Author's Note:

Hello all. This is my first attempt at writing something for The Walking Dead. I have written a number of stories in another fandom, but found myself uninspired, disheartened and disinterested, which lead to a very long dry spell for me. I have been lurking quite a lot in TWD FanFiction of late, quietly enjoying the fruits of other peoples' labours, while feeling like a heel for not contributing myself. So I began wracking my tiny little pea brain for ideas and this is what I have come up with. Not entirely sure where it's going as this is all I've written so far, kind of as a litmus test to see if anyone is remotely interested in taking this journey with me.

I'm going to shut up now, as I tend to go on and on in Author's Notes unless I physically restrain myself.

Summary: They all knew, without any of them having to voice the words, that Merle wasn't planning on coming back. His had been a one-way ticket, a last-ditch attempt to provide their small group - their family - with a chance; a chance to win, to beat the Governor. To survive. Not because it was what he wanted, but because he knew that his little brother - the sole constant in his tumultuous life - had chosen them. Daryl wanted to stay. So for the first time in his life, Merle had put his brother ahead of himself.


What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.

- Richard Bach

She didn't even want to blink lest she miss them, two figures emerging from the thick line of trees surrounding the prison. She had been sitting on the edge of the guard tower, her legs dangling over the side for hours now. It seemed almost a lifetime ago that Rick had come into the cell block with Michonne at his side, the dark, mysterious woman filling in the small group of survivors on her ordeal with Merle. Glancing around the cold, dank room where they shared their meals, Carol had taken in the expressions of those around her once the woman had finished her tale. She saw Glenn's head dip, his face hidden in the shadow under the brim of his ball cap. Rick stood stoically by the stairs, his expression grim, his son at his side, his head bowed. Hershel, Beth and Maggie all looked torn between horror at Merle's abduction of Michonne, following Rick's misguided attempt to sacrifice one of their group for the greater good, and heartbreak when they heard of his sudden change of heart, and her subsequent release. They all knew, without any of them having to voice the words, that Merle wasn't planning on coming back. His had been a one-way ticket, a last-ditch attempt to provide their small group - their family - with a chance; a chance to win, to beat the Governor. To survive. Not because it was what he wanted, but because he knew that his little brother - the sole constant in his tumultuous life - had chosen them. Daryl wanted to stay. So for the first time in his life, Merle had put his brother ahead of himself.

Still, Carol reasoned, maybe Daryl had gotten there in time. Before Merle did... whatever it was he was going to do, maybe Daryl had caught up to him. In her mind's eye she pictured Daryl pleading with his brother, ever hopeful that after everything, Merle could still find a place in their group.

She shook her head, bringing herself back to the present. As soon as the group had broken up after Michonne's return, Carol had headed straight for the guard tower, eschewing her regular duties of cooking the daily meals and organizing the domestic side of their lives. She felt constricted by the suddenly oppressive walls of the prison and needed fresh air. Solitude. She didn't want to hear their reassurances. She didn't want them to tell her that everything was going to be fine. She wanted - no, needed - to keep watch for him. For them.

She sighed, resting her chin on the cool metal of the railing. The sun was beginning to set and it was getting harder to differentiate individual shapes on the darkening tree line. She rubbed her tired eyes with her fists before refocusing her gaze on the fence. She knew that both men were capable - more than capable, actually - of surviving for the night out in the wilderness. They were nothing if not survivalists. Still, she didn't like it. She never liked it when one of their group was away for very long. But this was different. This wasn't some supply run into a nearby town, or one of Daryl's hunting trips into the surrounding forest to bring back meat to keep the group well fed. This was something completely different.

A lump formed in her throat as she recalled the last time he'd left the prison. He'd gone with Rick and Michonne to bring back Glenn and Maggie from the Woodbury. She recalled her elation at seeing the little SUV as it approached the gate, a mile-wide smile on her face as she stepped toward the vehicle and peered in the windows. And the soul-crushing grief when she'd realized he wasn't there. Rick had quietly explained everything to her; they'd found Merle. Daryl refused to abandon him again, and when forced to choose, he'd chosen his brother over them.

Her eyes welled with tears as she considered the possibility that Daryl had found Merle once again, and that somehow, the elder brother had worked his wiles and convinced Daryl once and for all that they would be better off alone. After all, Merle was blood. Daryl's real family. And what were they? A group of people pooling their resources for a better chance at survival.

She blinked and felt the wetness on her cheeks, no longer able to hold back her tears. Her stomach knotted and she lowered her head, pressing her forehead against the cold railing and clenching her jaw, taking deep breaths. After years living with a physically and emotionally violent man, she'd honed her skills at hiding her emotions, allowing herself only a moment to wallow in her sorrow before she swallowed hard and raised her head, deftly swiping the evidence of her tears from her face.

