Disclaimer I do not own the rights to anything pertaining to the walking dead. Including their characters, plot or dialogue. I have merely borrowed them for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement is intended.
Carol was on watch still, even though both Axel and Carl had tried to relieve her. She couldn't bear to leave the wall while he was still out there. The sun had set and twilight was deepening fast and still there was no sign of Daryl.
Michonne had come back alone, telling them that Merle had let her go, and gone on without her. He hadn't told her what he had planned, but she knew he was up to something. She had met Daryl on her trek back, and he had gone after Merle, telling her not to let anyone come after him.
Rick said that Daryl knew what he was doing, and that they should just sit tight and wait for him. Just thinking about Rick had Carol seeing red again. Sending Michonne to that man was horrible, not telling anyone was worse, but using the Dixon boys for his dirty work was simply deplorable. How could he justify the things he had done? And how could he expect them to just condone it? If Daryl didn't come back, she didn't think she could ever forgive Rick.
Her musings were interrupted by something odd at the tree line. She raised her rifle for a closer look through the scope. As she caught sight of what it was, her heart dropped to her feet. Oh no.
She called out to Carl, who was sitting below her by the gate. He was angry at Rick as well, and appeared as unwilling as she to return indoors yet. "It's him. He's back. Get ready to open the gate."
Carl quickly got up and began to run to the side of the tower making noise to draw the walkers away from the gate. As Daryl approached, stumbling under the weight of his burden, Carol ran out of the tower to meet him. She reached the gate at the same time as he did, Carl coming back just in time to open it for him.
As he stumbled through, Carol reached out to help him, only to recoil in horror at the body he carried. She knew it would be Merle, but she hadn't expected the ghastly sight that met her eyes. He had clearly been killed and left to turn, and Daryl must've put him down. His face was mostly gone, courtesy of Daryl's outpouring of grief and rage, but she could still tell it was Merle. Or had been at one time, anyway.
She could hear the others coming up behind her at a run, but didn't turn to look. Daryl's head came up just then, and their eyes locked. The raw pain and anguish she saw there hit her hard. She reached out to him, wrapping her arms around him.
At the same time Rick and Axle lifted Merle's body from his shoulders, his knees buckled and he collapsed against her. She went to her knees with him, holding him tightly. She could feel him trembling, the physical exertion, emotional anguish, and mental exhaustion having taken him to the breaking point.
The weight of Merle's body being lifted from him, coupled with the support of her arms around him, seemed to break the tenuous hold he had on his emotions, and she felt him press his face into the curve of her neck, trying in vain to hide his outpouring of grief from the others gathering around.
His arms found their way around her waist, and he held on as if she were his salvation. His lifeline. The only thing keeping him from sinking into the sea of emotion he was floundering through.
She was only dimly aware that the group were all standing around watching her comfort this broken man. Her focus was solely on Daryl and his need for her at the moment. Glenn and Axel went to begin digging Merle's grave and the other slowly dispersed as well, leaving them alone for the moment.
After a while, his heart wrenching sobs quieted, and his fierce hold on her loosened a bit. He still trembled in her arms and he kept his face pressed against her for several more minutes before he pulled back from her. She released him slowly and reluctantly, hating to have him leave her arms.
He kept his head down avoiding her eyes. He was ashamed of his show of emotion. He was such a little boy in so many ways. She sat quietly waiting for him to adjust to her presence and letting him know it was okay.
Slowly, he lifted his eyes to hers. His face was blotchy, his eyes puffy, and the pain still visible but he was in control again. She didn't try to touch him again at the moment, knowing he would shy away from her like a skittish colt, she instead offered him a soft smile. "You all right?"
"Wanna talk about it?"
"No." She nodded and stayed silent knowing that her presence was enough for him. He had to work through this for himself.
"I need to go bury him." His voice was hoarse and gravelly, but she heard him. "Yes, I know. Glenn and Axel are digging the grave now. They will come get us when it's ready."
He nodded and looked down again. His shoulders slumping in fatigue and resignation. She knew how completely exhausted he was when he didn't argue about the others' involvement. Instead, he was simply allowing the rest of the group to take care of the details for him. Her heart ached for him and she could no longer refrain from reaching for him again.
