AN: Well, it's been a ride! I could continue this for several more chapters until the baby is born, etc but I really felt like the best spot to end is when the major conflict is resolved. I'm eternally grateful for the support on this one and to my dear, sweet prompt giver for trusting me with this amazing idea. I understand that this chapter will upset some of you, while others will find it satisfying. I tried my best to find some middle ground and I hope you all can appreciate that. Hugs!
"They're here," Daryl announced as Carol started a pot of coffee brewing. Michonne and Rick had just pulled into the driveway in Rick's truck and suddenly Carol felt nervous. What it this went badly?
Two days earlier when they left Vegas she had texted Rick and asked him and Michonne to come over that evening. Daryl had to head back to Birmingham for work the next day and she needed to have him there for the conversation. It needed to be all four of them because the issue they were dealing with affected them all. She didn't want to wait until Daryl was off again because it was time - she was ready.
"Hey, you okay?" Daryl asked, coming up behind her for a quick hug. "If you ain't ready… I can ask them to leave."
"No, no," Carol turned inside his embrace and gave him a quick peck on the lips. "I have everything I need right here… but I don't like the dark shadow hanging over me… us… I need to fix it. I don't know how this is gonna go, but…" she shrugged. "It's time to talk."
The doorbell rang and Daryl went to answer it. Carol watched him disappear into the hallway. He was trying so hard to stay neutral but Carol knew he was happy. He missed Rick as much as she missed Michonne. They had each other and if that's how it was for the rest of their life it would be okay, they would be happy, but Carol knew they would both always have this little part that was missing. Michonne was her rock her entire life and Carol missed her deeply. Even if she never wanted to forgive Rick for what he'd done, she knew she had to try because she wanted Michonne back in her life.
For Daryl it was different. The things Rick had done to him were awful, horrible, unforgivable - in her mind. But Daryl had such a big, tender heart and Carol knew it would destroy him to carry around that much hate for someone who meant so much to him his whole life. Daryl needed to forgive and move on. He needed to trust that Rick would never hurt him again. He needed to believe that they could all move past this. So Carol would do her best with respect to Rick - if not for anything but Michonne and Daryl.
Daryl led them into the kitchen just as she was pouring coffee. It was eerily quiet and that made Carol even more nervous. This was her show and they would all wait for her to start things. But she needed just a little more time. She set the mugs on the table, two at a time. All three of them thanked her when she did. She'd already made their coffees because she knew what everyone took. Black for Daryl. Milk only for Michonne. Cream and two sugar for Rick. And one sweetener and a splash of milk for her.
Finally she took a deep breath and sat down. "Thank you for coming," she said, finally looking at the two people sitting across the table. They were so familiar, but they felt almost like strangers after so much time apart. These were two people she hadn't gone more than half a day without talking to. And it had been weeks since they had sat down for a real conversation. "I'm just gonna jump right in," Carol said. She knew she was going to ramble and she knew she was going to talk way too fast, but she had to get it all out - quickly, before she lost her nerve. "You both know that I'm pregnant," she started, watching them nod. "And you both need to know that it's definitely Daryl's baby…" Carol paused for a moment because she was waiting for objection from Rick. She looked at him, still waiting.
"Michonne told me about the birth control," he said finally.
Carol nodded. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you that before…" She really didn't want to apologize to Rick, but when they were together, about to be married, she should have been honest with him.
"It's fine," Rick said, dismissing her apology. What is going on? She wondered. The last she knew Rick was sure it was his baby and wanted to raise the child. Now he was being so agreeable… She shifted her eyes to Michonne and realized that someone had given Rick's conscience a pep talk.
"While I'm throwing it all out on the table… you should know that Daryl and I got married a few days ago," Carol said, looking over at him and reaching for his hand. "We eloped."
"Oh my God…" Rick muttered, looking shocked.
Michonne gasped, but smiled. "Congratulations," she gushed. Carol could tell Michonne was struggling with the urge to hug her, or at least reach out. But they weren't quite there yet.
"Thank you," Carol replied, giving Daryl a smile. If anything in the world could make her happy in a tense moment it was the thought that the man beside her was now her husband and would be by her side for life.
