Disclaimer: I own nothing at all related to these characters or AMC's The Walking Dead, except 'the savage one' herself and this particular storyline. If I did, I'd be awesome.
Story Warnings: Major Character Death, Sex, Angst, Torture, the usual. ;)
Spoilers/Continuity: This is a direct sequel to my earlier work 'Three Little Birds', which was completed before Season 4 aired. So, VERY AU here, in that Season 4, with is maddening continuity and character issues, does not exist. Huzzah. You don't have to go back and read 'Three Little Birds' to understand most of what will happen in this story, but if you haven't read it then some chunks may not make sense.
A/N: Well, look at me. Remember how, when I finished 'Three Little Birds' right before the S4 premiere, I swore I was done? Then I did an epilogue for Christmas? Well, I was working on another story ('Salt and Stone', just to get my shameless bid for self promotion in) when an idea hit me. I decided to actually write the idea down for once, but about 3 paragraphs in I realized it was perfect for the TLB 'verse. And here we are again! Trust me, no one is more surprised by this development than I am.
She couldn't feel anything anymore. Grief, pain and exhaustion had mingled together like the puddles of dirt, snow and blood that swirled at her feet until she'd finally gone numb. She sat with his head cradled in her arms, ignoring everything around them; the ache of her mangled body, the people around them watching, the snow piling up around them or the pale glimmer of the sun peeking over the horizon. She could focus on nothing except the corpse in her arms.
This is real. This shouldn't be real. This is real. In the end it didn't matter how careful they'd been, how they had looked out for each other and kept each other strong. The darkness always found them.
-3 Weeks Earlier-
It was sunny outside; one of those postcard perfect days with the sky rich azure dotted with fluffs of white cotton candy clouds. Even the town itself was picturesque, perfect small-town Americana at it's finest. From her perch high up in the church's bell tower, Carol could see the entire town, what little there was of it. She leaned back against the wood post at her back and let her eyes drift over the empty streets. The wind was picking up, ruffling her long hair and coaxing echoes of chimes long since silenced from of the church's single bell.
Hilariously, the place was called Dixon. Dixon, Missouri, according to Glenn's battered Rand McNally. Carol found herself liking the little villages and townships they came across as they made their way through the Ozarks. It reminded her of Georgia, as long as you didn't miss the heat or the jungles of kudzu.
They kept to the back roads as a rule, avoiding the dangers and issues of bigger cities by bypassing them completely. It made for rougher scavenging, lean times, but years of life on the road had thickened their skin and sharpened their skills. They'd learned from each other, protected each other, push themselves forward for each other. For their family.
Carol turned to smile at Carl as he climbed into the bell tower, his rifle strapped to his back. It had a special rig, built by Daryl, that enabled Carl to use the high powered weapon with his single arm.
"Hey yourself," she replied.
"How's it look?" Carl settled next to her at the edge of the tower, leaning back against another of the thick wooden support beams with a sigh.
"Peaceful," she answered. "It looks like it was a nice town."
"A lot of them probably were," Carl said. "Dad wants to stay here a few days, get some rest."
Rick always wanted to stay a few days. Of all of them, Rick had taken least to the nomadic lifestyle they lived, dreams of finding a new home still spouting from his lips at every turn. She supposed they all believed in the dream, at least a little. It gave them something to hope for, especially the children, but in the three years that had passed since their group had crossed the border out of Georgia, they'd never found anywhere to really settle. Something always came along, whether it was walkers or people or mother nature herself, to send them scurrying back on the road.
Sometimes they argued with Rick and his impassioned pleas to stay put "just for a while". This time, though, Carol was more than ready for a break from the road.
"Not a bad idea," Carol sighed. "We need to inventory our supplies anyway."
"'Chonne said she spotted a hunting supply store a couple blocks up. Daryl wants to go check it out," Carl reported. He'd been downstairs with the others, making sure the church was secure while Carol took the first watch.
"You planning to go along?" She knew how much Carl valued being part of the important tasks set forth by the group; proof that he wasn't a burden to the others, the same lingering fear that niggled along her own spine still. Be essential, be important. They were so alike in so many ways, she and Carl.
"No, not this time," Carl said with a reluctant tone. Carol picked up on his pale face, the slight way he was favoring his right side. That explains it.
"It hurts again, doesn't it." It wasn't really a question.
"Yeah," Carl nodded.
"Let me see," Carol said gently. Carl flipped the strap of his rifle rig open, letting the gun fall with a light 'clank' behind him as he pulled his tee shirt over his head. Carol scooted closer and ran her fingers gingerly around the deep, thick scars that covered the knob of Carl's shoulder. The very place where she'd sawed off his right arm by the dim orange light in a tiny wooden shed surrounded by hungry walkers three years ago.
