A/N:Just when you thought I was done... Hell, just when I thought I was done! No one is more surprised than I am that this was written. I really thought I'd left TLB behind. This is entirely vickih's fault. She left me a prompt on 'Tea & Firelight' that turned into this. So... yeah. I SWEAR I'm done after this! Really. I am.
Oh yeah... I feel as though I earned the M rating for this story for all the blood, gore and violence I threw into it. Now I'm earning it for adult activities. My first time writing such. Enjoy!
Disclaimer: Y'all still think I own anything? Seriously? I don't own squat. I just show up and play with the toys when I think no one is looking...
Epilogue: In the Cold Mid-Winter
(7 months later)
Snow crunched under Daryl's feet with every step he took, despite his best efforts to be quiet. He hadn't adjusted to hunting here, the frigid West Virginian winter showering them with more snow than he'd ever seen before. He'd been off his game a bit since they'd first crossed the border out of Georgia, hunting in woods that weren't his. He hated to admit it, but he missed Georgia, from its sweltering heat and steamy rainfall to the smell of yellow jasmine and the crunch of hickory nuts under his feet as he hunted. Daryl allowed that West Virginia wasn't so bad, though. 'Cept for all the fuckin' snow.
A glance upward told him he was starting to lose daylight and he quickened his pace, following the markers he'd discreetly placed to help guide him around the unfamiliar terrain back to the snare traps he'd set the day before. Daryl itched, now that this chore was finished, to get back to the others. He'd been gone longer than he'd planned, but working to cover his tracks as best he could in the deep snow and keeping a sharp eye for anything that seemed out of place had slowed his progress considerably. He already had a fat snowshoe hare slung over his shoulder, but pickings were slim this time of year and the other two traps he'd set had come up empty today.
He took at the top of a hill and leaned against the trunk of a weathered pine tree, sucking in a deep breath. Despite the bitter chill, the air was crisp and Daryl relished the clean scent filling his nose. The air of the old administration building that was serving as their camp was damp, stale and slightly sour, enough to give Daryl a perpetual headache. He took a moment to rest and stretch his arms, the cold seeping into his bones making him stiff and sore. He was almost back to the abandoned mining town they were currently camping in; he could already spot the crumbling iron tower of the tipple and knew that in it's long shadow was the old administration building that hid his family. The town had signs of being abandoned long before the outbreak hit, just a remnant of American history lying forgotten in the mountain. It was the safest place they'd found in months and not a moment too soon, Carol having deemed Maggie unfit for further travel until after the birth of the baby. Daryl sighed, hitching the rabbit's carcass higher on his shoulder as he started his trek down into the valley.
It didn't take him long to reach the valley floor. He moved faster now, sticking to the shadows between the dilapidated houses that lined the town's only road as he made his way towards the coal mine. He stopped at the last house, leaving the open space of a hundred yards or between him and the mine administration offices. He whistled out one of his old hunting calls; seconds later, it echoed back to him at a slighter higher pitch, the signal indicating it was safe for him to sprint across the open space and through the door being held open for him.
"Welcome back," Michonne said quietly. "Anything good out there?"
"Jus' this." Daryl passed over the hare, shrugging off the heavy, flannel lined coat he'd picked up somewhere in Kentucky when the weather had started to turn and letting it drape over the back of a nearby chair.
"It'll do for tonight," Michonne replied. She turned to make her way towards the space they'd turned into her kitchen. Daryl grimaced behind her back; it was Michonne's turn to cook, which meant he needed to mentally prepare his stomach for charred rabbit stew.
Daryl caught the barest drift of Michonne's mutterings, her hatred of winter having been made well known to the group. He tried to hide his smirk as he made his way down the hall. A few doors were open; he caught a glimpse of Glenn and Maggie in one, stretched out on top of their sleeping bags, Glenn rubbings his hand across Maggie's swollen belly. Any day now and that belly would produce a tiny baby; a girl, according to Maggie's adamant declarations over the past seven months. Daryl had refrained from joining the group's betting pool on the sex of the baby, not wishing to incur the wrath of the temperamental pregnant woman by making the wrong guess. Maggie's pregnancy had been a long and emotional road for all of them. He wondered how much of it was the hormones Carol and Michonne kept reminding him of and how much of it was Maggie herself, still working through her grief like the rest of them.
