Thank you all for your love, I wish I could give a virtual hug to each one of you!
I stomped into one piece of fantastic fic the other day, "No Lack Of Love" by Yearning Flush. It's a wonderful, top quality job I'm not articulate enough to describe!
Moving on… Penultimate story this one, based on a prompt by peonies01 about the Governor attacking the prison during the Glenn/Maggie wedding and… well, a few other things happen too. Caryl all the way, of course :)
This is for Rachel, because we all need a warm smile from time to time.
40 minutes earlier
"Quite the charmer you are tonight, Mr. Dixon." Carol is a little tipsy and he's inebriated as well, slender, bloodshot veins raying around his irises. But they're not drunk, not to the point of oblivion, only enough to kindle a rarely-reveled pluck. No way she saw it coming; while spinning on the makeshift dance floor during a partner exchange, the last thing she expected was to crash into the rock solid surface of Daryl's chest behind her. No, the last thing she expected was for his arms to clamp around her waist. But they did, still do. "Where did you learn to dance?"
Half taken aback, she quirks a brow and teases to conceal the sharp-panged pliers pinching on her heart. "Should I be jealous?" There, his smirk twitches nervously and she anticipates the familiar pinkish hue to creep in and conquer him, sealing her triumph.
Her victory is short-lived, though. Because although he is blushing, he suddenly deadpans, gaze stormy, obscured by something unfathomable she'd never dare to identify as desire –not by any stretch of intrepidity or daredevilry -but it's there, no doubt. A shadow, shedding a grey-tinged tread of smoke in the overhanging haven of his eyes and the summer evening turns into a cloud-blanketed canopy, dripping vastness and the bashful welcoming of a new, unforeseeable era as his voice drops an octave and drawls the most trivial of answers. "No."
Everything is so different tonight.
"So you only learned so you could dance with me?" Carol pokes more, dragged along a banter she no longer reigns without significant effort.
When did he get so good at teasing her back, making her blush, giving her a taste of her own medicine? That taunting game used to be her impregnable fortress till not that many hours ago and now her throne is squeaking.
"Be careful, Daryl," she huffs out a shaky laugh. "I might take what you say to heart."
"And maybe try to finally take advantage of you," Carol strives to recover, all of a sudden somber from wine but sloshed with his tantalizingly close physical proximity, pulse racing and heart walloping to vault outside. The flirtatious chemistry that always loads the atmosphere between them with electrical charges is there, vibrant and demanding. "Molest you."
Her firm conviction that she dealt a knock-out blow shatters when a crooked smirk brightens up his face. "Maybe I'll finally let you," he replies huskily yet quickly and a sly countenance plasters across his features.
He's just an inch closer than necessary, holding her just a tad tighter than required, breathing just a bit faster than normal, voice just a tone lower than usual. And his eyes… God, it's always his eyes… That still blue ocean ruffled with just a light undulation, the dark pupils dilating just enough to load his gaze with an electric charge, two shiny twinkles flickering inside them just like fireflies in pitch-black night. All of it combined is just a little too much.
Everything is so different tonight.
"Be careful, Daryl," Carol counters again, a little humiliated for parroting the same silly warning like a broken record, and her voice wriggles out strained, contorted into a throaty sough, airway clogged. "Maybe I'll believe you." She hates being such a feeble opponent, hates that he wins this round so easily. She needs a rematch, definitely a rematch.
Drawing a breath, good Lord, his smirk broadens, eyes aflame, caressing down her face to linger on her trembling mouth as his tongue slicks a moist path across his lips. It's the way he's surrendered in that scorching crimson feasting on his flesh as he wrestles with timidity and inhibitions; that and the ignorance of his unpretentious charm that make him utterly irresistible. It's the fact that he prevails on every reflexive instinct to quail and bolt that makes her head swim. "Maybe you should," he rasps.
Her grip around the bulk of his arm locks and she's no longer swaying to the slow tempo; she's swaying because she's nearly reeling out of balance, at a loss for words, mind numb and lids flapping drowsily. People are still all over the place, dancing, laughing, people blurred in a disfigured film, people that don't matter at the moment because he's there, eyeing her like he never has before and a glistening bubble forms around them.
