A/N: So, here it is. The final chapter, lucky thirteen. I appreciate everyone who's taken this little journey with me, with these characters we all love.
I wish you all many pink paperclips in your lives, those little moments of joy.
So now we see how it is
This fist begets the spear
Weapons of war
Symptoms of madness
Don't let your eyes refuse to see
Don't let your ears refuse to hear
Oh you ain't never going to shake this sense of sadness
I could hold you in my arms
I could hold on forever
And I could hold you in my arms
I could hold on forever
© Ray LaMontagne
"Wagonwheel" lyrics used herein © Bob Dylan
Carol wakes at dawn, alone, nestled in a pile of party dresses. She sits up, blinking, velvet and tulle falling away around her. She notices that the polka-dotted dress (the dress she may well credit with changing her life) is hanging neatly on a hanger next to the one she selected yesterday for Maggie. She grins hugely at it.
She wiggles into her jeans and throws her tee shirt back on. She sensed, rather than saw, Daryl slip away, from her side, from the warm cocoon they'd created with their bodies and the upturned box of dresses, and back into the night. But she knows in her heart, he's not really gone for good.
She walks to the door, and notices a torn sheet of paper, stuck to the inside with her knife, the one that Daryl had given her. She pulls it free, reads it, and laughs loudly.
"Need to go get something. See you later at the damn wedding."
She shakes her head, pockets the knife – and the note. Last night had certainly changed many things, for both of them. But in many ways, in the best ways, Daryl was still going to be Daryl.
Carol grabs the two dresses, some other odds and ends she's found, and heads out into the morning. It's going to be a good day.
Hershel stands in the gravel driveway, smoking a homemade cigarette and looking at the sunrise. He raises a hand in greeting as Carol approaches.
"Mornin'," he says, taking a relishing drag on the smoke.
"Morning. Ready for the big day?" She smiles. "Didn't know you had the habit," she nods, gesturing at the cigarette.
"Well, back in the day, these went hand in glove with my other, far-less-controllable habit," he shrugs ruefully, and Carol knows he's talking about his drinking problem. "I mostly cut out the smokes when I stopped drinkin'," he pauses, inhales, "But you know what? After gettin' your leg sawed off to avoid becomin' a zombie, a celebratory cigarette every now and then doesn't seem so bad. It is my daughter's weddin' day, after all." He smiles at her.
"That reminds me," she says, almost-businesslike. "Here you go." She hands him a clean white shirt, a blue bowtie, new suspenders.
"You know Glenn's gonna tease you somethin' fierce," he laughs, takes the clothing from her. "He's waiting for you to come out of that shed claimin' you found a cure to bein' a walker in there."
"It's a pretty amazing place," she responds. Especially last night. "But it's not miraculous. I did find something for Maggie. Look!" She holds the white shift up, beaming at Hershel.
Hershel sizes up the simple dress, and turns his gaze back on her. She can see he's got tears in his eyes. "Thank goodness for you, Carol. Thank goodness for all of your worryin' and motherin' – to all of us. It's so easy to forget the small stuff these days. But you remind us. So thank you," he leans over, kisses her cheek, squeezes her shoulder.
"Of course," she responds, moved by the older man's candor. "What else do we have, but each other?"
She walks towards the house, picking up her pace. She can't wait to show Maggie what she's found.
She enters the house, and immediately hears music, coming from the kitchen. She finds a cheerful, loud tableau: Rick, bouncing Judith up and down in his arms, and Beth, Carl, Sasha and Axel singing with lusty enjoyment. They're all belting out an old Bob Dylan tune, as Rick dances around the sunny kitchen with his daughter:
"Rock me mama like a wagon wheel,
Rock me mama any way ya feel,
Heeeeeyyy, mama rock me."
"Carol! There you are!" Beth exclaims, grabbing the pile of clothes from her arms and setting them on the counter, taking her hands, and spinning her around as everyone keeps singing.
"Rock me mama like the wind and the rain,
Rock me mama like a southbound train,
Heeeeeeyyy, mama rock me."
"Yeah, Carol, where ya been?" Rick grins at her knowingly.
