So. Did we all watch last nights episode of The Walking Dead? If you didn't, GO AWAY RIGHT NOW, cause this is ALL KINDS OF SPOILERS AND FEELS for the ep, and just for clarification, the ep of which I speak is "This Sorrowful Life." I repeat: If you didn't see that GO AWAY. Unless you don't mind it being spoiled. Ok, now that that's taken care of...OMG! GUYS! THE FEEEEEEELS! Soon as I saw it, I had to write something, absolutely was compelled, NOTHING else was going to get done until I did. So here is a one-shot about the ending of "This Sorrowful Life" AND my own creative continuation of what might have happened immediately afterwards. Hopefully we'll get to see some of that aftermath in the season 3 finale, but this is what I imagined might happen. I hope you guys enjoy, tell me what you think!
He'd had a bad feeling in his gut, right when he'd left the prison. He'd ignored it as much as he could as he left Rick standing in the doorway, but he'd felt the impending darkness washing over him just like the storm clouds that rolled in every evening in the summer. Now the air was cold and stung his lungs sharply and as he kept up his steady loping pace his chest began to burn, but he didn't stop. Merle was in trouble; he was walking into what was sure to be an ambush, a trap waiting for a willing sap to spring it, and the Governor didn't care who sprung it. Daryl wasn't going to let it be Merle. Not if he could do something about it. He'd been too late to come back for his brother before he'd sacrificed his hand, he wouldn't be too late to save his life. Not this time. The weight of his bow comforted him slightly, but as his feet ate the distance between him and Merle, he grew more and more nervous. He wasn't a man prone to nervousness or cowardice, he never had been, but this was his brother's life, something that Merle didn't seem to mind gambling on.
Damn you, Merle, damn you. Hanging out with that fucking psycho, bringing him right down on our doorstep. Couldn't give a shit about the consequences, could ya? Nah, you never could, never could see beyond the end of your fucking pipe. When I find you, I'm gonna kick your ass all the way back to the prison. You think I should grow a pair? You're about to find out what that really means, and you ain't gonna like it one damn bit.
He kept running, following his brother's trail. It might as well have been marked by orange traffic cones. Hell even Rick could have probably followed this, and he was just about to regret not bringing him along when he cut across the road and came to the abandoned set of grain silos and the feed store where the trade off with the Governor and Rick was supposed to take place. There were places like this all over the South, and from an outsider's perspective, they'd probably think that the apocalypse was why it had fallen into decay, but Daryl knew better. These rusted out buildings and scraps of twisted metal had always been like this, rotten and wearing thin, slowly moving towards their inevitable collapse, an eyesore in the weed choked fields.
The smell of blood and death hit him first, the pungent tang of copper mixed with rot that was as thick as oil coating his mouth and throat. At last he slowed his running limbs and paused; despite the awful smell he inhaled deeply to steady himself. He heard nothing out of the ordinary, but that didn't mean shit wasn't about to hit the fan; in fact usually in these quiet, still moments is when things came crashing down. He could feel himself shaking and he bit the inside of his cheek to quiet the trembles. He was close to his brother, he could feel it, somewhere buried underneath the scars, skin, flesh, blood, and bones, deep in that place that had no name but he might have called his soul, he could feel that he was close to his only remaining blood. It was a shared connection, some kind of sparked energy between them, never mind the logistics of what he knew about the situation at hand. He knew he was close without having seen any evidence. It was as implicit and as confident as the trust he had in Rick- it was not to be questioned.
He crept forward closer to the feed store, disturbed by what he saw. There were Walkers strewn everywhere, skulls damaged, brains smeared over the dried, dying grass. The dead vegetation crunched beneath his boots as he continued on. Someone had killed these Walkers in a systematic fashion. It could have been Merle, he had nothing to say it wasn't, but something in him, that intangible place again, was pulling and twisting with anxiety. There was a car a little ways ahead of him, door ajar, nothing obviously wrong with it…if Merle had been here, he would have taken the car and headed back to the prison. The unease mounted with each passing footstep.
