They watched him when he returned, but kept their distance. Anyone could see from a mile away that the man needed his space. He needed to sort through it, think about it. Deal with it. At least, she could see it.
No one knew what had happened – whether or not he'd found his brother dead or living. Or one of the living dead. He'd lost him, though, that was certain, or else Merle would have come back with him.
All they knew was what Michonne had told them, when she returned – alone. He had gone to kill the Governor. To end it once and for all.
Every single one of them had suffered loss many times over, but it never got easier. And Merle had been all Daryl had left of his old life. Losing him in Atlanta had been different. Back then it wasn't absolute – Merle could have been alive somewhere, and that shred of hope was something Daryl held onto. This time was the real deal. This time Daryl knew what he'd always feared; he was alone.
"Should we say something?" Rick asked her, as he watched his friend park his bike and make his way slowly towards them.
"No," Carol replied thoughtfully. "No, leave him be for a little while."
"Yeah. I'm sure he doesn't want to hear you telling him how sorry you are about his brother. Or Glenn, for that matter." She eyed him knowingly, getting her point across clearly. "He needs time."
Carol knew that saying anything to him now – offering any sort of condolence for his loss – would most likely make him angry. Daryl knew every one of them disliked his brother. Their comforts now would help nothing. It was too little, too late.
It was the same way they'd all been shaken up after what happened to Sophia. Her baby. The loss of her little girl had shaken everyone hard. And in her grief, it made her angry, in a way. Because only one of them took the search for her seriously. Only one of them actually tried. And that man didn't need any half-baked attempts at sympathy now, she was certain.
Rick nodded his agreement. When it came to Daryl, Rick trusted her explicitly. She cared for him like nothing he'd ever seen before, and he knew her suggestion to give him time and space was coming from a place of deep compassion and protectiveness.
"I'll go tell the others to lay off for a bit," Rick said before making his way inside.
Carol stood where she was and watched Daryl from afar as he made his way slowly, shoulders slumped in defeat and head bowed down, in her direction.
He came to stand a few feet in front of her, and she took in the defeated posture. The redness of his eyes. The crossbow he held loosely at his side instead of slung onto his back.
And then he looked up at her wordlessly. Fresh tears pooled in his eyes and his eyebrows drew together slightly as he tried to hold back his emotions.
At the sight of his sadness, her eyes welled up with her own tears. She didn't know Merle all that well, but his loss would still be felt. He loved his little brother, that much was clear, and Daryl loved him too. Their relationship was one that no one could ever define or even begin to understand, and the loss of it had changed Daryl most certainly. She ached for him. Ached for the defeat he felt and the sadness he had to suffer. She knew the pain of losing the last person you were tied to in the world. It was terrifying and lonely and made you wonder what you were still doing, living and breathing like you were.
And she knew, as they all did, that the grief was all-encompassing, and could never be shaken. It would choke you and hold you hostage against your will to move on. But there was no choice anymore, everyone had to move on, and fast. There was no time to heal. No time to grieve.
Merle had told her once that Daryl was the sweet one. The sensitive one. The feeler.
He was right.
Daryl felt more than he let on. Things bothered him. Things got to him. Things shook him. Seeing the people he loved experience something traumatic pushed and pulled at his emotions.
It was something you would never know about him until one day your little girl goes missing, and he speaks to you in a softness you'd never heard from him before, trying to reassure you that everything would be okay. Treats your pain like his own. Risks life and limb to make things right for you. Stays by your side in a compassionate silence when the ground gets pulled from under you and you feel like you're plummeting into oblivion.
Daryl Dixon was a feeler.
This would hurt him and tear at him, and she would do everything she could for him. There was no question, no resolve, no decision. That's just the way it would be. He was a part of her. They'd shared the same pain, she and he.
He kept his eyes glued to hers, not letting one tear fall, using her as a lifeline. And for a small instant, he felt a pang of hope. She was his salvation. He would be okay.
Her lip curled up in a sympathetic half-smile, and she picked up the empty basket at her feet. She moved past him towards the line of dried laundry, and ran her hand gently down his arm, squeezing his hand as she passed.
He closed his eyes tightly, tilting his head in her direction as she walked by, and moved forward.
