See beginning of story for disclaimer

Okay I have no excuse except the massive MASSIVE writer's block I've had with this fandom. So here is the final chapter for this story and I hope it lives up to expectations. Remember: this story was started in the middle of Season 2, so these characters were a lot different then than they are now. Which is one reason it was so hard to write.

Enjoy!

Daryl

He knows the old adage "life is what you make of it" has got to be true. Otherwise, Daryl wouldn't be as suited to living in this shit-stained world as he is. Not that he's gonna thank his useless daddy or even Merle for giving him the training. No sir.

Some people adapt to this world and some people were already made for it. Daryl knows he falls into the latter category.

A breeze shifts the old oak leaves overhead as the steady gurgle of the creek plays a lullaby that would tempt most into a fitful sleep. But the hunter in him knows that nighttime is when prey is up and about, which means the killers are on the prowl too.

He takes out a fresh rag and sets to work cleaning his bolts. Blood, brain matter, or whatever on the shaft and it could gum up the workings. A misfire could mean death. Plus it gives him something to do that doesn't involve staring at the peaceful, slack face of the woman he's unexpectedly become attached to.

Daryl huffs when he realizes he's just thought of himself as "attached" to Carol and curls in on himself, hunches his shoulders and scrubs a little harder at the shaft of his bolt.

Attached. Whatever. Can't get too attached to anything these days. Don't do no good thinking too far ahead because today may be all you got. Only person you can totally rely on is yourself.

And yet, the group has managed to make a home of sorts on the old man's farm. Daryl will admit he didn't think it was worth their time to try to convince the old coot when he seemed so damned ready to kick them to the curb before. But he knows now that Rick's constant battle to talk Hershel into letting them stay was the best for everyone.

The kid – Carl – he needed some stability. Although with all the shit Shane has been starting because of his mom, fuck knows how the kid is gonna deal. Daryl has a patented approach when it comes to parents fighting; get the fuck out of the way.

And Rick… he's alright. He's got an air of leadership about him that Daryl can get behind. And he's level headed, which is a shit-ton more than anyone could say about Shane. That fucker is gonna end up on the wrong end of one of Daryl's bolts one day if Shane gets in his face again.

Daryl can feel his teeth grinding and makes a conscious effort to relax. He scans the area again, stokes the fire a little for more light, but not enough to draw attention. It's quiet save for the few crickets and night birds. Almost peaceful.

A soft dove-like sound comes from next to him, and Daryl jerks his attention to the form on the ground. Carol shifts in his jacket, seeming to burrow deeper into his faded denim and leather, as she breaths out another soft sigh.

Daryl thinks about how her body heat will warm that battered old jacket, how he'll probably be able to smell her in it for days and suddenly his skin feels stretched a little too tight, and his muscles twitch. He covers by standing and stretching his legs – he needs to do a perimeter check anyway, dammit.

Silently he moves to the edge of the firelight, crossbow loaded and cocked, scanning the bleak darkness beyond. Walkers generally aren't quiet as they shamble over branches and brambles so there is a little bit of warning for those who are vigilant.

As he walks around behind the old stump Carol is using as a makeshift prop for her backpack pillow, Daryl glances down at her. The firelight dances over her features, so much sharper now than when he first met her outside Atlanta. Time and hardship has given her a careworn look, but he's always secretly liked that about her.

Nothing fancy or fake. Her short cropped hair makes her easy to spot and she doesn't have to fool with it in the heat like he's seen Lori and Andrea arguing with their longer manes. Eyes storm-cloud blue and all-too understanding.

Sometimes, he wants to hate her for seeing too much. For seeming to just... take it, when she should be ranting and raving and throwing punches.

Daryl pulls up short as his gut twists at that. No, throwing punches is his thing. He remembers how Carol flinched but stood her ground that night when he nearly put a fist to her face.

He hates himself for that night. Hates that he nearly fell back into the way he was raised. Hates that for a moment she probably saw that shitheel Ed in his place. Daryl knows he ain't nothing to be looked up to, but he's not like Ed. Never like him.

Carol is a caregiver, through and through. Unfortunately, this world ain't made for caregivers and the soft hearted.

For a sick moment, Daryl feels his heart pull down toward his stomach when he thinks that Carol – this woman he's grudgingly decided to keep an eye on – probably wouldn't make it. Just like her daughter (and would that be his fault too?). She just didn't have the harshness this world requires for survival.

Daryl swallows thickly, trying to get his thoughts back in the moment and not the future, when he ears Carol move again. She's twitching, face scrunched up in a frown and her fists clenched around the ends of his jacket.