She's saved by a Woodbury woman calling and waving at her to get Jude and she dips her head, consecutive ragged breaths striving to camouflage the visceral impact of his steadfast gaze. "I have to put Jude to sleep," she slurs, mustering her bravery to glance up at him one last time and finds those staunch eyes still transfixed on her, smoldering hers into embers. It hits her then like a slap in the face as she taps his chest with her palms that his heart is hammering in sync with hers. "Maybe later, then?"
A coarse hand treads a path down the bare skin of her arm as he steps back, his smirk never faltering. "Maybe later."
Another first happens then. Instead of Carol watching him staggering away, furious and beaten after her jabbing innuendos, it's her that elbows her way through the dancing crowd, clumsily bumping into others, as he struts the opposite direction, chin up and back straight.
Everything is so different tonight.
He's in her head. Not there physically, but racking her mind, a translucent shadow next to her.
He's gone. She saw him going down.
Oxygen tears through her lungs like viperous flecks as she tramples on rotten leaves and soggy twigs and her bearings flash out in a warped specter of mixed colors and shapes, feet plunging ankle deep in waterlogged potholes. Gasping for air and even a fleeting clarity, her knees buckle and she keels on the slippery soil, a sharp rock jabbing her calf. Her muscles scream, laced up seamlessly with the distraught howls of the rag tag family she leaves behind, every single sinew wobbling heatedly beneath flustered flesh.
"You can't be tired now, Carol." She can almost see him rolling his eyes, panting next to her. "You're runnin' for your god damn lives."
She can't. Jude's squirming against her collarbone and Carol muzzles her own sobs not to scare her more. But she can't. The encumbrance is unbearable, her breath suspended. Death is so much easier, comes naturally. All she has to do is crumple there and wait for the dead or the living –whoever reaches her first.
And she knows the effect her weakness and willfulness to succumb has, they rile him up beyond comprehension. "Get up! I said get your ass up!"
Jude. She still has to protect Jude, though. Adrenaline-fuelled limbs charge forward and she scrambles up on her feet with the raving girl in her embrace.
The Governor blindsided them in their weakest hour, the very moment they dared to be arrogant enough to feel happy and safe and let their guard down –during Glenn's and Maggie's wedding party.
Just when things seemed to get a better turn.
They had contrived ways to block the walker threat out. They had forgotten the human monsters.
Carol was cradling a very cheeky and groggy Jude in her embrace, still giddy after the dance and dallied duel with Daryl, smiling as her soft cooing made the infant's eyelids droop. It was bed time for the baby and Carol was heading to Rick's cell to put her in the crib. Before turning right, though, where their cells were, she remembered that Jude's favorite doll –the one she never slept without- was last seen in the common area and headed left instead.
She had just spotted the toy lying on the floor when the loud laughter of the gleeful commotion outside morphed into panic-tinged screeches. Launching to the adjacent window, her blood coagulated into thorny icicles at the horrific sight of troops taking positions up the fence and three tanks flanking the prison yard.
And then that voice, that faceless, stony timbre echoing deafeningly through the bullhorn like a belfry knelling from hell that made her wince in horror. "Kill them all!"
Disaster. Havoc. Death.
The members of her group, all of them unarmed, shocked amidst their blissful celebration like lambs to the slaughter.
Children crying and screaming for help.
Michonne knocking down Carl and toppling over him a split second before a torrent of bullets perforated the air, inches above their bodies.
Hershel hobbled in his prosthetic leg, pungently slowing his gait, and Beth shrieking for her daddy.
Tyreese running, a child tucked under each armpit; Sasha crawling towards the lined-up tables.
Bodies swaying laxly, limbs scribbling abstract patterns in the air like marionettes directed by a clumsy manipulator, riddled with bullets.
Bob pressing his hands on a bloodied Noah.
Rick perched behind a concrete pillar, firing back with his colt.
Glenn and Maggie, hands clasped, happiness ripped apart, running to the armory.
And Daryl… Daryl hot on their heels to get to the guns, jerked as a bullet penetrated his torso, the frantic brunt of his sprint decelerating into an angular stumble before he collapsed on the ground.
