A month had passed since they had left the farm, and Carol was tired. They'd fought and scrapped and struggled every day, and she was beginning to wonder if there was any hope left. After a particularly difficult day, one in which nearly everyone in their group had had a close call and Daryl had saved her life twice, she lay in her tent sobbing. The weight of all that they'd been through and what was to come – suddenly it was too much. She'd heard her tent flap open and for a moment she thought a walker was coming to finally end her misery. Let it come, she thought. Let the end come.
But she looked up and saw that it was Daryl instead. He looked exhausted, spent, as miserable as she was.
"What—" she started.
"Don't," he whispered, shaking his head. He lay down behind her and pulled her back against his chest. "Don't say anything."
As soon as she was nestled in his arms, everything felt different. These were the arms that had protected her so many times, that had held her when she watched her daughter die. And as he pressed his body closer and tightened his hold on her, she started to think he needed this just as much as she did. She allowed herself to relax against him and they both slept.
The next morning, Carol heard voices outside her tent and knew that she'd slept in. Usually she was up before everyone else, pulling together some kind of breakfast for them out of whatever food they'd recently managed to scavenge. She was used to rising with the dawn. She'd always gotten up early to fix Ed a huge breakfast and send him off to work before Sophia got up.
This morning, however, Carol couldn't bring herself to get up. Daryl's arms were still wrapped around her, but now she was facing him, her head resting against his chest. At some point in the night, Carol's arm had made its way around Daryl and now her hand rested between his shoulder blades. She could feel his strong muscles through his shirt, and she nuzzled her face into his chest a bit more. He responded by tightening their embrace. Carol looked up at him and saw that he was still deep in sleep. He probably had no idea she was still in his arms. She knew she should get up now to save them both the embarrassment of waking up together, but she couldn't pull herself away. She continued watching his face and wondered what his dreams were like. He started flinching slightly, his eyebrows pulling together and his nose wrinkling a bit, and Carol imagined he was dreaming about fighting walkers or maybe something even worse, from his past. She longed to give him peaceful dreams. She reached up to lightly stroke his face, the rough stubble scratching her a little. He stirred then, and she quickly drew her hand away. "I-I'm sorry."
"Nah," he said sleepily. "I'm the one that came in here. I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry," she whispered. "I've never felt so safe in my life."
He smiled a little, then cleared his throat and pulled away, rubbing his eyes. "That's what I wanted. Tough day yesterday."
She sat up, the moment over. "Yes. Well, thank you."
He sat up too, giving her a quick nod. "Now how am I gettin' outa your tent without startin' talk?"
She cocked her head to one side. "Daryl, they already talk about us."
He looked up sharply. "They do?"
She shrugged. "What else do they have to talk about?"
Daryl sighed. "Ok. I'm huntin' all day today, so I'll see you tonight. Stay safe." He left the tent then, and Carol tried to pretend his absence didn't immediately make her feel empty.
Carol didn't know what to think. She was sure that Daryl had just come to her tent to keep her safe. That was what he said, right? But she knew there was some small thing between them, and she wondered how long they would both continue to deny it. He had always been different with her than with the others. The gruff voice he'd used around camp became soft and gentle when he addressed her. She'd noticed even in the middle of heartbreak and horror, when Sophia had first gone missing. Of course she'd noticed him. She was a woman, wasn't she? Who wouldn't imagine those strong arms holding her? Sure, he was dirty, but they all were. Daryl wore his filth and grime like a badge of honor. She often wondered what he was like in the time before Walkers, back when she was married to Ed and worried every day about Sophia. She didn't have to worry about Sophia anymore, and as much as she mourned her daughter, Carol couldn't help feeling a bit of relief at that. Now all she worried about was herself, and Daryl. Most days, she felt stronger than she ever had in her entire life. Part of that was because she saw a different Carol in Daryl's eyes, but she knew that strength was inside her all along. In her former life, she probably wouldn't have paid any attention to Daryl, nor he to her. But in this new world, where every moment could be your last, she was so glad they had found each other. She wanted desperately to know exactly how he felt. All those days since they'd left Hershel's farm had confused her. She'd felt them growing closer, but he often pulled away and stopped speaking for days at a time. Sometimes she felt like they were meant to be just good friends, and she even accepted that, but then a tiny moment would change everything. A look in his eyes while he watched her doing the laundry. A protective hand lingering a bit too long on her leg when she hopped onto the back of his motorcycle. Sometimes she swore she saw desire in his eyes, and she wondered if he could see how much she wanted him.