Lost and Found - iliveatlast (2023)

Chapter 1: Ghosts and Dreams

Chapter Text

He's not dying.

It's the first thing Daryl thinks to himself any time he gets hurt. It's reflexive - after a nasty wipeout on Merle's bike, nursing busted ribs and black eyes from bar fights, that time he fell off a roof working construction in Amicalola, coming down from a bad trip with panic in his chest, after eighteen years of living with his old man - after something's gone bad and he's hurt, the first thing he thinks is, he ain't dying. It helps somehow. Because if he's not dying then the only thing to do is suck it up, keep moving, get himself put back together. No other option. He's either dying or he ain't, and if he ain't, the only thing to do is get up. And so far, he's always been right. Daryl's gotten the shit kicked out of him more times than he can count but he's always gotten back up again. He hasn't died yet.

I ain't dying, Daryl thinks to himself, but it's the first time he's not sure if it's true.

He blinks, tries to get the blood out of the corner of his eye. His side feels wrong, bad, stuck through on his own arrow like a fucking joke. The first time he'd fallen, landed in the water, he'd half-swum his way back out, tied himself up with his shirt, found his fucking bow, and gotten on with it.

"Y'ain't dead," Daryl'd mumbled under his breath as he pulled himself up the side of the creek bed. "You ain't dying, you dumb sumbitch. Come on. You've done half. Stop being such a pussy."

As the ground gave way under his hands and he fell the second time, Daryl thought maybe he spoke too soon.

The air above him is hazy and unclear and Daryl blinks once, twice. His eyes won't focus. That's bad. That's a concussion thing, that's -

"Whyn't you pull that arrow out, dummy? You can bind your wound better."

Oh, no.

The air is still hazy but somehow Merle is ultra-clear, kneeling over him, his face almost amused. Which Daryl thinks is a good sign because Merle's seen a lot of shit and if he thinks there's something funny here, it means Daryl's not as bad off as he thought. He feels a smile over his own face but it makes his whole head hurt and he closes his eyes again.


"What's goin' on here?"

"Shitty day, bro." His head is throbbing in time to his side, his shirt sticking to him wetly (with the water, from the creek, not from blood, he ain't dying), his mouth tasting of dirt and iron, and all Daryl wants, desperately, is to wake up on the shitty couch in Merle's trailer with a hangover and bruised knuckles and for the past couple months to have been nothing but dipping into the wrong part of his brother's stash.

He misses what Merle says next but the tone is so familiar, wheedling at Daryl like some kind of fucking kid, some baby needs taking care of, and Daryl knows the response to that even without hearing the rest.

"Screw you."

"Huh-uh. You're the one screwed from the looks of it."

And he is. Daryl's fucked. Punctured with his own arrow, bleeding in the bottom of some creek bed, horse gone, nobody there to watch his back. Because Merle's gone.

Oh. Merle's gone.

"You're gonna die out here, brother. And for what?"

Maybe he is dying this time. Even Merle thinks it. And this Merle isn't real, because Merle is gone, running around one-handed somewhere, if he's still running at all.

Maybe he's really dying and Merle is already dead and he came to find Daryl.

"Girl," Daryl says, because that's what he remembers all of a sudden. He doesn't need Merle to come find him, because he's the one out looking. He's looking for Sophia, he remembers now, and it makes something kick in his stomach, something get clearer around his vision. "Lost a little girl."

"You got a thing for little girls now?"

"Shut up," Daryl says, something sick crawling in his skin. It ain't like that. He ain't like that. Merle knows he ain't -

"Cause I notice you ain't out looking for ole Merle no more."

Oh. That's what it is. Yeah, Merle talked a big fucking game, taking care of Daryl, always having his back. But he'd disappeared for huge stretches at a time, juvie or prison, the army, out on a bender who knows where and only rolling back into town when he ran out of money. But Daryl was meant to be there for Merle, have his back, twenty-four-seven, never stop, never have a life (Merle cackling, "What would you even know what to do with a life?") -

"Tried like hell to find you, bro," he tries to explain, but Merle ain't listening. He never listens. Not to Daryl, anyway.

Daryl loses another chunk of the conversation somewhere. He knows Merle is talking and he's talking back - conversations with Merle aren't hard, especially when the Merle he's talking to is either a ghost or made up in his own head - until he hears "You his bitch now?"

"Ain't nobody's bitch," Daryl says, automatically, that same feeling crawling in his stomach. It ain't like that. Who are they even talking about? Rick. Merle's saying he's Rick's -

"You're a joke is what you are, playing errand boy to a bunch of pansy-asses, niggers, and democrats. You're nothing but a freak to them. Redneck trash. That's all you are."

He doesn't need Merle to tell him this. He knows it. That's the only reason Merle can tell it to him - because it's something he knows, understands, deep in his bones.

"They're laughing at you behind your back. You know that, don't you? I got a little news for you, son. One day they gonna scrape you off their heels like you was dogshit. Hey."

He can almost feel Merle smacking at his chest, trying to get him to pay attention. But it's so hard.

"They ain't your kin, your blood. Hell, you had any damn nuts in that sack of yours, you'd got back there and shoot your pal Rick in the face for me. Now you listen to me. Ain't nobody ever gonna care about you except me, little brother. Nobody ever will."

Yeah. Daryl's known that his whole life. Ain't nothing new.

"Don't be dead."

He ain't dead. Not yet. But he's close, he figures. Someone is shaking at his shoulders again now - the touch too light to be Merle. He groans and tries to pull back.

"Please don't be dead. Please, please -"

It's a woman, maybe. His ma? She wouldn't want him to be dead. She's dead herself though, so why would she care -

"Mr. Daryl, wake up. Please wake up."



Daryl's eyes feel almost glued shut, it's so hard to open them. But he manages somehow, he pries them open and he squints and -

There, directly above him, is the worried, freckled face of Sophia Peletier.

No. Oh, no.

"I'm sorry," Daryl croaks out, and Sophia's face floods with what looks like relief.

"You're awake!"

"M'sorry," he says again. Because she isn't real. Merle was here with two hands and now here's Sophia and that must mean they're dead, all three of them. All his looking was bullshit. He didn't find her in time. He wants to scream somehow but he doesn't want to scare her.

"Where's my mom?"

Ghosts are meant to know that shit. Ain't they? Daryl doesn't know a lot about ghosts. He grew up on ghost stories Merle told, shit that made him scared to go to sleep, where ghosts strangled you in the dark or drove you crazy or possessed you. He didn't know shit about sad little girl ghosts who wanted their mamas.

"Back at the farm," Daryl says. "Worried."

"I - where's the farm?"

"C'n show you," Daryl slurs. He waves a hand. "When it's over."

"When what's over?"

"When'm all the way gone."

There's a long pause and when Sophia speaks again, her voice is choked and rough.

"No, no. Please don't die, please, please - we have to go, the walkers -"

"M'sorry," Daryl says again, and something tugs on his shirt, hard.

"Wake up! Don't go to sleep, wake up, please, you have to help me - please please please -"

For a ghost her grip is strong. He feels her hands on his chest and they somehow feel more real than Merle's. More solid. He can almost feel the heat of her hands through his wet shirt, warm on his clammy skin. It's so real he opens his eyes again and sees her. Her lip is wobbling like crazy and her cheeks have two red spots of color in them.

Sophia's dirtier than last time he saw her. Her hair is all tangled and there's a smear of dirt over one cheekbone and her arms are all marked up with what looks like pricker scratches. Her pants are ripped at the knees and grass-stained and her face almost looks older. Maybe because she's scared, or maybe because she looks a little thinner than she did four days ago.

Merle hadn't looked like this. Merle had looked exactly the same as he had the last time Daryl saw him. Daryl shakes his head a little, groans as the movement jars his brain. There's something missing here. There's something he's not getting.

"Please stay awake," she says, and she sounds like she's going to cry. "I - I don't know how to get out of here by myself."

"I'll getcha out," Daryl says. It sounds like a promise. How fucking stupid is he, making a promise to a ghost?

"Don't go to sleep," she begs, and he nods again as his eyes start to close.

"No, no no no -" he hears Sophia saying, and then Merle is back.

"You're dumber'n shit. You find this girl and you're gonna let her get eaten?"

"Gone," Daryl mumbles. "We're gone."

"You ain't dying, you fuckin' moron. Now get up 'fore I have to kick your teeth in."

Something splashes somewhere nearby.

"Let's go!"

And then Sophia is shrieking and Daryl's eyes snap open faster than he thought possible. Because ghosts don't sound like that, ghosts don't sound scared, ghosts don't scramble over him with sharp little knees digging into his wounded side as they try and get away from walkers.



He found her.

Or more to the point - she found him.

He's not going to lose her again. Not now. Not after all this.

Daryl kicks out with pure instinct, but it's enough to move the walker off to one side. Daryl's scooting back on his ass, hand flailing out for his bow, and he backs into Sophia.

"What do I do, what do I -"

"My bow," Daryl yells, and he slams his weak fists into the walker, turns it onto its side. "Fuck girl, gimme my bow!"

"Where is it? I can't see it, I -"

He grabs a stick near him and slams it into the walker's mouth over and over until the head is a wet, pulpy mess. There's not even hardly time to register that the walker in front of him is finished when he sees the next one staggering out of the woods.

"I've got it! I've got -" Sophia's crawled over to his bow and is lugging it back towards him. "I -"

Fuck. This is going to hurt.

Daryl doesn't scream when he pulls the bolt out of his side - he's not some pussy, and he ain't dying. But it hurts like a bitch and he hears himself, a sharp little whimper as the fletching tears through his skin.

"Bow!" Daryl yells out, and the bow is there, in his lap, wet from being soaked in the water, but solid and real. Drawing back is harder than it's ever been, even when he was just a weedy little kid lugging around his dad's Barnett Thunderbolt. But he manages to pull back and nock the arrow just in time.

The walker falls, the arrow piercing through its skull, landing right between him and Sophia. He can hear her breathing behind him, shaky and quick.

"Y'a'right?" Daryl asks. He's panting too. His side is on fire. He can feel the blood leaking out of him, soaking into the sandy grit of the creek bed. But somehow he feels better too. Livelier. Less confused.

Merle ain't here. But Sophia is. And he's got to get her home.

She nods at him. But her eyes are welling up with tears and she sniffles, once.

"Ain't no time for that," Daryl says roughly. And there isn't. There's a lot to do to get home, with him fucking skewered like a shish kabob and the horse spooked off who the hell knows where.

"I - it's not - I'm not scared," Sophia says, her lip wobbling like crazy. "I - I just - I didn't think anybody'd find me."

"Yeah, well," Daryl says, propping himself up against the rocks so he can get a good look at her. "Din't find you. You found me."

She nods but her lip doesn't stop wobbling.

"I gotta - I gotta rest a minute," he says. It's different than earlier. He doesn't feel like he's about to pass out or hallucinate anymore, but his whole body is screaming from what he'd put it through the last few minutes. "Then we gotta go."

Sophia bites her lip. "Okay."

Daryl looks at the walker near him. One last push. He reaches over to the front of the skull, where the fletching of the bolt pokes out. He grips it tight between his fingers. Its slippery with blood - his own? Or the walkers? Not worth thinking about. He pulls the bolt out. Grits his teeth as he cocks the bow one more time. That really takes it out of him. His arms feel like spaghetti or some shit. But the bow is cocked and loaded. He beckons the girl over.


She looks almost scared as she comes near him. He doesn't blame her. He's covered in dirt and blood and walker shit and he's holding a fucking crossbow. But he just waits till she sits next to him and he holds out the bow.

"Don't fire 'less you need to. Try an' get me up first. But if somethin's comin' an' I ain't wakin', you pull that trigger here, a'right? Aim for the head."

Daryl tries not to think of the likelihood of this little girl in her rainbow tee shirt having good aim. It's better than leaving her totally unprotected. It'll have to do. He leans back against the rock and closes his eyes. Feels something digging into this back. Reaches around and pulls.

"Think this is yours," he says gruffly, and he holds out the sodden doll, now stained a little with his blood. Maybe she doesn't want it anymore, all gross like that. But she takes it with one hesitant hand, tucks it in the crook of her elbow. It looks weird, cradled there, the bow gripped in her hands right next to it.

"Where you pull to fire?" he asks as his eyes start to close.

"The trigger," the girl says promptly, even though her face looks pale and scared. She bites her lip. "You - you promise you'll wake up, right?"

The bow looks heavy enough to break those little stick arms of hers, and Daryl scoffs.

"Course I'll wake up. I ain't dyin'."

He isn't. And neither is she.

Not if he has anything to say about it.

Chapter 2: Hobbled

Chapter Text

Daryl's head is clearer when he wakes up. He'd say he feels better, but he feels like shit. But he guesses shit is better than dead shit, so he'll take it.

Sophia is crouched next to him still, crossbow cradled in her lap. When he opens his eyes, he staring at the head of an arrow.

"Point that shit somewhere else," Daryl says, and it comes out almost like a growl. Sophia jumps then and Daryl feels his life flash before him - but her finger isn't on the trigger and soon the bow is pointed wildly elsewhere.

"Sorry," she says. Her cheeks look red and she's biting her lip. Her brow is furrowed in a way that looks weird on a kid. "I - I was scared you'd -"

Turn. Daryl looks down at himself. Yeah, he does look pretty close to walker food. But he isn't dead. And he's not going to be until he gets this girl home. That's enough. Daryl nods at her.

"I ain't bit. But that was, uh. Smart," he says grudgingly. And it was. If Daryl's stuck out here all fucked up, at least the girl's got some brains to help them get home. The crease between her eyebrows lessens at that.

Fuck. Daryl doesn't know kids. He didn't like kids even when he was one. They'd all been loud and rude and picked on Daryl like crazy until Merle beat them up. Then they never talked to him at all. Well, whatever. Ain't like they're going to be together that long. Just got to make their way back to the farm, hand her off to her mama, and that'd be that.

"In the future," Daryl says, his voice gravelly. "Don't point that at nothin' you don't want dead."

Sophia swallows and nods.

Daryl sets to work getting himself ready for the trek back. His legs are fine, which is good. He'd already ripped the sleeves off his shirt for the first bandage, but that one is soaked through so he rips the rest of his shirt up. Wasn't one of his favorite anyway, but he's sure he'll regret it come fall - it was one of the only ones he'd had left with intact sleeves. Sophia watches his every move carefully. Daryl can't tell if she's trying to learn something or if she just wants to make sure he doesn't keel over on her.

"Is - is my mom okay?"

Daryl looks up at the girl. She looks like she's trying to be brave, which actually just makes her look little and scared.

"Yeah," Daryl says. He swivels his torso, tests the bandage. It'll hold. "Mean - worried 'bout you. But she ain't hurt or nothin'."

The girl nods.

"Found a farm," Daryl adds. "Been usin' it as a base, to look for you. Maybe couple hours walk." Probably more than that, without that fucking horse and with him all banged up. But Daryl pushes that aside. He'll get her there. No matter how long it takes.

Weirdly, that makes the girl seem more worried. She's chewing at her lip so hard he's surprised there's anything left. He sees her throat bob up and down like she's swallowing hard. What'd he do now?

"Ain't - we left you a note," Daryl says. Maybe she thinks her mama forgot about her or something. "Back at the cars. But the farm was safer, that's all." He doesn't mention Carl getting shot. Ain't anything she needs to worry about right now.

She nods again. "Um - Mr. Daryl -"

"Jus' Daryl." Fuck. Southern mamas and their manners. Back at the quarry, he'd heard her refer to people as Officer Shane or Miss Jacqui, but he hadn't thought Carol'd ever told her to call Daryl anything special. Hell, he was surprised she knew his name at all. At the quarry, he and Merle had kept a certain amount of distance from the others where possible. Especially the kids.

Sophia flinches at that. Fuck. Is everything he does gonna scare her? "Um, I - I need to find a stick."

What? Daryl wonders if he's fading out again, if he's hearing things. "A what?"

"A - a stick?" Sophia points at the bloody mess of walker head, a big stick jutting out from it. "I - uh, I was using that one, but -"

"Usin' for what?"

That makes her more nervous. Daryl sees her fingers twisting in the ragged yarn hair of her doll. "Um - I, uh, I -"

Daryl makes himself stay still. He doesn't want to scare her. He looks away from her then - makes a show of checking his bandage, making sure he's still got his knife. He sees he's still got the squirrel he shot earlier, which is a pleasant surprise. Maybe they'll have themselves a snack before they head back.

"Kin find you another stick, sure," Daryl says. What the fuck does he care? It's not worth scaring a little kid. "Ain't no problem."

"I - just I kind of hurt my ankle? When I was - but it's not that bad, I promise!" She sounds panicked now. What? Does she think Daryl's going to leave her behind, now that he's found her?

He looks over at her, but not at her face. Daryl's not one for eye contact at the best of times, and he thinks this girl probably don't like it much either. He looks at her ankle. Sure enough, it seems like she's favoring the left one - he can't tell if it's bruised or if it's just smeared with dirt.

"I can keep up, I won't slow you down," the girl says quickly. "I just - if I use a stick I can -"

"Yeah," Daryl says, and the girl clams up immediately. It'd be funny if it didn't make him feel like shit. What does she see, when she looks at him? Another Ed? Merle? Maybe his own father, Will Dixon back from the grave to fuck up another generation of kids. He forces himself not to scowl, which is harder than he thought. A scowl is Daryl's second most used expression. "We'll find you a crutch."

"I'm sorry," the girl says.

"Why? You do it on purpose?" Daryl asks. But it's too rough and he's treated to the girl flinching again.

"I - no. When - I did what Rick said, I kept the sun over my shoulder, but I saw a walker in the bushes and I tripped and -"

And lost her way.

"Must hopped pretty quick, outrun a walker on a bum ankle."

Sophia blushes. "I - climbed a tree."

Great. A tree. Probably where they lost her trail. Daryl feels suddenly furious at himself and stupid as shit. He couldn't figure out that a kid might have climbed a tree to get out of danger?

"It - I mean I think I hurt it when I tripped? My ankle? But then when I was coming down from the tree I kinda -" The girl shrugs once, almost embarrassed. "But I can still walk, I promise."

"A'right," Daryl says. Some of the anger he's feeling at himself must leak out on his words because Sophia is tense again. "When'd you last eat?"

Sophia shrugs again, uncomfortably. "Um - I think yesterday." Her face suddenly looks even thinner, and Daryl wonders what he looked like when he came home from being lost in the woods. Ten years old and gone for nine days, did he look this hungry? Probably. Daryl was always hungry back then. Nine days in the woods just amplified it. "I found a hickory tree? But the nuts were really hard to crack."

Daryl's mostly impressed that this girl found a hickory tree. "Well, let's have a little grub an' head on out. Getcha home for some of your ma's cookin'." The girls face lights up at that and Daryl feels guilty for getting her hopes up. "Ain't nothin' special, y'know. Jus' squirrel." Daryl feels stupid again. Why didn't he think about this, carry more shit for Sophia? He'd known she'd be hungry when he found her. He'd had some protein bars and shit in the saddlebags on the horse, but he should have kept that shit on him.

"I don't mind squirrel," Sophia says. "I had some back at the quarry. Remember?" Daryl doesn't but he guesses he did gives some squirrels to the others to cook up. "It tastes okay."

High praise. "Y'd probably eat that bow right now if I told you it was edible," Daryl says and is rewarded with a small smile.


But her smile fades when Daryl pulls out his knife and starts to gut the thing in front of her. She looks a little queasy like she wishes Daryl would do it somewhere else, but she doesn't say anything. Daryl's not sure if that's manners or just her being scared again.

"Ain't pretty," Daryl says suddenly as he pulls the entrails out of the critter. Sophia's staring at him, and maybe if he talks she'll just listen and not feel like she has to look. "But you gotta do it. Else you'll get sick. Ain't nothin' they don't do to whatever you buy at the grocery store. Jus' that you're doin' it with your own hands." His tongue feels thick in his mouth. He's never had to explain this shit before.

"Bought," Sophia says, and Daryl squints at her. She still looks pale, but no longer like she's about to be immediately sick.


"Bought. At the grocery store."

"Yeah," Daryl says. Sure. Whatever. Bought.

He finishes up and stops squinting at Sophia in order to scowl at the squirrel. If it were just him, he'd probably just eat what he could raw and use that little boost to get him out of there. But Sophia looks like she'd puke if he gave her the still warm heart of a squirrel, and he doesn't want to deal with a puking kid on top of a lame one. He's got his lighter in his pocket but it got doused in water. Merle had a trick where you held the lighter upside down to drain it and clicked the wheel and shit, but Daryl thinks that's probably bullshit. He looks at Sophia.

"Y'think you can get some tinder?" The girl's face looks blank. "You know, uh - shit that'll light easy. For the fire. Dry bark or leaves or stuff. Cloth." The yarn hair of her doll would probably catch pretty good, but he doesn't mention that. He got stabbed in the gut for that fucking doll, he's not going to snatch the thing bald. Daryl looks at her ankle. "If you can't -"

"I can," Sophia says quickly. "I can, I'll - I'll be right back."

"You don't gotta go far," Daryl says. Like going far is even a possibility, down here on the creek bed. Which reminds him.

Sophia stays within eyeshot the whole time - constantly looking over her shoulder like she thinks Daryl will disappear on her. There's not much at the creek bottom and the girl is moving slow - Daryl finds himself chewing his own lip when he sees how bad her walking is. If he were well, he'd just sling her over his back - his bow's probably heavier than her. But as it is, it's going to take them a lot longer than a couple hours to get back to the farm. They might not make it before dark, and no way he's hauling through the woods with a wounded twelve-year-old girl once the sun goes down.

Maybe he could wrap it, he thinks as Sophia returns with a scant handful of twigs, leaves, and broken wood. The fire he builds isn't anything special, but it'll do. He chars the carcass as he looks up at the sky - they're already losing daylight. Daryl wonders if it's better to find somewhere to hole up for the night, start out fresh tomorrow morning. In which case he's pretty stupid to be sitting down here making snacks at the bottom of a creek bed when they should be finding shelter. But Daryl doesn't think he can get out of the creek bed without something to give him energy. Well, whatever. He's probably doing things in some kind of ass stupid way, but it's the only way he can think to do them.

"A'right," he says finally. Sophia's looking greedily at the squirrel, and Daryl chops off a leg for himself and hands the rest of it to her. "Dig in."

The girl frowns at the squirrel and Daryl wonders if she's really that spoiled, that after four days of nothing she's turning her nose up at a decently cooked squirrel.

"I - we could split it. Fifty-fifty. That's fair."

Huh? "Had your mama's eggs for breakfast," Daryl grunts. Kid's been living on a handful of hickory nuts and she's trying to give him food? "That's your share."

He feels bad for mentioning her ma - but Sophia still doesn't bite anything but that fucking lip. She's gonna draw blood by the time they get back to Hershel's. "But -"

"Girl, what'd I say? It's yours. Eat it." He sounds rougher than he means to and he winces a little, inwardly. He's so fucking bad at this.

Sophia jumps and shoves the squirrel in her mouth - more out of fear, Daryl thinks, then out of hunger. Although hunger kicks in pretty quick and the squirrel disappears rapidly. Daryl gnaws on his own serving - he doesn't need much, he did eat the heart and stuff while Sophia was off gathering fire stuff. When she wasn't looking so she didn't puke everywhere.

"A'right," Daryl says as Sophia dips her fingers into the creek to clean off. Daryl'd licked his own fingers clean, which he'd vaguely regretted when he tasted the tang of his own blood on them. "Lemme see that ankle."

Sophia seems hesitant. "I - it's okay, really," she says. "I - with the stick I'm much faster. I promise, I'll - "

"Jus' wanna see it," Daryl mutters. "Might be able to help."

Sophia holds out her foot then, extremely reluctantly. Daryl manipulates it gently in his hands, winces again when he hears Sophia hiss.

"Sorry," Daryl says. He tugs at the laces a little. It's been long enough since it happened that he's not overly concerned that taking off the shoe will increase the swelling, and this way he can wrap it, maybe even let her soak her foot in the creek while he figures out the best way out.

Which reminds him. "How'd you get down here, anyway?" He peels the sock off her foot and hisses himself - it's a nasty sprain. Her foot is different shades of purple, yellow, and sickly green, and it's fat in the ankle part. "Wiggle your toes."

Sophia does, and Daryl breathes a sigh of relief. He doesn't know what the fuck he'd do if she had a broken foot or something. "I - I saw you from over there." She points behind him, the part of the creek that's water going over slick stone. "I - I mostly slid down."

Well. That explains how she moved so damn fast. Daryl looks at the rocks considering. Yeah, they're steep, but the way up he was planning, clawing and climbing through the dirt and using tree branches for handholds, ain't going to work with Sophia in tow. If they don't plan on going back tonight anyway, the rocky side of the creek bed will actually take them up near that house he'd found the other day. Well, nearer. His stomach rumbles at the memory of the jars in the cupboard.

"You know that house up that way?" Daryl asks, and he's slightly disheartened when Sophia stares at him blankly. Well. There goes that theory. "There's a house yonder, maybe an hours walk with us all slow an' shit." Hm, maybe he should try to swear less in front of the kid. "We leave now, we can get there by dark. Have a roof over our heads tonight, start off for the farm tomorrow."

Sophia bites her lip. He's not sure if it's with pain - he's started wrapping her ankle with the last remnant of his shirt sleeve, and while he's careful not to go too tight, he's sure it stings some. "I - can't we go back to the farm now? I promise it doesn't hurt that bad. I can be fast -"

"Ain't you," Daryl says roughly, even though he's pretty sure by himself he'd hit the farm before sunset, even like he is. "I'm movin' slow too. An' I only got one arrow. We gotta move smart."

Sophia nods slowly. "But - you promise? In the morning, we'll go?"

"Hell, we'll leave with the sunrise." Daryl finishes wrapping her ankle. It doesn't look like much, a raggedy plaid bandage, but it's something. "How's that? Too tight?"

"N-ooo," Sophia says slowly, wiggling her foot around.

"Well, it ain't a cast or nothin', still gotta be careful," Daryl says brusquely. "Imma find you a stick an' then we'll head out. You could soak that foot a little if you want." The cold water certainly won't hurt it.

Daryl wishes he had a water bottle or a canteen or something. He's cautious enough about beaver fever that he doesn't just slurp the water down, but he splashes his face, his hair, in an attempt to cool himself, to wake up. If he had a canteen, he could bring the water with them, try and boil it or something when they hit the house. But they don't have that so no use wishing. His water rode off with Nelly.

Maybe that's the answer. Maybe he should try and find Nelly. Sophia ain't large, the horse could carry both of them back. Daryl allows himself a moment of imagination - Nelly, her reins tangled harmlessly in a tree right at the top of the hill, him riding back to camp like a fucking hero with Sophia - but he quashes it pretty quick. He's in no condition to run down a horse, especially not a jumpy fuck like that. With his luck, the thing would probably toss Daryl and Sophia and break both their necks. Not worth it. The plan is a solid one - find shelter, more food, make a fresh start in the morning.

He finds a fallen tree limb with a decent number of branches and drags it back to her. She's got her foot in the water, obediently, and she looks incredibly relieved to see him.

"Stand up," Daryl grunts. The girl complies quickly, almost too quickly - Sophia almost overturns into the water as her balance wavers. Daryl doesn't say anything about it. Just holds the tree limb up next to her, measures it. He cuts it down decently fast with his knife, and the branch he's got even has a Y-shaped crook at the top she can slot into her armpit.

"You ready?" Daryl asks as Sophia tests the crutch. She is faster with it - marginally. Daryl's own injuries are throbbing now, insistent, to the beat of his heart, but he pushes it away. He'll deal with that later. Merle's got a bottle of Oxy in the bike's saddlebags, he'll have one when he gets back. A fucking reward.

"A'right," Daryl says. "Let's go."

It's a good plan. A roof, food. A fresh start in the morning.

And if it wasn't Sophia, who'd been camping out there? Well. Hopefully, whoever it is is long gone.

If not - he'll deal with it. If he has to.

Right now, they've just got to get out of the ravine. Everything else, Daryl will figure out.

So he sets off, over to the slippery rocks, the limping scrape of Sophia's sneakers following just behind.

Chapter 3: The House in the Woods

Chapter Text

They get to the house just as the sun starts to set. It makes it look like something out of a storybook, Daryl thinks - the sky all pink behind it, silhouetting it against the sky. Sophia's face is soft when she sees it, almost dreamy. Like it's something literally out of a dream.

Which doesn't mean anything when Daryl tells her to hide in the bushes while he checks inside.

"I'll come getcha when it's clear," he tells her, and her mouth is set into a mulish line. In a way he's pleased with that development - at least she isn't acting scared of him - but he's also sort of annoyed. There were signs of somebody in that house, and Sophia's not going anywhere that's not safe.

"I - but what if something comes when you're gone, and you have the bow?" Sophia asks. She's picking at the peeling bark of her crutch.

She's got a point. He unsheathes his knife and hands it to her. Sophia stares at it like he just handed her a live snake.

"I - " She looks at the knife doubtfully and tries to hand it back. "I'll be careful. I'll be real quiet, and I'll just -"

Yeah. Maybe leaving her the knife doesn't make sense. He takes the knife back and hands her the bow.

This makes her look scared. "What if you go in without the bow and there's a walker in there and you get bit?"

"I get 'em with the knife." He's done it before.

"What if it's a person and they have a gun and you can't get close enough to -"

"We ain't got a choice," Daryl snaps, and he grits his teeth as Sophia flinches. Fuck. "We just gotta do the thing that'll keep us both safe. That means me in there and you out here. I'll come back for you when it's clear." He turns around again. He's not going to give her a chance to argue again. He'll be in and out quick and then it won't matter if she was scared for five minutes.

"I don't want to be alone again," Sophia says in a tiny voice. It's a voice Daryl knows well. It's the voice you use when there's something you need to say but you're scared if someone else hears it, things will just get worse. It's him asking his old man to drive him to school when he missed the bus, it's him telling Merle don't you think you've had enough, it's him hovering in the doorway of his mother's room asking if she's all right. He could pretend not to hear her. That's the whole point of the voice. But that feels wrong, makes him scowl just thinking about it. Which probably doesn't make Sophia less scared.

They compromise. Sophia waits outside the door, holding the bow and covering the entrance. Daryl leaves the front door open and he clears the place room by room. Everything looks the same as it was when he was last here - Daryl wishes he'd done something obvious when he came before, balanced shit over doorframes, or left a dusting of flour by the doorway so that he'd know if the place had been disturbed. He doesn't notice anything different, but his head is throbbing and the light is fading. He could miss something.

Daryl finally lets Sophia in - he'd pretended not to notice how she'd crept further into the house with every room he'd cleared.

"Should we - go upstairs?" Sophia asks as Daryl finishes up there and heads back to the main floor. Sophia's leaning against the wall, awkwardly keeping her weight off of her injured ankle while still holding the bow against her shoulder like he showed her, finger next to but not on the trigger.


"I - I don't know." Sophia quiets, but Daryl waits her out. She had a reason for saying it. "Just like - like climbing a tree. Walkers don't climb."

"They climb stairs," Daryl points out. "Ain't secure like a ladder or a tree or whatever."

Sophia bites her lip. "Oh."

"But s'good thought," Daryl hears himself saying, and he almost feels himself blushing. What's he doing? The kid doesn't care what he has to say about this shit.

"There's some blankets up there and stuff, I'll bring 'em down," Daryl adds. "We don' wanna stay anywhere we ain't got multiple ways out."

Multiple ways out can also mean multiple ways in. But ultimately Daryl decides on one of the corner rooms - windows on both walls, plus the door into the room. He grabs the blankets from upstairs and from the cupboard downstairs, the lone weird pillow. There's a room with a fireplace which would keep them warmer, but he's not sure how he feels about the smoke, and it's still summer - with the blankets, they should be warm enough. He makes a little nest in the corner without any windows - figures the kid would prefer to sleep with her back to the wall. He would have when he was her age.

Hell, Daryl'd rather sleep like that now.

"C'mon," he says. Sophia's been hovering behind him, bracing between the wall and the crutch like she's scared if she sits he'll take off without her. "Gotta figure out a trip line."

"A what?"

"Uh - " Does she really not know what that is? They'd had one at the quarry camp, hadn't they? "Jus' like - a warnin' system. Case anything tries to sneak up on us."

There's gardening twine in one of the drawers and empty cans littering the floor of the kitchen. Mostly booze. Couple of soup cans with the tops still attached, half peeled off, which is lucky - Daryl's not sure how he'd string them altogether if the pop-top wasn't there. He sends Sophia over to the cupboard. "Look for any shit in there we can use or eat."

Sophia's eyes are wide and she's emptying the cupboard as quick as she can. It's not much - a jar of tomato sauce, another tin of sardines, a thing of olives. Couple cans, probably soup or beans or something. There are some unlabeled jars that look like self-canned preserves or some shit, some that look like jam, but Daryl looks at them warily. Could be botulism or whatever the fuck in there, or they could be deliberately fucked with. Best not to risk them.

There's a bottle of booze tucked into a dusty back corner. Bourbon. He pretends he doesn't see it, that he doesn't notice Sophia's eyes darting nervously between him and the bottle.

"M'gonna go hang this," Daryl mumbles. "Bring everythin' we can eat back to the room." He pauses, looks at her. "If you - uh - gotta, y'know - go?" Suddenly his mind is blanking on child-appropriate euphemisms for the bathroom. Somehow he thinks telling the girl not to shit in the toilet isn't going to go over great. "Don't - uh -" There's a blush creeping up the side of his neck which makes him scowl. What is he, some fifth-grader, blushing about basic bodily functions? "There's a toilet back there but it won't flush," he finally settles on. "Just, uh - so you know."

Sophia is blushing too, and she nods rapidly, not looking at him. Saving both of them, Daryl escapes outside with the trip line.

He starts to feel progressively worse as he goes. His side is like fire every time he breathes or bends over and his head feels woozy and light. There's something starting to creep around his vision, a kind of fuzziness that makes him feel like he's spinning. Fuck. He was going to stay up, keep watch, but as soon as he sets the line he thinks he'll go prop up against some wall and pass out. He wishes he could have some of the bourbon - help dull the pain, at least. But that's a stupid idea. Just dehydrate him more, and he can't afford to be out of it if something happens.

Plus the girl'd probably shit her pants, and he wouldn't blame her.

At the very least though, maybe he can use it to clean out his wounds, try and stave off infection until he can get back to Merle's stash of antibiotics. So Daryl's slightly pissed when he gets back and it's gone.

"Where's that bottle at?" Daryl asks, and he scowls when the girl flinches at him. Shit. "I ain't gonna - I jus' wanna use it to clean my shit out." He looks at Sophia consideringly. She didn't seem to have any open wounds, but it's possible. "Yours too. You got any cuts?"

Sophia shakes her head. She looks scared all of a sudden, more scared than when she thought he was going to drink the booze. "I - no."

Daryl waits. It's like the girl is trying to make herself say something, but she can't. She swallows, her fingers twisting in the yarn hair of the doll, and when she does speak it's so quiet Daryl can't hardly hear her.

"I - I poured it down the toilet."

Daryl's not sure what his face is doing - probably looking kind of pissed, although not at her. Was a fucking smart move on her part. She's a kid, she didn't know there'd be any use for it other than getting shit-faced.

"I'm sorry," Sophia says in a rush. Her voice sounds wobbly and he can see her pulling into herself, trying to make herself disappear. "I - I didn't know, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to -"

"S'fine," Daryl says, but he's not sure how convincing he sounds. He feels sick all of a sudden, really sick, and he's not sure if it's because of the pain radiating out of his side or the way she's looking at him. Like he's about to haul off and whale on her, like he's going to pull out his belt and learn her good. He wonders if she'd done this before to Ed, if Carol had. Can't imagine Ed would react well to losing his supply.

Daryl'd done something similar once - he'd been eight and dumped all his pop's pills and powder down the toilet. He hadn't been sure at the time why he was doing it - maybe Daryl was hoping that when his pop got back from his latest bender, he'd just figure he'd gone through it all himself and have to get sober for a while. Or maybe he was mad - his ma'd been dead for a year at that point and his old man seemed to have totally forgotten she'd existed. Oddly enough, it hadn't been his pop who'd caught him out. It'd been Merle, Merle with a face like curdled milk, who'd smacked him so hard Daryl's head had rebounded off the shitty plastic of the sink.

"Fuckin' moron - the fuck you do that for, he's gonna skin you alive -"

Daryl hadn't understood maybe, how pissed his pop would be. Hadn't understood that even then Merle'd already been dipping into their pop's shit. But that hadn't been the whole reason Merle'd been mad. He never knew what Merle had done, but he'd gone out and come back four hours later with a handful of replacements, pitifully small compared to what Daryl had flushed.

"He asks, you tell him nothin'. You don't know shit. Fucker musta used it hisself an' forgot. Y'hear me, boy?"

Daryl'd nodded, his head still stinging.

"You pull that shit again, s'on you. I ain't coverin' for you no more. Fuck, fuckin' eight years old, too old to be pullin' shit like this -"

That part had been all talk. Merle'd covered for him that night when their pop came home. He'd covered for Daryl for another two years. Until he left.

Then Daryl was on his own.

He shakes his head to clear it, which only sets it off pounding again. Hell. His voice, when he speaks, is gravelly and rough. "Whatever. S'fine. Ain't like it were real antiseptic or whatever anyway. Prob'ly wouldna done nothin'." He wishes he could smile or something, tell the girl it was fine, but his whole head feels like it's about to explode. He settles for a shrug, which tugs at the wound on his side. He can't win.

"I'm really really sorry, I -"

"Said it's fine," Daryl snaps, and the girl goes totally still and silent. Fuck. He looks instead at the jars of food, neatly lined up.

"Leave them unlabeled ones," he mumbles. Daryl forces himself to get up. Tries to ignore how the girl flinches back at his movement. "Dunno what the fuck's in them." Daryl can hear his voice slurring a little bit. Shit. He's got to get some rest. He lets himself drop into the corner near one of the windows - conveniently on the other side of the room for the girl. He looks outside, pointedly avoids her. "None a that shit needs cookin' so y'can just dig in. Go slow - y'eat too much too fast, you'll get sick." He remembers walking into the kitchen of their shitty trailer after nine days in the woods, the only thing there bread and peanut butter. Being so hungry he almost didn't even make it into a sandwich. The feeling afterward, throwing up half-chewed bread and globs of peanut butter. "Save some for breakfast."

"What about you?"

"Ain't hungry." Daryl isn't - the squirrel earlier, the eggs at breakfast, it's enough to hold him over until they get back to Hershel's. He's gone longer without food and anyway, his head is whirling and his stomach's roiling and he thinks if he tries to eat anything he'd just puke it up anyway. Not worth wasting it when the girl could eat it. "M'gonna jus' - rest a while." His eyes are already closing as he says it, and he forces them back open. Gets the crossbow into his lap, still loaded. "You wake me, you hear anything." He can see the trip line from the window. Anything hits it, he'll have a clear shot. Of this side of the house, at least. "An' wake me if you're gonna go to sleep so I can take watch."

His eyes are closing again.

"Are - are you okay?" he hears Sophia ask him, but her voice sounds small and far away. He can't tell if it's because he's fading out or if it's just because she's little and scared.

"Gonna be fine," Daryl mumbles. He leans his head against the wall, the solidness of it feeling comforting, almost cool against his too tender head. "Just gotta rest."

And after that, he doesn't hear anymore.

When Daryl wakes up, it's like he's drowning. Like he was trapped underwater and waking up tosses him back to shore. He takes a couple of huge, sucking breaths. He's got his bow in his hands, which calms him down some - fuck, he's worse than that girl, she's got a rag doll and he's got a weapon with a hundred sixty draw weight.

The girl.

The room is darker than it was when he fell asleep. He can barely make her out, huddled up near the bed he'd made her in the opposite corner. With the moonlight from the window, he can see the barest outline of her, arms wrapped around her bony little knees, head down.

Fuck. She must've fallen asleep before waking him. He can't quite bring himself to be mad at her for not waking him - hell, he's not sure if he would have wakened. Daryl'd felt almost dead when he'd dropped off. But it wasn't good policy to leave them without somebody keeping watch.

Daryl's feeling better now - not good, but better. He wonders what woke him up - he must have heard something, to jolt him out of sleep like that, but when he listens now it's quiet. The trip line looks undisturbed around the house. It's not until he hears a sniffle, quiet enough that he almost wonders if he's imagining it.

Oh. She's crying. Probably in her sleep. Daryl wonders if he should wake her - if she's having bad dreams. He'd been having bad dreams, he thinks. Something about his dad, about - it doesn't matter though. They'd slipped away into the dark when he woke up. Maybe he should wake her too. But he'd probably scare the shit out of her. Daryl shifts a little, unsure of the best move. That's when he notices the blanket.

She'd clearly been nervous to get too close. Which was smart, him clutching that fucking crossbow. It looks like she'd thrown the blanket out over his lower legs, his boots poking out from the edge of it. There's something else there, too. Daryl leans over, knocks it.

It's a dented can of soup.

Shit. He feels bad now. He scared that girl silly and she still saved food for him and tried to fucking tuck him in. Daryl shifts a little more. He should wake her. He shouldn't let her twist herself into knots in her dreams. Plus, he probably should make her sleep in a real bed. Well, Daryl thinks, looking at the nest of blankets at rags he'd made earlier - the closest thing they had to a bed.

"Sophia," he says softly, and the sniffling stops. She's rigid all of a sudden, and Daryl tries to keep his voice soft and low, like talking to a spooked horse. "Girl, wake up."

"I'm not asleep," Sophia says quickly, and then she's looking up at him. Her face shines a little in the moonlight, smudged tear tracks through the layer of grime on her cheeks. "You said not to sleep unless I woke you."

Daryl feels a stab of guilt. Maybe he didn't phrase that so good. "Din't mean - you gotta sleep," Daryl says, still trying to keep his voice calm. It's easier in the dark, somehow. Like he doesn't feel like she's scared just by looking at him. "Jus' meant somebody's gotta keep watch while you do."

"You should sleep," Sophia says. "You're sick."

"Naw," Daryl replies. "Just had me a good nap. Your turn." He jerks his chin towards the blankets then realizes she probably can't see him. "G'wan an' lay down."

Sophia hesitates. "I thought that was your bed."

Man, he's really messing this up. Daryl struggles to keep his voice level and calm as he responds. "Naw. Made it for you." She doesn't move. "C'mon girl. Bed ain't gonna bite."

Sophia creeps forward then and perches almost delicately on the blankets. Her little shoulders look stiff, like she's waiting for him to change his mind. When Daryl doesn't say anything, he sees her silhouette relax some.

"Ain't like what your mama's got waitin' for you back at the farm," Daryl says awkwardly. "She been uh. Workin' real hard."

There's another sniff then and Daryl feels stupid. Shit. Shouldn't talk about her ma, maybe. Probably just upset her. Daryl doesn't know what upsets kids.

"Y'don't - gotta cry," Daryl says awkwardly. "I'll getcha back soon."

"I'm not crying about that."

"A'right." Then what the fuck is she crying about?

"I just - I didn't think anybody would find me."

A pang then. It'd taken Daryl four days to find her, and in the end, he probably would have missed her again if he hadn't gotten thrown by that stupid horse.

"Had a lotta people lookin'," Daryl mumbles. "Sides, you din't need nobody to find you."

He hears a sniffle again. Shit. Maybe she thinks he means that he didn't think they should have wasted their time looking.

"Jus' mean - found yourself, din't you?" Daryl explains. He's chewing on the skin around his thumbnail, grateful for the darkness. What a fucking pair, the girl with her doll and Daryl practically sucking his fucking thumb. "Hell, din't think nobody'd find me. All fucked up in that creekbed." Shit. He shouldn't say fuck. "Mean, all hurt and shit." Fuck.

"But you knew how to get out. You're brave." Something curls in Daryl's stomach, and it takes a minute to realize it's a good feeling.

"Naw. Jus' know how to handle myself. That ain't brave."

"I don't know anything." She sounds so convinced, sad about it, and Daryl hates Ed with a fucking passion at that moment. Fuck that guy, that his kid's so sure she can't do shit.

"Knew how to climb a tree," Daryl points out. "Found food. Water." He thinks about his own time lost in the woods. "Didja wipe your ass with poison oak?"

Sophia seems incredibly still all of a sudden, and Daryl wonders if she's blushing.

