This is IT! The final chapter... (eeeeps!)

I'm beyond grateful for those of you who stuck with this the whole way through, and I can't thank you enough for even giving it a chance in the first place.

And to Steph and Larissa, who have been available for all my last-minute panics, talking me through plot points and helping me with basically everything, every single step of the way – you guys deserve all the ice cream and cupcakes and cookies in the world. I would squeeze you to bits if I could. THANK YOU. I really and truly couldn't have done this without either of you. MUAH! oxoxoxox

Suddenly I turned around and she was standing there

With silver bracelets on her wrist and flowers in her hair.

She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns.

"Come in," she said. "I'll give you shelter from the storm."

- Shelter from the Storm (Bob Dylan)

It wasn't always easy. Not one single part of it had every truly been easy.

Each drive to the prison was a reminder that one day they'd have to face this. One day Clementine would ask where they were going and why her daddy was in there. They'd have to explain it to her and hope that the people she met in her life didn't judge her for who she was, and the life she'd been born into.

Each temper tantrum had Carol wondering if she was doing everything wrong – if she was any better of a mother to this little girl than the stranger she would have ended up with in the alternative – and had Daryl battling hard and often with his lack of patience.

Every illness felt a little bit like a tiny failure. Every sleepless night felt like they were in over their heads.

Every tear Carol had shed over this child, and all the ways she could be messing it all up, had Daryl's insides twisted up in knots.

Why is she crying? I can't get her to stop. I don't know what to do. Is this normal? Are we doing it wrong?

But they loved her so fiercely. And they reminded one another every day that they were in this together. A team. And they would find their way.

Merle was released from prison shortly before Clementine's fourth birthday. For that entire summer he couldn't contain his pride as they all looked ahead to her very first day of school. And Clementine was just as excited, looking forward to being a "real big girl" who would have her very own cubby and play in a big playground.

It was all so normal. A childhood Daryl could never relate to, and one that was even more foreign to Merle. But Carol was there, for them and for Clementine. She helped the three of them navigate through it, just as she always had.

Clementine Louise Dixon had grown to be a spitting image of her father. Her blonde hair was as thick and curly as Merle's had been when he was a boy. She had clear blue eyes and Daryl's nose. She was more mature than any of them could wrap their heads around, often rolling her eyes at her father's profanity in the way she'd seen her aunt do so many times.

Daddy, that's not a nice word, she would chastise, looking to Carol with an exasperated shake of her head.

The little girl was clever, and Carol often teased that she was more mature than Merle ever was, even at her young age. And Merle had never even argued because it was true. Clementine was something else entirely; so much smarter than Merle had ever expected from any child of his.

She was kind. She was always willing to share her snacks and toys with whoever was around for her to share with. She was funny, often pulling a silly face while she rode in her car seat, which Daryl would only ever notice when he just happened to be shoulder-checking before changing lanes. He would break out into laughter each time at the unexpected image, earning Clementine's own hearty giggles to accompany it. She loved making people laugh.

She was generous, always drawing pictures for each of her parents and presenting them with pride. She was polite, always remembering her pleases and thank yous. And she was grateful for all that she had, though her very own parents knew there were other children with parents who were able to give them so much more.

And so when the time came for Clementine to go off to kindergarten and begin the journey that would turn her into an even better version of herself, it was nothing short of monumental.

Merle Dixon's daughter was beginning her education in the carefully chosen outfit she'd picked out with her aunt Carol the night before.

The three adults stood crowded around their little girl in her new classroom, bright eyed and enthusiastic on her very first day of school.

Before long it was time for them to leave her for the start of the school day. Clementine stood rigidly at Carol's side, her hair pulled back from her face as her curls cascaded beautifully down her back, where her backpack sat. It was filled with all of the brand new school supplies she'd need for the year. Carol knelt down in front of her niece and put a gentle hand on her shoulder.

"Alright, baby. It's time. You all set, Clem?"

The little girl nodded enthusiastically back at her aunt, though the smile she had plastered onto her face for that entire morning had now changed itself slightly. Her eyes had become a little too unblinking, her brow a little too creased.

"I'll be right down the hall. All day long, remember?" Carol reassured her gently, moving her hand now to the girl's cheek and running her thumb along her niece's smooth skin.

Clementine nodded once again with her nervous smile still looking desperately to her aunt as tears filled her eyes.

"Hey now," Merle chimed in as he knelt down next to his daughter, and she turned towards him. If there was one thing that could be said about Merle Dixon, it was that his daughter's tears always had him on high alert. "You're gonna be alright, sugarbug. Remember?"

She nodded back at her daddy just as she'd done with Carol, putting on a brave face as she swiftly wiped a tear from her eye.

"Atta girl," Merle bellowed as he ruffled his hand over the top of her head, proud to see his girl grabbing her fear by the balls.

"Daddy," she whined, smoothing a hand down over her hair he'd messed up.

