AN… And so it begins. Not many notes ahead of time on this one. Blood, sweat and tears, my friends. I hope you are all prepared! Just…don't be too harsh. I'm still getting back into the swing of things. PM's to previous chapters reviews…coming shortly. Ahem. Caryl on, folks!

Part Twenty Six

There was something about losing one of their own within the relative safety of the farm's fences that should have clued them in that it could all end in a fiery flash. Certainly they were familiar by now with walkers on the farm—but most of that had been by Hershel's behest in some misguided belief that the world would one day, and soon, be cured. That one had wandered in from the swamps, fed from the livestock but still hungered to rip its claws into Dale, should have told them to wise up, and fast. That should have told them their stay was drawing to a close and to do something—prepare at least—before disaster befell them completely.

When their little bubble was ripped away from them, it burst with an explosive pop that devastated them with the riot and roar of death. It was the horrible reminder that they were on the run for their lives and at any time they could scatter like flies and end up within a hundred different disasters at once.

Randall going missing was the catalyst, and other than the panic to get him back or finally kill him so he would no longer be a problem, their moment to start dismantling their strangling grip on the farm had arrived. Not one of them saw it coming.

Glenn, Rick, Shane and Daryl went looking in the woods for the escaped prisoner, while the women and Carl waited in the house. Every minute that wasted away pushed Carol a little closer toward a sense of doom. She wasn't sure what it was—whether she was still on edge from earlier when Daryl pushed away from her after she'd bravely kissed him at Dale's graveside, or if she'd subconsciously noticed that Lori seemed pale and listless. Maybe it was the silence in the house while they waited for word on whether the men had found Randall, or whether it was fear that one of them might come across another walker while they wandered the woods in the dark and not make it back at all. Carol had no idea what it was that was making her so fearful, and when Daryl and Glenn came back, she dismissed it and breathed much more easily to see that he at least was still alive and that she wasn't losing anyone else she loved for the moment.

Daryl didn't look at her, instead filling the group in on what they'd found—Randall as a walker, and likely the walker that bit him—so at least that threat had been eliminated. Lori was of course concerned about Rick and Shane still being out there, but with Randall no longer a concern, Carol wondered why the woman felt the need to send Daryl out after her husband all the time. Why she doubted Rick's ability to protect himself and the ones he cared about whenever he wasn't at his wife's side.

"Lori, I'm sure he's fine," Carol said, trying to reassure her friend but desperate to keep Daryl from going out again to the darkness beyond the farm. "Shane's with him. Give them a minute and they'll be back." Carol stepped closer to the door, hoping to prevent Daryl from going back out, so missed Lori's glare at her and the welling of tears in the other woman's eyes. Instead, she caught Daryl looking at her, his gaze shy and his lips teasing a smile as he seemed to have swept the uneasiness of before away. Her shoulders shook with relief and Carol smiled back, wishing she had the courage to throw herself into his arms, but with everyone standing behind them she knew he'd bolt the second she even tried.

He pushed the screen door open, stepping out onto the porch, and Carol, like the faithful woman she was, followed him. The need to be near him almost suffocated her and Carol worried that he'd feel it and push her away, but that fear was suddenly eclipsed by the bigger one as she looked out and saw hundreds of moving pin dots spreading across the field. It took her a moment to really process what she was seeing, but the second the realisation slammed into her, she gasped and reached for his hand. An indescribably large herd of walkers that had already flooded the field beyond their camp were ambling closer, their moans spreading through the darkness like a million angry bees converging on a greedy thief.

"Daryl?" Her grip on his hand tightened, terror slamming into her hard.

Andrea and Glenn were right behind them, seeing the wave of walkers as they descended on the farm like a plague of starving, rotting locusts. Within a minute the rest of the group were rushing around, making plans on the fly and the women preparing to leave. Hershel showed up with his own stash of guns, Maggie taking up a rifle and passing one to Glenn. Lori banged through the screen, her face filled with terror as she announced that Carl was gone. Carol twirled in shock.

"Gone? But he can't be gone. Come on, we'll have another look." It couldn't happen again, another child being torn from their group and turning into one of them because they were too weak to get him back. Too alive to be any use to the living.

Daryl grabbed Carol's hand back, seemingly snatching it out of the air like it might be the last chance he got. He stared at her intently, and Carol saw his own revelation of fear, before he clamped it down and hid it within his depths, probably knowing they all needed him to keep a level head now that another child was missing and the odds in Carl's favour of surviving were far less than they ever had been for Sophia. He squeezed her hand desperately; she could see he wanted to say so much more but there was no time, and while she might wish it were true, had half convinced herself that he wanted to let her know that if they escaped this, he'd give her more or die trying, she had to let him go and hope they made it back to each other once this was all over.