"Jus' - I got lost when I was younger'n you. Nine days in the woods, eatin' berries an' shit. An' I'd been camping before, y'know? So I shoulda known better. But used poison oak for toilet paper. You ever touched that?"

When Sophia speaks again, there's the hint of a giggle in her voice, which makes Daryl feel better about the fact that he's telling a twelve-year-old girl about a rash on his ass. "No. But I know it's bad."

"Itches like hell," Daryl agrees. "Surprised I ever stopped itchin'. Could barely sit still for a week." His teachers at school had been pissed already that he'd missed a full week. They hadn't been happy when he showed up and couldn't stop squirming.

"Ew," Sophia says. Daryl can imagine her nose wrinkling, but there's still that sound in her voice, like a little bubble of laughter.

"Yeah, ew," Daryl says, a smile on his own face.

"How'd they find you?" Sophia asks, and Daryl feels his smile fade a little. He shrugs, even though it tugs at his side and she probably can't see it in the dark.

"Ain't nobody found me. Came on the house again after a while, s'all." He wonders if he should tell her no one was looking, but that feels weird. Like he's asking some traumatized kid to feel sorry for him. And Daryl'd been fine. He was still here, wasn't he? "Hadta find myself. Jus' like you."

There's a moment of silence and another sniffle. Shit. Fucked that up again.

"Sorry," Daryl mumbles. "I ain't - good with kids."

"No, no, I'm not - I just -" She sniffles again and when she speaks her voice is wobbly. "I don't know, I just was really scared. That's all."

"Well, yeah. S'fuckin' scary," Daryl says. He wishes he were someone else - Lori maybe, or Rick. Rick'd know what to do. Probably give the kid a hug and tell her it's all going to be okay, do some dad shit that Daryl can't even imagine. But the idea of hugging the kid makes Daryl nervous and he thinks she's more comfortable with him on the other side of the room anyway. "Weren't no geeks runnin' around when I was a kid. Mean - there were bears, I guess, but they had better things to do than mess with me."

"You saw a bear?"

"Couple of 'em," Daryl said. "Were up in a tree. I went off the other way." That was actually what had eventually gotten him going the way that led him home. Thank god for bears.

"I've never seen a bear."

"Good," Daryl says, and he's rewarded with a snotty huff of breath that maybe could be a laugh. "Bet that doll a yours was better company than a bear anyway."

"She's - it's Eliza's doll."

The fuck is Eliza?

"I mean - I'm twelve, I'm too old for dolls," Sophia says, and she sounds so impossibly young as she says it. "I'm not a baby. But Eliza's only eight, so."

Daryl hums. A picture is coming to mind - one of them other kids, Morales' squeakers. He'd never heard their names. Their mama had kept them far away from him and Merle, with good reason, after Merle called one of them a bean taquito. There was a little girl, younger than Sophia, he guesses. Eliza.

"When they left she gave it to me, so." Daryl thinks he can almost hear Sophia shrug in the dark. "I don't know. I just - kept it."

She sounds a little embarrassed, and Daryl wants to tell her not to be. Wants to say he knows how it feels, the comfort of something solid in your hands, something to cling to. He'd had a bear until he was four, a bear Merle was constantly hiding on the top of the fridge or burying in the trashcan. Til their pops had gotten mad one day at the racket Daryl was causing, whining at Merle to give the bear back, and ripped the things head off. "Shit boy, what are you, some kinda faggot, cryin' over some goddamn doll?"He'd sucked his thumb for too long, a habit that Merle had tried desperately to break him of, dipping his thumb in tabasco or soap, smacking his hand whenever it inched near his mouth. "Pa sees you he's gonna make you sorry," Merle'd warned him, and eventually Pa had seen and Daryl had been sorry. It'd taken six weeks of his father putting out his cigarette in the pad of Daryl's finger until he'd broken the habit for good. The pad there is still a little too smooth, the whorls and swirls of his fingerprint obscured by scar tissue. He'd been sorrier to lose the one thing he had to hold onto, the solid thing that could make him feel safe even when he was hiding under the bed hearing his pops and his ma get into it.

Daryl doesn't say any of that though. He doesn't know how to say it without it being weird.

"S'nice doll," Daryl mumbles instead, and he squints at Sophia. "Y'should sleep, girl. Got a lotta walking ahead of us tomorrow."

Sophia's shoulders are stiff with that but she lays down. Daryl looks at her consideringly.

"Y'want me to - tuck you in, or whatever?" He wants to punch himself the second he's said it. What'll he do if she says yes?

"No thank you," her tiny voice replies. Southern mamas and their manners.

"A'right then." Daryl feels awkward again, weird, and he looks out the window. At the grass, already wet with dew, the moonlight glinting off of the battered cans of the trip line. The darkness of the trees beyond. It's a six-mile hike back to the farm from here - six miles with her bum ankle and him all torn to shit. He wonders if he could convince her to wait here for him, if Daryl could hike back and get another horse or a vehicle or something to come get her. But Sophia probably wouldn't consent to getting separated again, and this house isn't a sure thing - somebody'd been here recently enough that they could still be coming back. He's not sure if there are even roads to get to this place, at least not roads that Hershel might know off the top of his head. This place was even more in the middle of bumfuck nowhere than his dad's house.

Later, when the sky is lightening enough for the black outside to fade to a murky gray, Daryl wonders if he jinxed them.

" - you sure this is where they ran to?"

Fuck. Daryl's over and shaking Sophia before his body has time to protest. He's glad he thought to put a hand over her mouth because her whole body stiffens as he shakes her, and he can feel her mouth opening to cry out under his hand.

"Shh," he whispers - it's hardly a whisper, more an exhale. "We got company."

She stills immediately.

Daryl can see them now - three guys. And he's only got one arrow. Fuck. They're coming up on the house from the southeast - if they bail out of the window,

"I mean I ain't sure but it's the only place up around here they could go - "

"Fuck man, you lost us that pussy an' I'm gonna take it out of your ass -"

"Like to see you try!"

A moment of laughter. Daryl pulls Sophia out of the room and over to the closet where they'd found the canned goods. "In here," Daryl hisses, but Sophia's hands claw at him, dig into his shirt, jarring his wounds.

"Don't leave!" she says, an almost hysterical note in her voice. "Please, please -"

"Ain't goin' nowhere," he says, pulling her hands off of him. "Jus' can't fit in there with you. G'wan."

"Please -"

"Stay in here till I come getcha," Daryl says. "I'll be back. Promise."

Sophia's eyes are staring at him, wide and pleading, her lip wobbling out of control.

"Randall, check the front of the house, make sure they don't slip out. Ladies!" The last word is booming, loud - these guys don't care if whoever's in here hears them coming, which is their mistake. "Ladies, you left before we had a chance to kiss goodbye!" The guy's voice is oily, with some northern accent like from a TV show. Daryl shuts the cupboard door on Sophia and shoves some shit in front of it - the two chairs, some trash - camouflage her some. There's a china cabinet on the opposite wall - if Daryl thought he could move it without passing out, he would.

"Shit man, maybe they ain't here. Coulda cut out towards the highway, 85 ain't far -"

"Might as well check. Someone set that alarm out there. Them bitches seemed too dumb for that, but you never know. Max an' me'll take inside. Randall, you keep watch out here."

"What? I found the place for you, y'all wouldn't've even found it if not for -"

"Shut up, kid. You're lucky we even let you come, after -"

Splitting up. That's good. Daryl goes up to the top of the stairs, tucks himself away. Bow drawn and ready.

They think they're fucking with him? Mess with the girl? They've got another thing coming.

Chapter 4: Fight

Chapter Text

Daryl'd jammed a chair up under the door handle before they went to bed, but that doesn't stop him from seeing the knob turning. Fuck. He should have blocked the front doors better. But he'd been thinking flight, not fight. Not with him all fucked up and a kid in tow. He didn't want to curtail any of their ways out. But now they've got no choice, so Daryl readies himself to do what he has to.

"Someone's in there. Locked the door." A knocking at the door. "Little pigs! Little pigs! Let us in!"

"Fuck man. We could just bust that window there, go in that way -"

There are windows in the room Sophia's hiding in. Daryl doesn't want to risk it.

"Whatcha want?" Daryl hollers, and he hears the men outside stop.

"Shit. That don't sound like Brenda."

"Could be the other one - she was sounding pretty hoarse after I -"

"Man, don't be a dumbass -"

"Hey man, we're looking for some friends of ours," the main guy yells back. "Couple a broads. You seen 'em?"

"Ain't seen nobody," Daryl yells back. "Y'better go."

A pause. "Hey man, you'll forgive us if we don't just take your word for it."

There's a slam at the door and Daryl can see the chair jump under the doorknob. It's not going to hold for much longer.

Daryl knows what he should do. Knows what Merle would do. First guy in, pick him off with the bow. Make it two against one. Hide upstairs with the knife, take out another. Maybe one of them has a gun, something he can use on the third. It's not much of a plan but it's something. And he should do it. He's got Sophia to protect, and these guys sound like bad dudes. The way they talk about the women they're looking for makes his skin crawl.

But Daryl's never killed anyone before.

The door handle jumps again. "Look man - we don't want any trouble." The main guy, the smooth talker. "We're just looking for our girls. You let us in, let us take a look - if they ain't there, we'll go. Promise."

Do they honestly think Daryl's that stupid?

"You on your own, man?"

"Yeah," Daryl yells. Then he thinks, stupid. He shouldn't have told them that. Should have said there were more guys, puffed himself up. But he's not saying anything that gives even the slightest hint that Sophia exists. "S'how I like it."

"We get that, man. Look - let us in? We'll do a search and get outta your hair. No problem."

"Where you from, man?" One of the others yells out. "You local?"

Daryl doesn't say anything.

"Hey, we've got a local here. Randall, he's from Senoia. You from that way?"

"Don't tell him where I'm from," he can hear one of them hissing. Randall, he guesses. "What if he -"

"What's he gonna do? Where you from, man? Senoia?"

"Naw," Daryl says. "Passin' through."

"Us too." There's a pause."We're gonna come in man. All right? Just take a look around. It'd be better if you'd open up for us."

Daryl doesn't move.

"Bust it, Max."

Max is the first one in. He's older than Daryl thought, wearing a backward baseball hat and jean shorts. He's panting like a stuck pig from knocking the door in.

Shoot, Daryl tells himself. Shoot. Get him in the eye, or the throat. Easier than killing a walker, you can hit him lots of places and he'll go down. Do it. Fire.

But his finger doesn't move. He's never killed anybody. He's hurt people sure, he's won his share of fights (and lost more than his share), and he's been muscle for Merle a few times on deals. But he's never just shot a guy in cold blood.

"You get upstairs," the second guy says. He's the one in charge. He could almost look handsome, Daryl thinks, if it wasn't for his eyes, which look mean and hungry. "I'll look down here."

"Yeah, Greg. Got it."

This is it. He should aim for Greg first. Greg's the threat, and Greg's the one whose prowling around on the first floor. But he sees the flash of a gun at Max's belt and it makes Daryl wait. If Max comes upstairs, Daryl can take him out quick, grab the gun. Then maybe -

"Where you at, man? Come on out. We shoot the shit."

He's delayed too long. The choice gets made for him. Greg's ducked into a room - the front room where they'd been sleeping, not the one in the closet where Sophia is hiding. Max is huffing his way up the stairs - really? This guy is that out of shape? How'd he outrun walkers in that condition?

"Man, them girls aren't here. Shoulda gone east instead, bet they're running for Whitewater or something -"

Daryl's quick when he wants to be. He doesn't let himself think when the arrow pierces the guy's throat. There isn't time for more than a gurgle, wide brown eyes staring at Daryl, fingers clawing at the fletching protruding from his neck. The guy might not be dead right away, but it'll come soon enough. Daryl doesn't wait. Draws his knife over the guy's throat - it feels disturbingly like field dressing a deer, the same sort of action. Then the guy doesn't do anything.

Daryl makes his way down the stairs careful, drawing back the bow again, putting his blood sticky arrow in place. He slings the bow over his back though and wields Max's gun. It's flashy but it's loaded. It'll do the trick. He can hear Greg kicking shit in the bed area.

"Come on man. We don't mean no harm. You tired of being on your own? We got a camp, you know. Good guys. Friendly guys. We take newcomers if they can earn their keep. Randall out there, he's earning his keep for us right now." Then all of a sudden the noises stop.

"Max!" Greg calls and Daryl freezes on the steps. "Ain't our girls here. But some girl is."

Daryl doesn't breathe.

"Hey, sweetie. You lose somethin'?"

Daryl starts down the stairs as fast as he can without alerting Greg to his presence. His heart is pounding in his ears, his side. It's okay. She's not in there. She's smart, she'll stay in the closet til he gets her.

"Think your dolly misses you. Why don't you come out and get her?"


"Hey sweetheart, it's okay. I don't bite. Hard." Greg laughs at his own joke. "That your dad here with you?"

Daryl's almost to the door frame.

"We got a camp, you know. Room for you and your dad. Or maybe we'll get you a new daddy. How's that sound? Want me to be your new daddy?"

Greg's head explodes before he even knows Daryl's there. The gunshot roars in Daryl's ears and Daryl staggers - it's all catching up with him now, his side and his head and the fact he just killed two people in cold fucking blood. He steps over Greg's slumped body, makes for the front - the third one, the kid, the one from Senoia -

"Shit -"

The kid is running, scrambling north through the branches, tripping over himself. Daryl watches for a second. He could hit him, he thinks, if his head wasn't swimming and he didn't think he was going to puke. But the kid's running fast and he's running the opposite way from Hershel's farm and two people's enough for one day, ain't it?

"Don't be a pussy, little brother," he hears, and Merle is there, leaning against the doorjamb. He's lighting a cigarette, both hands intact. Daryl watches the flame play between his fingers, the smoke curl outwards. "You do what you gotta. But hell," Merle says, blowing a perfect smoke ring - something Merle had spent most of his life trying to master. "Best get that girl outta here before them geeks hear that gunshot and come chomping. You done rung the dinner bell, boy."

When Daryl opens the cupboard door, Sophia's clutching the empty bourbon bottle in sweaty hands and her breath is unsteady. When she sees Daryl, she throws herself into his arms, clinging to him. He grunts as she smacks into him and staggers back.

"Sorry, sorry," Sophia is saying, and Daryl doesn't know what to do with this shit. "I heard the gun and I thought you might have -"

"M'fine," Daryl says gruffly. "But s'time to go." She doesn't let him go right away and he twitches - he doesn't want to shove her or nothing, but there isn't time for this and it isn't like he's so great at hugs and shit even at the best of times. Sophia seems to understand the twitch though. She backs off.

Daryl holds out the doll to her. There was a little blood on the doll's head, but he thinks maybe Sophia won't notice with all the other dirt ground into it. "Ready?"

"My - my stick's in the other room."

Yeah. Guess he hadn't really given her time to grab that. Daryl chews on his lip.

"You - wait here, a'right? I'll get it." Sophia shifts and he looks at her, hard. "I mean it. Don' follow me."

She's scared enough of him as it is, she doesn't have to see what he's done.

"Okay," she mumbles. She's working the yarn of the doll's hair in between her fingers. "I - I'll wait."

Daryl's quick when he goes it the room. He scoops up her crutch, the can of soup she'd left him, scours the ground for anything else. The jar of olives is still half full, so he pockets that too.

He throws a blanket over Greg's body and thinks about doing the same for Max upstairs, but doesn't. He's wrecked from all that. Daryl's not sure he could make it up and down the stairs another time, which doesn't bode well for him getting himself and the girl back to Hershel's farm in one piece. He grabs Greg's gun and shoves it in his waistband. There's a knife too, a buck knife with a folding blade, and he takes that too. It's small enough for Sophia to handle.

He hands her the knife and the stick and she looks at him, worry sketched around her eyes, teeth pulling at her lip.

"Are you - you don't look so good."

He doesn't feel so good either but it doesn't matter. He isn't dying. Just got to keep moving.

"Ain't a good idea to stay here," Daryl says. "We're gonna leave now anyway. We leave now, might be at the farm for lunch."

Dinner, he thinks dizzily. Dinner if they're lucky, with him all fucked up like this.

Sophia nods and bites her lip. He hands her the knife. She stares at it.

"I - I don't know how to -"

"S'good to have a knife," Daryl says to her. "Handy. Just take it."

She doesn't say anything when he hands her Greg's gun.

He thought carefully about it. Greg's gun is lighter than Max's, and it has more ammo. Sophia stares at it with scared eyes and doesn't reach out. Like she's scared it's going to bite her or something.

"Don' use it unless you gotta," Daryl says. His arm trembles a little with the effort of holding the gun out to her, and that makes him mad. At himself, at how fucking weak he is, at how the hell he's gonna get this girl home in one piece, and a little bit at the girl. Can't she see he needs her help? "Sound'll draw walkers, so it's only for a real emergency."

"I - I'm not supposed to play with guns," Sophia whispers.

"Yeah, well, y'ain't gonna play with it. You're gonna hold onto it and give it back to me at the farm," Daryl says. "Safety's here. Trigger's here. Don't point at nothin' you don't want dead."

"M-my dad told me -"

"Well, he ain't here!" Daryl snaps and immediately regrets it. Sophia flinches back, hands on her stick like if he comes at her she'll bop him one. Which makes him feel a little. Good girl. Anyone comes near her, she should bop him one. He takes a breath. "Look. Ain't - s'just in case. Y'can't draw the bow yourself or I'd give you that." Daryl doesn't mention she'll probably be better at aiming the gun, that the gun gives her more chances than the bow. "But if we get separated, ain't no good me havin' everythin' and you havin' nothin'."

This only makes her more panicked.

"I - I don't want to get separated," Sophia says, her voice quaking.

"Me neither," Daryl says frankly. "Just gotta plan for the worst case. That's all."

He waits her out for a long minute. He's getting impatient - they've got to go. Who knows where the camp was that these fucks were talking about, how long it'll take Randall to sound the alarm. He should have killed that kid. Stupid.

Daryl's about to shove the gun back into his waistband - fuck it - when Sophia's hand reaches forward and takes it, quick and light, brushing against his hand like a butterfly.

"Sorry," Sophia says miserably. "Sorry, I didn't - I'll carry it. Sorry."

Fuck. Daryl's too tired for this. He's bad at kids anyway, probably worse at girl kids than boy kids because at least he was a boy kid. Girls are totally alien so he'd probably be fucking this up anyway, even if he weren't leaking blood with a pounding head and shaking limbs and the word murderer slamming around his skull.

"S'okay," he says roughly. He shoulders his bow, checks his gun. "We jus' gotta go. That's all."

And they do.

As they pass the front, Daryl sees the flowers again. Cherokee roses.

"Hold up," he says. Sophia stops, looks at him.

Daryl pulls three flowers off - mindful of the prickers, careful not to get stuck. He strips the last of the thorns off as he gets back to Sophia.

"Here," he says gruffly. Sophia stares at the flowers like they're not quite real. "Bring these back for your mama."

Sophia takes them. Rubs one of the petals between her fingers.

"They're pretty," Sophia offers tentatively. Daryl grunts.

"Cherokee roses," he says, and then he's got to save his energy. "C'mon. Let's move. Git those back to your mama 'fore they wilt."

Chapter 5: Flight

Chapter Text

Their progress through the woods is slow. Sophia moves at a snails pace, hopping along with that stick, and it takes Daryl longer than it should to realize that she's actually holding back for him. He's shuffling along like a fucking walker himself. The bow is heavy and grinding against his back and he can feel his steps getting jerkier, less even. He's not being as observant as he should be - he knows he'd notice if a human was on their trail, or even a walker, but otherwise all his attention goes to staying upright and putting one foot ahead of the other in the right direction.

"Should we - do you want to stop?" Sophia asks hesitantly, maybe two hours in. "We could - eat lunch or -"

"Ain't past ten," Daryl says, pushing against his side. "It'd be breakfast."

"Do you - want breakfast?"

"Naw. Wanna get you home."

They walk for maybe another thirty minutes before she works up the courage to ask again.

"Maybe - maybe we should stop now."

"Girl, we ain't stoppin' -" Daryl starts, but he stumbles over a root, almost falls flat on his face. Like some stupid city slicker. He catches himself on a tree, the rough bark cool under his hands, and that's when Daryl realizes he's probably running a fever. Shit.

"I think we have to," Sophia says in that bad small voice again. "You're - you look bad." She realizes that this isn't maybe a polite thing to say, which Daryl thinks is funny because why on earth would it matter now how polite you are. "I mean - sick. You look, uh. Maybe sick."

"Dunno where their camp was," Daryl mumbles. His lips feel super dry all of a sudden. He should have drunk that water yesterday, even if it'd meant he'd shit himself silly. He's so thirsty. "Dunno how long we got, 'fore someone comes lookin'."

Sophia is quiet, and he wonders if she hadn't realized earlier. What he'd done. That those guys were dead. That he'd killed them and that there were probably more of them.

"What do I do?" Sophia asks suddenly. She sounds scared and lost but also frustrated. Maybe angry. Well, good. She should be angry. Angry's better fuel than sad or scared, burns hotter and more powerful than lost. Angry'll get both of them home.

It's got to.

"I don't know what to - I think you're really sick, Mr. Daryl."

"Don' call me that," Daryl croaks, and the girl flinches. "They'll patch me up at the farm. Don' worry. Jus' gotta get there."

"But -"

"Hey," Daryl says, and Sophia looks at him. He tries to think of what to say, of how to explain it to her. What'll make her feel better, be less scared?

"I ain't dyin'," he says firmly. "So c'mon. Let's get you home."

They keep going.

Maybe the others are out looking for them.

This thought appears as it becomes clearer and clearer that they aren't going to make the farm before sundown. Daryl's moving just too damn slow. The girl too - she's not holding back anymore, trying to match his pace. She's slower than he is, hours of hobbling around with that dumb excuse for a crutch catching up with her. Her every move is stilted, more drag than step, and Daryl's not much better, although by midday he feels less flushed and thirsty. They stop at noon, near a creek that's barely more than a trickle, and he builds a fire - "Dry wood," Daryl explains as he coaxes the thing to life, the emptied soup can nestled in the flames, "Means less smoke, means no one can track us with it." The can is so shallow that it boils quick, and both of them drink two cans worth, even though it tastes muddy and brackish and faintly like cream of celery soup.

They're close to the farm now. Maybe another two miles. Going at the rate they're at now and assuming they make camp for the night, they should be there before noon tomorrow, easy. But only two miles out means they're almost back on Hershel's turf. Rick could be out looking for them, Glenn's horse girl could ride up on them, hell even Shane might find them, two miles out.

Unless no one's looking. Unless they figured he just lit out, stole Hershel's horse, and ran off like some nineteenth-century horse thief. Like he'd leave Merle's bike behind. Or maybe they haven't even noticed Daryl's missing. He keeps to himself well enough. Rick's the only one who checks in with him regular or whatever, and that's just about the status of the search.

Carol'd probably notice he hadn't come back - at the very least, because she watches him like a hawk when he comes back into camp, waiting for good news. But the others don't listen to Carol really. They act like because she's torn up about her kid she's useless, and frankly they'd acted like she was useless for a long time.

Daryl'd seen how Ed treated her, back at the quarry. Merle had told him to keep his nose out.

"Bitches like that don't leave 'less they want to," Merle had said. "Remember Ma?"

"Ma din't leave," Daryl had grumbled. "She died."

"Exactly, baby brother," Merle had said, his teeth bared in his shit-eating grin even if something around his eyes was sad. "Exactly."

Merle hadn't mentioned it, but it'd made Daryl remember too when he was little - before his ma had died, so he was probably six or seven - and his ma's sister had come to visit for a couple of weeks. Aunt Elaine, he remembered suddenly. She'd come up from Macon to stay and his dad had gotten into a screaming match with his ma that had ended with her sobbing on the kitchen floor, her hand over her swollen cheek, and booze everywhere. Aunt Elaine had yelled at his pop, had said "I know what you are!" and "You touch her or those boys again, you'll regret it!"

Which had led to the worst summer of Daryl's life, as his dad proceeded to tar each and every one of them bloody and then invite Aunt Elaine over for dinner.

"Whatcha think?" he'd ask her, leering, more than a little drunk. "I regrettin' it yet?"

She'd never come for another visit. And Ma had died a couple months later.

Daryl'd learned an important lesson then, about outsiders messing in family business. It could only end bad for the family.

But Daryl wasn't a cop. Cops sucked, but they weren't meant to just sit by and watch some woman get beat on and stay out of it because it wasn't their business. The worst thing about cops was they made everything their business. So why, at the quarry, had Rick and Shane just looked the other way?

Because they'd figured Carol wasn't important enough to have to tussle with Ed. Because she didn't matter.

So even if Carol did notice Daryl was missing, he wasn't sold on the idea that the others would take her very seriously. Especially not about some redneck scum like him.

No. No point in waiting around for rescue. They had to get themselves back. And they were close.

Just a little further.

"Are we almost there?"

Sophia was cringing even as she said it like she expected him to wallop her for daring to ask. But Daryl's more impressed that she'd waited so long - it's been hours since they stopped at the creek, and he'd expected complaining to come pretty soon after they started walking again.

"More'n halfway," he said, and the look on Sophia's face is hard to read. Nervousness, anxiety. Excitement.

"Will we get there tonight?"

Daryl squints at the sky and sighs. Shakes his head. "Tomorrow."

Sophia bites her lip. He expects a little whining. He'd said tomorrow yesterday, and the girl probably wanted to be home five days ago. But she just nods and looks around. At the trees, looming overhead, the underbrush wild and tangled around the forest floor.

"Are - where are we going to sleep?"

It's a good question. Daryl frowns, suddenly.

"Where'd you sleep?" he asks, realizing he'd gotten hardly any information about how the girl had lasted as long as she did. "When you was alone?"

Sophia shrugged, uncomfortably. "Um - in trees?"

Daryl stares at her.

"What?" he asks slowly. He gets that climbing trees was how she'd shaken the walkers off. Hell, she'd found that hickory tree, sure. But sleeping in a tree - "What are you, some kinda squirrel? Where'd you think of somethin' like that?"

"Um. It was in a book?" Sophia says softly, her voice quirking up at the end almost like a question. He can't tell if it's the good kinda soft, like when he almost made her giggle last night, or the bad kind like she's scared of him.

"A book?"

"Yeah. Um. The Hunger Games?"

Daryl looks at her. Sophia is looking back, and all of a sudden something shifts in her face. "You - don't you know about The Hunger Games?"

Hunger Games feels like what they're in now - some game where they're starving, the walkers are hungry, and whoever eats first wins. He shakes his head.

"Naw," Daryl grunts. "Ain't much of a reader."

"Katniss sleeps in a tree. She's got a sleeping bag and she belts it to the branches so that the Careers don't see her when they're hunting and so she doesn't fall out if she falls asleep."

Huh. Some of that sentence makes sense.

"And Rue is good in trees too. That's her friend. She can walk from tree to tree, really like a squirrel. I tried to do it but my ankle hurt too bad, so I stopped."

Shit. Girl was hopping tree to tree, no wonder Daryl'd lost her trail. He was surprised she hadn't broken her neck.

"You ain't got a belt," Daryl points out, and Sophia nods.

"Yeah. Mostly I tried to use my shirt - like I'd poke a branch through the neck hole or the sleeves so if I moved it'd wake me up before I fell out. I mean - I didn't like really sleep super good or anything, but. I just figured, since walkers can't climb, that it'd be safer..." Sophia trails off. "It was stupid."

"Why would it be stupid? You're alive, ain't you?"

"I guess," Sophia mumbles.

A minute of silence later, her quietest voice comes from behind him.

"My dad hates those books."

Daryl looks at her. She's staring at the ground, her feet.

"Why?" Daryl's dad hadn't cared about books. He'd holler if he saw Daryl lazing around doing homework when he could be doing something useful, but he never gave a shit if the stuff in the books was violent or pornographic or whatever. As an adult, Daryl wonders back at how literate his dad actually was. Like he was pretty sure Will Dixon could read, but he wonders if his dad actually ever sat down and read a whole book or whatever.

"The Hunger Games. He says they're violent. It's a bad example."

Like Ed cared about setting a bad example. Probably didn't want Sophia getting ideas about fighting back. Fucker.

"Just - That's not for girls. That stuff. It's why I'm not allowed to touch his gun. It's not for girls, stuff like that."

Daryl figures Ed had plenty of reasons not to want Sophia to touch his gun. Or Carol.

He wonders if Sophia realizes she's speaking in the present tense. Wonders if it's just a habit, or if it hasn't sunk in yet, that Ed is gone. That he's not going to say shit like that to her again, that she can read anything she wants. Wonders if it'd be a relief or if she misses him. When his old man had died, he'd felt nothing, not even relief. There'd been a sort of emptiness where he thought grief was meant to be, just a blank void in his chest. It'd been hard to believe it was real.

"Ain't that person in your book a girl, one tied herself to the tree?"

Sophia just nods.

"Well," Daryl says like that proves his point. He's not sure if it does, but Sophia gives him a small smile anyway.

"That's what my mom said."

"Your ma's smart," Daryl grunts.

"Yeah," Sophia says, her tone wistful. "She is."

They walk in silence for another bit, nothing but the crunch of dirt and dead leaves under their feet.

Daryl sets up camp and asks Sophia, only half-joking, if she's sure she doesn't want to sleep in a tree.

Sophia shrugs, the ghost of a smile around her face. "I - I guess I'd probably sleep better, um. On the ground."

"A'right. If you're sure." The lean-to Daryl threw together isn't his best work, but it'll keep her sheltered and dry while he keeps watch. Maybe he'll wake her when he gets tired, or maybe he'll just push through till morning, although his side twinges at the thought, like it's warning him to take his injury serious. He's never been good at that. But the girl deserves some rest. Daryl can sleep when they're safe.

They eat the olives for dinner - all in all, it's not the worst day of food Daryl's ever had, half a can of lukewarm soup for lunch, a handful of olives for dinner. He wishes he had the energy to bag something real, some more squirrels or maybe even a possum or something bigger. But his energy has been towards moving them forward, and they'll be all right. Just one more night. Sophia'd never had olives before and it actually gets a laugh out of him, the puckering of her mouth at the brininess. Sophia stills for a second - he wonders if she's ever heard a grown man laugh who wasn't laughing at her. But then she gives him a small, shy smile, tentative and fleeting, and it gives Daryl such a boost of energy he wonders if he should strike camp and push them through to Hershel's in the dark. Even though that'd be the stupidest idea in the world.

It gets dark quick in the woods. One minute the light is there and the next it's gone, leaving them in a gritty grayness that fades into black as Daryl layers the top of the lean-to with more branches. He's done it so often that the lack of light doesn't affect him too much - ain't like the thing needs to be a work of art or whatever. Just gotta keep her dry and warm.

"I - um -" Sophia is mumbling and Daryl tries not to react while she does. He hates it when people ask him to speak up, be louder, say it again, and he's a grown-ass man. Little girl's probably twice as sick of it. He spreads another layer of leaves on the floor of a lean-to, the best bed he can make. Hell, she uses that doll for a pillow and it might actually be kinda comfortable. "I could - go find tinder again? For the fire?"

"Naw," Daryl grunts. She should rest that foot, is what she should do. "Don't need a fire. You'll be warm enough in here."

"Oh." She's chewing on her lip again, fingers picking at the doll in her lap.

"Normally we would," Daryl adds. "If we were jus' camping. Can scare off animals, y'know. Most times, they don't wanna find humans anymore'n humans wanna find them. We're dangerous."

"So - shouldn't we - make one, then? To keep -" Sophia scrunches her nose up, shakes her head. "I mean - sorry."

"Naw, s'good question," Daryl mutters. He adds another layer of leaves to the bed. "Animals'd keep clear, but the light draws walkers in. Maybe the heat too, I dunno." Daryl doesn't mention potential other pursuers, people from that camp Randall'd probably run back to. If she's forgotten about it, he doesn't need to remind her, make her scared of more shit. "Plus, can kinda blind you, you know."

Sophia looks at him, worried. "Blind you?"

"Naw, not - jus' mean, your eyes adjust to light. Right? Like - when you're inside with the lights on and you go out an' it's dark, you can't see so good." There are words for this that are better, science shit. Hell, if he were Rick or Shane or Glenn, that motor mouth fuck, he'd be able to explain anything. As it is, he's tripping over words, scrambling for examples. Kid probably thinks he's a fucking idiot.

But she's nodding, slowly. "Um - like when you're playing outside and it's sunny and you go inside and it's like all black and green and it's hard to see?"

Smart kid. "Yeah. S'like - if we had a fire, I'd only be able to see the stuff the fire lit up, an' if I had to look away, I'd be pretty bad. But if I ain't never had the light, then my eyes'll adjust or whatever, to the dark. Be able to see better."

He can't tell if that makes any sense, but Sophia's nodding again. "Um. Mr - sorry."

Daryl tries to hold in a sigh. "What?"

"I, um. I, I have to -"

Oh. They'd had this problem twice already - Sophia, stammering and blushing, her body weirdly rigid, fumbling around telling Daryl she's got to take a piss. Daryl's not sure why the girl is so embarrassed about it - just means everything is working normal, doesn't it?

"Gotta hit the head?"

Sophia nods, biting her lip.

"Well. We should go a little further out," Daryl says. It'd been different earlier - she'd just hung back a little, ducked behind a tree, and they'd kept walking. But now, stopped for the night, Daryl doesn't want the smell of shit or piss to draw animals to them, especially with no fire. Daryl wishes she'd figured out she had to go earlier - he'd have dug a latrine or something. "C'mon."

Sophia doesn't move. She's staring at him with a weird, watchful look.

"I can go myself."

"Girl, s'dark," Daryl says. "Don't want you wanderin' off." The girl flinches at that, and Daryl feels bad. He didn't mean to make her feel bad for getting lost. "C'mon. I'll stand watch."

"My - my mom says I'm not ever supposed to -" Sophia's shoulders are pulling inward, making her smaller, and suddenly something in Daryl feels sick and squirming. Fuck. Is she scared of him? That he'll do something while she -

"Ain't gonna look," Daryl says, and his voice sounds angry even to his ears, so he's not surprised when the girl makes herself even smaller. He's not mad at her. He's not even mad at Carol - whatever shit she'd told Sophia, it was good advice. He's angry that the advice was probably necessary, whatever shit Carol'd given her about to be careful about men, about being vulnerable, about getting cornered with your pants down and nowhere to run.

Hell. Daryl knows better than anyone the shit people do when they think they can get away with it. But he'd had to learn it the hard way. His ma hadn't given him any pointers.

"I - I don't have to go that bad," Sophia says, her voice very small. "I'm okay."

"C'mon." Daryl's pulling himself up then, his whole body protesting. He leans against a tree, jerks his chin without looking at the girl. "I'll listen out for you from here. Jus' make sure nothin' creeps up on you. You hear somethin', you holler, right?"

Sophia bites her lip. "I - I can -"

"Girl, git on," Daryl says roughly. "Don't want you pissin' yourself here. Draw the bears. Ain't gonna try nothin'. Jus' don't think you can hold a gun an' pee at the same time." Although maybe a girl could do that.

He's half expecting her to cringe herself into nothing, to pull herself so small that she disappears. At the very least to dart off like a rabbit, scared shitless of him. He's bad with kids. He shouldn't tell her there's shit out there waiting to creep up on her, that bears were coming, shouldn't have made it sound like she's some baby gonna piss herself at the first move. But she doesn't. Her chin stuck out in a way he'd call stubborn anywhere else, she's up, going by him in a blur of blonde hair and ragged tee-shirt, lopsided with her injured ankle.

Daryl listens as hard as he can, the rustling of leaves and of small animals, mice maybe, the distant hoot of an owl - tries not to think how fucking stupid he'll feel if he gets the girl this far and she gets her shoulder chomped while she takes a piss. Tries not to think too of how fucking scared she must be, out here alone in the woods, walkers and god knows who else on their trail, stuck with him, all cussing and killing, rough edges and tattoos and scars. Probably wishes it'd been anyone else to find her. Probably wouldn't have been scared of Rick like that, or Shane. Not good guys like that. But he reminds her of her daddy, probably, harsh words and violence and danger. Fuck. He's biting at the cuticle around his thumb, feeling the skin pull and tear under his teeth, tasting blood. Fuck. He's fucking this up.

A twig snaps and he almost aims the bow into the darkness before he realizes it's Sophia coming back. She's quiet, light-footed - could probably be a good hunter. A good tracker, too - she's observant. Daryl's almost afraid to speak to her. He doesn't look at her anymore as she creeps back into camp, settles down outside the lean-to.

He says nothing until it becomes clear she's not going to move without a push. "Better get some sleep," Daryl says, his voice gravelly. He looks at his hands instead, the spot of blood dotting the edge of his thumb. He rubs it off on the edge of his jeans, has a distant thought of how stupid he is, ripping open holes in himself and wiping them off into dirt when he's already in such bad shape. He leans himself against the tree.

"Yes sir," Sophia says, hardly more than a whisper, and Daryl feels his mouth pull and his gut clench.

"Ain't no sir," he grunts, and he doesn't have to look at her to tell the flinch. He tries to remember her face earlier, tasting the olives, the shy smile when they'd talked about that book. Before it got dark and she got scared. She's not wrong to be scared. Daryl remembers what can happen in the dark, the way that things that felt manageable in the day could morph and twist when you couldn't fix eyes on it. "Get some rest. We're startin' early tomorrow."

A rustle of leaves as the girl crawls into the lean-to is her only response.

Chapter 6: Dreams and Nightmares

Chapter Text

It's quiet in the woods at night and that's how Daryl likes it. The sky gets darker, the stars peek through the branches, and he counts the time until morning, each minute closer to getting back to the farm. He tries to picture Carol's face, the moment when she realizes it's over, it's all okay. But it feels weird to think about so Daryl tries to think about nothing at all.

Daryl goes into a sort of state that isn't asleep or awake - something he remembers from childhood, hunting in blinds with his dad. Daryl hated it - hated being outside but stuck in one spot, hated the close proximity to his father, the way that the enclosure made him feel half dumb without tracks to follow. His dad wouldn't drink when they went out tracking - he'd had that much sense. But in the enclosure, he'd bring whatever he felt like and drink the whole day and get pissed when he aimed at a deer and missed. On a good day, it'd only be a six-pack, and he'd crack one open for Daryl. On a bad day, a jar of his own moonshine, the smell of it clogging Daryl's head and burning his eyes with what he knew was coming.

Back then, Daryl'd zone out. That's what his dad called it, smacking him in the back of the head and telling him to quit dreaming, but Daryl never thought that was fair. He wasn't daydreaming - he wasn't thinking at all. He just went blank, his brain moving slow, his ears taking in information but not properly listening. It was easier to wait like that, zoned out, breathing still and even, hoping that if he stayed still enough a deer would stumble over their path and the day could be over, that his old man would forget he was there. Daryl had done it a couple of times at home, too - when he was really little, hiding under the couch listening to Merle or his ma get it, or when he was older, when Merle was gone and his ma was dead, his dad unbuckling his belt and riding that sound until he was far away.

Daryl's zoning out - just crouched against the tree, listening, watching, the weight of the crossbow in his hands, trying not to think - when he hears the girl crying.

It's different than the night before. Then, all he'd really heard was the odd sniffle or two, and if he hadn't seen the tear tracks down Sophia's face, he could have guessed she just had a cold or something. This isn't like that. It's not even like real crying - it's a sort of strangled whimper that doesn't cut out, burrowing under Daryl's skin and drilling through his ears to his brain so he can't zone out anymore.

He doesn't know what to do. She's asleep, she must be - she's too quiet to make this much noise willingly. He wonders what she's dreaming about to make her cry like that, and he decides he doesn't want to know. With a sick feeling in his stomach, he wonders if it's him.

He should wake her. She's not happy, he can hear that much, and he remembers that feeling, being stuck in a nightmare that you can't get out of, the fear clawing the back of his throat, the panic. (He remembers it better than he should - Merle'd ragged the shit out of him, that Daryl still had nightmares at his age.) She's not getting real rest that way anyway. He could help her, wake her, stop her from crying.

Or he could just make it worse.

Daryl's biting at the skin around his thumb again as he listens. She sounds like a wounded animal, a cat with its tail stuck in a door, a dog after a kick. It's driving him crazy, the sound, but what if he woke her up and it just made her cry harder? He can't imagine himself touching her, not after that shit earlier. He remembers waking her up when Greg and Mark had snuck up on them, the frantic way her arms had clawed at him, the look in her eyes. He can't do it.

But she sounds scared and it just drills deeper and deeper into his head until he can't take it anymore.

Daryl doesn't move. There's debris on the ground around him - snapped twigs and clods of dirt, little pebbles. He aims careful - he doesn't want to hurt her. But he starts tossing them onto the slanted leaf roof of the lean-to, gently. Making the structure move slightly, shaking the leaves where it hits with a low rustle.

It doesn't take long until the noise stops, which Daryl figures means she woke up. He tries to zone out again - he's tired suddenly, exhausted, and he just wants to hand the girl over to her ma and go into his tent and sleep for days. His side has been throbbing so hard that he almost can't remember what it feels like to not have this second, shadow heartbeat in his ribs. It'll be over soon, he thinks, pressing his hand into the wound, which feels hot to the touch. Fuck.

It'll be over soon.

Daryl's surprised when Sophia comes out of the lean-to. He figured once she woke up, she'd just lay there until she fell back asleep. But she crawls out, that doll clutched in one hand, and she sits in front of the lean-to silently, curled into herself, and Daryl doesn't know what to say. The silence feels thick and unnatural between them and Daryl hates it - silence for him has always been safety, he doesn't like the tenseness in it now.

He waits a minute, to see if she'll speak first, but she doesn't. Just stays curled up, miserable looking, hands knotted over her knees and the doll tucked under her chin. If there were a fire, it'd be easier - they could watch it, stare at it. The fire would fill up space. But there's no fire, nothing but the whisper of the woods around them and the dark.

"Can' sleep?" Daryl asks. His voice is rough and he swallows. No need to scare her more by sounding like Freddy fucking Krueger.

He sees her head shake, minutely. Her voice comes out after a moment. "I - I woke up."

Daryl nods. Licks his lips. "Y'wanna - uh - " The last thing he ever wanted to do was talk about nightmares, but maybe girls were different about that stuff. He fills with relief when she shakes her head again, faster, her tangled hair flipping.

"No thank you," she says quickly.

"Right," Daryl says. He looks up at the sky, squints. Maybe two or three hours from sunrise. He craves a cigarette suddenly, hungrily - something to do with his hands, something to keep his mouth busy. Wonders what happened to his - probably trampled half to shit from his plummet down the hillside, or submerged at the bottom of the creek. Not here, not where he needs them.

"Tell me 'bout that book," Daryl says suddenly, and he feels himself flush as Sophia looks at him. Hell. He doesn't know what to do - he's never felt the need to break the silence before. But the question is dumb and he feels stupid as he sits there, asking some kid about some fucking book like he doesn't know she was just crying her eyes out in her sleep.

"The - Hunger Games?"

Daryl grunts. "Yeah. Might as well. Got time."

"I - I didn't finish it. It was a library book and when my - I mean. We had to bring it back before I finished."

Fuck Ed. "Well, I ain't read it neither, so. Y'know more of it than me."

It's quiet again and Daryl leans back against the tree. Whatever. It was a stupid question. Kid doesn't have to talk if she doesn't want. Hell, Daryl doesn't have to talk either. They can just wait for sunrise and hike back to the farm and Daryl will never talk to anyone again.

"She uses a bow," Sophia offers. Her voice is quiet but not small anymore - he wonders how he can tell the difference between volume and intention, if he's just bullshitting himself at being able to read her, projecting his own ideas onto her. But at least she's not sitting there like a little ghost. "In the book?"

"That girl? One sleeps in trees?"

"Uh-huh. Katniss."

"Crossbow?" Is this really all he has to talk about? Next, he's going to be asking about the draw weight of some made-up weapon. Shit.

"No. Or I mean - it doesn't say it's a crossbow. It just said bow. She had to hide it outside the fence because they're not allowed to have weapons?"


That explanation is more complicated - shit about districts and capitals and something about the actual premise for the hunger games which sound like a horror movie he and Merle had watched stoned one late night. He doesn't try and follow, just lets it watch over him. The girl sounds better this way - her voice is stronger, less scared. He can't tell if she cares about what she's saying either, but she cares enough to keep talking, and when she talks some of the tension melts away, makes the silence feel like it used to, like a comforting blanket around him.

