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 #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?" - As requested by Octoberland.
Warnings: Contains spoilers for all three seasons of the Walking Dead, specifically season three, violence, strong language. Also contains a big divergence from canon circa season three.
Tonight, the Foxes hunt the Hounds
It was dark by the time he made it back to the cell block, and in a lot of ways, he just wasn't up to it. He didn't want to come back empty handed; he didn't want to have to see the looks on their faces - pity and grief intermingling as reality set in. He didn't want to face it, thank you very fuckin' much. He didn't want to confirm what everyone already knew, that they'd lost her - lost Carol.
They'd already lost so much, a third of their group in a single day, people who'd been with them since the beginning. Family.
And worst of all, he knew they knew. They knew about him and Carol. It wasn't like it had been much of anything to begin with, certainly nothin' official. Honestly, he'd been too chicken shit to take it any further than her playful jibes and honest presence. He liked to think he'd been working his way up to it though.
Shoulda', woulda', coulda'.
This kinda shit was the reason why he didn't believe in happy endings.
He closed the door to the cell block harder than he'd intended. Noting without much ceremony that Rick, Carl, Beth and the baby were missing, not unusual considering the circumstances, but suspect at the same time. He probably should go collect 'em, make sure Rick's head was screwed on right, but he didn't. He couldn't bring himself to care.
Facing the others was about as bad as he'd been expecting, worse. They were all standing there, wide-eyed and staring. Maggie even had the gall to smile. But before he could even so much open his mouth, Glenn was suddenly just there, glued to his elbow and tugging at him, saying shit, words, but he wasn't listening.
He shook him off.
There was a roaring in his ears that hadn't been there a few seconds ago, loud and all-encompassing as his muscles tightened. Sweat trickled down from his temple, his skin fever-hot and clammy as his free hand curled into a tight fist. He felt like he was five seconds away from just fucking snapping. He wanted to just break down and throw shit, he wanted to feel bones splintering under his skin, he wanted-
"Daryl, did you hear what I said? It's okay; she- …Did you- Daryl? You with me, man?"
A familiar, closely cropped head rose into view from behind the protective swell of Hershel's elbow. She was half hidden in the relative shadows of the prison bunk, her hair spiked up all pixie-like around her head, slicked with blood and sweat. In a word, she looked like hell; her fair, freckled skin was bruised to shit. She was filthy and exhausted, but alive. Alive.
And really, the world might as well have fuckin' stopped spinning as far as he was concerned.
She looked up, catching his gaze as he stopped cold, a tremulous smile lifting the corners of her lips as she took him in, relief and perhaps something else flirting with her expression as the others parted between them like the Red Sea.
And for a long moment, all he could really think about was the device that literary critics called the Deus Ex Machina – interference from the gods. Because like that awesome magical sword that appears out of nowhere in the middle of an epic fight where there is a monster breathin' down your neck and you've put all your last chip down, betting your life on that spindly piece of iron, for the first time since she'd gone missing, he finally felt like he could breathe again.
His crossbow slipped out of his grip. The clatter damningly loud in the exaggerated quiet as the others turned to look, mirror stares of surprise and understanding as the impenetrable mask he'd been holding onto ever since the walkers had forced them to scatter visibly crumpled. He just stood there, staring and stupid as she slowly sat up, uncurling her thin little limbs from the mattress. Weak but so god damned strong that he had no idea what to do with himself when she started making her way towards him.
He choked on his next breath, forgetting how to swallow as Glenn's words finally registered. She'd heard the baby and followed the noise. She'd made her way out of the tombs and into the prison yard where Oscar and Axel had eventually found her, collapsed beside some dinky little side gate just a few yards from the entrance to the cell block.
Her tattered shirt billowed around her willowy frame, layered and perfect as she leaned heavily against a pillar, brushing away Hershel's worried hands as he limped along a few feet behind her. She had eyes only for him.
His chest tightened, because there it was, the denouement, the final resolution of the plot. The point where all the loose ends were neatly tied up, the moment were the climax hits its peak and has the audience all but squirming in their seats. It was supposed to be the moment where the main lead comes swooping in for that signature, sunset kiss. But he was barely even fucking standing.
A wounded sound issued from deep in his throat, thrumming out into the quiet without his consent. It was reminiscent of a dog that had just been stepped on as across the rapidly shortening distance, something in her expression shifted. Taking a detour away from what could have been and angling towards what he realized they'd been building up to this whole god damned time.
Solace? Completion? Love? He didn't know how to define it or how it would look in a sentence if it were ever written down. He only knew how it felt. How he felt, and Christ - he felt-
Years later, if they lived that long, they might look back on this moment and laugh, ribbing each other playfully as they joked about who'd reached for whom first. But at the end of the day, he knew the truth of it.
It wasn't until she'd made it half way that something clicked. The corners of his eyes stung with the acrid tang of unshed tears. He almost laughed. It seemed ridiculous considering the circumstances. Ridiculous that he could feel like this, happy, after everything that had happened.
But apparently he'd sold his soul to the devil somewhere along the line because here they were, closing the gap between friendship and something, well, else. Either way, he didn't give a shit. She was worth it.
She was maybe a meter away, when she started talking. Her expression was like sunshine reflecting off water as she came to a halt, extending her hand towards him, slowly, letting him make the final call as his heart nearly pounded right out of his god damned chest.
But something in his brain must have been working after all, because he drew her in before she could even finish her sentence. Catching her in mid-stumble as the world narrowed down and she was warm and trembling in his arms. Forgetting everything else save for the moment as he dug his face into the curve of her neck and breathed her in.
His grip was stiff and cautious right up until the moment where it wasn't and suddenly he was holding her tight. Too tight. Reeling her in bit by bit until she was wrapping her her arms around his neck and suddenly he was supporting the both of them.
His fingers dug into the curve of her spine in a way he knew had to hurt, forgetting himself as her shoulder blades trembled, twitching and rolling underneath his palms like a bird readying to take flight. But he only held on that much tighter. And she let him, soaking his shirt as she laughed and cried all at the same time, murmuring his name in that soft but undeniably hopefully little tone that had heat flushing across his cheeks, bubbling and growing deep in his chest until he found himself joining in. Lifting the eves of the prison with their joy as the others condensed around them, hemming them in from all sides with happy sounds and tangled limbs until even he was fuckin' laughing.
And honestly, all else considered, he might have to rethink that whole thing about happy endings.
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.