No one had seen Daryl all day. At one point he was in the guard tower. At another, he was walking the perimeter. And then he disappeared completely and no one even talked about it.
Carol told herself he was fine, he just needed space. Time. He wasn't in danger. He wasn't that stupid.
So she busied herself with straightening out his cell. She made his bed, smoothing out the sheets until they were practically wrinkle-free. Folded them back as though it was a hotel bed, and she wished she'd had a mint to place on his pillow.
She folded a set of night clothes, and another set of clothes for the next day, and piled them neatly on the bed.
She lit a candle, hoping the dim light would soothe him when he returned.
But it was already getting dark, and he still wasn't back.
She sat at a table in the common area, wringing her hands together, her mind running away and taking with it the ability to focus on anything else.
So she just sat, and waited.
She boiled some water, assuming Daryl would need to get cleaned up when he returned.
When he returned.
Rick entered then, coming back from watch. He stopped in front of Carol, and she looked up at him hopefully.
"Anything?" she asked.
He shook his head. "If he doesn't come back before morning –"
"He'll be back," she cut him off tersely.
Glenn entered then, on his way to take over watch duty.
"Daryl's not back yet?" he asked, a note of anxiety in his voice.
Rick shook his head. "Not yet."
"Shit," Glenn mumbled.
"He'll be back," Carol told them once more. "Just…don't worry. Not yet."
Glenn and Rick exchanged a glance and both went off in the directions they were headed.
She wasn't sure how long it had been since Rick had come in from watch, but the water she had boiled was still relatively hot. A little too hot to bathe in.
The door opened then, and she looked up, seeing a silhouette come through the door, and stop there.
Her shoulders visibly slumped with her relief, though she said nothing to him.
He approached her and she noticed the dirt and blood that was caked onto his skin. His clothes were filthy, and he looked even more worn than when he left. Even the dim light from her lantern couldn't hide the wear of his outing.
His hand skimmed the surface of the table she sat at as he passed by her, heading up to his cell. It was the closest he could come to touching her right now – letting her know he was okay. Easing the worry he knew she felt at his absence.
Once she'd heard the foosteps stop, she waited to hear for any other movements. He was perfectly still, or close to it. So she collected the bucket of warmed water, and fetched a cloth and a bar of soap from the shower room.
When she appeared at his cell door, she saw him sitting on the edge of his bed, candle still burning as she'd left it, clothes still piled neatly beside him. His shoulders were slumped and his gaze was blank on the ground in front of him.
She moved slowly inside, placing the bucket beside him, and closed the curtain he had hung for privacy.
He glanced up at her, then at the bucket, then back to the ground, his face never changing.
She knealt down in front of him and reached slowly for the cloth, soaking it in the bucket. She inched her way closer to him and reached up with her free hand to lightly brush the hair off his face. His eyes closed at the contact.
She brought the wet cloth to his forehead and began cleaning off the dirt and blood, so very gently.
He kept his eyes closed until she stopped to reach down to dip the cloth into the bucket, and he watched her careful movements.
She didn't say a word, and concentrated instead on the task at hand. She looked at his skin methodically, as though every fibre of her being wasn't aching to wrap her arms around him and pull the sorrow out of him so that she could carry it herself.
It wasn't until his face and neck were done that she'd made eye contact. She brought her fingers to the top button of his shirt and eyed him questioningly.
His head barely nodded as his tired eyes looked at her, but he nodded nonetheless.
She undid each button as gently as she could, and this time he watched her. She kept her sights on the job her hands were performing, though she could feel his eyes on her.
She slipped her fingers onto the skin of his shoulders and slipped the shirt off smoothly, helping him get his hands free from the sleeves. And then she stood, taking a soft hold of the hem of his undershirt and pulled it over his head.
He didn't protest. He just sat there.
And so she kept working, washing his shoulders, his chest, his arms, his back.
As she held one of his hands, cleaning each finger thoroughly as she tried being as tender as possible, his gravelly voice startled her.
"His eyes," he muttered, and she halted her movements for just a second before she continued working.
That was how she knew what had happened to Merle. The eyes of those things were nothing of the people they used to love. Nothing.
"I know," she said, not wanting him to have to suffer through the words if he didn't want to. Because she did know. She knew all about those eyes.