"And so she's listening to the rules change and she hears that they're going to let both the people win if they're from the same district and she yells out 'Peeta!' and that's when I had to give it back."

"Shit," Daryl says, frowning. "That's fucked up though. 'Bout the other kid."

"Rue," Sophia says. "I cried."

"Bet they win though," Daryl says. "Katniss and Peter."

"Peeta," Sophia says, which makes him frown again. Isn't that what he said? "I don't know. I hope so."

"Wouldn't write a whole book 'bout a girl then let her die," Daryl points out pragmatically. "Plus, she's got that bow. An' she's a hunter. Survival skills."

Sophia shrugs, something deflating in her, and Daryl swears in his head. Shit. Fucked it up. "Guess so."

"What? Y'think Peter's gonna die 'fore she can find him?" He wants that moment back, listening to a kid tell a story. He'll sound like an idiot if that's what it takes. "Hell, she's a tracker. She'll find him."

"I don't know. Maybe." He sees her little shoulders shrug. "There was going to be a sequel, too. But - "

"Well, if there was a sequel, bet that means they live," Daryl says.

"Guess." She messes with the doll's hair for a second before speaking. "Just - we'll never find out probably, right?" Sophia's looking at him then, her eyes wide in the darkness, and she looks incredibly young all of a sudden. But it clicks what she's saying, and Daryl thinks it again. Smart fucking kid. Hiding out in the middle of the goddamn forest and she's mourning a world of stories and possibilities that have been snatched from her, that she'll never have. It feels wrong all of a sudden, that Daryl had so much time - hell, he'd probably spent as much time trailing Merle, dealing dope, as she'd been alive. She'd had hardly anything, all of it tainted with fucking Ed, and now that world is gone. Bringing her home to her mama won't make it come back.

"Shit girl, ain't like them walkers eat books," Daryl says roughly. "We can find you a copy." Ain't like books are food or meds - he bets the bookstores haven't hardly been touched. He has a vision suddenly of going to a Barnes and Noble and leaving with armfuls of books for her.

Sophia's face brightens at that, like the moon's full shining out of her eyes. "You think?"

"Hell yeah," Daryl says, trying not to think how stupid it is to promise anyone anything. "Hell, Hershel's got daughters, back at that farm. One a them might even have 'em a'ready."

"There are kids there?"

"Naw," Daryl says quickly, not wanting to get her hopes up. "Or I mean, Carl is there. Hershel's daughters are older - teenagers, I guess." Glenn's horse girl was probably older'n that, thinking about it. Or at least Daryl hopes so, the way Glenn's been panting after her. "They got horses though," Daryl offers, like that's a replacement for kids. Which, when Daryl was a kid, it would have been - hell, Daryl'd have traded his whole third-grade class for just one horse. His Uncle Jess had worked as a farmhand for a while when he was in elementary school and Daryl'd go and help tend the horses sometimes. It'd been peaceful work until his pops found out and smacked him for giving away his labor for free.


"Yeah. Rode one of 'em when I was lookin' for you. Sorry piece a shit," Daryl grumbles, then remembers who he's talking to. "Uh - just mean, she threw me, so. Yeah." Daryl rubs at his head. "You don't gotta tell your mama 'bout all the bad words I said, a'right?" But then that feels weird to say. "Not that - uh - I mean, shouldn't keep secrets from your ma," Daryl fumbles. "Jus' - if she don't ask, you don't gotta tell her 'bout the cussin'."

"Okay," Sophia says. "It's okay though. My dad says bad words." Something shifts in her face. "Or I mean. He did."

Shit. Fucked that up again. "Yeah, well," Daryl says, picking at the scab near his cuticles. "Sorry."

Sophia's quiet for a long time. When she speaks, her voice is low, like it's something she's not even really aware she's saying. "I don't feel bad," she whispers, and Daryl hears her perfectly. "Is that bad?"

"Naw," Daryl says immediately. "Feelin's don't work like that. You just feel shit when you feel it." He remembers the feeling after his dad died, the emptiness that didn't feel like loss because he just didn't care. He wonders if he'll ever care. Daryl misses something - he misses the idea of having a dad he could miss, the idea that one day his dad would get sober. But that wasn't never Will Dixon. Daryl wonders, at that moment, if he'll ever miss him. It makes something move in his chest.

It's quiet again, and Daryl squints at the sky. Almost dawn.

"He was in my dream," Sophia says, almost silently, and Daryl freezes. He's not sure if he was meant to hear it or not. "He was a walker and I was in the woods running and he -"

"Ain't gonna happen," Daryl says firmly. He shouldn't tell her he watched Carol turn her daddy's head to jelly with a pickaxe back at the Atlanta camp, so instead he says, "He din't turn. He can't getcha."

Sophia nods slowly, her fingers working over the yarn head of the doll, twisting.

"Dreams suck," Daryl mutters. "But they ain't real." It's what Merle would say to him, after mocking him mercilessly for waking up scared. They'd shared a bed then, Merle off in juvie often enough that their pa had figured it wasn't worth springing for two mattresses. Merle'd smack him with a pillow to wake him, then throw a rough arm around his shoulder, circling Daryl's neck in a way that if it'd been his father would have made him piss himself.Dreams suck, little brother, he'd say,but it ain't real.Sometimes he'd press a rough kiss to Daryl's forehead and shove him away again, roll over and go back to sleep.

Daryl suddenly wants Merle more than he wants a cigarette.

"They feel real," Sophia says, and Daryl picks at his cuticles.

"But they ain't," he mumbles. He sees Sophia's shoulders deflate again and it makes him deflate a little too. Fuck. What'd he say wrong now? "Have 'em too, sometimes. But y'always wake up."

Daryl tries not to think about times in his childhood, dreaming about running through the house, looking for his mama, smoke everywhere. About waking up crying and his dad being there, the feeling of being plunged from one nightmare straight into another-

"But you're grown up," Sophia says, watching him careful, like she's trying to tell if he's lying. He shrugs.

"Guess," Daryl mumbles. For a moment he's terrified that she's going to ask him what he dreams about. She'd said hers. Fair was fair. He's not sure he can do it. He's bracing himself for it, but the question doesn't come.

The only thing that comes is the first hint of the sunrise, the darkness lightening just enough.

"C'mon then," Daryl grunts, pulling himself up. He's moving stiff and slow, and he wonders if he should try and nab a stick for himself before they start off. "Don' wanna waste the daylight."

Sophia cracks a smile at him like she got that it was a joke, which makes something ease inside him. She doesn't seem scared of him anymore. Maybe since the sun came up. Shit looks different in daylight - Daryl knows that.

"Jus' another few hours," Daryl says as Sophia uses her stick to lever herself up. "Won't have no nightmares when you're sleepin' in a real bed." Carol will be there, he wants to say. Carol will chase the dreams off. But presumably, Carol'd been there for Sophia her whole life and who knows if that had ever stopped anything. "Y'ready?"

"Yeah," Sophia says. She scrubs at her eyes, her face. There's a determined set to her jaw - she must be hurting something fierce too, but she doesn't say nothing. "Oh, wait." She makes as if she's going to crawl back into the lean-to, and Daryl scoffs.

"Shit, jus' take the roof off. Ain't worth crawlin' in and out again."

Sophia does, tentatively - like she's unwrapping a present. Leans down.

There, in the empty olive jar from dinner, are the three Cherokee roses. Looking a little draggled and worst for wear, limp from being crammed in a pocket all day. But Sophia takes them out like they are precious and perfect, placing them with extreme care into the side pocket of her capris, the heads poking out like they need to breathe.

"Okay," Sophia says, straightening. "I'm ready now."

So is he.

They go.

Chapter 7: Home Again, Home Again

Chapter Text

Daryl finds strength from someplace he didn't know he had. Maybe it's because the woods around him are familiar now - he'd passed through them every time he left on a search and every time he came back, so he knows they're getting close. It makes him move faster, even though he's pretty sure he's running a fever again. He feels sweaty and hot and his side is radiating pain. He tries not to go too fast, but maybe Sophia is sensing something too. Not that she's seen the farm before, but maybe something in her is drawing her to her ma, an invisible thread between the two of them winding tighter and tighter.

Or she's just fucking observant and can tell Daryl's picking up speed. Because she is observant. She's picked up on the fact that he's probably got a fever again. He can feel her eyes watching him as he goes, but he just keeps pushing. They're so fucking close.

"Are you okay?" Sophia asks from one side of him as he tries to maneuver himself over a three-rail fence. The fence is half-rotted and splintery, broken up here and there by trees and bramble, but it's the boundary marker for Hershel's property. Which maybe is why he's trying to vault over it like a fucking Olympian even though his side is on fire and his hair is sticking to his forehead with sweat.

"Great," Daryl grunts, and he finally topples over the top of the fence, landing hard on his front on the ground. Luckily it's mostly on his uninjured side, but the impact sends a jarring wave of agony through his whole body and he can't keep back the yelp of pain. Which probably doesn't convince Sophia he's doing fine.

"Daryl!" he hears from behind him, the tiny scrabbling of a lanky twelve-year-old sliding on her stomach under the fence. She touches his back and he flinches back before he knows what she's doing. He's lucky he doesn't try and deck her, but he's got that much composure. Enough that all he does is hiss and pull away like some stupid fucking cat. Sophia's hand jerks back like she's been burned and Daryl flips over on his own, panting with exertion.

"M'fine," he says, his voice sounding breathy and pained even to his ears. "M'fine."

Sophia is looking at him, uncertain, her hand tangling in her doll's hair again. "Sorry," she says, pulling back further. "I didn't mean to -"

"Ain't you," Daryl says shortly. The pain is fading somewhat, or at least relocating - his side is pulsing now and it feels wet, hopefully from sweat but probably from blood or pus. Shit. "Jus' don't like bein' touched."

Sophia just nods, her face unfathomable. "We're almost there," Daryl adds, pulling himself into a seated position. "The fence marks his property line. I can make it." He feels a moment of embarrassment, that he's convincing a twelve-year-old that he can walk another hour, like some kid begging to stay up past their bedtime.

Sophia nods again, and the look on her face is full of yearning. But she bites her lip. "I - I could go ahead," Sophia offers. "I could go tell them you need help and come back -"

"Ain't splittin' up," Daryl says, hoisting himself from sitting to standing. It's not so bad, especially with the end practically in sight. "Y'said you din't want to get separated."

He'll be damned if he loses her again this close to the finish.

"Sides," he says as he starts walking again, his hand braced against his side, his steps a little uneven. "Wanna see the look on their faces. Carl's gonna shit himself."

He hears her footsteps start up again behind him, feels her draw even with him.

"Ew," she says, her nose wrinkled but her mouth grinning, and Daryl grins back.

They're almost done.

Of course, it's not as simple as that, as Daryl and Sophia emerge from the trees into an open, scrubby field. Daryl can see the RV, the line of tents, the house. Sophia looks like she can't believe what she's seeing - not that she hadn't believed him the whole time or whatever, but like it's really unbelievable. She starts to run or tries to, but she only makes it two steps before she stumbles, almost falls. Daryl catches her elbow, hauls her up quick.

"Careful," he says. "Ain't wanna turn you over all messed up." He squints a little, the late morning sun making it harder to see details than he'd like. But he can see some figures pulling away from the campsite, running towards them. "Sides - they're coming to us."

It's the men, Daryl sees as they run closer. T-Dog, Glenn, Shane, and Rick.They're armed to the teeth, which Daryl appreciates in one sense but in the other thinks is fucking stupid when it's just him and the girl. Any appreciation Daryl felt for their cautiousness evaporates when Rick aims that fucking gun at his head again.

"Fucks wrong with you," Daryl snarls, taking a wobbly step forward as the others all slow down. Rick is staring at him like he doesn't understand what he's seeing. "S'fuckin' kid here man, shit. Been through enough without you pointin' that gun at her."

Daryl sees all of their eyes shift, away from him, to the smaller figure behind him.

"Oh my god," Rick says, and he sounds almost near tears. "Sophia?"

"Where's my mom?" Sophia asks, her voice shaky.

It's the last thing Daryl hears before the gunshot.

The only thing he thinks as he falls is that his head hurts worse than he would have thought possible and somehow he's glad for it because it means whoever is shooting hit him and not Sophia.

He almost falls on top of the girl and he hears her cry out, the others all moving forward at once

"Daryl!" Sophia is saying, over and over, and he can feel her hands on him and he doesn't have the strength to move away. Soon her hands are replaced with others, and he finds himself looking up at Rick, Rick with a halo of light behind his head.

"She hit?" Daryl slurs and he sees the shape of Rick's head shake, making the sunlight spark and bubble around him.

"She's okay, she's fine, you did it, Daryl, stay with me -"

But Daryl can't stay any longer. He got her home.

Time to go.

The next thing he knows he's being carried somewhere, his feet dragging along the ground as two people hoist him up. It pulls at his side and he groans a little, which whoever is holding him seems to take as a good sign.

"Glenn, get Carol, hurry - tell Hershel we need -"

"Daryl? Daryl, wake up. Wake up -" Sophia's voice is high and scared and he stirs somewhat at that. Is she okay? Gotta get her ma. Gotta -

"He's all right honey - get out of the way, now, we need to -"

"Sophia? Sophia!"

"I think he's just grazed but he looks bad - he's covered in blood, what -"

"He's sick, he got - he got hurt bad, he's been - Daryl, wake up -"


"Mommy -"

He doesn't need to hear anymore after that. He drifts away again.

The next time Daryl emerges from unconsciousness is less pleasant. Someone is tugging at his shirt, which hurts like a motherfucker because with all the blood and shit on him it's practically welded to him, and when they pull it tugs at scabs. It's a feeling he remembers from childhood, welts leaking onto shirts and getting ripped off, and maybe it's that or maybe it's just the feeling of hands-on him, but Daryl can't stop his arms from lashing out. He catches someone across the cheek, hears a grunt.

"Pin him, he's going to hurt himself -"

"More worried 'bout him hurtin' me," someone snarks - Shane, a voice in his head says, and Daryl hears Sophia over all of them.

"Stop! You're hurting him! Mommy, don't let them -"

"It's okay Sophia," someone says, their voice even. The old man. Daryl's brain stutters for a second, the words 'old man' doing something to him, before the name of the guy emerges. Hershel. It's just Hershel. "We're not going to hurt him. But we have to see what's wrong. You said he's hurt, right?"

"He doesn't like people touching him," Sophia says. "Mommy -"

"Do you have to be so rough? Give him a moment, he must be -" That's Carol's voice, and something eases in Daryl with that. Knowing that they're together makes him relax a little, stop fighting so hard. Remember where he is.

"Hey there," Hershel says, and suddenly there's a light shining into his eyes, blinding. Daryl closes them automatically. "You with us?"

"M'fine," Daryl rasps. "Lookit the girl first, she's hurt, her ankle -"

"I'll decide who gets seen when," Hershel says, and Daryl opens his eye again, scowling.

"Fuck you, old man, m'fine I said. She's been runnin' on that ankle for near a week, she -"

"And I'll see to it," Hershel says. "But we've got to see to you first."

Hershel's hands are tugging at his tank top again, and Daryl flinches back from it. Hershel stops for a moment, looking at Daryl calculatingly. He can see how the man's eyes linger, at the ugly, puckered scar on his collarbone, on the thin lines that stretch over his shoulders.

"Let's clear the room," Hershel says in a tone that brooks no argument. "Too many people in here. Won't be able to work. Go on. I'll tell you when we're done."

There's a shuffling, a scraping, many boots leaving the room. A hum and hubbub of voices, spilling out into the hallway. He isn't really listening to them, though, because suddenly Sophia is there, in his line of vision, and she looks more scared than he's seen her, which he guesses is saying something. Carol is there too, right behind her. He can see Carol's hands fixed on Sophia's shoulders, her fingers stroking Sophia's tangled hair, Sophia's hands fisted in Carol's shirt.

"M'a'right," Daryl croaks, and Sophia's lip trembles. "Don' worry."

"Thank you," Carol says suddenly, and when he looks her lip is trembling too. She and Sophia look so alike at that moment, a matched set, fitting perfectly into each other. "I'll never be able to -"

"Din't do nothin'," Daryl mumbles. His eyes dart away, look for Hershel, who seems to be arranging medical supplies on a tray with an inordinate amount of interest. "She'll tell you. She did the hard shit."

"You knew you'd find her," Carol says, and Daryl coughs. He doesn't know what to do with this, these eyes, this attention. He figured when he came back Carol'd look at Sophia and nobody else for a while.

"Din't find her," Daryl mutters, eyes looking anywhere else. "She found me."

"That's enough talking for right now," Hershel says, stepping forward. And Daryl never thought he'd be grateful to the old man for rescuing him. "You can see him again when I've patched him up."

"I can't leave," Sophia says, her voice wobbling along with her lower lip. "Not until I know if he's gonna be okay. We said we wouldn't get separated -"

"Honey, Daryl probably wants his privacy," Carol says, which makes Daryl blush like a fifth-grader. Privacy. Shit.

"But what if he -"

"You can come to visit when he's feeling better," Hershel says, and it's too much talking all of a sudden.

"Kid can stay," Daryl barks out and regrets it almost immediately. He's a fucking mess, not just his injuries, but the scars on his back, his chest. Give the kid nightmares. "If she wants, I mean," Daryl mumbles, eyes closing. "Don't care."

A moment of quiet. "Carol, why don't you two go sit over by the window," Hershel says slowly. "I need to pay attention so you'll have to be very quiet, all right, Sophia?"

Daryl doesn't hear anything so he guesses Sophia is nodding. Daryl has just enough presence of mind to turn himself in the bed so that his back faces away from the Peletiers, although that means that his face is looking towards them. Carol's settled in a rocking chair near the window, Sophia cradled in her lap. She can't stop touching the girl - her hands running over her arms, smoothing her hair, every so often kissing her cheek or the back of her neck. Sophia is like a puddle in her grip, melting into her, but her little face is tense as Hershel unwinds the shitty bandage from his side and cuts his tank top off of him.

Then Hershel is poking at his side and Daryl feels himself starting to drift away. It's a different feeling from falling asleep, but only because he can't imagine falling asleep while he's shirtless in front of some guy who is poking his side which feels like it's been shoved with burning irons while his head throbs wetly around his ears. But Daryl doesn't fight it. Maybe he could, if he tried, but he feels as limp as that doll Sophia's got tucked into the crook of her elbow, and it's not like he wants to watch Carol and Sophia while he gets stitched up anyway.

"Well, now, let's see what we have here," Daryl hears Hershel say.

And then Daryl doesn't hear anything.

He's almost tired of waking up. Daryl figures he's probably woken up seven or eight times already today, and it's exhausting every time.

Hershel isn't touching him this time. He vaguely remembers Hershel cleaning his head, his side, the feeling of the needle puncturing his skin as he stitched Daryl up. The room feels still and quiet and for a moment Daryl just lets himself breathe before he hears a shifting from the seat by the window.

Oh. Carol and Sophia. They're still here.

"You want more to eat? We can get you more," Carol says. He's never heard her like that before. He hadn't really heard her speak much at the quarry, and most of what they'd done at the CDC was lose their shit and Sophia'd been gone since then. She sounds like a blanket, Daryl thinks incoherently. There's a warm weight to her voice that makes Daryl feel sleepy. "There's plenty here."

"M'okay," Sophia says sleepily. Her ma must sound like a blanket to her too.

"Okay. Because I know Hershel said not to eat too much too fast, but you don't have to be hungry. There's crackers or -"

"I'm full, Mama."

"How's the ankle?"

"It hurt worse before," Sophia says. "It's been better since Daryl wrapped it up."

"Well. You're gonna take it easy the next few days. All right?"

Sophia hums, the sound like a contented kitten.

"Beth has some books you might like. Better than what Dale's got in the RV. We can have a Reading Day." Daryl can practically hear the capital letters and wonders, sleepily, if Reading Day is a thing everybody knows about or if it's something only for them two.

"Daryl said we should see if they have The Hunger Games."

He can almost hear Carol raising her eyebrows. "Daryl's read The Hunger Games?"

"No, but I was telling him about it, and I told him how we had to bring it back to the library before we could finish, and he said maybe Hershel's kids have it and even if they don't that maybe we could find it somewhere else because walkers don't eat books."

"He's right. They don't. Well, we can ask Beth. I don't know if it's quite her thing, but can't hurt to see."

"I think he'd like it. Because he's brave like Katniss. And he hunts and uses the bow and stuff."

There's a soft sound of skin against skin, and he realizes Carol must have kissed her daughter.

"You're brave too," Carol says. "Making it out there for so long."

"I wasn't brave though," Sophia says, her voice quieter. "I was scared the whole time."

"But you didn't quit. That's what makes you brave. You didn't give up."

"You're brave too, Mama."

There's a sniffle from the corner and Daryl feels like he's intruding, even though they're the ones crashing his sick room.

"I missed you so much," Carol says. Her voice is thick with tears, and Daryl feels fixed to the spot. He doesn't know how to let them know he's here, he's awake, this is private shit they're doing. It's not for him. But he stays still, only mostly because he feels awkward about letting them know he's been listening. Part of him though is drinking this all in, the gentle voice, the care. It's like rainwater in a desert, something he wants to soak up quick before the sun comes back and dries everything up. But it's not Daryl's to have. He knows that. It belongs to Carol and Sophia.

"Me too," Sophia says, and he hears her sniffle join her ma's. "I'm sorry. I tried to get back but I -"

"Shh," Carol says. "You didn't do anything wrong."

"I did what Rick said, honest, but then I tripped and I couldn't -"

"You did just right, baby. Everything. You're here, right?"

A little silence.

"We're not going to get split up again," Carol says, her voice suddenly fierce. "I promise. I'll never let that happen again. I'm sorry, sweetheart. I should've -"

"You sent Daryl to find me," Sophia says. "Mommy, don't."

"I love you," Carol says softly, and it's like she just pulled her heart out of her chest and handed it to Sophia, still bloody and beating. "I'll never lose you again. Never."

"I love you too, Mama," Sophia echoes. Then they go quiet again. Daryl can hear a faint creaking from the rocker.

It's like something soothing from a memory, even though he's sure his ma never had a rocker in their house. But the sound of it creaks quiet in his head, lulling him until he's almost asleep.

Chapter 8: Good Night

Chapter Text

Daryl doesn't know how long the three of them sit there in silence. He's in an almost doze, listening to the creak of the rocker going back and forth, the gentle squeak of the runners on floorboards. It's the most restful feeling Daryl's had in days. Until the door opens and Daryl starts automatically, his eyes jerking open, his head knocking against the headboard of the bed. Hershel stands in the doorway, Rick and Shane right behind as he walks into the room with some pill bottles.

"Well. I see our patient is awake," Hershel says. Hershel's an old man, Daryl reminds himself as his fists tighten unwillingly, his jaw sets. He's an old fuck who loves suspenders and the bible, he can't do anything to him. But Daryl feels exposed after the guy saw his back, stitched him up. And he's gotta be pissed about the horse. Who knows where she is now. But none of that shit matters. He'd lose twenty horses if it meant getting the girl back safe. "How're you feeling, son?"

The word son makes Daryl bristle. He ain't no one's son, not anymore. But his eyes dart over to the corner. Sophia is sitting straight up on her mother's lap, eyes fixed on him hopefully. So instead of telling Hershel to fuck off, he says "Better. M'fine."

"Well. I wouldn't go that far. You've got an infection in the puncture wound in your side - it's a wonder the cuts on your head are fine. Eighteen stitches, all told, between all three injuries, and that's not mentioning the scrapes and abrasions you've collected. You're lucky you made it back when you did. Much longer -" Hershel's eyes dart to Sophia, and he finishes with, "Would have been worse."

Daryl nods. His fingers are itching to pick at his cuticles, but not in front of Hershel, of Rick and Shane.

"As it is, you're not out of the woods yet," Hershel says warningly. He looks at Rick. "Had no idea we'd be going through the antibiotics so quickly."

"Ain't need no charity," Daryl says quickly. "Y'can keep them. Got meds of my own. I'll manage."

"Where've you been hiding meds?" Shane asks. "We could use -"

"Ain't hidin' nothin, shit," Daryl says. "S'my brother's stash. Gave T-Dog some when he got hurt. Jus' savin' the rest for when it's needed."

Hershel looks almost amused for a second. "Ah. Merle Dixon, I suppose. We're all grateful for his venereal disease."

Daryl scowls. Is he being made fun of? He ain't had the clap. And Merle's meds had saved T-Dog's life. Wasn't nothing to joke about.

"Well, if someone can go fetch those, that'll help," Hershel continues. He's looking at Daryl pensively. "Am I right to guess you may have some pain medication also?"

Dary's scowl deepens. He's super conscious of Sophia perched quietly in the corner, of Carol listening. Rick and Shane, whatever, they knew Merle, they know Daryl's trash and he comes from trash. He's not sure why it stings to have Hershel figure that out without knowing Merle.

"Some," Daryl says shortly. "Gave T-Dog a couple." Does meth count as pain medication? Ecstasy? "Ain't looked through all of 'em," Daryl adds, which is true. Merle got mad when people poked through his shit. Daryl hadn't touched it until T-Dog got cut.

"Well. We'll see what you'll have. Think you'll need some pain management before this is all done."

Daryl scoffs. "Ain't no - wimp," Daryl says, eyes darting over to Sophia again. "Can handle a little pain."

Hershel's face is still as he looks at Daryl. It's just something around the eyes that tells Daryl he's feeling something.

"I'm sure you can," Hershel says. He looks at Rick. "Well?"

"I'll send Glenn down to your tent," Rick says to Daryl. His eyes look like a puppy dog's. Daryl's surprised he ain't wagging his tail. "Anything else you need?"

Like what? Merle's porn stash? His motorcycle vest? "Naw," Daryl mutters. He looks away from Rick and finally gives Sophia and Carol his full attention.

"How you doin'?" Daryl asks. Sophia has been good and quiet while Hershel and Rick blabbed on, but when Daryl speaks to her she lights up. It's weird seeing her that way after how she'd been most of their time together, little and scared. Being with her ma must help some. And maybe she trusts Daryl now, just a little. He promised he'd bring her back and they'd done it. Maybe she doesn't have to be so nervous.

"Good," Sophia says.

"He look at your ankle?" Daryl asks uncomfortably. They should have looked at her first. He'd made it three days, another couple hours wasn't going to kill him.

"Mhm," Sophia says, and she lifts her leg up so Daryl can see. It's re-wrapped in a clean ace bandage. "He said you did a real good job, right Mr. Hershel?"

Hershel smiles at Sophia and it softens the edges of his face. "I did."

Daryl's blushing, and he scowls. "Weren't nothin' special," he mumbles. At that, Rick and Shane are grinning too, and it pisses Daryl off. What? They thought he didn't know how to wrap a fucking sprained ankle? After his whole life, they thought he was that incompetent? Or did they just think he'd leave a little kid to suffer because he didn't give a shit?

"You've still got to stay off it for a while," Hershel says to Sophia. "Daryl did a good job but you've put more strain on it than you should've. The only thing that'll fix that is rest."

Daryl's hackles go up at that. Although that assumes they were ever down. "What was she s'posed to do, just sit on it?" Daryl asks. Why's he making it sound like Sophia did something wrong? "Woulda carried her but I was too fu - messed up."

"You did more than enough," Carol says from the chair. "And you need rest too."

Fuck that. "I'll be fine," he grumbles. "I'll just go sleep it off. Ain't no thing."

"You'll sleep it off right here," Hershel says firmly, and Daryl can feel his fists clenching again. Who is this fuck, to tell him what to do? "You've put strain on yourself too. I'd be surprised if that fever doesn't come back up in the night. You'll stay where we can keep an eye on you until you're well."

Daryl's about to snap at that - he doesn't need some old fuck like Hershel keeping an eye on him, he does fine on his own - but he can see Sophia in the corner, still cradled in Carol's lap. So he swallows it down, scowls. Just nods, once, curtly.

He's not sure what reminds him of it - maybe it's just his head casting around for some way to change the subject, to quit talking about him. But Daryl's head suddenly snaps up and he looks at Rick, Rick who is still looking at Daryl with something that makes Daryl squirm. Gratitude, maybe. Whatever it is, it makes him uncomfortable, so maybe he's not as politic as he could have been.

"She tell you 'bout them guys?"

Rick's face shifts immediately, Cop Face. Serious. He sits on the end of the bed, blue eyes fixed on Daryl. Shane shifts forward too, and suddenly Hershel is crowded away from him. "She mentioned you'd come across someone," Rick says. "She didn't have many details. Said you'd hid her away."

Daryl looks at Sophia then. She doesn't look as radiant anymore - her fingers are curled in her ma's shirt and she's biting her lip again. Daryl looks at her.

"You had anythin' to eat?"

Sophia nods. "Yeah."

"Y'wanna - go get me somethin'?" He feels awkward and stupid the second he says it. She's not meant to strain herself and he's sending her off to find him a sandwich. "I mean -"

"Come on, sweetheart," Carol says, and she scoops Sophia up in her arms. She's straining with it - Sophia is a wisp of a thing but she's tall, and Carol ain't no giant. But when Shane moves over as if to take her, Carol's grip only tightens. "Why don't we go wash up and get Daryl some dinner."

Dinner? How long has he been out? It wasn't more than ten when they'd stumbled back into camp. Something like adrenaline is starting to course through him. He should have told them straight off about Max and Greg and Randall. What if they'd been following them, turned up at the farm while he'd been out cold and no one there was any the wiser? Stupid.

"Okay," Sophia says quietly, and she shifts awkwardly in her mother's arms. "Mama, I can -"

"Hush," Carol says, the sound too fond to be a rebuke. "I'm not letting you down."

The two of them vanish and it's just him and Rick and Shane. Hershel's by the window, looking out like he's not listening, though he'll probably hear every word. When he hears what Daryl's done, he'll probably pitch him out, infection or no infection. Well, fuck it. He couldn't have done anything but what he did. It's just what had to happen.

"Hid out in that place I found t'other day," Daryl starts. He's finding it hard to look at any of them - maybe because he's about to confess a double murder to two cops and the biggest bible thumper he's ever met. "Up over the ridge."

"The old Miller place," Hershel says. Which, what the fuck does Daryl care what it's called? He just shrugs.

"Guess. They, uh - we set a trip line, were keepin' watch but - " He scowls more, finds himself picking at the edge of the sheet. "There was three of 'em an' I only had one bolt, an' neither of us was in any shape to run."

"Sophia said," Rick says. His voice is gentle which somehow just makes Daryl madder. He doesn't need Rick playing fucking good cop.

"Hid her, went upstairs. Was gonna ambush 'em," Daryl says. "They left one outside an' the other two came in." He looks at Rick then. Not at Shane, who is looking at Daryl with a frown, or at Hershel, still staring out the window. Rick is looking at him encouragingly like he's a fucking kid in school with the teacher waiting for him to give the right answer. "I - the one outside got away." Why is he having trouble saying it? "Them others -" Daryl shrugs. "Did what I hadta," he mutters, and he keeps his eyes on the blanket. "They - y'shoulda heard 'em talkin'. They weren't lookin' for us. They was - some women had got away from their camp, an' they were tryin' to -" Daryl's mouth twists. "Put Sophia in the cupboard but went too quick. Forgot her doll. One of 'em found it, an' he was callin' out to her like -" Daryl's stomach turns. "Did what I hadta," he says again, and this time it's firmer, more solid. He did. He really did.

Rick pats Daryl's leg under the blankets and Daryl tenses up automatically. "You did good," Rick says. "You got her back. You got both of you back. There's no shame in it."

"Not ashamed, shit," Daryl shoots out. "But that one outside got away - I couldn't get him in time, ran off into the woods. Jus' a kid, nineteen, twenty. Shoulda -"

"It's fine," Rick says again, and Shane butts in then. Daryl wonders if this is how they were as partners, good cop bad cop.

"They say where the camp was?"

"Naw. Came from north, northeast," Daryl says, trying to orient the house in his mind. "Kid ran off east, but that was the direction he was facin' anyway, might not mean nothin'."

"They say how many they are?"

Daryl shakes his head, scowling. "Naw. Called out to 'em at first. Thought maybe if they thought I was alone they'd - but they just said they had a camp. A lotta guys. Friendly guys." Daryl looks at Rick again. "Those women they were lookin' for, they'd already - " Why doesn't he know what to say? "Messed with 'em," he finishes lamely. "Was talkin' to Sophia like - like the camp'd be real glad to have her," Daryl mumbles, and he wonders if that'll explain enough.

"They have weapons?" Shane asks.

"Handguns. Shot the first one upstairs with my bow, took his gun off him. Killed the second with it, then grabbed his. Gave it to Sophia."

Rick nods at that. "She gave it to us. Seemed pretty glad to be rid of it."

"Tol' her it was for emergencies," Daryl said quick, in case they thought he was in the habit of letting pre-teens run around with loaded guns. "Showed her the safety'n shit. But if we got split up again -"

"It was a good idea," Rick says. There's a huff from Hershel in the corner - like how on earth could a redneck and a twelve-year-old running around the woods murdering people and gunning down walkers be a good idea? Daryl's head is starting to throb again, in time to his heartbeat. He closes his eyes then, but the throbbing doesn't stop.

"You think you could show us all this on a map? Where they came from, where they were leaving to. The path y'all took back?" Rick is asking, and Daryl nods without opening his eyes.


"Not right now, I don't think," Hershel says. He's moving over from the window, Daryl can hear, and he jerks when Hershel's smooth, cool hand presses against his forehead. "His fever's going back up."

"Glenn'll bring you the meds from Daryl's stuff," Rick is saying, and it's like he's swimming away from him, his voice echoey and strange. "We can do a run to town - try for some fever reducers, or -"

"Maggie's gotten most of that already from the places nearby. And if there are people coming this way -"

After that, everything is far away, again. Daryl drifts.

It's dark outside when he wakes up again. The room is lit by a little light by his bed. He feels sweaty but cold and he shivers, once as he looks around. The bedside table has a plate on it, loaded up with food gone cold - a hunk of mashed potatoes, a handful of green beans, a thick slice of ham. It's like a meal from TV or something, better than anything Daryl's had in his whole life. There's pills next to it too - he sees a little white round one that might be oxy, something that looks like acetaminophen. It's not until seeing the pills that his body hurts again, all of it in a rush, and he stifles a groan as he tries to pull himself to sitting. He's gonna eat that food first off, then he'll figure out the pills.

"You're awake."

Daryl's body jolts, which makes the pain flash and flare but he bites down on his tongue - he hadn't realized that he wasn't alone. But Carol is there, sitting in the windowsill. Curled up in the rocker, wrapped in a blanket with a pillow shoved under her head, wearing a matching pajama set and with wet hair, is Sophia. She's out like a light.

"Girl should be in bed," Daryl grunts. He scootches himself up in the bed some, leans his back against the headboard. He's still not wearing a shirt, which maybe is why he's cold.

"She didn't want to go until she gave you your dinner. I told her she could wait." Carol's smiling at her daughter, her face soft. "It's probably cold by now."

It is, but Daryl doesn't care. He reaches out for it anyway, stifles another groan when that tugs at his stitches.

"Let me," Carol says. And then she's walking over next to him, making Daryl pull the sheet up high on his chest like some embarrassed girl.

"Can do it myself," Daryl says.

"I know you can. But let me."

He doesn't know what to say to that. So he lets her.

She goes for the pills first. Hands them to him as she fills up a glass of water from an old-fashioned pitcher. Daryl squints at the pills, feels at them. He takes the acetaminophen no problem. Puts the oxy back down. Carol looks at him.

"I'll take it later," Daryl mumbles. He tries not to look at Sophia. What if he took it and she woke up and he was high? Ain't right.

Carol looks at him a long moment. Then nods. "Do you want this? I could go heat it up for you -"

Daryl just holds out a hand for the plate. Warm or cold, it'll all end up in his belly the same way. Carol hands it to him. He forgoes the fork and knife and just dives right in, picking at the green beans first. It's the first vegetable he's had in a long time that didn't come out of a can.

Carol is still standing there next to his bed, until all of a sudden she sits on the edge of it. Daryl forces himself to ignore her, to keep eating. He's not good at this shit. Feelings shit. He brought Sophia back. He'd fully expected Carol to forget about him by now. So why are the two of them still there?

He probably shouldn't have ignored her, because all of a sudden she's close to him, too close. Daryl freezes. The hand holding the plate doesn't move, but Daryl reaches down with greasy fingers and tugs at the sheet again. His chest ain't as bad as his back but it's still pretty messed up.

But Carol doesn't stop coming closer until her lips brush against his head bandage, the gentlest kiss in the world. Then she pulls away.

"Watch it, I got stitches," Daryl says. He doesn't know where to look. He remembers her kissing Sophia's cheek, running her fingers through her hair, and it makes his stomach turn over. Carol doesn't have to be nice to him just because he found her girl. She doesn't have to pretend.

"You need to know something," Carol says, her voice low. Sophia, in the rocker, doesn't stir. "You did more for my little girl today than her own daddy ever did in his whole life."

"I din't do anythin' Rick or Shane wouldn'ta done," he mumbles. He doesn't know what to do.

"I know," Carol says. "You're every bit as good as them. Every bit."

Daryl blows air out of his mouth, pffts at her. He's a redneck with a junkie for a brother and a back more scar than skin. He cussed the whole time and scared her kid and he took three days to get her home because he'd gotten thrown from a fucking horse. He didn't do shit for that little girl that she couldn't have done better for herself if her ankle hadn't been busted.

"I - I'll never be able to thank you," Carol says. Her voice is tight with holding back tears and Daryl remembers her in the RV, curled up in that chair like Sophia was, crying all night because her girl was lost. Her girl is found now, so why is she still crying. "Never. I'll -"

"Don't need thankin'," Daryl says gruffly. He starts to pick at the food again, more for something to do than because he's hungry. Although when he starts eating again, swooping a bean through the mashed potatoes, it tastes good enough to restore his appetite. "Didn't do it for thanks."

"I know," Carol says. "She's - she's everything to me."

"S'good kid," Daryl says around a mouthful of potatoes. "Smart." Carol smiles at him, and her lip trembles.

"I know I haven't - done enough for her," Carol says. Daryl looks at her. At her hair, close-cut to her head (remembers his daddy pulling his ma around the kitchen, fist knotted in her curls, her crying) the way her collarbone sticks out of the top of her shirt. There's the faintest ghost of a bruise on one arm like someone grabbed her. It's almost healed, just the faintest hint of yellow left. Nobody else even notices it anymore, he bets. But Daryl sees it.

"Y'done plenty," Daryl says shortly. And Carol has. He knows what the others must think - that Carol must not have loved her kid as much as she loved Ed, or she'd have left him. But Daryl knows that's not it. Knows that it's hard and complicated, to leave, and that care doesn't look how people think all the time. He knows how the others looked at him and Merle, Merle shoving and cussing at him all the time. They thought Merle was like their pa, mean and rough and treating Daryl like shit. They didn't understand. Care looks different depending on where it's allowed to grow. And the care Carol has for that girl shines out of her face, her eyes, her voice, trickles out with every tear. That's real. That's what matters. "She asked about you first thing. She knew you was waitin' for her."

"She's - after the quarry -" Carol doesn't say Ed's name, Daryl has noticed. "I said, it's a new start. I can be - how I was meant to, with her. I can keep her safe. And then the first thing -"

"World ain't safe," Daryl says. And it's true. It never has been. Not for them. "You got her now."

"I do," Carol says. "Thanks to you."

The food is almost gone without Daryl realizing it. He feels less cold - maybe because he's got some food in him. Maybe something else.

"You gave us a second chance," Carol says. "I'm not going to waste it."

Daryl's about to open his mouth, to explain how he didn't give her anything. He could have been too late for that girl a hundred times over, he could have -

But then there's a whimper from the corner, a creak as the rocking chair shifts, and both their eyes go straight to Sophia.

Her face is puckered up some, and it's the same kind of noise from last night - like a little wounded creature, caught in a trap. Daryl toys with the idea of throwing a green bean at her, but Carol's already over there, taking care of it. She's brushing Sophia's hair back from her face, a soft shushing noise coming from her mouth, and Sophia's face smoothes without her even waking up. The noises stop as Carol hums at her, a little tuneless thing that seems to sweep away the fear as quick as it came. It's not until Carol finishes, takes a step back, that Daryl realizes he's been stock still, watching.

"Should get her to a real bed," Daryl mutters, finishing the last of the food on his plate and shoving it back on his nightstand. He wipes his fingers on his sheets, realizing a half a beat later that he probably should have asked for a napkin or something. "Wake up with a crick in her neck, she stays like that." He looks at Carol. "I could - help you carry her if you -"

"No," Carol says. "That's all right. I've got her." She scoops Sophia into her arms - not the most graceful maneuver, and she staggers a little as she tries to juggle Sophia into place, but she manages. Carol smiles at Daryl. "Won't be able to do this for much longer. Got to make the most of it."

Sophia snuggles down in her mother's arms. She makes a noise, a questioning noise, and Carol runs a hand down her back.

"It's all right. Go back to sleep. Daryl got his dinner so it's time for us to go to bed. Hershel made up a whole room just for us, aren't we lucky?" Carol looks at Daryl. "You should take that," she says softly, head nodding at the abandoned oxy on the table. Daryl shrugs, which makes his whole body tense with pain again. Which seems to prove Carol's point. Sophia mutters into her mother's shoulder again, stirring, and Carol runs that hand down her back again. "Come on. Time to sleep. Say goodnight to Daryl."

"Gnite," Sophia mumbles into her mother's neck.

"Night," Daryl says back awkwardly. Carol smiles at him.

"See you tomorrow," she says softly. And carefully, she edges her way out of the room and down the hall.

Leaving Daryl alone at last and with too much to think about.

Chapter 9: Reading Day

Chapter Text

Daryl wakes up to the late morning sun and an unexpected visitor.

Carl Grimes, in his daddy's hat, has come to call.

He's sitting on a stool near to Daryl's bed, watching him. Daryl can count on one hand the times he and the Grimes kid have talked, and still have a finger to flip somebody off with. He blinks stupidly, the sun in the windows too bright - he's slept late, too late, should have been up by now - and Carl Grimes jumps when Daryl blinks like he's a statue that's suddenly come to life.

"You're awake!" Carl says. He beams at Daryl. "And I didn't wake you, right? I told Mom and Carol I wouldn't wake you, that I'd just sit quietly 'til you woke up on your own. And I did, right?"

"...yeah," Daryl says. He's missing a step here. He can't for the life of him figure out why Carl Grimes is in his bedroom watching him sleep. His brain is moving slow still - maybe from the oxy he took last night, maybe from all the shit he'd done to himself the past couple days. "Sure."

Carl smiles at him again, looking doofy under his dad's sheriff hat. Daryl's not sure he's really seen Carl since he got shot. He'd been kept inside by his ma, recovering, and Daryl'd been out looking. Daryl looks the kid up and down.

"Y'a'right?" Daryls asks finally.

"Me? Yeah, great. I mean - my side still kind of hurts, where I got shot?" Carl says it like maybe Daryl forgot he'd been shot. "But Hershel says it's healing good and Patricia says I should walk around so I don't forget how."

"...Cool," Daryl mumbles. He looks at his nightstand. The water pitcher is still there, and the glass, but he feels like he'll spill it if he tries himself and he'd rather light himself on fire than ask Carl Grimes to pour it for him.

"Where're the others at?" Daryl asks. Not that he expects any of them to be with him - hell, they've got better shit to do - but there's something unsettling about being alone except for one kid.

"Um. Shane's going to do gun training today so he and my dad went to go find a spot to do it. And Maggie and Glenn are going on a run. They're going to look for more medicine for you."

"Don't need more meds," Daryl says. "M'fine."

Carl shrugs. "I guess they're getting other stuff too. Nobody's been on a run since you went missing. They were busy looking for you." Daryl scowls a little at that. Great job they'd done - where the hell had they been looking? Carl doesn't seem to notice. "Shane's going to take me when they do gun training. So I can learn to shoot. Isn't that cool?"

"Guess," Daryl says. "Ain't a toy though."

"Well, yeah, I know that," Carl says, rolling his eyes. "I want to be able to help the group. So next time -" Carl quiets then, and he looks at Daryl seriously, so seriously that Daryl almost looks over his shoulder to see what's coming.

