Author's note, disclaimer, etc: Like most fanfics, I don't own any of these characters. That being said, I've realized that I love writing about them! Anyway, this is my first ever fanfic and I really enjoyed writing it... So I hope you enjoy reading! If you liked it or if you didn't (you know, whatever floats your boat) please leave a review and let me know what you think... Here we go!
And love is not the easy thing
The only baggage you can bring
Is all that you can't leave behind
- U2, "Walk On"
His chest heaved every time he inhaled. He took uneven, ragged breaths as the late afternoon sun beat down on him and the corpses. Arms spread wide like a child making an angel in the snow, Daryl suddenly wished he could close his eyes and forget everything he had just seen, everything he had just felt. He wanted to be swallowed into the earth.
It seemed like it had been hours, but he was sure only minutes had passed since he'd arrived at the Governor's designated meeting place. Was this how Carol had felt? Daryl grimaced at the thought. He didn't need to add the sight of that little girl stumbling out of the barn to the list of things causing him pain at the moment. His body felt like a lead weight. His awareness of his surroundings was minimal; the trees he could see out of the corner of his eyes were blurred. The birds and insects in the woods nearby were chirping and buzzing happily but all Daryl could hear was a loud ringing in his ears.
He had a sudden urge to take his knife and drive it into the back of his own hand, certain the pain of the blade piercing his skin would be better than the numbness he currently felt; anything had to feel better than the complete emptiness that had consumed him since putting Merle down. The only thing that stopped him was the reminder that his knife was dirty; it was soaked in the blood of a walker. A walker that shared his blood. How was this possible? Nobody could kill Merle but Merle. It had crossed Daryl's mind that maybe Merle had set off on a suicide mission after realizing he would never be welcomed by the prison group. But Daryl had seen other human bodies lying amongst the walkers. These must have been the Governor's men. Merle had gone out swinging. The knowledge that Merle had done what he could to protect his baby brother only made Daryl more miserable.
He rolled over onto his side and tried to refocus his eyes. He spotted his crossbow lying only a few feet away, equidistant between him and his dead brother. He felt almost too weak to lift himself up off the ground. He'd only been walking for a few hours, but his feet felt tired and blistered. The fingers that had gripped his knife were still curled into a loose fist. His eyelids were swollen and his lips were dry. He could feel the salt that had dried onto his cheeks.
He'd never cried this much before, not even when his mother had died. He instantly knew why he'd always tried so hard to push people away. The loss – the inevitable, awful loss –of those closest to you would devour you unless you fought your way out of it. That's what he and Merle had always done. They'd fought – outsiders and, occasionally, each other – to survive. There wasn't anyone remaining in this world who would understand exactly what Daryl had grown up with, and it was that feeling, above all others, that made Daryl feel alone.
After what seemed like an eternity, he pushed himself up into a seated position, forearms trembling and weak. Without looking at Merle's face, he crawled towards his brother and looked up and down his body. His left hand was missing two fingers. Daryl winced when he considered how much that must have hurt his brother, forgetting that he'd been strong enough to saw his own hand off on a rooftop in Atlanta.
His eyes then moved across his brother's chest, where he saw it: a single gunshot wound. The realization of what had happened dawned on Daryl and a newfound pulse of rage swelled up inside of him. When he'd ended Merle's undead life, he'd been consumed by a blind rage, a pure anger and hatred towards the cruel world that could take loved ones away, only to taunt their kin by bringing their bodies back to life. But this –this realization that a human being could purposefully do such a cruel and disrespectful thing to his brother built a new, focused anger in him.
He stood up, hesitating for a second as the blood rushed from his head to the rest of his body. He leaned over and picked up his crossbow, swinging it over his back. He then picked up his knife, wiping it on his pants before carefully inserting it back into his belt loop. For a few moments he considered going to Woodbury that instant, storming their barricades and putting an arrow through the Governor's forehead. But another part of him – the part that had flourished since they'd found Merle's hand on the roof – thought better of that plan. It would be dark soon. He'd never made the journey to Woodbury on foot and he didn't want to be ambushed by a walker, or worse.
