It had been four hundred and seven days since they'd decided not to go to Terminus.
Four hundred and seven days of never being certain if any of their family members had made it out alive. Never being certain if Terminus was the place it had touted itself to be. Never being certain if anyone who may have escaped the prison had headed there.
And neither of them ever put a voice to any of the uncertainty that had plagued them each day.
Rick. Maggie. Glenn. Carl. Judith. Beth. Hershel.
It hadn't taken long for them to descend into an easy routine together after the girls had passed. After the incident with the girls.
In a matter of a dozen days after they left the grove they'd found a house – a different house – off the beaten path and with a chipped old white picket fence that they could work with. There was a well, and crib that was in pieces collecting dust in the basement. There was a fire pit and a lean-to with cut wood stacked high. They fell into their roles easily and worked together even more so.
Tyreese would do all the heavy lifting and be the one to mostly take care of the baby. Carol put down the walkers if it was a one-person job and dealt with the people they'd encounter from time to time.
Carol did all the heavy lifting.
Judith fit into their trio perfectly. It was like she knew them just as well as they knew her. She knew who she could test and who would pick her up the instant she begged for it. And she knew when their faces meant business – when it was time to tuck her head into her carrier's chest and suck on her fingers to stay quiet.
They'd been existing all together in a sort of easy actuality.
Carol had accepted this life now for what it was. She decided that she'd stayed with them to help raise Judith. In order to give the girl a chance to grow and be someone. She stayed with Tyreese because it was more likely you'd live if you weren't alone. And she needed the help if she was going to save Judith. He needed the help.
They needed each other.
She'd done enough killing. The least she could do was help give them whatever chance they might have to survive. Tyreese and Judith were the good in the world. And now was her time to repent before it was too late.
Though she was almost certain it was entirely too late.
And sometime not long ago, when they were each starting to accept and understand that this was their new reality – that they could settle – they had allowed themselves to make a new kind of connection. Without even realizing she was even doing it, Carol had opened herself up to the possibility of being something to someone.
That's when the glances had started. They were sidelong and few, but there were glances.
And somewhere along the way after that, there were looks that lingered. The looks brought with them some shy smiles that tended to make their appearance when one of them caught the eye of the other.
The lingering looks also brought with them some contemplation – seeing one another with new eyes. Noticing one another as the man and woman that they were, and finding a refreshing brand of appeal there that had been long dead in both of them.
The ghosts of everyone they'd lost still hung heavy in the air around them. The density of their feelings for all they'd had to do to survive never seemed to grow lighter.
But something new was working its way into the storm, and while Tyreese welcomed it with open arms – an invitation to feel something not bad for a change – Carol was apprehensive.
Caring about someone had never led to anything good. And Tyreese deserved to keep all of his good.
But on day four hundred and seven she had found herself in a whole different place. A place where she could let her guard down, if even just the slightest bit. That, combined with the perfectly timed moment of weakness, had been all the opening they'd needed.
They sat on the living room sofa as they did almost every evening with a candle lit on the coffee table in front of them. Dinner had been eaten, Judith had been bathed and put to sleep for the night, and once again it was just the two of them.
"Carol," he whispered into the darkness.
It had been the first word uttered between them that night, having been the type of evening they often had where their silent company was all they really needed.
She turned to face him wordlessly, the light of their dwindling candle flickering over his soft features.
And the way he was looking at her had her breath taking pause. The sadness in his eyes never did go away. The heaviness he carried with him never did get lighter. And some days she was certain he was sinking deeper into the abyss, and that she'd soon be left alone with Judith.
She didn't trust herself to be alone with Judith.
Her experiences with little girls had told her not to. Told her that she could try all she wanted to, fight the battle of the life that plagued them now with everything she had, but that it would still never be enough. It would always end up being just short of enough, and each time she failed she'd have a harder time bouncing back.
She stared into his eyes as he took a hard swallow as his gaze drifted to her mouth and back.
"Why can't we-"
His whispered words died before he could even say them out loud. His head dropped, and he shut his eyes as a wry smile graced his lips.
"Are you lonely?" he tried once more, with a different angle.
"I had a daughter once. Before," he'd told her one night. One of their very first nights they'd found that sitting quietly together in the living room after dark was their favorite time of day.
She looked at him then, surprised at this revelation. They'd never known this about one another. No one had talked anymore about the people they lost, it seemed. There were too many now, and it was far too painful to keep reliving the anguish with every new person you met. Every new person you took in and called family.
"So did I," she replied simply.
"Julie," he said softly with unmistakable pride lacing his voice.
And all she could do was breathe the name into the air between them.
She couldn't speak, because she didn't know what to say. Her lips moved, parting slightly, and she wished they would do the dirty work for her – come up with the answer and give her some clue as to what she might be feeling.
Because she didn't know what she was anymore. She was Judith's caretaker and Tyreese's partner in something. But she hadn't thought much of herself so she really hadn't a clue about what she was. Who she was.
It was the type of question that, had a stranger been the one asking it, she would have looked to Tyreese for the right answer.
But right now there was no one else to look to.
No words came out, though she was drawn deeper into the intensity of his stare.
"Carol," he pressed softly. Always softly. His voice and his touch. And the way he held the little girl that had somehow become theirs.
Such a good man.
She shook her head then. Because the truth was, she wasn't lonely. Not really. She tried to remind herself what the word meant and decided that she wasn't. She had Tyreese, and she had Judith, and they survived together. She wasn't alone.
But then he touched her face, cupped her cheek with his large hand, and rubbing his thumb softly along her cheekbone. And she exhaled sharply at the touch that felt entirely new to her and realized right then that she had been lonely.