"Thank you," Carl says, weirdly formal in his stupid hat. "For finding her." He folds his hands, almost primly in his lap. Daryl is staring. What the fuck is happening? "I thought - I thought I'd be the one to find her," Carl says, and he suddenly sounds like a kid again. "But if I couldn't - I'm glad you did."

Daryl nods. Carl is looking at him like he's expecting something but Daryl has no idea what. "Whatever," Daryl mutters. "Din't do nothin'. She did the hard work."

Carl nods back at Daryl, then grins. "Do you think Carol will let her come with us? For the shooting lesson?"

"Uh-uh," someone says from the doorway, and Daryl stifles a groan as Lori Grimes comes in.

She's carrying a tray full of breakfast - a real farm breakfast, eggs and sausage, and a hunk of homemade bread slathered in butter. Daryl's stomach growls loud enough for Carl to give him a delighted grin.

"Lucky you, on house rations," Lori says, sliding the tray onto the nightstand. It barely fits. "What'd we have outside this morning, baby?"

"Oatmeal," Carl says, and he makes a face. Daryl doesn't get kids who complain about food. At Carl's age, he'd eat anything.

"How are you feeling?" Lori asks. Her hand brushes over Daryl's forehead and he jerks back. What is it with everyone touching him all of a sudden? Lori looks a little nonplussed. "You all right? You don't feel warm."

"M'fine," Daryl says. He looks at the tray of food.

"Why can't Sophia come?" Carl asks Lori. "I'd help her, she could -"

"Sophia is taking it easy. And you should be too. I don't know if going shooting today is the best -"

"Mo-om! No! You said already that I could, Shane said -"

"Is Shane your mother? Or am I?"

Daryl's head hurts suddenly, hearing Carl and Lori talk at each other. He misses the quiet of last night, Carol and Sophia in the rocking chair. He wishes he could be alone again, go back to sleep. Just have silence again.

"He didn't wake you, did he, Daryl? He promised that if we let him stay -"

"Naw," Daryl mutters. He wants that food in his stomach and to be left alone. If Carl weren't there, he'd tell Lori to get the fuck out. But something about the way Carl keeps looking at him, the shy sort of wonder, makes him hold his tongue. He can wait them out.

He hopes.

Daryl doesn't have to wait that long though, because a minute later, Sophia and Carol are back.

It's amazing how much difference a day can make. Yesterday Sophia was filthy, injured, dragging herself across the forest with a fucking stick. The thing that strikes Daryl, as she hobbles into the room on a pair of oversized crutches, is how healthy she looks. Sure, she's still a little haggard from her time out there, and she's hopping along on those crutches, but she's clean and her hair is brushed and her freckles are somehow more vibrant. It's weird to see her in different clothes - it almost makes her feel like a different person than she was in the woods, and Daryl feels almost shy as she smiles at him. He scowls instead - he's not some blushing kid, acting shy - and looks longingly at the food on the nightstand that Lori still hasn't handed over to him.

"Hi Carl," Sophia says. She hovers in the doorway, clearly still trying to figure out how best to swing around on those crutches. "Shane's downstairs and he says if you want to do gun training -"

Carl's out of the room so fast Daryl's shocked he doesn't leave that hat behind, like a cartoon character running out of their shoes. Lori heaves a huge sigh and is following him, saying "Carl, baby, don't run -"

The room settles almost immediately when the two Grimes leave. Carol leans over first thing and plops the tray onto his lap, thank god, and Daryl just digs into the food. He shouldn't be that hungry, he ate that whole plate last night, but he's ravenous. He feels conscious suddenly of how fast he's moving and tries to slow down.

"Feed a fever, that's what Patricia said," Carol says absently. "Good morning." She looks at the window. "Well. Good afternoon."

"S'afternoon?" Shit. He'd slept half the day away. How was there breakfast for him when he was waking up at noon?

"Almost," Sophia says. She's balancing two books under her arm as she tries to balance on those crutches, and it's only a second until everything slips. Carol's there in a heartbeat, taking the books, letting Sophia lean on her.

"Should get up," Daryl mumbles around a mouthful of toast and eggs. "I can -"

"You're still on bedrest," Carol says. She doesn't sound mean about it, but it's firmer than he's heard her speak before. He looks at her uneasily as he picks up a sausage with his fingers and takes a bite.

"It's a Reading Day anyway," Sophia says like that's supposed to mean something.

"Wha's a readin' day?" Daryl asks, chewing. As he speaks, he realizes he's probably not modeling good manners or shit. Not that anyone had ever modeled them for him - mealtimes were sort of a fend for yourself type deal when he was growing up, and Merle wasn't much better. The only cutlery they'd used regularly were spoons for shitty off-brand cereal. But maybe he wasn't supposed to talk with his mouth full - he'd had a teacher tell him off for that once, said he was disgusting. He chews more.

"It's when you're sick or not feeling good -" He can see Carol stiffen a little at that, her hand on Sophia's back. "So you stay in bed all day and read books and have breakfast in bed and get cozy."

It does sound cozy when Sophia says it. But looking at Carol, he wonders how many Reading Days there'd been where she'd been hurting too bad to get out of bed. It makes Daryl feel hyperaware of the fact that he's still shirtless under the covers, feels the scars on his back almost tingle.

"Just thought we'd stop by and bring you some things," Carol says. She hands over a shirt - one of Rick's, Daryl thinks, a tee-shirt that's cleaner than anything Daryl owns. "Thought you might want something fresh."

Or anything at all. Daryl takes it, already smudging it with his greasy fingers, and grunts. He'll wait to put it on till they leave.

"And -" Carol holds out another handful of pills. Daryl looks at them mistrustfully.

"Feel fine," Daryl says. "Don't need them."

"You might feel fine because you took them last night," Carol points out. "Anyway, these ones are antibiotics. You have to do the full course - that infection in your side is no joke."

Daryl takes the pills to get her to shut up. There are some yellow ones that must be the antibiotics, another round of acetaminophen, and one more oxy. He looks at Carol. What's wrong with her, giving him shit like that with her kid around? Oxy never made Merle mean - it made him almost too nice, pleasantly spacy. But he could get mean when he didn't have any, and he could do stupid shit, and just being around Merle high was a lot sometimes - Daryl remembers as a kid, being around his dad and not understanding why he'd change, sometimes, why he'd act different from one moment to the next. Oxy was never as bad as crystal or coke but it wasn't nothing. Daryl shouldn't be doing that shit around her kid.

"I - I brought you these," Sophia says. Now she's the one who sounds shy. She's still clutching the books under her arm, and it takes some maneuvering for her to hand them over to him. Daryl squints at them. He doesn't know enough about books to know if he'd like them or not - they look nicer than the books near grocery check-out counters, so that's something. He grunts again.

"Thanks." He flips one book over to look at the back, gives himself a minute. He can read, he's not an idiot. But the letters swim around sometimes, especially when his head hurts, and it can take him a moment to gather his thoughts. "You find that book you were talkin' about?"

Sophia shakes her head. "Beth didn't have it. But she had some other stuff, so. It's fine."

"A'right," Daryl says. When he's better, he'll go out and find that book for her. Bring it back. She deserves that, after all this shit. "Well, uh. Thanks." He holds up the books awkwardly. "For the shirt an' stuff too."

"Do you need anything else?" Carol asks. She was taking his plate - emptied now, just a couple crumbs and a smear of yolk left. "We can -"

"Naw," Daryl mumbled. And he didn't. There was nothing. Right? "M'gonna head back to my tent anyway. Rest better there." Daryl's not sure if that's true - this bed is probably the most comfortable he's ever had, and even with Merle's bedroll for extra padding, the ground in his tent is going to be hard on his stitches. But being in the house is bad in its own way - something about walls, about being stuck in bed with an open door where anyone could bust in. It itches at him in a way that has nothing to do with stitches.

"You can't," Sophia blurts out. Carol's mouth is open too - probably going to try and tell him what to do, which he's not going to take. She ain't his fucking mother. But Sophia looks so plaintive, so worried, that Daryl bites back the venom he was ready to unleash and just frowns at her.

"Be fine. My tent is uh. Cozy." That's stretching it some - sure, it's his, but it was his and Merle's before and his daddy's before that. It's old and reeks of cigarettes and sweat but it's his. That's enough. He darts a look at Carol. "I'll still be restin' and that."

"But - it's Reading Day," Sophia says. She looks at her mother, then back at Daryl, and she flushes like she's embarrassed. He can see her shoulders start to hunch in on themselves, see her making herself smaller, which makes Daryl scowl. Fuck. She'd been almost bouncy, what the fuck had he done now?

"Daryl needs to rest, sweetheart," Carol murmurs, a hand on Sophia's shoulder. "He'd probably like to be alone."

Oh. The kid had thought - Daryl can't even picture what the kid thought. Himself and Carol and the kid, all cozied up, reading books together? The image feels alien, too foreign even to be funny. Just weird. No wonder she's embarrassed to have thought it. She's probably regretting it now.

"S'fine," Daryl mumbles, looking anywhere but at the set of Sophia's shoulders, at Carol's stupid face. "Just ain't had a - readin' day before." He feels stupid just saying it. "Din't get that it was uh. Somethin' you did as a group."

Sophia shrugs. Tense little shoulders. "It doesn't matter," she says.

Fuck it. "Naw, jus' - I'll probably fall asleep or whatever," Daryl says. "Won't be good company." Like he's ever good company.

"Come on, sweetheart. We'll set up in Beth's room again. She won't mind." Carol's shooting Daryl a look that's mostly sympathetic. Like she's trying to say it isn't his fault he made her kid all sad and shit.

"Didn't say y'hadta go," Daryl says. Sophia, who's been starting to crutch away, stops. Looks back at him.

"I -" Her face looks indecisive, nervous. Daryl rolls his eyes.

"Girl, sit down 'fore you fall on your ass and bust that leg up worse." He probably shouldn't have said ass. He looks at Carol, ready for the reprimand.

Instead, Carol is looking at him like he hung the moon.

Sophia's focus is on navigating over to the rocker - those crutches are grown-up sized, even on their shortest setting they look uncomfortable, jammed under her armpits. Daryl takes the opportunity to pull on the shirt Carol brought him - kid's too busy trying not to fall to be looking at him.

But in keeping his body angled away from Sophia, he realizes he's turned his back fully towards Carol.

Fuck. Before this shit, he could count on one hand the number of people to see his back. The doctor at the ER when he'd fallen working construction. Some girl he'd been messing around with when he was nineteen - she'd taken off his shirt and frozen. It'd gotten too weird to go further, and with the next girl, he'd left his shirt on. Uncle Jess. (Don't think about that.) The tattoo artist down in Elijay who'd done his back piece, who Daryl'd never made eye contact with. Hershel, yesterday.

And his daddy. Fucking stand-up group.

Merle used to rag on him endlessly like he was so fucking shy he couldn't take his shirt off in a Georgia summer. Merle took his off no problem, and Merle's back was as tattered as his own. Maybe a little less - once Merle got big enough, he'd never been afraid to fight back, which had made their dad warier around him. But even Merle never told anyone where the scars were from. Daryl'd heard him tell a chick once that he'd gotten them in Afghanistan as a POW when everyone knew Merle never made it out of the States before his dishonorable discharge.

So Merle went shirtless, sure. But Daryl never did. He didn't know what Merle thought would happen when Merle left Daryl behind. If he thought their pa would stop, or if he just didn't care, figured Daryl could watch his own self. But if Daryl took off his shirt, if Merle saw, then Daryl would know. If Merle wasn't mad about it, if Merle wasn't surprised, if Merle saw the scars and kept going, it'd mean he'd known when he left what would happen. And he'd gone anyway.

Daryl didn't know if he could stay with Merle if that were true.

Not that it mattered anymore. Merle was gone, best-case running around with a stump somewhere, worst case dead. His dad was dead. Jess was dead. Everyone who'd seen his back was dead, apart from Hershel.

And now Carol.

Daryl doesn't look at her. Yanks at the shirt, angrily, so hard he has to force himself to slow his hands. If he ripped the shirt he'd be back where he started.

When Carol circled around to join Sophia back at the rocker, she doesn't look any different. There's a tightness around her eyes, maybe, but Daryl busies himself with the pills - swallowing the antibiotics dry, leaving the others - and avoids her eyes. Lays back in the bed, the shirt cool against his skin.

"What are you going to read first?" Carol asks as Sophia settles herself in the chair. For a moment Daryl thinks she's talking to him, until he sees Sophia scrunch up her face.

"You pick."

"Nuh-uh," Carol says, producing more books from somewhere. "Your turn." It sounds familiar between them, there's a rhythm to it. Daryl wonders how often they've had the same exchange, how many times they'd done this. Cozied up somewhere to rest, recover, heal wounds. Just the two of them.

"Um - Little House?"

"You sure?" Carol asks. "We've done those before."

"Yeah, but." Sophia shrugs, which sets the rocker to moving a little. "I don't mind."

"All right," Carol says. She hands one of the books to Sophia. Looks at Daryl. Daryl looks away quick. Grabs one of the books at random, squints at it. Looks like a detective book. He opens it, waits for the letters to stop jumping.

"Will - will you read it?" Sophia asks her mother. Her voice sounds small. "I know I'm too big -"

"You're not," Carol says. "But why don't you read to yourself a little. Maybe Daryl would like the quiet."

"Don't care," Daryl grunts. He doesn't look up from the page of his possibly-detective book. "Ain't gonna bother me."

He can hear the smile in Carol's voice. "All right. I'll read first. Then you can do some too. Sound good?"

"Yeah," Sophia sighs. The book opens - Daryl can hear the pages as he pretends to read. He figures he'll give it a minute then pretend to sleep. Then the kid'll probably get bored and want to go.

But Carol's voice is soft and soothing, making Daryl relax a little even without meaning to.

"Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs."

Daryl wonders why Sophia wants to read a book about big woods when she was just lost in some big woods.

"The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees. As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads. There were no people. There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them."

Sounds like his kind of place, Daryl thinks as he feels his book falls against his chest.

He sleeps and he dreams of the woods.

Carol's voice snuck into his head before he even knew he was awake. It snuck into his dreams. He wasn't sure what he'd been dreaming before that - he was in the woods, it was dark and quiet, the trees - but Carol's voice sneaks in and suddenly he's in a cabin, feeling the fire, listening to a story.

"...But Laura and Mary were never afraid when Pa went alone into the Big Woods. They knew he could always kill bears and panthers with the first shot. After the bullets were made and the gun was loaded, came story-telling time."

"Skip the story?" Sophia says suddenly. "I - I don't like how it ends."

"Okay," Carol says. Daryl can hear the pages flipping. "Should we take a break?"

"Is he still asleep?"

Daryl tries to keep his breathing even.

"He's pretty sick. He'll probably need a lot of sleep before he's a hundred percent again."

"Would - would he be better if he'd got back quicker? If I hadn't slowed him down? Mr. Hershel said -"

"That's not what he meant," Carol says firmly. "He just meant - it's serious, Daryl's injury. We need to take it seriously. But it was always going to be serious, whenever you all got back. And he's going to be okay."

"Should - am I bothering him?" Sophia asks in barely a whisper.

"If you were, he'd tell you," Carol says, and Daryl gets the suspicion that Carol knows he's awake.

"Do you think - are those guys going to find us?" Sophia asks.

Daryl stays incredibly still.

"What guys?"

"The guys - from the camp? The friends of the ones Daryl - I - I heard Sheriff Rick and Mr. Hershel talking when I - I wasn't sneaking," Sophia says, which in Daryl's experience means she was definitely sneaking. It'd be funny if she didn't suddenly sound scared. "I - Patricia was finishing Daryl's eggs and I was just waiting and they were talking in the hallway, I didn't mean - I'm sorry."

"Shh," Carol says. "Slow down. It's all right." There's a moment of quiet. "Daddy is gone," Carol says suddenly, and Daryl almost flinches when she says it. The tone is stiff, awkward. Like Carol doesn't know what to say, how to express it. It sounds like a lie, even though Daryl knows it isn't, saw the proof with his own eyes at the quarry. Carol smashing in Ed's skull. "You don't - I don't think eavesdropping is polite, but. You're not going to get in trouble."

"Okay," Sophia says. She sounds like she's lying too. "Sorry."

"You don't have to be sorry," Carol says. "We - we'll get used to it. We're not going to be sorry anymore. All right? Me neither."

Fuck being sorry. Being sorry doesn't do anything for anybody. And Sophia has nothing to be sorry for.

There's a long moment, and Sophia shifts.

"You want to take a turn?" Carol asks. And all of a sudden it's Sophia's voice reading, clear but halting.

"Chapter Four. Christmas. Christmas was coming. The little log house - was almost buried in snow. Great drifts were banked - against the walls and windows. And in the morning when Pa - opened the door, there was a wall of snow - as high as Laura's head."

It should have been annoying. But it isn't. Maybe that's why Daryl figures it's time to wake up.

He shifts in the bed a little, grunts. From the suppressed grin Carol shoots at him, he's doing a shitty job at faking waking up. But Sophia doesn't seem to be able to tell. She looks up from her book at him, shy again.

"How long I been asleep?" Daryl asks. Carol's mouth twitches like she's going to rat him out.

But she doesn't get a chance, because that's when the gunfire starts.

Chapter 10: Shut the Barn Door

Chapter Text

Daryl is out of bed and four steps across the room before his body remembers it's too banged up to do any good. His legs buckle halfway to the window and it is only Carol grabbing his elbow that keeps him from face planting.

"My bow," Daryl says urgently as Carol tries to help him up. "Where's my bow?"

"I -" Carol looks pale, drawn. "Glenn had it. I - I think he put it in your tent -"

In other words, too far to be any use. Daryl looks at Sophia. She's still got that book in her hands, gripping it too tight to let it fall. Her ankle propped up in front of her. Okay. Shit.

There are more gunshots and Daryl gets himself to the window, looks out. They're on the wrong side of the house - the gunshots are coming from the east and the window faces south, towards the road. Which at least tells Daryl something - whatever the others are shooting at, it didn't come in a car.

Daryl tries to get his brain to slow down. There are too many options, is the problem. It could be walkers sneaking up, it could be the remainder of Greg and Max's camp, roused by Randall and on their doorstep. It could be some other fucks, it could be anybody. It could be anything. And Daryl's stuck up here, worse than useless with a woman and a girl to protect and no weapons, nothing -

"Is - maybe it's the shooting lesson," Sophia says. Her freckles are standing out on her face like they were painted on. "Remember, Officer Shane was going to teach Carl and everyone about guns, maybe -"

"They wouldn't do that on our doorstep unless they wanted walkers to come calling," Daryl says. But it does tell him something useful. The fact that they're hearing guns at all probably means the shooting lesson is over.

"We gotta get round to the other window," Daryl tells Carol. "See what's happening." She nods immediately.

"I - maybe Maggie's room. I think it faces the barn." She hesitates a moment, then sticks out her arm. "Come on."

Daryl finds himself hesitating too. Not because he's too good to accept help - although maybe a little of that. Not that he's too good, no, but Daryl certainly doesn't like taking help from anybody. Who knows what they'll want in return? But he doesn't take her arm right away because there's a certain stiffness to the way Carol's holding it, like she's bracing herself, and it makes Daryl uncomfortable. But comfort is a luxury, always has been, one that Daryl's never had, so he takes Carol's arm and they make their way out of the room.

"You stay in here," Carol says firmly. Daryl hadn't even noticed Sophia maneuvering herself to her feet, those crutches shoved under her armpits.

"What? No!" For a second she sounds like Carl and it's disconcerting to Daryl, to hear Sophia sound like a little kid. "Mom, you can't -"

"Keep watch on that window," Daryl says briskly. Because there isn't time to fight about it and Sophia's the kind of kid that'll do something if it makes sense, even if she hates it. "Give a yell if you see anyone out there, anyone coming down the road. Gonna need some warning if we're gonna fight on two fronts. Hear?"

Sophia's mouth is set in a mulish line, but she jerks her head in a stiff nod and limps over to the window.

Daryl and Carol don't delay after that. They go.

Daryl hadn't been with it enough to look around when they'd brought him in here. The house feels eerily quiet around them, the only sound the creak of their feet stumbling over the floorboards and the muffled sound of gunfire, getting louder as they loop around the hallway to the other side of the house. It reminds Daryl of one of them living history museums they'd gone to on a field trip when he was in elementary school. Quiet and still and all the furniture looked handmade, the photos old. The place had history and even in the flurry of adrenaline coursing through his veins, it still felt dignified. He and Carol don't belong there, he thinks as they stagger across the hall, throwing open the door to Maggie's room.

Maggie's room is a little different than the hallway - it still looks old and shit, a carved wooden bed frame, a solid oak desk. But she's got pictures pinned up on a bulletin board over the desk, ticket stubs from movies and concerts, a wobbly drawing of a horse, photos of her and a woman who must be her ma, old flyers from school plays, and a picture of Maggie herself, young and gangly in a softball uniform, grinning with a trophy in hand. There's clothes on the floor and the bed is a rumpled, unmade mess. Maggie's room doesn't look like a museum. It looks like someone's home, and there's a pang in Daryl's stomach as he pulls away from Carol and makes his way to the window.

He doesn't know if a place has ever looked so undeniably his in his life.

But then Daryl's at the window and it doesn't matter anymore, what the room looks like because what's important is what's outside. Daryl shoves the curtains out of his way, lets himself drop to the floor in front of the window. He winces a little as his knees jar against the wooden floor, and he can hear Carol murmur "Be careful, you're still not -"

But it doesn't matter what she says, and after a moment she cuts off abruptly as the gunfire starts up again.

Daryl's not sure what he expected. A herd of walkers spilling out of the forest brush. A gang of dudes, Randall at the front, armed to the teeth. Hell, maybe the army - maybe they ran out of napalm and they're clearing the country house by house.

But he didn't expect to see Rick holding a walker by the neck, the thing snarling and grabbing at the end of a snare pole. Didn't expect to see Hershel, on his knees in the dirt, Maggie sobbing and clutching his shoulders.

Didn't expect to see the herd of walkers coming out of the barn. Didn't expect any of that.

"The fuck is that?" Daryl breathes out. They keep coming - a ton of them. They'd been in there? In that barn, the whole time? Daryl thinks about smoking cigarettes near there in the dark, almost shudders. Carol is behind him, staring as the others - T-Dog, Glenn, Andrea, Shane - open fire and take them down, one by one. One after another after another, landing in the dirt. Hershel twitches with each one like the bullets are hitting him, punching through him in a way that can't be seen but that Hershel can feel.

Shane shoots the walker Rick is holding and then Rick joins in. He looks pissed.

"We - we should tell Sophia it's all right," Carol says. She doesn't sound convinced it's all right, and her eyes are fixed not on the walkers, but on Shane. Shane, his whole body rigid with rage, picking off walkers one by one. When the walkers stop coming, he turns around, goes up to Rick. Pokes a finger into his chest, spitting something into his face. It's weirdly quiet when the gunshots stop, and Daryl feels stupid - he should have realized it wasn't a human threat. For all the gunshots, there were never any shots echoing after. No one had fired back.

But then the silence turns hard as one last walker - small, tiny, with a green shirt and a shaggy haircut, stumbles out of the barn.

"Oh my god," Carol gasps, her hands covering her mouth. "Oh my god."

Carl is crying, outside - Daryl can't hear the words, but he can hear the sound, high pitched and scared, can see Lori holding his shoulders, trying to turn him away.

Shane doesn't move. For all he was talking tough a minute ago, he's frozen in place, eyes fixed. It falls on Rick to do it.

And Rick walks forward, purposeful strides, takes aim.

And blows out the brains of the walker that used to be Louis Morales.

"How did he even get here?" Sophia asks numbly for the third time.

They're back in their room - Daryl doesn't register how he's thinking of it as their room now. Back in Maggie's room, Carol had said blankly, "We should get back to Sophia. Tell her - tell her what happened."

Daryl grunted, pulled himself to his feet.

"Y'gonna tell her about him?" Daryl asked. His head jerked towards the window, towards the lawn where the others were doing the growing familiar work of sorting the dead.

"She'll find out," Carol said simply. "Carl knows. And he was her friend. She deserves better than a lie."

Daryl figures Carol hadn't meant it as anything against him, but it almost makes him flinch for some reason, and he's quiet all the way back to their room, the whole time Carol explains what happened, the whole time that Carol leaves to go find out more information and Sophia and Daryl are alone. Sophia just sits there with that doll, looking out the window like she'll be able to see something different than the last twenty times she looked.

"He - they were going to Birmingham," Sophia says again. "What's he doing here?"

"Dunno," Daryl mumbles. He's perched back on the bed, his side throbbing something fierce. He wishes he could be the one to go downstairs and get information, wishes he could be the one asking what the fuck happened and why were there walkers in the barn and where the hell did the Morales boy come from, anyway? Daryl tries to remember if he ever exchanged two words with the kid and he can't. Which means he probably hadn't. The kid had kept pretty far from them after Merle called him names. But he was so small out there.

So small and all alone.

As if she can read his thoughts, Sophia looks up at him. She's sitting in the rocking chair, the chair pulled close to the bed by Carol before she went downstairs. "I'll be right back," Carol had said. But that was at least ten minutes ago and she's still gone and Daryl is bad at this shit. Carol should be here. She'd know how to answer these questions, how to make it right. Daryl doesn't know shit. And Sophia can tell.

"Eliza wasn't there, right? Or his mom and dad?" Sophia has asked this before too. Daryl bites at his thumbnail. Is this normal, asking the same questions over and over? Maybe it's just because his answers suck.

"Naw," Daryl says again. "Didn't see them."

Sophia's got that doll against her chest. She nods, once. Bites her lip.

There's yelling from downstairs suddenly. Or maybe it's outside. The window in their room is open some, and the doors are all screens. Makes it tricky to tell where noises are coming from. Sophia tenses in the rocker, which makes it rock slightly. Daryl reaches out with one hand, grabs at the armrest to slow its movement. Sophia doesn't move. She's too busy listening.

Daryl is too. He can hear, faintly, Shane's voice, low and gruff, biting off the words angrily. Fucking pig. How does he have any right to be mad, when he's the one going all guns blazing in the first place? Hershel's voice maybe after it, higher-pitched, lost, then suddenly booming and furious.

"Don't touch him!" Daryl's pretty sure that's Maggie. Glenn's horse girl is fucking tough as nails.

The sound of skin against skin is something both he and Sophia recognize. It's a sharper sound than a punch - punches sound dull and heavy, with weight behind them. This is lighter, almost a crack. Daryl's pretty sure it's a slap.

The air in the room is suddenly all gone as Sophia jerks in the chair again with the sound of the slap, almost violently. The doll falls to the floor and the chair sets off in a wild movement, and Sophia almost tumbles out onto the floor after her doll.

Daryl's not trying to grab her or anything. Just keep her from landing face-first on the ground. Daryl catches himself as he's already doing it - idiot, fucking idiot, moving too fast, going to freak her out, scare her, going to -

But as he reaches for her, Sophia's hands latch onto his and somehow now she's pulled up onto the bed next to him, trembling.

"What - what -" Sophia sputters, and Daryl doesn't know what to do with this lump of a kid next to him shaking, her hands closed around his in a death grip.

"Ain't nothin'," Daryl mumbles. He doesn't know what to do because Sophia has his hands so he can't do any of the nice shit Carol does, stroke her hair or rub her back or whatever. And if Daryl tried Sophia's probably run in the other direction. He settles for squeezing her hands in his, roughly because that's the only way he knows to do anything. Her hands are small and soft in his.

"Ain't nothin'," Daryl says again. "Hear that?" Sophia's breathing slows a little as she tries to listen. Daryl listens too - it's quiet now outside, quiet downstairs. There's the mumble of voices, footsteps, but they're slow and measured and the voices just sound sad.

"It's over," Daryl says, and he's not sure what's over or if that's even true. "Ain't nothin'. Promise."

Sophia's breathing is getting more normal and Daryl pulls one of his hands out of her death grip. He settles his hand carefully onto Sophia's shoulder - he can't touch her back. He can't make himself. But he grips her shoulder in one rough hand, gives it a squeeze. He feels all thumbs, awkward and bad at this.

"Why are they fighting?" Sophia asks quietly. Her eyes are darting around, too quick, and Daryl squeezes her shoulder again clumsily.

"Some weird shit just went down. Sometimes that makes people yell," Daryl says awkwardly. He's hardly the person to explain human behavior to a kid. He shrugs. "They're just mad at each other. Ain't gonna aim it at you. Or your ma."

Daryl doesn't know how true that is, either. In his experience, angry people aim that shit wherever they want. They don't care who is in their way. But that's not helpful now, he's pretty sure, even if it is true. And he realizes there is something that is both helpful and true that he can say.

"Even if they tried, wouldn't let nobody get at you. Or her. A'right?"

This seems to get through. Sophia looks up at him, her eyes finally fixed on one thing again. It makes Daryl feel trapped, stuck like a butterfly on a pin. He scowls, which probably is the opposite of helpful, but she doesn't slide off the bed and make a run for it. She just nods, once, jerkily. Like she's saying she heard him. Not like she's saying she believes him or anything. Which is smart.

But when the footsteps start coming up the stairs, her body tenses up again and Daryl thinks she might start hyperventilating when the door finally opens and Carol is standing there, looking grave.

Daryl has a weird urge to throw his hands up in the air. I'm unarmed, he wants to say, she grabbed me! But he's frozen in place and even if he weren't, Sophia's still got one of his hands in a death grip and his other hand is busy on her shoulder, so he couldn't get free even if he wanted.

Carol doesn't say anything. He thinks he sees her lip twitch, once, but it doesn't turn into a smile or a frown as she comes over and gently disentangles Sophia from him.

"You all right?" Carol asks softly. Sophia nods, but she doesn't make a move to get off of the bed. Just leans forward so her mother can rub circles into her back.

"Heard a noise," Daryl grunts. He doesn't say what the noise is - Carol probably knows, and it doesn't matter. Carol just nods, once.

"It's all right. Hershel was mad at Shane that Shane killed the walkers from the barn. They were just having an talk about it. But everything is fine."

"Why didn't Hershel want to kill them? Were they not dead yet?" Sophia's voice quavers, once.

"No, no," Carol says hurriedly. "No, they were walkers already, just - Hershel was hoping that maybe one day, a doctor would be able to stop them from being walkers. He was hoping if he kept them in the barn for long enough, someone would figure out a cure and they could be people again."

Daryl is staring at Carol. Is that true? Hershel really thought that? He can't tell if the old man has dropped in his estimation for being so fucking stupid or risen for taking such stupid risks for something that could never be anything but a dream.

"Can - will they do that? Make walkers people again?" Sophia's eyes look frightened, and Daryl wonders if the twelve year old has grasped the moral implications of gunning down things that could become people again or if she's just scared her daddy will come back from the grave.

"No," Carol says firmly. "No. That can't happen."

Yeah. It can't.

After that, there is more - about Otis and the barn, about Louis Morales. No one can figure out how the kid got here. Daryl turns it over in his mind - it should have been a straight shot west from Atlanta to Birmingham, but maybe the Morales dad had taken a detour to avoid congested highways. Maybe they decided to make a pitstop at wherever they'd come from, get shit from home. Maybe the kid wandered off like Sophia and found himself too far south and all alone. Does it matter anymore how the kid got lost? The kid got lost and got bit and got killed and then got killed again.

Daryl hadn't even known to look for him. And if he had, he wouldn't have found him. Not in time. The thought echoes dully in his head, in time to the throbbing pain from his side, and Daryl can't stop seeing the little body, covered in a blanket. Waiting for a lonely grave far from anyone who knew him.

Daryl keeps thinking about Sophia, about what would have happened if she came out of the barn, and Daryl's fists tighten and release almost instantly.

Carol catches the movement and frowns at him, though. Looks at his face.

"You should have more medicine," Carol says. "Did you even take the painkiller?"

"Don't need it," Daryl mumbles. And he doesn't. He just needs sleep.

He ignores the fact that he's slept more in the past two days than he has in years. Sleep will do enough. He doesn't need to get high in front of the kid.

Carol looks worried. "If - Daryl, if you're in pain, you should -"

"I said I ain't in pain, didn't I?" He'd said it a million times. He's sick of saying it. "Just gotta get some more sleep."

Carol looks at him for a long moment, then nods. "Okay," she says. She touches Sophia's shoulder. "Come on, kiddo. Let's let Daryl sleep."

Sophia's eyes go to Daryl and then to her mother, wordless. Daryl doesn't know if Carol really wants to get Sophia somewhere else, unpack all this shit with the Morales kid, or if she thinks if she gets Sophia out that Daryl will take the oxy. Daryl just shrugs.

"Fell asleep fine with y'all in here before." Now that he says it out loud, Daryl takes a moment to marvel at that. He hasn't fallen asleep in a room with anyone but Merle for ages. "I mean - y'could go or stay, whatever. Don't care."

Sophia looks at her mother pleadingly. Carol relents.

"All right," Carol says slowly. She brushes at Sophia's hair, tucks it behind her ear. "But I told Patricia I'd help her with dinner. She's - a little upset from today, and -" Carol stops talking. "Well. And I said I'd help her. So if you stay with Daryl, you've got to read by yourself and stay here until I'm done, okay? I won't be able to come up and help you down again until after dinner's done."

"I'm not a baby," Sophia says. It'd be more convincing if she weren't still sitting on Daryl's bed with her ma petting her head. "I can read alone."

"And let Daryl sleep, all right? He needs rest."

"I will," Sophia says quickly. "Promise."

"Okay," Carol says again. She leans forward and kisses Sophia on the forehead. She lingers there a moment, and Daryl wonders what she's thinking. Marveling at the warmth of her daughter's skin, at the soft huffs of her daughter's breath on her cheek? On the fact that Sophia is alive and not a little shrouded mound in the barnyard, waiting for burial? Daryl doesn't know. Carol pulls back and for a second he thinks she's going to plant a kiss on his forehead too, like yesterday. But maybe his scowl scares her off.

"I'll check back in when dinner's done," Carol says again. Her fingers brush against Sophia's hair one more time. "Love you."

"Love you too," Sophia says back. It doesn't sound particularly significant - it sounds almost rote, like a response learned by heart, automatic and easy. Somehow the fact that Sophia sounds mostly dutiful when she says it makes Daryl's heart clench in his chest. He busies himself with his pillows - rearranging them, punching one into a different shape - until Carol leaves, the door clicking shut behind her.

Sophia seems to realize then that she's still on Daryl's bed. She blushes red and leans over the edge of the bed, scrabbling for her crutches. Daryl has to yank the neck of her skirt to stop her from toppling off.

"Careful, girl. Gonna smack your head in," Daryl says gruffly. "Whatcha need?"

"Oh, um. Just - I was going to get my crutches so I could get my book and get back in the chair -"

Daryl squints at the chair. Points to it. "Ain't that your book there?"

And it is - sitting open-faced on the rocker, a little worse for wear for all the excitement. Sophia seems to blush harder.

"Right. I - sorry, I -"

"You can stay if you want," Daryl mumbles before he has the chance to think about it. She can - that rocking chair can't be too comfortable with her bum ankle, and the bed is so big that Daryl and Sophia don't even have to touch if they don't want to. The second he says it he regrets it - the kid didn't even want him to walk her to the bathroom, why would she want to stay next to him -

But she just uncurls a little. Daryl focuses on setting himself up on the pillows - he shoves one her way without looking at her. If she wants to use it she can, or she can just leave it as a wall between them. He doesn't know why he feels better with the weight of the kid on the mattress next to him, and he doesn't let himself think about it. He just tries to settle himself in.

Sophia's not curled up anymore. She's sitting up against the headboard, her long legs stretched out in front of her. She's using the pillow like an armrest and she's got the book propped up on it as she looks at it. It's weirdly cozy. He remembers sharing a bed with Merle as a kid, curled up next to him, the safety of Merle blocking out the world so he could sleep. He's starting to doze a little when there are footsteps down the hall again, and Sophia stiffens next to him.

Daryl hates Ed in that moment, more than he's hated anyone for a while. More than he hates Rick for leaving Merle on that roof, more than his own father, in that moment. Because Merle and Daryl, they'd been dirty and wild things. Sophia is gentle and quiet and how could you fuck with someone so small? If Carol hadn't slammed Ed's head to pieces, Daryl'd crush him now. See how he liked it, having to deal with someone his own size.

But it's not Ed who walks in. It's not Shane or Rick either, or even Lori or Carol.

It's Carl Grimes, his hat askew and his face smudged with dirt and tears, hovering miserably at the doorway.

"I - your mom said you were up here," Carl says. He looks like a lost puppy, hanging in the open doorway like that.

"Yeah," Sophia says. She's relaxed a little but Daryl doesn't miss the way her eyes dart past Carl into the hallway.

"You gonna stand there or you gonna come in?" Daryl asks. Carl jumps and steps in, closing the door behind him.

"What are you doing?" Carl asks, coming around to the abandoned rocking chair.

"Reading," Sophia says, holding up her book. Carl looks like he'd wrinkle his nose if he weren't feeling do down.

"Oh," Carl says. He scuffs a sneakered foot on the floor. "What book?"

"Little House in the Big Woods," Sophia says. Daryl thinks she should just hold up the book again. The kid can read, can't he?

This time Carl does wrinkle his nose. "That's a girl book."

"I guess," Sophia says. Which is more polite than Daryl's response would have been, of 'Well she's a girl, ain't she?'

"Was pretty good when I was listening earlier," Daryl says, scowling at Carl. He's not going to let the kid be in here if he's going to be judgy or whatever.

Carl perks up at that. "Yeah?"

"I've read it before," Sophia says. "But I like it. They - I guess it's interesting to read it now." Sophia's fingers run over the edge of the book cover. "Because they don't have like electricity or the internet or anything. They just have to do everything themselves. So. Yeah."

That's actually kind of smart. Daryl looks at the book consideringly. He hadn't thought about books. Books were still around, and so was all the information in them.

Carl looks at her expectantly. Daryl scowls again, but he feels guilty when Carl reaches up with a grubby hand and rubs at his face. Kid just saw his friend turned into a monster and then get shot in front of him. Carl can be a pain today if he wants to be.

Sophia has handed Carl the book, and Carl is flipping through it easily, looking at the illustrations. Pen and ink drawings of girls in skirts climbing trees, playing with a ball, putting meat in a smokehouse. (Shit, maybe that was a useful book.) Eventually, he hands it back and leans back in the rocking chair, leaning forward and back so the runners squeak over the floorboards. Daryl shoots him a glare and Carl stops rocking immediately, which makes Daryl feel a little bad.

But that chair shit was fucking annoying.

Sophia is looking from her book to Carl again. Daryl just closes his eyes and tries to get back to that quiet calm from earlier.It's not possible with Carl Grimes there. Which is fair - Carl Grimes is a handful, even Daryl had noticed that. And the kid looks lost and confused and drooping compared to the kid who was bouncing around this morning, ready to learn to shoot. But he doesn't know how to fix that. He doesn't even know how to try. So Daryl just closes his eyes and hopes that being able to sit somewhere and be miserable was enough for him.

"Your mom told you about Louis? Right?"

Apparently, it wasn't. Daryl feels Sophia still next to him. Doesn't open his eyes - they probably don't want to hear from him anyway, not when his brother had been such a dick to all the Morales'.

"Yeah," Sophia says quietly. "He - it was really him?"


A pause.

"But Eliza wasn't there. Or Miranda or Juan."

It takes longer than it should for Daryl to figure out those are the Morales parents' names.

"Do you - do you think they're dead too?" Sophia asks.

"No," Carl says quickly. "No. If they were, they'd be in the barn with him. Right?"

Daryl's not sure that thinking tracks but he doesn't say anything. Wouldn't be helpful anyway.

"Are they - what are they going to do with him?"

"Bury him," Carl says. "Glenn and T-Dog are digging holes. For him and for like Hershel's wife and stuff. They were in the barn too."

It's quiet then, miserable and heavy, and now it doesn't seem like Carl has any desire to break it. The rocker starts to move again, slower and quieter than last time, and Daryl lets it happen. No point yelling about it.

After a long moment, Daryl can hear the pages of the book being turned.

"Chapter Four. Christmas. Christmas was coming. The little log house - was almost buried in snow. Great drifts were banked - against the walls and windows. And in the morning when Pa - opened the door, there was a wall of snow - as high as Laura's head."

Sophia's an okay reader - not as good as her ma, a little stilted or whatever. But the Grimes kid isn't complaining, and Daryl isn't either.

"Pa took the shovel - and shoveled it away, and then he shoveled - a path to the barn, where the horses and the cows - were snug and warm in their stalls. The days - were clear and bright. Laura and Mary stood - on chairs by the window and looked out across the glittering snow at the glittering trees. Snow was - piled all along their bare, dark branches, and it sparkled - in the sunshine. Icicles hung from the eaves - of the house to the snowbanks, great icicles as large - at the top as Laura's arm. They were like glass and full of sharp lights."

Daryl feels himself drifting and lets it happen. He falls asleep and he dreams of rooms of glass and sparkling lights.

Chapter 11: Trigger

Chapter Text

It's not as peaceful when Daryl floats back to consciousness this time. There's an edge to the air, more than just whatever was leftover from the shit that went down at the barn. Something more immediate, more frantic.

"Rick - not back yet?"

" - Hershel - Beth -"

"Holed up somewhere for the night - first thing in the morning."

But those are adult voices. When Daryl opens his eyes, his only company is still just Carl and Sophia. Sophia is still propped up against the headboard next to him but Carl has abandoned the rocker and is squeezed in next to Sophia at the head of the bed, the book they were reading open in between them. Carl misses the glare Daryl gives him for encroaching on Daryl's space because Carl is staring at the door to the hallway, where the voices are coming from, and is biting his lip. Sophia looks worried too. So Daryl figures he won't yell at the kids that this isn't a goddamn slumber party or whatever, at least until he figures out what has the two of them looking so spooked.

"What's goin' on?" Daryl croaks, and Sophia and Carl jump. Like they'd forgotten he was there, or that he could wake up.

"Um," Sophia says, darting a quick look at Carl, whose jaw is set. "Hershel - Hershel left and Beth won't wake up, so -" Sophia shrugs her shoulders. "Um, I guess Mr. Glenn and Rick went to find him?"

Oh. That's why the kid looks like his puppy ran away. Daryl guesses in a way, it did.

"They're not back yet," Carl says. His face looks like he's trying to be tough, but there's a slight waver in his voice. "And it's getting dark."

Shit. How long has Daryl been out for? How much more sleep could he possibly need?

The one good thing about all that sleep is that Daryl actually does feel better. Not just not-dead, but actually better. Sure he's not ready to do another three-day slog through the woods or whatever, but he's well enough to get up and figure out what's happening from someone who actually knows what's going on. Like what does that mean, Beth won't wake up? He stifles a groan as he sits up in bed, and Sophia jerks as he does, looking over at him with alarmed eyes.

"What are you doing?" she asks, and Daryl grunts as he maneuvers himself up enough that he could swing his feet off the bed onto the floor.

"Gonna go find out what's up," Daryl says, and Sophia looks concerned.

"But - you're still sick. You shouldn't -"

"M'fine," Daryl says, and he's about to stand up when Shane fucking Walsh pokes his head in and Daryl feels himself go immediately hostile. Maybe he'll risk trying to walk with just Sophia and Carl for an audience, but he's not going to attempt to stand and potentially fall flat on his face in front of Shane.

"Hey man, where you been all afternoon?" Shane asks, his voice the weirdly genial tone he always takes with Carl. Daryl guesses that's how you're meant to talk to kids because Carl just looks at Shane and Daryl can see some of the worry drain away. Not all of it, but enough.

"Just hanging out," Carl says. "Are they back yet?"

"No, man, not yet. Keep your head up though. Your old man is the toughest - " Shane catches sight of Sophia, still sitting next to Daryl, and he cuts himself off. "Toughest son of a gun I know. He'll be all right."

Carl nods, just once. His fingers are playing with the brim of his sheriff's hat, with the tassels.

"How you doin', Sophia? All right?"

"Yes sir," Sophia says politely. Daryl feels his scowl deepening. Remembers Shane the other day, before he went out on that horse. Anyone could have holed up in that farmhouse.Shane hadn't been wrong - Sophia hadn't been there. But it'd been the way Shane had said it. Like he was looking for reasons to stop looking.