He headed for the feed store where Rick and the Governor had talked before and as he went, he came across a Walker feeding on another corpse, intestines hanging out and strewn like some sick version of spaghetti all over the body and the grass, thin ropy strings tangling in the monster's fingers as it lifted up its head and swallowed down a mouthful of flesh. It began to turn as it heard Daryl's quiet approach and without hesitation he loosed an arrow from his bow and struck it cleanly in the skull. It collapsed forward over the body it had been feeding on and he quickly jerked his arrow free and stowed it back into his quiver. His heart was thumping harder beneath his ribs, that same nervous energy crawling beneath his skin, unsettling him in a bad way. He rounded another bend and paused, the culmination of his world shattering in one gut wrenching moment.
Another corpse was feeding on a body, a fresh one by the color of the meat between its teeth. It didn't have to look up for Daryl to know the truth…he could see it without staring into those red, rotted, dead eyes. The shape of the skull, the nearly buzzed grey hair, the broad, muscular shoulders, the contraption of metal and sharpened steel around one of the arms.
His consciousness seemed to shatter. All the thoughts smashed into a billion pieces…maybe to never be completely whole again. He could feel his face screwing up as he felt the tears welling deep in his eyes and in his throat. Instinct compelled him to struggle against it but the onslaught of emotions was like a dam breaking inside and he could not contain it no matter how hard he tried. The Walker looked up from the corpse it was feeding on and stared straight at him, straight into his eyes. A desperate choked sob escaped Daryl's mouth as pain like he'd never known he could feel crashed into him. No word could be formed…not even a plea of 'no', because he could see it, clear as day, right in front of him, and there was no denying it.
But in his mind he screamed. He screamed, he howled, he thrashed and kicked and flailed, trying so hard to throw off the horrible reality before his eyes. Glass shattered, metal screeched, ice picks digging into bones, blood gushing across pale skin, burning coals pressed and held to tender flesh. All of this was coursing through him as the body that had once been his brother stumbled over the piece of meat he'd been eating in favor for coming towards him. He was nothing now but food, living meat that could be killed and consume and Daryl silently cried out for forgiveness at all the callousness he had ever shown anyone struggling to put a Walker down.
Merle staggered towards him, drawing rasping, hissing breaths through blood stained teeth and Daryl shrank back, his shoulders hunching inwards, a clear physical sign of terror. He had not cowed back like this in years…not since the last time he had faced his father's blows. It was beginning to hit him now…Merle was gone. Gone. His big brother, his only family…his blood…was gone. He was alone. In that one moment the silence screamed louder than he ever had in his entire life. None of the shrieking howls from the burning city of Atlanta the night the world had ended would ever compare to that ear drum splitting shrill of the silence. And Merle just kept coming…coming towards him, his dead eyes completely expressionless. That was the truly disturbing thing about Walkers. Even in the throws of a kill, a feeding frenzy, their eyes remained dead. And Merle…Merle had always had such expressive eyes. Usually filled with contempt or snide humor or aggravation, but expressive nonetheless. And now…now they were dead.
Daryl shoved his brother away, physically pushing the monstrosity back from him. A sob wheezed out of him as he did so, his crossbow having long since clattered to the ground at his feet. The survival instinct that had kept him alive all this time came roaring back, telling him what he had to do. He could not leave Merle like this.
Merle came at him again but it was too soon. Vision blurred through red hot tears of despair Daryl shoved him away again, hitting him so hard that Merle spun clumsily, almost losing his footing. The body and blood beneath Daryl's palm had been cold and stiff…such a departure from living flesh, it struck him somewhere in the core like a kick in the gut. Merle came at him again and Daryl flung himself towards the shambling corpse, shoving him a third time, as hard as he could, trying desperately to force the reality away. If he could just push hard enough he could make it disappear, he could make it stop…he could make it end. But he couldn't, it wasn't in his power, and he cursed his own weakness but it was drowned out by the gush of despair.
