Disclaimer: I don't own AMC's The Walking Dead, wishful thinking aside.

Authors Note #1: This is response fill for the USS Caryl's "What if" Challenge on tumblr regarding the following prompt: (Scenario #5) "What if it was Daryl, not Shane, who beat the stuffing out of Ed at the quarry camp in season one?" - As requested by Vickih.

Warnings: Contains spoilers for all three seasons of the Walking Dead, specifically season three, season one spoilers, domestic abuse/violence, emotional manipulations, religious references and strong language. Also contains a big divergence from canon circa season one.

Flip a switch and I'm home

Her ears started ringing long before Ed's backhand even connected with the side of her face. It was an instinctual response, learned behavior. Something her body recognized before her brain even registered the hit.

The metallic taste of blood trickled past her lips. And for a long, terrible moment all she could really think about was the fact that she'd used up the last of her concealer a few days ago. Not that it really mattered of course, everyone knew. It was more habit than anything, her pathetic attempt at shielding Sophia from it, like a child hiding underneath a blanket; if you couldn't see it, it didn't exist.

But still. Her mama used to say that appearances were everything. And that lesson, for good or ill, had stuck with her.

She reeled back, supported, with Andrea and Jacqui catching her before she fell. Ed's face was a plum-red with anger and probably a sunburn, his lips twisted and ugly as he raised his hand again.

But before it could fall she saw a blur of movement out of the corner of her eye. Shane, the deputy, was closing the gap between them, mania burning in the back of his eyes as he loped over the uneven gravel. Jacqui and Andrea blocked the next open-handed slap, shielding her as Amy's yells joined the din, her hands curling around her shoulders from behind, as if pulling her away now would somehow help matters.

But in Ed's eyes they were no more than flies, an annoyance, and he pushed them away accordingly. This time his hand curled into a fist, promising things she'd rather not think about as she closed her eyes, apologies slipping from her lips between sobs, unable to stem the tide.

She should have just gone with him. She should have-

All else considered, it took everyone by surprise when Daryl appeared out of nowhere and took Ed down in a brutal tackle. They rolled down to the edge of the lake, rocks and limbs flying as Ed cursed and grunted, the stubby end of his cigarette going flying as her husband's lips fish-tailed, lips pulling back in a soundless snarl before they rolled behind a boulder and she lost sight of them.

Daryl had come back two days later than they'd expected, he'd told Shane and Dale to expect him on the second day, but he was already a day overdue by the time Rick and the others returned from Atlanta. He was too late to accompany Rick, T-dog and Glenn back to Atlanta, too late to join the frenzy that had resulted when the walker, the first one they'd seen since Atlanta, had stumbled into one of Jim's tin-can alarms on the edge of camp.

Too late for a lot of things.

And all else considered, the man had caused one hell of a commotion when he'd slipped out of the brush on the far side of camp. His body language nonchalant and dismissive as he'd pushed past a gaggle of curious onlookers, a fat doe slung over his shoulders as he'd called out for his brother. He'd tossed a brace of squirrels off in the direction of his tent as a crowd started to gather, nervous, as Daryl's annoyance at his brother's absence grew by the minute.

Shane had tried to take him to task about it, but his timing had been a best guess from the get-go, dependent on the amount of game and the weather. And honestly, at the time, no one had argued, they'd needed the meat; it was as simple as that. Food was stretched pretty thin between the lot of them and everyone was feeling it, especially the children.

The smell of venison and smoking fish had added layers to the evening, suffusing the air with the smell of plenty as they'd stuffed their faces, smudging their chins with fish scales and singed deer fat, talking long into the night about nothing in particular. Enjoying the night for what it was, a reprieve.

In a lot of ways it had felt like Christmas had come early.

Even Daryl had eventually been coaxed out of his tent, stalking the shadows around the fire like a feral tomcat, scooping up scraps and trying his best to remain invisible. Shane and Dale had convinced him to wait until Rick and the others returned from Atlanta with Merle. For safety's sake, they hadn't gone into detail, they'd just told him there had been a complication and had left it at that.

The man had been pissed to hell and had been sure to let them all know it, but he'd stayed put, muttering about not wanting to let the meat go to waste as he set to work skinning and gutting the animal. The children had been fascinated, especially Carl and Morales' boy. Sophia, on the other hand, had been less than impressed, wrinkling her nose as the snap-snap-snap of rib-bones echoed through the quarry. Daryl's hands were drenched with red, smears of blood that went all the way up to the elbows as he split the animal's rib-cage clean in half.

Lori had looked like she was going to be sick. And honestly, she hadn't been too far behind.

She wasn't sure how, but somehow Daryl managed to stun Ed long enough to clamber on top of him. He used agility and surprise to his advantage, all bloody knees and skinned elbows as he moved quickly, carefully; a sound plan considering Ed probably outweighed him by at least a hundred pounds, give or take.

"You don't touch her!" Daryl snarled, "You understand? Not her, not your little girl. Look at me you stupid fuck! Touch them again and I'll gut you!"

The heavy sound of a fist meeting unprotected flesh shocked the entire quarry into silence. Oppressive and harsh as she fought to catch her breath, ignoring the startled gasps from the others as she stumbled over the rise and looked down at them. Her nails splintered against the unforgiving granite, clutching at a piece of rock larger then their station wagon like it was the only thing keeping her vertical.

