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1.

She and Lori are knee deep in the river, finishing the last of the laundry (raw red hands that will smell like shitty soap and wet fabric for days, unless they smell like something worse), when the light on the leaves shifts in her peripheral vision. She glances up from the soggy jeans she's scrubbing to see a sizeable snake winding silent s curves in their general direction.

All instinct and no hesitation, she grabs the hatchet that's never more than five feet from her, takes three long strides away from the water, and brings the blade down, hard, trying not to think about what'll happen if she misses.

She doesn't miss.

The snake's body separates into two neat pieces; Carol straightens up, wiping her hand on her pants.

"What the hell?" Lori takes a step forward, one of Rick's t-shirts dripping in her hand. "Is it poisonous?"

Carol crouches to study the snake, taking in the triangular head and gorgeous black and gold diamonds that decorate the body. "Yeah, some kind of rattler." She walks back to the water and grabs the soap, shivering when the early autumn wind blasts through the thin cotton of her ancient blouse.

"Aren't you gonna move it?" Lori asks, still staring at the severed snake as if it might reanimate, too.

"Why?" Carol rotates her shoulder, trying to shake out the ache of tired knotted muscles. "It's not going anywhere and we're almost finished."

"Okay." Lori shrugs and dunks the t-shirt in the river one more time.

Maybe ten minutes later, they're hanging the last of the clothes on the makeshift line Rick strung between two trees when Carol hears the low rumble of Daryl's motorbike. (She doesn't admit this, not to anyone, but that sound has secured a firm spot on her top five list of most comforting noises in the cosmos.) Beth's joined them to help; she’s humming something Sophia used to listen to on the rare occasions when Ed would let her choose the radio station, but Carol couldn't name the song if she tried. She remembers something about fire and rain. Maybe.

"You do this?"

The fact that Daryl's magically two feet behind her when the last time she looked he was talking to Glenn fifty paces away would startle her if she weren't long accustomed to his trademark stealth. She pulls a clothespin out of her mouth. "Do what?"

He jerks his head toward the dead snake.

"Oh. Yeah. He was probably just trying to warm up by the fire."

"Damn. That sonofabitch must be six foot long. Very nice." He slings his crossbow over his shoulder (Carol looks at his arms, notices that he has goosebumps, too) and digs into his right pocket, pulling out a knife. "He’ll warm up by the fire all right. I’ll skin it an’ we'll be ready to eat in fifteen minutes."

"Gross!" asserts Beth, her forehead scrunched up in horror.

"Well you go ahead an' have your tenth squirrel of the week then." The edges of his mouth quirk up, just a little. "This here's an Eastern Diamondback. Delicious."

"I want some! Will you show me how to skin it?" Carl asks, his freckles all lit up with enthusiasm.

Daryl nods and hands Carl the knife. "Come on, little man." He grabs both pieces of the snake off the ground. "I'm tellin' ya. You ladies'll be sorry if you don't at least try a bite." He swings the long half of the body in the direction of the car and deadpans, "Hell, we even found some goddamn A1. Dump a bunch of that shit on here an' you'll think it's The Outback Steakhouse."

His remark catches Carol so off-guard that she snorts with laughter, grabbing for the clothespin before it hits the dirt.

He glances over his shoulder while he strides upriver with Carl, and when he sees that she's still laughing, he grins.

2.

They’re running low on almost everything, but it’s getting harder and harder to find stores that haven’t been fully cleaned out, so Carol tries not to get excited, to keep her face neutral when the Hyundai and the motorbike pull into camp at dusk. She doesn’t have to worry about it for long though. She can tell from Rick’s face when he jumps out of the driver’s seat that they got lucky this time.

Daryl swings his leg off the bike, and his eyes sweep the camp until they find her. He looks her up and down like he’s making sure all the pieces are still there. He must conclude that they are, because he gives her a tiny nod and goes to grab a load from the trunk.

Apparently this is one of his new habits, checking up on her the second he comes back from a run. He’s done it too often now for her to write it off to imagination like she did the first few times she caught him searching for her. She wishes she had even the smallest clue was happening in his head, because she’s been around him long enough to be aware that something’s always spinning behind his unreadable blue eyes and perpetual squint. She almost wants to ask him, but then she considers how ridiculous that conversation would sound and flushes as the words play inside her mind.

Why do always sit next to me at dinner?

Why won’t you start eating until I pick up my fork?

Why do you have to find me the instant you turn off your bike?