They were all haunted by the spectres of those they'd lost. Nightmares were a common thing, particularly from Glenn, Carl and Carol, and they'd all become familiar with each other's cries in the night, taking it in turn to comfort each other as best they could. Daryl had lost count of the hours he'd spent with his arms wrapped around Carol, whispering anything he could think of in his efforts to ease the helpless trembling of her body as she buried her face in his chest and tried to shake off her dreams. It was rare for Carol to sleep through the night now. Daryl woke often in the night, reaching out for her to find her awake, her mind in places he couldn't always follow her to. Some days Daryl found himself hovering around her more than usual, loathe to leave her for even a second for reasons he couldn't quite place. He knew he drove her crazy on those days; it had been a long time since she'd needed him to defend her. He'd made well sure of that.
He knew she loved him because, even on those days, she never made him leave.
The door that housed the Grimes family was shut. He could make out the sounds of Rick playing with his daughter. He smiled at hearing Judith's high pitched baby ramblings. She'd started crawling several weeks ago, adding a list of extra concerns to keep in mind whenever they stopped and searched for potential places to rest. She still hadn't said her first word but Daryl had secretly spent many long afternoons, whenever it was his turn to watch her, trying to coax her into saying his name. He had a feeling Carol was onto him, but hotly denied it whenever she tried to bring it up. He didn't hear Carl, which wasn't surprising. He had a feeling he knew where Carl was.
Daryl stopped outside the engineer's office that he and Carol had claimed for their own, leaning against the door frame and folding his arms across his chest as he watched the scene inside. Just as he'd suspected, Carol wasn't alone in their room. Carl was sitting across from her, the two of them lost in quiet conversation. It was a common sight nowadays. Carl sought out Carol's company more than anyone else, much to Rick's chagrin.
Daryl hardly noticed Carl, though. It was she who captured his attention, every muscle in his body relaxing as he drank in the sight of her. Daryl took his time, letting his eyes roam over every inch of her: the slight upturn of her nose, the graceful slope of her neck, the dark silver curls that tumbled around her ears and brushed the tops of her shoulders. His body burned, the bracing cold long forgotten in the wake of his urge to touch her, hold her, bury himself in her. His Carol.
Carl's greeting shook Daryl from his thoughts. Carl was smirking, giving a side glance to the blush gracing Carol's cheeks. Daryl realized he'd been caught staring and felt his own cheeks burn. Whoops.
"Hey, kid," Daryl replied. He ignored the roll of Carl's eyes at being called 'kid', knowing Carl wasn't actually offended by it. "I miss anythin' fun today?"
"Dad swears Judith is gonna start walking any day now," Carl said. "She managed to pull herself onto her feet by holding onto a chair today. I thought he was going to faint."
"Lord help us when that lil' girl starts walkin'," Daryl grinned. "We'll never catch 'er."
"Nope," Carl said as he pushed himself to his knees. Daryl quickly crossed the room and gently grasped Carl's remaining arm, helping him to his feet. Carl had physically recovered well but still struggled with balance occasionally, especially when he was tired. Daryl knew the boy was exhausted today; they all were. The last week had been rough on all of them as they pushed for shelter.
"I'm gonna go sleep for a while. I have second watch tonight," Carl said. "Wake me up for dinner?"
"Of course, sweetie," Carol replied softly. She was still seated; Daryl could tell she was barely even listening to them as her long fingers fiddled with the tattered hair tie she wore on her left wrist. Carl quickly leaned down and dropped a kiss on the top of Carol's head, earning a small smile in return.
"Thanks, Care," he said as he moved towards the door. Daryl smirked at the nickname and bumped the boy's good shoulder with his own as Carl stepped around him to leave the room. Glenn and Carl had both taken to calling Carol 'Care', saying it suited her perfectly since she took care of everyone. Daryl had to agree even though he never said it himself. Everyone had picked up instinctively that the name was a privilege given only to Carl and Glenn. The others just called her by her name. He didn't mind. He had his own name for her.
"Hi, baby," he whispered as he dropped to his knees beside her. It earned him a smile, a real smile, as Carol leaned in to grace him with a gentle kiss that made his toes curl.
"Hi," she murmured. "How was hunting?"
