Disclaimer: I don't own anybody except Frank, and I don't even want him.
Chapter 22 - Hearth and Home
Through the cold, iron bars of the park's front gate, Daryl held tight to his hostage, the edge of his blade pressed lightly against the soft, hairless skin of the boy's throat. Despite the cold, his palms were starting to sweat, and the injured fingers on his right hand were starting to throb angrily again from the strain of holding the knife. He tried shifting them a bit in an attempt to relieve some of the pressure, but as soon as he moved the kid cried out in alarm. Half a second later, the girl pointing the gun at them started to wail.
Daryl leaned his head forward and hissed into the boy's ear, "Tell your girlfriend to shut 'er trap! She's gonna get us all killed!"
From a few yards away, the deep voice that had threatened him only moments before thundered back again.
"I SAID, LET THE BOY GO!"
Daryl felt the small hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, and for what seemed like the hundredth time in recent memory, he tried to figure out just what the hell was going on. Nothing had gone right for him from the moment he'd left the prison. Even after parting ways with Abraham, his trip back had not gone at all according to plan.
When he'd left his people only a few short days ago, the highway that lead from the park to the prison had been completely deserted - no buildings, no walkers, and hardly an abandoned car to be seen. But the trip back had been a different story. Less than a mile from his exit, a roiling sea of graying, dead faces had suddenly appeared in the bike's lone headlight, seemingly from nowhere. They'd started coming for him almost immediately, drawn by the rumbling of the bike's engine, and not wanting to lead them back to the camp, he'd had to turn around and backtrack almost half a mile. When he'd gotten far enough away, he'd cut the light and wheeled the bike over to the side of the road, hiding it among some overgrown scrub brush. He'd had to continue the rest of the way on foot, keeping to the woods. It had more than doubled his travel time, but he'd managed to avoid most of the small herd. There had been a few stragglers here and there, but nothing unmanageable - even with the busted hand.
Luckily, when he'd reached the back roads leading up to the camp, he'd found that they, at least, were still barren. But his relief had been short lived, for when he'd finally arrived at the park's front gate, there hadn't been anyone watching it. Trying to ignore the sinking feeling in his gut, Daryl had clicked off his flashlight and been preparing to attempt a climb over the wall, when he'd heard the soft, muffled sound of a young girl's laughter. A moment later, a pair of flashlight beams had haphazardly cut through the darkness on the other side of the gate, and he'd stepped back a few feet, hiding himself in the shadow of a small stand of poplar trees.
He'd watched as two people he hadn't recognized had appeared on the other side of the gate. He hadn't been sure at first, as it had been hard to see anything clearly in the dark, but after a few moments of breathless waiting and listening, it had become clear to him that they weren't any of his people. The pair seemed to be a young couple - inexperienced, by the sound of it - cocky, careless, and so engrossed in one another that they hadn't been paying attention to anything that had been going on around them. From his hiding spot behind the small grove of trees, Daryl had heard more soft laughter, and then watched as one of the flashlights had dropped to the ground. There'd been a brief scuffle, backlit by the the fallen flashlight, and then one of the pair - he thought it might have been the girl - had backed the other up against the gate with a playful shove. They were still and silent for a moment after that, but then their silhouettes had melded together, and the sound of soft, urgent whimpering had reached his straining ears.
For a few seconds he'd almost felt like a creep, watching them from the shadows like that. But when the girl had begun to slowly lower herself to her knees in front of the boy, Daryl had seen an opportunity and hadn't hesitated. Moving fast, he'd come out from the trees and shoved his arm through the gate, pinning the kid to the bars. He'd had the knife out before he'd even realized that the girl had recovered, and was going for her gun. That's when the screaming had started, and brought a whole mess of other people running to their location. The situation had escalated more quickly than he had anticipated, and now he found himself locked in a standoff, outnumbered and outgunned. His hand hurt, his strength was waning, and even if he made it out alive, he still had no idea what had happened to his own people. As Merle was fond of saying, he'd jumped out of the frying pan, and into the fire.
Getting desperate, Daryl hissed into the boy's ear again, "Tell her to drop that gun right now, and nobody come any closer, or I'll open up your throat, comprende?"
