A/N: All standard disclaimers apply. Set in the near future, this little piece of Caryl is speculative rather than spoilery. The title comes from the William Butler Yeats poem, The Second Coming.
Dedicated to all the cheerleaders in our lives who show up when we need a lift. Thank you!
The Center Cannot Hold
Hell on earth, that's what this is, just smoke and noise and confusion and the acrid taste of blood in her mouth as she empties clip after clip into the yard. Walkers first and then the Governor's men, hardly seeming more human after what she's seen.
Then Rick's hand on her shoulder and his voice in her ear, telling her it's over and the handgun slipping from her numb grip as the world sways in front of her.
The blood is rushing in her ears as her heart thumps painfully fast in her chest and her vision narrows to a single figure in the background. She takes one step forward then another before faltering. She can't take her eyes off him, and Daryl Dixon? He's looking everywhere but at her.
He picks his way through the rubble as he makes his way across the yard and he can't make himself do it. Can't bring himself to look.
Lord knows it's a temporary comfort at best, like he's nine years old all over again, hearing those sirens in the distance. He'd run along that dirt road for nothing, run as hard and as fast as he could only to find his world burnt to shit. Used to wish that maybe he'd taken his time.
So he stretches it out, counts his heartbeats, listens for Lil' Asskicker's thin wails to start echoing from inside the prison. Anything to put off knowing for another minute.
Born under a bad sign, his daddy always said and after this morning with Carol...well maybe it's only a matter of time before that turns to ashes too, just like any other good thing he's ever tried to hold on to.
The adrenaline is starting to ebb and when she brings her fingers to the burning throb at her temple, they come away bloody and her heart starts racing again. No. Not a bite or a scratch and she vaguely remembers a sting and a sound like an angry hornet during the heat of battle.
She's never been closer to death and right there, that's as good an explanation for this morning as any.
Sometimes it seems like she'd spent the whole of another lifetime being afraid and she didn't want to spend whatever's left of this one the same way. So she screwed up her courage and lifted her face to his, her fingertips trailing a soothing line along the rigid muscles of his forearm. And when he didn't bolt, she'd kissed him. Just a brush of her lips at first and then when he let out a stuttering breath against her cheek, she did it again, teasing his mouth open with her own.
They may have been skirting around the edges of this thing between them for some time, but this? This was a declaration. And she'd thought...she'd hoped she had her answer in his response. The way his heated palm had burned into the small of her back, urging her closer. The shy flick of his tongue alongside hers. The tentative smile he'd given her when Rick had called him away.
Now she just doesn't know.
He keeps moving forward, one step at a time, his rapid breath just about choking him. His eyes flick up at random: Rick grabbing on to Carl and holding him tight, Michonne sticking that sword of hers into the corpses littering the yard.
No Carol, not yet.
This place is a tomb, that's what he'd told her.
Almost been hers, she'd reminded him. And it could have been. He'd nearly walked away, unable to face what he'd find behind that door and only the certainty that she would have done it for him pushed him on. She's got strength, been through the fire and come out on the other side with a core of steel. They all rely on her, but that don't mean she can't get hurt.
Bullets. Walkers. Him.
He'd seen the uncertainty in her eyes when she'd approached him, felt her hand tremble when she touched his arm. And he wanted to reassure her, tell her that's she's not leading him anywhere that he don't want to follow, but he couldn't get a goddamned word out. Tried to show her instead.
He don't make deals with any higher power, not after Merle, not after Sophia, but if he did he'd ask for just one more chance to tell her.
Oh god, oh god...by the stairs Maggie is sobbing, hunched over a body and she can't see, she doesn't know who, only that their little family is diminished again.
She closes her eyes and turns, grabbing onto the fence for support, fighting back the tears that threaten to overwhelm her. There will be a time and a place for that when the rest of her family is safe but now, with the walls of the prison battered and the dead still-always-ready to overwhelm the living, she needs to get her shit together.
There's the crunch of footsteps in rubble and glass behind her and she spins to face the threat, her hand going automatically to her knife.
Daryl's no more than a few feet away, staring at her wide-eyed and she lets the weapon drop to her side, blood rising to stain her cheeks. It's not embarrassment: she remembers an entire winter afternoon he'd spent teaching to her do exactly that. Instead, it's what's written plain enough even for her to read on his face.
He lets out a jagged breath and she swallows hard and then there's a flurry of motion and they meet together in a rush. He smells like sweat and dirt and home and she sags a little against him, taking strength and comfort from his closeness.
Like he's the center of the storm swirling around her.
He's almost dizzy with the relief of seeing her but there's more than a little pride mixed in there too. Time well spent, showing her the ins and outs of that knife and his palms itch from the remembered sensation of his hands molding hers.
And even then, wanting more.
He stumbles towards her and then he's got her pressed up against him like they're two pieces of the same puzzle. And his heart is still racing but for the first time all day the knots in his stomach are starting to unclench.
"Maggie...there's someone...," she croaks against his shoulder.
His arms tighten around her. "I saw. Thought maybe it would be you too," he says quietly against her hair, one hand traveling up to her face to wipe away a smear of blood from her cheekbone.
She shakes her head and then slowly pulls back. "We need to find out who needs help. I've got what's left of the medical supplies tucked away and lord, can we even sleep here tonight? And regardless, people will need something to eat before long."
Carol, still taking care of all of them.
"Yeah," he replies, biting his lip but before she can take another step, he links his fingers around her wrist. His mouth works for a moment trying to form the words while she just tilts her head and smiles at him gently.
"Don't go too far," he says finally. "Don't want to lose you."
Shit. He's such a fuck-up. Why can't he just say it?
She just leans in slowly and cups his cheek in her hand.
"You won't," she says.
A/N: Hmph. Even when I'm the one typing, Daryl still can't get the words out. Never mind, Carol understands him. Thank you so much for reading! Feedback is gratefully received.