Back on his two feet, Daryl allowed himself to remember the day Shane had opened the barn. He'd held Carol against him, against her will, as Sophia ambled towards them. He hadn't meant for it to be an act of compassion - or worse, love. He'd merely wanted to save Carol from herself and prevent the group's numbers from dwindling further. Yet, as he slowly and painfully made his way back to the prison, he realized that he was the only who had tried to stop her. The others had been paralyzed by shock and despair. Daryl had been the only one with enough sense to stop Carol from running into the arms of death.
He hadn't been able to understand Carol's actions then. Why would she willingly run towards a monster, something she knew was dangerous? She should have known and understood the threat. But then, as Daryl trudged over dead branches and mossy stones, he realized that he'd just done the exact same thing. He'd pushed Merle away, not once, not twice, but three times. It was the only way he had been able to touch his brother without being harmed by him. He couldn't put him down – not right away. If he hadn't become consumed by the fury that had burst inside of him he, too, would have probably done exactly what Carol had done. Only in his case, nobody would have been there to keep him from his brother's embrace.
From the bunk in her cell Carol listened for the noises of the others as they gathered their belongings. Every few minutes she could hear the shuffling of boots on the cold concrete of the prison floor, or the muffled, hushed voices of those nearest to her in the cell block. Even though they were the sole living occupants of the prison, the impending, inevitable assault on their refuge had made their words seem precious; there seemed to be an unspoken fear that if they spoke too loudly their voices would bounce off the grey walls, stretching farther away from the nearest living thing and spiralling into the darkness of the tombs. Carol considered the prison to be a home, but it was a home that had taken much more than it had given. They had already lost so many lives and happy moments to this place. The walls of the prison didn't deserve these secrets, these private conversations.
Carol leaned forward in her bunk, her feet solidly pressed into the ground, resting her elbows on her knees. She stretched her hands out in front of her, spreading her fingers wide, and then balled them into fists. She repeated this movement over again, watching as her knuckles turned white every time her pale skin stretched at the joints. She had already packed the few remaining possessions she had; it hadn't taken her long. She knew what was needed to survive out there, and most of it was communal, packed into duffel bags that had already been loaded into the cars. Her backpack contained only her spare clothes, her toothbrush and Sophia's tattered, filthy doll.
Despite what the others may have thought, Carol didn't keep the doll because it reminded her of Sophia; she had plenty of memories of her daughter to draw upon if need be. She kept the doll because of the hope it represented and the selflessness that had been required to get it back. In the days after the barn had been opened, Carol had kept the doll hidden away, stashed in the back of a cupboard in Dale's RV. She hadn't liked imagining how Sophia may have dropped it after tripping on a tree root in the woods while futilely attempting to outpace the walkers that had pursued her. It had pained her even more to imagine her little girl losing a grip on the doll as her hands trembled in shock and her body was overcome with the terrible fever.
But as she came out of the grieving process, she'd realized that she, Carol, was still alive. She didn't share blood with any other members of the group, but then, only the Grimes and Greene families could lay claim to that. And then she'd seen that others around her still had hope for the future. She had seen it in Lori's eyes when she'd instinctively rub her slowly growing belly. She had seen it in Dale as he nervously wringed his hat in his hands while Andrea had agreed that they should keep Randall alive. And finally, she realized that she'd seen it in T-Dog's hand as he carried it towards the Greene's farmhouse after Daryl had come back looking only slightly more alive than the walkers he'd narrowly escaped. She knew that Daryl wasn't the only one who would risk his life for another in the group, and so she kept the doll as a testament to the humanity and compassion that had kept them all together.
Yet as she looked over at her backpack propped up against the side of the bunk, she could only think of the doll and what Daryl had done that day: what he'd done for her little girl and what he'd done for her. She remembered the story Andrea had told her one day, while Carol had been voicing her thoughts out loud and wondering why it was that Daryl looked relentlessly for Sophia even as the others' interest in her search waned. Alone in the cell, she realized that as selfless of an act as retrieving that doll had been, Daryl had also done it for the child he once was.