Shane woulda given up on the kid, and now he's treating her all sweet like he cares. He doesn't. Daryl knows that. And he wonders, from her tone, from the way she's holding herself, if somehow Sophia knows it too.

"What about you Daryl? You good?"

Daryl just grunts. Shane looks a little put off with Daryl's hostility, which makes Daryl's chin jut out more. What does Shane want from him? High fives and hugs? If they were outside, Daryl would spit.

"Well, uh. Right. I'll get these kids out of your hair, then," Shane says, and Daryl scowls more at that. Like sure, he'd rather have some space or whatever, but where does Shane get off saying that shit? Making it sound like Sophia's a nuisance or whatever? "It's just about time for supper. Carl, why don't you get your ma, and then you and Sophia can help Patricia set the table?"

Daryl's about to ask Shane how Sophia's meant to do that on crutches when he notices that Carl isn't moving. Whatever worry Shane's presence might have eased is back tripled and Carl is too still as he looks at Shane - like he's trying to decide if he should use his energy to freak out of not.

"I - I thought Mom was downstairs. With you."

Something about 'with you' hits Shane weird - which is just another piece in the picture Daryl has of what the fuck Shane and Lori got up to back at the quarry. "No," Shane says. "She ain't with me. What, you mean you don't know where she is?"

"I - no," Carl says. "I - I've been up here. I -"

Shane is out of the room too fast. Carl is up from the edge of the bed, gaping like a fish, like he's not sure whether he should follow Shane or stay put. He looks at Daryl, which Daryl doesn't get because he knows even less than Carl. He didn't even know Rick and Glenn and Hershel were missing, let alone Lori.

"Where'd you see her last?" Daryl asks, sounding dumb even to his own ears. He ain't a cop and Lori ain't a misplaced pair of keys. He doesn't know what he's meant to do to find some grown woman who went running off of her own accord.

"I - we were outside and she said she was going to go check on T-Dog, because he was - " Carl darts a quick look at Sophia. "You know. Burning the walkers. The ones we didn't know. And she said maybe Sophia would like company and I should go ask Carol where she was and I did and she said she was up here so I came up here and then -"

Great. Now Daryl's all caught up. "Why'd she wanna go see T-Dog?"

Carl shrugs. Great. That's useful. A bucket of clues, right there.

There's no time for any more detective work because then Shane is barreling back into the room so fast that Sophia flinches practically off the bed and it takes all Daryl's reflexes just to yank her back up.

"Carl," Shane is saying urgently, moving too quick - Daryl had grabbed Sophia's elbow to keep her from falling and even though he lets go as fast as he can, he can still feel the tremble working its way up her arm, almost unnoticeable but present as Shane rushes in like a fucking panther, all muscled arms and bald head and too intent face. Daryl can hear more footsteps following Shane and he wonders how crowded his sick room is going to get. "When's the last time you saw your mom?"

"This afternoon," Carl says. His face, which was pale already, suddenly looks the color of milk.

"Where was she?" Shane asks, and his voice gets louder. Daryl doesn't know what to do with the slightly shaking girl at his side. He doesn't know how to make her stop shaking.

"What you yellin' for?" Daryl snaps, shifting his position on the bed so he can stand up if he needs to. His hand braced at the side table for easy support. "Shit man, chill out, you're -"

"Where was she?" Shane says again, and he's moving on Carl too fast, it makes everything in Daryl prickle. He's shifted himself at an angle that he only realizes later is putting himself between Shane and Sophia, between the unpredictable wildness radiating off of Shane and the shaky silence of the girl.

"She -" Carl looks confused and too pale like he can't think. "She said - she was going to see T-Dog, she -"

"Carl ain't seen her," Shane calls out to the hallway, and he paces back and forth. Daryl can feel Sophia next to him, winding tighter and tighter, too tight as she tries to track Shane with her eyes. Shane slams his hand against the window sill loud enough that Daryl's pulling himself off the bed. Because this is his goddamn sickroom and if Shane's going to slam around like a fucking lunatic he can go do it somewhere else. "Damn it!" explodes out of Shane's mouth as Shane looks out the window, eyes scanning like Lori Grimes is going to pop out of a well or something. He's so preoccupied looking he doesn't hear Daryl come up, or maybe he just assumes Daryl isn't a threat. But Shane doesn't spin back around until Daryl is almost on top of him. Shane blinks once, maybe in surprise, but Daryl's already poking him in the chest with one finger, feeling wobbly as he tries to shove some sense into Shane.

"Calm the fuck down," Daryl snarls, and Shane's eyes go from surprised to angry in record time. "You're freaking them kids out, man, shit -"

"We need to find Lori," Shane says.

"She asked me to look in on Carl," Andrea says suddenly from behind Daryl. The others have caught up and are spilling in, making the room feel even more crowded - Dale who looks worried and winded from the stairs, Andrea looking concerned, T-Dog looking wracked with guilt. Carol, who has gone to the bed, to Sophia, a hand on her back. "Earlier. She was worried about Rick, she -"

"She went after them?" Dale asks, and Daryl sees the hallway behind them fill up more - Glenn's horse girl looking pinched behind the eyes, Otis's woman with a hand over her mouth. It's too many people and Daryl feels himself start to tighten, feels his fists clench.

"She didn't say that," Andrea says, and Carl is standing in the middle of the room, looking pathetically fierce with his dumb sheriff hat.

"Where is she?!" Carl asks again, his voice shrill with anger and panic, and something shifts in Shane. Something like guilt behind the eyes.

"Nobody panic," Shane says, which Daryl thinks is a little fucking late when Shane looks halfway to hell himself. "Gonna be around here somewhere. Come on."

And Shane is charging out of the room again, moving fast enough Daryl almost topples in his wake, and the room is empty as suddenly as it was full. Carl is almost running to keep up with the adults as they spread out in the weirdest and most demented game of hide and seek through the Greene farmhouse. The only one left behind is Carol, who is running a hand over Sophia's hair. She's like a horse whisperer or something because the second she does, whatever has been making Sophia clench melts away, like Carol is gathering it up in her hand and flicking it off of her.

Of course, the room emptying out of one shouting Shane Walsh and eight hundred bystanders probably helped with that too.

"What's going on?" Daryl asks gruffly. He's pretty proud of himself that he didn't just say 'the fuck', which is probably pretty pathetic.

Carol huffs a laugh with no humor in it. "What else? Just - everything." This is less than specific, but also Daryl figures that's pretty clear. Things are going to shit again. They always do and he guesses the apocalypse ain't no different. Carol is eyeing him carefully as he tries to make his way back to the bed. "You shouldn't be -"

"M'fine," Daryl says for what feels like the millionth time. "Been sleepin'. Ask the kid."

Carol actually does turn to Sophia, who nods, but then shakes her head. Daryl's about to ask what the fuck that means but Carol is already on her way over to him, looking like she's steeling herself for something. He's not sure if she's preparing herself to touch him or if she's preparing for him to cuss her out, but either way, it makes him still and scowl.

"M'fine, I said," Daryl repeats, and instead of trying to fight his way back to the bed, he collapses into the rocker so he won't have to have some mouse of a woman drag him back to bed. Collapsing probably isn't the best plan - it sets the rocker swinging wildly - but he's down and that seems to pacify Carol enough. Daryl's side is throbbing but nothing crazy, nothing he can't handle. And his head hurts, but that could be from Shane shouting like a goddamn lunatic. All in all, he's pretty much fighting fit.

Although the second he settles, he realizes something. All of a sudden it feels like days since he's gone to the bathroom. He feels a flush working its way over his face - blushing like some ten-year-old girl, pathetic - because it probably hasn't been days since he's gone. When he was out of it, somebody has probably gotten closer than he would have wanted, to help him -

Whatever. It's done now. But all of a sudden Daryl has to piss like crazy and he starts hauling himself up out of the chair, which would be easier if it wasn't a rocker, if it didn't swing and squeal underneath him as he tries to get up.

"Gotta take a piss," Daryl grunts, eyes skirting away from Sophia, reminded suddenly of the way she'd act when they were in the woods, stiff and watchful and scared of him when he offered to keep watch while she peed. He hears Carol getting up and his jaw sets in a scowl. "Be back."

Daryl gets out of the room before Carol follows him. Which is probably just her being polite because he's moving like an eighty-year-old who got thrown from a horse so it's not like it'd be hard to catch him. It's probably for the best that she follows him anyway - he has no clue where the bathroom is in this place. He forces himself to walk like nothing hurts, not to stagger. Not to let anything past him. He's not hurt that badly. The shakiness, the lurchiness of his steps, it's probably because he's been in that goddamn bed for days. (How many days? How long has it been since they got back?)

"Don't need a babysitter," Daryl snarls as Carol comes up beside him, her hand hovering near his arm.

"I know," Carol says, her hand never making contact, her voice even. "It's at the end of the hall."

After taking care of business, Daryl washes up some in the sink. He looks like hell when he sees himself in the mirror - a layer of grime that's mostly dirt but probably also blood sticking out against the almost blinding white of the bandage around his forehead, the stupid shirt Carol'd loaned him puckered and sagging in weird places. Someone'd probably wiped him down while he was out too, which makes him feel on edge, but they hadn't done that great a job and so Daryl cleans up how he can. He almost strips off the bandage to see the damage to his head - with his luck he's got a big gnarly scar over his ear from that fucking bullet - but he decides not to. It's not worth it when Carol or the kid'll just get all on him for messing with it.

Even Hershel's bathroom, small and probably a hundred years old, is nicer than any bathroom Daryl's been in his whole life.

He's not as surprised as he should be that Carol is standing there in the hallway when he opens the door.

"Don't worry," she says, a ghost of a smile around her mouth. "I wasn't listening."

It makes Daryl flush again, scowl. He feels steadier after pissing, after washing up. More alert, more awake. Less shaky. He doesn't need Carol trailing after him like he's her kid. He doesn't need anything from Carol. He hadn't brought Sophia back so he'd have a guaranteed bathroom escort for the rest of his life. Carol doesn't owe him shit.

"Hold up," Carol says as Daryl starts past her to the bedroom. He glares.

"Can walk fine," Daryl snaps. "Shit, you wanna baby someone, baby that kid of yours, she -"

"No, I just -" Carol looks a little unsure. "I just thought you might - I can talk a little more about. What's happening. I just didn't want Sophia to hear."

Oh. That's different. Daryl feels his scowl lessen, feels the flush on his face creep a little.

"Oh," Daryl says lamely. He leans against the opposite wall from Carol, crosses his arms. Waits.

"It's - sorry," Carol says, her voice a little nervous. "I shouldn't be making - it's not a big deal. Just Sophia gets nervous around - " Carol shakes her head. "Hershel went to find a bar. In town. After what happened, he -"

Oh. Daryl remembers Sophia's pinched face when she'd seen the bottle of bourbon in the abandoned farmhouse. Her fear when she told him she'd dumped it down the toilet. Yeah, whatever, maybe she doesn't have to freak Sophia out. Maybe Sophia's too young to understand that not everybody drinks like her old man.

But hell, maybe Daryl still doesn't totally understand that either because he finds himself thinking about Hershel. Daryl hadn't pegged Hershel for the type, which makes him feel stupid. He tried to reconcile the staid man in suspenders with his pa or Merle or even Daryl himself and he can't. Well, there are all kinds of drunks. He should remember that.

"Shit, he couldn't just do that here?"

"He doesn't keep it in the house."

Oh. That type of drunk. Reformed or whatever. Off the wagon now. Got it.

"After he left, Beth - they're not really sure what's wrong. She just - isn't responding." Carol looks worried at that. Daryl doesn't know shit about Beth, just that she's little and blonde and looks barely older than Sophia, but he frowns anyway as Carol continues.

"Rick and Glenn went to go get him, but -"

"But they ain't back yet."

"Right." Carol shrugs and it looks weird on her. That's his movement. It looks wrong on her slim, graceful shoulders. "I shouldn't have - I could have said that in front of Sophia. Just, she likes Beth, and I don't want her to be -"

Scared of what it means, that Beth isn't responding. Scared of Hershel. Yeah. Daryl gets it.

"Think Lori went after 'em?" Daryl asks her, and Carol bites her lip, looks worried. Daryl's reminded that Lori's probably the closest thing Carol's had to a friend in years.

"I don't know. She was worried, I know that. But I didn't think she'd leave Carl."

Lori Grimes probably thought she was invincible, that nothing bad was ever gonna happen to her. Daryl knows she's wrong.

"Can go after her in the morning," Daryl says finally. Carol's eyes are boring into him all of a sudden and he looks away. "Mean - m'feelin' better, I told you. By tomorrow, probably be back to normal. Can go out then, if she ain't back yet."

"Daryl -"

What - does she think he should go out now? He thinks about it but in the dark, he won't be able to pick up a trail anyway, especially if she took a car, and he's not all the way there yet. But by morning he will be.

"You don't have to do that."

Daryl scowls. "Told you, I'm fine. Had worse'n this." He's not sure if this was true - maybe before the infection set in, but he can't remember a time when he'd been this wiped out, all that sleep and fuzziness. Maybe when he was a little kid or something.

"Shane can go. Or T-Dog. Or Andrea. You - you've done enough for now."

Daryl blinks at her. T-Dog and Andrea aren't trackers. Maybe Shane knows some police shit but that's concrete and cars, it ain't the woods, the wilderness. Not that Hershel's really in the wilderness if he's really holed up in some old bar downtown -

"She's probably just in Senoia. She probably found Rick and them and they'll all be back in the morning," Carol continues.

Daryl scoffs. Yeah. Because Rick and Hershel and Glenn just decided they were having so much fun at whatever hick watering hole they got in Senoia they decided to pull an all-nighter -

Something is stirring in his head. Senoia. That's important, for some reason, that means something, but he can't remember -

"Ain't no invalid," Daryl says instead. "Can pull my weight."

"You've pulled more than your weight," Carol says, and she sounds almost fierce, almost like she's yelling at him. Or whatever the mousy mom version of yelling is. "You - you don't have to keep trying to prove to them that you're worth something."

Daryl stares at her. The fuck?

"That ain't - I ain't doing that," Daryl mumbles, but he feels suddenly exposed and small, which makes him feel angry, as it has since he was a kid. The fuck does she know? She thinks since he did her a solid the others are suddenly all happy to have some redneck fuck in their little group? Think they'll think he's worth a damn? Daryl's seen the way Rick and Shane look at him, how Andrea does, the hint of distaste around Dale's mouth when he hears Daryl speak. "Ain't my fault the rest of 'em can't do shit," Daryl says with more force. "They try'n find her it's just gonna be some other person off lost, needin' a rescue, and then -"

"Then we deal with that then," Carol says. And why the fuck is she saying 'we', like they're some kind of team? But suddenly Carol seems to realize what she's said too, or maybe just the way she's been saying it, because the almost-yelling stops and she's a quiet mouse again, looking at him with a mostly blank but nervous face.

"She'll probably be back by morning," Carol says instead, softly. "They all will be. Probably."

Yeah. Right. Probably.

They run into Otis' woman, Patricia or whatever, as they head back into the sickroom. She's helping Sophia onto her crutches, and she shoots a smile, forced, at Carol as they come in.

"There you are. Well, dinner was ready when we realized that - just, no point in wasting a meal." Her tone is more forced than her fake smile. Carol blinks.

"Oh. Are you sure? We don't - "

"It was all made already," Patricia says again. "Mr. Walsh -" Her mouth puckers at that and Daryl wonders if Patricia is suspicious of what happened to Otis too. If she'd known it was her husband's gun Shane brought back with him. "Mr. Walsh has gone to get Lori and I figured no point just letting it all go cold."

She makes it sound like Shane has just run to the north pasture to fetch Lori for dinner instead of him going off in the dark by himself to a town infested with walkers and who knows what else. Daryl can't tell if she's trying to make it sound that way for Sophia and Carl or for herself. Who it is she's trying not to worry.

"If you're feeling well enough -" Now she's looking at Daryl, and Daryl doesn't know if he's ever said two words to this lady before now. "If you'd like to join us in the dining room, or - " She looks suddenly uncertain. "Or I could just fix you up a plate. It's no bother, you should rest -"

"M'fine," Daryl says immediately. Because he is fine. And the dining room is probably the closest he can expect to getting outside. From there he could probably get back to his tent for the night if he timed it right. Get his bow, maybe snag a rifle from the gun bag in Dale's RV. Because Daryl is suddenly aware of how vulnerable they are, a house of women and children and invalids. T-Dog is the only man left in fighting shape, and Andrea's a good shot (good enough, the scar on his head complains) but suddenly Daryl is remembering that walkers aren't the only thing they have to worry about. He and Andrea and T-Dog and what, fucking Dale, with a house full of people to protect and who knows how many people out there like Max and Greg and Randall, and who knows how close they are.

But he doesn't say this in front of the others because it will do nothing but worry them, frighten them, and that won't make them any better prepared. Maybe he shouldn't judge Patrica so hard for her fake smile and her pretend cheer.

"I can go down to dinner," Daryl says when Patricia looks unsure. "Ain't - 'bout ready to be out of bed, anyway."

Patricia looks at Carol - which makes Daryl scowl because Carol isn't his nurse or his keeper or any of that shit. If he decides he's ready to go downstairs, then he's ready. No one to check with but him. But whatever Patricia sees in Carol's face, she just says "All right, then. Sophia, sweetheart, you want to lead the way?"

It's only after they're all seated at the fancy-ass table that Daryl realizes that maybe signing on for a whole dinner was a bad idea.

Everyone is tense and unhappy and just as clearly pretending that they aren't for Carl, who is sitting in the middle of the table next to an empty place, probably set for his mama. His hat is on his head but as she passes, Patricia taps the brim and says "No hats at the table!" and Carl takes it off without any fuss.

Somehow Daryl ends up between Dale and Andrea. Which he thinks is weird as shit, and then he wonders why he thinks that, why he assumed that he'd be sandwiched between Carol and Sophia. Dale takes his hat off too, winking at Carl as he does so, but Daryl doesn't get why everyone is faking normalcy when both that boy's parents and his weird uncle/the guy fucking his mom are out in the dark somewhere without him. The others start passing around food in some sort of system that probably makes sense to them but Daryl doesn't understand, a crisscrossing of plates and serving spoons and shit he's never seen before in his life, on old china with heavy silver cutlery.

Daryl spent most of his childhood eating off of paper plates and shitty dishes from the dollar store and as an adult he hadn't done much different. Sometimes him and Merle would go to a diner but the waitresses just brought him the whole plate already made up. Daryl's sure there are some rules or manners to this that he just doesn't get. He finds himself watching Sophia, seated across the table from him. He wonders if she can tell he doesn't know what the fuck is going on or if she's just always deliberate with her movements, but she moves slow enough that he could copy. Dishing out a spoonful of peas (Carol leaning over and spooning a little bit more onto her plate, Sophia shooting her mom a quick, guilty grin), picking up a chicken leg with fancy tongs, a scoop of something that could be mashed potatoes, a slice of bread with a tiny, perfect pat of butter.

Daryl mimics her to the extent that he can - he's too hungry not to take more of everything, and he picks up his chicken with his hands to eat it because isn't that what chicken bones are for? Something to hold onto? What's with all this messing around with forks and knives and shit? He tries to eat slow though - he knows his manners are shit and normally it doesn't matter but it feels different here, in this dining room with a table probably older than his dad's hunting cabin.

But it makes him nervous, all this shit, people trying to force chatter as they eat dainty spoonfuls, Carl pushing his food around his plate and looking at the window every two seconds, Glenn's horse girl stealing looks up the stairs where her sister is, Patricia trying to talk normally but her voice too high and shrill and sometimes breaking when Otis comes up, which he seems to do every two seconds. (Who cares if Otis loved mashed potatoes?) It's making Daryl feel antsy and on edge, makes him keep checking over his own shoulder like something's coming.

Finally, he can't take it anymore and he stands up. His chair legs screech and squeal as they push against the floor and all other noise stops, everyone looking at him in a way that makes his shoulders hunch up under his ears, makes him scowl. He hates it when people look at him like that. Fuck them.

"M'gonna - just need to get something," Daryl mumbles, and he slips away from the table as quick as he can without looking at any of them.

It's cool outside, a Georgia evening, the hum of cicadas. The stars are bright in the sky, probably would have been even without the rest of the world being dark. Daryl frowns a second, there on the porch, lit up in the night sky. Ain't smart. That light's gotta be a beacon to anybody who sees it, a big pointing arrow to anyone who's looking for a nice place to stay. Need blackout curtains or some shit, a light curfew. Daryl fishes around in his pocket, hoping to find a crushed-up cigarette or just something - his yearning for nicotine is fierce in that moment. He's about to hop off the porch and head for his tent - get his fucking bow at least, and maybe there's a pack of cigarettes squirreled away somewhere that he's forgot about. (Not very likely.) But behind him the screen door slams again, making him jump, and he's ready to bite Carol's head off when he sees it isn't Carol.

Instead, Andrea is standing there, his still full plate in her hands and an uncertain expression on her face.

"I - sorry. I just thought you might still be hungry." She proffers the plate. Daryl's not sure whether to be pissed that she followed him out here, that she thought he was rude enough or stupid enough not to eat everything given to him, or to just be glad that he can finish eating out here and not have to deal with the fucking noise and chatter of the others.

Daryl takes the plate from her with a grunt. He doesn't have to figure out how he feels about her doing it. He can just take advantage and fucking eat.

He's swiping his drumstick through a swirl of mashed potatoes when Andrea clears her throat. Daryl doesn't stop eating - not much can stop him from eating - but he scowls, feels his shoulders tense. She gonna give him shit for how he eats? He remembers one of the lunchroom monitors, when he was a kid, telling him he ate like an animal and making him sit in a corner till his manners improved. Bitch. Andrea tries that, he'll -

"I - I just wanted to - I'm so sorry. I feel like shit," Andrea says finally. Her voice is firm and frank and he finds himself respecting her a little more.

"You'n me both," Daryl grunts, and he picks up his chicken again and takes a huge bite.

"I - I don't expect you to forgive me -"

Daryl looks up at her. "Fucking right I won't."

Andrea's face sinks. She nods, once. But Daryl's not done.

"You fire near that girl again, I'll getcha through the eye before y'even have a chance to miss."

Andrea blinks. Looks like she's trying to do some math in her head. "I - I'm sorry, I don't - I don't expect you to forgive me for - for shooting you -"

Now Daryl's the one trying to make an equation make sense. "Why?" Daryl says, his brow furrowed. "You were tryin' to protect the group. We're good."

Andrea nods again, now looking completely lost. "Oh. So. If you're not upset about that, what -"

"You coulda killed Sophia," Daryl says, and Andrea's face does something strange. Daryl doesn't know how to interpret it and he doesn't even try. "Whatever, you got that gun, don't mean you can just fire without using your damn eyes. What if she'd been in front? Or what if she'd made it back without me and you tried to clip her instead?"

"I wouldn't," Andrea says. "Or I mean, I won't. You're right. I should - I'll be more careful." It sounds like it costs Andrea something to say this, but when Daryl looks at her she looks nothing but sincere. "You did good, Daryl. And I really am sorry."

Daryl scoffs - he didn't do it for her, and he doesn't know what else he's meant to do with these words from everyone. Andrea nods again, then hovers awkwardly. "All right. If there's anything I can do -"

"Got a cigarette?" Daryl asks, and Andrea shakes her head regretfully.

"No. I could ask around -"

"Whatever," Daryl says. He gets up, stretches a little - he's gonna try and dart out to his tent real quick, get his bow, grab Merle's gun from the bike saddlebag. Just in case. Worth having. But as he's about to hop off the porch something happens that makes him pick up speed, makes it less of an amble and more of a sprint, his side protesting.

"Daryl?" he hears Andrea saying, but she stops talking to him when she sees what he sees. The screen door slams again so he's guessing that she's inside telling the others.

Leaving Daryl to keep his eye on the two little pinpricks of headlights, bumping their way down the unpaved driveway.

Chapter 12: Morning Noon and Night

Chapter Text

Well. That didn't go like how he thought.

Daryl's lucky the headlights are just Shane and Lori because if they'd belonged to someone hostile he wouldn't have been out in nearly enough time to get everyone safe. And like fucking idiots the others all come running when Andrea tells them there's a car coming - even Carl and Sophia, Sophia hanging on the porch with her crutch, Carl in his stupid hat, the two of them lit from behind with the light from the house.

Daryl finds his bow neatly laid across his pillow like Glenn was some demented Santa or something and Merle's gun is in the saddlebags where he left it. But even with shit left out for him to find, Daryl's too slow to get back there before the car doors are slamming and Lori Grimes is on the case.

"Where's Rick?" Daryl hears as he trudges back up, his side twinging with each step, especially with the weight of the bow pulling across his back. Shane, his shaved head glinting in the low light, is walking away from Lori, his shoulders braced. Daryl can see the moment Lori figures it out. "They're not back? Where are they?"

"Look," Shane says, in the voice that is clearly his 'trying to keep everybody calm' voice but he's shit at it compared to Rick, because the second he starts talking everyone tenses up, Dale and Andrea looking at Shane, Carol looking over Lori, the blood trickling down Lori's forehead. "I had to get you back here."

"You asshole." Lori is beating against Shane's chest, and Daryl can see Sophia on the porch, shrinking back. It makes him pick up his pace some - sure he's pretty useless all beat up like this, but he thinks he can separate Lori Grimes and Shane Fucking Walsh.

"I gotta look after you, I gotta make sure the baby is all right, okay?"

It'd almost be funny, how the tensed-up shoulders of everybody go even tighter, the way that everyone is staring at Lori or Shane or both of them. T-Dog is back and forth between them like a cartoon character stuck in an endless double take.

Daryl's not sure if it's more or less funny when Carl Grimes, his brow furrowed under his dumbass hat, goes "You're having a baby? Why didn't you tell me?"

That's the cue Daryl takes to get the hell out of dodge.

He contemplates turning right back around and going right back to his tent, but his body is throbbing with just his little sprint down there and the idea of sleeping on the ground just makes it kick up more. Plus, he tells himself, Carol and them would probably hunt him down out there, give him hell for not staying put, chase him around with pills and such. He doesn't want to deal with any more of that shit than he has to. Might as well just stay put.

And if he falls back on the bed in his sickroom with a little extra relief, well. No one's there to see it.

Sophia creeps in a little while after him - Daryl feels a twinge of guilt as she hobbles in. He hadn't even waited to see if she'd need a hand. Did she have to make her own way up those stairs?

"Shouldn't push your ankle," Daryl mumbles as she limps in, drops on the rocker with almost as much weight as he'd fallen to the bed. "Where's your ma?"

"She's - helping Lori." One of Sophia's hands ghosts over her face - the lip Lori busted, the shadow of a bruise that had been blooming around her forehead.

Yeah. With Hershel gone, guess Carol's the closest they got to a medic. Well, better her than him.

Daryl grunts as he pulls his bow off his back. It's still spattered with mud and grime from their trek through the woods, and Glenn left the thing cocked. Daryl uncocks it, runs his fingers over it. He's been taking care of bows since he was a little kid, even before Uncle Jess bought him his first one. He'd looked after his dad's before that and so the act of maintenance is something easy, something he falls into as easy as breathing. It's a different kind of centering to put his hands on the bow, to clear around the cams, the stock, check the trigger box for dirt and debris. He dips the end of one of the pillowcases into the pitcher of water next to his bed and starts to wipe the whole thing down, clear it off. He's wondering if he should take the time now to run wax over everything and oil it up - he's got a thing of string wax and a half-used bottle of flight and rail lube, which Merle could never look at without sniggering - when he realizes that Sophia is watching him with as much care as he watched her at dinner. Like she's taking notes in her head, trying to figure out how it all works.

"Here," Daryl grunts, before he can think better of it. He shoves the bow out towards her - carefully, even though it's not strung or cocked and the bolts are halfway across the room. Doesn't hurt to show her how to treat something like a threat. "Hold that."

Sophia takes it hesitantly, but not as hesitantly as she was out in the woods. Daryl looks around in the saddlebag he grabbed from his tent for the string wax. First, he's double-checking there ain't nothing in there that shouldn't be - Merle normally kept his stash in with his stuff, but it's not like Merle was the height of tidiness, and Daryl's not gonna pull out a thing of meth in front of the kid. All he sees is his own shit though, extra string and cables for the bow, the rail lube, the little toolset, some shit for camping. Finally, the wax comes up. He'll be out of it soon - he wonders idly if there's a hunting store somewhere in town, get him some gear. Some more bolts. He looks at Sophia, at the enormous bow in her twiglike arms. She'd do better with a compound bow, maybe something like fifteen or twenty pounds draw weight. He squints a little, tries to picture it.

"Here," Daryl says, and he hands her the pillowcase, still damp. "Make sure there ain't nothin' dirty left on it. Then we'll oil it up so it don't snag."

Sophia starts obediently. Daryl watches for a second, then starts to wax the string. It means they're sitting practically side by side on the bed, but it doesn't feel weird. Just feels like company. Daryl's not sure he's ever had company like that - Merle was company, sure, but loud as hell. He'd never just sit quiet with Daryl, each to their own thoughts. Merle didn't work that way.

Still, it's a little pang of something in his chest when he thinks of Merle next to him, a beer in his hand, rambling on about Mexicans or Democrats or the Illuminati or whatever he was het up about that week.

"You're good at that," Sophia says softly after a while, and Daryl scoffs before he can stop himself.

"Ain't much to be good at.Been doin' it since I was smaller'n you, that's all."

"I don't know how to do anything like that."

Daryl snorts. Holds out the tube of wax. "Here."

Sophia looks at him nervously, like he's trying to trick her, and she takes the tube. Holds it awkwardly between her fingers. Daryl waits her out. She was watching him do it - she knows what to do. After a long moment, she starts to slide the wax over the string.

"Not on the servings - there," Daryl says, pointing to the center serving. Sophia starts a little but she doesn't stop or anything, just skirts around the servings. "Not in the middle. You do that, wax gets in the trigger box, could jam." She's a little wobbly, but it's wax - ain't gonna hurt anything.

"I - how'd you learn about all this stuff?" Sophia asks. She sounds shy. Daryl feels his shoulders tense a little, but he just shrugs them, starts hunting around in his stuff for the rail oil. He can talk about learning on the bow, that's fine. That's easy. But from Daryl's experience, questions never stop at one and he's not sure where the kid is trying to go with this.

"Used to hunt. My brother'n me, when we were kids. Our old man taught us." About the only useful thing the old man had ever done. Merle'd given it up after he came back from the army - once he knew he'd have three squares a day and get to shoot with live ammo, bagging a squirrel must have seemed like nothing. Maybe he just didn't want to remember anything he'd gotten from their pop. He'd go out to the woods with Daryl every so often and stomp around, but Merle'd forgotten almost everything useful. It's Daryl who remembered.

Sophia inhales for another question and Daryl gives the bowstring and the cables one last once over. "Good," Daryl says. "Lay off that now." Daryl finds the bottle and puts two drips of the oil onto the sides of the rail. "Then we just spread this around." Daryl demonstrates, then watches as Sophia copies. "Yeah, good." Daryl leaves her to that, then starts to grease some of the weirder places - behind the safety knobs on the trigger box, the cams, the axles. He wants this thing running like brand new if he has to go look for Rick and them tomorrow.

"Did - " Sophia starts asking, her eyes fixed on the bow, but whatever she's going to ask never makes it out of her mouth. She slams her mouth shut instead. Daryl's a little surprised he doesn't hear her teeth click. He waits her out again, though. Maybe that's the secret to Sophia - just got to wait her out.

"Would - would you - teach me? How to -" Sophia shuts up again, her shoulders automatically curling in. "Or - I mean, never mind."

"Teaching you now, ain't I?" Daryl says. He takes the bow from her, gently. Hefts it around. "Good."

Sophia nods. Looks a little deflated. Why? What'd he - oh.

"Maybe, uh - maybe we could go out back, do some target shooting sometime. If you were interested." Sophia perks right up and Daryl feels something almost like pride lick through him - he hadn't thought he'd guess right.

"I - really? You'd show me?"

"Guess I'd better," Daryl says as he finds a spot to put the bow for the night. "If we get stuck out there again, better if y'know how to take care of yourself." For a second Daryl wonders if that's the wrong thing to say - it's certainly not all the way right. Sophia's taken care of herself for twelve years already, through plenty of shit. But Daryl's never been good with words so he leaves it be.

And Sophia doesn't seem to mind. She's smiling shyly at him, looking at the bow leaning against the side of the bed. "Y'can be like - uh - your book girl," Daryl says, and the little smile around her lips splits into an honest to god grin.

"Katniss," Sophia says. "Yeah. Maybe."

There's a knock on the doorway and Carol is there, leaning in the open doorjamb. She's smiling too and Daryl wonders how much she heard.

"Hey kiddo," Carol says. "Time to get ready for bed."

Sophia looks a little indignant. "It's not that late."

"Late enough. You can read a little longer once you're all ready. Come on."

Sophia heaves a sigh and reaches for her crutches. Carol's there, moving the crutches closer to her, helping her up.

"Night, Daryl," Sophia says as she balances herself on her feet. Daryl just nods, then realizes maybe that's rude or whatever.

"Uh. Yeah, night."

Carol smiles at him over Sophia's head and follows her daughter out to the hallway.

"Daryl was showing me how to take care of his crossbow," he hears Sophia say as they make their way down the hall. "He said he'd teach me how to shoot it too."

Shit. Maybe he should've asked Carol first if that was okay.

"Really? Wow," Carol says. A door opens, shuts. Then they're gone.

Even though it feels like all Daryl's wanted for days is to be left alone, now that he's got it the room feels weirdly quiet. He makes his way over to the window seat, plonks himself down in it, bow by his side. He can't see for shit - the room behind him is all lit up so the outside reveals nothing but darkness. If he cups his hands around the window he can see someone - T-Dog, he thinks - sitting on top of the RV, a shotgun perched over his knees. Keeping watch. Well, it's something at least. Daryl toys for a minute with going back out there and joining whoever the hell it is, but he reluctantly lets the idea go. He feels shaky just from the trek to and from his tent, from hauling up and down the stairs. Part of himself just wants to push through it all, bend his body to his will, but he knows from experience if he does that, it'll be worse in the long run. And the last thing he needs now is to collapse sometime when they really need him because he never took the time to heal up right.

But fuck. He wants to be out there. He wants to be anywhere but here, doing anything but sitting and waiting. He likes the quiet but he doesn't like this, the feeling that makes his back itch, the feeling of waiting for something to go wrong. Waiting for some storm to hit.

He's more than half-asleep when Carol knocks on his door again. He jumps more than he should - it's that feeling, of knowing that something is coming. But if something bad had happened nobody'd waste time knocking. When he turns around, Carol is still hovering in the doorway.

"Hi. I just - wanted to see if you needed anything before we - settled in for the night."

"Don't need nothin'," Daryl mutters, standing up from the window. "If I did, could get it myself."

There's a quirk to the side of Carol's mouth. If she were different, Daryl feels like she'd almost be rolling her eyes at him. "Of course you could," Carol says. "I just thought I'd check."

Daryl grunts. "How's Lori?"

Carol's smile goes a little fixed. "Oh, fine," she says. "Her and Shane are just - having a talk."

Yeah. A talk.

"I'll - go out tomorrow. Get Rick an' them back." Daryl wonders as he says it if Rick'll be enough to pull Shane in. Daryl had never liked Shane - stupid pig rattling on about something or another, and he hasn't forgotten what Shane had said about Merle. But at the beginning, Daryl'd thought that's just how Shane was with Dixon's, or people like them - with people he saw as dirty rednecks, drug addicts, criminals. But now Shane's acting that way more and more in little moments towards other people, normal people. Towards Rick. And Daryl's not sure what that means for everybody.

Carol must be able to sense this shit too because she doesn't argue with him just then. Just bites her lips and nods. "We - we'll see in the morning. If they're not back yet.:

Well. Shit. That's different than earlier. Daryl grunts again.

"Well, if you're - sure you don't need anything," Carol says.


"All right, then. Good night."

"Uh - yeah. Night." What is it with everyone here wishing everyone a good night? Daryl doesn't know if anyone's ever said that to him in his life. Maybe his ma, before she died. When he was a little kid, or whatever, but why are grown-ass adults saying good night to each other? It's another thing about being with these people that doesn't make sense. Just a way of being that is completely alien to him.

People. Weird as shit.

That's the last thing Daryl thinks before he settles into the bed and falls asleep. If he's going after Rick and them in the morning, he better be rested.

Daryl doesn't have to go looking for Rick and Glenn and Hershel, because they're back the next morning.

And they brought the storm with them.

"You gotta get rid of 'im," Daryl says for what feels like the hundredth time. Rick is rubbing at his forehead, a look of pain on his face, like he's tired of having this conversation. But Daryl's not tired of it, Daryl's just getting started.

"We couldn't just leave him behind," Rick says again. "He would have bled out, if he lived that long -"

Good, Daryl wants to say, good, he should but that's not the way these people work. That's something Rick won't hear, so he has to try another way, but words have never been his friends and he feels his own head start to hurt as he tries to figure out what to say that Rick will understand.

"He doesn't know where we are," Rick continues. "He's been out cold, blindfolded. Once he's better, we give him a canteen, send him on his way."

It's the decent thing. The honorable thing. Daryl isn't decent or honorable. What he is is alive, and he plans on staying that way, on keeping Sophia and them that way, and Rick doesn't understand -

"He's one of them," Daryl hisses instead. It's a fucking full war meeting, with Carl and Sophia up in Beth's room with Jimmy, and Daryl's skin crawls with all the eyes on him, but he pushes on. It's what he has to do. "He was the one keepin' watch, that got away. His people, they're -"

"We know," Rick says, almost gently. "I know, Daryl. We ran into more of them in town. But he's - he's just a kid. Wounded. He's not a threat."

"Not a threat?" Shane breaks in. "How many of them were there? You killed three of their men, you took one of them hostage, but they ain't gonna just come lookin' for him?"

Daryl agrees with Shane which makes him uncomfortable for a whole different reason. But sure, maybe Shane's not a good guy, maybe he's out of control. But it doesn't mean he's not right about this.

Or maybe Daryl's just not a good guy either. Well, fine. That's fine. He doesn't need to be good. Never has been before. Doesn't need it now.

"They left him for dead. No one is looking -"

And then it stops being about Randall, it stops being about safety. It's about Rick and Shane, about Hershel's barn, about where they all stand. And then the meeting is over and Daryl hasn't made them understand, hasn't done what he needed to, hasn't been able to speak right.

Damn it.

Daryl storms off once the meeting breaks up. His side gives a slight protest but Daryl ignores it. It doesn't matter. Fuck his side. Fuck these people. Fuck them. Daryl doesn't know why he's surprised, why he's so angry. No one's ever listened to him. Not Merle, not his daddy. Not teachers at school or Merle's friends, not anybody. Nobody thinks he's got something worth saying and that's fine, whatever. He can take care of himself. Hell, he hasn't tried to get anybody to listen to him for years. But what about Carol and Sophia? What about Carl Grimes and his stupid hat? There are people here who need protecting and Rick's trying to protect fucking Randall like he's -

"Hey," someone calls after him, and Daryl just keeps his head down and keeps moving. "Daryl, wait."

It's Carol. Of course it is. Bitch won't leave him alone, hanging off him all the time, trying to mother him or some shit. He doesn't need a mother. He doesn't need her or Sophia looking at him like some kind of puppy or any of them. He does better on his own, or with Merle. Hell, why is he even still here? He should be back in Atlanta, combing the streets for Merle, he should be -

"Daryl, please."

"What?" It flies out of his mouth, furious, and Daryl doesn't have to turn around to see Carol flinch, which makes him angrier. He didn't ask her to follow him. He doesn't ask for nothing, normally. He doesn't ask for shit he can't get. He -

"It's - I know. It's okay."

"Y'don't know shit," Daryl spits. He's facing her now and he can't tell if she's relieved he's looking at her or if it just makes her more nervous. "Y'know who that guy is? Y'know what his people done? Hell, two of them were tryin' to snatch up your own daughter and you're just going to let him -"

"I don't want him here either," Carol bursts in, and now she seems angry too. "You think I want him anywhere near Sophia? You think I want his people coming here, looking for -" She swallows suddenly and something twists in Daryl's gut, and some of the anger leaks away from him. Shit. What a fucking situation.

"If you - what do you think they should do?" Carol asks, and Daryl's gut twists again, unpleasantly. Because he knows what they should do. They should cut him loose right now. Not waste medical supplies on him, not try and fix him up. Just let him slip away before he knows what's happened. It's kinder than what Daryl did to his friends out in the woods. It's kinder than what Randall's people would do to them.

But it's not kind by any stretch. It's a cold hard thing, a monstrous thing, that's what Rick will think. And Daryl'll say it now and Carol will think he's the monster.

Well. Whatever. Let her think that, if they're all alive and untouched to think it, what does it matter?

But he doesn't need to say anything. Carol can see it in him, maybe, can read it on his face. But her face doesn't change. She just says, softly, "Talk to Rick. Explain to him -"

"He ain't gonna listen to me," Daryl mumbles. Because in what world is a cop going to take advice from a Dixon?

"He will," Carol says. "He - he trusts you. He knows you're -"

"What?" Daryl asks. It comes out rough and harsh and he sees Carol's body tense at the tone which makes him madder at himself. But he also wants to know. What do Carol and Rick and them think he is?

But Carol doesn't say. She just says, softly, "He'll listen to you. If you explain it right, he'll - "

Yeah. Because Daryl's so fucking good at explaining things.


It's Sophia - hobbling across the yard on those crutches. Carol's going over towards her immediately.

"What are you doing out here? You have to be careful, Hershel said your ankle -"

"Hershel came to see Beth and when I came downstairs you were gone." Sophia leans against the crutches. "And I'm - I'm feeling better. My ankle, I mean. Soon I won't -"

"That'll be up to Hershel," Carol says. Her eyes are darting around like she thinks Randall is gonna pop out of a bush somewhere, like he's blowing some high-pitched whistle to bring his group after him. "Come on, let's go in. You need at least another day off your feet."

Carol starts to walk Sophia back, but Sophia drags a little bit. "Is Daryl coming?" he hears her ask.

"Not right now," Carol says. "Maybe later."

Yeah. Not now.

Apparently now, he's got some work to do.

If only he had the slightest idea of how to do it.

Chapter 13: What Needs to Be Done

Chapter Text

If he thought Rick would have listened, Daryl'd have done things differently.

He doesn't know why Carol - Carol, who should know better than any of the rest of them what it's like not to be listened to - thinks he's got some kind of power to make Rick pay attention to what he says. He knows he doesn't. No one has ever listened to Daryl - not even Merle, who had, in his own way, been better to Daryl than anyone else in the world. No way Rick, Officer Friendly, Dudley Do-Right, is going to take Daryl seriously. Maybe because for all he's probably seen of people working as a cop, he doesn't understand people like Daryl. He doesn't understand what they can do, even ones who look like kids, ones who are scared and dumb and just following other people.

Daryl's done enough shit following Merle to know that followers aren't any better than leaders if they just keep following.

So he doesn't go find Rick. There's no point to it. No point wasting time trying to convince Rick of something based on Daryl's gut. Rick's got his own gut he trusts. If Daryl's gonna get anywhere, he's gotta get proof. Something. Information. Something that will make Rick understand what Daryl already knows - that the kid is dangerous. That there's people here that need protecting. That there's things that need to be done.

Daryl does things the only way he knows how to do them.

It's the only thing that can be done.

Daryl can't talk good, can't be persuasive or shit, can't wheedle information out of people or interrogate them. It's not what he knows, not something he's ever been good at.

He's fluent in violence, though. That's a language he's known his whole life. Hell, he'd probably learned it before he learned to talk - his pops weren't one that would have enjoyed a fussy baby. Merle's a goddamn wordsmith with violence, mostly aimed away from Daryl, unless he's high enough not to care. Daryl's never been as good as Merle at talking or hitting, but he knows enough to get the job done.

It's nothing that he hasn't had done to himself, after all.

They don't think to guard the kid, which makes Daryl bristle with even more anger. What, they think the kid can't do any harm, all banged up like that? These people are so stupid. They're stupid and naive and it's gonna get someone killed. Maybe Carl Grimes with his stupid hat, or one of Hershel's girls. Or Sophia, limping around outside on them crutches, easy pickings even for a guy with one gimp leg.