The kid whimpered, then started blubbering, but somehow, between wet, shaky breaths, he managed to deliver the message. Daryl waited anxiously in the brief silence that followed, praying that they wouldn't call his bluff. But what came back to him in return was more than he'd dared to hope for.
"You don't want to do this, friend," a voice called from the darkness, and for the first time that night, Daryl felt a cold wave of relief wash over him. He knew that voice.
"Rick!" he called out gratefully, his own voice cracking slightly, "Hey Rick! What the hell's goin' on here?! Wh-who are these people?"
After a few seconds' hesitation, he heard the voice call back in disbelief, "Daryl?"
He'd never been so happy to hear his name coming out of a lawman's mouth. Rick must have been feeling it, too, because the next thing he said sounded downright jubilant.
"Everyone calm down, it's alright! This is all just a big misunderstanding."
Daryl watched as Rick stepped out of the darkness and into the pale, yellow beam of the fallen flashlight. Moving slowly, he approached the girl with the gun, his hands held out in front of him.
"Julie...sweetheart," Rick said gently, "you can put the gun down now. This man's not gonna hurt Chris, or you, or anybody. He's my friend." Then, sparing a quick glance in his direction, Rick called over to him, "Let the boy go, Daryl. He's one of ours."
Unwilling to be the first to yield, Daryl watched as the girl - Julie - pulled her gaze away from him to look first at Rick, then at the large black man who was quickly coming down the hill behind him. Her eyes were so wide that even in the dim castoff from the flashlight, Daryl could see how terrified she was. But when she met the man's eyes, he nodded back at her reassuringly, and she slowly lowered the gun. As soon as the barrel was facing the ground, Daryl released his hold on the boy. The kid dropped like a sack of hammers, but within seconds he'd scrambled back onto his feet, and was launching himself into the girl's waiting arms.
Taking a deep, steadying breath, Daryl stepped back from the gate, returning his knife to his belt as he waited for Rick to make his way over and let him in.
"You're early," was the first thing the man said once the bars were no longer between them, but he reached out his hand to clasp Daryl's, pulling him into a one-armed embrace. Daryl flinched a bit as Rick's fingers closed firmly around his own, and he hissed softly through his teeth. Rick leaned back from him, loosening his grip.
"What happened?" he asked, frowning as he glanced down at Daryl's hand.
"Didn't have a choice," Daryl said, carefully extracting himself with an apologetic shrug. "Was lucky to get out of there at all - the guy runnin' that place is crazier'n a shithouse rat."
Daryl looked past Rick to the group of people still hanging back on the hill. Without another word, he headed purposefully in their direction.
"Hold up, that's not what I meant," Rick protested, following a step behind him. "Your hand-"
"That's nothin,'" Daryl insisted absently with a shake of his head and an irritated scowl as he scanned the faces in the small crowd. He could see T and Glenn, and there were the farmer's daughters, but... God damn it, where was she?
He was beginning to suspect the worst when Rick finally caught up with him. Laying a firm hand on his shoulder, the lawman frowned and said pointedly, "Daryl, wait. We need to talk."
That was when he knew. She'd wasn't on the hill, or back at the camp. She'd never made it out of that town.
His head started shaking, moving back and forth of it's own accord. "No-" he began, but the words got caught in his throat.
"We need to talk about this now," Rick insisted, but Daryl didn't want to hear the rest. He wheeled around, breaking out of Rick's grasp, and took two long strides up the road before he stopped dead in his tracks.
T-Dog had moved away, clearing a path for him, and suddenly there she was, standing still and silent, right there in the middle of the road. They locked eyes, and for a fraction of a second they just stood there, staring at each other in mute disbelief.
Then, just as suddenly, Daryl began to move again. Within a heartbeat, she was there in front of him, her head tilted back, her eyes wide and unreadable as she stared up at him. He felt a rush of strange, conflicting emotions welling up inside his chest. The loss and confusion he'd been feeling only moments before were giving way to something more familiar; something that felt safer. He could feel his face drawing into a scowl. After all the worrying, after every fucked-up thing he'd been through over the past few days, she was just standing there, staring back at him like she was looking at a fucking ghost.
"I thought you were dead," he growled in a low, accusing voice. "I found that mess you left back in town, at that gun store. What the hell were you doin' out there, tryin' to get yourself killed!?"
