A/N: Alrighty folks. A couple of things. Firstly... For any Caryl fans out there, you seriously need to check out "Promise" by Endoh Misaki. For any Daryl fans, or Merle fans, you need to check out "The Bad, The Ugly, And the Dixons" also by Endoh Misaki. Without a doubt, one of the best authors I've read. Secondly, I'm sorry this took so long, but a) I haven't been feeling all that great, and b) I was uber-depressed, and unsure of how I wanted to continue. Which leads me to my third little note: This is the last chapter for this story. Don't panic; I'm already working on the sequel/follow up, which will pick up the morning after they leave the farm, and flashback occasionally to let y'all know what happens between this one ending, and the next one starting. But I need to move on, or this will never, ever be finished.
Daryl was scrubbing his hands and face as hard as he could in the bathroom sink. He'd been scrubbing for at least half an hour, the once-white washcloth stained red, but he just couldn't get all the blood off. Dale's blood. Dale, who he'd shot. Dale, who he'd been too late to save.
He ignored Carol, still scrubbing, his raw skin protesting the harshness of his movements. He'd stripped his shirt and vest off, thrown them into the corner, unsure if he'd ever be able to wear them again, covered as they were in splattered blood.
"Daryl. Stop it. You're hurting yourself."
He couldn't hold back his snort, as he kept scrubbing. "I jus' killed Dale, an' ya worried 'bout me hurtin' myself. You're a real piece of work, lady."
"Stop it! Just stop it already!"
He turned, the washcloth dropping to the sink, forgotten in the face of Carol's words. Her sharp, pleading tone. He couldn't do anything other than stare, feeling a familiar sense of discomfort washing over him.
"You didn't kill Dale! A Walker killed Dale! You ended his suffering, Daryl. He was going to die anyways, no matter what we did. He was going to die in agony, and pain, and then come back as one of those things! Jesus, why do you always do this to yourself?!"
He tensed, unsure of how to answer. Unsure of whether or not he was even supposed to answer. Was there an answer to that question?
He didn't know. So he turned back towards the sink, and started scrubbing again.
Carol could feel her heart breaking, the uncertainty – the fear – in Daryl's eyes making fresh tears stream down her face as he glared at her for a few moments, before turning back to the sink, pointedly not looking at the mirror. Trying to ignore her.
Well, she was done with him ignoring her whenever he got uncomfortable.
"Daryl, you need to stop," She said firmly, grabbing one of his thick wrists, and pulling it towards her.
After a few tense minutes – minutes that felt like years – he finally turned to look at her, his face broken, and tears in the corner of his eyes.
"I can't get it off," He said helplessly. "It won't come off."
She sighed, pulling the washcloth out of his hand, and moving him over to sit on the edge of the tub. Glancing down, she could see that he'd scrubbed his skin raw, both his face and his hands dotted with small flecks of blood.
As gently as she could, she slowly began wiping at his hands first, feeling his muscles stiffen at the close contact, at their proximity. But he didn't pull away, and she figured that was as much acceptance of what she was doing as she would ever get from him.
Almost without thinking, she moved the washcloth up his arm, the wet rag moving as if under it's own power as she ran it over the still-healing cuts from his time as captive, over the scars that were Lord knew how old.
For all his gruffness, he wasn't anything more than a broken, abused child. For all his harsh words, he had no self-confidence in himself at all.
Was that what Sophia would have turned in to, had she survived in this cruel, unflinching new world? A broken, lost, shell of a human being? A person who continually thought the worst of themselves? An adult who for all intents and purpose was still so much a child? So desperate for love and affection, and yet so unwilling to believe that someone would give it to them?
The small glimpses he'd given her into his childhood were enough to paint a vibrant picture of his early life, one that made her want to cry for the little boy he'd been. One that made her throat constrict, her blood boil at the thought of the people who'd hurt him like that.
As she moved to the other arm, seeing the long, jagged scar that ran up from his elbow, almost to his shoulder, she wondered if he'd ever had the opportunity he'd given her nearly two months ago, when he'd allowed her to bash Ed's head in with the pick ax. Had he ever gotten the chance to confront his father about what he'd done?
Did he still get the nightmares? She guessed that he did. She knew she still did, and she'd been adult – an adult with a relatively happy childhood behind her – when Ed had started abusing her. She'd had Sophia for comfort. Sophia to survive for.
"You're one of the strongest people I've ever known."
The words escaped her, almost before she'd had a chance to process them. But they were said, and when she dared a glance up at him, seeing the surprised, disbelieving look on his face, she was glad she had said them.
"Probably the strongest."
"Ya don't mean that," He mumbled, hanging his head, studiously avoiding looking at her.
"Yes, I do, Daryl," She said softly, lifting his head with one hand, as she slowly began washing his face. "I've never met another man as strong... as good... as you. And if it takes me the next forty years, I'm going to prove it to you. I'm going to make you see yourself for who you are.
"I think that's what I hate most about what you went through," She added quietly. "That it robbed you of seeing how good you really are. Of accepting anything but put-downs, and cruelty. You've got such a good heart that –" She had to stop, her voice breaking. She finally managed a weak smile, sitting back on her haunches, washcloth lying in her hand.
She was startled beyond belief when he tentatively reached his hand out towards her, his crooked fingers shaking. But she leaned forward, grasping his large hand in hers, and holding as tightly as she dared, feeling the shudders running through his body. Unable to stop herself, she moved closer, going to her knees, pulling him closer, wrapping her free arm around him, and holding him loosely. To her surprise, he released her hand, and returned the gesture, his hands going around her back, his head going to the crook between her neck and shoulder.
And – in what she was sure was the first time in his adult life – Daryl Dixon sobbed like the wounded child he really was, clinging to her as if his life depended on it.
End Notes: Thank you all so much for reading this. You have no idea what y'all's reviews, and continuous support mean to me. This was my first multi-chapter TWD fic, and only my second foray into this fandom. I love y'all, and appreciate everyone who has stuck by me through the waiting, and the writer's block, and the occasional awkward chapters. Thank you all. : ) I don't yet know the title of the new story, and I'm not sure when I'll post it; hopefully tomorrow night, or the following night, but I feel like death, so a lot of it is going to depend on how quickly I recover from this damn ear infection.