her belief in dragons or time travel, and then says, “Sure.” He nods to his right, where there’s a small pile of split wood in a neat triangle. “I’m puttin’ it over there.”

She grabs the three pieces he just split and leans over to arrange them.

“Thanks,” he says, before bringing the axe back up in a silver arc. “Appreciate it.”

“Glad to help,” she replies, and she tries to make it as true in her head as it sounds on her tongue. They work without speaking until the last piece is broken and lined up on the ever-expanding pile.

She’s handing Rick a canteen of water when she sees Daryl walk by, holding a dead rabbit by its feet. His face doesn’t change, but his step slows a little and his shoulders relax.

She uses her fingernail to dig a sliver out of her palm.

She’s trying.

_________________________

Late that afternoon, she walks back toward the center of camp after hanging up all the laundry. (I can help, Sasha had said. Thanks, but I've got it, she'd responded, reflex now.) The laughter's faint at first, but it gets louder with each step. She rounds the corner of the bus to see Glenn, Lizzie, Mika, Luke, and Tyreese in the middle of an epic game that appears to be sort of like Ultimate Frisbee, but with fewer players.

She watches the kids -- apple pink cheeks, sweaty flying hair, dirt already coating their arms and legs.

Happy shrieks and giggles.

If all she could see was the tiny perimeter that contains their rowdy game, it would look like the backyard of any Atlanta suburb.

It would look like before.

Eyes aching (she's so damn tired of feeling as if she's forever on the verge of tears -- how the hell had she survived on her own for a month without crying one single time?), she turns to sneak away, but it's too late.

Gasping for air, Luke yells, "Carol, wanna play? You can be on me and Ty's team!"

She shakes her head, hanging back. "It's okay. You're in the middle of a game."

Everyone pauses. Tyreese twirls the Frisbee on the end of his finger. Her eyes catch Glenn's, and after a second, that mischievous grin she hasn't seen in ages lights up his face and he says, taunting, "She won't play 'cause she's scared."

The funny thing is that before Rick kicked her out, Glenn might almost have been right. But she's actually at present in the best physical shape of her life, no question, thanks to almost daily workouts she took up to kill time. Inhaling deeply, she scoffs and says, each syllable a sharply shaped challenge, "Shut up and pass."

"You're goin' down," Glenn declares, sailing the electric purple plastic disc in her direction. She dives sideways, snatches it out of the air, and swirls it toward Tyreese with a flick of her wrist. He passes to Luke as Mika performs some wild footwork in an attempt to keep Carol from reaching the makeshift goal. She dodges Mika’s outstretched arms, a few feet away from the goal line when Ty tosses the circle back to her. Running sideways with her eyes up, she snatches the Frisbee out of the air and doesn't see Glenn until she's slammed directly into him, full body collision. Her foot slides out from under her, and the force of her forward movement puts them both on the ground.

"Crap, are you okay?" Glenn asks, pushing himself up in the dirt and squinting down at her, his forehead scrunched with concern.

For whatever reason, she's suddenly shaking with laughter, and sure, it's absolutely the kind that's balanced on the razor edge of hysteria, but that doesn't make the sensation any less wonderful. "I'm good," she gasps, eyes watering. Glenn's expression remains serious for less than a second before he dissolves into helpless laughter himself, rubbing his eye with the last tiny clean spot on the back of his hand.

He shoves himself to a standing position and extends both arms to her, still laughing. His hands are warm when she closes her fingers over his. He yanks her up and, holding on to her hands for a beat longer than strictly necessary, says, "If I'd known you were such a badass, I would've made you be on our team."

“You can pick me next time.”

He nods and grabs the Frisbee. “Bet on it.”

Her vision blurs a little as she moves back into position, listening to Glenn yell, "Okay girls. We're two points down. We gonna let it end like this?"

_________________________

There aren't a lot of positives to life since society imploded, but the sky on a sharp clear fall night is one of them.

Carol sits in the circle that tends to gather around the fire after dinner (if it's dry enough for the flames to catch) and gazes past the orange glow to the long line of sky that stretches past the trees. With no ambient light to dim them, the crisp bright sparkle of the stars looks like pixie dust thrown across the atmosphere.

(On maybe the third or fourth night after they'd settled down in the camp outside Atlanta, when the immediate panic had receded enough for everyone to regain a small portion of logic, Sophia had woken her with a few gentle shoves to her shoulder. In a soft whisper guaranteed not to wake Ed, she'd whispered, Mommy, you gotta come outside and see the sky. You won't believe it.