The two of them had sat on the porch swing just a week ago and discussed this day. Daryl had been mowing the lawn while Merle sat with Clementine tucked into his side, swinging gently as she spoke of her anxiety about the whole thing.

And Merle had done what any father would have done. He'd told her that everyone gets nervous when they're trying something new. He'd told her that she was the best little girl around and that she would make friends easily, that her teachers would love her. And he'd told her that if any of the kids bothered her to let him know, and he would find that kid's father and knock his fuckin' teeth in.

Daddy, she'd reprimanded. That's probably not a very good idea.

Daryl took his turn sending his girl off as he picked her up for a quick hug and a loud smacking kiss to her cheek. She squeezed him back tightly as her legs dangled below her, and sooner than she would have liked Daryl set her down again. She garnered strength from each of her parents as she moved on next to Carol, who held onto her and rocked her gently, whispering a quick I love you into her ear.

Carol moved to stand next to Daryl as Clementine turned back to her daddy, whose arms swallowed her up into the tightest embrace. Her small arms wrapped around his neck as her eyes squeezed firmly shut, and Merle just held her there, his own eyes fluttering closed for a moment as he buried his nose into her hair and planted a kiss to the side of her head. When she began to pull away he took the back of her head and drew her in once more with a kiss to the forehead and stood, taking her hand and walking her over to her new teacher.

The three of them took their leave then, but paused in the doorway to give her one final wave. Carol was relieved to see the girl roll her eyes in embarrassment, and their smiles stayed with them as Carol walked the two men to the school's front door before making her way to start her own work day in the office.

Clementine would be alright, she told herself. The eye-roll told her so. But if she wasn't, Carol took comfort in the fact that she'd be just down the hall.

And as she watched them walk down the path to the parking lot after a quick kiss to Merle's cheek and a slightly longer one to Daryl's mouth, she felt herself smiling at the sight.

Daryl reached out a hand and placed it firmly to the base of Merle's neck, the pride he felt clearly visible in the gesture and the way he seemed to glance in his brother's direction. But it was Merle's retreating form that Carol couldn't tear her eyes from.

She'd never seen him stand quite so tall in all the years she'd known him.

The rain was coming down in sheets, but Clementine stayed faithfully by the front window, waiting diligently for her father to arrive.

Carol had cooked Clementine's favourite meal that evening – hot dogs and macaroni and cheese – in celebration of the first day of school, though the girl had insisted that they wait for her daddy before sitting down to eat. He'd already been running late from the rehab meeting he was coming from, and the horrible weather likely wasn't helping matters.

Unless it would be one of those times, again, when there was another reason entirely.

So Carol had worried herself with the driving conditions as she worked away in the kitchen to distract her from what she may have to say to her little girl if her daddy decided he wouldn't be showing up at all.

"He's here!" Clementine called excitedly when she saw his truck pull up and ran towards the door. Carol's heart jumped with relief as she grabbed a dishrag and dried her hands, following swiftly behind her niece and pulling open the front door just as Merle was exiting his truck.

"Come on, daddy," Clementine called over the downpour with a wide smile on her face and a fluttering giggle, and Carol couldn't help but laugh along with her. She doubted Merle could even hear her over the hammering rain, but at this point Carol's only thought was of relief that he'd made it.

Merle jogged towards them, eager to get inside as he grinned at his girl, and enveloped her in a bear hug as he stepped inside. She squealed at the cold of his wet clothes soaking her own as Carol shut the door behind him, moving then to the linen closet for a clean, dry towel.

She'd exchanged a look with Daryl as she passed by him pouring tea for them all at the kitchen counter, clearly feeling the same sickening relief as she was, while Clementine excitedly told her daddy the tale of the table she got to sit at, the biggest playground she'd ever seen, and the girl who'd asked her to play dress-up.

The rain had slowed to a steady shower that evening, and Daryl and Carol sat out on the porch swing, rocking gently back and forth. Clementine had gone to bed early, exhausted from her big day, and Merle had gone home not long after he'd kissed her goodnight.

Today had been a good day, Carol thought as they sat together in comfortable silence. Clementine had done well on her first day, and Merle had been there for every part of it. Daryl had been relatively quiet all day – more so than his usual – not talking much through dinner and casting his eyes towards Merle with a look that she couldn't read.

Things had been good since Merle had been back. He spent every day at their house with his girl. He was there for bath time – even though he simply sat by on the toilet while Carol carried out the actual bathing. He was there for dinner most nights, and he was there to give his girl a kiss at bedtime.

There were times when he'd forget to mind his manners, or convey his discontent with some of the ways they were raising his kid. And in those times it was Daryl who would jump in quickly to remind him of the arrangement they'd made. Merle would back off then, if only just a little reluctantly, and they would carry on as they were.

And so Carol had been optimistic.

It wasn't always this easy, though. It especially wasn't always easy on Carol.

She hadn't realized how high her expectations had been of Merle until he'd let her down as time went on, as he inevitably would.