A sonic explosion clamored behind her then, the common area shaking as if of a devastating earthquake and Carol swirled around on impulse to witness the inconceivable: the right wing of what used to tower as cell-block C pulverized into a clutter of debris, walls demolished, the concrete floor of the catwalk razored in a frazzled line, swinging over void. She and Jude were alive by virtue of a blast of serendipity, materialized into the cynical translation of a misplaced doll.
She wanted to fight, not flee. She was a warrior, not a deserter. Dauntless, not a coward. It was that oath to Rick that stopped her from snagging a gun and storming back to the yard. He had forced her to swear that if anything ever happened her sole mission would be to make sure that Jude survived. And when everything zeroed in to utter disaster and death, she just couldn't summon the audacity to ignore the sanctity of that oath, ignore the precious cargo bequeathed to her.
The realization of the attack, of Daryl shot down, of their home frayed into crumbs had yet to sink into a rusty mind when thick tears rolled and smothering moans jettisoned out her throat. Prodded to action by Jude's terrified cries, Carol blinked and jerked her head. Functioning on autopilot, she grabbed the baby, strapped a riffle over her shoulder and disappeared into the tomb maze, hoping to sneak outside from a back door.
And from that moment on, he's there, next to her.
"Run, Carol! Faster!"
Now she's fleeing through the woods, the airy garment of her red dress fluttering, flailing in her wake like the fluorescent tail of an arrow wheezing through the stillness of the creeping twilight.
Keen-edged branches scratch her face, shrubs chaff her legs as her shoulders hunch to shield the child in her embrace, cover it, protect her, guide it to their hidden refuge. Children are hope and they have to keep hope burning at any price. Even if the rest of them are dropping like flies.
Why do they always say 'gone'? Gone are the people who leave. People who die are 'dead'.
Yet, so much still to protect. To save. To lead to safety. To keep safe.
Jude's wailings have given away their escape route and Carol knows they're not too far behind her. She knows the woods, Daryl had showed her time and time again, instilling strategies, plan A, plan B, plan C and so on into her mind, everything that is now waltzing haphazardly in a whirlpool of scattered reminiscence.
"Run!" A phantom hand in the small of her back is propelling her forward, faster and faster and faster. "You know where you're goin'. You're ready. You can do this."
The Governor's soldiers are on her trail. Two of them, dressed in military uniforms; trained, cold, lethal. Hunting down a woman and a child as if they are animals. Step by step they mince the distance, they approach, they are almost there.
Daryl knows the way, leads her confidently and she finally finds the clearing, sprints through it and hunkers behind a bush tangent to the tree line.
Placing Jude on the bed of lush, summertime vegetation, she rubs her back and kisses her tears away, hastily pushing the pacifier into her mouth. "Hush little baby, don't you cry, Carol's gonna make all the evil fly," she hums softly to mollify the girl's muffled squalls, framing her scared face.
Grateful that the infant trusts her enough to swallow down the greater volume of her fears, she snakes to the bush flat on her stomach with a slushy noise, the rattle of a viper slithering on clay. The natural stronghold of dense foliage is her leverage –Daryl taught her well. She has a clear field of vision from her hideout and the soldiers have nothing on her whereabouts. Maybe that's enough.
Rick's daughter depends on her. On her and her disputable skills with guns. She's never been much of a shot. Surprisingly enough, she's better in hand to hand combat, knives are the natural extension of her hands. Only Carol is more lethal right now as she burrows the butt of the stock against her shoulder. It's the need to protect her own, what's left of it.
"Ain't likely to shoot anythin' with that awful stance. Just bruise your shoulder with the kick back. Walk around puppy-eyed for a massage later."
Heaving a few stabilizing breaths, she readjusts the rifle, blinks one eye shut and levels the other to the viewfinder, aligning the projectile of the barrel to that of the impending enemies.
"Steady yourself. Square your shoulders."
The two men are there, popping up in the clearing, trotting crouched cautiously, scanning their bearings.
"Aim. Wait till they're in the middle. Don't give them time to cover. Wait… Wait… Now."
One down. Bull's eye.
"Again. Higher. Now."
Not even close. "Shit! Reload. Get a hold of your nerves, dammit! Focus!" He's angry and worried. More worried than angry.
Carol is trembling, hands shaking despite her mental commands to still them. She only has one more shot; if she misses again, the remaining soldier will disappear behind the tree line before she gets to recharge. Then she won't stand a fighting chance, ferreted relentlessly by a rabid, beefy hound. Either he'd catch up with her or track her to the cabin, kill her, kill Jude. Or worse.