Carol's mouth dropped open a fraction of an inch, but she didn't respond. Behind him, the same angry voice from earlier warned menacingly, "Watch yourself, man! You don't need to be talking to her like that." Carol's eyes darted nervously past his shoulder to the voice's source, but Daryl ignored it completely, and instead turned on Andrea, who had just arrived on the scene with Michonne.
"And you," he barked, his lip curling up in a sneer, "I trusted you, Blondie. You gave me your word. What the hell was she doin' in that place?! You call that-"
But before he could get another word out, Carol closed the narrow distance between them and threw her arms around his neck, stunning him into silence.
"Stop it," she whispered fiercely, running a hand up his neck to cup the back of his head. "Stop it right now! You think you're the only one who was worried sick?!" she scolded, nuzzling her cheek against the side of his head. "I thought I'd never see you again!"
Daryl could feel his face growing hot against the cool skin of her neck. "Told you I was comin' back," he grumbled defensively. Carol's fingers started scratching lightly at the back of his head, and slowly the anger began to drain out of him, leaving him overwhelmed and exhausted. His head felt impossibly heavy, and his hand was aching. His anger spent, all he wanted now was to follow her back to her trailer, climb into bed, and let everything else disappear for a few hours. He loosed a long, heavy breath into the hollow of her neck, and Carol pulled away a little, leaning back to look up at him again.
"You did say that," she agreed, placing a hand on the side of his face. She ran her thumb across his cheekbone and smiled, tears welling up in her eyes.
"Daryl?" Rick called again insistently, intruding on their moment. "I'm sorry, you two, but we've got a lot of ground to cover tonight, and not a lot of time."
Daryl huffed another sigh though his nose. "Yeah..." he said reluctantly, sparing one last glance at Carol.
She offered him a tight-lipped smile and nodded her head firmly once, a stray tear spilling down her left cheek. On a sudden impulse, he reached up and ran his good hand through her hair, ruffling it between his fingers until he reached the back of her head. He held it there, the corner of his mouth quirking up just the tiniest bit as his eyes lingered on hers, then he leaned down and lightly placed a kiss on her forehead.
It was over much too quickly, but Rick and the others were waiting, and there wasn't a whole lot of time left for sentiment; not anymore. He pulled away from her, and with one last backward glance and a nod, he followed Rick up the hill.
While the others were gathering around the fire pit to discuss the attack on the prison, Carol spotted Tyreese and his family quietly slipping away to their trailer. Excusing herself for a moment, she ran over to the supply trailer and grabbed a first aid kit. It occurred to her that Tyreese and the kids might want to be left alone after everything that had just happened, and that she was probably about to intrude, but the way Chris had been pressing on his neck on the walk back to camp had bothered her - She wouldn't feel right until she'd had a look at it.
As she made her way past the pit toward Tyreese's front door, Daryl glanced up and caught her eye. She held up the kit for him to see, shaking it back and forth slightly. He nodded once, then returned his attention to the war council.
When she got to the trailer, she climbed the two aluminium steps, then leaned forward and knocked lightly on their door. When no one responded after several seconds, she knocked a little harder.
"Tyreese?" she called softly, leaning her head toward the door, "It's Carol... Can I come in?"
This time she heard heavy footsteps approaching, and then the door swung open. Tyreese was standing in the doorway, his face unusually tense and solemn.
"I..." she began, stumbling over her words. It was the first time since they'd met that she could remember feeling uncomfortable around him. "I wanted to check on the kids... to see if they're alright."
Tyreese's face didn't change, and he didn't respond, but he stepped aside to let her enter.
This RV had an entirely different setup from her own. Where the kitchen table should have been, there was a couch - with what she had to assume was a trundle bed beneath it - and sitting in the middle of it were the kids. Chris was holding a paper towel to his neck now, and Julie was fussing over him. Or, at least, she was trying to. But every time she'd reach up her hand to rub small circles on his back, or stroke his hair, he'd angrily shrug her off. They seemed oblivious at first to Carol's intrusion, but when they finally acknowledged her presence, Julie seemed to almost recoil from her, while Chris seemed intent on staring her down, glaring daggers at her.