Okay… now what? Carol thought. Just go with it… start talking, she told herself. She sucked in a deep breath and looked at Michonne. "I miss you," Carol sighed. "I'm so happy… but I can't be completely happy without you in my life." She reached out and Michonne quickly met her, as they took each other's hands across the table.
"I miss you too," Michonne got out, her words choked with tears. "I'm so sorry for all of this Carol. I will spend the rest of my life making it up to you… if you'll let me."
Carol started to cry too and she nodded. "We'll work it out - we have to." They squeezed each other's hands and cried a little more, before Carol finally pulled away to wipe her eyes with a napkin. Michonne did the same.
Then Carol turned her attention to Rick. "And then there's you," she said coldly. "I can't forgive you… not yet. I don't care about cancelling the wedding or you falling in love with Michonne… the heart wants what the heart wants. But Rick, what you did to Daryl… and to me by association… I just can't let it go - not yet." He opened his mouth to speak, but she stopped him with a hand. "But I know that Daryl still wants you in his life. He misses you and it breaks my heart to see that. He's good Rick. He's so good. He's kind and he has a heart of gold…" She looked over at Daryl who was beet red. "He needs to put this all behind him and move on. So whether I think you deserve forgiveness or not - it doesn't matter because I refuse to hurt Daryl any more than he's already been hurt." He looked like he wanted to say something again, so she stopped him. "I don't know that I will ever have an sort of relationship with you again… I just can't say one way or the other right now - I'm too jaded. But I will support Daryl, with whatever he chooses. I'll be civil… I'll be cordial… but that's all I can offer."
Rick had tears in his eyes. As much as she didn't want to let that affect her she couldn't help but feel a little pang in her heart. "Thank you," he whispered. "Is it okay if I say a few things?" he asked. She appreciated that he asked first and nodded. "Let me start by saying I have been an absolute asshole - to you both, to all of you…" he looked at Michonne. "I was so convinced I was doing the right thing, protecting you," he said to Carol. "That it all spiralled out of control." He looked tortured and again, even though she didn't want to - she reacted emotionally. "What started as a hint of jealousy when we were kids just grew and grew until it consumed me." Rick looked down at his hands. "I became someone I'm not. Someone I don't even recognize. And there's nothing I can do now but say that I'm sorry." He looked up at Daryl. "You're my best friend. And I have treated you like shit for so much longer than I care to admit. Daryl, you deserve better. You do. But if you can somehow find forgiveness… if you can somehow let yourself trust me again - I swear I will never do anything to hurt you again. I will make you a priority... " His voice wavered with emotion. "I love you like a brother and I only want what's best for you."
Carol looked over and she saw that Daryl was about to cry. "Come on," she said to Michonne, standing up. "Let's go to the living room for a moment." They left the guys alone and went out and sat on the couch. Michonne asked about the wedding and Carol started to tell her. In a matter of minutes it felt just like it used to and she knew she'd made the right decision. A weight was lifted off her and the world became so much brighter. She had her best friend back in her life and it was even more satisfying than Carol could have ever imagined.
About 20 minutes later the men came into the living room. "There's something I have for you two," Rick said. "Something I found the other night when I was taking a trip down memory lane with a bottle of whiskey." He reached into his pocket and pulled out three photos. He handed them to Carol. "Whether you knew it or not back then… you loved him. It was always him. I think part of me always knew that too."
Carol took the photos and looked at them. The first was the whole group of them but she was looking across a big bonfire at Daryl. The look on her face was easily recognizable - she was smitten. She looked at it again to see if there was anyone else she could have been looking at, but it was most definitely Daryl. It made her heart flutter and she smiled as she passed it to him. The next one was her with Daryl's arms around her about to throw her off the bank into the river. She was smiling and so was he. They looked like they were a happy teenage couple. The last photo was another group shot and Carol was standing behind Daryl who was sitting on the ground, but her hand was on his shoulder and he was holding it. She couldn't place that moment at all. It hit her hard. Why were they holding hands like that? She looked up at Rick, confused.