How is she supposed to hit a moving target, a running target? Jude needs her to be strong, accurate and effective. But Carol doubts herself; she's not sure that she can eliminate the soldier threat, make Daryl proud.
Strong arms are ghosting around her, transmitting mettle, support and alleviation, solidifying her posture, leading her aim, inching the rifle a little lower and more to the left.
"Now," he whispers in her ear and she pulls the trigger.
The second one is down too.
Carol shakes off his floating presence. He's not really there, she knows. That halo encompassing her, willing her to survive is nothing but a crusty joke her mind serves her; it's her overwhelming urge for Daryl to be there. But he isn't, not really.
Fate and her ill-mannered barbs.
Her attention drifts back to Jude who's nibbling at her pacifier, sniffling helter-skelter and she lifts her in her arms. "Let's go, sweetheart."
Just in time before nightfall settles to trap them both exposed in the woods, they arrive at the poor version of a cabin that had been their original destination, more of a hut they rigged up to seek temporary shelter in case of emergency. Daryl's idea and execution. He had said something about the other cabin being out of reach for people escaping from the prison's back door, too long of a detour to be covered on foot at once, especially if night caught up with them, and they had no guarantees that they would escape by cars. Ultimately, that they needed two of them just in case and a meeting point in a gravel road in considerable distance from both to ratify their top secret status.
It's the auxiliary shelter, for one of the back-up plans. Daryl, Glenn and Ty had worked two days non-stop to get this place set up. He was right, as always seemed to be the case with him. He has saved her again, even from the other side. Next step was that they stayed there until dawn and head to the meeting point with the first daylight, praying not to be the only one who made it there.
The cabin is sufficiently stocked for a short stay overnight –Carol had been responsible for the supplies kept there: a small cot, two blankets, bottles of water, a few tins of canned food, a first aid kit and a baby bag with layette articles and diapers.
Soon enough Jude is cleaned up and fed again as Carol nestles her in the cradle of her arms, lulling soothingly. She's glad that the girl is barely a year old, still too young to register and process the plights of the day. Two huge, hazel eyes, with the familiar intensity of Lori's mellow gaze bore into her and Jude purrs "Da da", sucking her thumb sleepily. Carol comforts, reassures that they will meet 'da da' first thing in the morning and the baby slumbers shortly after, tucked carefully under the blanket.
Moving noiselessly around, she grabs a tin of corn, because she has to eat and she knows it, and swings the door open, cussing the crackling hinges, hearkening for any suspicious sound jiggling the dead stillness of the wee hours. Nothing. Almost praying for a walker to appear and annihilate her crashing solitude, Carol sprawls against the wooden slats and opens the can, but settles with staring at it blankly, absently stirring the contents with a fork -the mechanical instinct of survival mocking her.
"Seriously?" Daryl scolds. "Eat your fuckin' dinner. You're a bag of bones, gonna get blown away by a stiff breeze."
She hates her loneliness, whishing she had contrived a miracle to cover the distance and reach the other cabin, the cabin where the survivors of the attack would be. The devil is leering inside her head, reminding her purposeful omission of the biting 'if'. If there were any more survivors. If she wasn't the last one standing. What chances did a bunch of handguns and grenades have against the heavy artillery that hit them out of nowhere, anyway?
And even if others had survived too, how much of a difference did it make to her since Daryl was gone? He was her balance, the one person to straighten her out, the anchor rooting her to life. Without him she's spiraling out of orbit. She had told him 'maybe later' and he had said it back. What she meant was 'as soon as Jude's asleep' and she knew he didn't miss the subtext. Too late. Always a split second too late.
His ethereal presence scoots next to her, head bowed and fingers rifling through the soil. She keeps him sequestered in her peripheral view, not even daring a squint and focuses on her shabby dress, registering the mire-shocked tennis shoes, not having a single memory of toeing off her pumps and shimming inside them.
Adrenaline is oozing off her every pore, what kept her forcing one foot in front of the other till that moment seeping out of her crater, leaving nothing but an empty shell of sorrow behind. She covers her face and weeps bitter tears of desperation and lament, the sobs perforating her figure only intensify when he drags her in his embrace. The feeling of his arms around her is so real. So damn real. All that it could, but never will be.
