Title: here we come a-wandering

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Rating: PG-ish; gen

Disclaimer: The words are mine; the worlds are not.

Summary: There were no stockings to hang this year, nor Sophia to hang them for; no presents to wrap, and nothing to wrap with even if they did. 2500 words.

Spoilers: Post-S2, pre-S3 for The Walking Dead (TV)

Notes: For LolaAnn, for Day 15 in Wishlist 2012, for the prompt: "I'd like to see them 'celebrate' their first XMAS post-apocalypse. No S3 spoilers."

Out in the backwoods of Georgia, there was hardly any way to track the passage of time beyond the gradual shortening of the days and the muted chill in the air. The sickness had hit between major holidays, too late for the Fourth of July and too early for Halloween, so there weren't even any decorations up in the small towns they skirted to serve as reminders. For all the survivors could tell, time might as well have stopped mid-way through an endless, fading autumn.

It was fitting, Carol supposed. They were more or less living through humanity's fall. But spring had to come sometime, didn't it? The only question was if they'd still be around to see it arrive.

She amused herself one afternoon adding up the months as she sat beside the campfire, rubbing brisk hands over her arms. They didn't dare burn it high, not with the way the walkers had been migrating, nor feed it after dark; they had to let it fade to smothered embers and sleep back-to-back in shifts lest they draw every dead, hungry thing for miles. But they had to cook and boil water sometime, and there were days when its bright crackle was the only cheerful thing in their lives.

They could all use a little more of that warmth. All of them: Rick, Lori and Carl, their family fractured but still the center around which the rest turned; Hershel, Beth, and Maggie, who hardly let go of Glenn long enough to take care of necessities anymore; and Carol, Daryl and T-Dog. None of them had a home left, nor real hope of one, and they'd left almost everything behind at the farmhouse- extra clothes, carefully hoarded keepsakes, and most of their food supplies- along with five more of their own. There'd been no time to pack, barely any to grieve; it had all happened so quickly.

So quickly. Every day that passed might feel endless, but it hadn't really been that long, had it? Lori was barely showing, still; it hadn't been that many weeks since Carol had watched the light from the burning barn fade behind her, clinging to Daryl as he wove his bike between the mobs of walkers. She hadn't seen a calendar since Andrea had stopped marking Dale's on Amy's birthday, but the moon still waxed and waned on schedule, and she could count. Which made it December, if her calculations were right. Late December- pretty close to the solstice.

That meant Christmas was only a few days away. Or would it still be Christmas, without all the trappings?

There were no stockings to hang this year, nor Sophia to hang them for; no presents to wrap, and nothing to wrap with even if they did. Anything the group scavenged, they used immediately- and anything they couldn't put to use, they didn't keep. They couldn't, not with no storage capacity apart from the trunk of the Hyundai and the back of the SUV. They planned to salvage another truck soon, but even then there'd be no room to hide gifts.

That was always what Carol had looked forward to the most on Christmas mornings: the delight and wonder on Sophia's face she ripped into the presents her mother had scrimped and saved for, those few hours when even Ed bought into the fiction that they were a perfect family. Carol hadn't even cared what her presents were; her daughter's joy had been all the gift she needed. Her new family could really use a little of that joy, too- even if the rest of the 'reasons for the season' had fallen to dust.

She sighed and cast her eyes up into the trees around the camp. They were mostly leafless now, like the cities of the remade world, tattered and stripped of all signs of life. None of them were evergreens, so she couldn't even weave little wreaths to hang on a stand-in Tannenbaum- and there'd be no point to singing her namesake songs anyway, not when excess noise was such a magnet for walkers. No gifts, no tree, no songs- what was left to mark the day apart from any other?

Without that- it would just be another excuse to mourn better days, not boost morale. Better not to bring it up at all than to remind people of all the luxuries they'd left behind with their innocence, things that would be just as mythical to Lori's baby as old tales of knights and dragons had been to Sophia. But they had to mark the turn of the season somehow. Surely there was something they could do?