Merle staggered towards him again, and Daryl's fist closed on the handle of his buck knife. He had to end it. He had to stop this madness now, right now, or it would destroy him. With a howl of anguish he launched himself at his brother. Merle's arms tried to rise in a threat of a tearing death grip but Daryl's forearm pinned against his throat, forcing the head back and the arms down, undermining Merle's grip. They toppled to the ground and Daryl's forearm squeezed against his brother's throat, and though he knew he shouldn't, he still expected to hear a rasped breath as he suffocated, but the dead have no need for breath, and so there was only a strangled growl and an attempt of the hands to claw at him. The will to make it end surged through him and he raised his arm up and plunged it down, stabbing Merle cleanly through the skull.
But he could not stop at one strike. Though the Walker was dead, never to rise again, Daryl couldn't stop. Rage and anger and pain tore through him, and he might have screamed out loud as he struck again but if he did it was muted by the crushing weight of the shattered silence in his mind. Again and again and again, plunging the knife through the flesh, spattering blood and smearing flecks of meat as he went. With each strike, another of Merle's faults came to greet him, and he answered it with the steel of his blade.
Never being around.
Walking out…leaving me with Dad, letting him slice me up all those years.
Getting us kicked out when we couldn't make rent cause you smoked all the money away.
His chest heaved for air, his muscles burned, sweat poured over his skin, mixing with the tears, stinging the skin of his face. He reared back, thinking himself finished, but he stared down at the monstrosity of his brother's body and could not stop. He struck the knife again, shattering more pieces of his brother's skull, stabbing repeatedly as more and more pain gushed through him like the blood watering the grass beneath Merle's head.
Fucking up on the roof in Atlanta, cutting off your own hand
Not coming back for me in camp, staying with the one-eyed psycho, hurting Glenn and Maggie.
Being so stubborn that you had to do this your way
On the final strike the sob of despair came from his strangled throat as he plunged the blade one final time, twisting it hard as the reality of what caused him so much pain slammed him like a wrecking ball to the chest. The thought rattled in his skull like a bullet pinging in a concrete box as the blade bit flesh one last time.
He collapsed back off his brother's now still body and the tears spilled free. He rolled on the grass, struggling to breathe, trying so hard not to believe what had just happened. He pushed against the invisible weight pinning him to the grass and stared at his brother's mangled corpse and gasped another high-pitched sob. He forced himself to stare at what he had done, what his brother had become, and the terrible truth of it was so strong that it pinned him back onto the grass, ripping his eyes away. A whined word might have escaped him but if it did he couldn't have known what it was. He curled onto his side, one hand fisting into the grass, the other still holding onto his knife as the weight of reality crushed the will to make his lungs rise for that next breath.
He felt cold but it did not have anything to do with the dropping outside temperature. He never though he would crave the brutal heat of the Georgia summer sun but he wasn't sure that even that oppressive force would have driven away the cold he felt inside him now. All his bones were shattered, all his blood was spilt, every fiber of his being was broken. He remained at his brother's side, unwilling to stay but just as equally unwilling to leave. Darkness came to claim the world and the temperature continued to fall but it wasn't enough to shake him, not until he heard footsteps behind him. He scrambled up and held his knife in a defense position, ready to tear the throats and brains out of any Walker that dared disturb his vigil, but it was not one of the walking dead that was coming towards him.
He knew that voice. He knew it so well he had heard it in his sleep but it was the last one he expected to hear right now. At first he almost didn't believe it, but then he saw the eyes and the face connected with the voice and he knew the truth.
He could not answer the man who had come for him. He lowered his knife with a trembling hand and staggered to the side and allowed Rick to see what had happened. Rick surveyed the mangled body and let out a long pained breath and then turned his gaze onto Daryl. There were no words for a long time. There was nothing that Rick could say that would have made anything better, and he knew that. He knew the bond Daryl had with his brother; the evidence of his loyalty and devotion was undeniable. But as helpless as Rick was to stem the pain, he would not abandon Daryl; he would not force him to bare this alone, as he had born the grief of losing Lori. He wouldn't allow that nightmare to befall his friend.
Rick spoke only after what might have been hours of continued silence, the two men standing side by side, staring down at the tragedy at their feet. "We have to go back. We have to be ready for when the Governor comes." He spoke softly, but firmly, determined to pull Daryl back from a brink that he had felt all too often these past days.
