Rating: T

WARNING: Drama, Angst, Character Death

Synopsis: Written for the USS Caryl's "What If" challenge. I picked Option 6: What if, in season three, when Daryl opened the door where he thought walker!Carol was hiding, she wasn't there, not even as a walker? Re-write their happy reunion or detail the discovery of Carol, perhaps even walker!Carol by Daryl.

A/N: I was trying really hard to write for my other Caryl fic, 'Three Little Birds', when I took a break, jumped on tumblr, saw the contest and was immediately gripped by several plot bunnies that refused to leave me alone. This is the first of many, and much more angst-ridden than I had originally intended, but it got away from me.

Creak. Thud. Slam.

Creak. Thud. Slam.

Again and again. The slow, whining creak of the door inching open. The dull thud as it fell back into place. The sharp slam of the steel blade being driven into the concrete. Over and over again. The pattern of noise was starting to make Daryl's skin crawl, the anxiety of knowing and not knowing like rivets of blood trickling down Daryl's spine. The handle of her knife was warm, clenched in his sweaty fist as he put off opening the door for yet another moment. It was only a door, after all. The prison was full of doors; all he had to do was open the door.

It should have been simple. So simple, except... Except this door was different.

The door was Pandora's box. As long as he didn't open the door, he could still find her. She'd be there, exhausted, smothered in dirt and blood but alive. He'd lift her slender figure in his arms, cradle her to his chest (his heart) and carry her to safety. He'd watch as the others greeted her with open arms, warm smiles, joyful tears as he stood back and watched with a mix of pride and relief because this time, this time he'd found what he was looking for. This time he'd give this group a chance to be happy, give them hope instead of nothing more than empty promises and tattered dolls. As long as the door wasn't open, he had a chance to say all of the things to her he'd wanted to say all winter. He could tell her how much he admired her thoughtfulness, her dedication to the group that she considered her family; how proud he was of her determination to learn the tools of this new life, the gun and knife training she'd pushed for. He'd tell her how every time he met the warm, clear blue of her gaze it made his heart skip a beat, how every time he flinched when she touched him was not from fear of touch but from the tingling jolt of electricity that crackled through him whenever her skin touched his. How every night he'd inched his bedding closer and closer to her until he imagined the simmering heat of her body caressing him, how he'd become so used to it that the night they spent sleeping in separate cars he'd not slept a wink. Words were never his strong suit, but he knew he could find them in himself for her. Once he found her. He just had to find her.

Idiot.The voice in his head was never Daryl's own, but his. Always his. It hadn't bothered him for weeks now, but over the last three days it had come back, the taunts of his failures raising in volume to a shrill scream until it was all he could hear... except for the door.

Creak. Thud. Slam.

He didn't want to open the door. Coward.

Creak. Thud. Slam.

As long as he didn't open the door, she was still alive. Fool.

Creak. Thud. Slam.

The pact. The stupid, heart wrenching pact. He'd promised her, they'd all promised each other. If one fell, the others would do what they to ensure a peaceful rest for the body that remained. They'd stared at each other for a long time, him and her, both becoming adept that the art of communicating without speaking. He knew what she'd been asking. It terrified him to feel so strongly for someone not of Dixon blood, but the world was changing; maybe he was changing right along with it. The point remained: he'd promised her that night that he'd not let her roam the world as a walker.

Creak. Thud. Slam.

He'd taken that responsibility. He had to see it through.

Creak. Thud. SLAM.

He couldn't fail her again. (oh, dear god he thinks he already has no don't think that don't thinkdontthinkdonntthink)

Creak. Thud. SLAM.

Driving the knife into the wall behind him now, impatience surging through him. With a sudden burst of courage Daryl leaps to his feet, drags the moldy corpse away from the door and raises the knife. The door opens with a shrill squeal of rusted metal and there, there in the shadows, he sees a familiar figure slumped against the wall.

His arm starts to fall-

Her smile, as rare as his own but oh, when it shone it was blinding, lighting up the whole sky and it was all he could see

-everything moving in slow motion-

Watching her nymph-like arms arcing through the air as she practiced with her knife, her back tall and straight as she wrapped slender fingers around the cold steel of handguns and rifles alike, the graceful sweep of her neck as she focused on her targets, a huntress emerging from the shell of the battered woman she'd been before, a goddess, a Diana and oh, how he yearned for her-

-as the figure shifted slightly into the light-

"Pretty romantic. Wanna screw around?" He couldn't tell if she was serious so he'd just laughed. Inside, he was both terrified and overjoyed to think she might be. He wanted to wrap himself around her and see if he could find redemption in her soft warmth.

-and he caught a glimpse of clouded, lifeless eyes that had once burned a clear, bright blue as the blade rammed deep into the walker's skull. Daryl's whole body moved with the trajectory of the knife and he collapsed over her body, his arms finally, finally wrapping around her (cold, so cold she was supposed to be warm) memories and imagined taunts fading, leaving him with nothing but the sound of screaming echoing around him.

It took him hours to realize it his was his own voice.