Okay sweetie, one second. Carol had rubbed her eyes to wake up, grabbed the sweater she'd pulled off before bed, and let her daughter lead her out of the tent and toward the edge of camp, nodding to Daryl, who had his crossbow halfway up and walked more quietly than any other human being she'd ever met. The awkward half-smile he'd offered had made her ache inside for some reason, so much muted pain and sadness behind his perpetual squint and set jaw. She kept her distance as she passed him, because she’d already learned that he didn’t like other people in his space.

That night, for probably an hour or more, she and Sophia had sat on a rock, both of them eventually curled into her sweater for warmth, and looked up at the stars. Even now, under the same stars she can't help hating just a little for the searing pain of memory they evoke, she recalls the breeze on her cheeks, the way Sophia's hair got stuck in her cherry chapstick and they laughed, the warmth when Sophia slipped her skinny arm through Carol's and hugged her closer, the indescribable beauty of the illuminated expanse before them.

Sophia had looked up at her, light so clear her freckles were visible even though it had to be two a.m., and said, I always thought Ava was lying when she said that in Nebraska, there's barely enough space to see between the stars.)

Carol studies the sky now, twinkles and glints, some clusters of stars so dense that coronas make cool shapes behind the collection.

A tear tracks down her cheek, then another.

Because it's still beautiful.

It was beautiful when her daughter was pressed up against her shoulder, face glowing with starlight and discovery.

And it's beautiful now.

Daryl’s nowhere to be seen, but that’s not surprising. He doesn’t join the after dinner socializing, heading off instead to polish his crossbow or fix his arrows or whatever the hell he does when he's not on watch. Which is why she almost jumps when, out of nowhere as usual, he materializes to her left and sits down. Her eyes dart around the circle.

There are plenty of openings with more space than the one he just wedged himself into.

"Am I crowdin' you?" He leans forward to tighten the shoelace on his boot.

"Not at all." He smells clean, like that weird flowery soap Sasha brought back yesterday. He must have washed up just to come and sit with her.

Between them, quiet descends. Not the bad kind necessarily, but still stiff and awkward, none of their former effortless agreement to just be.

Carol hears Carl say, “Hey Dad, what’d you say the name of that one is?” He’s squinting at the sky, pointing over Rick’s left shoulder. She tunes them out as the conversation wanders.

After a couple minutes, Daryl leans back on his hands and glances up. "When I was maybe six or seven or somethin', Merle'd take me up to the mountains to track. At night he'd name the constellations and make me repeat 'em back 'til I knew 'em all."

"What's that one?" She points high and to her right.

"Aquila. Supposed to be an eagle." He stops, but she waits, because even a month of separation hasn't muted her instinctive sense of when he has something more to say, if she just breathes and gives him the space and freedom to come up with it. "I used to be jealous as fuck of that thing," he adds finally, words so quiet they barely float across the foot of space between them. "I wanted to fly."

"So did I." She swallows, the air around them crackling with . . . something. "I wish I knew what-"

Luke's loud voice cuts through her sentence. "Carol, remember that time the garter snake bit me and I tried to suck out the venom 'cause nobody ever told me they weren't poisonous?"

The instant the words leave his mouth, the atmosphere around the fire transforms into lead. Luke's face makes it clear that he recognized his error almost before he was done speaking, but it's Carl who looks full at her for the first time since she got back and says, "That was a couple weeks ago. When you were-"

"Gone?" Even she's a little jolted by the bitterness that cascades from that single word.

"Yeah." Carl doesn't make it worse by adding anything.

The firewood pops. Nobody moves or speaks. The silence presses her everywhere, like pushing on a full-body bruise. She's five seconds away from getting up, saying screw it, and going to bed early, when out of nowhere, Daryl reaches across the space between them, closes his hand over hers, and pulls it into his lap. Gently flipping her wrist, he links their fingers until every square inch of their palms are touching, then rests their hands on his thigh.

And whatever's been hovering off-center inside her, all out of position, chafing raw sores where nobody can see or touch, slides back into place with a wrenching twist, the achingly good kind. This time, she doesn't even worry about the tears.

She didn't think it was possible, but the silence deepens. Nobody looks at either one of them, all eyes cast in so many directions that it would be funny if it weren't so weird and uncomfortable and almost more than she feels capable of dealing with.

But Daryl's touching her, rough callouses brushing the scrapes she got during the game, warm fingers rubbing softly over the skin on her palm. His thumb makes a velvet circle around one of her knuckles.

Another minute passes, give or take, before Sasha jumps up and says, "Who feels like poker? I'll get the cards."

She does, and while the kids read or start getting ready for bed (wandering off to brush their teeth and coming back to snuggle up wrapped in a blanket), most of the adults prepare to get serious about the game.