(He does though; last week she’d grabbed a rifle and gone to look for raspberries without telling anyone. He’d scared the shit out of her, silently emerging from the trees to stalk over, furious. He’d kept his voice low, but the anger that vibrated there felt louder than yelling. “The hell you think you’re doin’? You can’t just leave camp without tellin’ anybody.”

She’d been about to talk back when she noticed the tense anxious way he was gnawing at the edge of his thumbnail, when she realized his face read a lot more scared than mad.

“I’ll carry this,” he’d muttered, grabbing the bowl of berries. “You worry about keepin’ that rifle up.”

He hadn’t spoken a word to her for the rest of the day, but he still sat next to her at dinner, still pushed his food around on the plate until she started eating hers.)

“Hey, Carl. Want some gum?” Daryl drops a huge bag on the ground and holds out what looks like a jumbo pack.

“You found gum?” Carl asks as he walks closer. “Cotton candy’s my favorite.” He crinkles the first piece open and adds, “We used to have bubble contests at my old school. I always won.”

“Yeah? Let’s see what you got.” Daryl crosses his arms and smirks.

“I can beat you,” Carl says.

Daryl holds out his hand for the gum. “You can try.”

Studying them with amusement, Carol suddenly realizes that for all their obvious differences, there’s one thing these two have in common.

Both of them had to fast forward straight past childhood.

So she watches them blow the kind of bubbles you can blow when you chew three pieces at a time, the kind that make your jaw hurt so much that you really have to want it. They’re joking and smack-talking, goading each other as they peel blue goo off their noses and cheeks, and she tries so hard to just enjoy the moment, not to think about how Sophia loved strawberry Hubba Bubba, not to remember the way her baby’s face would light up when the bus driver gave her a piece and she had a whole hour and a half to enjoy it before her dad got home.

But she fails, because she doesn’t even notice it’s gone quiet until Daryl’s standing in front of her, holding out the almost empty pack. “Saved you the last one,” he says. She can hear the haunting call of an owl, far away in the trees.

“Carl doesn’t want it?”

“Think he’s had enough.”

“Okay.” She doesn’t even like gum, but she takes it and stuffs it in her mouth, biting down on the sticky sweetness. He just stands there for a second, looking at her like maybe she’s some vocabulary word he can’t quite define. Then he turns and walks towards the river, but not before giving her forearm a soft, barely-there squeeze.

She watches him go, long smooth stride, the sinking sun shining on the muscles of his shoulders, and wonders how he manages to make her feel completely safe and strangely uncertain all at once.

3.

She and Beth are packing up their tent one morning, the sun peeking through the trees and her shoulder in an achy knot from sleeping with nothing but a crappy blanket between her and the ground, when her sleeve catches on the end of a pole and the threadbare shirt rips clean in two.

“Shit,” she mutters, staring at the threads hanging in her hand. The funny thing is that she’s less concerned about standing in the middle of their campsite wearing nothing but jeans and a see-through bra (for god’s sake, they go in pairs to pee, so it’s not as if she’s got a lot of modesty left in her) than she is about the fact that the shirt she just destroyed was a gift from Andrea.

She’s still looking at the ruined fabric when Daryl strides around the corner of the car, stopping short when he sees her. His face cycles through at least five expressions in the half second before it settles on something like 30 percent embarrassment and 70 percent concern. “Hey. You all right?” His eyes are dancing everywhere, from the ground to the trees to the tent to the car -- anywhere but her face.

“I’m fine. Ripped my shirt on the damn tent.” She sighs, rubbing her arms in the early morning chill. “I guess I’ll just-” She can’t help the half a laugh that escapes when she realizes how that sentence ends. “Put on the other one.” She kneels to unzip her bag and hears Daryl’s feet thudding in her direction.

“I’ll finish packin’ up for ya,” he says, quiet, and grabs the tent bag off the ground. “Maggie made coffee. You should get some before Glenn’s dumb ass drinks it all.”

Carol slides the boring blue of her very last shirt over her head and says, “Thanks. I’ll save you some.”

____________

She’d be lying, now, if she said she didn’t hate it when Daryl’s part of the team heading out on a run. When he’s gone, she does all the boring shit chores she always does, but she feels his absence like a pressure on her lungs, like she can’t breathe all the way in until she detects the rumble of his bike in the distance, louder until it throbs through the soles of her feet.

She doesn’t quite know when it started.

Maybe it was when he stumbled out of the forest after searching for her baby, covered in blood and bruises, with a bonus gunshot wound for his efforts.

Maybe it was when he walked into the RV after Rick shot Sophia and just sat there, silent, somehow knowing that the only right thing to say was exactly nothing at all.