"Found us a rabbit for dinner," Daryl replied. He could barely think, full of the scent and feel of her under his lips as he nibbled a wandering trail down the column of her neck. "'Chonne's got it."
"Oh god, not again," Carol laughed. It tapered off into a long moan as Daryl lapped at the hollow of her throat, curling his arms around her as she leaned back to give him more room. "Daryl."
They hadn't had much of a chance to be alone together, the constant confined quarters they'd shared on the road removing the last vestiges of any privacy for all of them. They caught moments together when they could, but the continual press for survival in their small group ensured that, on most of the occasions they tried, Daryl barely got to second base before someone was clamoring for their attention with another task that needed doing. He could count on one hand the number of times in seven months they'd managed to sneak away long enough for their random fumblings to be something more. The last time had been almost three months ago, time and circumstances of the road not on their side.
Time still wasn't on their side; the sound of someone calling Carol's name broke through Daryl's consciousness and he pulled away from her with an unhappy groan.
"One day ain't so much to ask," he grumbled.
"Hush," Carol chided him gently. "We all have things to do."
"You do more than the rest of us," Daryl replied. "Between doctorin', takin' care of Jude, cookin'-"
"Stop," she said. "Not today, okay?"
Daryl sighed, nuzzling his nose along the outline of her collarbone.
"Where ya at today?" he asked softly.
"I just..." She trailed off and looked away from him, letting her arms drop from his shoulders back into her lap. Daryl glanced down to see her twisting the hair tie on her wrist. Sophia's hair tie, the only physical remnant left of the girl. He knew where her thoughts were today.
"The closer the baby gets to coming, the more I..." Carol started, then stopped again. "I know I shouldn't think like that."
"She's proud of you," Daryl said firmly. "I know it." His tone left no room for argument and she knew it. He could tell the moment she surrendered to him, leaning in to gift him with another lingering kiss.
"OK," she said. She was back with him, Daryl could see it in her eyes when she finally raised them to his. The dark thoughts banished, Carol was in control and ready to take on the rest of their day with her usual grace and quiet strength. It was in these moments, when she pulled herself up and forward like this with barely a twitch to give hint to her inner struggles, that Daryl remembered how strong she truly was. It nearly bowled him over to see it; she was a goddess, his goddess, and not for the first time he wanted to fall to his knees and worship at her feet. Daryl leaned forward and caught her lips in his, his heart leaping into his throat when he felt her respond to him at the visible proof that she wanted him as much as he wanted her. I'm the luckiest bastard to ever breathe air.
The sound of Carol's name being called again echoed down the hall and she pulled away from him with a sigh.
"Sounds like I need to go rescue dinner," she smiled as she unwound herself from his grasp.
"Better go then, 'fore I make ya change your mind." Daryl pressed a quick kiss to her palm before waving her off. Carol laughed as she left the room, leaving him alone to stretch his tired body out on the cushion of the thick sleeping bag.
"First time in months we got a place with doors," he mumbled. Doors were good. The chance for privacy, so rare and precious these days, made him smile, his heart picking up a faster beat in his chest as he contemplated the possibilities. He knew exactly what he wanted to do with that privacy if given the chance. Daryl had plans.
"How the hell did you survive on the road for so long?" Carol asked as she turned the chunks of slightly charred rabbit in the pan.
"Hey," Michonne protested. "I can cook!"
"Without a microwave?"
The silence stretched out for a long moment. Carol bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing.
"Shut up," Michonne finally grumbled, not unkindly. Carol hid her smile behind her hand, trying not to offend her friend.
"Tell you what," she said. "Go check on Maggie for me and I'll finish your dinner shift tonight. Deal?"
"Done." Michonne breathed a sigh of relief. She bolted from the room, twitchy in her need to be doing something, anything, other than cooking. There was a thunk from the hall and Carol turned her head, wondering if the normally sure-footed warrior had managed to trip or run into something in her mad dash from their makeshift kitchen.
"Oh, don't mind me!" Glenn's voice trailed in from the hall. "I'm cool!"
Carol snorted with laughter, turning back to her cooking as Glenn came in. He sniffed the air and sighed heavily.
"Please tell me its not black again," he said.
"It's not. I got to it in time," Carol reassured him.