"Hi," she said softly, her voice friendly and apologetic. "I won't stay long, I just wanted to check on you both. I brought some bandages and antiseptic," she added, holding up the plastic case for them to see. Neither of the teens said a word. Regardless, she continued.
"I'd like to have a look at your neck," she said, looking at Chris. "Or if you think it's more serious, I could go get Hershel. But either way, someone should take a look."
There was still no response from either of them, but Julie scooted over a bit to give her some room, and Chris removed the paper towel from his neck. Taking her cue, Carol kneeled down in front of the boy, and leaned in close to have a look. There was an angry pink welt running in a diagonal line across the boy's throat, and a tiny spot of dried blood beneath his left ear. It was really no worse than a particularly bad case of razor burn, in all honesty, but the last thing she wanted to do was make light of the situation; she suspected that the real damage was on the inside. It had not only been a traumatic experience, but for Chris, a humiliating one as well. It was the boy's pride that Daryl had inadvertently bruised, and she suspected that those bruises would remain for considerably longer than the welt on his neck.
She swiped an alcohol soaked towlette on the abrasion, and the boy flinched a bit. As she reached for a bandage, she noticed that his fists were balled on his knees, his fingers clenching and unclenching in silent, impotent fury.
"It's...not too bad," she said, applying a bandage to the boy's neck, "but you'll want to keep it covered for a few days. I'll leave the kit here so that you can change the bandage as needed." She paused a moment, then, looking over at Julie, she suggested, "It might not be a bad idea to let Julie help you with that."
Julie looked up at the sound of her name. She didn't smile, but her face softened a bit. Carol took that as a positive sign.
"Are you alright?" she asked the girl. Julie looked back down at her hands again and shrugged. Carol began to tidy up, returning things to the plastic case on the floor by her knees.
"I... I want you both to know that I'm very sorry about what happened tonight," she said softly, watching her hands as they moved things around within the kit, "And I understand if you're scared, or angry, and I know it's a lot to ask of you... really, I have no right... But please..." She looked up then, trying in vain to catch their eyes. "Please know that Daryl would never have laid a hand on either one of you if he'd had any idea who you were. I know he's a little rough around the edges, but he's not someone that you need to be afraid of. He would risk his life for every single member of this group, and that includes you now."
"In fact," she added, after a long beat of silence, "I'm sure he'll come by himself at some point to try to make things right. Ok?"
Carol looked back and forth between the two teenagers hopefully. Chris remained silent, staring past her at the wall. Julie was equally closemouthed, but she gave a little nod.
"Ok..." Carol said softly, rising to her feet. "If you need anything else, don't be shy. I'm right next door."
She turned to leave, but Tyreese stopped her at the door.
"Can I talk to you for a minute?" he said in a low voice. Carol paused for a moment, then nodded.
She went down the steps and he followed her outside. Around the fire, the conversation was getting intense. She was sure that they should be over there, taking part in it, but Tyreese walked past them without even pausing, and instead headed out past the supply trailer, where things were quieter.
She followed after him, but not before catching the expression on Daryl's face as he watched her pass by.
As soon as they were behind the trailer, out of earshot and out of view, Tyreese jumped right into things.
"Look, about earlier," he said, but Carol quickly cut him off.
"Don't. It's fine, it doesn't matter," she protested.
"It does," he insisted. "Because I'm sorry if I overstepped my bounds, and if friendship is all you're looking for, I'm cool with that. I really am. But as your friend, I gotta confess, I've got some concerns."
"Tyreese, please," Carol sighed, "Don't. It's not how you think."
"Yeah, yeah, I've heard," Tyreese said dismissively, "It was all a 'big misunderstanding.'"
"It was a misunderstanding," she insisted. "How would you react if you came home to find armed strangers instead of your family?"
"There was an "armed stranger" in my home tonight - he held a knife to Chris' throat!"
"And I don't doubt for one second that the way you felt in that moment was exactly how he felt when he grabbed Chris in the first place!"
"Yeah, he seems real fond of you all," Tyreese said with bitter sarcasm. "That family reunion was very touching. You and Andrea must be his favorites."
Carol rolled her eyes. "That was just bluster. A lot of hot air. He was scared. He's had a very rough life, without much kindness. Sometimes he has trouble expressing himself."