There would be days in his first year out of prison when he'd miss their visits, and the three of them would sit at the dinner table with one empty place, avoiding the issue entirely. Because Daryl and Carol had both known that those would be the days when he relapsed. By his ninth month out, it had happened twice – Merle disappearing from their lives for weeks on end. And then he would get back to his meetings and pick himself up once more. He persevered.

Carol's heart broke each time they'd wait on him and he didn't show. It broke for Clementineand for Merle. For Daryl as well as herself. All for different reasons, each break leaving its own jagged scar in her chest.

But those were oddly the moments when she'd felt most proud of him. It was a reaction that she'd never expected from herself, but it had helped her keep her head about it. Because those would be the times Carol realized he'd done the one fundamental thing that any father should do for their children – he made sure Clem was taken care of. He made sure she had parents who loved her and were there for her, for all the times he wasn't.

And for that, Carol felt proud.

"You okay?" Her voice was soft, and she felt the rumble of Daryl's chest under her cheek as he grunted something of a response.

But when he offered no more than that, she lifted her head, bringing her face close to his as she sought it out, trying to figure out if he was being sincere. She offered him a quick peck on the curve of his jaw, and he smirked down at her.

"I'm good," he said, a smile gently curving his lips upward. He dipped his head only slightly and captured her lips in a lingering kiss.

And he really was good. It had surprised him how good he felt, and he supposed he'd been trying to fight it, especially today. He hadn't realized it until he'd been sitting at the dinner table with his family – his brother, his wife, his daughter – but a part of him had seemed to expect Merle to have ditched today. And with that realization came the very true fact that he'd almost expected Merle to ditch every day.

But he hadn't. He'd been there today, as he had most every day of Clementine's life.

Merle had spent his full attention on his daughter on the Saturdays when they'd bring her to the prison to visit with her daddy. He spent nearly every minute of their time holding her, feeding her or playing with her. Though he'd never once changed a dirty diaper, he had always tried soothing the baby when she'd begin to fuss.

There were times when he'd feel the sting though, when it was Daryl she sought out for comfort. When it was Daryl's arms and voice and presence that would be the only thing in the world to soothe what ailed her.

Carol had seen the look on Merle's face the time Clementine had banged her forehead as she rounded the table during one of their visits and had immediately run past him to where Daryl sat. She'd seen the way his jaw clenched as Daryl scooped the little girl into his arms and held her tight as she cried into his neck, her tiny arms wrapped around him like a vice. And she saw the way Merle fidgeted in his seat when Daryl ran his hand soothingly over the toddler's back, muttering softly and sweetly in her ear as her quaking breath began to slow.

This was Merle's own personal brand of punishment.

Then there were the times they'd make their trip to the penitentiary, only to go through all the necessary procedures in order to be let into the visiting room, and Merle simply wouldn't be there. Up to five weekends in a row sometimes, but still they would go. Every single Saturday.

Daryl had never thought he'd live to see the day when Merle Dixon put another living soul ahead of himself. But Clementine had changed him entirely.

She'd given him purpose – a reason to be better. Family meant the whole world to Merle, and a child of his very own had taken the notion to a brand new level. Daryl didn't doubt for a second that Merle wouldn't lay down and die for their girl.

Merle wasn't fixed, not by a long shot. And Daryl wasn't sure he'd ever trust him enough to leave Merle alone with his daughter, but Daryl had given him a chance to be in her life and to make something good out of the hand he'd been dealt, and Merle had made more out of it than Daryl had ever expected him to.

Because Merle would fall back into his old habits, time and time again. And it seemed that maybe it would always be that way. But nowadays it was only a matter of time before he'd pick himself up and start trying all over again. For her.

Clementine had been the best thing to ever happen to him.

It was what Carol had been to Daryl. She'd brought him peace, and happiness, and Clementine. Carol had brought him family.

Daryl was nothing like the man he once was - before. His transformation may have started long before he met her, but by opening himself up to even just the simple idea of her, Carol had given him the push he needed to become his own man, and she didn't even know it.

Without Carol, he knew he would have fallen back into his old ways when Merle came knocking on his door. He knew that Merle would have undone everything he'd worked for. But Carol had proven to him that he was worth something, and now he was a man with a family.

He knew he took care of them. He knew he was good for them.

He pulled Carol in tighter into his side, pushing the swing gently once more with his foot. She brought a hand up to scratch lightly at the scruff of his jaw as she nestled into his neck, and then he brought a hand up and stilled it, pulling it down to hold it against his chest.

"I'm good," he muttered once more.

And he knew for certain now that he was.

He was a free man.

This story's Questionable Google Searches have been brought to you by: "meth high symptoms", "non-fatal stab wounds that require surgery", "crime scene clean-up", "prison marriages", "prison visitation procedures", "prison visitor dress codes", "prisoner leave pass for birth of a child", and "trailer home floor plans".

I also have some "outtakes" that I'd written for this story but they never made the final cut for one reason or another - I may post these at some point : )

RIP Coffee Table, you've lived a fuller life than most.