"Get in one of the cars and get off the farm." It was an order and as tears sprung to her eyes, she nodded. Her other hand came up to stroke his cheek and she knew he was reading in her the fear that this might be the last time they saw each other, and that he hated that it hurt so much.

Her eyes scanned the landscape and saw the figures crawling closer, could hear the excited growls as the dead sensed their movement, smelled their life and grew desperate and greedy to feed from them. Time was now against them and Carol had to let him go, trusting that if anyone of them survived at all, it would be Daryl. If she died tonight, she could at least die happy that he'd survive.

"Go," she said, her voice breaking along with her heart. "Stay safe."

Daryl watched her run back into the house with a curse. He could hear Lori screaming for Carl through the house and he wanted to beat that kid's ass. He'd told her to get to a car and to get off the farm, knowing he'd be useless in this fight if he was worrying about where she was. She wasn't a fighter, not yet anyways despite his and Shane's efforts to train her, and even if she was, he didn't want her risking her life when it was obvious they needed to get the hell off the farm.

He couldn't say goodbye, terrified that it would be the last thing he said to her. Terrified now of many things—but not of the bastards that were spilling forward like a giant bottle of beer knocked on its side. No, it was the pain of never making something of what they'd started, a deep, bone deep pain that might be something he could never chase away. He'd made promises he wasn't sure he'd be able to keep just by staring at her and hoping she could read him when he'd never tried to be open to anyone else in his life, but he'd needed to convey to her in some way that he now knew the score, and that if they made it, she had his heart and he'd even hand it over to her with his bare hands if he had to.

He jumped the porch railing and headed to his bike. There were too many walkers, not enough of them to make much of a dent, even if they'd had the firepower to back them up. He couldn't help but think that every gunshot through the head took one of the pricks out, but another in the woods would prick its ears in their direction and start its journey to add to the mass. Despite what Hershel thought—what he wanted—there was no way left to keep this farm. Their only chance to live was to get off it, and now.

The barn exploded with a bang and a hiss, flames licking up the tinder walls like it had only been waiting for permission to become an impressive blaze. Walls of fire spiralled spectacularly, licking greedily at the sky as if something cold and dark might descend far enough to douse it down and make it new. Daryl rode toward the RV, dodging walkers as they stalled at a fence, his gun picking off a few before he decided it was a waste of time. He directed Jimmy toward the burning barn in case Rick and Shane were over there and needed help getting out of the inferno, cursing himself and calling out at the last minute for the boy to stop when he realised he was sending the kid to certain death if he wasn't in and out of there within a minute. He wasn't heard over the moaning crowd around him, or the blast of gunshots, or the roar and crackle of the barn exploding and falling to the earth as flames ravenously consumed every last particle of its existence. He rode off before he could see what the fate of the boy would be, shooting a path clear so that if Rick and Shane had been at the barn, they might make it back to the house and a vehicle.

The place was completely overrun within minutes, and Daryl had no choice but to retreat before he was dragged off the bike and became dinner. He pulled over on the side of the road and watched and waited for any sign of who else made it out, his heart in his throat, fists clenched, wondering where the hell she was.

Carol finished searching the upstairs and confirmed what Lori already knew. Carl was gone, and this time it might finally be the death of him. She watched her friend carefully, concerned with how pale Lori was, how her hands grasped her stomach and how her moans rivalled their enemies' outside. There was nothing she could do to alleviate her friend's pain, knowing they had to get off the farm if they had any chance of making it. They had to trust that Carl had found his father and that they'd all meet up again somewhere after all this was over.