In that moment, as Carol stared upward into branches of the bare old oaks, shading her eyes from the wan light of the sun with her hand, something finally caught her eye and she gasped as she recognized it. There were little viny growths visible in a few of the trees, spherical bundles of leaves tucked up in the upper branches: mistletoe! She'd forgotten it grew in the wild as a parasite; the trees' native foliage hid their passengers most of the year.

She smiled to herself, quietly delighted, then looked around to see who else was in camp. Lori was down with nausea, trying to nap; she'd been having a hard time of it the last few days. And Glenn was tending the fire, healing from the sprained ankle he'd picked up that morning fighting off a walker. Most of the others were out either doing laundry or hunting, in two well-armed groups. That was perfect for her purposes; she wanted to be finished before the group converged again for dinner.

"Glenn?" she murmured quietly.

"Yeah?" He looked up, aiming a tired half-smile her way.

"Do you think you could boost me up into that tree?" she asked, jerking her chin toward the largest of the nearby oaks. It had plenty of sizeable branches, the largest of them as thick as her thighs, spaced widely enough to make climbing only difficult rather than impossible. But the lowest were too high for her to reach easily from the ground, and she wasn't woodswise like Daryl or fearless like Carl. Her shoes were a little too bald for good traction, too- but that was more easily solved. She quickly toed them off, then removed her socks. Bare feet would grip just fine.

His eyes widened as she shucked her shoes- but a swift look up was enough to show him what she was after. "Are you sure? I mean, if you really want some down, I could try-"

"No; no, that's fine." She shook her head. "I appreciate it, but this is something I want to do myself. Besides, you don't need to be putting strain on that ankle until it's healed."

She could see him debating with himself over it; but he didn't try to dissuade her any more, or suggest she wait for Daryl to do it- after all, it was mistletoe. Glenn probably thought she had plans, ones that waiting for the others to get back would spoil. Well, he was right in a way; just not the way he probably thought. She had another sort of affection in mind at the moment.

"All right," he said, grabbing the long stick he'd been using as a cane and pushing to his feet. "But be careful; I don't want to have to tell Rick and Daryl you got hurt on my watch." Then he limped over to the tree and braced himself against it, lacing his fingers together in front of him to form a stirrup.

"Don't worry. I'm much better at this sort of thing than I used to be," she said, nodding gratefully at him as she lifted a foot to place in his hands. Then she shifted her weight as she hurtled upward, half under her own momentum and half Glenn tossing her skyward. It was easy as pie to snag the lowest branch from there, get her feet under her, then seek out the next branch to use as a stepping stone.

The bark was rough and cold under her feet, there were little bugs everywhere- even after the end of the world, spiders still made her skin crawl- and little twigs kept hitting her in the face. But the route up was fairly easy, and she had Ed's pocketknife with her. In just a few minutes, her hands were full of the evergreen plant, and all the world was spread out beneath her.

Carol smiled down at Glenn, then dropped the ball of mistletoe into his outspread hands and turned her face up to the sun, breathing the clean air. That was one good thing to come out of the apocalypse: no more smog, just the clean scents of the world renewing itself. Even the smoke of the campfire was just a woodsy, natural background odor from up there. And she could hear the chirping of distant birds, the rustle of the wind through the upper branches, and the murmuring of water over rock in the nearby creek. She listened for a moment, then sighed and started her much slower descent.

She was covered in little scrapes by the time she reached bottom, and her fingers and toes were half-numb from the effort and the cold, but she felt more content with her lot than she had in weeks. She took the mistletoe back from Glenn with a thankful smile, then retreated back to the fire to put her shoes back on and get to work. She'd kept a couple of Sophia's hair ribbons in her pocket ever since they'd buried her, but she didn't think her daughter would mind them being sacrificed to the cause.

She carefully cut and shaped the mass of little broad leaves and waxy berries into ten little bundles, each adorned with a little strip of faded satin: one for each of the others, and one to keep for herself in memory. She finished up just as the rest of the group started filtering back into camp.