Daryl said nothing. He reached down and picked up his crossbow and held it comfortably in one hand and raised his gaze to finally meet Rick's eyes. "Why did you come here?" It was not a question that would be pacified by anything except the brutal truth. The truth he so desperately was hoping to hear because if he didn't he feared it would obliterate him entirely.
"You said it before, when you left," Rick murmured quietly. "We're family too."
Rick's hand gently fell onto Daryl's shoulder. He felt the shaking quiver there and squeezed softly, steadying him with the touch and the firm stability of his presence. This is what he was best at, holding it all together when the world was going to destroy them. Normally Daryl was at his side to back him up, but he doesn't mind having their places traded. In fact, it feels good to repay the favor. He only wished that it did not have to come at such a heavy, heavy price.
Daryl paused once before they left. He withdrew the lighter that he always carried in his pocket and flicked it open, the little flame glowing like a tiny beacon on this black night. He held the lighter in his hand, knowing what he should do but he can't move. He can't let go. Its too much far too soon. His body burns and the pain he thought had bled out of him is back and it is enough to make him sink to his knees again.
Rick knelt down by his side. "You always knew the man he truly was. Michonne came back safely to the prison, proof to the others of who you always said he was. No one will ever forget. He gave you the best chance he could to beat these bastards. And we will, Daryl. We will."
Daryl crumpled forward against his brother's body. He didn't know if he could ever find the strength to lift his head and stare Rick or anybody else in the face again. The memories howled inside his skull, so many of them painful, and so many of them unresolved. And now they never would be, not the least of which was just this morning. He'd finally cracked; he'd shown the wounded kid underneath the scar tissue and hard muscle who wanted his big brother there at his side, and Merle in his typical fashion had pushed him away. He hadn't bothered to say goodbye, he had never believed… never truly believed, that he'd ever lose Merle. The only person who could kill Merle was Merle…and that was still true.
"You did this. You did this to yourself. To me. You selfish fucking bastard!" Daryl thrashed, shoving Rick away and snatching up his buck knife, stabbing at Merle's all but frozen corpse again, needing to take the rage and the pain out before he faced those who weren't ready to handle it. "You fucking did this! Didn't even ask for my help! Didn't even care about the risk! You just did whatever you wanted like you always do and now you're fucking dead! You're dead Merle!" He stabbed at the body again but the blow was weaker and he dropped the knife again, draped over his brother's frozen form, shaking uncontrollably. "I came back for you, I tried, I'm sorry," he choked.
Rick watched the mental unraveling of his friend with a broken feeling in his chest. He wanted to give Daryl the time to mourn and to process what had happened, but the world they lived in now wouldn't allow for it. There were Walkers coming, and tomorrow there would be a battle that would test them such as they had never been tested before, and he would need his friend at his side. They had to go back but he knew Daryl wouldn't know how to face the others in the wake of his emotional upheaval. He always kept things so close to the vest and if he couldn't, he withdrew, but he needed him at his side now.
"Daryl. We have to go back." Rick's voice was soft and he dared to put his hand on Daryl's shoulder. When the man did not strike him or pull away he pulled him up to his feet, steadying him until he could stand on his own. Sometimes the only way to get a man moving was to move him yourself, and that was fine with Rick.
Daryl bent down and scooped up the lighter that he had dropped. He flicked it open and lit the flame and this time, before he could stop himself, he tossed it onto his brother's chest. The flames began to burn through the cotton of his clothes, licking hungrily at the blood and skin and flesh, quickly racing up to consume its new fuel source as fast as it could. He stood watching the blaze until he felt Rick slowly begin to move away from him. He followed his friend back to the car and climbed into the passenger seat, his whole body numb and yet wracked with pain.
"I'll tell the others what happened." Rick spoke softly, trying to allow Daryl as much room to maneuver emotionally as he could. "You don't have to say anything if you don't want to."