Lori gripped some bags filled with whatever she'd been able to grab in a hurry, Carol doing the same as well as gripping the machete Glenn had handed her earlier before leaving with Maggie. They rushed out of the house, dragging Patricia and Beth toward the truck T-Dog was driving. Andrea jumped out of the truck to help them get in, and Carol knew no matter how much they crushed up into the cab, there was no way five women were going to fit in there with T-Dog. Walkers were converging on them, Carol noticing some coming from the side nearest Patricia, and she screamed as she buried her hatchet into its head and bought the woman a few more seconds to hurry Beth to the relative safety of the car. Lori was surrounded and Carol rushed in with Andrea at her side, slashing at heads for all she was worth and barely registering any contact she made with falling, crushing bodies as they toppled around her, black, sticky blood settling into the grass and splashing onto her clothes and face. She shoved Lori hard away from the threat, just wanting the woman away so she at least knew some of them were safe, screaming at Andrea to pick Lori up where she'd slammed into the side of the truck and fell in a heap screaming and crying on the ground. The blonde dragged her up and shoved her into the truck, throwing the bags into the bed of the truck as she hopped up and jumped in herself, calling to Carol to hurry up and get on. Before she could move, her arm still arcing around her and connecting with bodies, she slipped on the puddles of blood in the grass and fell. Her breath was knocked out of her as the doubly dead body of her latest kill collapsed on top of her. She could hear screaming—perhaps her own as putrid flesh seemed to drip around her—felt herself burning and gagging and then her own terrified cries as she heard the tell-tale sound of wheels skidding as the truck lurched forward and tore away from the farm.

Pushing at the body that covered her, Carol stumbled to her feet, snatching her bag back over her shoulders and looked around, refusing to allow her sight to blur with tears. They'd gone, all of them and left her alone amongst the dead, still wandering and closing in on her. Taking a deep breath, filling her lungs with the fetid, stale air of the decayed monsters that were stealing every part of her life away from her, Carol searched around her for a way out. All she could see was the road off the farm and the bloodied weapon in her hand, her ears throbbing with the blood that rushed through every vessel in her body, her innate instinct screaming at her to run.

As she made a connection with the cloudy eyes of another walker and it changed its path to rush at her, Carol buried her hatchet once again in another head, sobbing with the effort to keep herself alive, and she ran.

T-Dog saw Rick and Shane running toward the house and could see they weren't going to make it. Between them they took turns dragging Carl along with them, aiming their guns at any walker that got too close and making the bullets count. Unfortunately, thought T-dog in panic, there were too many that were getting close enough to take them. Making a decision he knew he was going to regret later, he grabbed up his hatchet and slammed on the brakes. He yelled at Andrea to get in the truck and drive, watching just long enough to see her get out of the back and make it in, feeling satisfied at hearing the thud of the door as she slammed it shut and the rev of the motor as she tore out of there. Then he was off, shooting for all he was worth to cover the other men and taking his hatchet violently to the skulls of walkers too close to bother wasting a bullet on. Gratitude was all over their faces as they ran up to him, heading toward Hershel—the older man firing round after round and taking out as many walkers as he could—as T-Dog continued to slash and bash at their enemy, finding himself quickly in the middle of a blood bath.

He could hear a gun go off as he went down, one big mother fucker landing on him as he slammed a bullet into its brain, and by the time he managed to push himself out of the mess, the red Cherokee was peeling out of the place and he was alone.

Son of a bitch.

He was never one to panic, except for maybe that time in Atlanta when Merle had let loose on the roof and did his best to complete the herd coming down on them that Rick had already started. With a hopeless laugh he considered staying where he was, letting the bastards finally tear him to shreds and let his suffering end, but then sanity kicked in, his survival instinct went into overdrive and he ran as fast as his legs could carry him, ducking and diving as well as he could knowing he had limited bullets left and a million walkers to avoid. He took off into the woods, hoping he could come up with a plan or at least run far and fast enough that he'd manage to lose the majority of them. What ones that crossed his path, he relieved of their heads, only really getting nervous when each slash became a bit more heavy, had a little more drag and wasn't so neat when detaching heads from necks. The blade would be dulled completely, and then he'd be screwed, but it would have to be something he worried about later. Worry about when he had time to work out how to find something to sharpen it.

If it stopped cutting, he'd just have to start using it to club the shit out of these things that just never stopped. Four more came at him from up ahead, and he slammed through them and almost lost his balance. He managed to knock them enough apart that he could take out the first two without worry about being bitten, but the second two approached together again and he knew it was time for dirty fighting. He dived down and threw himself at their legs, knocking them out from under them and then smashing one head with his boot once he'd scrambled back to his feet, while burying his hatchet into the other. Then he was off again, his heart bursting with the activity, his breaths heaving throughout his body, blood screaming at the exertion, his ears still ringing with the screams of Lori and Carol and God, he just had to block it out. Run, run, run like he'd never run before—even as exhaustion set in, the sky began to lighten, and his limbs refused to listen to his brain telling them he still had enough energy in the tank to make it.

