AN: I know that I have been very slack in getting this chapter out. It gave me a bit of a headache and I've rewritten it. This is out now mostly due to Iman, but so many of you have been nudging me toward writing more and so I thought of all of you while I finished it! I am so grateful for all your feedback and it feels good to know the story sits on people's minds. I had originally thought this would be the last chapter, but now I am not so sure. Thoughts?

Chapter Eight

She hadn't meant to run. It wasn't like her to hide from her problems, to avoid complications but speaking with Michonne had thrown her whole thought processes into disarray and the one thing she didn't need was a confrontation with Daryl. The way he stood at the bottom of the stairs across the room, his eyes dark and glittering with determination to do something about the monumental disaster they'd both made of their friendship had her shaking with uncertainty. Carol thought that maybe she owed him an apology for jumping to conclusions, but she wasn't certain, and because she was so unsure about what she should be thinking or feeling, she turned heel and ran.

She was embarrassed when he followed her, chasing her until she flung open the door of the room they used for Council meetings and he caught it before she could slam it shut. It was stupid to run, but even though he'd essentially cornered her, she still retreated at pace, getting the table between them to give her time to take stock. There was something borderline romantic about it—or possibly psychotic. The fierce, determined scrunch on his face, the squint he barely ever kept away by eyeing most of the world through the side of his eye. This time it was gone; he stood solidly and stared her down, tension bristling along his back with the tightening of his musculature, an action that forced Carol to take a protective breath from how attractive it made him, virile and lethal if nothing else.

He was careful as he placed his crossbow down on the table, his movements measured and graceful as if he was trying to seduce a skittish mare. Carol snorted at the image, the words of childhood filtering through her mind until she straightened up and refused to let them be true: 'the old grey mare she ain't what she used to be.." No, she wasn't what she used to be—downtrodden, afraid, and careful. This was Daryl, the man who had helped her break free from most of that mindset until his absence had left her to emotional despair. This was Daryl, who she had loved for almost as long as she'd known his name, and definitely for as long as he'd known hers. This was Daryl, who had put everything on the line to search for a lost cause and bury himself within her heart for the rest of her life. Carol stood up straighter, crossed her arms nervously at her middle, and resolved to stop running.

He seemed to sense her change in composure, and he straightened his body to match, drawing himself up so that the honesty of his stature was imposing because everything about him screamed 'truth'.

"Michonne an' me…we're just friends." There was a bite to his confession that struck the room cold and Carol suffered for it. Her flesh shivered with goose bumps as she took a protective step back, nodding her belated agreement with a slight edge of fear for where this was leading. She hoped so hard, needed to hear him say certain words with an urgency that was pushing tears into her eyes, and yet she was so afraid they would never come, no matter how close it looked like they were to the surface.

"I know."

The way he watched her—his eyes laser sharp to recognise every move like she was one of the animals he stalked and brought back to serve up for dinner—stripped her bare of artifice. She had no chance to compose a lie, no time to formulate some kind of story that could explain the lunacy of her decisions, only the truth. And the truth, whether he'd been sleeping with Michonne or falling for the warrior woman in the time he was away from her, was that he'd walked away and left her behind. He'd replaced her name with Michonne's, and whether he believed he'd turned his back on her or not, it's what she'd felt. She wasn't blind, and neither were the other members of the group—they'd all seen it happen and they'd all offered her a shoulder to cry on when he walked through those gates and left her bereft without even realising it.

"I ain't even interested in her."

His voice was a low growl, like thunder dragging its heavy belly along the ground, his eyes on fire as he watched her fidget on nervous feet, looking ready to bolt even if she had nowhere left to go.

She sucked in a breath, welcoming at least the relief of his admission, even if his tone grated along her spine.

"Okay."

He braced himself at the head of the table, his hands reaching for the hard surface as if nothing else could hold up his emotion-ravaged body. His eyes bled raw from wounds that were so real that Carol gasped. He was unveiling everything to her, holding nothing back and for a second or two she believed her heart stopped, then it kicked back in double time, pounding so hard she wasn't sure she could even hear him over the roar in her ears. He'd felt this separation, as deeply and as destructively as she had and for once he was doing nothing to hide it.

"Don't you know?" He looked sad and angry all at once and she shook. She honestly didn't know what to say and the truth hung in the air just out of reach, twisting around in swirling patterns that were anything but words to her. The irritation was growing rapidly and Carol almost stomped in her frustration but instead she squirmed under Daryl's intent stare. She didn't know what to do with this—his pain and hers clashed until they left open wounds with no signs yet of salve.

