Author's Note: This story started out as a Headcanon challenge for a FB group called Carolution. It was meant to be a oneshot but got to be 23 pages before I started to flounder and realised I needed to cut it into chapters if I had any chance at all of finishing it. The headcanon was from Upsgirl88 and I am looking for the full quote and will add it here when I find it. Meanwhile, the main idea is in the Summary.
Blown Chances and Old Regrets
"Can I ask you something?"
Carol huffed out a laugh. She was thoroughly amused that Carl, after throwing all manner of questions at her all afternoon and leaving her mentally ragged, now chose to ask if he could pitch at her another. They were out melting under the afternoon sun, seeing if they could hold out for when it finally began to dim and allow a coolness to kiss their skin. Carl had led her slowly around the garden for the past few hours, telling her a few stories about his farming experiences to date with his father interspersed with the happy, enthused stories that proved how valuable it was for Carl to have the opportunity to make friends again. Truth was, Carol was grateful for him and his motor mouth, keeping her distracted…keeping her interested in life at the prison.
"Of course you can," she conceded with a quirk of her lips and a squint of her eyes as she looked up at him, a fine figure of a teenage boy holding a basket of paraphernalia needed to tie up tomato plants so they didn't keel so far over with their heavy bounty that they snapped. "Though if you're planning on asking me where Patrick hid his cherished Hershey bar that he won from you last week, you're out of luck."
Carl ducked his head, sheepish at being reminded of his previous attempts to be stealthy. She was momentarily fooled, but then his expression turned serious and a sense of warning made her gut clench. Her hands stalled around a plant, an uncomfortable stillness springing up between them.
Carl took a deep breath and looked her right in the eyes. "Are you avoiding Daryl?"
She shouldn't have been surprised, and yet she still managed to be. Carol watched intently the fragile stems in her hands and carefully let them slip through her fingers, straightening up so that she was almost eye-to-eye with her young friend.
"Why would you think that?" The attempt to bypass an actual answer wasn't missed by Carl and he responded with a sudden awkwardness that made Carol wince. Along the road leading down to the prison, the rough roar of Daryl's bike could be heard, indicating that he and Michonne were finally home after another of their lengthy trips trying to hunt down the Governor. Carol smiled, though she didn't look toward the gates. Not once did her gaze waver from Carl.
"Well for one, you never greet him at the gate anymore," Carl boldly stated and Carol responded with a wary frown.
"He doesn't need me to do that, Carl. Besides, things don't grind to a halt just because someone has made it home. We have a job to do here, don't we?" she reminded him firmly, her words serving as both a gentle nudge to continue on as well as a warning that she wasn't going to discuss Daryl any further.
"You're right." He nodded definitively, as if her wisdom had actually been in question and Carol peered up at him through the sweat that beaded on her forehead and made her eyes sting when she was too distracted to swipe it off her hairline and it dribbled down into her sight. Carol snapped the last tie around the tomato plant she'd been gently nursing and then Carl was grinning, flinging the basket at her feet before racing across the yard to greet the returned group members, making sure that at least Michonne knew he was eager to see her—and not only for the haul of comics he was always praying for her to bring him. Carol glanced their way, relieved to see them both moving freely without any apparent wounds, and then she snatched up the basket and headed inside the prison, ready to immerse herself in the next job that needed doing.
"You ain't doin' that right."
Daryl clucked his tongue at Michonne, watching the way she was attempting to skin the three rabbits he'd found in one of Rick's traps outside the prison before they'd pulled in, chuckling at the sorry state of fluff and blood that she was turning their dinner into.
"Well sor-ry, Mr. Skinner. I've never had to bother before. Carol's always been here to take over." Dark eyes clashed with wary blue and a shudder tripped through him. He knew what she was asking and he had no answer. He'd been back for hours now and hadn't laid eyes on Carol, and it wasn't from lack of trying. Usually he or Carol would skin the animals that came in for dinner, but not only had the woman made herself scarce, but so had Daryl in his search for her all over the prison. And Rick didn't seem too keen to step up and take over anything, either. Whole place felt weird…foreign, like it wasn't even home anymore. He'd been gone so long and so often that he felt like he was becoming a stranger amongst the people that he loved. He shrugged noncommittally at Michonne and took over, taking the knife and poor abused critter out of her hands and deftly made the proper cuts that would relieve the meat of its furry covering.
"Have you two had a fight or something?" Michonne stood watching him, pretending she was watching his skinning process when she was obviously not paying the slightest bit of attention except to his frown of confusion.
"Nah. Barely talk enough lately to even get enough words in to have a fight. I don't know what's up. Maybe it's nothin'." Yeah, he didn't believe that either, but whatever it was, he didn't have the skills to interpret it.
