Violet flopped onto her back with a sigh, willing herself to sink into the lumpy mattress. It wasn't always this hard to fall asleep without Clem beside her, but their bed (two of the twin bunk beds pushed together) definitely felt bigger and emptier without her there. Even if it was kinda nice to be able to stretch out for a change.
She wondered what Clementine was thinking about right now. Were the stars out tonight? She couldn't remember if she'd noticed them earlier. Maybe Clem was making arrows to pass the time; she'd developed a habit of keeping her hands busy since losing her foot. She said it made her feel useful – which she always was, of course, and Violet told her so, but she had to admit she did like watching Clementine work. Her hands were deft and strong. Versatile.
Right – sleep. She was supposed to be sleeping. Not missing the soft kiss Clem had pressed to her forehead when she slipped out of bed a couple hours ago. Just... sleeping.
Some time passed like that, with Violet trying to bully her brain into turning itself off for a few precious hours so she could get some rest. She was only a couple inches closer to sleep when her progress was ripped out from under her – first by shuffling sounds in the hall, and then a small voice, from the doorway.
Violet squinted toward the door. She was just able to make out a short and familiar shadow peeking inside.
“It's just me, AJ,” she said quietly, leaning up on an elbow. “What's wrong?”
“I can't sleep,” he whispered. “Where – where's Clem?”
Her stomach twisted uncomfortably. AJ was generally (and worryingly) pretty good at keeping his voice even, but something definitely had him shaken.
“She's got lookout tonight,” she reminded him. “Till sunrise.”
“I'll walk with you, if you wanna go see her. Or–” Violet hesitated. What did she have to lose? “Or maybe... maybe I can help? If you, uh... wanna talk about it?”
The floor creaked slightly as AJ shifted his weight. He was growing like a weed. Turned out that having a real home for the first time in his life had done him a world of good.
“Okay,” he said finally, even as he kept hovering in the doorway.
She sat up, beckoning him over with a toss of her head, hoping he could glimpse her reassuring smile in the dark. “Come on over.”
AJ edged the rest of the way into the room and closed the door behind him. He scrambled up onto Clementine's vacant side of the bed, sitting criss-cross next to her. Violet reached over to the nightstand to light a candle, then propped her pillow on the wall so she could lean against it, deliberately taking her time. AJ liked having the chance to gather his thoughts.
Once she was situated, she nudged him gently with her elbow. “So what's up, kiddo? Did you have a nightmare?”
AJ nodded. “Yeah.”
“Do you... wanna tell me what it was about? You don't have to,” she added at his silence, “but it might make you feel better.”
He thought about it for a moment and shrugged. “I've had it before,” he said. “I know it's just a dream and nothing bad will actually happen, but...”
He trailed off; Violet filled in the blank. “But it's still scary?”
Looking at her with wide eyes, AJ nodded again. She'd forgotten how younger kids looked at you like that sometimes, when it seemed like you had all the answers.
“Do you ever get nightmares?” he asked.
“Yeah, I do. I think everyone does.”
“That's what Clem told me.” He said it with certainty, almost, like he was just collecting more evidence to prove Clem right. Then, more hesitantly: “What are your bad dreams about?”
That caught her off-guard, although maybe it shouldn't have, considering AJ's track record with hard questions.
“Um. Well.” She blew out a breath, buying time. “Y'know... Lots of different stuff. Sometimes it's... bad things happening to my friends, sometimes they're bad memories... a lot of the time they don't really make sense.”
In the dim light, she saw AJ's brows furrow. “My dreams are like that too,” he said. “I dunno why, but I dream about the ranch sometimes. I was really little when I was there, so I don't actually remember it, I think. But it still shows up anyway. Clem says it's probably because of my, um – my trauma, or whatever.”
The ranch. Fuck. Violet ached for him, and he didn't even fully understand why.
“And the bad dream you had tonight... it was about the ranch?” she said cautiously.
AJ wrapped his arms around himself and suddenly he seemed so young.
Violet put a hand on his shoulder. “It's okay.”
He took another second before he sighed and started to speak.
“My dream wasn't like the one Clem has,” he said. “I was lost, at the ranch. And there was fire everywhere, so I was really scared. I was trying to find Clem, 'cause I knew she was gonna come get me, but... somehow I just knew she was in trouble and she needed my help, and... I kept looking everywhere, through all the fire, but I couldn't get to her. I was just... alone, and really, really scared. Then I woke up.”
