A/N: I have to confess, I'm not entirely sure where this is going to take me. I can't promise anything. This is an idea that simply won't leave me alone, so I'm seeing if I can't work it out.
Disclaimer: I don't own any of the characters or plot lines from 'The Walking Dead'. Just this random idea of mine.
Spoilers: Canon up through 4x15 "Us". EXTREMELY AU after that.
The sun was setting, the last rays of light dancing across the lake leaving long shadows in its wake. It reminded her of a line from a book she'd read once, longer ago than she really cared to remember.
Winter was coming. She could feel it in the air, the bitter chill in the wind that snapped at her cheeks and left her red and raw. She could see it in the frost that covered the plants, giving a silver glow to the last of the fall leaves that clung to their brittle, pale branches and in the thin sheen of ice that clung to the top of the lake like a thin skin. Here and there, the brown and rust red landscape was dotted with tiny splashes of color, the last wildflowers braving the slow drop into the cold of winter.
Look at the flowers.
She never slept more than an hour or two a night anymore. Too many memories morphed into nightmares that jolted her screaming from the abyss of unsettled sleep and left her silent and trembling, curled into a ball in the darkest shadows of whatever shelter they found themselves in until the first fingers of dawn made their way to her.
You feel it. It's a part of you now.
Her hair was longer now, unruly silver curls that whipped around her face and tumbled over her shoulders. She wondered how she looked; if the constant weariness and lack of sleep showed in lines across her face yet. It had been ages since she'd looked at herself in a mirror just to see herself. She should have avoided mirrors like the plague; instead, she'd embraced them, taking hours to stare into her own eyes and work on tamping down the anguish and despair that had been reflected there until nothing remained but the hard stare of the consummate survivor. Nothing that would let the random wanderers they'd stumbled across know that she could be hurt, that she was so full of grief that she wondered if she'd ever feel anything light again. To feel was to invite more pain, more death.
The people who are living are haunted by the dead.
She'd learned how to be cold after all. Rick would be proud. She wondered if he was even still alive; if any of them were. She wasn't sure it really mattered anymore.
"Don't call me mom," she said, the words leaping out of her mouth before she could really think about it. Well, shit.
"I know." Carol Peletier sighed, shaking her head to rid herself of the maudlin thoughts of the past she could never seem to escape from as she turned to the child at her side. "I'm sorry. What is it, sweetie?" She reached out and ran a hand through the girl's windswept snarl of dark brown hair. Judith had the clear, kind eyes of her mother and the same dimpled smile, but in every other way she was the spitting image of her father. Or at least, as much as Carol could remember of Shane Walsh. The years had not been kind to her memories of the man.
"Do you think we'll be safe here?"
"Yeah, for now. It'll be nice to sleep in a real bed for a couple of nights, anyway. Won't it?" Carol turned to look down the hill at the smattering of wood planked cabins; a former vacation resort that now housed a small camp of people just trying to survive. Another camp, another group calling themselves a family, another set of open doors. She wondered how many knives were hidden in the shadows, waiting to stab them in the back.
How many walkers have you killed? How many people? Why?
So many. God, so many people and all in the name of keeping them alive. Keeping Judith alive, if only so she could look back and say she'd managed to save one of her children. Just one. If she bothered to look back, truly look back across the years, the crimes committed for the people she'd loved in the name of survival, would there be anything left? Enough to leave a pillar of salt in remembrance of her sins? Or would there be only air, nothing left to mark the time and place she'd lived and suffered?
That's your little girl.
"A bed sounds good," Judith sighed. Carol winced internally; she sounded so old. So much older than a child of six should ever have a right to sound. It was worse now that it was just the two of them. She knew she was no fit company for a child anymore.
If it were just us... Carl and Judith, me and you... I won't have you there.
"I miss Ty."
Tyreese. Lori. Glenn. Maggie. Hershel. Carl. Andrea. Dale. T-Dog. Rick. The list of people Carol missed went on forever, their faces dancing around the edges of her memory, threatening to overwhelm her at the first sign of weakness. She rarely said their names, even in the secret places of what was left of her heart. She hadn't cried in months; not even when Tyreese had finally succumbed to the arms of death and left them alone at last. There were only a handful of faces that had the power to bring her to tears. She fought against their memories harder than any of the others, knowing instinctively that the thought of them would break her hard-fought, well practiced armor and leave her a crumbling ruin. Her girls. Him.
Don't look. Don't look.
"I miss Ty too, sweetie."
"We're gonna be ok here, right?" Judith looked up at her with big eyes, full of cautious hope. How did it come to this? Just me with this sweet child?
"What's our rule?"
"We stick together."
"That's right," Carol managed a halfhearted smile as she folder her arms around Judith, pulling the small girl back against her legs as they turned to watch the sunset together over the frozen water. "We stick together. I think we'll be ok if we can manage that. What do you think?"
"I think so," Judith said as she snuggled back into Carol.
She'd done what she could, but Carol had the feeling she was running out of lives. It didn't matter how many lives she wasted; she had to keep going. She had to be strong. Stone. For Judith. There wasn't anyone else left now.