Disclaimer: I don't own AMC's The Walking Dead or any of its characters, wishful thinking aside.

Authors Note #1: This story is meant to fit in some point during the winter when they were going from house to house. Focusing on the scenario of: What if Daryl and Carol had met once before, decades before the virus and their escape from Atlanta. * Just to be clear, this could be construed as an AU – however the way I worked it into the plot makes it virtually cannon compliant.

Warnings: Contains some minor season two & three spoilers, references to Daryl's past, allusions to Carol's past, domestic abuse/violence, sexual imagery, adult language and mature content. *This particular chapter contains specific references to spousal abuse and domestic violence, please continue with caution.

Lady in Red

Chapter 9

Her cheeks flamed when she realized she'd said the name out loud. Cringing internally as his posture went from relaxed to on point in less than five seconds flat. Heart beat stuttering as his fingers curled around the base of one of the bolts and crushed the flights clean in two. Not even seeming to notice when bits of shattered neon started flaking across the table - trickling down in an awkward shower of orange and yellow plastic as the skin around his knuckles pulled taunt.

It took a few moments, but she swallowed hard and met his stare when he turned around and faced her - trying her best to hold it as steel blue eyes fixed on hers. Searching her face for a few ageless moments before his expression gradually softened and the hand that had been clenched around the bolt slowly started to relax. Almost as if he'd been gauging her reaction before figuring out how to respond.

But that would mean…

She'd been expecting to be able to watch the moment when recognition dawned. But instead, she was shocked to see a muted little smirk spread across his face. Treating her to a rare smile that went the whole nine yards, back-lighting his eyes with warmth and humor as he puffed out his chest and leaned back against the booth.

"I didn't think you'd remember," he finally rasped, voice sounding a little bit rougher than usual as he flattened his palms on the table and shifted his weight towards the door. Almost as if despite his smile he was still caught between that same fight or flight response he'd held as gospel up at the quarry – looking over his shoulder to check on the others just to avoid her stare.

"You knew!?" She exclaimed. "You knew it was me? All this time?" She demanded. Excitement and frustration coloring her tone as she whirled around to face him, determined to get the bottom of whatever had him looking so pleased with himself as she crossed her legs underneath her and waited. Pretending not to notice when their knees brushed together and his breathing stuttered.

"Woman, you were the least lady-like creature on that dance floor. And as I recall, everyone loved you for it. So tell me, how's a man supposed to forget something like that?" He retorted. The hint of a grin flirting with the corners of his lips as his gaze went heated.

It was the kind of look that sent her right back to that moment on the dance floor, the moment when those big, wide-palmed hands had settled on her hips. The room dark and hazed with smoke - stuffy, stale and strangely perfect as the band played and the regulars made tracks across the stage. Confident and bold whereas Daryl had just pulled them deeper into the shadows, shielding them from view as she'd frantically tried to remember how to move without falling over.

"Well, I don't know about that," she huffed, feeling strangely daring and more than a little pleased with herself as his words hit home.

…The red dress had been a nice touch after all.

"…But I know that you did," she chanced, the whiskey and the moment making her bold as she threw caution to the wind and edged a few millimeters closer. Feeling something settle inside her as skin met skin and he relaxed into her touch. Responding to her closeness by running his tongue across his lower lip and fixing her with an unfettered look as his filthy shirt got lost in the folds of her jacket.

Christ, she swore he was doing that on purpose!

"Figured that went without saying," he shot back, lips twitching like he was repressing another smile as he emptied his glass in one clean swallow.

"Reckon I didn't do much to hide it either," he added after moment, fixing her with a look that only made her smile in return - all boyishly mischievous and sly as he topped up her glass and pulled a folded napkin of jerky out of his vest pocket. Setting it between them with an affirming grunt as they quickly made short work of the gamey snack.

She let her legs kick out, hitting the back of the booth in an uneven, staccato rhythm. Taking a sip from her glass and letting the moment breathe as she marveled on the series of events that had led them here. But instead of moving on, she got stuck there. Because there had to be a reason, there had to be a reason why they were both here, now - together in another bar close to twenty years later.

Call her hopeless, but it seemed almost foolish to believe it was merely a coincidence.

She chased the taste of iron with her tongue as she bit down on the inside of her cheek. Taste buds alive with the zing of salt and the bitter spike of her own blood as she choked on all the words she didn't know how to say. After all, how could she tell him? How could she tell him how she felt without having him start running for the hills? Daryl was difficult enough at the best of times, skittish and easy to baulk. There was no telling how he'd react, if he even let her get that far.

She was walking on thin ice and she knew it.

"I am surprised you even remember," she remarked after a while. "That had to be what? Two decades ago? Maybe more?" She mused, trying her best to sound nonchalant as she searched his face for some clue as to what he was thinking.

Luckily for her, she didn't have long to wait.

"Are you kiddin'? It aint every day a red-headed siren straight up asks a stranger to dance," he scoffed, eyes sharp, but noticeably distant as he stared off in the direction of the stage. Almost as he was picturing the moment in his mind's eye - watching the scene play out as the past melded together with the present and became something new.