Jesus, shit, Violet thought. Somehow she kept it together.
“I'm sorry, that... sounds like it sucked,” she said with a sympathetic grimace, which was maybe the understatement of the year. “That's why you wanted to come see Clem, right? To make sure she was okay?”
“Uh-huh.” AJ kept avoiding her gaze. “I know it's stupid, 'cause we're safe here–”
“It's not stupid,” Violet cut in. “I totally get it. Dreams have a way of getting in your head. Especially nightmares. It's okay if they fuck with you sometimes.”
He didn't look convinced. Violet chewed her lip. She wasn't sure she was technically allowed to share this, but...
“Look – Clem does it too, y'know. Still goes to check on you when she has a bad dream about what happened, or... anything.” That got his attention. “And do you know why she does that?”
Silent, AJ shook his head.
“Because she loves you and wants you to be safe, kiddo.” She flicked his head lightly, which finally drew a smile from him. “Duh.”
“Yeah, I know.” He rubbed his forehead, growing thoughtful again. “Hey, Violet?”
“Did Clem tell you about what happened at the ranch?”
Fuck. Clementine fucking told her, all right. About the carnage. The people she'd cut down to get to AJ, the blood smeared on his face. Violet had lain awake with her after nightmares and held her while she calmed her breathing. Reassured her that just because she'd seen – and maybe, occasionally, done – bad things, that didn't make her a bad person. Didn't mean Violet loved her any less.
Looking at AJ with all that weighing on her made the words stick in her throat. “She did,” Violet managed.
“And... you guys talk about a lot of stuff, right? Because you're girlfriends?”
AJ pursed his lips in consideration and, despite herself, Violet stifled a chuckle. Kid was still learning. After a moment, though, he nodded decisively.
“Well, that's good,” he said. “Back when it was just the two of us, Clem could only talk to me about stuff like that some of the time, 'cause she was always trying to be strong and take care of us. But now I'm strong enough that she doesn't have to worry about me as much, and I can help take care of her, too. And I'm... really glad she has you.”
Oh, man. She'd forgotten about this, too – how kids could just be brutally, transparently honest with no filter, with no regard for what the other person would think of them. Tenn had been like that even long after he should've outgrown it.
Violet smiled around the sudden lump in her throat.
“Thanks, AJ, that – that really means a lot. And – I'm glad too. We –” She caught herself. “I got really lucky the day you guys showed up here.”
She squeezed his shoulder, held on just long enough for AJ to return her smile, and quickly let go.
“So – how are you feeling? Any better? Or do you still wanna go see Clem? It's okay if you do.”
“Nah, I think I'm good,” AJ said. “But, um... would it be okay if I sleep in here? With you?”
“Of course. Yeah, um – make yourself comfortable.”
Violet blew out the candle, and they both got under the covers. As they settled in, her mind kicked back into overdrive, like it had been before AJ showed up. Did he want to snuggle? He'd been wary of hugs and stuff recently, at least, in the daylight – or would he be hurt if she didn't reach out first? They'd been cuddly in bed together before, but never without Clem there as a buffer.
“Thanks. You're a good listener.”
Just like that, her racing thoughts screeched to a halt. She breathed, finally letting herself relax. “Anytime, kiddo.”
She woke up when she felt the rickety old bed frames rattle, creaking and clanging together slightly as one of them shifted. It was just getting light outside, which was why – her groggy brain belatedly put together – Clementine was smiling down at her from the opposite edge of the bed.
“Hey,” Violet whispered, blinking at her.
“Hey.” Clem tilted her head at AJ, still sound asleep between them, her eyebrows raised. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah, he, uh, he had a nightmare. I took care of it, don't worry.”
Impossibly, Clem's smile grew even softer. Now that Violet's vision wasn't so blurry, she could admire how beautiful Clementine looked in the early morning light. Her eyes were like bronze. Without a word, she leaned over to detach her prosthetic foot.
“You tired?” Violet asked.
Clem got into bed, careful not to disturb AJ too much. He curled into her in his sleep, an unconscious reflex, Violet was sure, and a fucking cute one at that. She reached across him and stroked Violet's cheek.
“Love you, Vi.”
Every time, she still felt those words all the way in her bones. “Love you too.”
They still had a couple hours before they had to get up and start the day in earnest. There'd probably be work to do. Problems to solve. They'd face their challenges together – but damn if they weren't going to be well-rested when they did.