"Behave," she chides him, smiling, whirling around with Beth.
Two tousled forms appear in the entryway leading from the kitchen upstairs to what Carol has assumed was once the maids' quarters. Maids' quarters that are nicer than any place I've ever lived, she thinks. Glenn and Maggie are peeking down at the crowd in the kitchen.
"Y'all, it is early¸ and y'all are bein' real rowdy," Maggie croaks.
The kitchen goes crazy, stomping their feet, pounding their breakfast silverware on the kitchen table, catcalling the young couple. Judith gets caught up in the adults' excitement, shrieks, grabs a handful of Rick's hair. He winces, but laughs, kisses her nose.
"Hey! You two aren't even supposed to see each other before the wedding!" Beth scolds them over the din, which has brought Tyrese, Hershel and Michonne into the fray. "I am not kidding!" She continues, with romantic teenaged earnestness. She pulls Glenn, who's clad in only old shorts and a white tee shirt down the stairs and away from her sister. "Maggie. Get back upstairs, go on, shoo!"
Carol goes over to the clothes she's brought from the shed, removes the grey polka-dotted dress and the white shift from the pile without Glenn noticing. She joins Maggie on the stairs, playfully pushing her back up.
"Think y'all smart enough to figure out what in that pile belongs to each of you?" She calls down as she herds Maggie up the stairs.
Glenn, who's given up on going back to sleep or spending any more alone time with his betrothed before their nuptials, deadpans, "I hope that pink dress is mine, Carol. It's totally my color."
The room erupts in laughter, which floats up after the two women and into the morning air.
"Let's see it!" Maggie exclaims, all signs of sleepiness gone from her excited face. She closes the door of the small but beautifully appointed bedroom she's been sharing with Glenn.
Carol proffers the dress, smiling as Maggie comes over to touch the light, airy fabric. "Can you imagine? I mean, these people just had it stuffed into a box in their shed," Maggie breathes, shakes her head. Like Carol, she's never worn something as fine as this dress her entire life. She holds it up, standing at the window, smiling as the sun shines through it.
"Carol…thank you. Thank you so much," Maggie's got tears streaming down her face, but she's smiling. "Glenn, I know he teases ya about that shed, but really, thank you so much," she places the dress reverently on the bed. She strokes it tenderly, sadly. "I know this should be the happiest day of my life, right? My weddin' day? Hell, the fact that Glenn and I found each other, in this mess, counts for something, right?"
"It counts for everything," Carol says quietly.
Maggie nods, continues, "I am happy – and sad – I know that's crazy, but there it is. I knew my momma wouldn't see me get married, but I always imagined Annette – my stepmom, Beth's momma – would be at my wedding. So many people, just gone," she looks up at Carol.
"Thank you, Carol. For the dress, for ev'rythin', for takin' care of us," she stands up. "I wish I woulda known your little girl. She probably loved you whole bunches."
Carol fights the lump in her throat, the deep ache in her heart with Sophia's name on it. "She did, Maggie. She loved me bunches. And I loved her with everything I was. I just wish that everything I was, when Sophia was alive, was enough. But it wasn't. Not nearly," she looks away, deeply saddened. A sadness that will never leave her. "But, like you finding Glenn…after Sophia...after she came outta that barn, I had to make a choice. To live differently or die. I chose the first. And it wasn't easy. It isn't easy. It's hard, every single day. To find the things inside yourself and the people around you who make change worthwhile."
Maggie's taken her hands, and both women are crying. But the younger woman gets a gleam in her eye and says, "Yeah? I think maybe you found someone worth changin' for." Maggie giggles, more tears spilling down her cheeks. "I came out last night to help ya search for a dress," she continues, "But before I could get more'n three steps from the house, Daryl went into the shed. I waited…awhile. But he never came out."
Carol gasps, brings her hand up to face, feels the blush heating her cheeks. "I was wondering why you never came out there," she muses seriously, then catches Maggie's eye. The two woman embrace, laughing through their tears.