Carol's aware that everyone is using words, that conversation and language and communication and interaction are happening all around her.

But all she hears is the sound of Daryl's pulse against her fingertips, the electric sparks that lift off the surface of her skin everywhere he touches.

She expects that he'll let go any minute.

He doesn't.

He sits, silent, looking off toward the sky with her hand in his lap, eventually adding the other hand until hers is entirely cocooned in both of his. And he squeezes, harder until it almost hurts.

She knows he's trying to say with his fingers what he'll never be able to form into the words he wants.

I'm not mad anymore.

I don't give a shit what anyone thinks.

I need to touch more than your hand.

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They both know what's gonna happen the moment they're inside the tent.

He's on her as soon as the zipper closes, no preamble at all.

Just her face in his hands and his lips on her mouth, kisses that start off gentle, tentative. That lasts for about three seconds before his hands on are on the back of her thighs, pulling her against him, hard. She makes a tiny noise in the back of her throat when he sucks her lower lip into his mouth.

He's pushing her sweater off her shoulders when he stops, panting, and says in one rushed breath, "Y’sure this is okay?"

She kisses him again, tastes the lingering cool mint of his toothpaste, and reaches for the buttons on his shirt, fumbling because it's too dark to see. "Yes," she says into his mouth, smiling when the touch of her tongue on his makes his stomach tighten. "Yes."

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They have to be quiet, so quiet.

She gasps when he licks the curve of her shoulder, and he puts his hand over her mouth, whispers, "Shh." But she can feel him smiling when he kisses his way up her cheekbone to the edge of her hair.

It's raw and needy and desperate and fast.

He holds her arms above her head while he stretches his body over her and links their fingers together again.

She wishes she could see his face in the dark, but all she really wants is all of him touching all of her. The darkness amplifies all her other senses, her nerve endings sparking at the choppy breaths he muffles in her neck and the heat of his skin sliding over hers.

She tries to talk with her body, to say what she wants to say with her lips and her hands and the rhythm she can already feel, instinct like breathing.

I’m sorry. God, I’m so sorry for everything.

Thank you for never giving up.

You have no idea how much I missed you.

When she comes, he tightens his fingers over hers and murmurs, "Don't shut your eyes. Please?"

Biting her lip to stay silent, she does as he asks.

Even in the inky blackness, it's the most intimate, erotic thing that's ever happened to her.

_________________________

They'd had sex fewer than a dozen times before everything went to shit, but Carol's never known him to cuddle.

Yet there's no other word for what's happening now, after, his arm tight on her stomach, pulling her close until her back is fully pressed against his bare chest, his breaths slowing down as he drops kisses up and down her neck.

He reaches for her hand again, gently touching her fingers in the dark. His rough fingertips trace the bones of her knuckles, the callouses at the top of her palm, the soft skin where her hand meets her wrist. Finally he closes his large hand over her smaller one, his pinkie wrapping around hers, and says, his voice so low that it's even a little hard for her to hear him, "My eighth grade English teacher, Ms. Tallis, was always tryin' to get me to read Watership Down."

Carol hugs his arm closer and waits, knowing he doesn't offer information that isn't going somewhere.

"I never did read the damn thing. Just kept puttin' it off and makin' up bullshit excuses." She can hear rowdy laughter drifting from the poker game. Behind her, she feels him swallow, and when he speaks again, there's an ache in his voice. "'Bout a week after Rick ditched you, I found it. On a run. An' I read it." He clears his throat. "I mean at night. When I couldn't look for you."

"I never did read that one," she muses, closing her eyes as he rubs the inside of her wrist. "Did you like it?"

He chuffs. "It was okay. Buncha rabbits runnin' around, but-" He stops, his mouth nestled in the curve of her neck.

"But what?"

"I kept it. I wanted to give it to you when-" He pauses again, and she can feel him tense behind her. "Anyway, it's in my bag. You can grab it the morning if you want."

"I do," she says, glad she doesn't need volume. "Thank you."

They both fall silent, outdoor noises filtering in again. The poker game's wrapping up, creak of folding chairs and thud of footsteps headed toward tents or the bus. Daryl never stays naked this long when he's not actually having sex, but he doesn't let go of her, not even a little, and she can’t find words for how much she’s enjoying this rare indulgence on his part, how much she needed him to make an exception tonight.

She's warm everywhere; her face breaks into the kind of grin that makes your cheeks ache with enthusiasm.

"I missed the hell outta your smile," he says into the darkness.

"You can't see me," she whispers. "How do you know I'm smiling?"

He releases her hand and brings his index finger to the edge of her lips. "Don't need to see," he replies, and she can feel his tiny shrug against her back. "I just know."

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