Daryl twisted his neck and stared straight at him. Rick gave him as much eye contact as he could while still driving and silently Daryl was grateful for the static connection because he didn't know if he could have handled the weight of that gaze otherwise. But what he had to say would not die, and though his voice was broken, he spoke.
"What do you think I'm made of, Rick? Steel? I'm flesh and bone. They can see it in my face. Let 'em." He didn't mean to sound so angered, because he wasn't. He still had not lost that feral quality of wanting to be alone when he licked his wounds until they healed, but the echo of his own words this morning came to haunt him.
You can't do things without people anymore man.
They would see the pain in his face. For so long he had kept himself on the edge, the loner, the one who didn't want to get involved, who didn't want to be known or be understood, because he was ashamed and afraid. He wasn't now. They knew him, slowly, bit by bit, night after night around smoldering fires, stomachs growling, skin crawling, Walkers hissing and snarling, empty highways and slicing wind as they moved from place to place looking for food and shelter; somehow through all of that they had grown to know him. Understand him. They would know, and he wouldn't even bother pretending to hide it now, because he had nothing left to be ashamed of. He had been vindicated…and Merle had paid the ultimate price for that, and now all he had left was to make it worth it.
"They know that, Daryl. They've always known that." Rick's voice was soft as he answered him.
"Merle did too." His voice was splintered in his throat and between his teeth, but the former sheriff listened closely even though he had a feeling that Daryl was talking more to himself than to Rick. "Always gave me shit for it, but he knew. He used to try and beat it out of me but I guess it never worked."
Rick let out a long, heavy breath, deciding to respond, hoping that he could pull Daryl back and give him something to hang onto in the wake of what was to come. "He did what he thought was best to protect the life that you wanted to live. He was erratic and spiteful and a difficult man to live with, and he did many things that none of us agree with. But that doesn't change his loyalty to you, and everybody knows that you will protect the group with your life. You weren't wrong, Daryl. Glenn might have said it first, but it doesn't make it any less true. Your family is waiting for you back at the prison, and they'll need you tomorrow, but tonight you can need them. They're there."
Daryl was quiet for a long time, staring out the window of the car, watching the Georgia countryside sweep by. He'd lived in the South all his life, the woods and fields and rusted out buildings and twisting, lonely back roads were so familiar that right now it hurt, because how many times had he driven roads just like this taking Merle home after he'd been out drinking until all hours at some dive bar. He never thought he'd miss it. When they broke through the vegetation and scrubby woods and turned onto the road for the prison he found his words at the last second, wanting Rick to hear them before he had to face the others.
"Thank you for coming after me. For bringing me back." There was more he wanted to say but he couldn't get the rest of the words out from between his teeth, and he was so grateful when he saw the gleam of understanding shining in Rick's eyes, preventing him from having to dig through his exhausted emotions for the words he needed. They didn't need words. They had gone beyond words a long time ago, but there were still a few Rick had left for him tonight.
"We're family. We don't leave each other."
Rick watched his friend enter the prison and he kept his distance. When it was just the two of them and no one else and they took one look at Daryl's face, they knew, just as Daryl had known they would. Carol was the first to move, gently passing Judith to Beth and getting up from her seat. She didn't wait and she didn't ask permission, she just went to him and pulled him into her, her arms strong around his shoulders, holding him close. Like always Daryl stiffened, but maybe because of the emotional exhaustion or because the final walls had shattered, he did not pull away, and Carol held on hard, and in her were the hands of the rest of the group as well. Daryl was only a man, a man made of blood, flesh, and bone. Blood could be spilt and drained away, flesh could be cut and burned, bones could be broken and shattered, but blood could also be given and replaced, flesh could be stitched and soothed, and bones could be braced and healed. Rick could see it happening already, when he saw out of the side of his eye Daryl lean ever so slightly into Carol's arms and close his eyes, opening those of the group to a broken man willing to let them put him back together. And they would, because they weren't just a group of strangers banded together to survive, they weren't even just comrades in arms trying to build a life together. They were family, and Rick knew that was the only thing that could have put Daryl back together, and so even on the eve of what might have been their deaths, there was a flare of gratefulness like the warmth of the rising sun against his skin after a long night on watch.