A/N: It should surprise no one that I'm not entirely happy with this. I've been going back and forth on it over and over for a couple weeks now, tweaking things here and there, discarding huge sections and rewriting the entire thing at least twice. I've finally reached a point where I'm just going to publish it and call it a day.
To the guest who had such "lovely" things to say about the first chapter - this is my interpretation of certain relationships on the show. I've never pretended it was anything else. Also, please try to remember that I published the first chapter before we started seeing spoilers for the new season, so nothing we've gotten from photos or the trailer has any bearing on this story.
This story is now complete. Thanks for reading!
Part 2: Daryl
You're a ghost and I love you
You will haunt me forever
-Stolen Ghost Waltz by Karen Mann
It was almost dawn, pink and orange fingers of light stretching their way into the sky through the grey haze of smoke that was all that was left of Terminus. Daryl paced back and forth at the edge of their makeshift camp, a bundle of nerves. He thought she'd be back by now but every second that passed by made the hot ball of lead in his stomach grow larger, heavier. Her pack was still here, she wouldn't have left without it. Would she?
He wasn't sure anymore; not about anything.
He whirled at the faint crackle of a leaf behind him and she was there, like a ghost appearing from nowhere.
She was so pale in the morning dawn, staring up at him with those wide blue eyes. He wanted to touch her, just to make sure she was real.
"He doesn't know."
"What's that mean?" He was pacing again, back and forth, nervous energy crackling along his skin like a live wire about to burst into flame.
"It means…" She was laughing, but it didn't have a happy ring to it. "It means… we'll see."
It meant Rick hadn't decided one way or another yet. That was good. There was still a sliver of hope, then, that he wouldn't be forced to choose between them. Daryl took a step closer to her, closing the gap between them. Her back was flush against the thick trunk of an old oak; she couldn't run.
He looked at her, his eyes sharp despite the exhaustion that had them burning in his head, blue fixed on blue as he tried to seek out this coldness Rick had insisted lived in her now. The very idea was fucking ridiculous. What Carol had done… it was a bad call. In retrospect, it was a necessary call, made for the right reasons. Hell, if anyone could have understood that, it should have been Rick. She'd made her decisions and was firm in her convictions, even now. He didn't like it, but accepted it for what it was. Carol, always looking out for him, for them, for everyone except herself. Carol, the mother, the sister, the friend, the… word he had to figure out to define what she was to him.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Daryl asked suddenly. He leapt from his spot in another burst of energy, pacing back and forth in a tight circle so close to her he could almost feel her brush against his shoulder as he moved. Step forward, spin, two steps back, spin, over and over again as he watched her carefully out the side of his eye.
"Tell you which part?" Her look was cautious, so guarded against him in a way he'd never seen from her before. It pierced him deep inside, sharp and fine like the point of a needle, and he suddenly understood with frightening clarity how she must have felt every time he'd thrown one of his old defenses in her face. He'd just been trying to protect himself, a lifetime of abuse and neglect having never shown him what true grace was… until her. They'd switched roles now, and he was the one on the other side of the wall.
It didn't suit him, not one bit.
"With the bodies, at the prison. I get why you did it, but I don't know why you didn't tell me." He ran an anxious hand through his hair as he paced, feeling the mass of grease and grime that caked the strands and briefly trying to recall the last time he'd actually showered.
The whole world could have been different if he'd known. He'd have never gone on that run - no, because everyone really would be dead, including Glenn. He'd have taken her with them, then, so Rick wouldn't have had the chance to do anything foolish. She could have been with them when the prison fell, with him. Maybe he wouldn't have been so stupid, after. Beth might still be here.
Nothin' but hopes and dreams.
It was foolish to keep playing 'what if', he decided then and there. Not with what was unfurling right in front of him. Fuck second chances, this was easily his third or fourth. How many people had such opportunity thrown at them? He couldn't put this off anymore and he was relieved to find he didn't want to. He was done with second guessing everything.
Except she hadn't told him. He'd been there; busy, yes, as they all were, but he'd have made time for her. Always. Why hadn't she told him?
"I don't know why I didn't tell you either." It was the only answer she had; he could see it in her face. He'd heard the word she'd tossed at him earlier, echoing back and forth between his ears, what she thought of herself killer or murderer, none of the words others had thrown at her. It was another word she'd given herself. Failure. He yearned to scream and yell until his throat burst, to rip down whatever walls she'd thrown in between them with his bare hands. He would. He'd show her.
