Disclaimer: The Walking Dead does not belong to me.
A/N: This takes place two years after the events of 4.08 and contains spoilers through that episode. I suppose it could also be considered non-canon compliant after that point. This one's been haunting me since Carol drove down that road.
The Long Road Home
Two years since she'd blown past Rick while rotting leaves scattered in her wake. Two years of pushing and starving and surviving and nothing at all that could be called living.
Two years of trying to forget. Trying not to look over her shoulder. Trying not to look for him. Two years of failing at that most difficult of simple tasks.
Two years of it, and there he stood with his blood cooling rapidly on her shaking palm.
The abrupt pounding startled Carol from sleep. They told her there was one that needed fixing up just inside the gate. As she rubbed exhaustion from her eyes and wrenched her feet into filthy boots, they cautioned that she should watch herself with this one. That he'd fought some coming in. That he hadn't taken kindly to the removal of his weapons. She'd shrugged into her coat and made her way across the courtyard. Their few buildings shimmered in the firelight.
The man had sought entrance at the gate like so many of them did. Refugees. Survivors. There for a week or maybe a night. Some only until they took their last living breath. He stood flanked by two of the men from the outer camp. Stripped of his bolts with an impotent crossbow on his back, he stood with a bowed head in the dimming light.
Alan, who had hold of the stranger's left arm, gave it a sudden jerk. With a scowl and a reactive hiss, Daryl lifted his head.
He was thinner. Still muscled beneath that ancient poncho, but thinner and somehow more worn. A few more streaks of gray revealed themselves in his parted hair, and she wondered absently how he'd come to have that scar high up on his cheek, just below where the blood trickled from his scuffle minutes before.
The image swam in a pool of unbidden tears, but there was no mistake. The way her stomach lurched at his gaze told her it was him.
"It's alright. I know him." To her, the words sounded far away.
Alan eyed the other men warily, but didn't move. Carol swallowed and tried to force the sound. "Let go."
"You sure, Carol?"
She nodded, no longer trusting her voice, and at last they were left alone beneath the moon. Daryl continued staring at her with an unreadable expression. She needed to know that this was real. Needed to know it wasn't just another phantom appearing in the night. Her fingers reached out thoughtlessly for the rounded firmness of his shoulder before she remembered and abruptly snatched them back.
It wasn't like it used to be. Some cruel part of her wondered if it had ever really been anything at all. Wondered if the memory of maybe was just a twisted joke to doomed to rise with all her other ghosts.
They'd banished her. Rick had banished her. And she'd gone without a fight. Despite what she wished, there was nothing to say that this would be a happy reunion.
And there they stood, frozen. She stopped being aware of the cooling night air. Ceased to hear the crackle of the fires or the low murmur of voices in the makeshift outer camp. The shadows of the old college buildings surrounding them crept longer in the moonlight. Everything around Carol seemed to swirl to a stop.
And then, he moved. In agonizing increments, he reached forward. Keeping his body still, he placed one hand feather light against her neck. Her pulse rocketed beneath his shaking touch.
His fingers closed, then clenched too sharply against her skin. A moment later, he sprang forward, pulling her toward him at the same time. Their bodies met, knocking the air from her lungs. At the impact, he let out a percussive breath that sounded almost like half a sob.
It lasted only for a moment. As suddenly as it began, he stepped away and replaced her harshly at arm's length. His expression darkened. The hand that had seized her neck so desperately slid down her arm and lingered just for a moment at her fingertips before pulling away.
Her own fingers begged to follow their gentle warmth.
The tears that had threatened earlier slipped over the edge, and he watched without emotion as they dampened her skin.
Carol opened her mouth to speak, but was forced to swallow harshly when the words wouldn't come. Gulping in the night air, she forced out the only word that she could. "How?"
A twisted pull of pain crossed his face in the shadows of the firelight, and she wondered if her earlier instincts to draw away had been correct. Filled with the weight of that heavy burden, she lowered her head. It was only then that he finally spoke.
"We looked for you." The words were barely a whisper, so soft she wasn't sure she'd even heard.
He scuffed one tattered boot against the ground. "We looked for you. You was just gone."
Daring a glance, she felt her heart twist at the anguish in his eyes. She watched him scuff at the ground again, then take a few stumbling, faltering steps to the side. "Daryl?" She stepped forward in alarm, attempting to steady his shoulder. He hissed at her touch and jerked away.
Her hand, she realized, was warm with blood.
"You're bleeding," she murmured. She'd patched him up plenty of times, but this - this was different. Here he was standing before her. Two years later, here he stood with his blood cooling rapidly on her shaking palm.
"It's nothin'." He avoided her eyes.
"You can barely stand."
He fought down an aching, painful cough. "Just need some rest."