"I'll warm up a couple of the towels by the fire when I start dinner," Carol said. "I think getting heat on it will do you some good." She pressed her thumbs lightly into the tense muscle beneath her fingers, trying to soothe the pain.
"I still reach out for things," Carl said suddenly. Carol froze, her eyes jumping back from the scarred mess to the young man's face. "With my right arm. I still try to grab things sometimes."
"Hershel once said he could feel his foot itch long after your father cut it off," she replied slowly. "I suppose it's a normal thing. I think I read somewhere… 'phantom limbs'? I'm not sure." Carol shrugged and gave Carl a small, regretful smile. She wasn't a doctor, wasn't even close, but fate had played her cards and it had been entirely up to her to perform the operation on Carl after he'd been bitten. Carol didn't know if it was luck or fate or even a long-absent God, showing up at the right moment to be considered the hero, that had saved Carl's life; she gave little credit to her own fumbling skills. This boy should be dead. This boy should be dead, yet here he is. There are still miracles to be found.
"Yeah, well, whatever it is, it's a bitch," Carl grumbled.
"There's probably a pharmacy in town," Carol said. "Maybe we'll find something. How do you feel about expired Tylenol?"
"You know me," Carl grinned. "It won't kill me, right?"
"Well, if it doesn't kill you it'll probably make you woozy as hell," Carol said. "Consider it an adventure."
"Bring it on!" Carl cheered. "I love a good adventure."
"Spaz," Carol laughed. She helped Carl work himself back into his shirt, taking a moment to run a gentle finger along the extra seam where she'd sewn the sleeve into the shirt. She'd done it with all of his shirts to avoid the empty sleeve flapping in the wind, something Carl detested.
"Go on, get down there," Carl said as he nudged her shoulder. "I got this." Don't get lost in your own head today. I'm right here.
Daryl liked to joke that she could read his mind, so often they were on the same wavelength, but that Carol, Carl and Glenn had their own language. She supposed they did, the way soldiers in war learn to communicate in code, with as few words as possible.
"I know you do." Carol ran a hand through Carl's thick mop of unruly hair. The years had turned him from a hot headed boy to a tall, lean young man, the spitting image of his father. In trying to do right for Carl after Lori's death, she'd grown to love Carl like he was her own, in all the same ways she'd loved Sophia. She loved Judith and Susannah, but Carl had settled into a space in her heart she didn't realize she'd had, right next to Sophia and Daryl. They never spoke of it out loud; it was just something that was, accepted by all without comment or question.
Carol dropped a kiss on top of Carl's head and went downstairs, leaving Carl to keep watch over the empty town. She made her way down the narrow, winding stairs, wondering where Daryl had gotten himself to. She opened the door and realized she'd stumbled on complete chaos.
"Susannah Rhee! Come back here this instant!"
Carol paused in the doorway to watch the madness unfolding in the church foyer. Maggie was chasing around her three year old daughter, Susannah. Maggie had been right about the baby being a girl and still gloated over that fact to this day. Susannah was a Rhee, with Glenn's dark hair and almond eyes, but with all the fiery temperament and sass of her mother. Only for her daddy would she be still and behave, but the second Glenn left the room she turned into a whirlwind of activity and destruction. As such, Glenn called Susannah his little angel; the rest of them teasingly called her 'the savage one'.
She didn't see Glenn, but a step further into the room showed Judith sprawled on the floor next to the dusty sofa, scribbling on a wrinkled piece of paper.
"Where'd you find crayons, Jude?" Carol asked as she knelt down next to the girl. Judith didn't answer, just pointed to a nearby cabinet with her free hand, the tip of her little pink tongue sticking out as she focused intently on her drawing. Carol sighed and clambered to her feet again. Judith had grown into a quiet, but happy enough child, so they thought. She had days where she didn't like to talk much, which worried Rick; those days usually saw Judith somewhere in the vicinity of Daryl, silently drawing or moving supplies or anything else that kept her near him. Carol didn't worry too much as long as Judith stayed with Daryl. The bond between them was undeniable, had been since the child's first day in the world, a day Carol herself had missed.
She didn't see Rick, Glenn, Daryl or Michonne anywhere. Deciding to ignore the chaos erupting, Carol moved to the heavy wooden doors and let herself into the chapel. They'd swept the building upon arrival, so she knew she was safe, but it didn't stop the shivers creeping along her skin. The room was dark, the only light filtering in from outside through stained glass windows coated with several years worth of dust and grime. The pews were a dark wood, ash or stained oak; Carol couldn't tell. She moved down the center aisle along the faded blue carpet and stop at the base of the altar itself, staring up at the huge cross hung dead center on the wall.