There was still so much wrong, with Glenn still sick, all of them worn and weary from the road and their frantic escape, mistrust and suspicion running rampant and mingling with the loss of so many of their group; a thick, black cloud hanging over their heads. Just like that one kid from the comic strips Merle had read to him when they were kids. His head pounded, exhaustion and grief combining with the adrenaline crash to form a discordant percussion band playing on his skull. Symphony of Bad Timing in Headache Minor.
She didn't help, the very nearness of her making his heart pound double time with a hundred feeling he'd never admitted aloud. She always made him twitchy with her proximity, not from nervousness but from sheer wanting, a desire so heady he could drown in it.
Daryl stopped his pacing and found himself mere inches remaining between them. He blinked once, surprised, before the tension bled from him at once with a heavy sigh of relief as he surrendered and slowly bowed his head until his forehead was resting on hers, their noses brushing together with every shaky breath. He could feel the heat from her hands as they hovered at his chest, the tips of her slender fingers just grazing along the row of dangling, beaten buttons that just barely held his worn shirt together. He reached out and placed his hands on the scratchy bark of the thick tree trunk on either side of Carol's waist.
She smelled of ash, sweat and gunsmoke, and taste of her on the hair's breadth of air between them was like sweet summer honeysuckle, tears and grief. It was nothing like he'd dreamed.
He was fairly certain that if she pushed him away now, he'd die where he stood.
"Daryl…" She was quiet, uncertain for the first time since they'd been reunited. It was humbling and terrifying to know he had such power over her. "You shouldn't… What if I have to leave?"
It was a very real possibility, one that had been playing over and over in his head all day and all night. She'd already been forced out once. He had no idea what had happened between Carol and Rick tonight. He knew they'd talked; he was the one who'd told Rick where to find her earlier. However things had gone down, he knew Rick would have a decision soon, maybe today.
It didn't matter.
He realized he'd already made his choice and if it came down bad between the two, he knew where he was going this time.
"I don't care," he murmured.
He could count every one of her eyelashes, they were so close.
He had her at that, those sweet blues of hers blown wide open at his use of her name. He rarely used her name and the sound of it rolling off his tongue filled him with simple sweetness. He needed to say her name more often. He needed to say so many things, except he was a Dixon and Dixons were not known for using their words. She was staring at him and any other moment in time her expression would have been funny. Gobsmacked. The word made him think of Dale and he nearly smiled, leaning in just a millimeter closer so that when he spoke, their lips brushed together in something that was almost, but not quite, a kiss.
"Tell me you don't love me," he said.
This is what it was, then, to give yourself up willingly to another, to let someone else hold everything you were and could be in their hands. Half of a whole. She could crush him in the instant it took a hummingbird to flap his wings, leave him nothing but dust in her wake as she waltzed back into the woods with what was left of his heart… or she could embrace him, fold him to her and let them become something new, together.
He waited, listening to the first chirps and tweets of birds in the trees as they woke to greet the day and watching Carol war with herself in her head. She could say a hundred different things with only her eyes and right now he could see all the arguments running through her mind. He knew them because they were the same things he'd been telling himself all this time. None of them mattered anymore, not to him.
Except for the press of skin where their foreheads met, he did not touch her, nor she him. The scant space between them shimmered and burned, the energy that usually filled the air between them tripled until he was afraid he'd pass out before she ever answered.
"I can't," she finally whispered.
He released a shaky sigh full of relief, exhilaration and sheer terror, secure in the newfound knowledge that if he lost her again now, after this, he'd never survive. They stayed like that, pressed up against the tree, foreheads together and breathing the same air, her in as he breathed out and reverse. Her eyes were the exact pale blue shade of a robin's egg, clear and bright. He'd never met anybody else with eyes like Carol's and he realized how little his memory had done them justice during their absence. The only thought running through his head now was her name, over and over again. His whole world could be summed up with her name. Carol.
It took him a moment to realize it wasn't just in his head. He could hear someone calling out for her, a man's voice breaking through the haze, distorted as first then clearer and clearer. He pulled back just enough for the rest of her face to come into focus. The look in her eyes was enough to set him ablaze. Footsteps echoed behind Daryl and they turned together to see the tall, lanky figure of Carl standing a respectful distance away, his foot brushing back and forth along the ground as he patiently waited them out.
"Carol," the boy called, "my dad's looking for you."
Daryl was close enough to feel her shudder and he waved at Carl to let him know they'd heard him. He turned back to her, eyebrow arched. It was her move. She seemed to search his face for a moment; then, satisfied with whatever she saw there, she smile at him faintly and reached up to lay a cool hand across his cheek. Carol nodded and he felt himself smile back as he leaned into her touch. That's my girl.
He pulled back and let Carol take his hand, threading her fingers through his as they walked back to their camp to find Rick. Together.