Disclaimer: I don't own AMC's The Walking Dead, wishful thinking aside.
Authors Note #1: This is a response, fix-it sort of fill for episode 4x04 "Indifference."
Warnings: Contains spoilers for all four seasons of the Walking Dead, strong language, canon appropriate violence, allusions to mental illness, probably AU after the next episode airs.
It was only on the afternoon of the eighth day that they heard a motor revving in the distance. Her bowl of soup went flying as she raced Carl to the gates, one hand light on his shoulder as they pressed themselves up against the fence, squinting down the lonely dirt road as a cloud of dust rose up above the tree-line.
The entire prison was in an uproar, with news traveling fast as people crowded around the windows, jamming up against the doors as excitement and anticipation got the better of them. Rick trailed behind the crowd, ruined hands clenched tight at his sides, face expressionless – drawn.
"Are they back?"
"Are they safe?"
Her chest pulled tight when Daryl's motorcycle wound its way out of the tree-line. He was alive. Safe. And for a long moment that was the only thing that mattered. She shaded her eyes, willing him to drive faster. He was still too far away to make out any detail. She couldn't see if-
Carl tugged on her shirt, freckled face a mess of frown lines and that stoic sort of calm he seemed to have inherited from his father. "Can you see her? Is she-"
She didn't say anything when his voice broke.
She was a realist; she knew the odds, the reality of the world they lived in. But even so, she couldn't deny that her heart plummeted, doing a sickening nose dive right into her gut as Daryl blew through the front gates, hunchbacked and alone.
Daryl looked pinched around the edges, worn, like he hadn't had a square meal in days as he pulled into the yard. He was coated in a layer of grit, speckled in red, features almost lost behind a mane of mussed-up hair and muddy smears.
She swallowed her grief, saving it for later, for when she was alone in her cell and no one could mistake it for a weakness. She sucked in a shuddering breath, forcing herself to focus, to be present. She had to be strong now. Strong for them. Strong for him.
He didn't have to stand alone anymore.
None of them did.
The crowd parted, letting Rick through as Daryl swung himself off the bike. The younger Dixon's movements were stiff – tired. Like every muscle in his body ached.
It was relief, of all things, that washed across Rick's face when he caught sight of him. The emotion was all but visceral, an almost instinctual burst of atrocity – of self-righteousness that sent nausea rising up in the back of her throat. Because it wasn't relief for Daryl - at least not in the strictest sense. No, it was relief that the man had returned alone.
Her nails bit into her palms as Rick nodded to himself, acting as if he were seeing the final strands of some grand plan finally pull together as Daryl took a step forward, handing his crossbow to Carl as something in the air shifted. There was rage burning in the back of his blood-shot blues as Daryl shrugged out of his pack. He let it fall, empty and slack, to the dirt at his feet as something petal-soft and stark white flashed between his fingers.
But if Rick noticed, he gave no sign.
She sucked in a breath, whether to cry out or hold it in, the same moment that something just fucking snapped. Either way, Daryl acted before she could say so much as a word.
The man's filthy fist flashed, a mixture of old blood and crushed petals as Daryl suddenly lunged. He caught Rick in a vicious uppercut that sent the older man sprawling – an arc of blood spit up from the hole where his two front teeth had been as Daryl loomed over him, fist raised, breathing ragging.
You could have heard a fucking pin drop.
Rick rolled to his side, one hand pressed tight against his mouth as a few trickles of blood started seeping between his fingers. The man looked more aware, more grounded than he had in days.
For a long moment they just stared at each other, listening to the low moan of the wind as it shuddered through the eaves, watching Daryl's chest rise and fall as the man glared down at him. She was almost glad she couldn't see his face.
It was Rick that finally broke it. He wiped at his mouth as he met Daryl's stare, eyes downcast, dull, as he spat out a mouthful of red, trying to speak around it as one of his teeth gleamed, a mixture of red and plaque-coated ivory, from the dirt at his feet.
But Daryl just turned on his heel, not even giving the man so much as a second look as he stalked towards the prison. She was about to go after him when something white flashed in his wake, flattened, yet light as whatever he'd been holding onto since he'd gotten off the bike fluttered to the ground behind him.
Her heart felt heavy, weighed down and tight in her chest as she knelt and picked it up. She cupped it delicately in her palm as nausea stirred deep in her gut, the feeling of loss – of longing – burrowed bone deep as she slowly straightened.
It was a Cherokee rose.
The flower crumbled into dust as she clenched her fist. Such a fragile thing.
Her steps were slow as she followed him into the prison, hesitant. She didn't know what to say. What he needed. But she was here. She paused in the door frame, eyes adjusting to the low light as the hallway reflected back at her, empty. There was no sign of him.
She was about to go search him out when somewhere in the distance, a motor revved.
There was a sound behind her, the gentle rasp of fabric on fabric as she whirled around. Daryl was leaning against the frame behind her, a smile, longer than the fuckin' Mississippi itself, stretched across his lips as somewhere behind her, sunlight glanced off a filthy windshield.
A cry rose up as the people outside caught sight of her. The yard suddenly became a hive of activity as people crushed out the doors, hurrying to open the gates as Daryl remained where he was, that same shit-eating grin lighting up his features as the man's pleasure made short work of the relative gloom.
And honestly, she couldn't help but smile back.
Carol was home.
A/N #1: Thank you for reading. Please let me know what you think! Reviews and constructive critiquing are love! – This story is now complete. I'll be honest, originally, I'd planned for this story to have a very different ending, but ultimately, I reconsidered. I think after the next episode we are going to need a happy ending - even if it's only in fanfiction. Stay strong my loves!