"Oh good." Glenn meandered over and gave an approving look at the cooking meat. "Stew?"
"Want a hand?"
Glenn was a good cooking companion, surprisingly comfortable in the kitchen. He'd rarely cooked before the prison; since they'd left Georgia, he'd taken over more responsibility and was part of the regular chef rotation. Carol was impressed with her young friend's hidden talent and regularly teased him about making her suffer as camp chef for so long.
They worked quickly and soon enough the meat was stewing in a pot of vegetables and broth taken from their meager stash of canned goods. There wasn't much else to do after that but wait, so Glenn and Carol settled down at the small desk they were using as a dining table and played with the deck of cards Glenn had produced from his back pocket.
"You have the worst poker face ever," Glenn said as he won the sixth hand in a row.
"We're playing two man poker," Carol huffed.
"That has nothing to do with your crappy poker face," Glenn replied cheerfully.
"Pipe down, chuckles."
"Oooooh, I'm so scared." Glenn stuck his tongue out at Carol and flicked one of his playing cards at her. It flew past her face, just skimming the rise of her brow.
"Did you just throw a card at my face? What are you, five?"
"Awwww, did the wittle cawd huwt you?"
""Don't make me hurt you."
"Bring it, lady!"
"That's cheating!" Glenn cried. "Come on, don't make me run away from a crazy, crossbow wielding redneck in the snow."
"That's what you get for throwing cards and sassing your superiors," Carol sniffed.
"You mean 'elders'."
"Nope. I had it right the first time."
They were both red in the face. Glenn slumped forward and buried his face in his arms on the tabletop, his body shaking with laughter. Carol leaned back in her chair, wiping tears of mirth off her face as she tried to catch her breath. Carol's face hurt from smiling, but she couldn't bring herself to stop until she saw the shadow of something else flit across Glenn's face as he calmed down.
"What?" she asked softly.
His eye twitched, once, before he nodded to himself.
"I'm so scared," Glenn whispered.
"Of which part?" Carol asked. She knew, they all did, that there was plenty to be scared of. She leaned forward and caught his hands in hers.
"Parenting, mostly," Glenn murmured. "This endless wandering is killing us. Maggie is barely stable and the bean is due any day now. It's so much on top of everything else and I don't know what is going to happen. What if I can't do this?"
Carol smiled sadly, brushing her thumbs over Glenn's fingers as she tried to work out how to respond. Glenn was the closest she'd ever had to a brother and she loved him fiercely. She hated seeing him like this, knowing that the normal tension of impending fatherhood coupled with their real survival issues were causing him genuine distress. She knew uncertainty, knew what it was to doubt what a person could be capable of. Hadn't that been their whole lives for years now? Death was the only certainty they had left, yet they still strived to hope for something better before it came for them.
"Do you remember being a kid?" she asked him.
"Yeah," Glenn said slowly.
"All the crazy stuff we do as kids... Climbing trees, chasing bugs, building rocket ships out of cardboard boxes, jumping off the garage roof to see if we could fly."
"Yeah." Glenn shrugged, smiling slightly.
"We were fearless as children," Carol continued. "When we fall, we cried a little, then just dusted ourselves and carried on."
"What does that have to do with the price of beans in Mexico?"
"I'm getting there," Carol laughed softly. "When we were kids, we couldn't predict the future. You didn't know that jumping off the garage roof was going to break your arm."
"I'm starting to regret telling you that story," Glenn muttered.
"But we learned along the way we could influence it." Carol continued, ignoring Glenn's comment. "If you wanted to see more of the world, you learned to climb the tree. If you wanted to go to the moon, you built a rocket ship. If you wanted to fly, you learned jumping off the garage roof is not the way to do that."
Glenn drummed his fingers on the table, his face grim. Carol waited, giving him a chance to take in what she was saying.
"How come you're never worried or upset?" Glenn suddenly asked.
"Sweetie," Carol said gently. "Have you never met me?! I worry all the time. I'm scared about how we're going to survive. We all are. That won't change, not today. Not tomorrow. The closer that baby comes, the more I worry and the more I can't stop thinking about things that just... hurt."
A flash of movement by the door caught her eye; she glanced up and could just make out the figure of Daryl hovering in the hallway. Eavesdropper. Wonder how much he's heard.
"How do you make it stop?" Glenn whispered.
