The Long Road Home

Epilogue - Two Years Later

Two years.

It had been two years since Daryl stumbled through that gate in the dead of the night. Two years since she patched up his shoulder. Two years since he'd pulled her to his chest with a choked-off sob whose echo still made her stomach clench.

Two years of living and building and creating a home.

Carol stood atop the hill that overlooked their once-tiny camp. She inhaled, letting the cold air burn at her lungs. Winter was fast approaching once again. This time, though, her thoughts didn't spin with the worry of too little food or too many mouths or aching coughs that she couldn't heal. This time, they were prepared. This time, she found herself looking forward to the quiet hush of the season's first snow.

Haven had flourished.

So had they all.

Daryl's boots tread behind her, crunching over the frosted ground. "Hey," he greeted. "Whatcha thinkin' on?"

She smiled softly in reply. "You done with the traps?" She'd gone with him, as she often did, ostensibly to watch his back. In reality, walkers were thin and sparse and easily dispatched. But Carol liked the freedom they found outside the walls.

He nodded, pressing himself solidly against her back. An arm circled her waist while he nudged his chin to peer over her shoulder. Daryl followed her gaze down to the camp. "Could hear those wheels spinnin' a mile away."

Carol smiled and relaxed into his rare display of outside affection. He could still be so shy when it came to that. Not that she minded, really. The assured tenderness he had behind closed doors was more than enough. Still, as she tilted her face back to catch the late afternoon sun, she enjoyed the illusion of privacy their distance from the camp seemed to provide. "Just remembering."

He didn't press her, just accepted the answer with a quiet nod. To her surprise, he continued holding her, swaying gently as they looked down the hill into Haven's walls.

There was so much more of it now. They'd expanded the perimeter several times over. The entirety of the old college campus was now contained. The dorms were each cleared and beyond full, and they'd set to work on a little row of houses inside the wall. Daryl had been helping Matthew with his, one of the first to be almost through. Carol smiled as she spotted Ali making her way through the courtyard. The girl ran a hand over her swelling stomach as she laughed at something someone had said. It wouldn't be too much longer before that baby was due.

In exchange for his help on their tiny house, Matthew had promised to aid Daryl in building theirs. There was no rush on that, though. They'd gotten used to the tiny dorm room. Used to their quiet nights in their own little world. Though, as Carol had told him once or twice with a wicked grin, a little more privacy might be nice.

Rick and his family had made their home. She could see Carl watching from atop the wall. Judith charmed Haven from her first day there. She was particularly captured by Daryl, tagging after him whenever she could. And, as Carol thought every time she watched him hoist the little girl onto his shoulders and displace the bow, Judy had him wrapped around her finger as well.

A sweep of her eyes and she spotted Luke. They'd talked, she and Daryl, about taking him in. But the kid had settled with Mrs. Dearborn, who had proven to be just as feisty as ever before. Luke looked after her just as she did him. He spent his days with Red or Daryl, and, in the end, they'd decided that the current arrangement was likely best, at least for now.

Maggie and Glenn joined them the spring after Rick. The girl was an asset to the clinic, doing her father's legacy proud. Carol was grateful for the extra set of hands, especially since Ali would soon have other priorities on her plate. A paramedic had wandered in one day, followed by a retired dentist. Between all of them, they kept things running well enough. The frantic early days were left behind in favor of a slightly quieter daily pace.

The garden was a sight to behold. More hands in the clinic allowed Carol to expand the tiny patch beyond what even she had dreamed. Daryl joked that it was more like a farm. In truth, they'd added some livestock here and there. Food was never going to be plentiful, but there was always more than enough for them to get by.

They were comfortable. Happy. Grateful for the life they'd built.

And that, Carol mused, was the heart of the place. The heart of their home. Maggie's daughter would hear stories of her grandfather, the country vet. Judith would play with the toys that Daryl carved. Carl and Luke would grow into men. Rick would never reclaim that badge and Michonne would always carry that sword. Nothing would be like it was years before. But this was their life. This was their family.

This was their home.

Behind her, Daryl sighed, his breath frosting in the chilled winter air. "Gonna snow soon."

She looked up at the gray sky. A smile widened across her face as her fingers found their way to his hand. Carol smiled when he wrapped his palm firmly around hers.

His breath was warm behind her ear. "You ready to head on back?"

She hummed softly, enjoying the wind on her face and his warmth at her back. "Maybe just another minute."

He nodded, leaning in to kiss her temple. "Take however long you want. Ain't goin' anywhere without you."

A/N: And with that, it ends.

Thank you SO much for all the comments and encouragement and just for reading this little fic. This is by far the longest and most involved thing I've ever written. I didn't even know I could write something like this...especially since the vast majority was pecked out on my phone in spare minutes here and there! You guys helped keep me going. A million times over, thank you for sharing this with me!

I'm going to miss this little world and all of you, but I'll definitely do this again in the future.

Until then, Caryl on!