They put him in the slaughter shed. Which maybe is a sign or something. Daryl tries to take it as one, as an okay to just get rid of this guy. He remembers the feeling in the little house in the woods, Max gurgling as he went down, arrow in his throat, the way Greg's head practically exploded when the bullet hit him. He's killed people now. Two people, what's the difference if it's three? Is the situation so much different here? Randall's dangerous. He could get them all killed. Daryl should just kill him.

Maybe he's getting weak himself. Too much time around all them, around Rick and his fucking golden attitude, Hershel's do unto others bible bullshit, Carol's trusting gaze. He knows he should just go in and kill him, just make it easy.

But he's weak. He's not Merle. And if he murdered some guy, the others would make him leave. He knows they would, tries to tell himself it'd be worth it, to keep Sophia and Carol and even annoying as shit Carl safe.

But the idea of leaving, of being alone, makes his chest feel tight and his fists clench. He's not leaving. He won't.

It'll have to be Rick's decision. That's all.

And Daryl's the only one who can get him the information to decide.

Randall is awake in the slaughter shed when Daryl goes in. His hands are tied together at the front and he's trying to pick the knots apart with his teeth. He stops the second he sees Daryl, and the determination on his face melts into something more pitiful, more pathetic.

"Hey man - hey, thank you, for - y'all saved me, I'm real grateful - but I gotta take a leak, you think you could -"

Daryl doesn't say anything. Just watches. The leg is bandaged up, white, and clean from the knee down. What a waste of supplies.

"Or I could - I could wait, I guess." Randall lets out a sigh. "I - I mean it, man, thank you. I - those guys I was with, they just left me, man." Daryl can hear real hurt in the kid's voice. Dumb kid. "It'll be nice to be with people that - "

"Who says you're gonna be with people?"

The boy stares at him. "You gotta be with people now. S'the only way to stay alive."

Yeah. Kid isn't wrong. That's why Daryl's doing this instead of just smothering the kid with a pillow and taking his chances with Rick's justice.

"I - I mean, I can't go back with the others," Randall continues, his tone going almost whiny. "I mean - they left me, man. They -"

"Bet some people wish they'd been left alone by them guys." Daryl thinks of Greg's wheedling tone, his hand clutching Sophia's doll.How's that sound? You want me to be your new daddy?

Randall looks wary all of a sudden. "What?"

"How many were there, the people you were with?"

Randall's dumb but he ain't stupid. He can sense a trap somewhere, can tell he's heading onto shaky ground, but he can't figure out where it is. "I - "

"How many in your group?"

"I - they ain't my group, really, I just - I met 'em on the road, they took me in, they -"

"How many?"

"I don't know - uh, ten, maybe?"

"Y'can't count to ten?" Daryl starts unwrapping the bandage from the kid's leg. Looks at the stitches Hershel's done, neat and even.

"Or - I don't know, we've lost people, people - they weren't bad guys, really, there's real bad guys around, out in the woods, killed two of my friends without even -"

Daryl pulls out his knife and the kid's eyes go wide, frightened. Something twists in his gut. He can practically hear Merle behind him, hear his dad. Fucking pussy. He tightens his grip on the knife. The kid whimpers. "No -"

"How many people?"

"You're crazy, man, I ain't - I ain't done anything, I swear, I just - they weren't bad guys, they had a camp just like this one, women, and children like you got here -"

Daryl's got his knife up at Randall's neck before he can finish. "How'd you know we got women here?" He doesn't mention the kids. Doesn't want to give Randall that much information.

"I - I could hear them when they drove me in. I - I wasn't -"

"What else you hear?" Daryl shifts the knife down some. Starts bringing it closer to his leg. "You know where we're at?"

"How - how could I know that, I was blindfolded -"

"You know where your people are at?"

"I - we was never anyplace more than a night. And they - I mean we were confused in town, we thought - they thought y'all were those guys killed our friends in the woods, they thought -"

"How'd you know we ain't?"

Randall seems to look closer at Daryl and all the color drains from his face. "You - you were - I wasn't -"

"What, they wasn't your friends? Just said they were. You weren't lookin' for those women with them? Bring 'em back?"

Randall swallows. "I - "

"The women and children at your camp, they want to be there? Or they trying to run like them girls you were lookin' for?"

Randall looks like a trapped animal. "I - I'm trying to cooperate, man, I said, I'm not like those guys, I just - I just stand lookout, man, I was alone - we - the women at camp, they aren't - " He looks around wildly. "They're - they want to be there, they - they were alone too, they knew - we've all got to do our part, that's all, that's what -"

Yeah. Daryl knows about doing his part.

Randall seems to be able to tell that Daryl's not believing blanket denial, so he changes tactics. "But - but we go out sometimes, scavenge. Just the men. Sometimes we -" Randall swallows. Daryl can't tell if he's faking or not. "One night we - we found this little campsite -"

After that, it doesn't matter if Randall's faking or not. Daryl has what he needs.

But he doesn't leave right away.

When he leaves the shed his hands are tacky with blood and Daryl's not sure he remembers a hundred percent how it got there.

The kid is alive, Daryl knows that. He can hear him still, whimpering in the now too silent stillness of the slaughter shed. The sound drills into Daryl's head, along with other things he wishes he could unhear.

A man and his two daughters -

Real young. Real cute -

The daddy had to watch while these guys -

I didn't touch those girls, no, I swear, I didn't -

Daryl thumps his head against the wall of the shed. He wants to rub at his eyes, suddenly exhausted, but his hands are covered in blood and he doesn't have time for that anyway. He's got work to do. He's got to find Rick and tell him, he's got to explain why Randall can't stay, give him the evidence. He's got to -


For a moment Daryl thinks, wildly, that it's coming from the shed.

But instead, he opens his eyes and Sophia Peletier is standing in front of him, crutches under her armpits, Daryl's bow slung across her back.

"I - I was - I saw you heading out here and I thought maybe you'd - you said maybe we could - shoot targets behind the shed if - but - " Sophia's staring at his hands, her breathing getting quicker, her voice higher pitched and scattered. "I - your hands, you're - you're bleeding - "

Randall gives a sort of yelling sob from the slaughter shed then, and Sophia flinches back when she hears it. She's not stupid. She knows what pain sounds like.

And she knows what monsters look like.

Daryl doesn't say anything. There's nothing to say, not really. He had to do it. For her and Carol and Carl and even nosy ass Andrea and old fuck Dale, for Hershel and his girls and Patricia who doesn't let people wear hats at the table, for Lori Grimes and Rick and T-Dog, hell, even Shane. For Daryl himself. He had to do it.

But she's scared enough without him talking. So he doesn't say anything. Just stays there, against the shed wall.

Sophia's limping away almost faster than he can blink.

He waits until she disappears from view, up onto the porch of the house, balancing awkwardly. She almost falls once and Daryl resists the urge to run over and catch her. He'd probably scare her shitless. Dumb kid.

Once she's gone, he goes off to find Rick. To explain to him. To make him listen.

If he knew how Daryl'd have done it another way. But he doesn't. He doesn't know anything other than this.

He knows pain and he knows how to do what needs to be done.

That's all that matters, in the end.

Chapter 14: Smoke


TW for self-harm. Some sections of dialogue taken from the season two episode "Triggerfinger."

Chapter Text

All Daryl can think, over and over on fucking repeat, is how much he needs a cigarette.

He thinks it when he tells Rick and Shane what he's done - Rick's eyes fixed on Daryl's scraped up knuckles with something like horror until he hears what Daryl's saying and his face goes somehow darker, more horrified. The almost approving look from Walsh, which makes Daryl's hands itch in a way that has nothing to do with the flaky blood drying over them. He tells them over and over what he learned - thirty men. Heavy artillery. Not friendly. Local. ("Stop," the kid had blubbered, "Stop, stop - I'm not like them, I'm not, ask Maggie, ask -")

"They roll through here, our boys are dead," Daryl says for what feels like the hundredth time, Rick's face starting to set in something other than horror, more like disgust - at Randall, sure, but Daryl feels certain that the disgust is also for him. For people like him and Randall, animals. Daryl scrubs at his hands. "And our women - they're gonna wish they were."

He says women but all he can see is Sophia on those fucking crutches - wouldn't even be able to run for it, wouldn't get anywhere, clutching that stupid doll - Carol, her arms all bruised up again like when Ed was around, her face - Glenn's horse girl and the little blonde sister, Andrea not fast enough with her gun - them knocking the stupid hat off the head of Carl Grimes, cornering him and then -

By that point the conversation has gone over to the main group again - Hershel's come in, his face going practically curdled when he hears about Maggie and the kid going to school together. Dale, suddenly fighting with everyone about the value of human life - yeah, whatever, Daryl thinks, his fingers practically twitching for a cigarette, human life, sure, but what's human isn't so clear anymore. Walkers ain't human. Are people like Randall? Like Merle, like Daryl? Where's the line there? Andrea gripping her dumb ass gun tighter and tighter, Glenn looking exhausted.

Carol ain't there. Probably off with Sophia. Well, good. He doesn't need to see her looking at him like the others all are. Even though she's the one told him to do it.

Daryl pushes off after that - can't listen anymore to the chatter, the endless back and forth. Doesn't have shit to do with him, anyway. He got them the information they needed. Let them do some of the hard work for once.

He goes to his tent - Merle's tent, which still smells faintly of sweat and cigarettes, almost taunting him as he turns the thing upside down. Runs through all his shit - some of his shit is still inside, his bag, his bow off god knows where, strapped to that kid's fucking back, but he'd checked all that last night and hadn't seen a single useful thing. His hand is throbbing from where he split his knuckles on the kid's teeth. But he keeps looking, the itch crawling around his brain like something living, until he's out at Merle's bike, practically dumping out saddlebags just to find one slightly bent cigarette at the bottom.

That's all he needs. He's gone.

He goes up to one of the fields he and Sophia stumbled through on their way back. He doesn't want to see anyone. There are the remains of a chimney out there and Daryl ducks in there. Out of sight. It reminds him of when he was a kid, taking off through the woods to find the places that didn't belong to anybody, the places that could be his for a little while.

His hands are shaking when he lights the cigarette but his mind is starting to slow down some, that frantic itch about to be scratched. He needs this. He needs it.

That's the last thing he thinks as he takes a drag and presses the lit end into the blood-smeared skin of the back of his hand.

Daryl knows he's fucked up. He's known it a long time.

Sometimes he thinks it's because of his old man. Because of how he was raised. Sometimes he just needs something - just needs something to hurt, that feeling when you can't feel anything anymore except the physical sensation of pain - the pinch of fingers digging into skin, bruising him up, the relief when he picks his cuticles until he bleeds, the ache and burn of blisters coming up on his skin. Sometimes Daryl just needs something.

(He knows the real word for it - when you do wrong, you get punished,his dad's voice in his head with the phantom crack of a belt - but those sounds twist in his gut and his mouth and his head and thinking them makes things feel a million times worse, so he uses other words for what he needs and pretends it's not because of how screwed up he is, how messed up his childhood was, that even after all this time he's still that stupid fuck up kid who needs punishment.)

Sometimes, in really dark moments when even drawing blood or burning isn't enough, Daryl wonders if he's like this because of what his dad did, or if what his dad did was because he was like this. Maybe even as a kid he'd needed this, needed pain to help wipe other things away, maybe his dad had known that and maybe everything his dad had done, whupping him with a belt till he bled and putting out lit cigarettes on his skin, that time he'd cracked him over the head with a bottle and Daryl'd gotten a head full of broken glass, broken ribs and loose teeth and dislocated fingers, maybe all of that had just been his pa doing his best with a kid that was so obviously fucked up.

There are a few scars - not a lot, just a couple, circular burns that dot his upper arms, a long mark on his stomach, one on the inside of his knee - a few scars that Daryl's not sure anymore where he got them. From his dad or himself.

Daryl can't let himself think about that shit now, though, or the whole moment is going to spin into something he won't be able to stop. And there's no fucking privacy here, no closed doors, nowhere someone isn't going to come upon him and try and talk to him. He doesn't have time to lose control. He's not trying to lose control, anyway, he's trying to wrestle it back, whatever way he can. He can't think about his dad (when you do wrong -) or Merle (what Merle would say if he saw, the fuck's wrong with you, the fuck) or his ma (did she feel like this, was this why she'd never left his daddy, why he'd come home one day to a burned-out shell that was meant to be home) or Uncle Jess (I ain't gonna hurt you, kiddo, c'mere, I don't bite) or Sophia's wordless look, her face as she limped away, the fear - So he pushes all those thoughts away, blocks their voices out, and instead tries to focus on the feeling, the sharp ache in his hands, the skin that's already feeling rough and tender. He latches on to the hurt and tries not to think anymore.

He's not as successful as he'd like.

Daryl's not sure how long he's out there. After a while time gets hazy, measured in the sluggish throbbing of his hands, the cooling of the stones against his back as the sun goes down. The sky is painted red and pink like something from a picture but all Daryl can do is blink at it and think, oh. Getting dark soon.

He knows he should go back but he's not sure what there is to go back to - to people looking at him like he's trash, an animal, to everyone arguing over what needs to be done. He could move his tent up here, maybe. Get out of everybody's way. Stop living in that fancy fucking house playing pretend. His side still hurts some, but he's had worse. Nothing a couple days won't fix. He'd trade that soft bed in Hershel's house for privacy in a minute.

Of course, it's when Daryl's thinking about privacy, about being alone, that Carol comes upon him.

He'd say she snuck up on him except even here, now, out of his head, he's still got half an ear listening. He hears her coming, the scuff of her shoes through the grass, the intake of breath as she climbs the hill. But Daryl doesn't move, doesn't stand up. Doesn't do anything except wait for her. Maybe because there's no outrunning the inevitable - he'd learned that good enough, as a kid. And maybe because a part of him still doesn't feel better. A part of him still swirls with too much thinking and if he can't make himself hurt bad enough to forget it, maybe Carol can. Maybe that's what she's come for. So he doesn't move. He waits, head leaned against the rock, eyes focused on the ragged hem of his beat-up jeans, hands on his knees. He waits for what's coming.

"What?" he barks out as Carol rounds the corner. He's not looking at her, still looking towards the ground, but he doesn't miss her flinch, her inhalation of breath. He scared her.

Even after everything, Daryl thinks, his thumb digging into one of the new blisters on the back of his hand, he can't stop fucking up.

"I've been looking all over for you."

Daryl doesn't respond to that. So? She'd found him. Whatever.

"Finally Carl said he'd seen you heading this way." Of course. Fucking Carl. "It's getting late." Daryl almost scoffs, looks at the sky. The way the light is shifting. The red.

"Ain't even dark," Daryl mumbles. Carol takes a step forward, and this time Daryl's holding back a flinch. He steadies himself. She ain't gonna hit him. (Probably.) Let her do what she's gotta. He can take it.

"It's almost time for supper."

This time Daryl can't hold back a scoff. "Ain't hungry." Like the last dinner had gone so fucking well.

"You haven't eaten all day."

Suddenly rage cuts through Daryl, hot and sharp and not like pain but close enough because it fogs out the thinking and the feeling shit, so it's almost as good. What's it to her, if he eats or doesn't? He's gone a hell of a lot longer than this without food. He's not weak, he's not some lost kid, doesn't need someone trying to fucking mommy him -

"Said I ain't hungry," he spits out, and he looks at her then. It's easier angry. "A'right? Y'done your bit."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Carol says it like she honestly doesn't know and that fuels something in him even hotter.

"Means y'can tell all them -" He's up on his feet and he doesn't remember getting there. Just sees himself throwing his hand out, to point down the hill towards the farmhouse, lit up against the coming dark, and sees how the movement makes Carol stiffen and still. Well, fine. Let her see him, then. He doesn't know what these people want from him. He's not like them - never sat down at a table and passed plates along like someone civilized, never turned away from getting his hands dirty. Never thought twice about hurting people who deserved it, and probably some who didn't, neither. He's not like them, he never will be, no matter how many fucking books they shove at him or kids who talk to him. Daryl's no better than this. Most of the time, he's worse. She might as well figure that out now. "Tell 'em y'tried and I ain't comin' and they won't think worse of you. Ain't like none of 'em want me down there anyway. Put 'em off their feed."

Daryl hears himself talking and it's almost like he's listening from far away. It's something that happens a lot when he gets this angry - like the real Daryl is somewhere above his head and he's listening to someone else. Daryl sounds like Merle when he gets like this, chattier than he ever is without rage fueling him.

He sounds like his dad. The way his words slur together, the poison he can feel in every sound. His accent thick enough to cut with a knife. Mountain talk, he calls it in his head. When he was a kid, before he'd started school, he'd never known anybody to speak any different.

"That's not true," Carol is saying, her chin jutting out, her fists tight. "I want you there."

"Ain't you a peach," Daryl spits. "Bet that girl a yours don't feel the same." That almost shakes the anger away - the memory of her face, how pale she'd gone, those freckles standing out like they were drawn on, the cringe backward out of arms reach -

"That's - that's not true."

But that's a lie if he ever heard one, and that brings the anger back in him, a rush of relief, feeling something other than guilt, than - "Bullshit."

"Is that why you're - Daryl, she understands. Or she will. I understand. You had to -"

"Yeah, I fuckin' had to!" Daryl explodes, his own fists clenched. "Y'practically ordered me to! An' even if you hadn't, I'da done it anyway! Wasn't gonna let no -"

"She'll understand that. She will," Carol says quickly as if she can hear the rebuttal on Daryl's tongue. "She's - she's just not used to - "

To what? People like Daryl? Yeah, she is. That's why she'd run - well, limped - herself away. Because she knows what happens when you stick around people like Daryl. Somebody ends up hurt.

"Don't do this," Carol says suddenly, and Daryl takes a moment to check himself because he didn't know he'd done anything. He's still standing, fists still clenched, but he hasn't got any closer to her, hasn't made a move. So what's he meant to stop doing? "I'm not going to let you pull away."

The fuck does this woman want from him?

"You've earned your place," Carol continues. Her face looks open and vulnerable - weak - and it makes him wind up tenser than before. Because what does she know about earning, about places? About Daryl? Nothing. Fuck her.

"If you spent half your time mindin' your daughter's business 'steada stickin' your nose in mine, maybe she wouldn't've gotten lost in the first place!" Daryl shoots back at her, and this time when she flinches, he doesn't feel anything. He doesn't. This isn't how it's meant to go. She's meant to be yelling at him, telling him off. Laying into him. Doesn't she get that? "Maybe if you kept an eye on her, she wouldn't've been sneakin' around seeing shit she shouldn't've! Why you out here pickin' at me when she's the one all upset? The fuck's wrong with you? Y'think it'll do her any good, have some -" He doesn't know the word for himself in that moment, just smacks his chest with his beat-up hands, the kid's blood still smeared over them. " - across from her at the dinner table? Scare her shitless? Hell, maybe you just don' care. Prob'ly ain't nothin' new!"

Which is low, even for him.

"Go ahead," is all Carol says in response, and the tone in her voice makes Daryl mad. Because it's just - quiet. Almost meek. Accepting. And that's not what he wants. That's not what he's looking for. When is she gonna get angry? When's she gonna fight back?

"Go ahead and what?" Daryl snarls. But she doesn't answer, which maybe is a good thing, because maybe Daryl doesn't want to know. Maybe he does know, somewhere deep down. (When you do wrong, you get punished. Whose voice is it in Carol's head - Ed's? Is she looking for the same thing he is?) But the thought makes him feel sick and angry and this isn't how this was supposed to go. This isn't what Daryl wanted when he came up here.

But whatever was going to come next, whatever stream of poison that was gonna pour out of his mouth, it's all off the tracks when Carol's voice changes again, no longer meek or accepting, no longer bracing for a hit.

"What happened to your hand?"

"What?" Daryl asks stupidly. His hand? The fuck does she care? Both his hands curl into fists, try to hide away. "I -" What?

"Your - " Carol's got her hand around his wrist before Daryl can pull back, and he feels himself freeze. Her fingers are cool and smooth and his skin feels suddenly too hot.

"Leave it," he mumbles, tugging at his wrist. He feels wrong-footed, awkward. He should pull harder, shove at her, get his own back, but he can't seem to figure out how to do it. He feels thick and clumsy like he's gotten caught doing something wrong. Which he hasn't. It's no one's fucking business but his own, what he does on his own time, to himself. He doesn't owe them anything, he doesn't -

(When you do wrong, you get -)

"Daryl -"

"Damn, woman, I said leave me be!" Daryl barks, his tug getting more desperate. But she doesn't let go. If anything, her grip tightens. "Ain't none of your business. M'fine -"

"Don't," Carol says sharply, and it's so different than any other tone from her that it makes him stop trying to yank his arm away. She's looking at him steady and sharp and firm and almost angry. "Don't say it's nothing or you're fine or it doesn't hurt or you deserved it or - just don't, all right?"

Daryl scowls and yanks at his arm, hard. She lets him go but she doesn't stop looking at him. "You don't know shit," Daryl says. He looks at his hand - fuck, she's causing some kinda fuss over nothing. He's almost hurt worst from busting his hand on the kid's teeth than whatever he did himself. And whatever the fuck she's saying isn't - he's not like her. Or Sophia. He never had been.

"I know," Carol says. She's still looking level at him, but there's something in her eyes - it's not pity, because if it was he'd deck her, lady or no lady. Daryl'd almost call it understanding, even though she'd just admitted she didn't know shit. Unless she meant 'I know' like she did know shit. Daryl's head feels thick and foggy and mixed with anger and the lingering slowness from his smoke earlier, the sickness from listening to Randall talk about them girls (real young, real cute) so who the hell knows what Carol's trying to say, what Carol knows or doesn't know.

All of a sudden Daryl is exhausted. He misses Merle, misses the feeling of knowing someone inside out, of knowing how to act and what to expect. These people are mysteries to him, with strange ways and an unknown language, like he's been dropped on some alien planet where none of the rules are clear, where dead people walk around and people look to him for advice and protection.

He misses Merle because for all Merle was a shitty brother and probably a shitty human being, he understood Merle. Now he doesn't understand anything and it's disorienting as shit.

"Sophia sent me up here," Carol says suddenly. "She - she was worried you'd get hungry."

Daryl squints at her. What? "Ain't gotta lie," Daryl mumbles. He's pulling his sleeve over his hand as best he can, but Carol isn't even looking at it anymore, which is a relief. "Didn't mean to scare her," Daryl finds himself saying, even though he doesn't mean to. Who cares if he scared her, some stupid ass kid poking around where she shouldn't? The kid isn't his problem. She's not his. She doesn't matter.

But still. He hadn't meant to scare her.

"I know," Carol says. "She - she knows too. She might not be able to - understand everything right now, but - she knows that what you do, it's just - you're looking out for her."

He's not. Or if he is, he's doing a shitty job of it - murdering two guys, not shooting Randall when he had the chance, getting thrown from that fucking horse, dragging her all over the woods with a busted ankle, scaring her left, right, and center. Letting her little friend get turned into a walker and gunned down. Not teaching her how to fire that fucking bow. He's barely able to look after himself, after all this time. He's certainly in no shape to be looking after a kid. Especially one like Sophia.

"She cares about you," Carol says softly. "She -" Carol swallows, hard, and continues, looking away from Daryl now, eyes fixed at the sun setting over his shoulder. "She hasn't exactly. Had the best. You know." Carol shrugs, suddenly inarticulate, more like Daryl than he's seen her. "But you brought her home. That means something." Carol's looking back at him now, her eyes fixed on his, her voice clearer. "It really means something, Daryl."

Daryl doesn't know how to respond to that. So he just shrugs too. "Din't do nothin' special," he says. "She did the hard shit."

"You did plenty," Carol says. She takes a step closer, her hand settling on his shoulder. Almost too light, after the death grip she'd had him in before. "You did. All right?" Daryl doesn't answer, and Carol's hand floats away.

"It's getting late," Carol says finally. "They'll start without us." She takes a few steps away from him, then stops and looks at him. "Sophia'll wonder where we are."

And somehow Daryl finds himself following her down the hill, where the little lights of Hershel's farmhouse wait for them.

Chapter 15: Distance

Chapter Text

Dinner's not as bad as it could have been.

The meal's outside, which is one small blessing - after all that shit, Daryl's not sure if he could spend time fucking around with serving spoons and shit, his busted-up knuckles on display as he fumbles the peas and tries to do manners right. Instead, everyone is perched around the campfire, paper plates and canned beans, much more his level. Food ain't half as good but still light years ahead of some of the shit he's eaten. Everyone's tense, though - Sophia, sitting nestled next to her ma, eyes fixed on her food, Lori's mouth all pinched, Andrea stabbing at her plate so hard he's surprised her plastic fork don't tear right through.

At first, he thinks it's because of him, feels his shoulders pull in, his back start to bristle. Why the fuck'd Carol drag him back if they're all so pissed? But after a few minutes, even Daryl can figure out it ain't about him, or at least not just him. There's something going on in the big house so the Greene's are closing ranks. Their people inside, his people out. It makes something twist in Daryl's stomach when he thinks those words, his people, because he doesn't have people. The closest thing he's ever had to people was Merle, and who the fuck knows if Merle's even a person any more or if he's some walker, rotted stump dangling at his side as he chomps his way through what's left of Atlanta? But what other way is he meant to phrase it? How else is he supposed to label them, the people he's stuck with at the end of the world?

So whatever. The Greene's are up in the big house, circling the wagons, some shit going down with the daughter. Not Glenn's horse girl, the teenager. Blondie. Daryl doesn't know what's going down and he doesn't care. Just listens with half an ear as Lori warns Carl and Sophia to be respectful, to give them space, and Daryl doesn't mind the sound of that. Space. Yeah. That's what Hershel and them need. That's what everyone else in camp probably wants. So Daryl will give it to them. Distance.

Between the business in the big house and the war meetings in the camp - Rick and Shane going round and round, hissed fights and impassioned declarations, Lori's hand hovering over her stomach, T-Dog cracking his knuckles compulsively and Dale getting more and more disgusted, Carl Grimes big-eyed under that stupid hat like it's all something outta TV - with all of that happening, everyone's plenty busy, so Daryl gives the people what they want and makes himself busy too. He doesn't get involved in whatever the fuck is going on with Randall - seems like they're gonna let the kid heal up, then figure out what to do. Waste more meds and shit on him, leave themselves time to get attached. Well, whatever. Ain't Daryl's problem anymore. He did his bit. Let the rest of them do something ugly for a change.

Instead, Daryl spends a day organizing his gear - tries to ignore the crossbow, wiped down clean and left on his sleeping bag, not so much as one smudged print on it. He tunes Merles' bike and on the third day when he's feeling almost back to his old self, he disappears into the woods and goes hunting. He avoids the path to the ravine, goes south instead, over the road. He gets a fucking eyeful (literally) of Andrea and Shane in the car one time before he spins on his heel, darts away. He doesn't want to see people, any people. He wants the woods, quiet and clean and wanting nothing from him. He bags what he can - mostly squirrels, a rabbit or two. Daryl goes back to camp with them, drops them by the campfire, disappears again. The only way he knows Carol finds them is because he finds himself chowing down on them every night when he turns up for dinner.

Daryl tells himself the only reason he's turning up for dinner is that he deserves to eat as much as they do, doesn't he? Especially since he's the one caught that shit. That's all it is. He'd earned that food. Ain't nothing more than that.

(She was worried you'd get hungry.)

Yeah. Nothing more than that.

Daryl doesn't speak to Sophia again until the fourth day.

It's not like he's been avoiding her or whatever. Not more than anyone else. He sees her at dinner, seen her and Carl playing Little House on the Prairie shit, feeding chickens, collecting eggs. She's downgraded from two crutches to one - soon she'll be up on her own two feet again and the whole time in the woods will be like a bad dream. Something she can forget.

So he hasn't been avoiding her exactly, but he still wasn't expecting to run into her in the stable of all places.

Daryl's not exactly sure why he's in the stable. He'd heard that devil horse that threw him had come back, but he doesn't know why he's going to see it. Horse almost killed him, after all. But he finds himself in the barn offering the evil thing a slice of apple, his palm flat like Uncle Jess taught him when he was a kid. There's something weirdly comforting about the warm huffs of breath against his hand, the weird rhythm of chewing.

"Yeah, eat up, monster," Daryl mumbles, running a rough hand over her nose. "Betcha didn't even notice you left me for walker food, didja? Evil thing." The evil thing in question just chomps the last piece of apple. He's got his knife out, slicing off another chunk of apple, when the stable door squeals open behind him. Daryl spins defensively - he hasn't seen Hershel since that shit went down with Randall, and the man hadn't been well pleased with him taking the horse in the first place. But it's not Hershel, or Rick, or Carol.

Instead, it's Sophia, crutch under one arm and that beat-up doll under the other, looking startled. "I - sorry, I didn't - I just wanted -"

Daryl turns his attention back to the apple, pretends it doesn't sting how she's stammering at him - like he's Ed or something.

"Shit, girl, I don't bite," Daryl mumbles, focusing on cutting the apple into even pieces. Shit, he was gonna try and cuss less around her. Well, whatever. That was before he'd scared her. Bad words aren't gonna make a difference after she saw him after torturing Randall. "Your ma know where you're at?"

"Yeah," Sophia says quickly. It's quick enough that Daryl looks up and sees Sophia shifting around on her crutch. "Or - I mean, Carl said we could go look at the horses yesterday but he - um, he's busy, so I thought I'd just - be okay by myself. It's just the stable."

Daryl ignores the fact that the other outbuildings on the property have been a barn full of walkers and a slaughter shed with a dangerous criminal in it. It's not like the stable is a guaranteed safe place. But then, it's not like anywhere is a guaranteed safe place anymore.

"Thought you two weren't s'posed to go off alone." It's one of Carol's rules, he thinks - Lord knows Lori can't seem to keep track of Carl, even though that hat should make him visible for miles. But now Carol's got Sophia back, she's hardly gonna let her get lost again.

Sophia bites her lip. "Well, yeah, but - I'm not alone. You're here."

Probably it's just trying to keep herself outta trouble, but Daryl won't pretend something doesn't ease in his gut with her words.

"C'mere, then," Daryl says and watches as Sophia hops along towards him. She really is getting around a lot better. He holds out a piece of apple to her.

"Oh, um. No thanks, I'm not hungry."

Daryl snorts and isn't pleased when the demon steed behind him almost mimics him. "Ain't for you." He jerks his chin at the horse, who is tracking the apple steadily. "Just givin' her a snack."

Sophia's eyes are wide as she steps in closer. "I - really? I can feed her?"

"Yeah. She don't bite neither." Daryl considers this a second. "Well - not if you handle her right."

Sophia jams the doll - shit that thing is worse for wear - under her crutch arm and takes the apple slice from him, holding it between her two fingers.

"Naw, don't - like this," Daryl says, demonstrating with a slice of his own flat in his palm. The greedy thing chomps down with glee on the apple like she's been starving for years, like he didn't feed her a whole damn apple already. "Just gotta keep your fingers outta the way - she wants that apple way more than she wants them."

Sophia's timid and slow but she copies Daryl's movements exactly, with a hand that only shakes a little. Daryl thinks she might just drop the apple when the horse starts to munch, but her hand just pulls back a little, and she corrects herself without him having to say anything. Brave kid.

"What's her name?"

Fuck if Daryl knows. He's been calling her 'monster' and 'devil-thing' since he got out here. "Uh -" He tries to remember what Hershel said, back when they'd first gotten back. "Nell, I think."

"Hi Nell," Sophia says in a whisper. Daryl drops another piece of apple in her hand and watches as Sophia's whole face lights up. "Yeah. Nell. That's you. Hi." She lets out a little giggle as Nell (who he guess he shouldn't call the spawn of Satan anymore) swipes over Sophia's hand with her tongue. "It tickles."

"Kinda," Daryl says, because while it's true, he's not sure he's ever admitted to being ticklish in his life. "Y'ever ride one before?"

Sophia shakes her head, her eyes still rapturously fixed on the horse. "Never even seen one up for real. I mean, up close. This girl in my class, in second grade, Claire Allen, she had her birthday party at a horse farm and everyone got to ride ponies, but I -" Something flickers behind the girl's eyes. "I was sick so I couldn't go."

Sick. Right. His pa probably wouldn't have let Daryl go to any birthday parties either, but Daryl'd never been invited to any, so it was kind of a moot point. The thought makes Daryl feel a little sick, and he finds himself scowling as he holds out the last slice of apple.

"Maybe they'll letcha ride one sometime. Not this one -" Daryl shoots a glare at Nell, who is pretending to be sweet and gentle and not the horse that fucking threw him and almost got him killed. "But maybe one of the others. Bet that uh, Maggie -" That was the horse girl's name, right? "Bet she could teach you."


"Hell, she's been draggin' Glenn along on one since we got here and bet he'd never seen a horse 'fore this. Bet you'd learn quicker'n him, he bumps along like a sack of flour."

Sophia lets out another giggle.

"Carl'd like that. He likes that story his dad told, you know. About riding the horse into Atlanta."

Yeah. That was the kinda Western adventure bullshit Carl would like.

"Where's he at?" Daryl asks, and Sophia's smile fades a little. Nell's finished the last of the apple and Sophia busies herself wiping her hand on the side of her pants.

"Um. He just - he was kind of busy. That's all."

Daryl squints at her. He can't tell if she's covering for Carl getting into some mischief or if the two of them had a fight or what.

"You two all right?"

Sophia nods vigorously. "Yeah. Yeah, I mean - just, he's. Um." Sophia shrugs, a movement so like his own that he finds himself watching her face, to see if she's making fun of him. But she just looks uncomfortable. "I guess he's a little - sad? About Louis. So."

Daryl feels a stab in his side, like where the arrow stuck him. The Morales kid. He'd almost forgotten.

"What about you? You sad?"

Sophia shrugs again. "I don't know. I mean - I guess I'm sad and sort of scared because - because we don't know what happened to Eliza. Or Juan and Miranda. And it just makes me think of like - scary stuff."

Yeah. Like how easily it could have been her stumbling out of that barn, how little it would have taken. If she hadn't found him, would she have ended up like the Morales kid? Would she -

Whatever. It didn't happen that way, so it isn't worth thinking about. She's here, she's alive, that's all there is to think about.

"Well, if Carl's busy and you wanna come out here again, you say somethin'. I can come," Daryl says, vaguely shocked at himself as he says it. Like he wants to spend his days playing ponies with a twelve-year-old. "Y'shouldn't be goin' off by yourself. Your ma said."

Sophia nods, and he thinks if she were Carl Grimes or Merle as a kid, she'd be rolling her eyes. "Okay."

"Okay," Daryl says.

He keeps his distance differently after that. Sure, he still goes off by himself - goes hunting, makes an attempt at whittling his own arrows, does some half-hearted foraging, just to keep his skills sharp. But sitting at dinner is easier, and he finds himself paying more attention to the chatter, putting together more of what's been happening while he's been off in the woods, licking his wounds. He starts to close the gap himself, slowly, inching his way back into the group - or at least, as far deep into the group as he'd been before he'd fucked up Randall's face. Carol gives him small smiles and extra helpings and the others don't seem to notice anything is different.

Except his tentative easing back into being around people is made a whole lot more abrupt when he exits his tent one morning to find Rick Grimes sitting outside it.

"Daryl, hey," Rick says. Daryl grunts - he hasn't shared more than a couple words with Rick since what happened with Randall. "You going out?"

Daryl's hackles raise a little. What is this - some kind of scolding? Like Daryl's not pulling his weight around camp, not bringing back enough food? He grunts a yes, slings his bow over his shoulder, checks his knife.

"Mind if I join you?"

Daryl stares at Rick. "What - huntin'?" Daryl asks, the skepticism clear in his voice. He's never seen Grimes shoot at anything that wasn't already dead.

"If that's all right," Rick says. He looks almost respectful - like if Daryl told him to fuck off, he'd do it. It makes Daryl scowl, check his bow again for lack of anything better to do.

"Better not scare off my game," Daryl spits, and he takes off for the woods without checking to see if Rick is following him.

The thing Daryl can appreciate about Rick is that it's not like he's a talker either. They spend a good twenty minutes setting out, picking their way through the underbrush - Rick tromping around in those fucking cowboy boots, but not as loud as he could be. Even Merle was never this quiet out hunting - always yammering, making jokes, crass and bold and too loud, always. Daryl knows if it'd been Shane that tried to join him, it'd be the same way. Too loud. Not that Shane'd ever want to join Daryl anyway.

But Rick's not like that. He doesn't talk just to hear himself. So when Rick says something, twenty minutes in, after Daryl's bagged a couple squirrels and found a scrawny rabbit in one of his snares, Daryl knows well enough to listen.

"It's about Randall," Rick says as Daryl resets the snare. "What to do with him."

Daryl grunts. What else would it be about?

Rick speaks deliberately - the pros and cons, the proposed plans. Dropping him off at the public works station eighteen miles out, keeping him prisoner, finding someplace, anyplace the kid could go and not be a danger. Daryl doesn't say anything. He's said his bit before, hadn't he? There's nowhere the kid can go and not be a danger. Not when he knows who they are, where the farm is. Knows Sophia is there.

"I think," Rick says finally, after all that, his voice slow and deliberate, "I think - he's a threat. And we have to eliminate the threat."

Daryl chews the inside of his cheek. Nods. "Yeah," Daryl says slowly. "Think so too."

Rick nods back. "Yeah," Rick says. "I'm going to tell them at breakfast. Dale won't - well, he's making some rounds. Trying to find some other way." Rick scrubs a hand through his hair. "If there was another way, I'd -"

"There ain't," Daryl says. Because there isn't. It's not like Daryl wants to commit murder - he remembers the feeling of the arrow puncturing Max's throat, the squelch pulling it out, the way Greg's head exploded, so different than a walker, red and still warm - but he'll make a hundred Randall's dead if it keeps all his people alive.

His people. There's that thought again.

"Yeah," Rick says. He looks incredibly tired all of a sudden, almost old. He scrubs a hand over his face again, like he's trying to smooth away the wrinkles and lines that decisions like this have carved into him. "Yeah. I think you're right."

They don't say anything else for a long while. There's not much else out - Daryl takes aim at a quail but opts not to shoot, too wary of losing a bolt when he'd just carved himself more. Without speaking the two of them turn back, pick their way back to Hershel's land.

"So - you want me to do it?" Daryl asks as they hit the fence that marks the boundary line. He's not shocked - he's the one killed Randall's people, he's the one beat the kid bloody. They probably think he'd take it the easiest. Hell, they're probably right. He's not shocked that this is what Rick's asking of him.

He just wishes, maybe, in a tiny part of himself, that he was shocked. That it was surprising that the other people in the camp looked at him and saw a killer, saw something ugly and dirty and dark spread over him, something that marked him out as someone fluent in violence. As not one of them.

Rick looks a little surprised, though. Shakes his head. "No, I - I'll do it," Rick says. His voice cuts out a little as he says it, and he frowns and says it again, firmer. "I'll do it. I made the decision, I'll carry it out. It's - the right thing."

Daryl just looks back at Rick, just as surprised.

"So why you tellin' me?"

"Well - just in case you. Had a better idea, or." Rick lets out a breath. "Hell, maybe just because I knew you'd agree with me and I wanted someone to agree with me who isn't -" Rick's lips press into a thin line.

Who isn't slowly going batshit crazy, Daryl figures Rick means. Yeah.

"And anyway, wanted to make sure you're being kept in the loop," Rick says. "Know you've been - keeping your distance, but -"

But what?

But Rick doesn't say anymore. Maybe he doesn't have the words to say it. Instead, he just claps Daryl on the shoulder, a rough, brisk squeeze. The kind of thing that normally makes Daryl flinch or spit or hit back. But maybe he's still surprised from the turn the conversation took, because he doesn't do any of those things. He just feels it happen and before he can react, feels it end.

"I can take these to Carol if you'd like," Rick says, gesturing to Daryl's meager haul. "You coming to breakfast?"

"Naw," Daryl says automatically. Dinner is more than enough meal time with the group. But then he hesitates, darts a quick look at Rick. Rick, who still looks lonely and old. "Mean - well. Guess I might as well."

Rick looks surprised again, something grateful flashing over his face, making it look a little less worn.

"Mean - caught that shit, might as well eat some of it," Daryl mumbles, and Rick nods.

"Yeah. Yeah, of course."

They're back within view of the camp - the little circle of tents, the RV, T-Dog on top with a gun slung over his knees, eyes fixed on the distance. At the last second, before their move within earshot, Daryl clears his throat.

"Um. Know you'd do it different if you could," Daryl says awkwardly. There are better words than this but words have always fucked Daryl up, so he doesn't try to find other ones, doesn't try to do better. Just says it and lets it land and scowls at the ground

Rick nods. "Yeah," Rick says. "If I could."

And he walks straight into the center of camp, by the campfire, where the others are waiting to hear his decision.

And Daryl follows.

Chapter 16: Judges and Juries

Chapter Text

Of course it doesn't go smoothly. Nothing goes smoothly for Daryl, ever, not once in his whole life, which maybe he should have warned Rick of before following him to the campfire and being his fucking back up at the breakfast execution panel.

But the first thing to go wrong isn't even the killing shit. It's Shane.

Which Daryl could have warned Rick about too.

Everyone scatters after breakfast - like they can't really look at each other after they've all agreed to murder a guy, like they don't want to talk about it anymore in case they talk themselves out of it. Well, everyone seems to feel that way but Dale, who sets off cornering everybody, speaking too close. Daryl splits quick - he's had all the conversation he'd care to for the day. He figures instead he'll go hide out somewhere - have some time to think, to dissect whatever the fuck just happened in the woods, why he'd followed Rick back to camp like a dog to heel.

Dissect the look on Shane's face, the ugly set to his jaw, when Daryl stood behind Rick, even if Daryl never even said anything.

Just because Daryl's been keeping his distance doesn't mean he hasn't been watching. He's been watching plenty. Especially Shane. Shane ain't been right since they got to the farm - probably since whatever happened to Otis. (The next day, Shane cleaning the guns, Otis's a new addition to the pile, a spattering of blood that looked too fresh for a walkers all up one side.) At first it only showed sometimes, in moments that were probably meant to be private. But since that day Lori went missing, since he'd spilled it about Lori being pregnant - well. He gets looser and meaner and angrier each day. Daryl's seen it. He's seen it when other people haven't - T-Dog still nodding approvingly, Andrea looking at Shane with stars in her eyes, like he's who she wants to be and who she wants to fuck all rolled into one.

Daryl's seen it because Shane is becoming more and more familiar, unpredictable and sharp in a way Daryl recognizes, in a way he's always known is dangerous, dangerous, dangerous.

So, he's been keeping half an eye open for Shane - Shane who thought the whole search was a waste of time and resources, Shane who scared Sophia just walking into a room or sitting down at the campfire. Because Daryl recognizes that too - the way Sophia and even Carol move slower around Shane, eyes pitched downward, no sudden movements, like if they're careful enough they'll disappear or drop below his notice. He's not even sure if they're aware they're doing it. But they are. Daryl sees it.

So he's not the only one noticing that Shane is getting more and more unhinged. But somehow he's the only one who knows where eventually it's all going to end.

In violence, like most everything does. Especially at the end of the world.

(If that's true, Daryl's world's been ending pretty much as long as he's been alive.)

So maybe that's why he's the only one who sees what happens at the slaughter shed.

If Daryl were a kid, he'd blame Carl Grimes. Carl Grimes attracts trouble - some kind of magnet in his freckles or that stupid sheriff hat. You'd think getting shot would make him more careful, but it's almost made him wilder. Like he's trying to prove that nothing can take him down - not bullets, not walkers, not bossy parents who pretend they ain't fighting, not a grave just his size with his friend inside. So if Daryl were the sort of grown man that blames little boys for shit, takes his anger out on people weaker than him, then he'd lay all the blame for this fiasco on Carl's thin shoulders. But he ain't that guy. He's a lot of things, most of them bad, but he doesn't pin the blame on kids. He'll always pin it, first and foremost, on himself.

He should have been keeping a closer eye. On Shane, sure. Maybe on troublemaking Carl Grimes. But definitely on Sophia.

There's shouting from the slaughter shed, so at first Daryl thinks someone's decided to take matters into their own hands about Randall. He can hear from the yelling it's Shane - it takes nearly nothing to get Shane screaming these days. He debates going over there - if it ends with Randall dead, does he care if Shane shoots him now, before nightfall?