"I don't," Carol said. "I just keep going anyway."
Glenn leaned forward and brought their joined hands to his face. Carol swallowed thickly. Oh, little brother.
"My point is, stop second guessing yourself," Carol said. "Maggie, the bean? That is something I know you can handle. You'll know it too, the second the bean shows up."
Glenn raised watery eyes to hers and smiled, nodding his head again. She knew they'd have this conversation again, and again; all of them would in some variation. She was willing to repeat herself for however many times she had to, for all of them. Her little family.
Daryl followed Carol into their room, shutting the door behind him with a soft snikt. Dinner had been long cleaned up and everyone settled into their respective rooms. Maggie and Carol had announced that the baby had dropped, whatever that meant, and had shown off Maggie's stomach after dinner. Daryl hadn't been able to see much difference, but had nodded along anyway.
It was dark outside, the night clear with the glow of a full moon cascading off the glittering snow outside. The light peeked in through the cracks in the window covers, giving them just enough light to make their way around the room without turning their lantern on and wasting precious oil.
"The baby's coming," Carol said unexpectedly. Daryl twitched, his eyes jumping to her as she faced him in the dark room. He could just barely make her out in the dim glow from the light outside.
"That's what it means, having the baby drop," Carol said. "It's moving into position for delivery. We've got another day, maybe two."
"Oh," he said. "Oh." Life was about to get a little more hectic for their family, very quickly. "So enjoy the quiet while it lasts."
"Pretty much," Carol said with a laugh as she kicked off her boots.
"Better do a long hunt then," he muttered. "Might take 'Chonne with me. Maybe Carl, brush him up on tracking while we're out. Been a bit since he got a lesson."
"That'd be good," Carol said as she knelt down and pulled the top of the sleeping bag back.
"Wait," Daryl said softly.
Carol let the fabric fall from her hand, rising to her feet again. His eyes were adjusting to the dim light; he could see the quizzical expression crossing her features.
"What is it?" she asked softly.
Daryl gulped, his courage suddenly fleeing him despite his plans. In the three times they'd been together, they'd never been fully naked with each other, time and circumstance forcing their encounters to be quicker than either of them had wanted.
The first time, his first time, had been horribly fast, with him barely inside of her before the sensation of her wet warmth had become too much for him, leaving him slumped against her as he tried to remember how to breathe. He'd been so humiliated, but one look at her smile had left him breathless all over again. She'd kissed him on the nose and simply told him he was perfect. The next time, weeks later, had been almost as quick for him. His whole body had flamed red with embarrassment until she'd guided his fingers and showed him what to do. The following nights had had him twisting and turning in his sleep, the delicious memory of her moans taunting him and leaving his skin burning with wanting. The third time, almost three months ago, had gone much better; Daryl using his fingers and his tongue on her first until Carol had literally pounced on him, both of them coming so hard their cries had echoed through the trees back to the rest of the camp. To their credit, no one had said a word to it about either of them but the knowing looks and barely hidden grins had left Carol and Daryl both blushing and unable to look anyone in the eyes for days on end. There hadn't been the chance since to be alone and they'd been left to satisfy themselves with a simple kiss and a brief embrace before bed each night.
Now, in the face of the opportunity to be truly alone, with an actual door between them and everyone else, Daryl found himself as nervous as he was that first night again. His hands shook and he curled his arms across his chest, the nervousness of having all his worldly armor stripped away, of being so exposed even before Carol, suddenly too huge to control.
"Oh," Carol said softly, understanding flitting across her face. She crossed the room to him, her smile sweet and genuine, and laid a cool palm across his cheek. "Are you sure?"
It was ridiculous how well she knew him, knew he hated the thought of anyone seeing his scars. He could shake his head, tell her no, and she'd leave it without a second thought. He could nod his head, but tell her to leave his shirt on and she would. For him. Because that was Carol's way, always giving him room to be himself with her, without explanation or apology.
The thought was in and out of his head in less a second, taking his fear with his. He let his hands reach out and grasp her hips, pulling her closer to him as he nodded. No going back.
"Are you sure?" he asked her.
Slowly, carefully, Carol reached out and flicked open the buttons on his shirt, one by one, until it draped open. He let his hands leave her so she could slip the fabric off his shoulders, down his arms and toss it in the corner.
