A/N: The sign of good writing is that it makes you feel. Well, S03:E15 made me do precisely that, and I couldn't help but write this little one shot of how I think Daryl's going to handle everything. Be warned—there are MAJOR spoilers included. So, if you have not watched all the way through Season 3, do not (and I repeat DO NOT) read . . . unless you want to be spoiled. For those of you who do read, I hope you enjoy and be sure to leave a review! Thanks much!

A Brother's Lament

He didn't remember getting up off of the ground.

Nor, did he remember leaving the outskirts of Woodbury and the mangled remains of his brother behind. Yet, here he was, slowly trekking through the woods—boots crunching lightly over fallen leaves, crossbow slung lazily over his back. He supposed that at one point the growling snarls that grew ever louder as the animated corpses impeded on his location—blackened lips pulled back and peeling from rotten faces—mixed with pure instinct caused him to move, but he couldn't force his mind to go backwards and focus on that single point in time.

Instead, he was currently reliving the events that had brought him to this exact moment.

The thought that his brother was dead had crossed his mind a million times—ever since he had lost ties with Merle after he was handcuffed and left on that godforsaken rooftop in Atlanta—but never had he expected it to be like this.

It was his brother; there was no doubt about it. It was his brother's face—the face that he had grown to hate, even though he couldn't quite seem to find it within himself to stop loving it—that had turned up toward him. But, even though it looked like the man he had grown up beside, it wasn't him.

Blank, reddened eyes stared back from hollowed out eye sockets; blood and tendons dangled from a scowling mouth; a hole gaped in his chest where his cold heart should have resided.

It wasn't his brother anymore, and he knew that.

Yet, there was something holding him back, rooting him solidly to the ground.

He had killed dozens, no hundreds of walkers. This one should be no different. The walking corpse was just the shell of a being that used to be. There should be no emotional attachments—you just put it down.

But this was different—so much more than he had ever imagined.

And as the ghost of his brother stood on shaky legs, advancing with a menacing growl deep in his throat, his sadness was replaced with a new emotion.

Anger.

His brother was finally back with him, right next to him where he belonged. And Daryl had told him—warned him—that things needed to change.

Because times had changed.

But, the goddamned son of a bitch wouldn't listen. Merle didn't believe that they needed the other people in the group just as much as they needed each other.

A ball of resentment formed in his chest and caused his jaw to clench. Hardening from the inside out, the thought invaded his mind before he could stop it:

Well fine then, good riddance. He got what he deserved.

Vehemently, he readjusted the strap of his crossbow on his shoulder.

Merle deserved everything that came his way. From the time he was born, Merle was never there—even when he was physically around. He was abusive and mean—beating and demeaning him constantly . . . because Merle only cared about Merle.

It had taken time for Daryl to realize that. It had taken many nights of being angry and bitter that Merle had been left (and had left him) in Atlanta. But, after the spite had dissipated, he came to realize that he was much better off without him. He was able to finally grow—grow as a man and a group member. He found a new family—one that accepted him, relied on him, did everything for him that Merle was never able to do.

And he quickly came to realize that this was the only thing that he had ever wanted.

And, just like he needed the group, he also relied on them. He saw the importance of other people in these times of need.

Merle had just fucked it all up by showing back up in his life.

So, fine—fuck Merle. He didn't need him anymore. He had been fine before and he would be fine now.

A familiar ache filled his core once more and Daryl found himself softening.

But, blood was thicker than water. And, in the end, Merle was still his brother . . . he had no choice in the matter.

A lump formed in his throat and he swallowed thickly around it. He could feel his emotions welling, his eyes beginning to fill with tears, and Merle's voice was in his mind—once more mocking him—even from the grave—for being weak . . . a sissy.

Shaking his head, he clenched his jaw and pushed the feelings away. He had cried enough for his brother. He could guarantee that his brother had never cried for him, so he would not shed one more tear for Merle fucking Dixon.

Distracted by his thoughts, Daryl did not see the walker that was slowly emerging from the woods at his left.

A male corpse, dressed in a tattered business suit—a tie hanging crooked and loose from a thin and ropey neck—staggered forward, bony fingers reaching blindly, its mouth gaped. Half of its face was pulled back or missing totally—exposing rotted muscles and corded tendons. Oily drool dripped—black and thick—from decomposing lips.

It was a branch snapping sharply that drew Daryl quickly back to reality.

Caught off guard, he grabbed for his crossbow and spun toward the noise. But, the debris that littered the forest floor quickly tangled around his feet and, without warning, he found himself tripping, and then falling—landing hard on the dirt.

The impact knocked his crossbow out of his hands—just beyond the reach of his fingertips. And it was at that exact moment, to Daryl's great dismay, that the walker reached him.

