This fic was written for the h/c bingo prompt "grief" and the trope bingo prompt "character in distress."
Not without hope we suffer and we mourn.
It's nearly dark when Daryl arrives back at the prison. Carol's heart has been in her throat ever since Michonne returned, but the relief she feels when he steps inside the common room is quickly replaced by a growing sense of dread when she realizes that he's alone. And covered in gore. He seems calm, disturbingly so, as he approaches the loose circle they've all gathered in while waiting for him; as he draws closer she can see the tension wound tight in his body, though, in the taut set of his shoulders and in his clenched fists. He catches her eye briefly before looking at Rick.
"Merle's dead," he says, his usual gruffness even more pronounced.
Rick winces, and Carol knows that even though he didn't particularly like Merle, he feels the weight of the man's death on his shoulders like he does every one that's gone before him. But she barely has time to spare any sympathy for Rick because her concern is immediately drawn back to Daryl.
"What happened?" Rick asks. "Michonne told us you went after him."
She can see his throat working as he struggles to get out the words. "Met up with the Governor and got himself shot in the chest, point blank by the looks of it. Didn't kill the son of a bitch, but he managed to take out about a half dozen of his men, though. Maybe more." He stares at the floor. "I got there too late."
There's something he's not telling them, and Carol feels sick when she realizes what it probably is.
"Wait. Shot in the…chest?" Glenn asks, his voice faltering when he realizes it, too. They're all thinking the same thing by now.
"Yeah. He turned. Had to put him down."
Oh, God. They're all just staring at him, unsure of what to say.
Rick steps towards him, ready to comfort him. "Daryl, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have…"
"Ain't your fault," Daryl says, cutting him off. "Merle did what he wanted, like always." Rick takes another step towards him, his hand reaching for Daryl's shoulder, but Daryl gracefully sidesteps him on his way out of the room.
He spares a glance at Michonne as he leaves. "Ain't your fault, neither," he says, and she nods her thanks. "Gonna go get cleaned up."
Carol finds him in one of the guard towers, later. She expects him to be pacing frantically or maybe punching a wall, but he's not. He's just sitting on the concrete floor with his back against the cold, stone wall, one knee drawn up to his chest. He gazes up at her when she reaches the top of the stairs, looking more exhausted than she's ever seen him before.
"If you're going to tell me you want to be left alone," she says gently, "save your breath."
His mouth quirks at one corner and then he looks down at his hands, shaking his head. "Nah. 'S alright."
She slides down next to him, and they sit in comfortable silence for awhile. She doesn't have to say she's sorry, because he knows that she is. She doesn't have to say she understands how it feels to lose the only family you have left in the world, because he knows that she does. She doesn't have to tell him that she knows how it feels to have someone you love look at you with dead, hungry eyes, because he was there when it happened to her. She just wants him to remember that even though it might feel like it right now, he's not alone.
"I really thought I could make it work," he finally says. His voice breaks, and he puts a hand to his forehead, rubbing it fiercely. "I thought he could be part of the group."
"I think he was trying," she says.
He just shrugs his shoulders. "Maybe."
"I talked to him before he left," she says. "I wanted to know if he was really with us."
He gives her a sideways glance. "And how'd that go?"
"He said he was here for you. And he was." Daryl nods and looks away, but not before she sees him blinking back tears. "He also called me a late bloomer," she says, trying to lighten the mood a little.
Daryl snorts in amusement. "Guess he kinda had that right."
She smiles big. "You think?"
"Ever even kill a spider before all this?" he asks her. When she just grins bigger he nods his head. "Yeah. Thought so. And look at ya now, all badass and shit."
She laughs out loud at that. "Well, I'm no Michonne."
He leans his head back against the wall and closes his eyes, a wry smile on his lips. "Well, who is?"
She closes her eyes, too. And although neither of them seem to be moving, she feels the small spaces between them slowly shift and contract until the two of them are pressed together, shoulder to knee, the warmth of their bodies a contrast to the chill in the air and the hard concrete floor.
"I know it ain't the same," he says, his voice so soft she can barely hear him, even as close as they are, "but how…how do you even…?" He trails off, but she knows what he's trying to ask. How do you handle something like watching your child die, or killing your own brother, both of them become monsters before your eyes? How do you even begin to cope with the things you have to do in this world? How do any of them?
The weight and horror of it all hangs there in the air around them. Suddenly, her head feels as heavy as her heart, and she rests it against his shoulder. The worn fabric of his shirt is soft against her cheek, and the old leather smell of his vest comforts her, like it always has.
She loves every single member of her new-found family, and they've all helped her immensely over the last several months, in dozens of ways. But when she remembers that long winter after Sophia died and the farm fell, it's Daryl who comes to mind. She thinks about the hours spent riding behind him on his motorcycle with her arms wrapped around him, the only thing she had to hold on to. She recalls his solid presence at her back as he taught her to shoot and hold a knife, and his quiet confidence that somehow, some way, they were going to be all right.
"I got through it," she says, "because you were there for me. I had you, Daryl." She'll be there for him, they all will, if only he'll let them.
She holds her hand out, a silent offering. And waits. And after a moment, he takes it.
He's going to be all right, too.