Disclaimer: I don't own AMC's The Walking Dead, wishful thinking aside.
Authors Note #1: This is a response fill for the USS Caryl's "What if" Challenge on tumblr regarding the following prompt: (Scenario #2) "What if Daryl had found Sophia alive in season two?" - As requested by fairiesmasquerade.
Warnings: Contains spoilers for all three seasons of the Walking Dead, specifically season two, loss/healing, strong language, hurt/comfort. Also contains a big divergence from canon circa season one.
They were on tenuous ground and everyone knew it. The Greene family patriarch had been mostly silent since Glenn and Rick had carted him back from his night on the town, subdued but still firm. He'd let up about the guns, but he'd made it clear that Shane was no longer welcome anywhere around the house. Hell, they'd even been thoughtful enough to bring home a souvenir, some whiny kid called Randall or Randy-somethin' with a busted up leg that wouldn't shut up about how god damned hungry he was and how his friends were bound to come lookin'.
Everyone was giving the barn a wide berth, even after the last graves had been dug and the lingering fumes from the fire had long since aired out into the quiet country air. It was more a feeling than anything else, a reminder that a line had been crossed. Perhaps even on both sides.
But more frustrating was the fact that no matter how hard he pushed, how much fuckin' passive aggressive ruckus he raised, no one seemed to be doing a god damned thing about looking for that little girl. Everyone seemed to be stuck in some sort of fucked up holding pattern. Shane was stalking around camp like he was practicing to fill in for the Grim Reaper. Lori was busy making herself scarce. Carol had started disappearing for hours at a time. And the others, well, were just around. Rick, for his part, was so busy tryin' to keep an eye on what was happening around camp, what with Randall and Shane in the mix – and was still trying to plead their case to Hershel that looking for Sophia didn't even seem to register. It was like they'd all just given up.
And yet, no one seemed likely to let him do anything about it either. Making noise about his hurts and shit, acting like he couldn't handle a couple miles, lookin' for a little girl who was probably only a buck and five soaking wet.
Honestly, he'd had his fill of it. Hell, he'd already made up his mind the afternoon they'd cleared the barn. He'd been sittin' around doing nothin' for long enough.
So that was why, on the second day after the blood bath at the barn, the beginning streaks of dawn found him slipping out of his tent and making his way across the field towards the house. He gave the camp a wide berth, easily eluding the sleepy eyes of the kid, Glenn, who was standing watch on top of the RV. Everyone else was still sleeping, filling the air with gentle snores and the unnerving scritch-scritch of a sleeping bag gliding across unprotected canvas as someone started tossin' and turnin', riding the divide between sleep and wakefulness as the sky slowly started to clear.
Either way it didn't matter. He was almost there.
He made it to the barn without anyone being any wiser. Opening the door only a fraction as he squeezed through, remembering the way the hinges had screeched the last time as he tossed his pack in ahead of him. He headed straight for the gear tacked to the opposite wall, securing the straps of his pack around his shoulders as he chose a saddle and placed it on the stand, inspecting the leather for any cracks or tears before collecting the bridle and bit.
He walked down the line of stalls, giving Nelly the stink eye as he passed. There were five in total, three mares and two stallions, already munching contentedly on their morning meal. He chose a dappled, brown and white stallion, carefully leading it out and tying it to a post before he set about securing the saddle. Quietly untangling the straps as he dug his foot into the creatures gut, forcing it to relax before he clinched the leather buckle until it was snug around its underbelly.
But apparently not quiet enough.
"Son, do you have an inability to ask for what you need or are you simply irascible by nature?" Hershel asked, stepping out from behind the first set of stalls with an ease that told him he'd probably been there for some time, one hand deep in his trouser pocket as he watched him pull the last strap tight around the beast's middle.
"Stay out of this old man," he grunted, figuring he might as well live up to the label as he grabbed the stallion's bridle and showed the man his back, readying to leave.
"Do Rick and the others know you're going out looking for that little girl?" the older man questioned, stopping him easily and standing directly in his path, his thumbs tangling in his suspenders as he fixed him with a piercing look.
"What do you think?" he snarled, side throbbing on reflex as he forced himself to still. He wasn't in the mood for fuckin' twenty questions.
The silence was surprisingly uncomfortable.
"Look, you want us gone, right?" he finally challenged, "well, the only way we're leavin' is if we find that little girl, I guarantee it. So either say your piece or leave me be. I've got a job to do."
