A/N: I saw a picture on AMC's website (.) and this story came to mind. For sake of the story line, please note that this will take place after Episode 11 (spoilers included) and we'll just pretend, for now, that Episode 12 hasn't happened.
A Road Less Traveled
Leaning an elbow on his knee, Daryl Dixon sighed heavily and poked at the fire with a long stick. Embers crackled and exploded, sending sparkscascading into the night sky. Lifting his head, he watched lazily as vivid flecks dotted the inky blackness. They crossed and careened, zigzagging like drunken fireflies, glowing only momentarily before burning out. And then, he was bathed in darkness once more, only his face illuminated by the small fire in front of him.
It was beginning to get cold—a harsh contrast to the wicked heat that had been consuming them for the last few months—and he leaned closer to the flames, his hands extended as he tried to capture more warmth in his stiff digits.
On the edge of Hershel's land, he had set up camp alone. Normally, he liked being away from the rest of the group—he didn't have to worry about anyone but himself, he could enjoy the solitude in peace and, more importantly, he could collect his thoughts. But tonight . . . tonight was different.
They had buried Dale that morning. He had helped dig the hole that would become Dale's final resting place. He had stood by, listening to the kind words provided by the group, watching tears fall. He had helped shovel and pack the dirt over Dale's body, an action that offered visual confirmation that Dale's death was finalized. And, through this, he had remained stolid, unaffected by the tasks at hand.
But now, pulled away from the rest of the group and alone, he couldn't seem to get Dale's face from his mind. Dale's eyes—large and pleading—followed him, no matter where he turned. He had to do it . . . he knew that. Dale was suffering and nobody else was willing to step up.
Well, Rick was.
Rick was always the first to step up and perform the difficult tasks. He had been the one that had taken care of Sophia.
The name resonated in his mind and he scowled deeply. Just thinking about her twisted his gut in a way he had never experienced. Was it anger? Sure—he was pissed that he wasn't able to find her in time. Was it remorse? Perhaps—he should have been the one that put Sophia down . . . he should have been the one that did it for Carol, but he was too busy holding her back as she tried frantically to get to her child.
If he hadn't have been holding her, if he didn't have his strong arms wrapped around her torso, would he have been able to do what Rick had done? He scoffed out loud. Of course he would have been able to . . . it was what had to be done. But as soon as this thought was formed, Carol's face materialized in his mind.
Would he have been able to do it? Would he have been able to look into her face—look into her eyes—and daily see the pain?
He could suddenly hear Merle's voice echoing in his mind—teasing him for being such a pussy . . . for being sentimental about a woman's feelings. And then his brother's hateful words morphed into laughter. Laughter that started quietly but steadily built to a roar that echoed between his ears. He shook his head, trying to clear the menacing sound. When that didn't work, he dropped the stick and covered both ears.
"Shut up," he growled.
And, as soon as it started, it stopped.
He paused, his hands still pressed tightly on either side of his head. Breathing heavily, he waited for his anger to simmer before dropping his hands uselessly to his lap. And that was when he heard it: A sound, feather soft, materializing behind him.
He froze, cursing himself for getting caught off guard. His keen ears listened intently, picking up the distinct sound of soft footsteps shuffling slowly through dead leaves. His crossbow was discarded by his feet, and he reached for it cautiously. Gripping the stock, he lifted it and silently loaded a bolt into the flight groove. The footsteps were getting closer and instinct kicked in. In one fluid motion, he stood and spun, his weapon shouldered.
A pale face, illuminated by the small fire, stared at him with wide eyes from a few yards away. It took a moment for Daryl to recognize the features—the watery eyes, the slack mouth that always seemed to be turned downward, the short hair . . . . But, it finally registered and he let his crossbow droop limply to his side with a sigh.
"Jesus, Carol." His voice was gruff. "Do you wanna get yourself killed?"
Carol was frozen in place, but her eyes were now trained on the ground in front of her. "I'm sorry," she said meekly.
Daryl growled in annoyance and put his crossbow back down on the ground. Picking up the stick he had dropped, he jabbed angrily at the fire. "What're you doing here?"