"Oh Daryl, I'm so sorry." She shifted closer to him, raising herself up on her knees, putting them at eye level and cupping his cheek with her left hand. He turned his face into her hand, his eyes closed. She brought her other hand up to brush his hair away from his eyes. He covered her left hand with his own, kissing her palm, before turning tear filled eyes to hers. Her heart broke for him as she watched a single tear escape and trail down his cheek. His features remain impassive as he looked at her, and she felt her own tears falling in empathy with him.
She leaned forward, brushing her lips to his temple, and pulling his head to her chest. His arms found her waist again, and although there were no open sobs this time, the tears flowed freely from them both.
This was how Hershel found them some time later. The others had watched them for a while, unwilling to approach and intrude on such an intimate scene of grief and solace. They all knew that Daryl would not want anyone else to witness such vulnerability on his part. It wasn't his way to let others see him show any sign of weakness. The very fact that he was allowing Carol into this most private moment, was shocking in and of itself and showed a much deeper connection between the two that no one else had fully realized.
"Daryl, Carol, we're ready for you if you want to come down to the grave site." Hershel stepped up next to them, laying his hand on Daryl's shoulder. "If you need more time though, it's okay. We can wait until you're ready."
Daryl shook his head slowly, looking at the ground. "No." He looked up taking a deep breath to steady himself. "No, I'm ready. Let's get this done." He stood and reached down to Carol, pulling her to her feet. Her legs were asleep from the kneeling position she had been in for so long and she stumbled as she tried to gain her footing. Hershel reached out to her, but Daryl was closer and faster and caught her against him. He held her there a moment, and without a word wrapped an arm around her waist, holding her firmly to his side as they began to make their way down the prison yard.
Although Daryl seemed oblivious to the wide eyed stares of the others watching them approach like that, Carol was very much aware of how it looked. Her heart hammered in her chest, and she felt out of breath. She managed to calm down by reminding herself that Daryl was grieving his brother, and probably didn't even realize what he was doing. He just needed the comfort of his best friend. She would be there for him no matter what. After all, it was the least she could do. Hadn't he been her rock, her salvation after Sophia?
Hershel had spoken with Rick about saying a few words over Merle, and though Rick felt like he should do it, Hershel persuaded Rick to allow him to do it instead. He knew that Carol blamed Rick for what happened, and wasn't sure how Daryl would feel about it.
" I know that we are all sorry that you have lost your brother, Daryl." Hershel began. " It's never easy to lose someone, and we won't pretend that it is. Merle was an ornery son of a bitch," This brought forth a chuckle from Daryl as well as the rest of the group. "but his love for you was obvious to us all. In the end, Merle did the best he could to show that to you. He sacrificed himself to give us a chance. To give YOU a chance, Daryl. 'No greater love has any man, than to lay down his life for another.' No matter what faults Merle may have had, you can rest assured in the knowledge that he loved you more than his own life. May he find the peace and rest deserving of such love."
Hershel clapped a hand on Daryl's shoulder, and Daryl nodded to him. Then he took up the shovel and threw in the first scoop of earth. As he walked away, each person did the same, throwing in a shovel full of dirt, and offering a murmured condolence and a handshake or hug to Daryl as they passed him to go back into the prison. Through it all, Daryl never loosened his grip on Carol's waist, and she never attempted to leave his side.
Rick had hung back until everyone else had gone save Glenn, who was standing a ways off waiting for them to finish so he could fill the grave in the rest of the way. He finally approached Daryl and Carol. He kept looking around, always a sure sign he needed to say something but wasn't sure how. Finally, he looked at Carol. "Can I speak to Daryl for a minute?"
"Oh, um, yeah-" She started to step away, but Daryl's arm tightened around her pulling her back.
"Nah. Whatever you gotta say, can be said in front of her." Daryl spoke softly, but there was an edge to his voice. Carol stilled in his arm, and looked from one man to the other.
