I apologize for the long delay in posting the final chapter of this fic. Thanks for your patience!

I would like to send a special thank you to Nova802, for her kind words and support. You probably have her to thank for this chapter ever being written.

Thanks so much for all the alerts and favs and especially to everyone who took the time to review. I LOVE hearing from you.

There was a song that provided a lot of the inspiration for this chapter. If you have the time you should check out 'Everything'll Be Alright' by Catherine MacLellon.

Once more, The Walking Dead isn't mine.

She'd volunteered for watch, unable to sleep. Daryl was out there somewhere, trying to find Merle. Michonne had told them what Merle had done. It seemed he meant to take on the Governor alone and had no intention of coming back. Carol understood. He meant to prove himself. Perhaps there was some solution to all of this, if Merle could show he was an asset and not an unwanted burden.

No one had welcomed Merle. Not even her. She'd pushed the man. Imagined she'd seen something in him. 'Late Bloomer', he'd called her. And she'd thrown his words back at him. Dared him to find the potential in himself. Perhaps that hadn't been fair. She'd been so sure, in that moment. He'd reminded her of Daryl. There was another lost boy underneath that crass exterior. It had been the briefest of glimpses, but she'd seen enough to know Daryl would never give up on him. He loved his brother too much to understand that he might find Merle, but still never have what he's looking for.

Her ears perked up as below her, Rick rushed toward the gate. It was Daryl. She smothered her relieved sob into the sleeve of her jacket. He was alone. Rick spoke to him, Daryl pausing and listening without turning. He held himself stiffly. Didn't want to be touched. Rick must have sensed this too, and didn't offer comfort. Surely Merle was dead. Daryl wouldn't have returned without him.

Daryl nodded once and then headed into the prison. Rick stared after him, running a hand through his hair. The man needed to sleep. As if feeling her eyes on him, Rick looked up toward her. He gestured once, with a jerk of his head in the direction Daryl had gone. Yes, they needed Daryl, but they cared about him too. She picked up her gun and slowly descended the stairs. She would go to him.

C Block seemed empty as she made her way to Daryl's cell. The others were already trying to grab whatever sleep they could manage or were simply keeping to themselves. It occurred to her that Daryl might have planned to return at this hour, knowing he'd be able to avoid most of them.

He stood, leaning against the top bunk, fingering his crossbow that rested there. He glanced up, meeting her eyes for a moment, before returning his gaze to the worn mattress. Carol leaned against the door frame and waited. She wouldn't force him to talk, or attempt to hold him. She hoped that her presence would convey the support she offered and the comfort she wished to give.

The silence between them wasn't heavy with things unsaid. It was an easy silence, the space in the small cell filled with the simple understanding between them. Carol took the time to observe him. It was rare to have this time together, undisturbed. She noted the lines on his face, deeper now than they had been a year ago. He would have one of those craggy faces, full of character. She could attempt to smooth out the lines, but he'd earned them. Hard work, pain, fear, death, fatigue, loneliness; each line told a story. It suited him. He hadn't had an easy life and a smooth, pretty face would mask that truth. It was the lack of expression in his eyes that bothered her now.

They stood like that, unmoving, for a long time. Finally, with a sigh, Daryl shifted his weight from one leg to another and then sat down on the lower bunk. Carol took that as an invitation and carefully sat on the opposite end, leaving space between them. He still hadn't said a word, but she felt the difference in his posture. He had opened himself up, just a crack. He would hear her.

"This world never stops being cruel." She said. "So we have to be good to each other."

He looked at her, blankly. Waiting.

"When Sophia walked out of that barn, I lost everything." Carol began. "I had failed as a mother. I hadn't protected her. She had been alone and scared and I didn't come. I didn't save her. That's what a mother is, you know. A mother is that space in the world that is completely safe and sorrow free. A place where the monsters can't get you. I know, down to my bones, that up until her last moment she was expecting me to appear and make everything alright."

Daryl shifted uncomfortably, but Carol couldn't stop now. Some things had been buried for far too long.

"It's an ugly, painful thing to think about, so I try not to. That's the one convenience about fearing for your life all the time. It distracts you from those thoughts and memories. But I do think about her and I remember exactly how she felt in my arms the last time I held her. Some days that is too much to bear. Other days, it's a comfort and a blessing. She was the best of me. I loved her. And she loved me."

Carol blinked furiously and took a breath. She didn't need to hide anything from this man.

"That day, when you sat with me in Dale's camper, was the worst day of my life. I just wanted to be numb and not have to feel any of it. It was too much. The others left me alone. Everyone except you. Do you even know why?"

Carol shook her head, not needing an answer.

"Sitting in that trailer, accepting that I'd never hold my little girl again, I also realized that I was truly alone in the world now. She had been the only one, you see. She loved me. And then she was gone. She was the last person who loved me. You don't even recognize how important that is until it's gone.

"And I've worked hard. I wasn't anyone's mother anymore, but I needed to feel useful. I needed to contribute and not be a burden. I needed to prove I was worth keeping around. And perhaps become important enough not to be forgotten. The others, they left me alone. But you never did. You always saw me there. I'm so grateful for you."

Carol paused, gathering her courage. He wasn't looking at her now, which made it easier.

"I'm sorry about Merle. Truly, I am. I know what he meant to you and that you hoped he'd be accepted into the group like you were. He was your brother. You loved him."

Carol stared at her hands, folded in her lap.

"But you've got to know something. Merle was not the only person in this world who loved you. Your brother is gone, but you're not alone. I'm here." Carol paused. "And I love you." She breathed.

Her words hung there for a long stretch of time, unanswered. She hadn't been hoping for a declaration. Not anymore. But some acknowledgment that he'd heard her, might ease the hammering of her heart. Deciding that she'd intruded long enough, Carol rose from the bed, turning to leave.

"Don't go." He whispered. She turned around. His head was bowed, but he held his hand out toward her. She took it. He pulled her down to sit beside him, clenching her hand tightly.

"Merle wasn't as bad as he made out." Daryl said. "Not always. I know he was an ass and he liked pissing people off." Daryl shrugged. "His loud mouth saved me more times than I can count. Daddy barely knew I was there before Merle left. He made sure of that. Would piss the old man off on purpose, just to keep the attention on himself. Away from me. And her."

Daryl turned his head and faced her. His eyes were bloodshot and his body sagged with exhaustion.

"He shouldn't have gone out there like that. On his own."

"He was still protecting you. That was the place he made for himself. We won't forget him." Carol said. "You should get some sleep. It isn't over yet."

"Will you stay?" He asked.

Carol nodded. "Always."

It took a bit of shuffling, the removal of jackets and boots and the brief release of her hand, before they were settled in the bed. Carol lay on her side, facing the wall, expecting to feel Daryl's back supporting hers. It had been so long since they'd slept together. She was surprised when she felt him spoon her, his arm snaking around her hip to hold her tightly in place.

"I'm not going anywhere." She teased gently.

"I'm gonna make damned sure of it." He said, squeezing her even more tightly.

Carol felt safe, bundled in his arms. Whatever tomorrow might bring, she'd had this moment of perfect contentedness.

Daryl kissed her just under her earlobe, whispering softly, "Sophia wasn't the last person to love you."

Carol pulled his hand up to her lips and kissed his fingertips, before pressing his hand against her chest and holding it there. She'd finally given him her heart and each beat against his palm was steady. Her love was safe in his hands. They fell asleep holding each other, exposed and protected.

That was just the first time.

The End