Maybe it was when he swung his bike back around into a herd full of walkers and still managed to be a smartass while he waited for her to hop on.

And maybe it was none of those times, but it’s just truth that she smiles inside every time he comes back safe, and it’s also truth that she only falls deeply, fully asleep when Daryl’s the one on watch.

____________

A couple days later, she’s perched on a rock by the water, skinning a rabbit to put over the fire when Daryl, Glenn, and Maggie drive into camp. She glances up, away from the warm blood that covers her hands. “You guys didn’t find any Italian seasoning, did you?”

Glenn’s face falls, instantly, and he stammers, “Well, some animal was making a bunch of noise outside the store, so we couldn’t really-”

“I’m kidding,” she says, grinning.

“Oh.” Glenn flushes a little and Maggie rolls her eyes.

Daryl strolls by, jabbing a quick fist into Glenn’s ribs. “Sucker.” He stops a few feet away from Carol and waits until Glenn and Maggie have drifted off toward their tent before he steps closer. “There was a TJ Maxx by the pharmacy and I uh-” He’s making a tiny triangle in the dirt with the toe of his boot. “Most everything was gone, but I found this.” He reaches into his jacket and pulls out a bright orange shirt with an embroidered neckline and faux pearl buttons. “It’s too big for you and the color’s shitty, but I figured at least you’d have two.”

She looks up from the heap of mangled flesh in front of her, and her eyes meet his for a moment before he glances away, jittery, just like he always does. And she wants to say, It’s a great shirt, and god, that was thoughtful of you, but she’s learned that compliments are the quickest way to send him running into the forest on the pretext of anything, so she only says, “Thank you. Really.”

Even that pinks his face a touch, but he continues with the boot sketch, which has now turned into something that vaguely resembles a pie, and says, “Why don’t ya rinse your hands and go try it on? I’ll get that on the fire.”

4.

They don’t talk about Before.

They never did, much, but ever since they ran scattered from the farm in flames, no one speaks of Life As They Knew It unless it’s pure pragmatism, a question about road construction or how many houses they might be likely to find in a certain town.

Logistics and necessity, nothing more.

Sometimes, when she’s daydreaming through another watch or another load of laundry, Carol pictures all of them like books lined up neatly on a shelf, covers closed, contents all locked up.

It’s weird as hell, honestly, the way she trusts these people with her life, goes to sleep every night confident that she’ll wake up safe in the morning because they’ve got her back, but she knows next to nothing about who any of them were in their former lives.

She wonders what Andrea’s favorite color was, whether she liked to work out, if she ate spicy food (probably) or cried at Hallmark commercials (probably not).

If she’s in a good mood, Carol enjoys the irony of the fact that Daryl -- who fascinates her the most with his quiet concern punctuated with random explosions of rage -- is the least likely of any of them to give up any unnecessary information.

He may not say much, but she’s seen his back; she’s noticed the way his jaw locks and his eyes get glassy whenever the subject of family comes up, so it’s not hard to guess why he seems pretty content to slam the door to the past shut, maybe even padlock it just to be sure.

The thing is that she doesn’t want to forget.

She knows it’s not coming back, the Before, doesn’t live in any kind of weird denial about present reality or future possibility.

But she doesn’t want to forget.

She remembers the bad stuff -- beatings and bills, a bold brave face all day and crying herself silently to sleep most nights -- but those aren’t the movies she replays in her mind.

Instead, she makes it a nighttime ritual (doesn’t hurt that it helps her battle the insomnia) to pull out the good memories and flip through them, a mental photo album she reinforces in stubborn hope that the images will remain crisp, not bleach out and fade away.

She remembers picnics in the park when Sophia was a baby -- sunshine, a quilt, and a forbidden can of Pringles all to herself while she watched her daughter delight in waving the light-up rattle Carol had bought with money that was supposed to go toward flank steak for Ed’s company barbecue. (She’d lied and said the grocery store was sold out, that she’d had to settle for the sirloin tip.)

She remembers the warmth of three-year-old Sophia’s body curled into her lap, red apple cheeks and soft blond hair against her neck, fuzzy purple footie pajamas rubbing her arm, the smell of strawberry no-more-tears shampoo and the beautiful music of her daughter’s small voice begging, One more time, Mommy. Just one more time, while her chubby fingers turned the well-loved pages of Go Dog Go.