A new animal, a new possibility, a new…something.

"Besides, I didn't know it was you until a few months ago anyway. It was back at that strip mall in Locust Grove when you and Maggie were getting clothes for Lori. You were thumbing the seam of that red skirt hangin' in the window and bam – I was back there," he hummed, fingers flaring out in silent exclamation as he shook his head and snorted.

"Small world," he grunted. Staring off in the direction of the stage in a way that made her seriously consider selling her soul for just a hint as to what he was thinking.

"Hard to believe…" she murmured, "it's been a long time," she sighed, wriggling deeper into the folds of her jacket as a particularly vicious gust of wind battered against the windows.

"Not that long," he countered, twirling one of the bolts around in his fingers before grounding the point on the table. Kicking up bits of varnish and flecks of sawdust as he scratched a line through the uneven designs that had been carved across the table like wood-worked graffiti. Contrasting oddly with the dusty rings left over from someone's glass as the sticky film of spilled beer and evaporated alcohol stood out in the half light.

"Long enough," she returned, thinking back to Ed and all those wasted years in between. Years where she could have been happy if she'd only listened to that stupid little voice yammering away in the back of her head as she'd watched him walk away.

"You never came back did you?" He asked after a pause, the words coming out more like a statement than a question as he palmed the bottle and started picking at the label again. The flippancy of his words doing little to belay the discomfort in his tone as bits and pieces of the label littered across the table like paper rain.

"No," she answered honestly. Fingers tightening around her glass as she felt more than saw something in his posture stiffen in response.

"Neither did I," he returned, just a bit too quickly to be sincere as he picked at a corner of the table. Sighing in a mixture of frustration and discomfort when she fixed him with a patient look, sensing there was more to the story than he was telling as she decided to wait him out.

"I wanted to. But every time I did I talked myself out of it. I drove by once, the night after Merle got home from prison. But before I pulled in, I saw you walking past the gas station with him and thought you'd finally figured out the whole fine print thing," he continued, his expression souring a bit as he referenced Ed. Not even seeming to notice when she swallowed hard and looked off towards the window.

"After that there didn't seem to be much of a point anymore," he grunted. Blunt nails scratching across his stubble as she tried to place him in that moment and failed.

Had she heard the rusty growl of that old motor echoing down the road? Had she heard it and simply dismissed it? Too wrapped up in Ed's soft touch and perfect words to notice when he'd hit the gas and made for the interstate? Christ... And how long had it been after that Ed had starting making love to the bottle rather than her? How long had it been before she'd forced herself to accept the fact that her perfect possible future was nothing more than window dressing on a house made out of cardboard. Only one spring's rain away from falling apart at the seams as Ed's easy smiles had eventually given way to anger and his gentleness to impatience.

"If I'd known I woulda'…" he began, voice misfiring like an unoiled Remington as he crushed one of the coasters in his fist. Sending the pieces flying off the table and into dead space with a vicious swipe as his expression went hard.

"I know," she replied, cutting him off before he had a chance to finish as an emotion she didn't know how to describe rose in her throat, "come to think of it, so would I," she added. Tapping into that wavering, but undeniably powerful source of inner strength she'd found in herself after she'd lost Sophia.

It was a strength that someday had the possibility of rivaling the spirit of that of the same self-assured young woman that had walked into that dive bar on the edge of town. Feisty and fearless as she'd turned heads and set her sights on the young man at the table opposite hers – the one wreathed in leather and shadow. …Not the exact same woman mind you, but damn close.

"I would've liked to see that," he snorted, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand as his shoulders hunched inwards. Stretching his arms above his head before letting them rest across the back of the booth, inches away and tantalizing as the hint of a nail scratched across the curve of her shoulder.

"What? Think I can't do it?" She asked, only half joking as her arm twinged in reminder. Broken when she'd popped Ed back something fierce the time he'd slapped her across the face for dumping his bottle of Johnny Walker down the kitchen sink after he'd come to bed drunk the night before. The first and regrettably only time she'd given him as good as she'd got when he'd used his fists to make a point. He'd twisted her arm so hard he'd broken it in three places. She'd told the doctor that she'd fallen down the stairs, but honestly she'd been surprised and perhaps even a bit disappointed when he'd actually believed her.

The truth was that sometimes people, even good people don't want to know.

"The opposite actually," He replied, the hint of a smile flirting with the corners of his lips as his shoulder nudged against hers. Sweet and awkward, just the way she liked it as the goodness of the moment trickled through her like molasses skating around the rim of a jar. Slow and worth waiting for as she held onto the last dregs of sweetness. Drinking it in as the fire shifted and wind whistled through the chinks in the brick.

She was amused with how much they'd changed as she tried and ultimately failed to picture such a thing coming from the same man who'd stomped around the quarry camp like the devil coming off a bender. Sulky, withdrawn and brimming over with barely restrained aggression as he'd ignored everyone save for Shane, Glenn and Dale. Keeping them fed and protected, but wanting little else to do with them when push came to shove.

