AN…I'm not quite sure what this is. I'm hoping and praying you all don't think it's hugely out of character, but I apologise if you do. I really dug writing this, once I got past the block in working out how to go with it. Hope you enjoy, and if you do, please let me know. I ain't ashamed to beg ;)

Big kisses to my fabulous friend, Tami, who is constantly saving me from adding in Aussie/British phrases that would be just stupid!

Part Four

It starts with something simple. She hardly takes any notice when Merle heads out to fix the outer fence with Rick while Michonne, Daryl, Maggie and Glenn set to taking down the walkers that have kept them restricted up in the top part of the prison. It's a hard day's work for all of them, and as they rest and eat up at dinner, she mentions how it's a pity they don't have any lemon trees because lemonade would have been a perfect refreshment for when they were so hard at work.

The next day, Rick decides it's time to do a run, and quite strangely, he chooses Merle to go with him. Carol spends the day nervously watching for the car's return, not even knowing why she's more worried than usual, but when they barrel through the gates, she's relieved. While Rick unloads boxes of fresh fruit they've found from trees in dead people's yards, Merle is out along the fence digging holes. Once that is done he's back and then drags out from the car's trunk a little lemon tree, and then a peach tree that had been obviously been drug up from wherever they'd found the fruit. The trees weren't tall by any stretch of the imagination, but Merle worked until his skin shone bright with sweat and those trees found their new place in their yard, and Carol imagined lemonade would be soon in their future. Rick had handed off their finds to Maggie and Beth and then grabbed two new buckets he's plucked from the car and raced off to find water, returning to Merle to give the newly replanted guests their first good dunking. Carol grins at them, looks at Merle in a new, considering light, then returns inside to cook the hell out of the rabbits Daryl caught that morning.

When she wakes up the next morning, Daryl has already left to go hunting, and Merle is out in the yard with Rick, digging again. Hershel tells her they are finally starting that garden, finding some seeds at one of the places they've raided. The men work hard, and Carol starts thinking about that lemonade that is in their future, and with that thought comes another. Merle is finding his place. Oh sure, he's still surly and insulting when he feels the need, and usually it's toward Glenn and Daryl, but once or twice she swears she's seen him smile—though one time it might have been because Carl fell on his ass one wet day when trying to open the gate.

Once the garden beds have been dug, the women go to work planting whatever seeds they are given. Carol is already salivating at the thought of fresh tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, string beans. The idea of real, fresh food makes her moan and as the sun beats down on her head, and she's licking her lips at the thought of rich, full-bodied tomato sauce, Merle is there, offering her, of all things, a hat.

She looks at it in shock. It's a garish looking thing, covered in purple and pink flowers and reminds her of something a Florida retiree might have worn in her back yard, away from judging eyes, but it's also an amazing thing because it's a gift, and it quite shockingly came from Merle.

"Found it at that house where Rick and I got them trees," he admits roughly, looking over at Maggie and Beth and their faces that are turning red from the sun. His eyes go wide and he realises the gift is now an obvious thing, rather than an offhand 'oh by the way' kind of offering, and so he shoves it on her head and stalks off as Beth and Maggie snicker together.

"Maybe on your next run you can find me and Beth a hat," Maggie shouts after him, then all three collapse in giggles as he raises his middle finger at them without turning around.

The girls look at her, wanting an explanation, but Carol ignores them and returns to the planting, a tiny smile settling on her lips. Yes, tomatoes are going to be delicious.

A week goes by and everything has settled at the prison into a steady rhythm. They eat, they talk, they laugh and they all relax in the knowledge that there isn't any crazy psycho out there gunning for their blood, and Carol starts to share her daydreams that the prison stop looking like a prison and more like the home it has become to them.

The next day, Rick announces that there will be another run. This time they will be going in the Hyundai and taking a truck—it's like Daryl's old blue one but better because it doesn't guzzle fuel like there's no tomorrow, and unlike the yesterdays they remember where fuel was plentiful as long as you had the cash, now they need to preserve it as much as possible because once they run out there will be no getting any more. Daryl, Merle, Rick and Maggie go on this run and Carol sees them off, telling them all to stay safe but finding her interests split between the Dixon brothers. Daryl takes her words with a quick smile, same as always, but Merle's eyes burn into hers until she catches her breath and wonders why her heart is beating so fast. Then he pivots and runs to catch up to Daryl and together they jump into the truck and roar off after Rick's car.

Carol takes watch with Michonne, confidently leaving Beth to entertain Judith. Hershel tends the plants with Glenn carrying the buckets of water down for him, the old man kneeling by the garden beds to pluck out any weeds. She can't help but grin happily, envisioning the tiny seedlings pushing up through the earth to feel their first kiss of the sun. This is what they'd hoped for when they first entered the prison grounds, sitting around the fire that first night talking about all their hopes with Lori and T-Dog still amongst them. It's a bittersweet memory, and completely incongruent that it's Merle that has taken the first step to giving them this when he hadn't even been with them when it was discussed.