She remembers Thursday nights, how she looked forward to them all week because Ed played poker and usually got so drunk that he’d sleep it off at his friend’s house and head straight to work in the morning. She remembers digging out the bottle of Chardonnay from where she’d hidden it in the guest room closet, pouring herself a huge glass, and sinking into a tub so full of bubbles that they almost splashed over the edge onto the tile, but not quite. She’d lie there sipping wine with her eyes closed until the water got so cold that it made her shiver, and sometimes she even jammed the tap all the way to hot to give herself another fifteen minutes.

She remembers Sophia’s eighth birthday party, which she’d managed to throw while Ed was out of town on business, the house briefly filled with giggles and pink sprinkle frosting and the contagious bubbling joy of seven little girls on an epic treasure hunt to save the princess. Even more, she remembers her daughter’s words that night when she went to tuck her in so she could sleep off the double rush of sugar and caffeine.

Mommy, that was the best birthday I ever had. Thank you for making it.

She can still hear every word.

____________

One sweltering afternoon, twenty degrees above the fall average at least, Glenn and Maggie return from a run so excited that the car’s barely stopped before Glenn jumps out yelling, “You guys. We found beer. And it’s not even shitty PBR or whatever! Somebody missed the microbrew in storage at this particular deli.” He reaches into the back seat. “We got Sam Adams, Dogfish Head, Saranac, damn even some Dead Guy. Do you know how good this stuff is?”

Daryl’s leaning against a nearby tree, chewing on a strip of beef jerky (it had taken her five minutes of arguing to convince him that seriously, she didn’t like the stuff and she wanted him to have her share). When he sees Maggie pull out another six pack, one side of his mouth quirks up and he says, “All that beer calls for a celebration. I’m goin’ to catch somethin’ that ain’t a goddamn squirrel and we’ll have a barbecue. Gimme an hour.” Sweat sparkling on his forearms (she can’t help but notice -- sometimes he makes her warm and cold at the same time, like it’s hard for her to breathe, and she has to think about something else, instantly), he grabs an arrow and marches down the riverbed.

Forty-five minutes later, he comes back with a deer. Nobody asks how he managed that when they haven’t seen one for two months. Rick just shakes his head and says, “Everybody better eat up. It’s not like we stick it in the fridge.”

____________

It’s one of those cool, clear nights when you can smell the edge of winter if you breathe in deep enough. Without any ambient light to dim them, the stars are so thick that their coronas blend, the entire sky lit like the fireworks finales she used to love on the Fourth of July.

Carol stretches her feet toward the fire, genuinely full for the first time in weeks. The beer’s a little warm, but it tastes so good that her eyes sting with the first sip. Ed always bought whatever was cheapest -- Keystone or Old Milwaukee, always cans and never bottles. This bottle of Dead Guy wrapped in her palm passes for a gourmet treat.

Hershel’s walking the perimeter; the thick soles of his boots tap the dirt in a rhythmic cadence that almost syncs with the movement of Lori’s fingers as she stitches a patch on a pair of Carl’s jeans.

In the middle of her third beer, Maggie announces, “Oh my god. You know what we need?”

“To quit yellin’?” asks Daryl, but there’s no punch behind his words.

“Shut up,” Maggie retorts, grinning, but she does lower her voice. “We need s’mores. I would give anything to be melting one of those things over this fire right now.”

“S’mores?” Daryl scoffs. “Fuckers so sweet they stick in your throat and that melted marshmallow shit gets stuck all over your face.”

“Well I miss ‘em,” says Maggie, downing another large swig of beer. “What about you then? You must miss something. And don’t give me any bullshit about how all you ever wanted to eat was another piece of fried squirrel.”

Daryl’s quiet for a minute, swirling the beer in the bottle he’s holding, and Carol realizes she’s holding her breath, mostly convinced he’s not even gonna answer this simple question. But just when Maggie opens her mouth (probably to put the same question to somebody else), he mumbles, “Sour Patch Kids.”

Rick chokes on his Sam Adams. “Come again?”

“I said Sour Patch Kids, asshole.” Daryl swallows a bunch of beer and grins. “Merle used to steal our mom’s liquor money when she passed out. Just a little, enough for some gum or a box of candy. Most of the time he gave it to me.” Carol watches his face, the way his jaw relaxes a little, the smile that flickers at the edges of his eyes. “I’d eat the whole pack and then dump all that extra sugar down at the bottom of the package right into my mouth. That was my favorite part.” He pauses to tilt his beer back and drain it, then nods his head toward her. “What about you?”

“Snickers, the dark chocolate ones,” she replies, enjoying the fact that the beer seems to have enabled him to maintain eye contact for more than two seconds. He’s watching her now, firelight reflecting off the amber of his beer bottle. “I never brought them home though. Ed said they’d make me fat.”

