The echo of the gunshot still rings in his ears. It's followed by the sound of something heavy and lifeless hitting the cold ground. The sight of red splashing against that thick tree is there printed on the back of his eyelids, and try as he might, Daryl can't sleep.
He looks to his right. Andrea is finally in slumber, her eye horribly swollen; purple, yellow, green, and blue painting her delicate skin. The bandage on her cheek is pink from the little blood that still percolates through her skin, and she lays in Rick's protective embrace. Even in sleep she still has that terrified look on her face, the one Daryl saw not two hours ago. Every once in a while she whimpers in her sleep as she relives her attack in dreams, but Rick tightens his arms around her and she relaxes in the warm cocoon of his body.
The stench of blood still fills his nostrils, iron and and sweat mixing together and making him feel like throwing up. He flares his nostrils to get the smell out, but it stays there; an unrelenting reminder of a second that seemed to last lifetimes.
To his left she stands, her side leaning against a tree and her sword safely in its hilt. She's still and quiet, her dark eyes scrutinizing the space in front of her, her ears alerted. He's been watching her for a while and she hasn't moved, not an inch. For a while he thought she had fallen asleep, but when she turned her head at a distant sound he realized she had been awake the whole time. He closes his eyes again, trying to let the sounds of the night to lull him to sleep, and when he does she disappears from his radar. She's that quiet, that mysterious. Sleep scatters at the realization. Daryl has spent his entire life in the woods, tracking down and killing animals. But for the first time in his life he thinks he's finally met a creature he could never possibly track and catch.
The echo of his gun reverberates through him again, the images come back, the smell of blood boils and intensifies in his nostrils, and he knows he won't be able to sleep even if someone knocks him out. Sighing quietly, he gets to his feet, getting rid of the few kinks on his neck by rotating his head. The noise makes her jump back and turn around, and before he knows it he's staring at the tip of her sword.
He doesn't react. She narrows her eyes at him before she rolls them and puts the sword away. Daryl doesn't trust her, not really. Or at least he doesn't want to. But she's kept Andrea alive for months, well taken care of and protected. A part of him feels grateful to her for that. Losing Andrea had been hard, and knowing this mysterious woman got his friend back to them makes him able to muster up some resemblance of respect for her.
But he still doesn't want to trust her. Trust has never come that easy for him.
She returns to her spot without saying a word and he watches her back. She doesn't walk the perimeter, she doesn't look around, she doesn't seem to need to. It's her ears she's using, he realizes after a moment. Earlier, as they'd made their way out of Woodbury, she'd been able to tell how many walkers were following them, from how far back, and how long it would take them to reach the small group. Daryl had narrowed his eyes at her, distrusting, but when the walkers showed up just when she predicted he was rendered speechless. He's an expect hunter and tracker, but he lacks this talent, this gift she has.
Gift or curse, he can't decide.
But it tells him he shouldn't trust her, either way.
It's perhaps why he comes to stand near. To keep an eye on her, he tells himself. She stands there, still. Each time he blinks she simply ceases to exist for a nanosecond. Each time he looks away he stops feeling her presence. He's always been quiet as well, but her quietness is different. It's the type of quietness that tells him there's so much noise in her head that her body is perhaps completely unable to make a sound. That her volume has been turned up to the maximum setting inside of her and it leaves everything on the outside on mute.
It's the first thing about her he can identify with.
He looks ahead and realizes for the first time that from this spot he can easily see the body there, slumped on the ground the way they'd left it. The shot suddenly rings louder, the smell of blood intensifies, and he sees red. He feels in the distance the whirlwind of grief and anger approaching, and he can't stop himself when he begins to breathe faster.
What he wants, more than anything, is to move on, wake Rick and tell him they should just keep going and get back to the prison as soon as possible. He doesn't want to be here, with it so close, with everything that happened just a couple of hours ago weighing heavily on him. He wants to run, wants to get lost, wants to disappear from this goddamn rotten planet. The feeling tugs at his insides so hard that his stomach aches, and he feels like throwing up once again. His fingers and toes itch to get back there and tell Rick. He jerks in place as his body decides to do it on its own.
But he remembers Andrea is badly injured and they have to take a break.
He bites on his tongue hard. Be a man, he hears that familiar voice whisper at him. Lay in that fucking bed you've made and sweet dreams, motherfucker.
The voice doesn't sound like it used to.
"You should bury him."
He jumps slightly, having forgotten she was there. He frowns instantly, feeling that whirlwind getting much closer at her words. He looks at her, his face already turned into a hateful sneer. He feels anger take over him and only knows not to raise his voice for Andrea's sake. He settles for a quiet but fiery: "What for."