Because he wasn't talking about living together. He wasn't talking about teaching Judith how to walk. He wasn't talking about I'll get the fire going while you skin that rabbit.
The last man to touch her like that had turned out to be no man at all, and the last man she'd hoped would touch her like that had been torn away from her by a man who'd abandoned her for her crime.
A crime she'd since been forgiven for, by the man who was now by her side.
And she leaned into him as her eyes fluttered shut. He watched her face as he let his thumb dip to trace lightly at her mouth and let himself be pulled in further when her lips kissed his skin softly.
He dipped his head towards her as he nudged her face in his direction, and his sweeping kiss had her thinking about everything and nothing all at once.
His lips were soft on hers. Moving slowly and deeply and conveying a need she hadn't realized she'd been feeling all this time. He needed this – he needed her – she could feel it in every brush of his tongue, every soft sound their lips made as they moved over one another.
He needed to feel something, and she suddenly realized she needed that too. There was no one else anymore. All they had was each other.
In a way, that had scared her. It was such a deeply terrifying thing to depend on someone so heavily to fulfill the needs you couldn't fulfill on your own. But she trusted him so implicitly that she was finding it wasn't as hard to let go as she thought it might be.
Her breath picked up and she sighed against him, overcome by the exhilaration that coursed through her. Their mouths moved effortlessly against one another, and Carol couldn't think about how good it felt, because the way he was kissing her had taken away her ability to think about anything at all.
And so she stood from where she sat on the couch, breaking their kiss only briefly as she gently pulled him to stand with her, and led him wordlessly into the bedroom she'd claimed as her own.
There was no more Daryl, no more anyone. It was the two of them now – and Judith – and she needed to let go of whatever it was that she'd been holding onto. She knew she did. Tonight Tyreese had finally asked for what he felt he needed, because he'd been missing something as well. And he, too, needed to let go.
She remembered what it had felt like the first time she smiled, after it all. It was Tyreese – he'd told her a story over dinner one night, involving his very attractive eleventh grade math teacher, a protractor, and a raging hard-on. The memory was so clear, and she'd kept it on a shelf in her mind, and she could reach out and touch it whenever she needed it.
She remembered how the smile felt so good.
And she remembered the times she would stumble on some sort of vivid memory and lose herself in the grief of Lizzie and Mika all over again. A smell or a look. A deer or those yellow flowers. Some tree sap.
It was Tyreese who'd bring her back those times. He'd take her hand and squeeze it, or brush her hair off her face and place a kiss to her temple.
Sometimes he'd simply mutter a simple, "Me too."
He understood her like no other person ever could anymore, and she always remembered nowadays all of the things they had now that were only theirs and no one else's.
Tyreese had forgiven her. he'd forgiven her that night because he'd committed her very same sin, that very same day. He'd killed a little girl to save another. Even though he hadn't pulled the trigger, he knew. It was a part of him now. He felt it.
Carol had no doubts that her fate would have been different had she confessed her crime at a different time.
But he knew then what had to be done, and so he'd forgiven her.
It was one of the things that was only theirs now, and no one else's.
They lay there together afterwards and held one another tightly. She loved the way he felt underneath her cheek, and the feeling of his bare skin against hers. He was broad and big and gentle all at once. And she replayed the contentedness she felt of his weight on top of her over and over in her mind.
It was a closeness she never thought she'd ever feel again. A closeness she'd forgotten had even existed as they carried on for the last sixteen months in survivor mode.
And for a moment, she allowed herself to feel protected. Allowed herself a time to forget all of the weight she'd needed to carry for them when he couldn't – because he couldn't. All the things she's had to do. The people she's had to kill, or be ready to kill.
So she allowed herself this vulnerability, and she reveled in it.
This is what it felt like to feel safe. This is what it felt like to let your guard down for a moment and trust someone else to make sure you were okay.
She loved it and hated it. It terrified her, but it made her feel good. It made her want to cry out of relief and anger, all at once.
"Thank you," he'd murmured as his breath slowed down, and she'd kissed his chest in response.
She'd given him something he needed tonight – had been needing. And he'd been giving her something back as well, all the while showing her how badly she'd wanted it and teaching her that it was okay to want it. This vulnerability and the security that came along with it – whether or not it was real – was something she hadn't realized she'd been missing, and needing.
"Thank you," she breathed, and he kissed her forehead.
He hung on for them. For Judith and Carol. On most days he could barely keep his head above the surface, constantly wondering what any of them were doing anymore – what was the point of it all.
But then he'd hear Judith cough and instantly wonder if she was okay. He'd hear her throw something onto the ground and giggle at her own little joke and remember that she didn't ask for any of this. None of them did.
And if he let his guard down – if he stopped trying – anything could happen. Anything would happen, and Carol would be left alone with Judith. It was a reality he couldn't fathom. It was a reality so ugly and real that it worked like a bucket of ice water over his head. He needed to be there for them, for whatever was still to come. They had a better chance as three.
Judith had a better chance with two parents instead of just one.
It was in those times when Carol would see something in his face – in his eyes. She'd leave him be for the day until they both realized it wasn't going to just pass on its own this time. And so she'd take his face in her hands and bring herself as close to him as she could, waiting patiently until his eyes met hers.
Come back to me, she would whisper. Stay with me.
She would kiss him then, knowing now what those kinds of touches could do for one another, and her lips would ignite something inside of him all over again. It would be gentle, those times. Soft and slow and gentle as though they were each made of glass. As though they would shatter any moment with the slightest jostle.
And so they'd care for one another then. Show one another that they were still here, for each other. For Judith.
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