They returned around dinnertime, just as Carol serves up the meal. There is little talk about what they've managed to find, but Maggie keeps shooting her strange looks and then the girl tries to hide her huge smile as she ducks down to voraciously shovel in her food. Carol furrows a brow in confusion. She's watching Daryl straight away, finding he's not even looking at her, but when she gets to Merle, she sees that not only is he staring holes into her, his gaze is full of raw intensity, but Rick and Glenn are watching Merle with dimmed amusement. Like they know he'll explode like a bomb if they trip the wrong wire.

"I got watch," Daryl announces once he's had his fill, dumping his plate in Carol's unsuspecting hands and treating her to a rare grin as he rushes out to his post.

Merle is frowning as he approaches her to follow the same example as his brother, his plate landing on top of the other with a clang and Carol has to quickly move to balance both plates and utensils before they fall to the floor.

"I got shit to do," he grumbles, annoyance clear in his tone as he stomps away up the stairs and to his cell.

The rest just watch her carefully, some smiling as if they know a big secret that she doesn't, and the others ignoring her in case she quizes them about it. She feels very strange by it all, but can't see the point in trying to get to the bottom of it. She's a lot more patient these days than she was in her pre-walker life. Now she knows that whatever is happening will make itself clear one day. So, after she's done the dishes and fed Judith her last bottle for the night, Carol goes to her cell and drops off into an exhausted sleep.

The over-powering stench of paint teases her nostrils as she's waking the next morning. She hasn't smelt the scent in years—the one that indicates a freshly coated room, a brand new start. A clean slate. It's not a pleasant smell—in fact, it makes her feel nervous about suffering some kind of poisoning from exposure. It makes her feel nauseous. As she gets used to this oddness, she closes her eyes and almost immediately voices start to break through, and then words, a conversation going on there but drifting up the stairs.

"I still don't get why you got pink." Glenn. Carol's frown seems to have returned from the previous night and settled further onto her brow.

"You colourblind, boy? It's not fuckin' pink. It's peach. Cain't you tell the difference? Sweet Georgia Peach—it'll pick up the sun so this shithole don't look so miserable."

"It's a prison, Merle. Only way it's not gonna be miserable is if we knock out some walls, open her right up and splash some art deco around the place."

"Yeah, well, maybe we can work out how to knock out a few of these solid cement walls…make these cells into mini apartments or somethin'. Pick up some decent beds. Furniture."

Glenn snorts and Carol's ears strain to hear it all.

"I don't think that DIY handyman book you picked up is gonna have a section on ripping out prison walls."

"Don't need that book, Asshole. Found the blueprints in the Warden's office. All's I need is a fuckin' sledgehammer an' it's as good as done."

Glenn pauses and Carol imagines him shaking his head, hands on his hips, eyeing the animal in front of him that he just would never be able to understand.

"Well," he said at last, "I hope you consider this little 'letting bygones be bygones' session when you decide to start your extensions on Maggie and my cell first. Feel free to get that sledgehammer and make our room your guinea pig." Merle started spluttering and again Carol could easily imagine Glenn putting up his hand to stop Merle from talking, and she almost lets a giggle slip when she hears his teasing voice. "Really, no need to thank us. It's the least we can do to forgive you for almost killing me. Killing the Governor and extending our room, and we can call it even." The offer seems pretty generous to Carol, and as she hurries out of bed to go and see why this crazy conversation is going on in the first place, she catches Merle's reply.

"Fine, yours first. But then you're helpin' me do the rest. Not sure how I'll go with the sledgehammer with only one hand."

Carol stumbles out of her cell and gasps. Merle and Glenn are just finishing up what looks like the first coat of paint on the prison walls. Instead of the stark white of before, the walls look decidedly…pink. It might have looked peach in the tins, but as the sun begins to slant in the few windows and shed some light in their home, the walls definitely have taken on a more pinkish hue.

Carol is absolutely delighted.

It took three days for Glenn and Merle to finish the painting, upstairs and down and in each of the cells. Carol hasn't been able to wipe the smile off her face the whole time, finding little ways to treat them both. An extra serving of the peach cobbler she's made—the first of the lemonade she's managed from squeezing the two lemons that came in on the tree. She's kept on top of their washing and even encouraged Daryl to go out and find more clothes for Merle—'cause the dirty undershirt he wears every day is starting to stand up on its own. And, in secret, she's halfway to knitting him a pair of socks.

In the morning, when the sun breathes life into the prison and lights up the now dry walls, Carol wanders out of her cell and finds Merle staring at the them in abject horror.

"Holy shit," he says as if seeing them for the first time. Glenn wanders from his cell and stands behind Merle, waiting for the recognition of what the rest of them have seen all along. He turns on the man, his face flushed and incredulous. "Why the fuck dintcha tell me the walls was fuckin' pink? You colourblind, boy?"

He stomps off as Glenn erupts, hooting with laughter so loud the prison echoes with it.

"An' that's 'nother thing," Merle shouts, furious. "This bitch needs carpet. Fella can't keep no fuckin' secrets in this shithole." He barges past Daryl, his lips curled up in anger and frustration and as everyone has now flowed out into the halls, every single last eye has turned to Carol.

She quirks a brow at them, knowing that this is it, the moment when it all becomes clear—to her, at least, because they apparently already know.

Daryl's actually grinning like a fool as he eyes her up and down.

"Hell, you went on a killin' spree with a Dixon. That's like first base. Damn fool's courtin' you."