She stays quiet for a second, as if he hadn't said a word, but then suddenly speaks again. "Walkers might get to him."
The mental image does nothing for his disposition. He feels the anger increase, anger at the body that lays just a few feet in front of them. Anger so blindly and so anguished that it's easier, much easier, to take it away from the body and direct it at her.
"Wha's the damn difference? He's dead."
She considers his words. Daryl watches her. She doesn't watch him. Yet he knows she's using her ears again. He knows she's listening to what he's saying and not saying. He feels naked in a way he's never felt before, exposed despite the fact that she's not even looking at him.
But she's listening to him. It's somehow more daunting.
Finally, she does. She looks at him and he nearly takes one step back. Her eyes are dark, but somehow he feels as if they're two spotlights shining down on him, putting him on center stage, scrutinizing every inch of him.
But it's her words that send him out of orbit.
"He's your brother."
Before he knows it he's in her face. She doesn't move, doesn't even blink. Her expression remains the same. Her eyes look into his, and they're so dark and so deep that Daryl feels he might drown in their blackness. His hands ball into fists and he feels himself shaking, but still she doesn't move. She's as calm as water, a contrast to the hurricane that takes over him every time he feels anger.
He's not gonna hit her, he knows that. He would never hit a woman. But his fingers are itchy, so itchy. He challenges her with a look, but she passes on it as she remains calm. And she continues to read him. To hear him. He wants to breathe fire on her and yell at her, tell her she doesn't know a thing about him. Not a damn thing about him, no matter how high up her ears are perked.
But then his breathing slows slightly. He decides it's not worth it. In a few hours they'll move on and he'll leave it all here, behind.
He takes one step away from her and narrows his eyes.
"That ain't my brother," he finally spits at her and walks away.
She doesn't watch him go, doesn't turn around. Merely continues her watch like nothing happened. He finds his spot on the ground, cradling the back of his head with his hands. He hears the gunshot again, feels the gun in his shaking hands, sees the blood that coats the tree. He sees Merle's body hit the ground, limp, lifelessly as Andrea whimpers in the background. He feels the heat of the gun in his hand, feels Rick close, taking it away from him as he stands there, watching Merle's lifeless body slumped on the ground.
And he hears him, speaking to him for the last time.
You think you can shoot me, little brother? You think you got the balls? Let's see those balls, boy. Why don't ya whip them out right here?
His ears ring into the night.
When he finds sleep, it's broken and disturbed.
When he wakes in the morning and they start to move on, he notices the hundreds of rocks that now cover Merle's body.
When his eyes find her she ignores him and concentrates on the ground. She walks past him and they move on.
He doesn't look back.
Weeks pass, but the echo of the gunshot stays with him.
It's there when he sleeps, in his dreams, and it's accompanied by the slump of the body, the heat of the gun, the splash of red on the tree.
It's there when he's awake, when they're getting rid of the walkers that constantly surround the prison.
It's there when the others talk to him, so there that before long he begins to isolate himself from them. Carol attempts vainly to integrate him into the group and finally gives up when he yells words so harsh at her that tears spring from her eyes.
Yet they all feel some sort of need to come over and give him their condolences. He walks away from them each time, leaving them open mouthed. Is he supposed to just stand there and what, nod or hug them as they tell him how sorry they are for Merle's loss? Is he supposed to believe it when they say they're sorry? Do they expect him to ignore the fact that deep down he knows they're all beyond ecstatic that Merle is finally dead?
He doesn't. He can't. So he walks away each time.
She's the only one who doesn't feel the need to pay her "respects." She's the only one who stays away from him, and if she ever looks in his direction he doesn't ever feel it. She rarely talks to him, and when she does it's about the walkers or something that needs to be done. He doesn't talk to her, either. When he does it's about who's going to keep watch and how many bodies need to be burned.
Yet strangely there is some sort of understanding between them. Some sort of communication that is non-verbal and non-visual. He doesn't look at her ever, or rarely. She doesn't look at him. They don't look at each other, not with their eyes. But sometimes when everything is quiet and there seems to be no one in sight, he can tell where she's standing without having to look. He learns to use his ears. He learns to see with them. Slowly and clumsily, he starts to hear the sounds emitted in her quietness.
He realizes she's loud, actually loud. Not loud like the others, but loud when no words come out of her mouth but burn brightly in her eyes. Quiet as she listens to Rick give them orders, but loud in the way she stands, with her shoulders high, her hands on her hips and a look of determination on her face. She's quiet when she slashes at the enemy with her sword, the only sound being emitted by the sharp blade. But loud with that look on her face that says she'd die for Andrea, that she'd do more than slash the throat of anyone who ever attempted to harm anyone she loves.