"Stop your cryin' now, Carol. What's done is done. Ain't like I wanted to fuckin' die like that and shit. From that prick!"
She wants to tell him to stop; that dead people don't talk, dead people don't order, don't smirk, don't soothe, don't hug. Just haunt. Like he's haunting her, poking and squishing her sanity. But she doesn't want to let go of it. If madness is the toll for never losing him, it's well worth everything.
The dawn finds her worn out in the same spot and Daryl is motioning her to move quickly. Shoring herself up with great exertion, Carol heeds and wipes her tears away. She has a job to get done, a mission to accomplish. Find the others, find out if Jude is an orphan or not. And if there are no others, if she's all Jude has left in this world, find the courage to start over, to survive, to keep them both safe. She can do this.
Everything is quiet as she approaches the meeting point and her heart sinks at the bleak thought that she might find herself there alone when a peeved bark lacerates the stillness and the indolent cicada chant, that pauses for a second, startled by the abrupt uproar.
"I'm done waitin' here like a whipped pussy!"
Carol grimaces bitterly. She really is losing her mind after all. Not contending to private conversations and permanent hallucinations of his shady image, now she's also imagining him bickering with others.
"This is the meeting point, Daryl. If anyone is alive, they know this is where we're waiting." Rick. Exhausted, drained, hopeless. But alive. Jude still has her father.
"You plan to camp here, be my guest! I'm goin' back to look for Carol and Jude."
"Daryl, you saw the cell wing," Glenn croaks, voice thick. "It's razed and-"
"Bullshit! That don't mean shit!"
"You think I don't care? It's my daughter you're talking about!"
"Best pull your head outta your ass then and join me!"
The lofty wisps of dried hay bend gracefully and shuffle as she wades, elbowing them out of her way, and appears by the road side, offering a tight-lipped smile in response to the four barrels and the pointed tip of an arrow turned on her.
What a cosmic joke the sight they provide… A bride, a freaking bride amidst the apocalypse, in her blood-stained dress, the radiant make-up besmirching her beautiful face, mingled up with dried and fresh tears. A groom, dressed up in what used to be a tuxedo, missing his bow. An ex sheriff in a threadbare costume and a kid with an oversized cowboy hat on the head. A handful of grown-ups gathering together for Halloween… Circus stuff; horror movie material. This is their life, because the monsters are out of the zoo, the monsters, dead or alive, are near, skulking, always behind them.
She sees him, then. Really sees him. As Jude laughs out a happy squeal and stretches to leap out of Carol's hug and right into her father's embrace. As Rick's jaw drops, chin trembling with an onslaught of overflowing and unexpected joy, and he bursts into a swerving jog, arms open to welcome his daughter. As Carl's frowned features soften and he cracks a smile, cheeky and freckled and bright that makes him look like the teenager he is and not a child grown past his prime overnight and follows Rick. As Maggie gasps a shaky puff of air and mauls her hand up to cover her mouth, staggering forward. As Glenn beams like a shiny beacon of light, ushering his wife in Carol's direction with long, steady strides. As Rick grabs Jude and locks his free arm around Carol's neck, droning an infinite succession of choked 'thank you's to her ear and Carl's face crashes onto her collarbone. As Maggie and Glenn reach them and throw their arms around them in a slipshod embrace of limbs tangled together and people crying with happiness and despair in equal doses. She really sees him and last night's desolation evaporates briskly.
Everything is so different today.
No transparency blurring the smooth outlines of his muscular constitution, no photo negative smudge, quite the contrary; he's solid, dense, impenetrable to light, fleshy. Real. Crossbow still set in full-attack mode. Even drowned amidst the others, Carol still finds it impossible to peel her gaze off the man who is staring right back at her with extreme scrutiny as if she's nothing but a figment of ingenious imagination way too resourceful for his liking, mouth agape in a rictus of astounded incredulity and a chest bobbing out of control.