She jumped when she felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned, eyes wide with fright to see Rick crouched down behind her, an apology evident on his face.

"Sorry," he said quietly, moving to settle on the floor beside her. "I thought you heard me."

She shook her head, offering him the faintest hint of a smile. "It's all right," she assured him. "Serves me right for drifting off when I'm supposed to be on watch."

Rick nodded, his gaze lingering momentarily on her face before it shifted to the borders of the prison grounds. He squinted into the darkness "Anything?"

"Not yet," she replied, unable to keep the disappointment from her voice.

"Why don't you go on inside?" Rick suggested, gently nudging her with his shoulder. "Get warm. Get something to eat. Get some rest. I'm taking first watch tonight."

Carol shook her head, pulling her thin cardigan more tightly around her slender shoulders. "I'm fine."


"I said I'm fine," she said, her tone more prickly than she'd intended. She sighed, hazarding a glance at Rick. "I really am fine," she repeated, her tone softer. "I just... I want to be out here a little longer. I can't go back inside and just pretend that everything is alright when he... when they are out there somewhere. It wouldn't be right."

Rick turned to look at her, understanding in his eyes. "Alright, have it your way," he said, his tone lighter than his words might suggest. "You've been hanging around Daryl too much. Getting to be just as stubborn as he is." Carol couldn't help but let a small smile creep across her face at his words. She could think of worse things than being compared to the solidly dependable, albeit temperamental redneck. Rick grinned back at her. "At least let me get you a warmer sweater and something to eat, okay? Then you can keep me company up here for a little while longer."

With a grateful nod of her head, Carol watched Rick get to his feet, his lanky frame towering over her. He turned on his heel and she listened to the sound of his boots against the metal stairs, followed by the heavy door slamming shut at the base of the tower.

A gust of cool air breezed past her perch and she shivered, tucking her hands into her armpits and hunching her shoulders against the chill of the night. It was almost completely dark now, save for ripples of moonlight peeking out from behind patches of cloud that cut a scattered path across the yard, illuminating the stumbling shapes of the moaning figures meandering aimlessly down below. She watched them sadly. Even now, more than a year after the outbreak first began, she still felt tinges of sadness for the lives the infected used to lead, for all that they would never know they had lost.

Her eyes misted once again for her little girl. Until that day, they had merely been monsters. Nameless, faceless wraiths instilling fear into the souls of the living, some evil thing to be destroyed. But her Sophia wasn't evil. She was good, through and through. Yet still, she came stumbling out of that barn, yearning for flesh. Heedless of the familiar faces that surrounded her, she gnashed and growled, taking step after step toward a new source of food, nothing more. She didn't recognize the faces of her friend Carl, or Lori who had been so kind to her. She didn't recognize her own mother, lying in the dirt, wailing and struggling against the strong arms of the silent hunter that had always made sure Sophia's belly never went empty night after night in their camp at the quarry.

Carol sniffled, wiping her nose with the sleeve of her cardigan and giving her head a shake. She rarely let herself think about that day. It was all just too painful. For some reason it hurt all the more to think of Sophia without Daryl around. He was her confidant. On the rare occasions when she felt compelled to talk about her beloved daughter, he was the one person who would quietly sit and listen to her without judgement or pity. He would sit beside her in silent understanding and let her talk until she couldn't anymore. Without a word, he would slide his strong arms around her and allow her to weep into his shoulder until her tears were spent. He would offer her that crooked smile that she liked to think he saved especially for her. Then he would nod, disentangle himself from her and they would go back to their daily routine. It didn't happen often, but those moments between them meant the world to Carol.

Since the night that he had exploded at her when she'd come to find him at his isolated camp on the Greene's farm, Daryl had shown her a different side of himself. He had grown over that first, horrible winter after the farm had been overrun, proving himself a loyal and trustworthy companion, willing to go to any lengths for their small band of nomads. And he had even begun to open up to a select few in the group, allowing them to see the slightly mischievous little boy who had been safely hidden deep down inside after a childhood of torment and neglect.

The sound of boots clunking loudly up the stairs drew her back from her musings and she turned in time to see Rick appear in the doorway, a bowl of stew in one hand an a familiar garment draped over his arm. He set the bowl down on the floor beside her and draped Daryl's poncho over her shoulders before picking up the rifle from the table where she supposed he'd laid it when he came to check on her the first time. He leaned back against the wall and raised his leg, letting his foot rest on the bottom rung of the railing as he gazed out over the yard.