It's a sound, it's the only way he can explain it. But it's not really a sound. Not one that he can hear, anyway. It's a sound that he can just feel, when she's around.
And he hears it one afternoon when he finds the pile of rocks two miles off the prison.
He kneels before it and wonders what's underneath now. Has the flesh disintegrated into bones? Are the bones clean or pulverized? Are the clothes still intact? Does he still lay there, with that look on his face, the one he always had when he reminded Daryl he was a nothing piece of shit?
A part of him feels like removing the rocks to see, but he stops himself. He doesn't want to remember his brother as a decomposed body. He wants to remember Merle when he used to take him out for a beer, rub his head and call him a good little brother. When Merle would dare him to do something stupid and laugh at him afterwards as he said, "that's a good boy. I'm proud of you, baby brother." He wants to remember that Merle, and only those moments. They were rare, but they were still in his mind.
"Don't need no babysitter," he calls out, and suddenly she seems to materialize out of nothing. She walks over and stands behind him, her eyes on the pile of rocks.
"I wasn't following you."
"Yeah?" Daryl says, though he doesn't feel the animosity he thinks he should be feeling. "Ya make it a habit to visit the graves of dead bastard pricks?"
Michonne shrugs her shoulders. "Well, there's no television."
He smirks. She doesn't move, and strangely, he doesn't feel the urge to shush her away. Mainly because there's nothing here for him to see. Maybe because he doesn't even know why he's here. This pile of rocks means nothing to him, doesn't represent anything. And the body underneath all those rocks... It's just a body. A pile of rotten mush.
A pile of mush that isn't his brother, because there's no way that Merle Dixon could ever be just that. Merle Dixon was a force to be reckoned with, so strong and resilient they used to joke that in case of a nuclear attack, only cockroaches and Merle Dixon would be left alive. To think that these rocks are covering that force, that indestructible tower of steel... to think that he brought that tower down himself...
He can't. It's inconceivable.
"He was a mean sunnuva bitch."
He feels her shift on her feet, but she doesn't say anything. Either because she knows there's no use, or because she knows he was mainly talking to himself and not her. The silence stretches on, and he still continues to feel nothing for that pile of rocks. Merle is not there, not really. There physically, maybe, but... not Merle.
The gunshot goes off again and he sees the red. He hears Andrea's whimpers, sees the blood on her face, her swollen eye. He sees Merle standing over her, threatening the group not to get near. He sees himself stand back, letting it go on long, too long. He hears Rick imploring with Merle, bargaining for Andrea's life.
And then he feels the weight of the gun in his hand. He sees his feet as he approaches his brother. He sees Merle's mocking smile. Hears his words. Smells the sweat and that scent of cheap liquor that always coated his brother's skin. Sees the gun aimed at the center of Merle's forehead. Merle continues to laugh at him.
And then he hears the shot.
And he thinks - but probably remembers it wrong - he thinks he almost sees a look of surprise on Merle's face just before his body flies backwards onto the ground.
But he thinks maybe he's remembering it wrong. Maybe he's remembering everything wrong. Maybe none of that actually happened. Maybe it was Rick who shot Merle and not him. Because how could he do that to his own brother? How could he? Merle was right. Merle is always right. He doesn't have the balls. He doesn't have the strength.
It had to be Rick.
It couldn't have been him.
Never. He couldn't have killed Merle.
He didn't kill Merle. He didn't. Rick did it.
It was Rick.
"I had two daughters," she says suddenly, and once again he's forgotten she's there. His train of thought derails but he's not foolish enough to have believed it. Rick didn't pull that trigger, after all.
"I..." she continues and he struggles to listen. "Didn't even know the oldest one was sick until the little one started screaming one night. So I had to. I didn't have a gun... I don't even remember what I used."
Daryl turns his head towards her slightly, but his eyes remain on the ground. He tries to imagine the scene, but all he sees is Rick shooting Sophia. "That supposed to make me feel better?"
"If I wanted to make you feel better I'd get you a Hallmark card," she tells him with a hint of sarcastic humor and when she shifts on her feet again he actually hears her move for the first time. "We've all had to do what you did, that's all."
"Ya didn't shoot your daughter," he tells her, feels like it might serve as some sort of words of comfort but he knows he's just digging himself a deeper grave. Wallowing again. He looks at the grave. Once more he wonders what's under those rocks. "Ya shot a damn monster."
"So did you."
He frowns at the words, feeling them hit the bottom of his stomach like hard metal.
He thinks of that night again, Andrea crying and her face covered in blood. Merle standing above her and holding a knife. Merle looking at him with those eyes, taunting him, telling him, practically begging at him.