"What should I know, Daryl? What should I have known when you tell me nothing?"

His gasp wasn't delicate, it was violent and painful and the expression on his face was one of such suffering that it almost broke her heart. It took a super-human effort to hold her own pain in the forefront-for her to keep reminding herself that she'd done nothing wrong by trying to move on. Nothing wrong by taking the scant symbols of affection he'd once given her and had later retracted as her sign that she'd wished for things that had never been in him to give. To be ultimately wrong in that assumption was a gift, but it wasn't one she knew yet how to unwrap.

"I'm sorry you got the wrong idea, but you ain't exactly Miss Chatty, neither." His tone had completely changed, defeat replacing the anger of before and it was all Carol could do to stand up and not run around the table and take him into her arms, making all kinds of promises that would achieve their avoidance of the issue now but would resolve nothing in the long run. "I fucked up, I know I did. I shoulda talked to you about Merle—Hell, I wanted to. Knew I made a mistake that night after I buried him. Wanted to be with you to let it all out but I'd already hurt you by pushin' you away. But…you ain't never said shit to me about how you feel. How was I supposed to know you'd see it all wrong?"

The air buzzed with an erratic electrical current the second Merle's name passed his lips and Carol could see how the loss of his brother still haunted him. Still rendered him lost in a way that just knowing he was gone before finding him again hadn't. She'd been so foolishly hurt that night, keeping her distance because he'd wanted to block his immediate pain until he felt strong enough to reveal it to her. Staying with Michonne, as stoic as the other woman was, would have made it easier for him to stay composed. It was obvious now. She felt ashamed, and so selfish for withdrawing when he'd needed her friendship more than anything else. Needed him to just be there. He'd behaved no differently to how she'd pushed him out of her line of sight after Sophia had been discovered in the barn. It was little wonder he'd raced out after Michonne, seeking vengeance when he'd had nothing else offered to him. And…he was right, as much as it galled her to admit it. She'd flirted and teased him to the point of embarrassment on both their parts, but she'd never stood seriously before him and admitted that not all of it was a joke. That a lot of it was because she loved him and wanted him in her arms at night. That she wanted to dwell in his heart as the most important person in his world like he lingered in hers.

She wasn't sure if it was all settled, but the pain of that night didn't seem to be far from Daryl still, and as much distance as she'd driven between them, it seemed wrong to ignore that suffering again. She flipped expectation on its head and retraced her steps, finding herself in front of him before he'd even had time to blink.

"What should I know, Daryl?" Breath held so tight she felt a pain in her chest, Carol focused on the hope thrumming through her, hoping the softness she was emitting would tell him everything that he needed to know from her.

He shook his head like a dog about to back away, then he seemed to get a grip and he stared straight into her eyes, shaking hands settling in a gentle grip around her upper arms.

"How I feel about you."

They were just words, but they were so heavy with implication that she felt dizzy dancing on the edges of it. They were words that teased of revealing something that had remained secret from her for so long—about to lose the cover of confusion. Carol took a step closer, letting her palms make contact with the soft leather of his vest, gripping the edges into fists as her body grew weak with longing—as her mind spun 'happily ever after's' that she'd never in her life dared to believe in before.

The words pushed through her to be delivered on a half-caught breath. "How do you feel?"

He barked out a humourless laugh and the look on his face twisted her already fragile dreams into knots. He was aggravated, about to turn his back and leave and the interplay of his emotions left her feeling winded and strange.

"Shit, you're gonna make me say it, ain'tcha?"

Her stomach dropped and what had been so hopeful before now seemed so devoid of it that she almost chose to run rather than stick this disaster out. "No." Her eyes darted around as her fists loosened and she forced herself to let go of him. "I'm not going to force you to say anything." That wasn't them—this whole twisted mess of a situation wasn't them—at least, not who they'd been to each other. They'd never had to share words to understand each other before, now it seemed they couldn't understand each other with or without and the loss of that steady faith hurt. Her step back came to a jarring standstill as his hands jerked against her arms, holding her steady and still.

"Don't do that." His voice was ragged, breaking with emotion. "Don't keep givin' me an out when I don't deserve one. Fuck it all, I don't even want one."

She snapped, eyes flashing a warning as her shrill voice burst into the room.

"What the hell do you want, Daryl? Because right now? You're just driving me crazy."