"As sure as I've been about anything in my whole life," Carol said.
Daryl sucked in a deep breath, drowning in the tide of emotion he could feel sweeping over both of them. He cradled her face in his hands and leaned down. The kiss was slow and almost drowsy; a kiss that said they had all the time in the world.
Time became elastic, stretching out like ripples on a pond with nothing at the center but the two of them. Hands fumbled with buttons and cloth, peeling layer upon layer of covering away until there was nothing between them. Daryl could feel the bumps and ridges of her scars under his hands; smaller than his own, but no less painful a reminder of the life she'd lived before, and knew she felt the same as her hands ghosted over his back.
She grasped his shoulders as he fell back against the bed, his hands splayed around her rib cage so he could feel her heart beating like a hammer inside her; proof that despite everything that had happened, she was alive, she was here with him. The thought filled him so quickly he nearly broke down with stupid joy. Carol was the thing he'd been missing his whole life; funny how it took the end of the world for him to find her.
Feeling her heart shifted perfectly logically to palming her breasts. They were small and soft, except when her nipples pressed into his hands and she gasped through their kiss, pushing her hips down onto his thigh as he stroked them. Her fingertips grazed over his chest in return and when she touched him over the same spot his body went up to meet hers, arcing from his pelvis as he rained kisses on to her skin. It was cold in their dark corner of the world, but Carol was warm over him, pulling him into her with wandering hands as she covered every inch of skin with her eager mouth. Time ticked by in its fashion, marked only by the symphony of gasps, moans and gentle sighs that filled the air around them.
The light filtering in through the slats of the window coverings had shifted until only a few beams remained high on the wall to show the fading of the winter moon when Carol finally took him inside of her, one hand on his hip and the other clenched in one of his, linking their fingers together tight enough that Daryl was certain she'd have marks to show for it in the morning. His shoulders pushed back as his hips jerked upwards, letting her rise with him then fall back, their rhythm unsteady but no less than perfect as far as he was concerned. He watched her moan and bit her lip, the faint edges of a smile flirting around the corners of her mouth as she rode him until he couldn't take it anymore, pushing himself up on one arm to kiss her fiercely before falling back with a groan.
The rhythm smoothed out as they found one another, Carol letting the tiniest of whimpers escape her with each downward rock of her hips. Daryl could barely breathe, blood pounding in his ears mingling with everything that was Carol and making his head spin until he couldn't take anymore. He grasped at her and rolled them so she was pinned beneath him, the resulting purr of his name stuttering from her lips enough to make his heart stop. All he could see was the blue of her eyes, locked onto his and unwavering as they moved, heads turned so they were forehead to forehead, his mouth a fraction of an inch from hers. She was all he could feel, the silky motion of hair, lips, skin and sex that filled him over and over again and he knew he would never get enough of her. He knew he was babbling, useless words that sound like utter nonsense which Carol swallowed in kisses as he kept moving into her until finally her back arched into him, his name tumbling from her lips as she tightened and coiled around him. Spots danced in his vision as everything inside him tipped over, following her down into sweet oblivion.
Carol woke nestled into the curve of Daryl's body, his arms heavy and warm around her and their legs tangled together inside the flannel sleeping bag. She shifted, trying to ease the ache between her legs and felt the answering twitch of his hardness against her hip.
"'S too early," Daryl mumbled as he nuzzled his face deeper into the small pillow they shared.
"I know," she replied softly. The air was bitterly cold against her skin as she reached up to crack open their makeshift window covering, craning her head to peer out at the morning sky. Dark thunderheads swirled past the tops of the trees over their head, the few bits of sunlight daring to peek through slowly fading as more clouds moved in. Carol sighed and clicked the cover back into place. Carol settled back against him, letting the heat from his body warm her back up. Their noses brushed together as she leaned back enough to see his face. She let her eyes roam over every inch of him, taking in every scar, every line, dip and freckle before settling onto the clear, warm blue of his eyes. Home.
"Always does," Daryl said. "We'll be all right, baby."
Carol smiled. "I know."
A/N 2: To everyone who has read & reviewed this story of mine, thank you from the bottom of my cold little heart. This would never have become what it did without you. Have a safe & happy New Year! I'll see you all in 2014.