He collapsed, his vision blurring as his hands slammed into sticks and rocks on the forest floor. He fell forward onto a blanket of leaves that made him slide full length on his belly. He rolled over, seeing one more walker come at him but he'd lost his hatchet amongst the leaves. He retrieved his gun and it clicked annoyingly, no more explosions from the barrel and T-Dog started to say a prayer, but couldn't remember the words. He'd been saying prayers his whole life but when it truly mattered, the words had disappeared and he had nothing left to say. He stared at it as it came closer, its body reeking and face distorted with decay, and, as he was ready to close his eyes and say goodbye to all he knew, the walker's severed head landed in his lap then rolled off as his hips jerked away from it, and the rest of it collapsed at his feet, covering him in its blood.

Slowly, T-Dog looked up, almost terrified to see what kind of Angel God had sent him. Rewarded him with when he'd not even been able to shoot him a few words of thanks for letting him live for so long in a world that had been mad a long time before it went insane. What he saw of her amazed him—filled him with gratitude, filled him with fire, and scared the ever-living fuck out of him.

Daryl had been sitting on his bike, watching the flames of the barn start to wither away its intensity when he realised that no cars had driven past him in a panic to get off the farm. By no means was the road where he waited the only one off the place, but it was the main one and the closest one to the house and vehicles. He wasn't going to believe he was the only survivor, knowing that Shane and Rick at least had strong instincts to guide the others away—if they hadn't been caught within the herd and been taken down early in the fight—but that didn't mean that his gut didn't feel uncomfortable and that fear for Carol wasn't making his insides twist and grind within him painfully. He wanted to roll, get out of there as fast as he could before walkers noticed him sitting there like he had nothing better to do, but he couldn't tear himself away. He was waiting for something he wasn't sure of until the last minute stretched toward the final second and his hope died on the farm with the woman he'd started to realise he wanted, more than anything he'd ever wanted his whole life.

His heart constricted painfully in his chest and his breath seemed tight and uncooperative, a lump threatening in his throat to cut off all ties to the air in the outside world, and then he heard it. A scream that he'd known in a second belonged to Carol. She was still there, on the farm, no back up and running recklessly as fast as she could to where he'd sat without a walker near him. She was exhausted, he could tell, her feet stumbling hard on the uneven ground, her pace slowing with every stride, and walkers far too close to her for Daryl's comfort. He rode his bike up to her as fast as he dared, resisting the urge to run to her and drag her along faster. As she drew closer, he could see she was covered in blood, her bag slung over her shoulder and a walker about to reach her from behind. In a fluid motion he plucked his crossbow off the back of his bike, loaded it and aimed, striking her closest pursuer directly in its eye socket. He replaced it on the holder of the bike and then she was there, jumping on behind him as more than twenty walkers descended on them, growling with desperate hunger. Daryl revved the bike and they skidded off in a cloud of dust, leaving the dead to pursue at their own pace but confident they'd never catch up.

He felt every single tremor that rocked her body, pressed so close to him as she was. Every sob bounced off his back like Shane's useless bullet ricocheting off the CDC windows, her arms clasped tight enough around his waist to cleave him near in half, and while he sat through the pain that seeped into his heart at almost having lost her for good, as he felt deep in his bones that he'd just barely survived the worst night of his life, he recognised that it wouldn't be the first time they went through this shit. This horror, these near escapes and maybe one day the inevitable failure when one of them wasn't quick enough, wasn't alert enough and left the other behind, the fear of it all built up to a fever pitch that made him ache and clench his muscles and grip the handles of his bike to an excruciating, biting pain. It just barely blocked out the voice in his head that taunted him that he may have made it this time—he may have saved her for now—but what the hell would he do the next time those dead bastards came raining down on them? And was he so sure she was safe even now? She was covered in blood, was any of it hers? Was she bitten and did she even know it if she was?

Dread filtered through the fog and hit him square in the eyes. He swerved his bike around straggler walkers, his head over-thinking and building up the horror until his body was vibrating and anxiety nearly felled him from his ride. He had to know—had to see for himself that she was okay, that she'd made it off that farm without any bite marks or scratches and she was going to be just fine.

Daryl rode on until the night started to lose its deepest inkiness, patches of fog lifting and clearing enough for him to finally see a lack of walkers. Enough for him to feel that little buzz beneath the skin that told him they were, for now at least, safe. He pulled over to the side of the road next to an abandoned silver car, the trees far enough away on either side to give them warning should anything stumble out wanting to take a bite out of them. A quick glance as the bike rolled past showed the car to be empty, though there was a suitcase tied to the roof rack and the backseat piled high with whatever items the owner had deemed essential for escaping the end of the world. He was hoping that there was at least a blanket in there or it was going to be a cold and lonely night.