He's just about to shrug it off, when Carol suddenly flops onto her back, head tossing to the side and a whine escapes her lips. It isn't loud, but it still makes Daryl's heart do a triple thump in his chest.

Nightmare, he thinks. Wouldn't be the first time he's heard her in the night. Usually it was tears though – there's another memory he doesn't want to revisit: Carol's sobs spurring him out into the night to look for the girl, to do something, anything.

But she's really starting to get worked up now, arms jerking and fingers clenching in the soft grass bed and she's muttering now. Daryl's already moving around the stump to her side when she scares the shit out of him by going rigid, hands in cramped fists and agony on her face.

"Shit," Daryl mutters, crouching next to her. At this rate she'll end up having a fit and alerting every walker within a mile to them.

His hands hover over her shoulders, unsure whether to touch or grab or shake her, any of which could have a very bad result. Carol's still frozen, eyes shut and tears leaking out of the corners. Her mouth is slightly open and she's making the most horrible rasping sound. Daryl's never seen anything like it and it's starting to fucking scare him.

"Hey," he says, low and soft. Her brows move a little but that's all.

She lets out one long shuddering, rasping breath. A deep breath in, tense and trembling, only to let it out the same way. Then Daryl gets it. His own breath catches in his throat when he realizes what's actually happening – Carol is screaming.

Silent screams.

Whatever she's seeing behind those twitching eyelids is fucking terrifying and her silent, breathy screams are scaring Daryl a lot more than they should, and he's more afraid that she'll let out a real holler soon, alerting every undead bastard for miles.

He drops his crossbow to the side and kneels beside his unconscious charge. He takes hold of both her shoulders, gentle but firm and gives her one good shake.

"Carol," he says with command in his tone.

She comes awake with a violent shudder and just before she can squeal, he slaps a filthy hand over her mouth.

"Hush, woman. You're gonna literally wake the dead."

Carol's thin frame trembles under his hands for a moment before he realizes he better turn her loose. Only he can't bring himself to let go fully, keeping on hand on her upper arm to steady her as she gets her wits about her.

"Oh god, I'm sorry," Carol whispers, running a hand over her face and wincing as her tears burn the scrapes and scratches.

Daryl backs off, gathers his weapon, sits on his haunches and watches her. "Just a nightmare," he tries, though he knows it must'a been a hellova lot more than that.

Carol pulls his jacket around her shoulders and shakes herself, as if trying to shed the last of the dream like shaking off drops of rain.

"Yeah. Just a nightmare," she says. When her eyes met his, Daryl badly wants to ask what she saw that had her screaming with no voice, but he'd be willing to bet it had something to do with Sophia.

Carol looks so lost that for a moment, he wants to comfort her. Tell her that they'll get back to the farm in a few hours and everything will be alright. He's seen Rick offer that kind of support to the others and he envies him that ability to set people at ease with words and touches.

But Daryl Dixon isn't built for comforting; he'd probably fuck it all up anyway. So he moves back to the fire, stoking it and preparing to settle in, when he hears Carol shift.

She's looking off into the dark as she says, "Uhm…do you think, maybe I could sit a little closer? Just for a little while."

Daryl squints at her over the fire, trying to decide what she's talking about. When Carol motions to the patch of grass next to him, he gets it. She's still scared and for some reason she thinks he's safe.

Daryl chews his lip for a moment, thinks about how fucking terrified he was when that cougar attacked, how his gut tied itself in knots when he thought Carol had gone missing days before and then relents.

Better to have her close, he thinks.

"Sure," he says.

Carol scoots closer, dragging her backpack with her and curls up next to his leg. "It's warmer over here anyway," she offers, when Daryl feels himself tense like she's about to bite him or something.

A little smile pulls at her lips as she snuggles in, their bodies just shy of touching but he an feel her every breath as though he were pressed against her. That thought makes something wild and unexpected flare in Daryl's gut that shocks him.

So he grabs his trusty bow and quiver, lays them over his chest and settles back against the old stump; comfortable but still able to see and hear.

He watches Carol's breathing even out again in sleep and when she starts to twitch, Daryl figures fuck his pride and his boundaries and reaches out to take her hand. Her fingers squeeze his a little in her sleep, like she's thanking him, and damn.

Maybe he's the soft-hearted one here. Whatever. At least she'll sleep quietly while she can.


Daryl's pissed. Eyes open not two minutes before and he knows he's alone at the makeshift camp. He'd gotten too comfortable, too lazy in his guard and fallen asleep. He's lucky he didn't wake up with another walker chewing on his foot.

During the night he'd let the fire die down and a chill set in. And maybe he let himself get a little closer to Carol. She had his jacket, dammit and it was cold! And maybe he let her curl into him a little, because conserving body heat is survival 101, isn't it?