"Alright then," Rick agreed. He smiled slightly at Carol and ducked his head. " I just
wanted to tell you how sorry I am for this, Daryl. It's my fault that Merle went out there in the first place. I know that. I can't take it back or change it, but I just wanted you to know that I realize that it's on me. It was my mistake, my bad decision and Merle and you had to pay for it. For that I am truly sorry." He looked Daryl in the eye as he finished. The intensity on his face clearly asking for forgiveness and absolution. Daryl watched him for a moment before looking off toward the horizon and then down at the grave of his brother. When he finally spoke, the edge was gone from his voice, replaced with a bone deep weariness. "Yeah, well. It's not your fault he did what he did. He coulda come back with Michonne if he'd a wanted. We're good." He glanced back up at Rick with a nod, and Rick let out an audible sigh of relief. He smiled at Daryl and placed a hand on his shoulder.
Anger bubbled up in Carol and she spoke before she even realized she had opened her mouth. "No. It's not okay. Rick, you have to stop. You have to stop expecting Daryl to take care of your dirty work and clean up your messes." Both men started at her vehement tone, but she was too angry to stop now. "We love you Rick, and God knows you do what you think is best for us, but when you make a mistake, make a mess of things, Daryl is always the one that cleans it up. He's the one that puts things right and fixes it. Usually at great personal cost to him, and it needs to stop. You're only human and you're gonna make mistakes. I'm not blaming you for that, but when you do, you need to not expect Daryl to always clean it up. He does it cause he believes in you and loves you. We all do, but you gotta start staying on track until it's all over. You can't bail out when it gets tough and expect Daryl to fix it." Her chest was heaving and her voice had risen during her tirade. Glenn had wandered a little closer to hear better and a few of the others had wandered back down their way, curious as to the cause of her agitation.
Rick stared at her and the muscle in his jaw ticked. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other before speaking. "You really think I don't follow through? That I just expect Daryl to clean up my mistakes?" He looked away for a moment and when he glanced back he spoke again. " I don't expect Daryl to clean up after me. But I'll admit that I have allowed him to do exactly that more times than I care to think about. I guess maybe I have taken it for granted that he would step in, but I never set out to do that. I don't see Daryl in that respect, Carol. I swear to you that I love Daryl like a brother, and if I rely on him too heavily, I'm sorry. I'm sorry that it hurts you to see him hurting like this. I know how much you care for him." he stopped a moment and glanced back and forth between them. "Maybe I didn't before now, but I don't think there's any mistaking that now either. I can't change the past, but I'll try not to leave Daryl to shoulder my mistakes alone anymore."
Before he could turn away, Daryl reached out and caught his shoulder with his free hand, never letting Carol go with the other. "Hey man, wait." he glanced at Carol and then back to Rick. "It's not like that. I don't see it as cleaning up your messes or carrying the burden of your mistakes. I told you before that there was no reason for you to do all the heavy lifting, and if my shoulders are strong enough to carry some of the weight, I'm willing to do it. It's what family does. And we are family." He looked at Carol again. "It's not Rick's fault, Carol. Merle did his own thing and Rick couldn't have predicted it. I should have but didn't. Rick's not at fault for this."
Carol stared into his eyes as he spoke and saw how earnest he was. She wanted to stay angry with Rick, but if Daryl really did feel like this was his way of stepping up, could she really criticize him for that? She turned back to Rick with a sigh, "I'm sorry Rick. I'm just upset and let my emotions take over my mouth. I don't like seeing Daryl go through this. Losing Merle again so soon after finally getting him back. I shouldn't have blamed you." She looked at Merle's grave at her feet. She realized that she was projecting her own feelings of grief over Sophia on top of what had happened with Merle. She placed a hand on Rick's arm. "Please excuse my anger. It was misplaced."
"No, it wasn't. I get it. I'd have felt the same way, maybe even angrier. It's okay. You guys go clean up and get some rest. Glenn and I will finish up here and be up in a little while." He smiled at her, then leaned in and kissed the top of her head before turning away and picking up a shovel. Daryl tugged at her waist and pulled her away and back toward the prison. His steps were slow and unsteady and she realized just how exhausted he really was. It was time to get him cleaned up and in bed.