"Maybe…" Michonne cleared her throat, stared at the ground for a minute then slammed him with that intense thing she did that made his blood freeze in his veins because he knew she was going to throw some of that profound shit at him and he'd have no defence against it. "Maybe you've been gone too long, Daryl."
The second she said it the words resounded inside him deeply. He knew it was true, and not just because he felt like a stranger. He was lost out there, wandering the earth for a ghost that was likely as good as dead, though maybe only a little more than the rest of them. Man had damn near killed everyone he knew and Daryl understood that he was at least a little unhinged to do a thing like that, that the Governor was likely barely clinging to sanity as he navigated his way through walkers and the human perils out there. The passionate rage to avenge Merle had slowly slid out of his grasp until he realised that killing the man responsible for taking the life of his brother meant nothing if he had no life himself to return to. The desire to see Carol's face and get lost in her soft eyes became acute. Yeah, he'd definitely been gone too long.
He passed the knife back to Michonne, knowing there were still two furry bodies yet to strip. Michonne curled her lip in distaste and Daryl smirked as he turned his back and went for another search of the prison. They both knew he wasn't going out again, and maybe the change would keep Michonne inside the gates a little longer as well.
It wasn't any grand, startling moment that had given her clarity, more an accumulation of events that added up to something so natural that she was miffed at herself for never suspecting it might happen in the first place. The first time she'd noticed their growing closeness was the day they brought Andrea home. Her frail, destroyed body had been a bonding experience between the two, an outlet for Daryl to do something for the woman he felt like he'd failed while he grieved for the brother he'd lost by the same hand. They were united in grief and anger, fobbing off Carol's offers to help with digging the grave or preparing Andrea for eternal rest. They shared that burden while Carol watched on concerned, sad for them both and feeling her own deep sorrow at losing her brave friend when she'd just started to hope there could be a chance Andrea would return to them and live her life out beside them at the prison.
Once her body was safely in the ground, the plotting began, and Carol and Rick both watched in alarm as the woman resolved to hunt the murdering Governor down, needing to take his life to help her deal with the pain of losing Andrea and the guilt for leaving her behind. She was new to them, so while they understood the ferocity of her need for revenge, and were frightened for her because of it, they didn't know her well enough nor had invested enough of their own caring into her to fight her plan very hard. Not until Daryl decided she wasn't leaving without him.
Carol had been on the fence with Rick some weeks after, clearing as usual when Daryl and Michonne made their way toward his bike, the strong warriors appearing for all the world to be filled with euphoria at heading out together. Daryl had a smile on his face a mile wide—one that was so rare that it actually made Carol gasp. She'd turned back to killing walkers under Rick's concerned gaze, her hands shaking as she tried to ignore Michonne's uncharacteristic, rich laughter that cracked across the yard, and though she felt hurt so visceral she wondered for a moment if she was going to be struck down, she breathed in the fetid filth at the fence and it staved away her tears. At least for that moment. She'd just managed to control it when the pair had joined them at the fence, Michonne offering their goodbye's directly to Rick while Daryl stood back, waiting for something Carol felt ill-prepared to interpret, let alone give.
"I think Carol prepared you some food to take with you," Rick informed them, side-eying her nervously. "Did you guys pick it up from the kitchen?" Rick's inclusion of her when she was trying to be content killing walkers and ignoring them grated and Carol clenched her teeth together so she didn't shoot him a glare. Then she saw the escape he'd created when Michonne shook her head, staring at her curiously as Carol declared she'd get it and took off, sharing a subtle nod of thanks with Rick. She didn't even look at Daryl as she left, and she never returned, sending Carl out with the hastily gathered provisions so she could find something else to do where she didn't have to see him leave, yet again.
Carol's hurt had turned into resolve over time—after each failed mission and the returns that showed over and over again how much closer he was growing to the other woman. The stronger woman. They shared jokes, food, bawdy humour and then one night she passed by Michonne's cell and heard Daryl in there, talking in a hushed, stilted voice about feelings he'd never had for her, and in that moment it had struck her how very much she'd hoped that one day he would. Her foolish fantasies died instantly, right there in the dark outside Michonne's cell, her ears ringing with Daryl's awkward confessions of love. Their discussion fell silent and Carol rushed away, confused and aching but determined not to break. And yes, she'd avoided Daryl pretty much ever since, but from what she'd been able to see, he'd never even noticed. As time moved on, as he went back and forth, Michonne at his side, Carol had learned to let go, to find comfort in knowing her friend had found someone he could love, and she accepted that it was up to her to move on, to find her own way, and so she stumbled along until that's what she did.