And if it felt really, really fucking good, well, he's not going to tell anyone.

Except that Carol could have been dragged off or wandered off or any number of shitty outcomes just because feeling someone else next to him, trusting him enough to sleep next to him lulled him into fucking dream land and now he is pissed.

"Shit, shit shit," Daryl is on his feet, crossbow hefted into his shoulder as he spins in place trying to see if Carol is near.

He can't yell for her, not loudly anyway. He hisses her name a few times, hoping to God she just stepped behind a near bush to take a leak.

The clearing where they set up camp is covered in a low, fine mist; the early morning chill damp and bone rattling. Everything has a grey-blue tint and Daryl can't see very far. He doesn't hear anything either, which is both good and very bad.

But Daryl does know that Carol has her knife on her and that she walked away – he can see her footprints – so she wasn't dragged off. Doesn't make him feel much better but it's something.

He sets out after her and doesn't get more than about fifty feet from their camp when he hears a scream that turns his blood to ice and makes his heart lurch into this throat.

Daryl had dragged the cougar carcass off to a scrape of elderberry bushes, far enough from where they camped so that if it attracted walkers, they wouldn't pay he and Carol any mind. What he sees when he runs out of the tree line is Carol backing away from two gnarly looking walkers.

What was left of an old woman, skin pulled too tight over bone and half her bottom jaw missing is stumbling into Carol. Daryl pulls up short long enough to take aim as Carol manages to push the old bitch back with her foot.

The thwunk of his bolt leaving the bow and hitting the old woman's skull echoes throughout the clearing. Daryl goes into automatic destroying mode; swings his bow onto his back while marching up to the second walker – this one male – who is munching on the dead cat.

Without blinking, Daryl sinks his bowie knife into the soft, rotten skull of what used to be some dude in a Hawaiian shirt.

He's just about to round on Carol, ask her what the ever-loving fuck she was thinking wandering off again, or getting near this carcass, when he hears a gasp. He really doesn't have to turn around to know another walker has appeared and he doesn't have time to load another bolt.

But his knife is jammed in bone and eye socket and Daryl can't seem to yank it out.

Spitting out a curse, Daryl tries to look over his shoulder while using his foot to push the walker's skull off his knife, but he can't see much and all he hears is Carol's labored breathing.

"Daryl!"

Just as his knife pulls free of bone and brain matter, Daryl hears a scuffle and a yell and oh god he now doesn't want to turn around. He doesn't think he could take seeing her bit…not Carol.

But he does turn and nearly falls on his ass when he sees Carol climbing off the prone body of a walker, her small knife and hand covered in gore. She stumbles backward, as if she can't believe what she's done and you could've knocked Daryl over with a feather at this point too.

Once he's sure nothing else is coming out of the woods, Daryl sheathes his knife and marches into Carol's face. He's fucking seething.

"What the hell is wrong with you? You got a death wish or somethin'?"

Carol steps back before she thinks about it, wiping fear-sweat and a little blood off her brow. "I wasn't wandering off, Daryl," she says, after a moment of trying to catch her breath.

"Well then what the fuck where you doin', huh? Because this sure as hell looks like wandering off to me."

"I needed," Carol stops and swallows, trying to gauge his anger because he's pacing back and forth now; can't stand still. "I wanted to try to get some meat off of him." She gestures to the cougar.

Daryl squints at her like she's speaking Chinese. "What?"

"We need the meat, Daryl. Even if all we can do is dry it as jerky, we need any protein we can get. Game is getting scarce, you said it yourself," she says.

Daryl snorts because he really can't speak right now, let alone refute her logic on the game situation. He stomps over to the old woman walker and yanks his bolt out, swipes it over his pants leg and takes a look at the one that Carol took out. It's a young man, or was at one point.

She saved his life. How about that.

But that didn't dampen his anger and frustration as he swings his arms out to encompass the bloodbath around them.

"So you think getting a little meat off a sick, skinny cat is worth this risk? What you couldn't be bothered to wake me up and let me know?" he yells.

Carol hugs herself; he doesn't know if she's cold or scared or both. "I'm sorry. You fell asleep and I woke up and took watch. At daylight I figured I could find the cougar again and thought I could cut something we could use off him before the walkers got at it. But I was too late."

"Besides," she mutters, almost too low to hear. "If something did attack it would have been just me. They wouldn't have come for you."

Daryl's pretty sure his head might have exploded or he had a fucking stroke because for a moment, all he can hear is the blood rushing in his ears and all he sees is red.

"So that's it, huh? You wanna give up? Opt out?" He panting like he's run a marathon and he can't slow his heart and he can't understand and wants to grab her, shake her and make her see. Just see!