Carol took a hesitant step forward. "I just wanted to make sure you were . . . ." She trailed off, wringing her hands together tightly.
Daryl set his jaw. "I'm fine."
Carol nodded. "Of course you are."
Sitting once more on the thick log that had been his resting place all night, Daryl stirred the fire absentmindedly. He could hear the sounds of the forest, quiet and familiar, and he focused on their calming effect. Silent seconds ticked by, and Daryl couldn't tell if Carol had left or not. Thinking that she had possibly gone—slipping away as silently as she had come—he turned his head slightly and glanced out of his peripheral vision.
But Carol was still standing, statue still, her arms crossed lightly over her abdomen.
Looking up in surprise, she caught his eye. Embarrassed, she struggled for words. "I guess . . . I guess I just wanted to say thank you."
Daryl made a sound in his throat. "For what?"
She maintained his gaze. "For doing what you did . . . you know, for Dale. It must not have been easy."
Something twisted in Daryl's gut and he broke eye contact with a shrug. "Someone had to."
"I know . . . . And it was very strong of you."
"Anyone else would've done the same."
Carol shook her head and took a step closer, closing the distance between them. "Rick couldn't. And you unselfishly took that burden from him."
"Rick doesn't need to bear it all." Swiveling his head, Daryl caught her eye once more. Carol was smiling sadly at him. He scowled defensively. "What?"
"You're a good man, Daryl."
The words hit him like a ton of bricks. Dale had said something like that only yesterday. . .
You're a decent man.
. . . . and he hardened his jaw. He wasn't used to the compliments, to people acting like they wanted him around, and now . . . this was the second time in days. Merle's voice manifested in his mind once more. Every put-down, jeer, and cruel comment he had ever heard filled his mind and Daryl shook his head as if to clear it. "No, I'm not."
"You are. And don't let anyone ever tell you otherwise." Taking another step forward, Carol reached out as if she were going to touch him, thought against it, and pulled her hand back. An uncomfortable silence blanketed the area and Carol twisted her fingers together awkwardly.
After a moment, Carol boldly moved the remaining distance and gestured at the empty spot next to Daryl. "May I?"
Daryl glanced out of the corner of his eye and shrugged. Stepping around the log, Carol sat gently, her hands folded neatly in her lap.
They sat in silence, Daryl staring at the dying flames and Carol at the sparkling stars above them. She finally broke the stillness. "Beautiful night."
Daryl grunted in reply.
"A little cold, though."
Daryl turned his head. Carol was absentmindedly rubbing her forearms through the thin material of her shirt.
"Here." Without looking at her, he grabbed a jacket that lay loose on the log next to him and passed it to her.
With a small smile she accepted the token. Gripping it, she ran her thumb lightly over the material. It was a sturdy hunting jacket, made of thick, canvass-like material. Neutral in color and incredibly woodsy, everything about it screamed Daryl. Natural, it was rough and strong, yet incredibly warm.
It even smelled like Daryl.
As Carol draped the garment over the front of her body, pulling it up to her neck, she caught the mixed, yet distinct fragrances of fire, sweat, and man. She felt something flutter in her gut and she averted her eyes, unable to look at the person she was currently sitting next to, as a flush rose and settled in her pale cheeks.
It was then that she saw the packed bag leaning against the wheel of Merle's motorcycle. Turning slightly, she stared at Daryl's profile. "Going somewhere?"
Daryl glanced toward the motorcycle and then back to the fire. "Haven't decided yet." Carol remained quiet and Daryl looked at her out of the corner of his eye. "Why? You gonna try to stop me?"
Carol thought about this briefly but eventually shook her head. "No."
Daryl glanced at her, an eyebrow raised. "No?"
Carol sighed heavily. "Look—Dale was right . . . you were right. This group is broken—we're falling apart. And honestly, I don't know how much longer we can all keep going on like this. We're getting weaker instead of stronger and, just maybe, breaking free is the answer."
"So you think I should go?"