If Shane does it, Rick won't have to.

But Daryl remembers Rick's eyes earlier, the scrub of a hand over his face. I'll do it. I made the decision. I'll carry it out.

So he goes over to see what the fuck Shane's done now and maybe stop him from doing it.

He's expecting Shane with a gun to the Randall's face, maybe even the kid already sprawled out dead.

He's not expecting Shane busting out of the slaughter shed, left hand wrapped around Carl's scrawny arm.

Right hand wrapped around Sophia's.

Carl is squirming, pleading. "Please don't tell my parents!" But Sophia isn't doing anything. She's stumbling after them - Shane's pulling them too fast for her to keep up properly, so she's limping along, crutch dragging along behind her, her arm held out stiffly like she's trying to keep herself as far from Shane as possible without actively resisting. Her face looks frozen - not necessarily scared, just totally blank. Like a doll's face, her eyes huge, her freckles looking almost painted on with how pale she's gone.

Her doll, Daryl sees, is dropped in the dirt behind them as Shane drags the two of them from the shed, hissing angrily at the two of them, like he's got any right. Like he's thinks he's their daddy.

Daryl doesn't remember later how he got over there. Isn't sure how quick he was - he thinks later, probably not quick enough. Isn't sure if Shane even saw him coming or if he was too busy scaring the shit out of two kids too little to defend themselves.

He's not sure of anything other than grabbing Sophia's arm and yanking her away from Shane, so hard he wonders if he hurt her doing it, like Shane was.

"Daryl? The hell, man -"

"Big fuckin' man, huh," Daryl snarls as he shoves at Shane's chest. He'd go for Carl's arm but Shane had let that go the second Daryl got involved. "Pickin' on a little girl, what gives you -"

"Hey man I caught these two -"

"Don't matter what you fuckin' caught them doin', they ain't yours to deal with," Daryl says, shoving at Shane's chest again, so hard Shane almost falls over.

"I've known Carl since he was born, man, I'm practically -"

"You ain't his daddy," Daryl growls, "Or hers neither. You got a problem, you get Carol, or Rick or Lori, you don't got no right puttin' hands on -"

Shane lets out a growl of his own and shoves at Daryl. "How's this your problem, huh? They ain't your kids either. I want to try and stop that boy from getting himself killed -"

"Shane," Andrea is saying from near the shed, where she's struggling to pull the huge doors shut, "Shane, enough."

"Carl could've died," Shane bites out, but he takes a step away from Daryl. From the corner of his eye Daryl sees Carl flinch - like Shane's anger and disappointment is worse than whatever Shane was just doing with his hands. "Sophia could've died. These two gotta learn it's dangerous to just -"

"Well you ain't the one to be teaching anybody anythin'," Daryl spits, hands pushing at Shane's chest. "Y'wanna teach someone somethin', why don't you teach me, you wanna shove somebody around so bad -"

"Oh I'll teach you plenty, you redneck piece of -"

"Shane!" Andrea says again, and Daryl almost flinches - he hadn't noticed her getting so close. He twitches his head towards her - careful not to look away from Shane for too long, but needing to figure out where Andrea is behind him so she can't sneak any closer. She's not that far - she's stopped next to Sophia, Sophia who is silent and watching the whole thing from inside Andrea's arms.

Her face doesn't look like a doll's anymore.

But it doesn't necessarily look all the way normal, either.

"C'mon," Daryl says abruptly, pulling away from Shane and going over towards Sophia. "Let's find your ma." He reaches out a hand for her. It only occurs to him as he's reaching that he might have hurt her, pulling her away from Shane like that. That he probably scared her, cussing and shoving and about to deck Shane. She'd probably rather stay with Andrea.

But before he can pull his hand back, Sophia's reaching out. Her hand slips into his and she's pulling away from Andrea, readjusting the crutch under her arm.

"Well - c'mon then," Daryl mumbles, and the two of them set off. He can hear Carl and Shane talking behind him, and he almost turns back - he shouldn't leave Carl there either, probably. Shane's not safe, hasn't been safe for a long time. But Andrea is there and no matter what kinda feelings she's got about Shane, she wouldn't let him hurt a kid. She'd blast him between the eyes if he tried. She looks out for the group - no matter how she looks at Shane, she'll look out for the group first, for the groups smallest members.

He leans down and snags Sophia's doll from where it's lying in the dirt.

And then they get out of there.

Daryl's not sure where Carol is, but he's pretty sure the direction he's heading is the wrong way to find her. Sophia hasn't said anything, just keeps pace next to him, that doll cradled in one hand. They end up out by the pond - Daryl figures they can wait there a little, till he calms down, let Shane finish whatever the fuck he's doing, then circle back to camp where Carol's probably doing laundry or something. The grasses there grow tall enough that once they sit down, they'll be out of sight, and maybe this feeling thrumming through him, too much anger and adrenaline, will settle if he just can plunk them down somewhere safe for a minute.

So he stops and he looks at Sophia. "Need help sittin'?"

She blinks at him and shakes her head, and he realizes he hasn't communicated any of this to her. So after being manhandled by Shane, she's also now been effectively kidnapped by Daryl.

He's great at this shit.

"Just - thought it'd be good to uh - collect ourselves," Daryl mumbles. He's not sure he's ever said the words 'collect ourselves' in his life. He's not even sure where he's heard it before. "Then go find your ma."

Sophia nods and lowers herself down. She doesn't need help but Daryl spots her anyway. Just in case.

"Your ankle all right? Y'didn't hurt it dragging it along like that, didja?"

Sophia shakes her head. Daryl's wondering if he should be worried that she isn't talking, but then all of a sudden she starts speaking in a rush, not looking at Daryl, her eyes focused instead on the grasses around them, the plants growing at the waters edge.

"I'm - it wasn't my idea. I wasn't - Carl was - I was scared he'd - so I went to try and get him to come back and - I wasn't gonna talk to him but then Carl - I mean it wasn't Carl's fault, I knew we weren't supposed to go in, I shouldn't have, I just didn't - I - I'm sorry, I'm really sorry, I -"

"Girl," Daryl says, because he's got to get her to slow down somehow before she starts hyperventilating or something, "Y'ain't in trouble or nothin'. Ain't done shit to be sorry for."

"I - I knew we weren't supposed to go in the shed, my mom -"

"Yeah, well, shit happens," Daryl says. He rubs at his mouth with the back of his hand, scratches his neck. "Y'ain't done nothin' wrong. I'll explain it to your ma. Won't letcha get in trouble with nobody. Promise."

It's the wrong thing to say. It's the wrong thing to say because all of a sudden Sophia is crying. Not just the little sniffles from that first night after he found her, or the tiny whimpers that sneak out of her in sleep. She's doing real crying, hiccuping sobs and tears going down her cheeks, her whole body heaving, and Daryl doesn't know what the fuck he said to set her off but he could just about drown himself in the goddamn pond for saying it.

"No, don't - s'a'right, you - don't cry," Daryl says desperately, his hand hovering near her shoulder. You're meant to comfort people who are crying, Daryl knows that, especially little girls, but he's never done it before. He's never even had it done to him, that he can remember - the closest he got to comfort when he was crying was Merle calling him a pussy in a nice voice and circling an arm around his neck in a friendly kind of headlock. Sophia looks like if Daryl tried to give her any kinda headlock she'd break.

"I - I was - thought he was - you came," Sophia gasps out, and she takes the decision of what to do out of his hands because all of a sudden she's crying into his shirt, almost curled into his side like she does with her mama sometimes, and Daryl is frozen. He doesn't know what to say, where to put his hands. He can feel her tears or snot or something soaking into his shirt and he almost doesn't dare breathe in case he scares her more.

"Y'ain't gotta cry," Daryl just says again helplessly. "I - I'll go get your ma. She'll - "

But Sophia's hands clench in his shirt, and Daryl guesses that's clear enough. So he stays.

"I - he got my arm and I - I thought he was -"

Fuck. Daryl tries to tamp down on the anger that's filling up his chest, scalding its way up his throat. Fucking Shane. Fucking Ed. Fucking -

"He ain't gonna do nothin' to you," Daryl says instead, trying to force his voice level. "Toldja, din't I? Wouldn't let nobody get at you, or your ma."

This somehow makes Sophia cry harder. It's then that Daryl realizes maybe these tears aren't really about him. Maybe they aren't even mostly about Shane. Maybe it's just the first time she's realized that Ed's not gonna smack her around anymore, or Carol. Maybe it's realizing that actually, Ed's really gone, is never coming back. He remembers a moment six months after his dad died, Merle in lock up for the night and Daryl getting home to an empty apartment. And they'd been moving around a lot, and that shitty rental wasn't a place their dad had ever even visited, let alone lived. But there was a moment, going up the steps, where Daryl had felt a familiar pull of dread in his stomach, at the idea of opening the door and his pa being there, beer in hand, and Merle being in lock up, not able to help him or -

But then he'd remembered he wouldn't need Merle's help. Not like that. That he'd never need Merle's help like that again. That his dad was dead and always would be. And something inside him that'd been holding it's breath for a long time, maybe for his whole life, suddenly released and Daryl'd sat down and cried there on the front steps of the building, unable to even put the key in the lock.

Sophia's maybe just realized that Ed is dead and that maybe, maybe, things will be different without him there.

Daryl lets one hand rest on her shoulder, light as a moth or a butterfly. She doesn't cringe or shy away, so he leaves it there.

"You're okay," Daryl mutters under his breath as the soggy patch on his shirt gets soggier and soggier. "You're a'right. You're a'right."

And they stay like that for a long time.

"Sorry," Sophia says a little later. She's stopped crying and pulled away from him, the first faint tinges of embarrassment pinking her cheeks as she sees the wet splotch on Daryl's shirt. "I didn't -"

"Y'ain't gotta be sorry," Daryl says gruffly. "Ain't like it was nice 'fore that. Should be apologizin' to you. If I knew it'd be doin' tissue duty, I'da worn somethin' cleaner."

There's a wet, snuffly breath that could be a giggle from his side as Sophia wipes at her face with one sleeve.

"Y'wanna - wash your face or whatever?" Daryl asks awkwardly. He pulls out his bandana - it's a fresh one, thank god, or she'd be wiping her face with walker guts - and jerks his chin at the pond. "S'clean." Sophia's face looks blotchy from all the crying, looks red in a way that makes him guess that cool water would be comforting, but what the fuck does he know?

But Sophia just takes his rag and scoots on her butt to the edge of the pond, dipping the cloth in before bringing them to her eyes.

Daryl squints at the sky - it's got to be almost lunch time by now, which means Carol will be doing cooking duty at the campfire. For a moment this makes Daryl pissed - how come he always knows where to find Carol because is the only one consistently working all the goddamn time? - but knowing where to find her is a good thing, so he pushes it away as Sophia splashes a little more water on her face.

"Better?" Daryl asks, and she looks back at him, her face shining all over, and nods.

"Right. Let's find your ma, then," Daryl says, pulling himself to his feet. He gathers Sophia's crutch and her doll and holds out an arm to her so she can steady herself getting up.

"It's - that's the same flower as before, right?" Sophia asks shyly as she pulls herself up. Daryl doesn't have a clue what she's talking about until he follows her eyes and sees that growing all along the waters banks are clumps of Cherokee roses.

Daryl doesn't let himself think about what kind of a sign that might be.

"Yep," Daryl grunts.

"What are they called again?"

Daryl looks at her, a little surprised. "Cherokee roses. Y'don't know them?"

Sophia shakes her head and Daryl squints at her. "What they teachin' you in school? It's the state flower of Georgia."

Sophia shrugs. "I don't know. We did states in fourth grade, but I was in the flag group. So we just did our presentation on like. The flag."

Cool, so apparently the answer is they're teaching the kids nothing in school. Or at least nothing interesting or useful. Great.

"Y'wanna bring one back?" Daryl asks, and the question is all the permission Sophia needs to pick three of them, carefully avoiding thorns. She looks at him shyly and holds them out.

"Would you mind - um, I just feel like I'll sort of crush them. With -" She wiggles her crutch in one hand, the dirt smudged doll clutched in the other.

Daryl takes them and tries not to think how it'll look like he's bringing Carol a bouquet of flowers when they find her.

"There's a story behind 'em," Daryl says instead as the two start off. "Wanna hear it?"

He tries not to let himself get too puffed up at the look on Sophia's face when she says yes.

Well. Carol isn't the first person they find.

Dale catches up to him first.

"Daryl, if I could talk to you for a minute about -" But Dale stops suddenly, looking at Sophia in a way that makes Daryl's hackles raise. The water hasn't done much to hide the fact she'd been crying. And that wasn't why Daryl'd suggested it to her anyway. She doesn't have to hide like crying makes her weak or some shit - she's gotten through stuff that'd fuck over half the men in camp. But looking at it now, through Dale's eyes, it makes Daryl feel uncomfortable and edgy and angry. Like he snuck Sophia off somewhere and now when they're coming back she looks all upset. Like Daryl did something bad to her.

"Not now, man," Daryl spits, trying to shove past him. But Dale puts an arm on Daryl's shoulder and it's not like with Rick - it makes Daryl jerk up, almost clock Dale before he stops himself.

"Everything okay, Sophia?" Dale asks, concern etched between his eyes.

"Yes sir," Sophia says immediately, her voice small. Her eyes flick between Dale and Daryl, and Daryl wonders if she can see what Dale's thinking as clearly as he can, because her fingers are suddenly twisted in the hem of Daryl's shirt, a movement he's not sure will help him or hurt him.

"Go find your ma," Daryl says, and he feels the fingers tighten.

"You sure you're all right?" Dale says, and Sophia nods, jerkily but emphatically. Dale then seems to realize he has no idea what he's talking about, because he gives Sophia a smile - something small and gentle, something that reminds Daryl suddenly that Dale had spent all those weeks at the quarry seeing Sophia, talking to her, when Daryl and Merle had never given anyone else the time of day.

"I think your mother is making chili for lunch," Dale says gently. "I just saw her. Why don't you go see how she's doing?"

Sophia looks up at Daryl like she's asking him if it's a good idea, and Daryl genuinely doesn't know what kind of conversation this is going to be. But whatever it is, she doesn't need to hear it, so Daryl nods.

"Yeah," Daryl says. "G'wan. I'll be there in a minute. Here." He holds out the flowers to her. "Go bring 'er these."

Sophia takes them and gives Daryl a small smile before heading off with her crutch.

Then it's just him and Dale.

"What happened?" Dale's voice doesn't sound particularly accusatory, but what else could it be other than an accusation? So Daryl reacts accordingly.

"I din't do shit to that girl," Daryl says quickly, feeling his fists clench, his shoulders pull in, the anger he'd barely tamped down from early crackling up and down his limbs. "So fuck you for -"

"I don't think you did," Dale says. "I don't think you would. You're a good man."

Daryl squints at him. What?

"You are," Dale says again, his voice getting a little impassioned in a way that makes Daryl uncomfortable. "You, Rick - you're good people. You look out for those kids, I've seen you. You found Sophia. You care about what happens to her, to Carol. To the group. You're a decent man. So is Rick. Shane - he's different."

"What you know about it?" Daryl asks, fists unable to unclench. "Cause he scared them kids today? Cause killed Otis?"

Dale looks stunned at both these statements. "He - what'd he do to the kids? What'd he tell you about Otis?"

Daryl shrugs. "Din't have to tell me. Saw it. He came back with the dead guy's gun." Dale looks stunned by this fact which makes something in Daryl's jaw clench. Damn. Is he the only one that looks at anything here? He'd assumed everyone had known what Shane had done and convinced themselves it was worth it - after all, Carl is alive. But the reaction Dale's giving makes him wonder if he was wrong. "And them kids - Carl got into some shit earlier, fuckin' around the shed where they're keepin' Randall. Shane caught them, was draggin' 'em around, freakin' 'em out. S'all."

"He's not a good man," Dale says urgently. "He's been getting more and more -"

"Yeah, I got eyes," Daryl bites out. Because he's been watching forever. Why's it taken this long for Dale to figure it out?

Does Rick really not know? Lori, Andrea, all of them - have they really not seen it?

"But you - Rick? You're not like him. You're - "

"Man, you don't know what the hell I'm like," Daryl says roughly.

"I know you're not like Shane," Dale says, his throat tight. "That's who you think you are here?"

"Man, I beat that kid bloody when he was barely out from the anesthesia," Daryl snaps. "I killed them friends of his, back when I found Sophia. Hell, think we oughta kill him too. Jus' like Shane. Don't pretend I'm no different."

"You care about the group," Dale says again, more earnestly. "You did those things for safety. Shane - Shane does them for -" Dale doesn't even seem to know the words to use. "He doesn't do them for us. He does those things because he wants to. He wants to be in control and he knows the only way he can do it is through - violence. Through fear. You, Rick - you don't lead that way."

Daryl spits. "Man, I ain't no leader. Don't -"

"Carol would follow you to the ends of the earth," Dale says bluntly. "Sophia too. Rick trusts you. Who did he have at his side today? Who did he look to when he needed someone to listen?"

The words dig at his skin, itch around his ears. They almost don't make sense, hearing them. Like some foreign language Dale's spun into, words for a different world, a different life. They just keep pounding around his head and buzzing at him as Dale keeps going like he doesn't realize that nothing he's saying makes any fucking sense.

"You want to kill Randall for the right reasons," Dale says quietly. "You want to protect the group. The women, the kids. Rick too. But this - there's got to be another way. A better way. Because this?" Dale makes a gesture with his hands that somehow seems to wrap "Executing him? That's no protection. It only makes us less safe."

And with that, Dale spins on his heel and walks away, the sunlight landing on his old geezer hat almost like a halo.

Chapter 17: Executioner

Chapter Text

"Did it hurt? When you punched the guy?"

Daryl turns slow. After he'd made sure Sophia'd gotten to Carol okay - and that Shane wasn't gonna bother them - he'd cut away from the campfire as quick as he could. He's had enough of people yattering at him for one day and Dale's words are spinning his head around enough without everyone else pouring their shit in. Carol gives him a look like she wants to talk to him but whatever. She can come find him later. He'll talk to her then without all these other assholes all up in their business. He sets up a decent way from the house with his knife and some sticks and feathers - he'd feel a lot better about whatever the hell is coming if he can just figure out how to build his own arrows. So far the ones he's made don't feel right - too heavy, maybe, pulling off to one side or another. So he sets to trying to make them better, although hell knows what he's doing wrong and if he doesn't know what's wrong, ain't a chance he'll be able to figure out how to fix it. The others probably see him but no one comes to bother - probably don't want to bug him when he's got his buck knife in one hand and a bolt in another.

But someone hadn't got the memo because there's Carl Grimes, tagging along after him, asking stupid questions because it turns out there is such a thing as a stupid question and it's what Carl Grimes asks Daryl.

"Been hurt worse," Daryl grunts. He eyes Carl, frowns. "That why you messin' in the shed before? Wanna punch that guy?"

Carl kicks one boot into the dirt, shrugs. "I don't know."

"Man, he ain't your problem," Daryl mutters, eyes going down to the bolt, to his work. "Leave that stuff to your old man."

"He's gonna kill him," Carl says swiftly, and Daryl looks over at the kid, unsure all of a sudden. Was that information secret? Daryl hadn't thought so, the way Rick'd announced it at breakfast. But Carl's saying it now like it's some big discovery. And maybe also Dale's words are marching around in his head.Executing him? That's no protection. It only makes us less safe.

"Ain't your problem," Daryl grunts. "Don't go messin' 'round there anymore. Let your pop handle it."

"And Shane," Carl pipes up, which makes Daryl look up from his work and really examine the kid. The kid seems different than the other day - edgy, almost antsy. "How come you were so mean to him before?"

Daryl squints at Carl. It's such a childish phrase - mean - and all of a sudden Carl looks about six, that hat flopping over his face, his kid-sized boots poking out of his jeans, the way he's still favoring that one side of his where he was shot.

"Shouldn't'a put hands on y'all like that," Daryl says.

"He wasn't gonna hurt us," Carl huffs out. "He was just worried. Because Randall's dangerous -"

"Lotta things're dangerous," Daryl says, and he's not sure if Carl's picking up what he isn't saying - that maybe Shane, too, is dangerous - or if Carl's just been waiting for the right time to explode, but something about that hits Carl wrong and all of a sudden he's yelling at Daryl, little fists clenched, face red under the brim of that hat.

"I can take care of myself! You guys all think I'm some stupid baby, but I'm not! I don't need everybody trying to look out for me, I can look out for myself -"

"Yeah," Daryl says, looking at how Carl's got one hand curled protectively around his wounded side, "Y'done a real good job at that." Daryl's never been good when people yell at him - no matter who it is, it always makes him want to yell back. But Carl's a kid, and when he yells Daryl can't tell if he's mad or if he's just going to burst into tears, so Daryl just scowls and snarks and tries to keep his own temper in check. He's a kid, he's a kid, he's a kid -

"I have!" Carl shrills at him. "I - I'm here, aren't I? I'm here and I didn't - didn't get bit like Jim or Amy or get blown up like Jacqui or get turned around in the woods like an idiot like Sophia -"

"Hey, watch it," Daryl growls, because the kid can yell at him all he wants but Sophia hasn't done anything but be kind to Carl. But Carl doesn't watch it. Carl isn't even listening anymore. He's just yelling.

"Or get turned into a walker and get killed like Louis! I'm taking care of myself fine, all right? So back off!"

There's a tug in Daryl's gut and it takes him a moment to realize it's pity. This fucking kid. Like he thinks adults don't get hurt unless they chose to, like picking fights and doing dumb shit will prove that he's a man grown and that nothing'll get him without his say so, like all Louis Morales had to do was man up and he'd still be alive and kicking a ball around with Carl today -

"I got shot," Carl continues, his face still all red. "I'm not some stupid kid, people think I can't understand - that guy is bad, right? He wanted to kill us, so why is everyone acting like it's wrong to want to kill him? I get it, and people keep saying I can't like I'm -"

"Man, you don't get it," Daryl breaks in. But that just makes Carl Grimes madder.

"I do too! I do and you guys - "

"Ain't none of us want to kill him," Daryl says forcefully. Because it's true, all of a sudden. Wanting to be safe and wanting to hang a nineteen-year-old, watch him cry and twist and shit himself, having to shoot him in the head and watch his brains spatter all over, those are two different things. No one is looking forward to what's going to happen tonight.

(Except maybe Shane.)

"S'a difference between wantin' somethin' and needin' it," Daryl continues. It's a lesson he's known since he was smaller than Carl, but the mention of it just makes Carl's face screw up again and the kid honest to go stamps his foot. Which normally would piss Daryl off but he just feels that weird tug in his gut again.

"I know that! I'm not a - a - fucking baby!" Carl says the word fucking like it's some foreign language and he's not sure of the right pronunciation. The second he says it, he spins on one foot and stomps away, a move so childish it almost makes Daryl laugh, until he hears Rick Grimes come up behind him.

"Did he just swear at you?"

For a second Daryl thinks the anger in Rick's tone is at Daryl - it's not like Daryl's been careful with the cussing, and he's sure Carl and Sophia and hell, even Hershel's youngest, have learned some choice shit from him since all this went down. He's about to defend himself - he could count the times he's spoken to Carl on one hand, it's not like he was teaching him swearing on purpose - but then he realizes Rick isn't even looking at Daryl. He's looking at Carl, who has stomped over to the barnyard and is kicking spent shell casings around like he's pretending they're Daryl's head.

"I - whatever," Daryl grunts. "Ain't no thing."

"He shouldn't be disrespecting you like that," Rick says, eyes still looking at Carl, a little frown on his face.

The fuck?

"I - ain't nothin', I said," Daryl mumbles. Lori is there too, he realizes, and she looks mortified - at what? At Rick telling Daryl he should be respected?

"I'm so sorry, Daryl," Lori says. "I have no idea what's gotten into him. Rick will go talk to him, he'll -"

"Naw," Daryl says quickly. Because Carl Grimes isn't scared of Rick, that much is clear, Carl seems to think the idea of a grown-up hurting him is ridiculous, but still - "Naw, ain't - s'fine. Don' worry about it."

Rick is suddenly looking at him with the same sharp eyes - cop eyes. Daryl doesn't like it. Doesn't like any of this shit. Feels his fists clench up, cracks his knuckles. Scowls. Whatever Rick's looking for, maybe he sees it, because he just nods, once. Slowly.

"Well. If that's what you want."

"Rick!" Lori exclaims, but then Rick turns the eyes on her and she quiets down. Looks at Daryl, then back at Rick. She nods too, once, jerkily, and Rick turns back to Daryl.

"Could use your help with something, actually," Rick says. "In the barn."

And Daryl, lord help him - he goes and talks fucking knots and humanity with Rick Grimes.

The killing shit doesn't go smooth either. Nothing goes smooth. That's Dixon law, 101. If something can get fucked up, it sure will.

And with his track record for the day, it's not surprising that Carl Grimes is the reason it gets fucked up.

Dale's words are swirling in Daryl's head all the time he's shoving the kid to the barn - This group is broken. Only makes us less safe. No hope. No civilization.

No choice is what thuds in Daryl's head with his footsteps, in time with his heartbeat. No choice. No choice.

Shane's almost too eager, tying the blindfold around the kid's eyes. A look in his own eyes that makes Daryl's stomach twist almost more than the thought of what they're about to do - a look Daryl recognizes, someone soaking in the fact that in this situation they got all the power and you've got none, that you can twist and kick and scream all you want and it won't make a damn lick of difference -

The kid's crying is something Daryl recognizes too - desperate, pleading, hopeless. Knowing nobody is listening and yet the words just keep pouring out, unable to stop in case this time it's different, in case this time somebody listens, in case - No, no, no, please, please don't, please - then worse, wordless sobbing as Daryl pushes him down to his knees because get this over with already, they're not supposed to be fucking torturing him, this isn't meant to be a punishment it's just meant to keep them safe -

Then Carl Grimes shows up and Daryl's never been more grateful for a thing to get fucked up in his life.

Shane goes for Carl and Daryl almost shoves him away as he passes, instinctively, but Rick's voice, raspy and low, cuts through before Daryl gets a chance.

"Take him away."

For a second Daryl thinks Rick means Carl, is about to object - he shouldn't send Carl off with Shane when Shane's already so - when he realizes that actually, Rick means Randall.

They aren't doing it.

And then Daryl's too busy pulling the kid up to worry much about Carl. Rick'll take care of his own kid. For now, all he's got to do is get Randall the fuck out of here. He tries not to worry too much about what the next plan is going to be - if there even will be another plan, or if they're just delaying the inevitable, torturing Randall even more - because at least now he doesn't have to listen to the kid's fucking whimpering anymore.

It's only when another type of cry rings out through the darkness that Daryl realizes that the evening isn't over yet.

And it only takes another few moments for Daryl to realize that the killing shit isn't over either.

A lot of things go through Daryl's head while he's yelling.

What Dale's doing so far out. If he'd been so disgusted with what they were about to do that he'd tried to put as much distance as he could from the main camp so that he wouldn't have to hear the shot. He wonders why he's the only one there - the worst equipped to comfort a guy whose insides are now on the outside. If Dale can even hear Daryl, if Dale even knows Daryl's there, if Dale is trying to say anything in between his own wordless sobbing. Dale's hands are slippery with blood as they claw along Daryl's arms and he wonders if it's Dale's blood or walker blood and he wonders why now Rick is calling for Hershel when for a gut wound like this, a wound made by the scratching hands of a walker, Dale's already dead and just hasn't stopped screaming yet.

He wonders why Carl is there, his own shrill weeping almost louder than Dale's, and he wonders where Sophia is, if Carol kept her back or if she's there too, watching Dale writhe and whimper and scream as his life unravels in front of them.

He watches Rick level the gun and he hears Dale's words in his head - not the breathless, pained sounds coming from him now but the ones from earlier. A decent man. Like Rick. He wonders if it's because Rick is the decent man that he gets stuck with all the shit - sees, like he's watching from the window again, Rick step forward, raise his gun that same way and put a bullet in Louis Morales head - into the body of a boy no bigger than his own son. He sees Shane, urging Rick on - urging Rick on like it's something only Rick can do, like Shane doesn't have a gun of his own, like nobody has a knife.

He wonders and he watches and he sees Dale's eyes and he hears You care about what happens to the group. You're a decent man. So is Rick.

And then Daryl has the gun.

A decent man, Dale's eyes say.

He hopes Sophia isn't watching.

"Sorry, brother," Daryl says.

And then Dale's eyes say nothing at all.

Chapter 18: The After

Chapter Text

Daryl doesn't want to be where he is. He'd give anything to be elsewhere, somewhere not here, somewhere not even on Hershel's property. He wants to go out to that old ruined house in the fields and batter it with his fists till his hands bleed, wants to be out in the woods, nothing but him and the trees and the quiet, wants to hear anything other than Andrea's soft, desperate crying from the front seat of the RV below him. Wishes he were on Merle's bike, the wind tearing at his ears, his hair, nothing to do but follow the road and ride, ride, ride.

Daryl wishes he were at the pond with the Cherokee roses, wishes he could dip his hands in the water and wash this feeling off, the dirty feeling that comes with death. But it'd be stupid to be anywhere but where he is, sitting on a dead man's fucking lawn chair on the top of a dead man's RV, bow loaded, eyes scanning the distance as he tries to forget Dale's eyes, the coppery scent of blood and gunpowder, the sting in his hands from firing the Python.

Sorry, brother.

But he doesn't go anywhere. He stays there, in Dale's chair, on Dale's roof, keeping a lookout for walkers and pretending he can't hear Andrea crying underneath him. Hell, it was hard enough to get the others to let him be on fucking watch. Lori looking at him like he was about to crack up, Rick with that same puppy-dog gratitude he had when Daryl'd pulled Sophia out of the woods, T-Dog biting his lip and saying "You should rest, man." But Daryl doesn't want to rest. Daryl wants time and space and the idea of packing in with the others in the RV, cramming in on the floor or curling up on one of the benches, or running up to sleep in the house like Glenn or the Grimes family, that makes Daryl want to fucking bash somebody, so he just grunts and pretends he can't hear anyone when they object and climbs to the top of the RV.

At least up here, it's just him and the stars.

When he hears someone's feet clambering up, Daryl feels his shoulders hunch, his hands tighten on the bow. Whoever it is isn't heavy enough to make the ladder clang on the side of the vehicle, so it's not T-Dog or Shane, probably not Rick. He can still hear Andrea crying below, so it ain't her either. For a second he imagines it's Carl Grimes - hasn't that kid done enough for one day? - but when he sees the neat gray hair poking over the top, he isn't surprised. Of course it's Carol.

What is surprising is that seeing that it's her makes his shoulders relax, his whole body unclench.

She just comes and sits next to him for a while. The stars at Hershel's are something else - probably were even before the world went to shit, but now, with no light pollution, with the house quiet and dark for the night, it's like something out of a movie. They hadn't even had stars like this where he grew up in the mountains - the view had always been curtailed by trees or peaks, never this stretch of uninterrupted sky. It's something worth looking at, so Daryl looks at it. He feels rather than sees Carol settle next to him, crane her neck up, take them in.

"Wow," Carol breathes quietly. Daryl doesn't say anything. Ain't like there's much to say to that.

She's sitting near enough to him that he can sense her movements, but not so close that she's all up in his business. She probably likes her space too. It's nice, just sitting there, and for a while Daryl wonders if she's even going to talk. (He thinks he'd probably prefer if she didn't.) But after a bit, she shifts, slightly, enough of a warning that he doesn't jump when he hears her voice, still barely more than a whisper.

"You all right?"

Daryl grunts. Ain't like he's got something to say to that either.

"Sophia told me what you did. Earlier."

Daryl's stomach is cold and tight. Shit. Girl'd gotten spooked after seeing what he'd done to Randall and all he'd really done was slug the kid a few times. If she saw him shoot Dale, she's never going to understand, she's -

"No," Carol says quickly like she can read his mind, tell what he's thinking from his face even though it's pitch black and who knows what Daryl's face is doing. "No, no, I meant - we didn't see that. We went up to the house, got Hershel when we heard - I didn't want her to see that."

Yeah. Carol's a good mama. Wouldn't want her kid getting all messy with that shit if she didn't have to.

"She - I mean she told me about earlier with Shane. And the shed."

It feels like an entire lifetime ago.

"Thank you," Carol says softly.

"Didn't do nothin' special," Daryl grunts. He sneaks a look at her.She isn't looking at him. She's got her arms crossed over her chest. Head tilted back, looking at the stars.

"Getting in between her and somebody bigger than her is plenty special," Carol says, and there's a twist of something hard to her voice. Her fingers are gripping at her arms tight, pinching into her skin. Daryl's not sure what the tone is for. Is Carol mad? At Sophia? For being in the shed in the first place? He's preparing to defend her - sure it'd been stupid but kids were stupid, and frankly, Carl Grimes is stupider than most kids - when Carol speaks again.

"She told me she was hoping you'd come." Oh. Daryl doesn't know what to do with that statement, or the weird feeling that curls through his stomach when he hears it. "She said she - when Shane grabbed her she remembered what you said, how you wouldn't let anybody touch her, and she thought - "

Oh. Oh.

"Knows you'd come too," Daryl mumbles, picking at the skin of his thumb with his teeth. The familiar gesture when he doesn't know what to say - like a hand in front of his mouth will obscure whatever dumb words come out of it. "You're her mama, she knows you'd do -"

"She doesn't," Carol says. Her tone is simple and brutal, like what she's saying is some fact everyone knows. "I've never - I tried, with Ed, but even when I got between them that wasn't - "

Enough, Daryl hears. He remembers from his own childhood, the sick feeling in his stomach when his dad was yelling at him and Merle got between them, shoving and cussing, Daryl running away to his hiding spot under the couch, springs digging into his back, hands clamped over his ears but still hearing, the sound of the belt yanking grunts and the occasional whimper out of Merle, Merle who had never once let Daryl see him cry -

Yeah. Sometimes, under the couch, he'd wondered which was worse - taking it himself or listening to Merle take it for him. (A question that even all the years alone with his dad, after Merle had left, had never really answered.)

He can see how to Sophia, hoping for Carol to come wouldn't necessarily feel like a rescue.

"Wasn't much of a relief," Carol finishes, and her voice sounds almost dead as she says it.

"Ain't 'cause she didn't want you," Daryl mutters, his fingers picking at the rough, fraying knee of his jeans. "Jus' - don't want you to get hurt, is all. She don't have to worry about me."

Carol looks at him then - a look of too much familiarity, and Daryl is reminded that she saw his back and stiffens.

"Jus' sayin' - " Daryl doesn't know what he's saying. He hasn't thought about his own childhood so much since he was a kid - had thought that those years were locked up in some box in his head. It was all in the past, now. Wasn't anything anyone could do about it. His dad was dead, Uncle Jess too - there wasn't even anybody to confront, anybody to blame. Merle had never known how bad it had gotten for Daryl when he'd left and Daryl'd planned on keeping it that way. So why now, when the problems ahead are so much wilder and weirder than any problem he'd ever had, is he stuck thinking about shit that doesn't matter anymore? That doesn't mean anything, that is just something that happened, something that is over?

What he wants to say is what Carol has done for Sophia, has tried to do, is more than his own mother had even thought about doing for him or for Merle. But he can't. Can't put the words to it, can't breathe them into the air, let someone else hear them. They get stuck in his throat and he coughs, once, the sound harsh and too loud in the stillness of the night.

"Jus' meant - don't mean nothin'," Daryl says, feeling his face flush in the darkness. Words. They've always fucked him up. "She's jus' tryin' to protect you."

"I'm her mother," Carol whispers. "It's my job to protect her."

"You are."

There's a sound next to him, some cross between a snort and a sob, and Daryl very carefully doesn't look at Carol. He couldn't figure out how to help Sophia earlier and that was just a kid. Having to try and comfort a grown-ass woman would be ten times worse. He runs instead through the constellations he can see - Cassiopeia. Ursa Minor. Maybe Orion, off to the southwest.

"I haven't done enough," Carol says from next to him. He can't tell if she's crying or not from her voice, but he still doesn't risk a glance. Wonders if Sophia knows any constellations. Should teach her some, maybe - could be handy, if she gets lost again. Give her something to navigate by.

"Y'done plenty," Daryl says.

"If I -"

"That's your little girl," Daryl cuts her off. "You said, right? Ain't gonna let nothin' happen to her, not anymore."

"Not anymore," Carol repeats, that same bitter twist to her words.

"New start and shit. That's what you said," Daryl continues. He bites at the side of his thumb again. "Ain't like - hell. Y'think she don't know she can trust you? Fought tooth and nail to get back to you. First one she goes to for anythin' is you. Trusts the hell outta you. Knows you'd do anything for her."

"Before -"

"It ain't before," Daryl says roughly. Because it's not. It's not before Ed died, not before the quarry and the dead started walking, not before Merle cut off his hand or joined the army or before Daryl's mama burned herself up. They're living in the after and that just means they have to figure out what they need to do and just do it. Keep themselves going one day at a time.

"Y'want it to be different now? Make it different," Daryl says, pulling his thumb from his mouth and picking at the ragged skin with his fingers. "S'all you can do. Ain't no point thinkin' backward."

Yeah. Really no point.

Carol is looking at him - Daryl can feel her eyes, even in the dark, and he shifts uncomfortably, his bow jerking on his lap. But she's not saying anything and Daryl doesn't know what that means - is she mad at him, for getting up in her shit?


Daryl does jump then. Sure, Carol's been pretty quiet climbing up, but he hadn't even heard the kid step foot on the ladder. Sneaky. (Part of Daryl's head is thinking how useful that kind of light tread could be in the woods.) Sophia's got a blanket draped over her shoulders like a cape, that doll tucked into the side of her pajamas, probably so she could use both her hands to climb. The pajamas are some kind of matching pattern that Daryl can't quite see in the dark, and this feels like some kind of bizarre proof - what kind of mama makes sure her kid has matching pjs at the end of the world?

"Baby, what are you doing up? It's late," Carol says, and whatever hardness or bitterness had been in her voice is gone.

"I woke up and you weren't there and I heard this weird noise -"

For a second Daryl thinks the weird noise is Andrea, curled up miserable and mourning in the driver's seat.

"I thought it was a walker but it was just Mr. T-Dog snoring, but then I couldn't find you so I thought -"

"You shouldn't go outside by yourself. After what happened to Dale, we all have to be careful." The tone is barely scolding. Daryl wonders if Carol's going to leave, make the kid go back to bed, but instead of getting up she's just scootching over, making room, and Sophia shuffles over next to her and sits. Carol leans over, wraps the blanket more securely around the kid. It's a kind of action that Carol doesn't even seem to need to think about, a type of care that is automatic, natural.

How can Carol not get that she's doing all she can for this girl?

"Sorry," Sophia whispers sleepily. Daryl sees her head plonk against Carol's shoulder like her mom is a pillow. "What're you guys doing?"

"Your ma's helpin' me keep watch," Daryl says. Carol is looking at him over Sophia's head.

"S'cold," Sophia mumbles, her body burrowing closer to Carol.

"We should go back to bed then," Carol says softly, but Sophia just snuggles in deeper.

"Mr. T-Dog is too loud, I can't sleep. And - and Andrea sounds - really sad."

Yeah. She does.

He sees Carol's fingers, ghost pale in the night, stroke over Sophia's hair once. Twice. "We'll give them a few minutes to settle and then we'll go back down. Okay, baby?"

"Mhm," Sophia says. "There's a lot of stars."

"Yeah," Carol says softly. "Better than Fernbank, huh?"

"Yeah," Sophia says. She blinks, slowly. "Did you ever go to Fernbank?"

It takes Daryl a second to realize she's talking to him, and another second to realize he has no idea what she's talking about.

"Nuh-uh," Daryl grunts, eyes scanning the horizon again for walkers.

"We went on a field trip for school one time. Mommy was the class parent so she got to come too. They had - had a star show in the planetarium and -" Sophia yawns then, a yawn so big he's surprised her jaw doesn't crack. "And an Apollo module and fake mission control and - lots of space stuff."

Carol is just stroking her kid's head, her eyes so full of love that Daryl's surprised it doesn't light up in the dark. He's struck again - Sophia's a fucking smart kid. Space stuff, books. He feels a pang at all the shit she'll never get to learn or see, stuff Daryl'd spent his whole life not even thinking about. He'd wasted years she'll never have and it sucks.

"This is better though," Sophia says softly, almost happily. Daryl clears his throat then, not sure why it suddenly feels tight.

"Y'know a lot 'bout stars?"

Sophia shakes her head softly, snuggling closer to her mom. "Nuh-uh."

"See that there? Kinda a zigzag? S'Cassiopeia. Can use her to find Polaris - the north star, y'know."


"Named after one a them Greek queens. Pissed off a god, got her kingdom attacked by sea monsters." He darts a look at Carol - maybe monster stories aren't great right before bed. Specially when they all get attacked by monsters pretty much on the regular.

"Which one is it? Which zig zag?"

And Daryl finds himself tracing out the constellations with his bow, line by line connecting the stars.

"She trusts you too."

It's later - Sophia has long since collapsed into a puddle, the blanket tucked around her, Daryl's jacket covering her feet while her head is pillowed in Carol's lap. The sky is getting lighter - the stars starting to fade. Almost morning.

They made it through one more night.

Daryl looks at Carol. Her hands always in contact with the kid - resting on her back, tucking her hair out of her face, smoothing at her cheek. Like she can't believe Sophia's real, sometimes, needs to touch her to make sure she isn't a dream. He wonders if this is something she's always done or if it's a new development since she was missing.

Daryl pretends not to have heard Carol, which doesn't work. She just says it again.

"She trusts you."

"She don't gotta," Daryl says. He looks away from Carol - to the distant trees, the wide-open land of Hershel's farm. He thinks he might be able to see, over by the pasture, a part of the fence torn down - maybe where the walker that got Dale came in from.

"She knows that. She's chosen to."

Dumb ass choice, Daryl thinks. Since he's spent most of the time dragging the kid around on a sprained ankle, freaking her out and punching shit.

As if she can hear him, Carol says, "She chose to because you've earned it. What you've done for her -"

"Ain't done nothin' the others wouldn't do," Daryl says.

"You didn't leave her."

Daryl looks at Carol, surprised. Remembers that first day Sophia was missing, coming back without her, the confrontation on the side of the road. Carol saying to Rick, How could you just leave her out there to begin with? Rick flinching as each word cut him.

"You didn't leave her, and it would have been easier. But you didn't. You didn't have to tell her stories about flowers or stars, you didn't have to get involved when Shane - "

"Wasn't gonna let him -"

"And you didn't have to do any of this with Randall," Carol continues, her voice low and soft, her hand tracing over Sophia's hair. "It'd be a lot easier to do nothing. You didn't have to do any of those things, and most people here wouldn't. Most of them haven't." Carol's eyes are blue and fixed on him. "You have. She trusts you. And so do I."

Daryl wants someone else to interrupt - to climb up the ladder, wants the driver door beneath him to swing open, or Hershel to step out on his porch with a cup of coffee, for all it's still too early for any of these things. Half wants Sophia to wake up, even - just anything to mean that Carol will stop looking at him, stop saying things that don't make sense, things he doesn't know how to refute or argue against because he's never been good with words.

But no one comes. It's just the two of them and Sophia, sleeping soundly between them.

Finally, he just spits off the side of the RV. Carol seems to take that for something. She gives him a smile, small, almost impish.

"But you better not teach her about spitting the way you do stars," she says, and it's unexpected enough that Daryl finds himself letting out one sharp, small bark of a laugh.

Chapter 19: Honest Work

Chapter Text

The morning comes crisp and clear but still with a little chill to the air, even when the sun comes up. Carol gets a sleepy Sophia down off the roof of the RV and they both re-emerge in long sleeves - Sophia's too big for her, the overlong sleeves hiding her hands from view. Daryl hasn't been tracking days - the fuck does it matter if it's Sunday or Tuesday now? - but the weather is turning in a way he recognizes and slightly dreads. It's not summer anymore.

It's a thought that's weird enough on its own - it'd been summer when the shit hit the fan, when the dead stopped staying down, when the whole world fell apart. It's like on some level Daryl'd forgotten that just because he's been busy worrying about walkers doesn't mean the rest of the world stops spinning or whatever. (Literally, even.) So when the air doesn't fully warm in the sun, when he sees the others scraping through what limited wardrobes they have to layer up, when Hershel comes out for a quiet word with Rick that ends with Rick telling them that the camp is going to move inside, Daryl knows what it means.