"You think because she's gone you got nothing to live for?" It's the first time in months that he's mentioned the little girl he spent so long trying to find and her name burns his soul.

Carol goes ghostly pale. "What? That's not–"

"Not what? It sure seems that way to me. You keep taking risks because you think no one will care if you just don't come back one day." Daryl leans in close, stares straight into those blue-grey eyes and bares his teeth to get the point across. "It's stupid, Carol."

"I'm not doing this on purpose," Carol says, finally getting some of her fire back. "I'm doing what's good for the group. And if that puts my life at risk than so be it." She squares her shoulders and lifts her chin. Daryl doesn't think he's ever seen her look more beautiful.

"I want to live. But I don't care if I die trying to help others, Daryl."

"Well maybe I care."

The words are out of his mouth before they even form in his brain. Daryl stands there, still glaring but his insides just ran for the hills and Carol just looks at him with those knowing eyes and fuck he can't handle this shit.

They both jump like scalded cats when they hear Rick bellowing from the tree line.

"Daryl! Carol! You alright?" Rick comes running, that stupidly huge pistol in hand and Andrea hot on his heels.

"Yeah," Daryl croaks out, taking a step back from Carol's space to adjust his crossbow. "Fine."

"Oh my god," Andrea says, looking at the bloody aftermath of their morning's excursion. "What happened?" She goes to Carol and hugs her.

Carol seems to appreciate the physical show of comfort and Daryl can't help but throw a sneer Andrea's way. His head still hurts from where that bitch shot him, anyway.

Rick surveys the damage while Daryl explains the situation. Then he nods, gives Daryl a tentative pat on the shoulder and says, "When you didn't come back yesterday we figured, if you were okay, you made camp somewhere. Saw the smoke from your fire when we started out at first light. We would have come yesterday evening but Shane made a point about it getting dark earlier. That we should wait."

"Good ol' Shane," Daryl scoffs, lining up another bolt. He knows good and well Shane would love to see his ass disappear into the woods and never come back. Probably wouldn't mind having a couple less mouths to take Rick's side in augments.

Andrea looks at Carol's knife and at the dead walker. "You did this?" She asks Carol.

Carol runs a hand over Daryl's jacket that she's still wearing and looks over at him. "It would have gotten Daryl."

Daryl spares a moment to feel like a shit for chewing her out when she did save his life, proving that she can protect herself (and him) after all. But he doesn't regret everything he said. Some things needed to be known.

Daryl doesn't want to think about the uncertain future ahead if Carol isn't in it. He's just so damn tired of losing people.

They head back to the farm and Daryl endures the relieved coddling from Lori, Beth and Maggie. Glenn, Dale, T-Dog and Hershel tell him he was lucky. The kid just wants to know how big the cougar was.

Shane gives him the stink eye over the cooking fire and Daryl swears he can hear him muttering that he and Carol had no business sneaking off together in the first place. Daryl really wishes he'd say it out loud, so he could introduce Shane's stupid face to his fist.

Carol is quiet and appreciative of the worry as Hershel and Maggie tend her scrapes from the thorns, and she seems to keep Daryl in her periphery at all times. He does the same for her.

At dinner they all take their seats around the fire as the food is passed out. This time, Hershel and his girls actually come out and sit at the old picnic table, trading stories.

Carol has picked a spot off to the side, huddled around her plate. She'd given him his jacket back a while before, and Daryl languished in the scent of her the whole day. Part of him wants to scrub the damn thing as a hard as he can, but a larger part of him wants to lie down and fucking bury his face in her scent for hours.

How pathetic is that?

Despite his turmoil over the state of his jacket, he thinks Carol looks chilled in nothing but her wool cardigan. So he sidles up behind her, shrugs out of his jack again and drapes it over her shoulders. Carol doesn't look up, but he can see the smile on her face, warmed by firelight.

After he gets his grub, Daryl ambles back over to Carol and plops down next to her, so close that his right side is flush with her left. Knee to knee, elbow to elbow.

Daryl's fucking starving so he digs in; unaware of the looks he's getting from those around the fire. Rick and T-Dog are talking with Lori chiming in here and there. Glenn and Maggie have stolen a moment a few feet away.

Hershel is nearest and he's the one who catches Daryl's eyes when he finally looks up from his plate. Carol snuggles in a little closer to Daryl's shoulder.

Daryl glances at the woman next to him who's serenely picking at her food and watching the others talk, a soft smile still on her face. A moment later and Daryl is leaning a little into her warmth, but he's pretty sure it's not noticeable.

He looks back to Hershel and the old man gives him a nod and an all-too-knowing smile.

Daryl just rolls his eyes and mumbles "Shut up," under his breath.

END


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