Go ahead, little brother. Pull the trigger.
He wonders, briefly, if Merle knew he would.
He can't linger on the thought because a hand appears near his cheek. He looks at it. Her ebony skin is smooth and shiny, and her fingers are full of calluses from her sword. He hesitates, because he still doesn't want to trust her, but he thinks of what she had to do to her little ones and realizes she's right. They've all had to do it. Some more than others. It doesn't take the pain away, but it's enough for him to take her hand.
She pulls him to his feet and he dusts his pants with his hands. She begins walking ahead of him, and Daryl nods at the pile of rocks solemnly before he catches up to her.
They walk quietly, barely making a sound. It's only when he sees the prison, and knows they probably won't speak to each other for weeks (because that's just the way they both are) that he turns towards her with curiosity.
"What happened?" he said, watching her reaction. "To the little one."
She shrugs her shoulders, as if the answer is obvious. And it is. But some morbid curiosity has taken over and he wants to hear it. He wants to know. He wants to know that she's suffered just as much if not more.
"You know she didn't even care about the bite?" she says with a breathy, mirthless chuckle and looks down. "She just kept asking me why her sister did that to her, if her sister didn't love her anymore."
Daryl takes the words in and even if he can imagine the scene he doesn't want to. He doesn't want to think what it would be like to have to kill your own child, to hold the other as they drift off to death to come back as something so hideous. So he says nothing, but as they continue walking he feels a growing respect for her, for what she had to do, for surviving on her own for so long, for saving Andrea's life and fighting for the group.
For burying Merle.
Glenn and T-Dog open the gates for them and they march inside, too exhausted to eat their respective dinners. As they head to their own cells he looks at her again.
"Did you tell her? That her sister didn't mean to?"
Michonne frowns, and he thinks he sees vulnerability in her features but he can't be sure. "She died before I could."
Daryl ponders this. He wonders if Andrea knows this story. He wonders if anyone else beside him does. He gets the feeling he's the only person who's ever heard it, and for that he's appreciative.
Oddly, he feels like offering some words of comfort, but he's never been good at that.
"What was her name?" he asks instead.
For the first time since he's met her, he sees her smile. She doesn't show teeth, in fact, he has to squint slightly to recognize it as a smile. But it's there, and it softens her eyes. She looks down as if she's remembering the little one, and he can see the love of a fierce mother showing all over her face.
"Jane," she says.
He nods, and the smile saddens as she disappears down the halls. In an instant she's gone and he can't hear her anymore.
He retrieves to his cell and lays in bed, staring at the ceiling, thinking of that pile of rocks. Somewhere... God knows where, little Jane's body also continues to break down into dusk and he thinks, wonders what if must've been like for her, dying thinking her sister was a monster.
He thinks of Merle and what he almost did to Andrea, and thinks about all the times he hurt him, too. The others... he knows Merle was a monster to them. A hateful creature as dangerous as the walkers that roam outside. There's less tension in the prison now, and he knows it's because they're all so glad Merle is gone. They all saw him as a huge threat, a horrible creature...
It's hard for him to ignore all those times Merle beat him and called him all sorts of offensive names...
But he remembers the times Merle would come home, drunk, and collapse on the bed, sobbing for their dead mother.
He remembers the times Merle would get into trouble at the supermarket, caught stealing so he could feed his starving baby brother.
He remembers the time Merle taught him how to ride a bike and how Daryl fell on his ass the minute he took off. He remembers how Merle took care of him (even though fine, he also laughed at him).
He remembers that one time Merle found out Daryl was being bullied at school, and how he waited outside for class to be over to beat the living crap out of all his bullies.
He remembers never being bullied again.
He remembers going from bar to bar, and how Merle would often get drunk, give him a sloppy hug and shout out atop his longs how proud he was of Daryl, "the best damn hunter and tracker in all of Georgia. That's my brother, motherfuckers! Best goddamn hunter!"
He remembers those times and many others, when he looked up to his brother with love and admiration in his eyes.
Suddenly he decides he'll go back to the grave site tomorrow and carve Merle a wooden headstone. He'll write 1965 as his birth year but will leave the year of his death blank, knowing Merle was already dead when he pulled the trigger and he didn't really kill him, not really. That wasn't Merle. Instead he killed a monster.
He'll write 'beloved brother' under his name and he'll link those words to Merle Dixon forever.
Little Jane might have died thinking her sister was a monster, but the day Daryl dies, he'll die knowing Merle was better, so much better than the man who continues to rot under those rocks.
He'll leave early in the morning.
He wonders if Michonne would like to go with him.