Carol breaks free from the group reunion and trudges a straight line towards Daryl, suddenly somnolence whooshing off her, suddenly knees jelly-smashed, but eyes effulgent piercing through him and digits flexing with the urge of verification by touch. He hasn't moved an inch other than the crossbow now dangling lax from loosened fingers, still regarding her petrified like she's nothing more but a deceitful doppelganger. He looks older, but it's only been one night. His charcoal gray shirt sleeveless now, ripped randomly, and a white bandage swaddled around his left shoulder, tethering his arm to his chest with a sloppy sling behind his neck. This is how he was planning to sneak through the Governor's army to get to the prison and look for her? Half crippled?
"I found the detour. The path was-" She cuts herself off mid-sentenced with a light sway of her head. It sounds ridiculous babbling about how the escape path is almost sedge-cloaked and they have to weed it out. "The prison?"
It takes him a considerable amount of time to answer, as if he needs to mull over a question as simple as that and finally he blinks and swallows hard, head regressing right to left in a mute avowal that their home is gone.
Everything is so different today.
"Can't tell for sure," he responds hoarsely, a hindrance bouncing in his throat blemishing his voice. "All the elder folks. We saw Hershel and Dr. Stevens go down, too. No clue where Beth, Sasha and Bob are. Michonne and Ty have the kids holed up in the cabin."
"Counted five heads. Plus that cowboy hat over there." Carol's eyes well and he gulps down the alkali-flavored bile that instantly gushes his mouth. A total of six children saved means at least as many lost. Each dead kid a squelched hope, an unfulfilled tomorrow sputtering and dying out. "They were askin' for you, the kids."
Carol purses her lips, teeth gritted to lever the dam and postpone grief for later. This is their reunion, the leftover survivors gathering. This is him, all alive and breathing. "How is your shoulder?"
"Hurts like a motherfucker," Daryl grunts, gazes snared. "But it's clean as a whistle. Bullet went in and out."
"Want me to have a look at it?"
He shakes his head and she takes another step forward, coming to a standstill in arm's reach. "Daryl, I saw you… I thought…" The normally congenital verbalization of her ruminations knot up and vocal declarations evade her, words evanescing on the tip of her tongue. No words to describe that she thought he was dead, that the gap between his heart and shoulder is only a few inches long, no words for a pain running just too deep.
He beats her to that, tone bass and uncertain. "I didn't even think you made it outta the building." The creases sidewall his nose arch into a cringe. "The bomb-"
"But you'd still come looking for me, right?" she flounders when his voice trails off, the glistening expectation in her gaze unleashed, impossible to subdue. "Right?"
"That's what we do," he drawls, an onslaught of emotion flaring in his eyes. "You get into trouble and I come lookin' for you."
"I found my way back this time. You taught me well."
It's brutal and painful and on the verge of being violent. His free hand paws her nape in a suffocating, unbreakable grip and their mouths collide with such ferocity that, had he not kept her steady, would reel her over. Her eyes roll back as her head reclines from the momentum of his kiss and she hopelessly gasps for air, only to be met with a scorching breath and a wet tongue savagely invading her mouth, further clouding her senses, her arms swinging limp by her sides. He demands entrance, intruding her lips with a craving neither of them have ever experienced before, the level of urge and lust he's capable of startling them both. Only for a second, though. Overcoming the initial shock, Carol's hands jerk almost immediately, slim fingers curl around the wrist of his good arm and cup his neck, nails burying into his bare flesh. And she reciprocates, parting her lips further to swirl her tongue with his, claiming dominance of his mouth, thrusting herself forwards to savor him more, better, deeper.
It's also crude, unrefined and desperate, a kiss trickling sickening need and despair as salty droplets worm into their pliant lips, peppering the raw taste with a pinch of sultriness. Guttural groans mixed with soft moans escape their throats, the thin line between pain and pleasure more blurred than ever as his whiskers scratch her pale skin and she only responds by tugging closer, ignoring the sting, lost in her passion with a yearning they had no idea was lurking in their veins for so long. They aren't even hugging or caressing each other with longing; they are past that. Just clutching onto each other with the sternest of grasps they could achieve, inflicting inadvertent pain. Pain that helps them validate how alive they are.
On the run again. But together.
Everything is so different today.
Angsty? Emotional? If you liked what you read, a moment to drop a review is all it takes to make a girl happy :)
Till next time, let's make a toast to boos, partners and snuggling in the bunks! Two days, my dearies, two days! Caryl on!
Wow… just one story left… *sniff*