A slow moving smirk bloomed across his soft lips and Carol was captivated. Instantly lost to the sensual images that blew through her mind.

"That right there is the funniest shit I've heard since we left the farm. You've been drivin' me crazy from the moment I saw you with a grenade in your hand. Damned housewife coulda blown us to kingdom come at any time, but instead you kept us all alive." His voice, dripping with admiration and respect, dropped an octave and his eyes went dark, pupils blown as unmistakable desire washed over his being. "You're still keepin' us all alive."

She shook her head automatically, seeing nothing she did these days along the heroics of so many of the others doing runs and hunting down their enemies.

"Don't do that," he ordered huskily, and then the rough pad of his thumb made contact with her bottom lip and Carol's knees went weak and wobbly. "Don't belittle what you do 'round here, for all of us. You're teachin' the young ones to survive, riskin' this elegant neck of yours to go out beyond the fence to make sure we got water, teachin' everyone how to be pullin' their weight. I know that when the chips are down, when it looks like it's all lost, you'll be the one to save us all." He peered deeply into her eyes, his solid, unshakable belief in her worth burning intently inside him so that she gasped in surprise, and then his gaze shifted to her lips and she forgot how to breathe. "It'll always be you."

She laughed. It broke the spell and all in one she was grateful and furious with herself, but the thought of little Carol Peletier being what this group needed for survival was at once extremely funny to her. He made her out to be some kind of superhero when all she cared about was keeping everyone safe. He cracked a smile at her, though, even as his confidence wavered and the fog of desire he'd been caught in dissipated and he visibly forced some distance between them.

"'S not so funny. Not really," he defended with a huff, even with the good-natured smile still in place. It was wider than most of the ones he shared with the group and Carol realised how rare his full smiles were around anyone but her. Even with Michonne she'd never seen him totally relax enough to give in to the comfort of laughter.

Unable to help herself, Carol reached out and gently shoved at Daryl's shoulder, letting her palm linger against the cool familiarity of his vest before slowly letting it slide away. "It is a little bit funny."

Daryl sighed, the picture of frustration. "So much for my big romantic gesture."

Carol snorted then, her hand slapping across her mouth as her eyes grew wide and tears of laughter threatened to undo her completely.

"Making me sound like Wonder Woman and Bat Girl all rolled into one was your romantic gesture?"

His eyes went instantly smoky dark again and a shiver raced along her spine, tension bristling in the air around them. He grimaced for a second and then a cool, visible sweat broke across his face and the frantic look he threw at the floor as he tried to come across as calm and collected by folding his arms across his chest whittled its way into her heart.

"Those boots of yours should be kickin' my ass," he mumbled and a red flush spread rapidly up his neck. She had a feeling he might have been thinking about more than her boots, and while she was hesitant to assume what physical wonders he might have imagined and related to her, Carol chose to be flattered. It was a sign that he not only cared, that he not only had feelings for her, but that he desired her as well, and for that alone she was going to wear her boots a little more often around him.

"Daryl?" Her voice sounded wispy, uneven and unsure and Carol snuck a little closer, finding her hands itched to make contact with him, even if it was all just an innocent gesture to show that even if he felt nothing more for her than friendship, he at least had that back. She'd give him that, but she'd give him more if he asked.

"Yeah?" He sounded like his throat was dry, raw and the guttural reminder that she'd asked something of him wore with deep satisfaction as it flowed into her blood and burned.

"What do you want from me?" Holding her breath and waiting with her ears, she missed the spark of lust that ignited in his eyes, his greedy glance poring up her frame and then back down it.

"Everything," he pushed out on a hissing breath and all her resistance collapsed in a puddle.

"Oh." There was no laughter this time, just a humming expectation that very soon, the air between them was going to change, the soft comfort was going to fracture irreparably and what she'd longed for was going to embrace her completely. She sucked in a raspy breath, fighting the tremors that rippled through her body at how close he was, at the apparent offer he was suggesting. "Everything? What…what—" Her head hurt for trying to force it all to make sense and instead she hit him with an imploring look that seemed to soften him just as much as he hardened.

"I mean, that's what I want. You've not said much at all 'bout how you feel. Maybe I got it all wrong? Maybe—"

"No!" rushed out of her so fast she barely grasped that her brain had reacted so quickly, but the fear of this all turning and falling flat filled her with terror. She couldn't come this far, couldn't go back to facing down an inevitable loss like she'd grappled with for too many long months, not when she was this close to having him wedged firmly in her life—as firmly as he was becoming wedged between her thighs. "I…I want everything, too." She felt stupid for saying it, like some heroine swept away on the wind of love, but as her heart pounded and her face flushed, she felt completely surrendered to her body's panic to keep him anyway she could have him.

