A/N: okay, final chapter - going to mark this one complete - thank you for hanging with me through my first multi-chap :)
He was tired, but he wasn't sure he could sleep. He'd hoped that walking the fence would distract him, which for a while it did. But it really only served to show him how vulnerable he was; how vulnerable they all were.
He remembered the shirt he'd shoved into his jacket and went to retrieve it. He became suddenly aware of the folded piece of paper in his palm. What could she have possibly written? He unfolded it and held the paper closer to his eyes to read it in the moonlight. In slanted print letters, it read:
These three things are open: my mind, my heart, my door -C
He reread it several times, committing the words to memory that he was sure he would repeat over and over in his head that night. There is no rest for the grieving. Ha! He caught himself. That wasn't true when his father died. Best damn night of sleep he'd ever had.
He folded the paper back into its neatly creased folds and placed it in the inner vest pocket of his jacket near his heart. He pulled the bloodstained shirt from inside his jacket and held it up. The blood had dried to a darker color and absorbed into the cloth. He was used to bloodstained clothes - it was the hunter's existence. And after this all had started, he'd had his share of human blood on his clothes as well, including his own. But never his brother's. He was really gone this time. The only family he had now resided in these walls.
He wadded the shirt into a tight ball and yanked the door open, he was sure now what he needed. He climbed the stairs to his cell. He removed his jacket and hung it on the bedpost; removed his boots and placed them by the bedside. He then unloaded all of his weapons and placed them carefully in their respective homes. He snatched up the shirt from the bed and moved quietly to the cell next to his own.
'Carol?' It was dark and quiet, but when he spoke her name, he saw her move forward into the light. She'd been sitting up on her bed. Waiting for him or morning, he wasn't quite sure.
'Hi,' her greeting was soft and hung lightly in the air. He heard her let out the faintest sigh, as if she'd been holding her breath.
'I was wondering...could you...you know...after...' He held the shirt out to her, with both hands, wanting, it seemed, to both get it as far as possible from his being while not wanting to let it go.
She leaned forward and took the shirt from him. 'Of course.' And of course she didn't ask. She knew what it was, just as he imagined she knew the pain clenching now at his heart.
He took a step forward and then stopped himself. If he did this, if he showed this side to her, she would know and he would never again feel like he could hide from her. No matter how far he'd let her in at times, he never just opened himself completely - to anyone. He'd built defenses over a lifetime and to give on these...that was relinquishing the only power he had left.
He took a step back.
'Can I see it?' She looked up at him questioningly.
'Your wrist, is it still hurting?'
'Yeah, a bit.'
'Come, sit. I have something that might help.' She patted the spot next to her on the bunk. She rummaged in a black bag of medical supplies next to her bed and pulled out a sport cream. He hesitated, but complied.
The air felt very close in the cell and he could feel his lungs struggling for air. This was panic, he was sure. Something foreign to him. As a hunter he had steel nerves. Suddenly it smelled like wintergreen and he relaxed a little. She placed his hand in her lap and worked the cream into his wrist in long strokes and small circles. He flinched a little at the coolness of it, but as she worked it in, it became warmer and the pain started to fade.
'It should feel much better by morning,' she smiled at him and placed the cream back in her bag. She pulled out a bottle of pills and shook out two which she handed him with some water. 'These will help too.' She watched him as he took the pills and he stared back at her, not even breaking eye contact as he tilted the water bottle back.
They sat, staring in silence for a couple of minutes. He felt the knot in his stomach relax somewhat. There was so much he wanted to say. He wanted to work out the confusion of what his brother had done. He wanted to rage at his being alone now. He wanted to tell her his terror of having to put him down. He wanted to say so much, but he could not form his thoughts into words. Instead they turned inside of him to tears. If he didn't leave now he wouldn't be able to hold them back.
He felt her hand on his upper back. She'd been sitting with her back to the head of the bed and her right leg to the floor with her left curled in front of her. He felt her shift to stretch the left leg out behind him.
'Here,' she said and pulled him toward her, at the same time scooting toward him. She pulled his head to her chest and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. 'It's okay, just let it go.'
And he did. And she held him through the whimpers and the tears and the deep choking sobs. And she didn't say a word. She didn't tell him it would be okay, or that he did what he had to, or that Merle was a good man at heart. Instead she held him close and didn't let him go.
There was a point when he'd felt cried out and no more teams came, although his cheeks were still damp and he could feel the cloth of her shirt under him soaked. He felt so much lighter inside, but empty too. Sadness replaced by sorrow. She sensed this shift in him and she moved a hand from his back to smooth and stroke his hair. He felt so vulnerable in that moment.
'Here,' she said and shifted, encouraging him to lay on his side. She curled along his back, knees pressed behind his, one arm curled over the top of his head, caressing it softly and the other draped over his waist. In the dark he sought it and clasped her fingers with his own, pulling it tightly to his chest. He let out a sigh and allowed his body to relax into her. He needed sleep for tomorrow and he felt the tiredness from the day creep through his body now.
Made vulnerable by his own emotional release, there was no sense fighting this. She was soft and warm and comforting and she smelled good and the sheets smelled good and he felt himself starting to drift.
His eyes flew open. For a moment he didn't know where he was. This wasn't his bed, it felt different, smelled different. And there was a lot of light. Morning and he remembered. He rolled onto his back, relieved that he was alone for this moment. He pulled himself up to rest on his elbows. Carol had removed her bags, most likely in preparation for the day and she was nowhere in sight. He sat up and when his feet touch the floor, he pulled them up quickly from the cold concrete. His socks were gone along with his shirt and pants. On the chair by the bed he saw a stack of clean clothes. He changed quickly into them and ran his fingers through his hair.
He heard movement and bustling of dishes downstairs and he crept quietly to his own cell. He pulled on his boots, gathered up his acquisitions from the day before into his jacket, and packed up the few remaining items in his cell. He gathered his weapons and the bag and headed downstairs. About half of the group was finishing breakfast and the other half was busy packing vehicles and making preparations for the coming battle. He added his bag to the pile of items headed for the vehicles and turned to head out the door to pack his bike.
He felt a gentle hand on his forearm. 'Not without breakfast.' Carol smiled at him with a bowl of oatmeal extended. He let out a soft grunt and sat at the table with Hershel and Beth, eating in silence as they went over their portion of the plan. Once Hershel caught his eyes and gave a slight nod. There was sympathy there and Daryl let it pass with a return nod.
He finished breakfast quickly and made his way outside. He sat on the ground next to Merle's bike, his now he corrected mentally, and loaded the quiver to capacity. He checked the ammo and extra guns in his side packs. From his pocket he pulled the sack of marbles he'd found at the antique store. When he was just a kid, Merle would spend hours shooting marbles with him. These he would bury them with Merle's body once they had time for a proper burial.
From his other pocket he pulled the rings. These would keep until he had time. He wanted to take this deeper with Carol. Over the last year she'd proven to be his soul-companion, and in the last twelve hours she'd proven to be his true friend. Now it was time for his heart to catch up and last night he had opened that door.
He placed the items carefully in his side packs. When he heard boots on the pavement and he spoke without even looking, he knew it was her. 'You know, Merle never did nothing like that his whole life.'
'He gave us a chance,' she said.
He looked up at her and she motioned with her hand in an offer to help pull him up. He grasped her hand and he pushed himself up, capturing her gaze. The whole of last night passed between them - a lingering touch and gaze that spoke volumes that words never would.
As he watched her walk away, he could feel his heart racing to catch up and he knew it would - his mind was already there.