"It was right after the Morales family moved. We were all a little lost that night," Rick explained. They were such a tight group that losing any member affected them deeply. "You knew, even back then that the bad boy was always the sensitive one… he needed comfort and you were giving him that."
Carol looked at the photo a little longer and then finally passed it to Daryl. "I remember that night," he said. "You told me…" Daryl thought for a moment. "People come and go but the print they leave on your heart lasts forever."
"I said that?" Carol asked in surprise. "Who knew I was so full of wisdom?"
"I did," Michonne said.
"Me too," Rick agreed. Daryl gave her a knowing look and nodded, then he hugged her.
"Give me your truck keys," she said to Rick, an idea coming to her mind.
"Uh… okay…" he replied, looking unsure as he handed her the keys.
"Come on, we're going for a drive," Carol said. They all followed her and climbed into the truck. She drove and before she parked they all knew where she was taking them. It was the place they used to go all the time as kids. It was the place she'd fallen in love with Daryl and his wild heart. It was a sanctuary. And it was the one place she could look at Rick and remember that there really were good times.
"I haven't been here in so many years," Michonne said as they hiked up the path. "So many good memories," she sighed as they reached their destination.
"When was the last time you jumped a train?" Rick asked Daryl with a smirk.
"Not as long ago as you'd think," he replied, glancing at Carol with a smile.
They all sat down and Daryl started a fire in the little pit all the kids still used on the weekends. It was a chilly Georgia night and the fire felt good. Carol leaned against Daryl and he wrapped an arm around her. On the other side of the fire Rick and Michonne were mirroring them. It was strange to see them like that, in the same place where she'd sat like that with Rick for so many years. But she didn't feel even a pang of jealousy because she knew she was right where she was supposed to be.
Carol felt the rumble, they all did. There was a train coming. Daryl looked at her and grinned and then kissed her cheek. She rolled her eyes and nodded, giving him permission to do what he wanted to do so badly.
"Come on Officer, let's go," Daryl said, urging Rick on. The train was getting closer and the lights on the front were bearing down on them.
"I can't," Rick scoffed. "I shouldn't… I'm supposed to keep people from doing this kinda thing now…"
"Well then… guess you have a suspect to pursue then, don't ya?" Daryl replied, laughing as he leapt and disappeared.
"Better go get him," Michonne teased, giving Rick a shove. "He at least needs a warning."
"You're right, he definitely needs a warning," Rick said with a grin, jumping to his feet. Carol saw his face, just before he jumped and it screamed freedom.
She shifted over and reached for Michonne's hand. Whatever the next few weeks, months, years, brought she knew this was where she was supposed to be - finally. Daryl was her everything. The future was theirs - together. He was planning a transfer to the Atlanta depot as soon as possible so he could move in with her. He was also going to make the switch from long haul to local routes as soon as possible. While she could still travel with him, until she was too far along, she would go on his runs with him. They hoped by the time the baby arrived that he would be working much closer to home.
She had her best friend back and Carol knew Michonne would be a great support system when she became a new mom. And she even let herself imagine that maybe one day soon Michonne would be a mom too and their kids would grow up together. She couldn't bring herself to pull Rick into the dreams and fantasies. She knew he regretted his mistakes and she was truly touched by the photos he'd brought her and his admission that he knew Carol had loved Daryl, even as kids. But she just couldn't find forgiveness… not yet. She did have faith that Rick would do whatever he could to earn it from both her and Daryl, so that was a start.
When the guys returned Rick drove them home and they all said goodnight. Daryl had to leave the next morning for work and she decided to stay home for this trip since she hadn't been to the doctor yet and she really wanted to visit her volunteer jobs. She would miss him deeply, but she knew Daryl would always come home to her. For the rest of their lives, her and their baby would be where his home was. "I love you Mrs. Dixon," he whispered, kissing her softly on the lips.
"I love you too," Carol sighed happily. Life was good. And that night, for the first time in weeks she slept peacefully. Forgiveness was good for the soul. But Rick, well… for the time being... he was still an asshole.
Forgive, sounds good. Forget, I'm not sure I could. They say, time heals everything, but I'm still waiting… (Dixie Chicks - Not Ready to Make Nice).