"Weren't him no more," he finished, almost to himself, his gaze drifting off to the side.
She shook her head. "No," was all she could say.
The pain flooded her as they fell silent – her grief, now paired with his. What he must have seen, how he must have felt seeing it. She knew all about it, and she knew he would never, ever forget it. The memory of it was burned in his mind, just as it had been in hers.
She switched hands.
"It won't get easier," he said robotically. It was a statement, but also a question.
She looked at him then, and he was looking at her. Looking to her, for something.
She shook her head. "No. It won't."
She took his boots and socks off carefully as she reflected on his words. And she hoped he'd be okay, somehow. She hoped she could be for him what he had been for her.
Silence took over once more as she stood up and took his clean hands to stand him up with her. He didn't even flinch when she brought her fingers to the button of his pants and popped it open. Did nothing but look at her face as she pulled the zipper down.
He sat back on the bed in his underwear, as unaffected as he would have been had he been fully dressed, and she kneeled down once more in front of him.
She worked at his legs, his knees, his ankles, his feet. And neither of them said another word.
When she was done washing him, she draped the cloth over the edge of the bucket, and stood, leaning down to run a hand over his cheek, bringing his face up to look at hers. His eyes were still wet with tears, and it tore at her anew.
"You get cleaned up under there and I'll go get us something to eat," she said.
He nodded mutely and she left as he stood up to grab the rag.
When she returned with their oatmeal and jerky, he was sitting again, in the fresh pair of underwear she'd left for him, and nothing else.
Every movement exhausted him. He couldn't bear to finish getting dressed, it was far too daunting.
She put the tray down on the little table beside the candle and reached for the shirt. She put it on him and he complied, fitting his arms through the holes and letting her do the rest of the work. The pants came next, and he let her put his feet through the leg holes and stood up when she took his hand, watching her once more as she pulled them up to his waist.
Sweat pants. He never wore sweat pants, just in case they had to run. He never let himself relax, but tonight she had decided he needed to sleep as comfortably as he could.
He didn't argue her choice of night clothes.
They ate side by side on the bed, and to her surprise, he finished his entire bowl, washing it down with the bottle of water she'd brought for him.
She took the empty bottle and bowl and placed them back on the tray, settling herself back on the bed beside him.
Just as she turned towards him to ask if he wanted to be left alone, she saw his face warp with the anguish that overtook him, and he sobbed, letting his tears flow freely.
It startled her to see it hit him so suddenly, and she immediately wrapped an arm around him, running the other one up and down his leg. She fitted herself right up against him and rested her head on his shoulder as her hands rubbed soothingly along whatever surface they touched, pulling him as close as she could.
She whispered reassurances that she knew would fall short, hoping she'd have some epiphany on what she could do to help him.
"I know. I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry. I understand. I know."
But his sniffing and shaking and crying were far more prominent than her fierce whispers.
And then he turned his body towards her, burying his face in the crook of her neck, and she wrapped her arms protectively around him.
After a moment he began to settle, his sharp breaths shaking him slightly, but still she held on tightly.
He kept himself curled into her well after he'd settled, and she rocked them gently, resting her cheek against his temple.
She pulled him up and pulled back the blankets, pushing him gently back onto the bed. She covered him once he was settled, and touched his cheek before moving to pick up the tray.
But he grabbed her hand before it slipped from his face, and she looked down at him questioningly. He held her hand tightly in his, and pulled at her slightly.
He lifted the blankets and she sat at the edge of the bed, removing her boots and blowing out the candle.
She eased herself down beside him, and he pulled her close, her back to his his chest, and buried his face into the back of her neck.
She let the tears flow silently then, now that he couldn't see her. His hand was resting on her stomach, and she moved to grab hold of it, clutching it tightly to her chest.
A few minutes passed before he spoke softly, his breath tickling the back of her neck.
"You're not. Never." She held his hand tighter and hoped her whisper didn't betray the tears she was shedding. "You have me," she breathed.
"I have you," he echoed, his eyes closed and his voice trailing off with his exhaustion.
"He gave us a chance, Daryl. He made it count. He did it for you."
She brought his hand to her lips and kissed his knuckles, and she felt his lips brush the junction between her shoulder and her neck.
He would be fine. If she could pull through, he could too.
She would make sure of it.