"Do you even hear yourself?" Tyreese asked incredulously, "This is exactly what concerns me, you're making excuses for him!"
"No," she said calmly, folding her arms over her chest. "No, Tyreese, I'm explaining. There's a difference."
"Well while you're at it," Tyreese said evenly, "maybe you can explain to me how an attractive, intelligent woman can admit to everyone, including herself, that she barely managed to escape her abusive marriage, but then somehow, she can't seem to recognize that she's started up another one."
"Daryl is not Ed," she said coldly. "Daryl may rant and rail against the world when he doesn't know what to do with himself, but underneath all of that, Daryl has a heart of gold. He's a good man - the best man I have ever known. When my little girl went missing, Daryl went out looking for her every single day. He almost died looking for her. He never gave up, and he wouldn't let me give up, either. He was kind to me, brought me comfort... He didn't have to do that. Any of it. He didn't even know us, really. Just a lost little girl and a mother crying... He didn't owe us a thing. But that man did more for us in those few weeks than Ed ever did in his whole miserable life. The only thing Ed ever gave me was fear and pain and a body full of bruises. Ed would beat me for looking at him the wrong way - most of the time I didn't even know what I'd done. He took perverse joy in 'putting me in my place,' and as our daughter got older, he started making eyes at her, too. So don't you stand there and presume to tell me that I can't tell the difference between a decent man and a monster, Tyreese, because I would know better than anyone else here!"
Tyreese was silent for what seemed like a long time, and in all that time, he didn't look away. Neither did she. But eventually he sighed, and said, "Alright. I'd better get back to the kids."
"Alright," she responded.
He smiled faintly, but his eyes were detached from it. "I'll see you in the morning, Carol."
Carol watched him go. When the door to his trailer had closed behind him, she made her way over to the center of camp, where fire was starting to dwindle but the conversation was still going strong. Someone had brought out a small folding table, and on it's surface was a rolled-out set up blueprints, it's corners held down with rocks.
"Tear gas," Daryl was explaining as she approached, pointing to a corner of the map with a piece of white chalk. "Won't get outta hand like a fire could, and it'll be faster and more consistent."
"Right..." Rick said, rubbing his forehead as he stared down at the spot where Daryl was pointing. "Right, of course. In case of riots. Jesus, why didn't I think of that?"
"We'll need snipers in those towers," Andrea said, pointing to two squares near the bottom of the print. "I want to do it."
"That's what I was thinkin'," Daryl said, nodding at her. "While I'm settin' off the gas, you and Michonne can take the towers-"
"I'm not a sharp shooter," Michonne protested. "I can get Andrea in position, no problem. I can even take out the other tower if they've doubled their guard for whatever reason, but you'll need someone else up there who can shoot."
Rick nodded, looking to Andrea, then Daryl. "Alright. Who else have we got?"
"Nobody stands out," Andrea said reluctantly. "T, Maggie, Glenn, Hershel...they're all pretty good shots. And, of course, Carol."
Daryl looked up at that, shooting Carol a sideways glance, but said nothing.
"But honestly Rick," Andrea continued, "besides you..."
"I can do it," Carl interjected, turning several heads in the process. "You know I can, Dad. I'm a good shot. You've said so yourself."
"Absolutely not," Lori said definitively. "Out of the question."
"I'm not asking you, I'm talking to Dad!" Carl spat back at her.
Lori's eyes widened, and she looked up at Rick for support. "This is not up for debate!" she countered. "It's not happening, end of story!"
"Your mother's right," Rick said evenly. "And I don't appreciate you talking to her like that, so watch your mouth. Besides, you can't be up in the towers, I'm going to need you to keep your mother and your little brother or sister safe while all this is going down."
Carl scowled, fuming. "That's such a cop-out, Dad!"
"How is that a cop-out?" Rick asked, visibly trying to remain patient with the boy. "Son, can you tell me what's more important than protecting the people we love?"
To Carol's surprise, she felt Daryl's fingertips brush against her own.
"Nothing..." Carl said finally, defeated.
Rick nodded. "Nothing. That's why we're doing this. Never forget that. We don't fight because we want to - we don't go looking for a fight. We fight to protect the ones we love."
"So...the other tower?" Andrea asked after a beat.