"If I hear even so much as a peep from either one of them tonight, I'm comin' for you! Ya hear? One more bruise and I'll cut off your prick and feed it to the walkers! You hear me?!" Daryl hissed, fist stained red and ready to strike, while the other remained tight around Ed's collar, yanking him up until their faces were level as the younger man twisted his knee into Ed's gut.

It was only when there was more blood visible than skin that Shane finally pulled Daryl off him. Shane's grip was light, gentle, considering the circumstances, but Daryl was having none of it. He puffed up like a cat who'd just been tossed into a bathtub, spitting mad and indignant.

"Get off me!" the man growled, shaking off Shane's hands as he stalked away, making tracks for the wooded trail just opposite camp, shouldering his way into the brush without another word. His spine was a stiff, defensive line, shoulders hunched, curled inward like a coon dog raising its hackles.

He didn't even so much as look at her.

Ed gurgled at her feet, choking on blood and snot as Shane kicked a spray of dirt in his general direction, muttering under his breath before looking off towards where Daryl had disappeared. The low branches were still swaying, rocking gently back and forth in his wake as Andrea and Jacqui talked in hushed tones behind her.

Her skin tingled. And in that moment she felt strangely aware of herself, aware of the burn from her split lip, aware of the blood trickling unhindered down her chin, aware of the way Lori was rushing back down the hill, avoiding Shane like the plague, as if he were some a mange-ridden dog you didn't have the heart to expel from your front porch as the woman made a bee-line for the scene of the crime.

Her cheek throbbed. She imagined a hand print, knowing she wasn't far off.

She drew in a tentative breath, her chest almost crushingly tight as she moved forward, putting one foot in front of the other almost experimentally. She felt light, almost as if a huge burden had been lifted off her shoulders. It made no sense, but at the same time, she certainly wasn't complaining. It had been a long time since she'd felt like this, too long.

It took her a moment to realize the emotion for what it was. It was the type of feeling that comes about when two animals of the same species meet unexpectedly in the wild, all cautious grace and respectful silence. The rocks underneath her feet shifted, she could feel every sharp edge and unforgiving point through her thin soles as recognition flowed through her. It was an ill-timed epiphany, one that really had no business coming to light in such a beautiful place, but in the end, all that mattered was that something had changed.

It was visceral, present, and – surprisingly, good.

Because when it all came down to it, she was sure that the man's outburst, at least in part, hadn't really been meant for her at all.

She didn't smile as the revelation took flight, not even close despite the warmth that trickled down her spine as she welcomed the feeling. She breathed in, taking it in in all its shades as Ed moaned her name, all broken syllables and bloody lips, his hand curling around her ankle as he tried to pull her down. But she shook him off, heart beat thrumming in her chest at her own daring, feeling Daryl's eyes burning a hole in her back as she straightened, her head tipping up, almost proud, as Ed flailed at her feet. She found herself strangely eager, like she was actually hoping that the younger man would see as she let her gaze linger on the tree line.

It was the least she could do after all.

And for the first time in a long time, it wasn't fear that had her leaning down at her husband's side, but more a hesitant concern she was often prone to displaying to anyone in distress, making sure the father of her child didn't choke to death on his own vomit as Ed spat up a mouthful of phlegm, moaning in pain.

Perhaps God had a way of sorting out his own after all.

And later, when the walkers invaded camp, call her a glutton for punishment, but it was Daryl she looked to. Not Ed, not Shane, but Daryl. It had happened so fast that they were already surrounded by the time Amy screamed. Her pale, freckled skin flashing red in the low light as Andrea clambered to her feet, yelling out her sister's name as the world devolved.

Everyone was moving, shouting, shooting, screaming. She remembered clutching Sophia, keeping her close. She whirled around, looking for him. At the time she didn't even question it. The action was instinctive, yet unpracticed, more hopeful than anything else. But she supposed that in the end it was only fair. After all, that was what the world was now, all slim chances and no promises. There were no more last calls, no more do-overs or second chances. What they had here, now? That was it.

It was going to take some getting used to.

She arched her head, trying to see above the fray, a scream rising in her throat as a trio of walkers closed in on them, all mangled skin and filthy clothes. She nearly gagged, the smell almost unbearable as they reached forward, their fingers curled like claws as Sophia's frightened tears soaked into the hem of her shirt.

Shane was there, his Mossberg blaring out into the panic, shouting as he tried to tell friend from foe, mowing down groups indiscriminately as the walkers brought down person after person.

There were too many of them.

Shane cursed, slapping his pockets, out of bullets. Lori's face was pale, all frightened eyes and gaunt cheeks in the glow of the fire as she held Carl's hand. They met eyes somehow, over Shane's shoulder, and the look on the woman's face was enough to send her heart hiccuping in her chest, her pulse racing so fast she swore she could feel it thrumming just under her skin.

Breathe. She had to breathe. She had to think. Should she run? What was she going to-

But before she could move, Daryl was suddenly just there. Standing hip to hip with Shane, spattered in gore and slick with sweat, shouldering his way in front of her and Sophia like it was a position he'd been born into. The transition itself was effortless, his arm warm against her chest as he shoved her backwards. Protective.

"Stay behind me!"

And ironically enough, she felt safe for the first time in over a decade.

A/N #2: Thank you for reading. Please let me know what you think! Reviews and constructive critiquing are love! This story is now complete.