He wasn't sure what did it, his words or his state of mind, but it was clear that the man had come to some sort of decision. He was half expecting to get the boot and thus was actually taken aback when the man just shook his head and sighed.
"It isn't that simple anymore, is it? Like it or not, we have to evolve. Change. Flow with the world rather than against it," Hershel commented, running a hand through his thin white hair as he considered the words.
"I thought we could ride it out. Carry on like we have been until the almighty sorts all this out and the government gets back on its feet. And like it or not, you people have shown me that is not the case. We may have our issues, but I believe strongly in the idea of second chances. Besides that, now more than ever, we need each other. We can't do things without help anymore - that much I know for certain. And that applies to you as well, son," the man finished, fixing him with significant look as he shifted in place, uncomfortable when faced with the man's honest scrutiny.
Eventually however, the man seemed to take pity on him and moved forward, indicating towards a mare, sleek and black with perfect forelegs and intelligent eyes, in the last stall who was stretching her neck out to be scratched.
"Here take this one. Beauty. She's firm and steady, good for long rides. She won't throw you either. Just be careful when you give her head, she is a stubborn one. I'm sure you two will get along just fine, but careful or not, you don't want to reopen that wound," Hershel stated, the corners of his lips twitching upwards - mimicking the echoes of a lingering smile before he continued.
"…She was my wife's favorite."
A thank you got stuck in his throat as he watched the man out of the corner of his eye. His face was a mess of deeply punched shadows, hollows that stood out like bruises just below his eyes. His features were a road map of grief lines. He figured he should probably say something; some useless platitude that usually kept the others from humping his leg every other day or so, but nothing came to mind.
Come to think of it, he wasn't exactly sure what he was supposed to say in a situation like this. I'm sorry we killed your dead wife and all your friends? Sorry we took advantage of your trust and hospitality and potentially saved the lives of everyone here by dealing with the fuckin' undead petting zoo you were hiding in your hay barn? Neither one really had the right ring to it.
He supposed it didn't help that he wasn't exactly good with people to begin with.
The man and his brood had been served up a big, stinking pile of cold, hard reality and for all intents and purposes, they were handling it rather well. His youngest not withstanding. But he'd raised strong girls, that much was clear. They just had a bit of catching up to do, that's all. They'd been secluded from most of it, protected by distance and coincidence when the entire world had gone to shit. It must have been easy to explain it away, especially at first.
Only this lull wouldn't last. The old man was nobody's fool, even before they'd shown up he had to have known it – deep down, he would'a had to. This was just a storm that kept on coming. All they could do was be prepared to run when it did.
But naturally, he didn't say any of this. He kept his mouth firmly shut as Hershel helped him switch the saddle onto the mare, coaxing the frustrated stallion back into his stall as the mare allowed him to get close, scratching her side and offering a palmful of oats as an icebreaker before he swung himself up onto the saddle.
He breathed in her warm, comforting smell, the clean scent of fresh horse sweat and worn leather as he adjusted his pack, side burning as he looked down at the older man with a thoughtful glare. His tongue played with a handful of words he ultimately decided against voicing, biting his tongue as the silence grew stale.
He'd learned early on that saying nothing usually got you into less shit than runnin' your mouth. It was one of the few things Merle had taught him that he'd treated as gospel.
Instead he just nodded, hoping the man could discern the rest as he clicked his tongue and dug his heels into Beauty's side, angling her towards the barn doors as Hershel led her out. A single, vein-laced hand gentled across the mare's flank before the older man gave her a swat, propelling them out the door and into the bright Georgian sunshine. The man's final words echoed in his head like a mantra as he leaned down, learning her movements as her sharp hooves sunk deep into the loose soil.
"Bring her home, son."
He fairly flew out of the stable, ignoring the twinge in his side as he gave the mare her head. The wind was loud in his ears as they blew through the barn doors at a fast trot, squeezing right past Shane who was running towards them from the house, waving his arms above his head, trying to get him to stop. But he didn't look back.
He hoped the stupid bastard choked on his dust.
But honestly, in spite of his promises, he may have seen a closely cropped head peek over the clothes line just as he hit the trees. He caught sight of her, all tired eyes and flawlessly freckled skin looking decidedly domestic with a few pieces of laundry slung over her shoulder, as she shaded her eyes, squinting into the glare as the forest swallowed him.
A/N #2: Thank you for reading. Please let me know what you think! Reviews and constructive critiquing are love! - The next chapter should be up tomorrow.