The bike had barely pulled up and the engine turned off when Carol almost collapsed off the back, tears still flowing heavily and her sobs raw and weary.

"Oh God," she cried. "T-Dog…they left without him and he had to run into the woods." Her voice broke apart as she relived the nightmare of her friend running into almost certain death before even considering that she'd been left behind as well.

"What the hell about you? Why the fuck weren't you in one of the cars? I told you to go." He couldn't control the fury that tore through him, dragging her up off the road where she'd collapsed and started tearing at her clothes, pulling and ripping to check violently for bites he was desperate not to see. She was so covered in blood he couldn't process anything, his hands rubbing across her throat, pulling her shirt almost completely off so that it dangled from her wrists while his hands confirmed what his eyes were seeing. Her perfect skin was clear, her eyes staring at him in shock, but he still wasn't finished, frantically checking her back as he roughly spun her around and then hands sweeping across her legs and ass. When it finally filtered through to his brain that she was fine, that she was shaking from being almost naked in the cold of a newly dawning morning and at the mercy of his roughness, it was too late to slow his pulse. Too late to control the animalistic urge to take what was his before he lost the opportunity to ever make the claim.

His mouth crashed down hard on hers, his hands urgently wrenching at the zipper of her pants until it slid down and he could push the rest of her clothes from her body while preparing himself and before he could register her cry of surprise, he'd slid into her core and slammed her back onto the hood of the car. He dived for her throat—mercifully clear of walker gore—nibbling greedily as he thrust irregularly into her, no discernible rhythm except to his own frantic, ragged breaths. His hands wrestled away her bra and he squeezed her breasts, his need too far from the side of gentle but not quite to the point of inflicting bruises. He grunted when he felt her legs surrounding him, her knees squeezing into his flanks and he pumped harder, her liquid heat scorching him and goading him into spurting inside her a long time before he was ready and he almost wept that it was over before he'd really begun. Over before he could turn it from his possessive stamp in attack to the more sensual act of love he'd known she'd expected. It didn't seem to matter as she grabbed at his head, lifting him so she could claim his lips in a tender surrender of her heart. He tasted salt and knew her tears hadn't stopped. He felt like an asshole, taking her on the side of the road on an abandoned car where they could be surrounded in seconds by walkers coming out of the woods. He knew he was one when he lifted himself from her, his fully clothed body against her naked one and his limp dick falling out of her, his spendings running out to coat the inside of her thighs as he thrust himself back into his pants as if it didn't matter that he'd practically taken her by force.

"Fuck." Daryl stumbled backwards, his head lowered so that he could see nothing but the road beneath his boots, his hands shaking wildly as he ran his fingers through his hair, grabbing fistfuls to yank hard as if that might be enough to instil some sense back into him. He wanted to scream at his own weakness and stupidity, shout at Carol for not being in the fucking car and safe like he'd told her to be so that if they got to this point—when they ever got to this point—he might have been able to do it right instead of creating a scene to beat all previous fuck ups in his life. He paced away from her, his body exhausted and defeated, then he strode back, determined to apologise or turn the clock back or something to stop the guilt from eating away at him. She was dressed, helping herself into the car to delve into the backseat, pulling out a purple blanket and various other things she was able to slip into her bag before taking charge and inspecting the suitcase on the roof.

He could hear her euphoric laugh when she found clean clothes, then watched powerless as she tore her own filthy clothes once again from her body and claimed some replacements from the beaten suitcase and a jacket that was too light for the change in weather. Wordlessly he decided to help, going through some poor fuck's belongings and finding other items that would come in handy, toiletries and surprisingly some pants in his size, and the small hand gun and box of bullets tucked into the little pocket was a find that almost made him cheer.

Except looking sideways at Carol and her determination to ignore what had happened in the last ten minutes robbed him of the ability to make sound. When she was finished redressing and throwing her bloodied clothing inside the car, she lugged her bag back to his bike and she stood there, staring ahead aimlessly—anything other than looking back at him.

"We should try the Interstate. I think that's where everyone might have gone to meet up again."

If that's how she wanted it to be, then that was fine with him. Wasn't like he knew how to discuss what had just happened, what the words were to make it right between them again.

He was an expert on being broken—he just didn't have a clue how to mend.