Frenzied, the animated corpse fell on top of him, teeth gnashing as he growled and spit, attempting for Daryl's exposed forearm.

Instinct once more kicked in. The zombie was millimeters from his exposed flesh, but he was still able to fight him off—hands pushing at the decaying man's body—as he tried to keep sharp fingers and teeth away from him. Finally able to push him an arm's length away, Daryl rolled onto his left hip—just enough that he could grab the hunting knife that remained cased on his right side.

Fingers wrapping lightly around the handle, he unsheathed the 8-inch Bowie and, using all of his strength, thrust it up into the nasal cavity of the cadaver. The walker stilled—its blank eyes staring blindly—and stilled. Then, relaxing forward, it slumped motionless on top of him.

Breathing heavily, Daryl pulled the knife out. It released with a sickening squish, rotten flesh and blackened blood spurting out across his face. Twisting his head, disgusted, he grunted as he hefted the inanimate body from him, the weight surprising—even with the amount of degeneration that the walker had sustained.

Adrenaline waning, he rolled tiredly to his feet. Then, with one final scowl over his shoulder, he picked up his discarded crossbow, slung it over his right shoulder, and continued walking impassively.

He wasn't sure how long the rest of the trip took. All he knew was that it passed without any further incident.

Soon, he was exiting the woods just outside of the prison. The gates gleamed in the setting sun—close and inviting. He knew that he should feel something—anything—at the sight, but honestly, he couldn't feel anything anymore.

He was numb.

Standing at the edge of the vast, flat field that surrounded the prison yard, Daryl paused—his eyes moving slowly over the open space. He could see a few lurking walkers—nothing that he wouldn't be able to handle by himself—but something else was stopping him.

He suddenly wasn't sure if he wanted to go back.

Looking over his shoulder, he contemplated simply turning around and disappearing. Just going back the way he came and letting the forest swallow him whole.

The group could survive without him . . . and he could survive without them.

The thought lingered—growing until it began to poison his mind. His flight reflex strengthening, he felt the urge pulling him toward wooded solitude.

But then, he saw a slight glimmer in the oncoming dusk.

He turned his attention back toward the prison . . . and saw it again. A speck of light flashed from high up in one of the watch towers. Squinting, Daryl focused on the spot and could just barely make out somebody standing up there, their rifle trained directly on him. Every so often, the sun would catch the rifle's scope and shoot of a blindingly bright reflective flash.

The poisonous fog that had just riddled his mind dissolved immediately.

These were his people . . . his family. He had told Merle that they needed the group and nothing had changed, just because Merle was dead.

There was a painful twinge in his chest, but he pushed it away. Instead, he lifted his hand and waved in a single salute.

The rifle lowered and, as the sun continued to set, Daryl could see it was Rick's form that held watch high in the air.

As Daryl crossed the open space wearily, hardly noticing the walkers that loomed around him, Rick quickly descended from the tower and ran to open the gate.

Daryl had hardly had a chance to cross the chain link barrier before Rick turned toward him. "Merle?"

A single shake of the head was the only answer that Rick received.

Mouth in a tight line and averting eye contact, Daryl pushed past his leader. His shoulders hunched, it caused the angel wings that stretched across his back to bow around him—circling him as if in a hug . . . or dropping as if in defeat.

Rick watched him walk away, pain growing in his chest. He didn't know what to say—didn't know if there was anything he could say—so he simply remained quiet as he locked the gate once more.

By the time he turned back around, Daryl was gone.

Daryl remained stowed—distanced from the group. For days, he hardly ate. And he didn't speak.

The group was painfully aware that Merle had not come back with his brother, but nobody actually took the time to reach out to the wounded tracker.

Every night, he robotically finished his dinner. Then, standing, he went straight up to his bed, unexcused.

For days, Carol watched him, her eyes creased in concern. She wanted to talk with him, but every time she tried to get close, he would just shut down. So, every night, she would quietly ascend the stairs up to her cell and, passing his makeshift bed at the top of the landing, her eyes would automatically go toward his sleeping form.

Or, at least what looked like his sleeping form.

Always on his shoulder, his broad back presented to the rest of the group, she would stand and watch his back expand and contract with his even breathing. Unable to see his face, she couldn't tell if he was actually sleeping—and, honestly, she would be surprised if he was. But, she could never bring herself to go over and check.

So, night after night, she would decide against her gut and she would leave him in peace.

But she was never in peace.

It had become a ritual for her to lay awake, simply thinking about him—about the pain that he must be going through. She thought of how much he had done when Sophia had gone missing—how he had held her for hours as she lay, crumpled face down in the dirt, after Sophia had emerged from the barn. And yet, she could not force herself to comfort him.