"I'll go," Rick said finally. "And that's settled. Meanwhile, I think we should concentrate the rest of our efforts on the right, here," he said, pointing to the gates by a spot Daryl had marked "armory" in chalk. "If any of them make it past the snipers and try to make a go of it, where do you think is the first place they're gonna head?"
"What if they go left?" Daryl asked. "Try to get through the fences and make a break for it over the hill?"
"Let them go," Hershel said. "There's nothing out here for one or two people on their own. With no food, water, weapons, or transport, they won't last long."
"I don't know..." Daryl said doubtfully. "Seems risky."
"Tyreese and the kids were out there walking around for almost a week," Carol offered. "If we hadn't found them when we did, they'd have died out there. Tyreese has said as much."
"Maybe," Daryl said, "And honestly, most of those fuckers don't know whether they're comin' or goin', so you might be right about that... But Merle could make it."
"Well," T-Dog said flatly, "Someone will just have to make sure that he doesn't."
After the rather uncomfortable silence that followed T's remark, Daryl added, "That ain't just it. There's somethin' else. Somethin' Abraham said, about a place up north from the prison that's been givin' 'em some hassle."
"That's good to know for the future, but we can't worry about that now," Rick said, shaking his head. "One thing at a time. We get the prison first, and then we'll be in a position to deal with whatever else comes along."
The meeting went on long after the last of the firewood had run out, until it became too cold to function anymore, and one by one, they began retreating to the comfort of their beds. Carol waited on her doorstep, the ratty, old blanket wrapped tightly around her shoulders, while Daryl exchanged a few last words with Rick and Hershel - Andrea and Michonne had bowed out only moments before, taking over the watch from Maggie and Beth.
After a few more minutes, Rick and Hershel headed in themselves, and Daryl went over to the table, taking one last look at the blueprints before removing the rocks and folding them up.
Carol walked over to him, reaching out to gently take his hand.
"Has Hershel had a look at this?" she asked, lifting it up to lightly trace her finger across the delicate gauze.
"Not yet," he said, his voice soft and gruff. She'd missed the sound of it.
"I already know it ain't broken anyhow," he continued, "But if it makes you feel better, I'll have him take a look at it in the mornin'.'" He slipped the folded-up blueprints into his back pocket.
"Couldn't hurt," she said, cupping the bandaged hand between her palms. Then, tilting her head slightly, she asked casually,"You coming to bed?"
Daryl huffed a soundless laugh through his nose and favored her with a weary smile.
"Yeah," he said, rubbing his thumb across her knuckles. "Yeah, sorry... Why don't you go warm it up, I'll be in in a minute."
"Ok," she said softly, smiling back. She lingered for another moment, holding on to his hand, then carefully made her way back to the RV.
It was pitch black inside the trailer, so she lit a candle and left it burning on the kitchen table for him. Sitting down on the bed, she removed her bra and shoes, then quickly slid between the freezing cold sheets. In another world, she might have stripped down to nothing and lain in wait for him - or at the very least made a token effort to look more appealing for their first night back together - but it was just too damned cold. And anyhow, this wasn't a romance. They were practical people.
So instead she waited shivering, huddled fully clothed beneath the blankets. It felt like an eternity had passed before she finally heard the sound of his boots approaching the door. But instead of continuing up the stairs as expected, they paused a moment, as though Daryl were trying to decide whether or not to come in at all. A few seconds later, his footsteps moved on.
Confused, she held her breath, listening intently as he moved past her window and beyond, until finally stopping several feet away. Through the trailer's thin walls, she heard a tinny knock, and a few moments later, the sound of a door swinging open.
Over the sound of her own heart thudding loudly in her ears, she heard Tyreese's deep baritone ask what the hell he wanted; and even though she'd promised as much to Julie and Chris, Daryl's halting reply was still completely unexpected.
"Hey, listen... Sorry 'bout what happened earlier..."
Carol's breath came out in a dizzying rush, and she missed Tyreese's response entirely - asssuming he had responded at all. She hadn't heard a door slam, at least, and she took that as a positive sign. Truth be told, she hadn't heard a door close at all; which must have been why a moment later, as she heard Daryl step back down off the metal staircase, he added,
"An' tell the kid no hard feelin's, ok?"