There was a time in her life when Carol had believed in God, could feel the power of His spirit in the hallowed halls of the parish church she'd attended. She believed that someday, if she was proven worthy, she'd be saved by His reedeming grace. So she'd tried to live right and obey her husband, as her pastor had advised, and she'd prayed. Prayed for rescue from her life, for the health and welfare of her family, for Ed's death. Carol had believed, for a time, that her prayer had been answered. It took one day, one moment, one herd on a cluttered stretch of highway for her to realize what a damn fool she was. She'd buried her daughter, thrown away her cross and her wedding ring and did her best to learn how to live on her own terms.
There was nothing in this room that could save them, nothing here that loved them. Whatever power or fate had saved Carl's life had passed over too many others for Carol to be concerned over the random interventions of a higher deity anymore. They were on their own.
She watched the dust motes dance around in the streams of light coming in through the windows; their color sickly, distorted from the grime that coated them. She could hear, for a moment, the continuing shrieks of Susannah tormenting her mother, before letting the background noise fade into the distance again. Her thoughts wandered, from lost children to grownup children, and all the years in between. Carol crossed her arms over her chest, the surge of emotions dredged up from too many memories hitting her all at once and setting her on edge. She was tense all over, her flesh drawn too tight over her bones, and her head was starting to ache. It must be the room. She still couldn't bring herself to move, worried that the sudden pounding in her skull was going to make her vomit.
"Ya worry too much."
Carol sighed, half the tension leaving her body at once as she felt his hands settle at her hips and his nose nuzzle into her hair. Healed, instantly, by nothing more that the sound of his voice.
"How'd you know?" she asked as she leaned back into him.
"I know you," Daryl answered, his voice little more than a soft rumble that echoed through her from her head to her toes. And he thinks I'm the mind reader? She closed her eyes and let Daryl fold his arms around her, pulling her in tight to whisper in her ear. "Hi, baby."
"Hi, love." Her greeting was just as soft, a simple breath that skated into the air around them and was gone. "Where'd you go?"
"Outside a bit. Rick wanted ta look at settlin' in for a while."
"Carl told me."
"Rick…" Daryl sighed heavily, a sure sign that things were tense between the two again today. "Thinks this place might be safe."
"Surprising absolutely no one," Carol said, turning in his embrace and looping her arms around his neck. Daryl smirked at her and leaned down to give her a small, sweet kiss.
"You already know what I think," Carol answered as she fiddled with a loose thread on Daryl's tattered collar. It was a conversation they'd had many times before. A safe place, a permanent home? No, Carol didn't believe in such things anymore. She found she didn't need them like she used to. Daryl was her home, her haven and her anchor and he told her with every touch, every kiss, every glance in her direction, that she was his as well.
Carol forgot her tension, her maudlin thoughts left in the dust as she leaned into the curve of his body, their lips meeting over and over in soft, slow kisses that left her breathless. As long as they had each other, she knew they'd be all right.
It was the quiet that grabbed her attention more than anything else, an eerie stillness so full of so many things that if it had a sound, it would be full of screams. It made her aware, more than she had been for however long she'd sat here holding a dead man in her arms. The sun was up, still low in the sky but climbing fast, making the fresh snow glisten and sparkle all along the plains.
She could smell smoke in the air; they weren't too far yet from the remains of the fort. She shuddered at the thought. Too close. They could still be coming.
Her hand slid up to his chest to rest over his heart, one last desperate attempt to convince herself that there was any hint of life left in him, but there was nothing beneath her hand but the absolutely stillness of the dead. She didn't have a weapon on her; wasn't sure if any of them did. The event of the night were already a blur to her, lost in the wake of the the final stroke of fate that had cost her another member of her family.
She finally raised her eyes from the dead man, instantly locking on a pair of perfect, ocean blue eyes. Eyes that had shown her love, given her comfort. Eyes that now shared her grief, reflected her own agony back to her tenfold. Eyes that knew exactly what she was thinking now and shared all the horror contained in that one, simple, terrifying thought.
He's going to turn.
A/N 2: Dixon, MO is a real place. I have family there and it is about as small town Americana as you can get. Susannah Rhee is based on my niece Vesper, whom we affectionately call "the savage toddler". And no, the dead man is not who you expect. These aren't the droids you're looking for. ;)