His penetrating gaze caught her in a snare, his body angling her into the table until she'd backed against it and had nowhere else to go. As if she still had miles of room behind her, he kept coming until she had no choice but to push herself up on the table. She didn't get far as his body slipped into the V of hers and his hands curled into the cheeks of her ass and held her tight to him.

"I need you to stop runnin'."

She nodded jerkily. She was done running. There was nowhere left to go, and suddenly the reward of staying was far too good to reject.

"I ain't too good at all this—" and she was nodding before he finished. This she knew—his experience with sex was obviously limited, she'd picked that up long ago, but picking up the cues to love, they both were simpletons.

"We have a table," Carol blurted out, then flushed to the ends of her hair as her severe need for the kinds of things he could do to her on that table flew through her mind. He froze against her and she felt everything and if she hadn't realised she was alive before, the subtle throb of vitality between her legs brought that reality home with a bang.

He swallowed hard and her gaze was transfixed with the slow motion of his Adam's apple tracking along his throat.

"Got nosy assholes all around, too," he reminded, his voice thick as molasses and thrice as sweet.

Carol shuffled a little closer, acting bold by running a hand shaking with anticipation up his chest and threading into the back of his hair. She held him hot and heady between her legs now, and the confidence that came with knowing she aroused him obliterated every last doubt she'd had that there was something that existed between them, something that meant more than friends. She twitched at the promise of more, her body progressively becoming warmer the closer she moved to him. Without even realising she'd shuffled even closer, his earlobe was against her lips. Carol closed her eyes, blew warm air across his neck and gasped as he quivered in her arms.

"You locked the door," she prodded gently, huskily and at last he was on her, his mouth hot and wet as he chased her lips in a kiss that seared her to her soul. Bruising passes across her lips did little to cool her ardour. Instead, Carol desperately clung to him, revelling in the feel of his hair between her fingers as she held on tight and directed him to hold still while she ran her tongue across his lips, flicking it lightly along the slit between them and moaned loudly as he got the message and let his lips part. It took amazingly little encouragement after that. His tongue was thick in her mouth and she sucked on it, drawing him in further and it was the wildest kiss she'd ever had in her life, throwing her into long gone memories of first crashing kisses with boys, only this one lit her on fire and she didn't ever think the flames could be quenched. She met the hard wall of his body as he squeezed her ass and it was the encouragement Carol needed to start encouraging his vest down his arms so she could undo the buttons of his shirt and rid him of that also. He caught her wrists before she made full contact with his bare chest, and he was shuddering from harsh, uneven breaths.

"I need you to know," he panted against her lips, his eyes closed but his forehead pressed against hers. "We do this there's no going back."

Her thighs squeezed around him, drawing him in closer. "Do you want to go back to the last few months, Daryl? Thinking you were in love with Michonne was killing me." The tears in her voice drew out his shame and his eyes snapped open and in one blinding rush he had her crushed fully within the circle of his arms, his body tight and tense against hers.

"I only want you. I only ever wanted you."

She kissed him, her lips as light as a butterfly in flight, and tears of joy slid down her cheeks to mingle at their lips.

"I only want you, too."

The banging at the door had them shoot apart in shock, walkers their first concern until raucous laughter was heard from outside. Glenn was easily recognisable, but there was Maggie, Rick and Michonne, too, all laughing at the fact that the two least likely members of the group were locked in a room together.

"About damn time," Rick teased through the door and Carol giggled, tucking her face into Daryl's neck as she hung onto him. His skin was hot and his hands on her were slack as he seemed to sway within a decision of whether to back away or embrace her fully. She knew he'd reached it when his hands were solid on her back, hauling her body completely against his. He turned to the door, emitted a growl deep in his throat that reverberated right through Carol's body, and told them all to "Fuck off."

It was obvious after several minutes of silence and lack of movement that Daryl was embarrassed with having been discovered by their group. That his original interest had waned slightly, even though he still held her just as tight. Carol stroked his cheek, loving the softness of his facial hair, loving the honest sweat that made his skin glow. She loved him and she knew their time would come, and if anything had been proven just now it was that he wanted her just as much. For now, that was as much as she needed.