A thought, unlikely as it may be, ripped through her like a current of icy water. "You're not -"
He cut her off. "Ain't a bite." Scowling, he lowered his eyes. "Was just gonna get patched up and move on."
Move on. Something like panic rose in her lungs. "You can't just..." She trailed off and took a faltering step back. She'd forgotten how it was. Collecting herself, she began again. "We have a clinic. Just in that building. Come on." She offered her arm, more out of some long forgotten habit than anything else. He stared at it for a moment like it was a threat. She lowered it, empty, to rest at her side.
Still, he followed her through the night. The ancient brick buildings loomed before them, their gaping shadows made larger in the dying light.
Prying open the door to what once must have been an office of sorts, Carol motioned him inside and gestured to a scarred wooden desk that served both as exam table and instrument tray. "Have a seat over there." She lit a lamp and tried not to watch as he removed the crossbow from his back and placed it reverently on the floor. Tried not to wince as he struggled to hoist himself onto the desk. He was worse than she thought, and she found herself uneasy at the sight.
He watched her through his bangs as she readied her supplies. An uneasy silence drifted into the space between them, and Carol found her neck burning under the heat of his gaze. The skin there still remembered the rough tug of his fingers from minutes before. Busying herself with the gauze and antiseptic, she readied a tray. After straightening the supplies for the third time, she found she had to turn.
She moved to him slowly and handed over a clean towel. "Put this over your eye." He did as she asked. "Let's just see if we can lift up the..." She trailed off as he pulled back the poncho himself to reveal the wound just beneath his shoulder. His face contorted as it pulled against the tacky blackened blood. The air left Carol's lungs a little too fast.
Biting her lip, she cautiously reached out to assist him. "What happened?" Her words sounded muffled even in the silent room.
"Knife." His eyes flitted away from hers as soon as they'd landed. "Had it almost healed. Tore it open again 'bout a day ago and couldn't get it to stop. Them boys by the gate didn't exactly help." He removed the cloth from his head. Placing it at his side, he began studying the old desk chair across the room as though trying to memorize every detail.
"Policy is no weapons," and the explanation sounded a feeble apology even to her own ears. He didn't bother to respond.
She inhaled to ask him again about the wound, but found herself biting her lip instead. Probing the gash with delicate fingers, she accepted that he'd said what he would on the subject. As gently as possible, she wiped away some of the blood.
"It was deep." He grunted in agreement, but remained tensely still under her touch. At last she'd had her fill. "Just needs cleaned and a few stitches," she observed.
Nodding wordlessly, he continued his inspection of the chair, only daring to let his eyes cross her form when she turned away for the thread. He watched her precise movements, the sure way she reached for the different drawers, her easy steps across the room.
"You do this a lot?"
"What's that?" She rifled through a drawer in search of sterile needles.
"This." His head tilted toward his wound. "Here."
She was silent for a moment before daring to respond. "We all have our jobs here." Her fingers finding their prize, she chose to keep her gaze on the scarred wooden desk as she uttered the words. "There's no doctor...I do what I can."
When he didn't respond, she summoned her strength and returned to his side. "Probably going to hurt. We've got all the basics, but we save the pain killers for the worst of the worst."
He almost huffed an empty laugh. "Can manage."
Carol fought the smile that threatened her lips. "Yeah, I'll bet you can." She swallowed and shook her head, blinking to clear her eyes. "Hold still."
Deep as it was, it didn't take long to stitch him back up. True to his word, he managed, and if her hands shook a little more than usual at the task, he never let on that he noticed. When the last bandage had been applied to his shoulder, she stepped back. "All done." A tight smile stretched her lips.
He nodded. "Thanks." His eyes dared to find hers, just for a minute. A jolt ran through her at the sight.
"You're welcome," she managed. Replacing the supplies, she turned to find him still seated on the desk. She took in his tired eyes and the hollows of his cheeks, features only magnified in the sickly yellow light of the lamp. "When was the last time you ate?"
He shrugged, wincing as the movement pulled uncomfortably at his stitches. "Been a while," he admitted, his head falling lower on his shoulders. "Food's harder to come by this time a year." She noticed, again, how worn he looked.
"Where were you headed?" She was almost ashamed of the question from the moment that she asked. She had no right, no claim to know.
He eyed her with a look of surprise.
Her hands fumbled as she clumsily folded a towel. "You said you were just going to get patched up and move on. Just wondered where you were going." She hoped the words didn't echo the desperate clawing sensation in her chest.
He continued watching her, his features carefully guarding his spiraling thoughts. Inscrutably he muttered, "Didn't know where." This all-consuming search had come to an abrupt end, and he realized with terror it may have been for naught. He'd searched. Everywhere. And now that he'd found her, nothing played out like he'd thought in those brief moments he'd allowed himself something like hope.
"You were out there alone?" She cringed inwardly at the unspoken question present in the words. She couldn't ask about the rest.