She tried to imagine what it must have been like to be a child in an abusive household. She squeezed her eyelids shut and reminded herself that Sophia hadn't lived like Daryl, that Sophia had a mother who cared for her dearly and tried to protect her, even though she could hardly ever protect herself. Daryl, on the other hand, had a mother who went up in flames and a father who undoubtedly deserved the same fate as his wife. From the tidbits of his past that Daryl had ever shared with her, Carol knew that he had been raised in joint custody by his father's belt, the backwoods and Merle.
A wave of sadness washed over her as she came out of her late evening reverie. She shouldn't be thinking these thoughts now, not when the Governor and his so-called army were at their doorstep with heavy artillery and promises of suffering. She shouldn't be sitting by her lonesome, pitying the one person who had never shown her pity, but silently understood her pain. Daryl was the closest anyone had ever come to being what she considered a soul mate. Do such things exist anymore? she wondered. After all, pickings were mighty slim at the end of the world. Yes, they do, another part of her answered.
Just then, a peal of laughter broke out from the cell where Maggie and Glenn were packing their own bags. They most definitely do. She loved each member of the group like family. She wished they could have stayed at the prison and healed from the loss of T-Dog and Lori as a group. But that wasn't how life was anymore; there was no time to properly mourn, heal and move on. They simply let the blows come; picking up what was left after the beatings and continuing on past the end of the world. Is this really what we've become?
Despite her best efforts, Carol couldn't help but look back at the backpack sitting a little ways down the mattress from her, challenging her to push forward with pragmatism but pulling her back with nostalgia. If this is what we've really become, she continued, "then why did I pack the doll?" She said this last part out loud. Maybe, just this time, the rough cinderblock would have an answer for her.
After a few moments of silence, she had answered the question herself. This wasn't what they'd become. This wasn't what Rick's speech earlier had been about. He had been about reclaiming their humanity, banding together. It was true that they were gearing up for war, and Carol was determined to fight for her life and for the others. Above all, though, she wanted to fight for compassion. She wanted to keep that aspect of the past alive until the bitter end. She couldn't see why they should lose that now, and so Carol promised herself that tonight, as she said her goodbyes to the thin mattress and cold metal bars, she would cherish every bit of empathy she had come across in her past, and make every effort to share that kindness with others.
"It's as good a night as any," she admitted aloud, smiling to herself when she realized that she had echoed Daryl's exact words from what seemed like ages ago. The thought of him made her stomach clench. She ran her boots back and forth over the hard floor. She could feel the dirt and stones roll under the treads. When Daryl had spoken those words he had been referring to the act of letting go of life. Carol reached above her head and pulled herself up from underneath the bunk she used to occupy when Lori was still with them. She had spoken those words to remind herself that tonight, more than ever, they needed to hold on to each other and to the last vestiges of hope for the future that still hung in the damp prison air.
Carol paused before leaving her cell. Sometimes, on the quietest of nights before falling asleep, she could hear Daryl compulsively tapping a bolt against the frame of his crossbow. He played the weapon like an instrument, and she liked to imagine that every so often he would twirl a bolt around his finger like a drummer adding a flourish to a concert-ending solo. On rare occasions, his bag of bolts or the crossbow itself would slip off the edge of his bunk. The clang of metal against concrete would ring throughout the cellblock, followed by a string of curse words that Daryl would mutter under his breath.
Carol knew that these nightly disturbances tended to wake the others, but not her. She could lie awake for hours before falling asleep, not because she thought too much about what the next day would bring, but because she thought too little. When Sophia had gone missing, she would silently weep as she willed her eyes to close and embrace the peaceful sleep that those around her seemed to enjoy. But now, she realized that she could find peace by staying awake, listening to water rhythmically drip from the prison taps and smiling as Daryl cursed himself for waking the others.
Tonight, however, there was no way Carol would have been able to hear him through the cinderblock, not with the reserved commotion of those around her. It didn't matter anyway; she knew he wasn't preparing his crossbow for the upcoming fight. She also knew his possessions were still strewn across the cell, exactly how he'd left them before leaving to find Merle.