The Walking Dead isn't mine. I failed to mention that last time...
Thanks so much to everyone for reading and reviewing. I'm overwhelmed by your response and grateful for your support.
Daryl knelt there for what felt like a long time, his hand pressed against Merle's chest. It had stopped rising with each breath. There was no dull thump to be felt against his palm. Merle was gone.
"This is real." He said aloud. His voice sounded as if he'd gone hoarse from screaming, when he hadn't more than whispered this whole time.
He smoothed his hand over his brother's broad, silent chest. He understood what Merle had done and why, but he was angry still. Merle got to have the last word and gave him one last shove to go with it. She was there, nearby, he knew. Watching, but afraid to approach. Afraid to talk to him.
Daryl pounded his fist against Merle, grunting. He did it once more before bending and pressing his ear to Merle's chest. Nothing. But Merle had had a heart. It had beat out a rhythm, just the same as anyone's.
He heard her shifting around and knew what she was thinking. It had to be done. Even in his grief he recognized that he didn't want to deal with a walker version of Merle.
"Let me." She said, speaking at last. Still not coming near him. Not touching him.
"No." He said firmly. "I got it."
A small hand holding out a gun appeared in the periphery of his vision. He reached out, not to take it, but to push her hand away. He was gentle, but felt her jump at his touch anyway.
"Too loud." He explained. He picked up his crossbow and loaded an arrow. He took one last moment to close his brother's eyes. Then he crouched back and let an arrow loose into his brother's skull. He turned from Merle then and would not look back again.
"We need to go." He said, daring finally to look Carol in the eye. She looked back at him, eyes full of tears threatening to spill over.
"I'm sorry." She said. She folded her arms across her chest, as if to control them. He didn't know how to deal with any of this. He fought against the sudden frustration he was feeling. He folded his own arms, mirroring her.
"He liked you." Daryl offered. Got a watery smile for his effort.
"I think I liked him too." She said, her smile brightening. Daryl loved her then. She had seen beyond what everyone else saw. He was grateful that there was at least one person who would share his grief. It made him oddly happy for Merle. That Merle had managed to touch her heart in spite of himself.
Daryl took a deep breath and let it out slowly, his stomach clenching with nerves. "Hey," He said, stopping her from walking away. She waited, arms wrapped tightly around herself. "I could maybe go for a hug." He confessed.
That was all the encouragement she needed. She was in his space a second later, her arms now around him, pulling his body into hers. He took his time wrapping his own arms around her, bending his head so it could rest on her shoulder. Without thinking he pressed his lips gently against her neck. She held him tighter.
They stood like that for a long time before Daryl reluctantly released her. "Best get going." He said, giving his eyes one last wipe. He took her by the hand and led her back the way he had come, toward the trees on the other side of the truck.
They took their time, crouching through the long grass, pausing frequently to listen. Hadn't heard any gunfire in a long time. The sun had moved a couple of hours past noon.
Finally they came upon the truck, but couldn't see anyone. "Pssst!" Daryl called out.
"Here." Rick responded, stepping out from some trees behind them. Tyreese was with him.
"What's going on?" Daryl asked.
"It was just one truck covering this field." Rick explained. "Tyreese circled around and took them out while they were distracted."
"You just waiting on us this whole time?" Daryl accused.
"I wanted you to have as much time as you needed." Rick said. He reached out, placing a hand on Daryl's shoulder. "I'm sorry about your brother."
Daryl just nodded, not wanting to talk about it further. Carol squeezed his hand.
"Is this it?" Daryl gestured at their small group.
"And Sasha." Rick said, pointing at the woman who was standing next to the truck. "Michonne took off. The others are dead."
"And Glenn?" Carol asked.
"I told him to run for it. He listened." Rick said.
"We need to find them." Carol said immediately.
"I'd love to. But where do we even start?" Rick asked.
Daryl walked over to the truck and picked up his bag. From the pocket he removed the map that Hershel had given him. "This might be a place to start." He suggested.
Rick was speechless with relief. "That was Hershel's idea." Rick admitted. "I didn't think there would be a point."
"Turns out there was." Daryl shrugged. "I'll drive."
Daryl turned to Carol then, remembering what Merle had told him. "Come here." He started moving his fingers through her hair, looking for the bump. She hissed when he found it. "So you're alright." He said, shaking his head. "You're sitting next to me. No long naps."
Rick took his place on the other side of Carol and Tyreese and Sasha jumped in the back. The others only had two or three hours on them, so they were hopeful they could catch up.
"We can stop long enough to bury him." Carol suggested, just as Daryl was about to put the truck in gear. He froze, remembering Glenn's words from so long ago. "We bury the ones we love."
He imagines Merle spread out in that small, stained clearing, facing the sky above. The wind blowing through the long blades of grass, dancing them against his cold skin. An arrow lodged between his eyes.
He reaches back further for a precious memory. A single moment. Two brothers in the woods. One a very scrawny fourteen year old, but finally tall enough to hold the bow. The other, a man already, rough normally, but soft and patient on this day. He is teaching his younger brother to use the bow. To hunt. And though he didn't know it, to survive.
The boy is anxious to please and careful not to anger. He learns quickly. Before the day is over, he has his first kill. His brother claps him on the back, proud. The boy lets himself smile. It is the happiest moment of his young life.
Daryl thinks he might finally understand Carol's inability to attend Sophia's funeral.
"Merle wouldn't hang around for sentimental crap." Daryl says, releasing the brake and moving forward.
He knows, not far from where Merle lay, the Triumph would serve as his brother's marker.