“Well that’s bullshit,” Daryl exclaims, loud, and all of the sudden the only sounds in the clearing are the pop of the wood as it settles further into the fire and the rush of wind in the trees. Even in the near-darkness, Carol can see the angry set line of his jaw, and he’s jamming a stick into the dirt over and over again, hard.

After a long beat, Beth breaks the stretching silence with, “I used to love Swedish Fish.” She kicks Maggie’s foot. “Remember how we’d fight over the yellow ones and Daddy would have to swear he’d take all of them away if we couldn’t work it out?”

“I got a lot of Swedish Fish outta that deal,” Hershel says over his shoulder before looking back toward the dark tree line, rifle ready in his arms.

Carol soaks in the rare laughter that follows his comment, wadding up her jacket and trying to position it behind her back so that the huge rock she’s leaning on won’t jam quite so sharply into her spine. She’s concentrating so hard (and okay, she’s also a little drunk) that she doesn’t hear Daryl move.

“Here, lean forward,” he says, and he’s already shrugging his own jacket off.

“You don’t need to-”

“Will ya just take the jacket?”

She bites her lip so she won’t smile and embarrass him. “Okay.”

He kneels beside her; he smells like rich beer and tobacco and the comfort that comes with knowing you’re safe. “There, lean back now.”

She does, and his warm jacket feels so much better than the rock. “Better?” he asks under his breath, already drawing back.

“A lot better,” she says. “Thanks.”

He shrugs. “It’s nothin’.”

5.

It’s too cold to sleep.

They’ll have to start doing home invasions before long. Rick’s avoided it as long as possible because they’d all rather be outside on their own than in houses filled with the ghosts (and decaying bodies) of strangers.

But the wind howls through each tiny opening in the tent. Beth’s rolled over, taking the quilt with her, and Carol can’t bring herself to wake the exhausted girl just to have one more cover that probably won’t help her sleep anyway.

She’s not even out of the tent when she hears a crossbow string stretch. The moonlight outlines Daryl’s body as he swings the weapon towards her. “It’s me,” she whispers, pulling the frayed sleeves of the huge sweatshirt she’s wearing over her hands as she walks towards him.

He lowers the bow. “Shit. Why’re you sneakin’ around like that in the middle of the night?”

“I’m not sneaking! I just can’t sleep.” She doesn’t add that she’s freezing, because he’d probably take off his jacket and give it to her and he already looks cold. “What are you doing out here anyway? Isn’t it Maggie’s watch?”

“Yeah, but she’s tired and I ain’t. Told her I’d take it.”

She’s listening to the wind and a determined woodpecker when she sees him fumbling inside his jacket. He pulls something out and holds it towards her. “Been meanin’ to give you this.”

She closes the distance between them and reaches out, and his fingers brush warm over hers for a split second as he presses what he’s holding into her hand. She squints to read the label.

Snickers.

“It’s not the dark stuff, the one you said you liked, but it’s the only one I could find and I thought maybe it’d be better than nothin’.”

“I like all the Snickers,” she says, her voice soft in the sleepy darkness. “I’ll save it to share with Lori.”

Daryl’s face flashes a look that vanishes in half a heartbeat, but not fast enough to get past her. “What?” she asks.

He’s quiet. A little cloud of condensation fills the air every time he exhales, and she’s all but decided that he’s pulling his silent crap again when he mutters, “Didn’t bring it for Lori. I brought it for you.”

Oh.

Okay then.

She squeezes her freezing fingers into a ball, her hands a touch sweaty even in the cold, because she realizes that he’s opening a door, one she didn’t even fully understand she was pushing on. And okay, maybe it’s only cracked enough for her to jam her foot in, but it’s something.

She rips off the wrapper and twists the chocolate in half, caramel sticky on her fingertips, and holds the candy toward him. This time she isn’t even trying to mute the hope in her voice when she asks, “Will you share it with me then?”

He hesitates.

Carol listens to the river water washing over rocks and holds her breath. She starts counting to give her jumpy thoughts focus, makes it to seven before Daryl reaches out to take the candy from her hand. The back of his finger slides soft across her open palm; she’s glad he can’t see the pink heat on her face.

“Thanks,” he mumbles, and sticks the entire piece in his mouth. He munches for a second before he says, “Damn,” his words jumbled through nougat and caramel. “I forgot how good these things are.”

She licks a blob of chocolate off her thumb and smiles at him in the dark. “I didn’t.”