Would he even want her comforting?

He was an unpredictable man. She believed that she had started to see his true self over the last year. They had gotten closer and she could see how sweet and caring he actually was—especially to her. But, she had also seen him before—when Merle was still in the group. He was a totally different man then. He was angry and mean and, more importantly, he was quick to fly off of the handle.

What man would she encounter if she put herself alone with him?

Closing her eyes, she sighed heavily and simply listened to the sounds of the prison around her. Silent in nature, she could hear people breathing evenly in sleep, small sounds of the brick and bars creaking, the wind whistling lightly outside . . . but then there was a noise that didn't quite match:

Shuffling—like the sound of a single walker staggering around—came from the hallway directly outside the row of cells that the group was currently inhabiting.

Sitting straight up in bed, her ears straining, Carol peered into the inky blackness that surrounded her and tried to see past her cell door. Breathing quickening, her heart beat painfully in her chest as she reached for the knife that lay beside her bed.

Throwing her legs over the side of the bunk, she slipped silently out of bed and padded lightly across the floor. Pausing at the cell door, she waited impatiently for her eyes to adjust to the gloom.

She saw wings.

Shining in the dim moonlight, the wings that were embossed on the back of Daryl's motorcycle kutte glowed lightly as he continued to pace restlessly.

Visibly relaxing, she watched—her heart breaking—as he ran an agitated hand through his disheveled hair.

She took a hesitant step forward. "Daryl?"

Her voice was barely a whisper, but it carried through the silent jail cell.

Daryl froze, shoulders hunched as if in pain. He did not turn around.

Closing the distance between them, Carol held out a tentative hand before touching his shoulder lightly.

He flinched.

"Please, don't pull away from me." Carol pleaded, tears filling her eyes.

His back toward her, he still refused to turn, but he didn't shy away any further.

Carol's fingers touched the cool leather of his kutte once more. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine." His voice was thick—gruffer than usual.

She sighed lightly, choosing her next words carefully. "I'm so sorry about Merle."

Daryl's shoulder's tensed, but he remained silent.

"Talk to me . . . ." Carol begged, feeling her eyes beginning to well. "Please."

He remained rigid.

A single tear fell from Carol's eye and trailed slowly down her cheek. She bit fretfully at her lower lip. "At least look at me?"

There was a pregnant pause, but then Daryl slowly turned until he was facing her. But, his eyes remained on the ground.

Her hand circling his bicep lightly, Carol unconsciously began to rub her thumb along his muscle softly. "I know how much it hurts—you know that I know—but, don't do what I did . . . don't push us away."

Daryl's jaw clenched, his eyes tightening.

Carol continued before he could run. "You're important to our group, Daryl—you're important to me. I know that you've suffered a loss in your family, but we're your family as well . . . . So please, don't shut us out. We need you . . . more than you know."

Daryl's eyes lifted to the ceiling. He kept his mouth tight, but his eyes were beginning to mist over. As Carol talked, her fingers never ceasing as they stroked his arm gently, his traitorous mind drifted once more to where he had last encountered the shell of his brother.

He saw Merle's face—gruesome and unearthly. Saw it as he advanced with staggering steps, his mouth agape. Saw it as he thrust his knife into it . . . again, and again, and again . . . pummeling his brother's face until his fist started to break through the bone and tissue, sinking into the mush until the face was nothing more than a bloody pulp—blood, turning black, spewing from the mess and spraying his arms as it spilled over the grass.

His stomach lurched and he felt his legs beginning to give out. He staggered back a step. "I—" His throat was dry, voice cracking. "I had—" He broke off with a sob.

Carol stepped forward, her hands gripping both of his shoulders. "You don't have to say anything that you don't want to."

"Oh, God . . . ." Whimpering, Daryl sank unceremoniously to the ground. Bringing his knees up to his chest, he dropped his face into his folded forearms.

Dropping beside him gently, Carol wrapped her arm tightly around him. "You can cry for your brother, Daryl."

Daryl shook his head stubbornly, his voice muffled by his arms. "I won't cry for that son of a bitch."

"It's okay . . . it's okay, Daryl. He was your brother."

Inhaling shakily, his breath hitched sharply in his chest and, suddenly, he wasn't able to hold it in anymore. Shoulders shaking, he began to sob.

Reaching carefully around his body, Carol pulled him closer, securing him in a tight embrace. Then, leaning her cheek on top of his, she shushed him lightly, beginning to rock slowly—almost as if she were cradling Judith. Silently, she held him, and just let him cry . . . and let him finally mourn his brother.

The End