How far they'd come indeed…

"It doesn't matter anyway," she said after a moment, leaning back into the press of his shoulder for a few long beats before reluctantly giving him his space. Feeling just shy of cloud nine when he remained where he was, allowing their shoulders to touch as his muscles flexed underneath the skin - uncertain but stubborn as he fiddled with the corner of the table and listened.

"We're here now, you, me and another bar at the end of the world," she quipped. Unable to stay straight faced as the sheer impossibility of it all aired out into the open. Getting lost in an uneven whirlwind of wood smoke and dust motes as her mind whirled and the quiet murmur of conversation rose and fell in the background.

"Wouldn't wanna be anywhere else," he murmured, bringing her soundly back to the present as he nudged her and eyed her through the fan of his lashes. Reminding her of their proximity as his voice pitched low and took on a quality she'd never heard before.

The nudge was awkward and a bit uncertain, but it made her heart thud in her ears nonetheless - hopeful and just daring enough to show it as she caught his gaze and held it. And funnily enough, as his words slowly sunk in, she realized she felt warm for the first time in days.

Truth be told, when she rested her head on his shoulder she hadn't really thought it through. Reacting instinctively as his words aired out and everything she'd felt since the farm, hell since the god damned quarry snuck up on her all at once. Unable to stop herself from leaning in and gentling into the curve of his side before she had a chance to mull it over, or worse, change her mind. - And surprisingly enough, save for a few awkward moments where in which Daryl didn't seem to know where to put his hands and she forced herself to stay put, holding her ground as his muscles tried their best to jump clear through his skin, he let her.

And honestly, she was just selfish enough to press her luck. Because as the seconds ticked past, she kept it there. Letting the silence air out, flawed and comfortable, listening with a small smile as the fast paced thrum of his heart eventually slowed.

She hadn't been expecting anything more. Hell, how could she? He'd already given her something rare and undoubtedly precious, his trust. Showing her that he trusted her enough to let her get close, something she herself hardly dared to believe as she settled in to stay. Enjoying the moment for what it was - a small victory in a long line of minor setbacks and defeats. Content with what he'd given her as she tried her best not to ruin it.

She took it all in, committing everything to memory as his chest rose and fell, breathing it in as the smell of flaking leather and stale sweat wrapped around her like a blanket. She shivered a bit when his stubble rasped across the arc of her throat, sensual and enticing as somewhere behind her Beth started singing the chorus of some old song that no one save for Hershel could remember the name of. Off key and sweet as Maggie threw an armful of wood onto the fire and the lyrics got lost amidst the searing hiss of icy pine.

The moment stretched. Only idly paying attention as something scraped across the length of the building – likely a piece of sheet metal or a scrap of vinyl kicked up by the storm. But that knowledge didn't make it any less creepy as it thudded across the exterior, making an eerie sound as it skittered across the brick before being flung back into the storm. Reminding her that regardless of their revelation and what it might mean in regards to their future, reality was still waiting outside - hungry and relentless.

But all that went out the window when he finally moved. Sending pins and needles coursing through her veins as he suddenly went a step further. The action understated and sweet as he brought her in and arranged her across the span of his chest, her head coming to rest in the hollow between his neck and shoulder as his arm slowly wrapped around her from behind. Tentative but firm, like he was half afraid she'd either push him away or call his bluff as his fingers twitched against her skin. Almost as if he wanted to touch but couldn't quite find it in him to try.

At least not yet.

For a long moment she just blinked. Cheeks flaming as the seconds ticked past and she tried to remember how that whole breathing thing worked. Caught so far off guard that she couldn't even fathom what she was supposed to do next. Lost in the feeling of having him so close as she listened to the ragged quality of his breathing and wondered.


But just when she figured the conversation was over, his chin suddenly ghosted across the top of her head – all stubbly skin, aging leather and stale sweat as he shifted in place. Not pushing her away, but moving nonetheless as he took a careful swig of Wild Turkey and made to speak.

"...Still can't dance worth shit though," he deadpanned, squinting up at her for a few heart stopping seconds before the beginnings of full blown grin trickled across his face - feisty and warm as she couldn't help but follow suit.

And she'd be damned if her laughter didn't echo all the way up to the eves, filling the bar with a sound it likely hadn't heard since before the infection had hit. Losing it completely as it rolled out, off key and heady as Daryl nearly choked on his mouthful of whiskey.

And if the others turned around to stare when a few, raspy barks of laughter left Daryl's throat in return, well, they were too busy nudging each other with their shoulders and hiding behind their glasses to notice…

A/N #1: Thank you for reading. Please let me know what you think! Reviews and constructive critiquing are love! – A big thank you to everyone who has supported me and this story throughout the writing process. Your reviews and excited anticipation for each new chapter made it an utter joy to write! *Expect the start of new Caryl story in the next few days. I have a bunch of unfinished stories and barely started one-shots gathering dust in my documents. It is just a matter of choosing which one to start on first!

"Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards." ― Søren Kierkegaard