Their little group gathers in the front yard as dusk begins to darken the sky. There's a long table, covered in a billowing white tablecloth and heavy with dishes of food, made with creativity and love for the couple they're celebrating. Carol glances around at everyone, more dressed-up and groomed than any of them have been since the world went crazy. Everyone's got a least a little touch of something from the magic boxes in the shed, and it makes Carol glad.
Rick and Carl in clean, pressed polo shirts, Judith in a little summer jumpsuit with strawberries all over it. Sasha and Beth in sweet summer dresses. Maggie and her father are still inside the house, waiting for the word from Rick. A battery-operated stereo wafts music around the twilit yard. This is a good day, Carol thinks, again.
"Hey," a voice startles her out of her reverie. Daryl. At her side, his hands behind his back. Hair combed. Wearing a striped button-down shirt, cuffed to the elbows, with a vest over it.
"Well, huh," for once, she's the one with less to say.
"That all ya got?" He's looking at her, in the dress.
"Give me a few seconds to recover," she responds. He looks so handsome, so boyish, so earnest. The fact that he's here, that he's cleaned up: he doesn't want to be on the edge of things anymore.
He clears his throat. "So, ah, I got these. For Maggie. Thought it was part'a the tradition and all, and since these damn fools appear on goin' through with it…" he trails off, brings his hand around, to reveal a small bunch of wildflowers.
She opens her mouth, closes it. She looks at him for a long moment. "She'll love them." She says, finally.
Glenn is jogging over to them now, looking excited and nervous. "Daryl! Hey man, I was wondering where you were," he reaches to shake Daryl's hand, finds the flowers instead.
"These are for Maggie," Daryl mumbles.
"Thanks," Glenn looks bewildered. Now he's sizing Daryl up. "Holy shit, man, I didn't even know you wore shirts that had sleeves." He shakes Daryl's hand, runs back to Beth, who heads towards the house to give the little bouquet to her sister.
"That's one guy who's lookin' for an ass-kickin' on his weddin' day," Daryl mutters.
Carol chokes back laughter. "I think he was just trying to say you look nice. Because you do look nice. Really nice," she smiles up at him, and his face relaxes. She can tell he's got something to say to her, too. He pauses, then speaks softly.
"I – I once said to ya, though I never shoulda, that Sophia wasn't mine, wasn't my problem," he says, and she tries to protest. "No, whatever right I thought I had earned, to say that, I didn't. I wish I had known her better, I wish her life had been different. But we can't keep bein' pissed off about the past." He takes a deep breath, pull his other hand from behind his back to reveal the white flower there.
"Because, well, Sophia never was mine," he pauses, looks at her. "Sophia never was mine, but her momma is." And he tucks the Cherokee rose in his hand behind Carol's ear.
Rick married the couple with grace and proper respect, they all say afterwards, as they took their seats around the dinner table.
Carol gazes around her, in the setting sun, on this beautiful summer's day. The married couple are feeding each other pieces of the clobbered-together dinner. Hershel puffing grandly on another cigarette, grinning through the smoke at them. Carl making faces at Judith, who's bouncing up and down in Beth's arms. Rick, Tyrese - and surprisingly, Michonne - clinking bottles of beer together in quiet companionship. Sasha and Axel, an unlikely duo, singing harmony with the song on the little radio.
The petals of the Cherokee rose tickle her face, a beautiful, sad reminder of her beautiful daughter. She gazes down at her hand, linked under the table with Daryl's, their fingers overlapping each other's, connecting them. Right now, he's not looking at her; he's giving Glenn a hard time about something. He turns briefly to face her mid-conversation, not smiling but his eyes soft, gives her hand a gentle squeeze. Turns back to Glenn.
She lifts her gaze back to the people gathered around this table, this small band of friends and near-strangers who are her family now, and thinks about everything this day has given them.
This beautiful night, aglow with fireflies. Singing at the top of their voices in the kitchen. A morning smoke and conversation. This simple meal. A smiling baby. The beauty of a flower. Linked hands, promising love. This aching sadness, that all of them carry in one way or another, than mingles with joy in an impossible cocktail.
All of these things, they are each enough. More than enough. No – they are everything.