He looked at her with a weary gaze that told her more than she'd wished to know. "Just how it was." Silence, and he offered nothing more.
"I'm sorry. I don't have any right to ask." She placed the towel she'd been worrying on the desk. His silence cut her deeper than she'd like. But of course she had no right to know. She swallowed back the burning in her throat. "You should stay here a while." The words were out of her mouth before she could even consider the thought. His head jerked toward her quickly before falling back to its earlier posture, but his eyes remained vigilant beneath the cover of his hair. "I mean..." Carol's fingers plucked nervously at the fabric of her sweater. Pinpricks of tears threatened again. "You can't go back out there." She swallowed. "You're hurt. You need to rest. Stay here."
It was all so much, so very fast. He'd been almost certain, almost positive that she was dead. He'd heard Merle's voice in his head calling him a fool for that little bit of maybe that somehow remained. But here she was. And she didn't even know.
So much, too fast. His chest constricted painfully and he fought for air through the achingly familiar tightening sensation in his lungs. He coughed and pulled in what breath he could in wheezing, sharpened gasps. He clenched his fingers into fists until it passed.
His gaze returned to the chair when his chest calmed. He couldn't stand her worried eyes. "I know how it is here," he began. "Places like these. Contribute or leave." The law was known for shelters like this. They were few and far between, but any that lasted did so by a hard and fast rule. Either contribute to the good of the many, have a damn good reason why you couldn't, or get the hell out of the way. He gestured to his shoulder. "Not much good right now."
"You will be." Carol stepped forward, coming to stand within inches of his knees. He fought the strange pull he felt to touch her white hand. "And we have the clinic for a reason. Stay here until you're well. Stay here until..." Her voice gave out, and she drew in a shaky breath to steady herself. She found herself dizzy in the closeness of the room. "Just stay a while. Then...then you can decide."
He brought one hand to his mouth to worry the skin of his thumb. Decide. Decide what? Decide that he'd been wrong about whatever the hell he'd been searching for? Decide he'd be better off alone? He knew better than that, at least he did now.
"Stay a while," she repeated. "Please."
His head throbbed as the moments passed. Finally, he sighed. "'Kay."
Relief flooded through her at the simple syllable. "Okay," she repeated, biting her lip to keep its trembling at bay.
Rousing herself, she gestured to the next room where three beds, neatly made up in patched sheets and threadbare quilts, stood vigil until their time of need. "You can take one of these tonight."
He shook his head. "Don't need no sickbed. Be fine in the outer camp." He'd passed it when they'd let him in. In the darkness, he's seen enough to know that most of the settlement was enclosed by a makeshift wall. Just outside the gate and protected by a less sturdy fence was a temporary camp - a slight refuge from what was beyond.
"Not with that cough. You just about passed out on me once. Stay here. At least for now."
He made a motion to protest, but the idea of a night indoors, a night in what passed for warmth and without the ever-present threat of a walker attack stopped him. He ached with exhaustion. Had lived with the numbing pain for more time than he could recall. He nodded slightly, and the look of pure relief on Carol's face warmed him some more.
"In through there," she pointed through the room with the beds. "There's a little bathroom." He winced as he slid off the desk to follow her. "Just a sink and the water's cold - don't drink it. It needs to be boiled, but you can get cleaned up a bit if you want. Take any of the beds - no one else here right now so it'll be quiet. I'll head over and see what's left to eat. Bring you back a plate. If you need any..." She realized she'd been on the verge of babbling. Turning to look at him, she took in his tired eyes, his bent form, and the lines etched across his face. She felt her own shoulders fall as the breath seemed to be drawn away and out of her lungs. "Are you okay?" she whispered.
He watched her then, and she got the feeling that he'd somehow realized her question had more than face value. Was he okay? It had been so long since he thought he was that he wasn't even sure how to respond. Was he okay? He'd spent practically two years on the road chasing after every last ghost of a chance of finding her, and now here she was standing before him. Alive. Warm. Well. Offering to get him food and hinting not so subtly that he needed a bath.
"Gotta be, don't I?"
This time, she didn't hide the tears at the familiar words. Inhaling through a quiet sob, she had to ask. "You'll be here when I get back, right?"
He nodded, eyes glittering in the light of the lamp.
She found some peace in the gesture, and with a light brush of her fingers against his arm, she passed by him and slipped out the door.
Returning a short time later, she found him already asleep, huddled more than stretched on one of the beds with an ancient quilt pulled haphazardly up to his chest.
Setting down the plate of cooling food, she watched him. After a moment, she removed an extra blanket from atop another bed and smoothed it over his sleeping form. She tugged off his worn boots and placed them by the bed. Wheeling over what once was an office chair, she sat next to him and studied the rise and fall and nearness of his chest.