"I don't want you to go . . . but I can't tell you what you should or shouldn't do. However," she paused. A moment of silence filled the air, as if Carol were fighting an imaginary battle within her mind. But, one side finally rose victorious and she spoke again. "If you do decide to leave, can I ask you to do one thing for me?"
Daryl, who had been biting his lower lip in thought, stopped and looked at her in silent response.
Carol took a deep breath, held it, and exhaled. When she spoke, it was barely above a whisper. "Take me with you."
Daryl started. "What?"
"What about the rest of the group?"
Carol laughed dryly. "You and I both know that there's nothing more for me here. Everyday, I'm forced to walk past those graves . . . Hershel's wife, Sophia's—" her voice cracked and she inhaled deeply, calming herself before continuing—"and now Dale's. Pair that with everyone else—with their condescending tones, and their goddamned sympathetic looks. It's all just a cruel reminder that I've lost everything I just can't handle it anymore. And then, if you go . . . ." She trailed off as he voice caught with emotion and she quickly covered her mouth with her fingers.
"I don't know, Carol." Daryl frowned deeply as he chewed on the side of his thumb. "I work better alone."
"I know . . ." Carol dropped her eyes, "but we could work together. I can help you." Daryl lifted an incredulous eyebrow and Carol continued desperately. "I can cook. I can clean. I can help keep watch."
Daryl scoffed. "You can't even shoot."
"So, teach me."
Daryl remained silent.
"You can't do it all alone, Daryl. You have to rest sometime . . . and even if I can't do it all, two sets of eyes are better than one."
Daryl considered this, his eyes trained on the fire in front of him. "So, say I go along with this . . . where would we go?"
"We could look for Merle."
Daryl exhaled through his nose loudly. "I've given up on thinking that Merle is alive."
"You don't know that."
Merle's imaginary taunting echoed once more in Daryl's head and his face immediately hardened. "What if I don't want to look for Merle?"
"Then we don't have to. We can just-just go. Just leave and start somewhere new." Tears had started to fall down Carol's face, but she didn't wipe them away. "Please, Daryl. Don't leave me . . . I couldn't survive."
There was a pang in Daryl's chest. Unable to handle the pain in Carol's face, the pleading in her eyes, he shifted his gaze and cursed himself for what he was about to say next: "When can you be ready?"
Carol laughed in surprise, a genuine smile spreading across her face. "Whenever you need me to."
Daryl thought about this.
In the silence, Carol could hear the soft sounds of nature radiating from the woods. She closed her eyes, inhaling deeply, a large weight suddenly lifted from her shoulders.
Opening her eyes, Carol turned to the rough and tumble man beside her. "Tomorrow is fine."
"You can be ready by then?"
"I've got nothing. I can be ready."
"And you can't tell anyone . . . they would just try to stop us, or they might follow us."
A sense of guilt washed over her. She couldn't say goodbye—couldn't say thank you to the people who had taken her and her family in, who had saved them when they needed them the most, who had searched relentlessly for Sophia . . . But then she caught Daryl's eye. He was looking at her earnestly, waiting for a response, and she knew that he was right. And she was willing to make that sacrifice. So she shook the group's faces from her mind. "I won't."
Daryl settled back, his face relaxing as he accepted this. "Have you ever been on a motorcycle?"
Carol glanced at the large bike that was parked a few yards away, and her heartbeat involuntarily increased. "No." She swallowed thickly and lifted her chin in confidence. "But I trust you."
Daryl nodded. "Ok. Tomorrow, then."
"Tomorrow," Carol echoed.
They were overtaken by silence once more and Carol reveled in it. Tomorrow, she would be on her way to a new life—leaving behind the pain and sorrow and starting fresh with the one person that she cared the most about in the upside-down, godforsaken world.
Tomorrow was a new day, a new beginning.
Tomorrow, she would go on a journey, traveling down a road less traveled, and she couldn't wait for it to come.
A/N: I hope you all liked it! It's my first Walking Dead fanfiction. Just a little drabble, but that picture just spoke to me and I had to get it down on paper. Please review, if you feel inclined. I love feedback—it helps me grow more as a writer. And hopefully, everyone's able to watch the season finale tonight! I know I will be. It looks CRAZY good!