Carol closed her eyes and pulled the poncho tighter around her shoulders, burying her face in its warm folds and breathing in deeply, taking comfort in the familiar scent that lingered there; earth, motor oil, smoke and sweat. Him. She smiled, losing herself as she nuzzled into the rough fabric, suddenly flooded with memories. Clinging to his back as she rode behind him on his bike. His arms picking up her fragile form, carrying her to safety from the solitary cell she had been so certain would become her tomb. His face, flushed with pride as he bestowed the fruits of his latest hunt to her, already skinned and butchered to save her from any extra work. His eyes bright with joy as Judith's tiny hand reached for him. That smile, just for her.

So lost in her memories was she, that she almost missed the sudden movement beside her as Rick righted himself from his relaxed stance, raising the rifle to his shoulder and peering through the sight at something in the distance.

"What? What is it?" she asked, her remembrances forgotten as she scrambled to her feet, her eyes straining to see whatever had caught Rick's attention.

Rick shook his head minutely, his lips pressed tightly together, his eye still focused on the distance. "Not sure. Thought I saw somethi... Shit."

"What?" Carol demanded, her voice almost frantic now. "What do you see? Is it them? Are they back?"

Without a word, Rick handed Carol the rifle and she raised it to her shoulder, careful to keep her finger away from the trigger, and peered through the sight. It was dark and she squinted to focus her gaze. She grunted in frustration as whatever was moving through the edge of the woods disappeared behind a tree. Suddenly, a solitary figure emerged from the woods, stumbling, clearly struggling with exhaustion, hunger, and possible dehydration. Leaning forward carefully and resting her stomach against the railing, Carol blinked, willing the shadowy figure to come into focus.

The moon emerged from behind a cloud, eerily illuminating the scene before her and Carol felt her heart skip a beat in her chest when she saw the figure turn, revealing the faint outline of angel's wings on its back. She let out a little gasp and lowered the rifle, turning to face Rick with wide, hopeful eyes.

"It's him! It's Daryl!" she exclaimed. Before Rick could reply, she shoved the rifle into his arms and took off, pounding loudly down the stairs and shoving open the heavy door. She fumbled with the gate leading to the long, gravel path hedged in on either side by tall, wire fences topped with barbed wire, bits of dirt and grit taking flight as her feet beat a hasty trail toward the place where the figure now stooped, sagging tiredly against the fence.

"Daryl? Daryl!" she panted as she neared the area of the fence through which they had first entered the prison. They had laced a sturdy wire through the gap they had made, winding it through the chinks in the fence and securing it with a heavy padlock. Cursing herself for not remembering to bring the key, she hooked her fingers through the links and waited for Rick to join her, heedless of the tears that ran down her face as the figure righted itself, slowly turning to face her. "Oh my God. I was so worried! We were all so worr..."

Words died on the tip of her tongue and the smile slid from her face as the figure stepped toward her. Gaunt, lifeless eyes stared back at her from a pallid, rotting face. Hair matted to scalp with clumps of blood and dirt. Jacket torn at the shoulder revealing flesh torn away almost to the bone, a few tendons and lank muscle all that kept the arm attached. Gone were the steely blue eyes that accepted her teasing and offered understanding to her suffering. Gone was the slightly mussed hair that she secretly always longed to cut just a bit so she could get a better look at his handsome face. Gone was the soul that she had called friend.

She staggered backward, her mouth open in a silent scream as the creature took a lumbering step toward the fence. Moments ago she'd berated herself for not being able to open the fence for him. Now she hoped it would hold against his ferocious onslaught as he caught her scent, once nimble fingers clawing at her through the mesh.

She collapsed in on herself, crumbling to the ground as the sorrow of losing yet another person she loved to those things overwhelmed her. This time, there were no strong arms to hold her back. No friend to utter reassurances in her ear. She wondered, would it be easier? No pain. No sorrow. They'd lost so many already; Sophia, Amy, Jim, Lori, Shane, Jacqui, Patricia, Dale... there was only so much that a person could take. Maybe, just maybe there was some peace in the sheer mindlessness of the risen dead. Putting shaking hands on her knees, she pushed herself to her feet. She met the gaze of the bleary, muddied eyes devoid of life. Taking one last breath, she put one foot in front of the other toward her destiny.

Ahem. So... kind of ended on a downer here. But fear not, intrepid reader! There is more to come. Kind of nervous here... this is fairly off the beaten track for me as a writer, what with the dead up and walking around and all. But I'm game if you are. Please let me know what you thought (love it? Hate it? Want to strangle me for leaving it the way I did? Let me know!). All thoughts are welcome, but please remember that I have feelings too (shocking!) so if you are going to criticize, please make it constructive!