She'd meant to wait to distribute them until after dinner, but they all focused on her one by one as they noticed what she was doing, until everyone but Glenn was side-eying her as they went about their business. Daryl looked especially wary; always skittish, that man. She might like to tame him one day, if the walkers didn't get them first- but that wasn't what this was about.

Carol smiled to herself again, then got up and went to the young Asian man first. She pressed one of the bundles into his hands, then leaned over to press a kiss to his cheek. "Thank you. I'm a more self-sufficient person for knowing you," she said.

Glenn looked startled, but pleased, blushing a little as she pulled back. "That's- thank you, but-"

She shook her head at him, still smiling, then turned to Maggie, now seated beside him. If he was the group's effective logistics person and go-getter, then Maggie, who'd turned herself into his helpmeet without sacrificing any of her own strength, had reminded Carol that not every gain in their new world had to be paid for with a loss. "Thank you," she said, leaning in to kiss her cheek, too. "I'm a more hopeful person for knowing you."

Maggie looked stunned. "Carol, I-"

Beth was next; the girl whose grief had nearly killed her, but who'd faced it and come through it a more serene person. She was probably the healthiest of them all; she always had a smile for everyone. "I'm a more thankful person for knowing you."

Then Hershel, who'd taken her under his wing since he'd lost Patricia and Jimmy, teaching her what he could of healing: "I'm a wiser person for knowing you."

The others had all fallen quiet by the time she reached Theodore; some of them looked like they were about to cry, and Rick looked like he'd been carved from stone, but some of them were smiling, too. Carol took a deep breath and continued.

"I'm a deadlier person for knowing you," she said with a wry smile, stretching up to plant a kiss on T-Dog's cheek. He'd been the one taking on the bulk of her firearms training while Rick and Daryl patrolled and Glenn practiced with Maggie.

T-Dog chuckled at the gentle joke- and then she was in front of Daryl, swallowing hard as she faced her closest friend. She didn't bother trying to hand him his sprig; she tucked it into the strap of his crossbow instead. He looked like he was about to bolt- but he didn't push her away as she thanked him, too, so she counted it as a point to her. "I'm a braver person for knowing you," she whispered to him.

He blushed, too, as Glenn had, and muttered something in return; but she was already moving on to Carl, her own cheeks warm with embarrassment. "I'm a more patient person for knowing you," she grinned at the thirteen-year-old, crouching to tuck his mistletoe into the band of his sheriff's hat and press a kiss to his forehead. He was still more boy than man, even as quickly as he'd been forced to grow up; she'd never held his anger about Sophia's death against him.

"Aww, Carol," he said bashfully.

Lori was next; she'd got up to greet the others as they returned, anxiously checking son and husband for bites and scratches, and she looked back at Carol with wounded eyes. They'd all been carrying the burden of what had gone on with her, Shane, and Rick ever since the farm fell; but it wasn't the time to make back-handed references about 'forgiving', either. "I'm a stronger person for knowing you," Carol told her, pressing her lips to Lori's cool cheek. Because that was true, too. Lori might not have always done the wisest thing, but she always owned her choices.

Rick was last; he accepted his piece of mistletoe almost reluctantly, the line of his jaw as tense as always. But there was something strangely grateful in his eyes, too. He'd isolated himself in his role as leader of the group lately, but it never had sat easily on him. He wasn't perfect. But he was doing his best, and she recognized that now.

"And- I'm alive because of you," she told him. His cheek was even scratchier than Daryl's.

He nodded back, then cleared his throat. "Thank you, Carol," he replied, roughly. "We're better for knowing you, too. Though- what brought this on?"

"Duh," Daryl replied for her, rolling his eyes. Then he nodded to the lone bundle she still clutched. "S'Christmas, ain't it?"

They all exchanged wondering glances at that, eyes bright- and morale boosted, just as she'd intended.

Carol smiled mistily at them all, tucking her mistletoe in the collar of her shirt as they turned to each other and began giving 'gifts' in turn.