It means the day-to-day shit is only going to get that much harder.

Even as he thinks that, though, the day sets off into a kind of work that Daryl's always liked. It reminds him of being a kid and packing for a camping trip - going down the list, making sure everything he needed was there, trying to plan for eventualities. It reminds him too of that job working construction in Amicalola - four months when Merle was in lock-up down in Dawson County and Daryl had stayed put, waking up every day and doing hard labor under the sun, the ache and sweat of it, the way he'd felt a good kind of tired each night. He'd slept hard, had barely any dreams. Even falling off the roof hadn't been so bad - the guys from the site had chipped in, sent him a pizza and a six-pack, and he'd been back working three days later. Of course, when Merle'd gotten out they'd hit the road again. Daryl hadn't even had time to give notice, something he'd felt shitty about as he and Merle drove out of town - thinking of the foreman wondering where he was, waiting for him to show.

Which is just to say that even though the work they set out to do that day is work that'd make Merle spit, it's nothing Daryl turns his nose up at. It's an honest day's work. Good enough for him.

So he spends the morning with T-Dog and Andrea and Shane - checking the fence line, clearing walkers. It makes Daryl almost ill to see the waste - the number of cows Hershel's lost, that the walkers have chowed down on. Tries to ignore, as he hauls the messy bodies away, how much food that would have been for them all, how when winter comes -

He doesn't interact with Shane if he can help it. The mottled bruising on the side of Shane's face from his little adventure with Rick is fading some - instead of making him look lopsided, Shane now looks almost alien, with his round head and protruding ears. He looks like this world isn't his at all, and Daryl's not fucking with that. Not yet. Not until he's gotta. It's not like they need a ton of communication to get the work done, anyway. So they don't.

And if it means that every so often Shane goes off on a walker, holds off at braining them so he can kick and stomp and get his licks in - well. Fine.

At noon, they go back in, wash up, and say their goodbyes to Dale.

And maybe that's an honest kind of work too.

The others have been busy while Daryl and them were out. The camp is virtually gone - everything they own in backpacks or milk crates, being loaded up into cars to haul it up to the big house. He sees Carol carefully disassembling his own tent and isn't even pissed she's touching his shit. Rick's giving orders - move the cars near the doors (Rick catches his eye, a ghost of a smile as he amends it to 'vehicles' as Daryl grabs Merle's bike), directs them where to build the lookout posts, gives everyone a job. ("I need you and Daryl on double duty," he hears Rick say to T-Dog, and instead of it making Daryl pissed - why's he gotta do more'n the others, just because they don't know shit? - it makes his stomach curl again, that too warm feeling that's too close to pride to be comfortable.) So he scowls and shrugs and does his bit, pulls his weight.

If anything, this new feeling - like setting up for a battle, fortifying and digging in, the extra prickle of wariness - makes Daryl feel more comfortable here. Sure, he doesn't belong in Hershel's zillion-year-old house, with his clean cloth napkins and heavy wooden furniture. He's not a house person, he doesn't do manners or any of that shit. But he's a fighter, for sure, and if that's how he earns his place here?

Well. He can do that.

Shane sulks like a fucking kid, conspicuous in his lack of talking - Daryl can't remember the last time Shane didn't spout off at any little thing. The only thing that makes him talk is Rick's plan for Randall.

"We're back to that now?" Shane bites out. Rick and Daryl are gonna drive Randall out, cut him loose. Daryl's not sure if it's the best plan. It's sure as hell not the safest. But he thinks about Dale - Dale, insides steaming in the night air, the look in his eyes. A decent man. Dale was a decent guy and if he thought killing Randall was gonna fuck them all over, well. Daryl'll trust Dale's view of the matter over Shane's.

Not that he'd said that shit to Rick. Rick had just asked, "You'll come? To get rid of Randall?" And Daryl, rinsing his hands off after a morning of walker slaughter and fence-mending, had just grunted a yes.

The inside is busier than it's ever been - people bumping along room to room, arms full of bedding and backpacks, shouting from one side of the house to another. "Lord," Patricia says, after Jimmy hollers something from upstairs, "It's like move-in day at the freshman dorms around here." She gives Daryl a tired sort of smile and Daryl just shifts awkwardly - wasn't like he had any experience of shit like that.

"Where should I -" Daryl asks, juggling the laundry basket in his arms that appears to be full of empty water jugs and whatever random canned goods they haven't gone through yet, plus four can-openers. (Who the fuck carried four can openers? Wouldn't one do?)

"Daryl!" Sophia skips - yeah, practically skips, no more crutches for her - down the stairs, darting around Andrea and heading right for him. "Hershel said I could get off the crutches, look!"

She hops on one foot - on the bad one, and Daryl doesn't miss the faintest little wince that crosses her face when she makes contact with the floor.

"Watch it," Daryl grumbles, squinting at her ankle. "Best not bust yourself up again right when y'get cleared."

"Kay," Sophia says, stopping hopping.

Patricia, still with the smile, leans over and plucks the laundry basket out of Daryl's hands. "I'll take that. Why don't you go and get settled in?"

Daryl opens his mouth - settle in where? This place is a fucking madhouse and hell if he knows where they're shoving him - when Sophia's hand, small and warm, finds its way to his sleeve.

"This way!" she says, a corresponding tug to his jacket, and it's not like Daryl's got any better idea.

So he follows her.

Sophia and Carol have been assigned the room where Daryl'd done his recuperating. Carol's arranging their bags and boxes on the floor. Daryl notices she's not fully unpacking most of them, which makes him give her a grudging nod of approval. Smart.

"Here, sweetheart, want to make up the bed?" Carol says, and suddenly Sophia's got an armload of blankets dumped on her.

"She's excited," Carol says fondly as Sophia starts spreading out blankets - most of them look like handmade quilts, and he wonders if they're Hershel's quilts or if Carol made 'em, brought them from home. "She's never been to a sleepover before. Think she thinks it's going to be all ghost stories and midnight feasts now that we're all under one roof."

Daryl grunts. Hasn't that been what it's been like already, in the outside camp? He's not sure what the difference is now that they're all inside. And what the hell is a midnight feast?

"Y'know where they're shovin' me?" Daryl asks, and Carol gives him a look that's almost nervous, which makes his hackles raise. What? What's she know that he doesn't? Hershel going to make him sleep outside or something? Well, joke'd be on him, Daryl's better outside, always has been. He could set up on that porch and be just fucking peachy -

"I - think the plan is the men in the dining room." Daryl bristles a little at that. Not even a fucking door or a nylon tent, just what - him and T-Dog and Shane? Maybe Glenn, till he starts shacking up upstairs with his horse-girl? Daryl's not an idiot. He's figured out T-Dog ain't a bad guy. A criminally clumsy one, maybe - dropping that key, slicing open his own goddamn arm - but not bad. Still, Merle'd done enough damage that T-Dog isn't exactly the guy Daryl'd pick for a roommate. The only person lower on the list is probably Shane.

And not even a lick of privacy. Daryl's already doing the math - how many night watch shifts can he take? Maybe once they get rid of Daryl he could set up in the loft of the slaughter shed or something. The barn reeks of death and decay but the slaughter shed'd be all right, once Randall left. He could put his sleeping bag up there, no one'd probably even notice. Sure it'd get cold, but wasn't nothing new to him. Maybe -

It's like Carol can read what he's thinking. "I - If you wanted to, you could -" She's working up to saying something, and Daryl's damned if he can figure out what it is. "If - if it's too close down there, you're always welcome to -" She shrugs, a flush to her cheeks. What is she saying?

"You can stay in here with us if you want," Sophia chimes in. She's folding a blanket at the end of the bed. Her eyes dart from her mother to Daryl, and she bites her lip. "Mom and me are gonna share the bed since it's so big, so - there's a lot of floor." Sophia's sneaker traces a line along the smooth floorboards. Her face twists a little - Daryl can recognize the movement. Like she's chewing on the inside of her cheek. Carol too seems braced for something - for what? What does she think he's going to say? He can't stay in here. He can't share a room with a twelve-year-old girl. Hell, he can't share a room with a widow and her child, like he's some kind of - what are they thinking? What does an offer like this even mean, what is it for?

"Daryl? You up there? Rick's looking for you!" Lori Grimes hollers from somewhere downstairs, and it's the first time he's been please that Lori's yelling at him.

"Better go," Daryl says, and ducks out of the room quick.

"Daryl! Did you hear? Lori says -"

"Yeah, 'm comin'!" Daryl calls back, thundering down the stairs, pushing whatever the fuck it is that just happened away. They probably didn't mean it like that. Just meant he could go - read there sometimes (or listen to Sophia read) or hideout if he needed a little quiet. They didn't mean to set up in there, like some kind of family unit, like the Grimes apartment they're setting up in Hershel's room. They didn't mean it like that.

"Rick's out on the porch and he's askin' -"

"Said 'm comin'!" Daryl snaps at Hershel's skinny farmhand, and he slams the screen door behind him as he gets out.

Living behind walls again is going to take some figuring out.

Rick's got a map out on the porch, a little frown etched between his eyes as he squints at it, traces a route to his thumb.

"Take him out to Senoia - hour there, hour back, give or take. We may lose the light, but we'll be halfway home by then." Rick looks at him and Daryl just shrugs. Takes a step, nods.

"This little pain in the ass'll be a distant memory," Daryl mumbles. "Good riddance." Yeah, maybe he doesn't know if killing Randall themselves if the best idea, but he can't say he isn't glad to get the shit gone and out of their hair. Out of Sophia's reach.

A man and his two daughters. Real young. Real cute -

And if that means driving two hours into walker territory, means parting with a couple cans of vegetables, well. That's a price Daryl will pay, and gladly.

"That thing you did last night," Rick says suddenly, and Daryl feels himself scowl, his fingers picking at the seam of his jeans. What - Rick gonna give him crap for shooting Dale? When everyone had known Dale needed shooting, when Rick had been about to do it himself?

But then he sneaks a glance at Rick's face and oh. Daryl knows that look, sort of. It's the same look Rick had when Daryl had pulled Sophia out from behind his back, a look of total gratitude, a kind of feeling beyond words. Daryl doesn't know if he's ever seen anything like it before. Certainly not aimed at him. Sees Rick take in a breath, like he's really going to say something, speak this shit into the air and Daryl doesn't know how to take it, so he finds himself talking instead.

"Ain't no reason you should do all the heavy lifting," Daryl mutters, squinting up at him, and as he says it he's surprised to find he means it. Rick shouldn't have to do everything - all the hard stuff, all the shit work gets shoved to him, and sure, all the easy stuff too. Hell, everything that needs doing passes through his hands at some point, and it's got to be a lot.

And if it's running towards Rick because Rick is a decent man, well then. Maybe Daryl can help shoulder some of that shit too.

You're a decent man. Rick too. You, Rick - you don't lead that way.

So yeah. Maybe, maybe, this is something else Daryl can help with. Just a different kind of honest work.

He hears the car pulling up the gravel of the drive and sneaks a peek over his shoulder. Shane's coming back up. Maybe that's what makes Rick pull back from whatever conversation he was going to start about Dale or whatever, makes him pivot back - strictly planning. Well, good. That's what Daryl's better at too.

"So are you good with all this?"

Daryl squints. Looks back towards the car, Shane, his bald and bruised head shining in the light.

"Don't see you an' I tradin' haymakers on the side of the road." Is that surprise around Rick's eyes? What, had nobody else figured it out when Shane came back all busted to hell around the face - like walkers can punch? "Nobody'd win that fight," Daryl adds, because it's true. Daryl's not going to crack up at Rick like that'd get him anywhere, keep him any safer, protect Carol or Sophia, or any of the others.

Shane? Well, maybe he'd do it to Shane. But Rick ain't Shane.

Like thinking his name summons him, Shane is trudging up to the porch, hands shoved in pockets. Daryl pushes off of his perch on the railing, straightens himself out.

"Gotta take a piss," he says, and heads back towards the house. Doesn't go back upstairs, though. Instead, finds his way to the dining room where Glenn and T-Dog are huffing over the huge wooden table, trying to shift it closer to the door.

"Man, this ain't gonna work," T-Dog whines, wiping his forehead on the sleeve of his shirt. "We should camp down in the living room. Hershel's already in there, might as well - "

"The couch is mine!" Hershel calls from the kitchen, and Glenn cracks a grin.

"Let him have a single, it's his house. Daryl, man, come give us a hand - we're trying to -"

"Gotta take a piss," Daryl says, darting past them. He finds his way to the bathroom upstairs, double checks there's nobody in there, closes the door. Lets himself have the moment, the peace and quiet, the sounds muffled by the heavy door.

Maybe he'll tell Rick tonight. An hour's drive back, once they drop Randall. Plenty of time to say some things about Shane, what he's done. What he's doing. He'll tell Rick tonight, all of it, everything Daryl's seen, what Dale said, hell, what Shane'd done yesterday to Sophia, freaking her out. He'll tell Rick, and Rick's a decent man. He won't just do nothing, let the rest of them live with a time bomb, wait for him to go off.

Yeah. He'll tell Rick, tonight. After they drop off Randall. They'll make a plan, figure it out.

Because close quarters like this? Doesn't make anybody's temper any sweeter or safer. Daryl knows that from experience.

Someone bangs on the door. "Beth! Come on, you can't take so long in there anymore, I have to go!" someone whines from the other side of the door.

"Ain't Beth," Daryl snarls back, and the banging immediately ceases. He takes his time washing his hands, then slips out - Hershel's gangly farm boy is hovering awkwardly down at the other end of the hallway, avoiding Daryl's gaze as Daryl makes his way back downstairs. Glenn is tugging at the table, baseball hat askew with the effort, T-Dog slumped over one of the dining chairs.

"A'right, c'mon then," Daryl grunts, and he settles himself on one end. "Let's figure this out."

He doesn't tell Rick about Shane that night.

Rick figures out about Shane all on his own.

And Rick, all on his own, takes care of it.

Once he and Glenn find Randall a lot of things slot into place, the first of which is that Shane did this, Shane's out there, and the others are back at the house and they don't know.

He doesn't say anything right away - just tells Glenn they gotta get back. He doesn't think Glenn'd take Shane's side in this - Glenn likes the others, Hershel, the farm, his horse-girl, Carl, and Sophia. Glenn wouldn't put them in danger. But he remembers too, the looks he used to get from Glenn back at the quarry, distaste and distrust all rolled into one, back at the quarry when Shane was the sane one, when Shane took care of them.

So he waits. Him and Glenn will head for the house, find the others. He'll tell Carol, maybe, when he gets there. Carol will know how to break it to the others. And hell, maybe Shane and Rick are already back. Maybe Shane's plan was just to kill Randall and make it look like an accident, maybe that's the end of it. Get rid of Randall, get back in the others good books, get -

But Daryl doesn't see how killing Randall this way gets Shane anything he didn't have before, except Randall dead. So there's got to be some other part of the plan, something Daryl's not seeing.

When they hear the shot, these thoughts just swirl harder around and without speaking, he feels Glenn pick up the pace too, the two of them practically sprinting through the woods - shit, the Korean kid is fast - nothing to hear except the snap and crack of twigs underfoot, their twin sets of breathing, their confusion.

The lights inside are so bright compared to the dark of the woods. It's almost blinding and Daryl scans the room and hopes the reason he can't see Shane or Rick is because of the light, the adjustment.

"Thing is," Daryl says, eyes darting from Hershel to Lori to Carol, ending on Carol because Carol's the one that'll hear him, that will understand right away. "Shane and Randall's tracks were right on top of each other. And Shane ain't no tracker. So he didn't come up behind him. They were together."

No one seems surprised by this. They were more surprised about Randall not having been bit than they are about Shane lying to them, and Daryl wonders if they understand now what they've probably been sensing for a while - that something ain't right here. Whatever they're realizing, none of them seem surprised, not even Andrea who seems to be the only one to still really like Shane. Certainly not Lori, Lori who frankly he was the most worried about, who comes close, her eyes dark with concern, her voice almost wobbling.

"Would you please get back out there and find Rick and Shane and find out what on earth is going on?"

Like she needed to ask him. But he hefts his crossbow, feet already heading towards the door.

"You got it."

But he doesn't get far. Because the second he steps out on the porch, he realizes that the night isn't silent anymore.

Now he can hear, and see, coming over the horizon under the light of a sky full of stars, row upon row of walkers, groaning and straining and stumbling their way forward.

Towards the house.

Towards them.

Daryl's shitty at math but he can do this math - knows, vaguely, the weight of what a house can take. (That summer in Amicalola close all of a sudden, a phantom sense of sun on his shoulders.) This isn't something they can hide from or wait out. He thinks, with a pang, the day's work - nailing boards to windows, carting all their stuff inside, rolling out sleeping bags and moving tables, making up beds. All that work, for nothing.

They've already lost the house. They just haven't let it go yet.

It's about the worst news Daryl can think of.

Until he hears behind him, a voice high and thin with panic crashing out of the door, a body moving too fast with no clear idea of where to move to.

"Sophia's gone!" Carol's voice almost doesn't sound human anymore and her eyes find Daryl's, whole face turned inside out with panic.

"Carl's gone too - " Lori is right behind her, and for all he gives Lori shit for being a bad mama, she looks as if she's about to keel over right there. "They were upstairs, they were reading, and I can't find him anymore -"

He remembers Sophia's face down by the pond, pinched and stammering. It wasn't my idea. I wasn't - Carl was - I was scared he'd - so I went to try and get him to come back -

Fuck. Fuck.

"Maybe they're hiding - " Glenn offers weakly. "Playing, maybe they're -"

"Sophia wouldn't do that!" Carol snaps, her voice suddenly turned from fear to fire. "She wouldn't - I'm not leaving without her! I'm not, never -"

"We won't," Lori says, her voice ragged. "We're not going, not without Carl, not -"

"We'll look again," someone says. It takes Daryl a moment to realize it's him. "We'll find 'em." Carol's eyes, so huge, staring at him. "We'll find 'em! Y'all take the house, I'll go down to the shed, check there - we'll find 'em," he says once more, grabbing the gun someone is hanging out, loading his pockets with ammo. "I'll take the bike, I'll - I'll find 'em," Daryl says once more, and he doesn't know what the others are doing because all he can see is Carol, Carol straight ahead of him, her and Lori clutching hands with each other like they're scared if they let go then they'll be lost too.

It doesn't matter what the others are doing. Because Carol gives him a nod, once, her eyes still fixed on his.You knew you'd find her, the look seems to say, and so he nods back.

And with that, all of them split to their own separate missions, trying to save something from this poisoned well that was meant to be their home.

Chapter 20: Losing and Finding

Chapter Text

She's not dying. That's the thought that keeps racing through Daryl's head as he hops on Merle's Triumph, kickstarts it, the familiar thrum as it comes to life under his hands. The night is dark now, the stars the brightest thing out there - Cassiopeia, there, then Orion, riding south fast. He flips on the headlight and takes off across Hershel's fields, his head fucking racing. But he needs to stay calm, he knows that, he can't think when he gets worked up, he can't let his brain get ahead of him or he'll never find them. So to keep his brain occupied, to stop it from spinning, he thinks it, over and over.

That kid's not dying. Not here, not now, not after she just got back. She's not.

She's not. Neither is Carl, Carl Grimes and his stupid hat and his freckly little face, Carl Grimes unafraid of the world, too stubborn to die. Sophia, too much of a survivor. They're fucking tough, those kids, tougher than they think they are, they're gonna be fine. Well, they'll be fine till Daryl tears them a new one for going wandering, at least. But. They'll be fine. He'll find them and they'll be fine, they won't be -

The quiet of the night is broken now with the distant snarls and growls of the dead, and also with fucking gunfire. Daryl wishes he could see more than a few feet in front of him. The headlights from the pickup, the Honda, cut crazy zig-zagging trails over the field, illuminating nothing useful, just individual decaying faces, empty tufts of grass. Nothing pointing towards the kids. Daryl wishes he had the

"Carl! Sophia!" The names echo faintly over the fields from the house, and it reminds Daryl of what he should be doing instead of fucking panic zooming around.

"Carl!" he hollers, and he waits. You gotta wait after you yell or you'll yell right over the person you're calling. But all he can hear is the almost rhythmic banging of the gunfire, engines accelerating and de-accelerating, the grind and screech of wheels on dirt and grass slick with dew, the low, ever-present groaning that feels like it's coming from all directions. "Sophia!"

Nothing. He can barely hear over the wind tearing past his ears. He slows the bike down, calls again, squints into the darkness. "Sophia!"

Just more gunfire. Fuck, he hopes the others are fucking looking before they shoot - Carl got clipped by accident standing still in full sunlight, what are the odds that two kids dodging walkers aren't going to end up shot through with friendly fire -

She's not dying, you idiot, his brain hisses, and he picks up speed again and does a loop around the farm. Goes past the pond - "Sophia! Carl!" - no movement other than a clump of walkers, caught in the muck, walking deeper and deeper. The chicken coop - already damaged, walkers shoving hands through the fencing so hard that the thing is in pieces, chickens squawking as they dig their fingers in. The slaughter shed where Randall'd been kept - here Daryl even dismounts the bike, goes inside to check. It's still empty - a small puddle of something that could be blood where the chains had been. No kids in the loft, no kids anywhere. Fuck. Fuck.

When he exits the slaughter shed, remounts the bike, picking off two walkers as he goes - the gun almost too heavy in his hands after so long with just the bow - it takes him a moment to realize that it's easier to see, all of a sudden. And another moment to realize it's not just the people in the house being stupid and turning the lights on.

He's not sure whether it's a good thing or a bad thing when he loops the bike back towards the house and sees the whole fucking barn alight.

Whatever it is, at least it's a direction. Another place to look.

Daryl kicks the bike into gear, goes as fast as he can, hoping what he finds there is more than he's found anywhere else.

It probably shouldn't be surprising that there, lit from behind by flames, running along the barn roof nimble as a squirrel, is Carl Grimes. Daryl sees him leap from one section to another, his dad practically pulling him along by the hand as they rush for the roof of the RV.

But Sophia isn't there. Rick isn't looking back for another kid, trying to drag her along too. He's focused totally on Carl.

He wouldn't leave her, Daryl tells himself, his stomach ice, picking off walkers mechanically, brain racing. Rick wouldn't just leave her behind if he knew she was out there. They must have gotten separated, Carl and Sophia. She must be -

He tries not to think of the easiest answer - that Rick wouldn't leave her behind unless she was already lost.

No. Nuh-uh, no way. He's not losing her tonight. He's not leaving her behind. He's gonna find her. And good, good that Rick found Carl because that makes Daryl's job a hell of a lot easier. Because he doesn't know anything about what goes on in Carl's head but Sophia? He can figure that out. He can. He will.

"Sophia!" he hollers again, barely able to even hear himself over the noise - gunshots, groaning, now the crackle of the blazing barn. Okay. Think. She's not in the house. She's not in the shed, not at the pond, not at the coop. She could be in the woods, but Daryl doesn't engage with that thought yet. If she's in the woods he doesn't have a chance in hell of finding her now, not in this darkness, this chaos - his best hope, in that case, is to wait for morning, hope the girl has the sense to wait out the herd, climb a tree or something -


Should we - go upstairs? Like climbing a tree. Walkers don't climb.

Okay. Wait. His brain is racing as he tells it to slow down, tries to let his body catch up, but maybe his body understands quicker than his head because he's already wheeled the bike in the direction of the only outbuilding left that he hasn't checked and that isn't on fire.

Girl's quick and smart - she ain't gonna run for the woods, not like this. She'll know she'll need people, need to get as close to them as she can. If Carl had been close enough to make it back to the barn, then Sophia is close enough to find her way back to them before she got cut off totally. And the kid is a climber. Remembers her clambering up that ladder last night, practically silent, sleeping in trees for days, hopping from tree to tree. She'll aim for somewhere she can hike up to, somewhere she can hideout, somewhere safe and off the ground. She's done it before. That's what she'll be doing now.

You came,a little voice whispers in his head, tear choked, scared.

She was hoping you'd come, Carol's voice says, evenly. She remembered what you said, how you wouldn't let anybody touch her -

I didn't think anybody'd find me.

Daryl hadn't found her before. In the woods, him all fucked up in that creekbed, it'd been pure luck that she'd stumbled across him. Could have happened a hundred different ways with a hundred worse endings, but she'd found him.

This time, he'd find her.

She's not dying. Not tonight. Not like this.

Not if he has anything to say about it.

The barn is untouched by fire but Daryl can hear the horses freaking out inside. Maybe from the smell of the smoke, or the reek of the walkers, the gunfire. Daryl can hear kicking from inside, wood splintering, and the damn things might as well be ringing the damn dinner bell, the ruckus they're raising. Daryl parks the bike, leaves it idling.

"Sophia!" he yells and waits. He thinks he hears something - some little, human voice, some words - but it's hard to tell over the screaming of the horses. Daryl scans the outside of the building - there's a little hayloft up there, something, no outside ladder or whatever, which means he's gotta go inside.

He checks his gun, checks his knife, and runs in.

The inside of the barn is so loud - the horses all losing their minds. The other door, down at the far end, is holding so far, but he can see hands, skeletal fingers crawling like spiders, bashing away at the mechanism, prying their way in. Daryl almost slams the door to the stable shut behind him. It's a wonder they haven't made it around to the north side of the barn yet - they must be so fixed on the horses that they aren't spreading, just bunching up down at the west side of the barn.



His heart almost stops as a little head, blonde hair tangled, face smudged with dirt, peers over the top of the stable loft.

Fuck. Thank fuck.

"C'mon," Daryl says, hunting for the ladder. "Git down, we gotta go, I gotcha - "

"I - I couldn't get back," Sophia says, her chin wobbling like now that Daryl's here she's safe, she can be scared. But they aren't safe yet and there's no time for fear or tears so Daryl just makes an impatient movement with his hands, holds them out.

"We gotta go," Daryl barks, and Sophia doesn't need to hear more than that. She's scrambling down that ladder so quick she practically leaps it, Daryl reaching out to steady her as she lands, a jarring landing that makes her wince.

"Your ankle okay?" Daryl asks, trying to do the math of how he'll fight their way out of here if she's all busted up again - he's not hurt this time, he could strap the kid to his back and haul her if he needed to - but the girl just shakes her head.

"No no, I can run, I can - "

"Bike's out front," Daryl grunts, grabbing her arm, tugging her towards the front door. He stops, listens for a second - the walkers don't sound louder here, hopefully still distracted down by the other door. But it's hard to hear over the horses -


Daryl turns back, eyes calculating - there are four horses here, including Nelly, Nelly whose practically frothing at the mouth with fear. Before he's even sure what he's doing (or why he's doing it,) Daryl's shoving Sophia into a corner, approaching the boxes as quickly and quietly as he can, even though it's hard to see how he could make them more upset. He studies the bolts holding the stall doors shut, figures out the easiest way to open them which won't end with him kicked in the face.

He looks back at Sophia.

"M'gonna let 'em out," Daryl says. "When I say go, you slide open that main door there and tuck yourself back, a'right? Stay outta their path."

If there are walkers out there, hopefully a horse running past will be a good enough distraction to clear the door so the two of them can make it clear to the bike. And hell, Daryl hopes they run fast enough and far enough that they make it. Even if they don't, at least they'll die out there, making a run for it, instead of penned up and helpless, trapped -

Sophia nods and that's enough for him. Daryl lunges for the latches, tugs, and throws himself back as far out of their path as he can.

Later he'll probably figure out how fucking stupid that plan was, how much of it depended on luck. But as he runs from the barn, Sophia's small hand clutched in his, all he can think is that it worked.

As they climb on the bike, Daryl yelling "Hold on!" as he starts it up as fast as he can, stabbing out with his knife as a loan walker goes for them, Daryl thinks he sees Nelly, tail flowing out behind her as she runs, fast and fleet, disappearing into the darkness.

Sophia's clutching to him as tight as she can as they drive their way through hell, the barn on fire, flaming walkers lurching towards them, Daryl darting and weaving as much as he dares with the girl riding behind him. He's bringing them back up to the house - the house which stands dark and alone in front of them, the field bright with flames but no longer lit by the headlights of other cars. He sees the RV, abandoned by the barn, wonders if he should check it for survivors. But he's got the kid on the back, and there's flames licking the hood of the vehicle, the roof. If anyone's in there, it's probably too late for them. If he squints he thinks he can see Hershel, firing away, but then Hershel is gone too. It's hard to tell if there are any people left there at all, or if it's just them and the walkers left.

He loops around, trying to shake off the following walkers, tries not to lead them all up to the house.

But when he gets there, the house is cold and dark, the porch empty. Spent shell casings and turned over rocking chairs. No Lori, no Hershel.

No Carol.

Daryl hops off the bike, slams his way through the front door to the house, in case they're all inside, looking. "Carol! I got her - Carol!" No answer. "Lori, Carl's with Rick! Carol!"



He doesn't know what to do. Remembers Carol's face, the horrible drawn look.I'm not leaving without her!

What does he do? Ride off with the kid, keep her safe? Or find Carol - Carol who wouldn't leave the farm without her kid, Carol who isn't here and so could be anywhere out there, anywhere at all, lost somewhere in the bloody burning chaos.

He slams out of the house, finds Sophia there, on the porch, eyes wide in her face.

"C'mon," Daryl barks out, grabbing the kid's arm again. "We gotta -"

"Where's my mom?"

Daryl doesn't know the answer. Daryl doesn't know what to do.

Carol would kill him if he left anything happen to Sophia.

Carol might already be dead.

He doesn't say anything, just keeps pulling the kid back towards the bike. But Sophia tears her arm away from him, spins back towards the house, up the steps, through the door.

"Sophia! No, we gotta go!" Daryl yells, lunging after her, but Sophia is already rushing through the ground floor of the house.

"Mom! Mom, where are you? Mommy!"

Daryl grabs her arm again and the kid shoves at him. It's the most fight he's seen in the kid yet and it'd be sort of beautiful to watch if it wasn't in the middle of a war zone and if she wasn't costing them the time they'd need to get out.

"We can't leave her! Daryl, we can't, we have to - we have to find her! Mommy!"

"We'll find her," Daryl says, the echo of his earlier words ringing in his ears. He already found Sophia - probably his miracle for the night, hell, probably his miracle for the whole rest of his life. It's too much luck to think he'll be able to find Carol too.

Carol will kill him if anything happens to Sophia.

"We'll find her! We gotta go!" Daryl yells, and he makes another grab for Sophia's arm. This time she lets him take it and he drags her out the door, down to the bike - the walkers coming closer, almost too close.

"I'll find her, I promise, just c'mon!" Daryl hollers, and as he mounts the bike he feels Sophia's thin arms loop around his waist, the weight of her pressing against his back. He's never let anyone ride pillion with him before - never liked anyone touching his back. But he barely even notices as he slams the bike into gear, tears away just ahead of the grasping hands of the walkers.

And as they ride, zipping and zig-zagging through the night, Daryl wonders how much that promise is going to cost him.

Chapter 21: Tougher


(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Daryl's not sure how long they've been riding when he feels a sharp tap against his back. Not hard enough to hurt or anything - he doesn't think she's even trying to hurt him - but Sophia's little fist knocks at him two more times before he can find a good enough spot to pull over. They're deep in the woods now, kicking along an old dirt road that looks like it's seen about two trucks in the past fifty years. It's unfamiliar territory - not the woods where he and Sophia had trekked for three days, which is now probably overrun with walkers. Somewhere new and dark and different.

He stops the bike and gets off - his ears are buzzing a little, from the wind blowing past them, and he's listening hard, head practically swiveling every second. The darkness and stillness mean safety, for as long as it holds. Daryl wonders what's happening back at the farm now - if the barn has burned itself down yet, if any walkers have escaped the inferno and carried the flames elsewhere. If there's more danger in these woods than just the usual kind, and when the hell did walkers become just usual?

Sophia steps off the bike too - stiffly, awkwardly, and Daryl frowns, scans her. It's probably just from riding the bike, from having to hold on. But still, he should have stopped earlier, maybe. Should have checked she was okay.

"Y'a'right?" Daryl asks, eyes tracing over her. No rips or tears in her clothes at least, smears of dirt or dust but no obvious blood. "Y'ain't hurt nowhere, are you?"

"We have to go back," Sophia says, her voice choked and raw, and that's when Daryl realizes that the girl's spent the whole ride, probably at least an hour at this point, clinging to his back and crying. He hadn't noticed - he's wearing his vest and a jacket so whatever wet spot may be back there didn't make it to his skin. He feels his frown deepen - stupid. Left the kid back there suffering for all this time. Who knows what kind of state she's worked herself into?

"Please, Daryl, please, we can't leave her -" The kid's lip wobbles dramatically here, so hard it seems like she almost can't talk anymore.

Daryl immediately feels like shit, because the kid is begging and they aren't going back. Not yet. He can smell the smoke still, even if the woods is quiet enough. The farm isn't safe enough for them to do a real search now. It'll have to wait until morning, at the latest, and that means putting enough distance between them and danger that they can live until morning. Maybe find a car or something, someplace the kid can hole up while he does a real sweep. (He ignores the voice in his head saying he just did a fucking sweep of the whole place and didn't see Carol anywhere. There's lots of places she could still be. It isn't hopeless.) (Yet.)

"Can't yet," Daryl says shortly, and Sophia dissolves into a flood of tears. Shit. "We will," Daryl says, ignoring how stupid a promise it is. "Swear it, we'll go look for her. Just not yet. Ain't no good in the dark like this. Can't see shit."

"We can't leave her by herself," Sophia sobs, her face crumpled like paper. "She - she won't make it until morning, Daryl, please, she can't protect herself, please -"

"Hey," Daryl says, and he finds himself grabbing Sophia's shoulders, forcing the kid to stop, to look at him, to breathe. It's probably the wrong thing to do, get all up in her space when she's upset like this, but he doesn't know how else to make her listen. "Don't say that. Your ma's tough."

Sophia's face scrunches up more and he can feel her shoulders shaking under his hands. "She - she - isn't!" Sophia gasps. She sounds on the verge of hyperventilating, which makes Daryl's own breathing pick up. "Please, she needs us, she can't - Daryl please, please, I - I'll - I'll be good, I promise, I'll be so good, just please don't leave her -"

"Hey," Daryl says again, but the shaking of the kid's shoulders is just getting faster and faster, her breath almost heaving. He doesn't know how to stop it, how to calm her down, how to help, and shit he wants Carol. Carol would run one magic hand over Sophia's hair, press a kiss onto her forehead, make everything seem all right, make it all seem safe.

But Carol's not here. It's just Daryl, stupid Daryl, and he doesn't know what to do or how to help.

He thinks about movies, how a smack across the face always stops hysterical people in their tracks, but he can't make himself do it. Sophia, out here, so scared for her ma, he can't just off and whale on her, even if it'd calm her down, even if it was for her own good. He can't. Which is why he probably does the wrong thing, the only other thing he can think of, and finds himself pulling Sophia in close to him, one arm wrapped around her shoulders, another tangling awkwardly against her hair.

He's shocked when her own arms wrap around him, clinging hard, and he feels her let loose into his shirtfront, really crying now, harder even than she was at the pond, after Shane.

He lets her do it for a few moments - wonders if he should stop her, pull her back and shake her, get her to stop crying because they can't do this here, they've got to go, they've got to - but even in those moments, he feels her breathing start to even out, her shoulders jerk less. He gives her another few moments grace and then pulls himself away. Finds himself crouching down on her level, half an ear still scanning the woods around them for any sounds that might mean trouble.

"We're gonna find her," Daryl says, almost fiercely. Sophia's brown eyes are locked onto him, almost hypnotized, and he thinks of Carol. "We will. Ain't gonna rest till we do. Swear it. But we gotta go smart. Ain't no good findin' her if we all get stuck in a situation we can't get out of. Right?"

A small jerk of the chin. Probably the closest thing he'll get to a nod, but at least it means she's listening. One hand comes up, wipes at a dirty, tear-smudged cheek.

"Your ma is tough," Daryl says, and he sees Sophia opening her mouth and cuts her off. "She is. Hell, two of you, toughest ladies I ever met. Y'wouldn't'a thought you coulda made it a week in them woods by yourself before it happened, wouldja?"

A tiny shake.

"But y'did. Right? Y'made it. And your ma's as tough as you are."

"Maybe tougher," Sophia says. It's barely more than a whisper but it almost feels like a battle cry.

"Dunno 'bout that," Daryl shrugs. "Jury's out. But you did it. Right? And so can she. She'll do anythin' she needs to to get back t'you. She's gonna make it and that means we gotta make it too, so we can find her. Right?"

Sophia nods. Her hand wipes over her face again, scrubs at her eyes, and Daryl fishes in his pocket for his bandana. It's a little dusty but he shakes it out, hands it to her.

"Blow your nose," he says. "Not cause of - uh -" He gestures to her face, in case saying 'crying' upsets her. "But you're probably breathin' in lotta dust back there. Better get it out."

She wipes at her face, then blows obligingly. That seems to settle her a little more. She looks at him, no longer actively weeping, but still somber and scared and shaking. Well hell, that's fine. That's just smart, isn't it - it's a fucking shitty situation. But at least she doesn't seem like she's totally about to break down.

"What are we going to do?" Sophia whispers, and there's a moment of wavering in Daryl's stomach.

What are they going to do? What is he going to do, if he never finds Carol, if he can't find any of the rest of them? If it's just him and Sophia now?

Stop, he tells himself. Stop. They aren't there yet. And if that's what happens - well. Sophia's a survivor. Same as him. They'll do what they have to, just one foot in front of another, until they figure it out.

But god he hopes they don't have to.

"Gonna loop back around to the highway," Daryl says. He can't tell where the fuck they are now, but this forrest road'll end sooner or later, and then he'll figure out how to get back to the main road. There's a brief moment, a flash of yearning for a world that's gone - if he could hear other cars going past, he could just ride towards it, get them there that much quicker. "Maybe could find a car - be safer to have more cover, when we go back. Plus we left shit there for you when you were missin'. Could be the others'll head there too, y'know. Once they get clear." At least a few of the others must have made it out - he thinks of those headlights, disappearing in the haze of walkers and smoke. There's certainly cars on the highway he could set up for the two of them - hell, Shane had done one in about ten minutes, wouldn't take long. Maybe a pick-up or something he can throw the bike into the back of.

He doesn't allow himself to think of the supplies, the flashlight, the blankets, the food. Stuff that'll come in handy, give them a day or two of provisions, if the two of them need to start out totally on their own.

"By the time we get there, get a car, it'll be light out," Daryl says, squinting at the sky, at what stars he can see through the tree cover. "Then we'll figure out the best way to go back. And hell, your mama might already be there waitin' for us. Give me shit for lettin' you ride the bike without a helmet."

Not even the ghost of a smile, but another nod. A real one. Kid is listening, kid isn't freaking out. Her eyes aren't full of tears anymore and are focused on Daryl - small, intense.

She trusts you, Carol whispers in his ear, and god Daryl hopes he didn't just blow that to hell, practically promising the girl her mama'd be all right.

"Hop back on," Daryl says, but then reconsiders. Looks at the girl, frowns - she looks bone-tired and he's going to have to push to get them back to the main road, he's sure. "Wait, I'll - " He fumbles at his waist, his belt, pulls it out, hooks it around the outside of his jacket. Gets back onto the bike, jerks his head. "C'mon. Once you're settled, we'll buckle you in. Won't have to grip so hard with your arms."

Sophia doesn't even nod this time, just moves immediately behind him. He feels her hands slipping along, tightening. She isn't big but it's still probably a squeeze to shove the two of them into his one-person-sized belt. Instead of it freaking him out, how close she's shoved up to his back, it makes him breathe a little easier - like he'll know she's there the whole ride, won't have to constantly be worrying she flew off at the last bump.

"S'like that girl in your book," Daryl says. "All belted in like she did with the trees."

"Katniss," Sophia says, in a small voice that still reaches his ear.

"Yeah," Daryl says, kicking the bike into gear. "Her."

He feels Sophia's head rest against him, a movement that reminds him of the other night - last night? How long has this day been? - when she let her head fall onto Carol's shoulder like falling into a pillow.

"Hold on," Daryl grunts, and they take off again, shooting through the night.

The sky is noticeably lighter when Daryl finally finds his way back to the highway. Reading mile markers helps him figure out roughly how far out they are and what direction they need to be heading in, so he keeps up that way. Sophia's head bumps gently against his back over every bump - she's probably asleep back there. It's been a hell of a night. When he sneaks a peek down though, her hands are tucked into the belt around his waist, so he figures there's no harm in letting her sleep. It's not like she's going to fall off, and besides. Kid deserves a break.

It means however that Sophia's not awake when Daryl sees Shane's Hyundai come swerving across a field, spilling out onto the highway like a bat out of hell, and start driving in the opposite direction to where Daryl's heading.

There's a moment of hesitation in him before he realizes there's no other option. Once he remembers that, the choice is easy. Daryl weaves around an overturned semi and kicks off towards the Hyundai, trying to squash the hope in his chest that Carol is in there.

Carol's not in there. The sides and front are smeared with blood, but as he pulls up even with the passenger side, the window rolls down and he sees Glenn's horse-girl - Maggie, he should just call her Maggie from now on - looking wild and wide-eyed at seeing him.

"Daryl - oh my god -"

He can't talk like this, tearing down the side of the road. He jerks his head to the side, guns the bike. Pulls over and waits. Doesn't get off - Sophia's a warm, still weight against his back. No point disturbing her before he absolutely needs to.

Especially if Maggie and whoever she's driving with have bad news.

Carol's not in there. Daryl knows this because if she had been, she'd have probably thrown herself out of the vehicle the second she saw Daryl and Sophia. So he knows Carol's not there, isn't expecting it.

But still, a little something drops within him when the car pulls over and only Glenn and Maggie get out.

"Daryl, man - thank god you're all right, we didn't know if - oh shit, Sophia, -" Glenn is practically babbling, hands gripped around a gun that doesn't look like it's ever going to leave his side again.

"She's fine," Daryl says quietly, extra still. "Jus' sleepin'. Long night."

"Yeah," Glenn says fervently. "Yeah. Did you - did you see if -"

"Ain't seen nobody since I went lookin' for her," Daryl says, jerking his head, then reconsiders. "Saw Rick'n Carl - they were at the barn when it was all lit up. Saw 'em runnin' away. Coulda made it."

"Did you -" Maggie starts, then presses her lips together, turns away. Glenn reaches out and takes her hand. She squeezes, turns back to Daryl, chin set high like she's refusing to give in yet. "Did you see my dad? Or my sister?"

Daryl shakes his head. Feels Sophia stir slightly and holds until he's sure she isn't waking up. "Didn't see nothin' really," Daryl says quietly. "Jus' was lookin' for the kid, y'know. Went up to the house though, once I had her - ain't nobody there, no cars."

Maggie looks like she's about to break, so Daryl adds, quickly, "Naw, mean - no cars at all. And we had one at every door earlier. Somebody had to drive 'em away. An' didn't see - " Daryl wishes he could shrug, instead just tilts his head. "Weren't any, y'know. Bodies there."

None of them mention that with that many walkers, it's not a guarantee there'd be any bodies left.

"Y'see her ma?" Daryl asks and steels himself. But Glenn just shakes his head.

"Haven't - you know, same. We went off in the car, we were firing but there were just - too many of them. But we didn't see anybody after that."

Well. It's not the worst news. Daryl nods, once. Squints into the distance - the sun is really starting to rise, now. Soon it'll be light enough to go back, do a proper search. And Glenn and Maggie improves their odds some - at least it won't just be him and a twelve-year-old girl.

Well. Assuming that Glenn doesn't go running in the opposite direction.

"Where you headin'?" Daryl asks.

"We - we were just going back to where the RV stopped, on the highway," Glenn says. "You know, where we left the supplies for Sophia. You know, in case..." Glenn doesn't say in case of what, but Daryl figures it's the same idea he had. Glenn ain't dumb. At this strategy shit, he's probably smarter than Daryl.

But Daryl's probably got him beat at directions.

"S'the other way," Daryl mumbles, and he jerks his head back the way they came. "Might as well stay on this side of the highway - s'clearer here. I can take point."

Glenn, a faint blush around his ears, nods. "Yeah. Yeah, cool."

"You want us to take her?" Maggie asks suddenly. She's looking at Sophia, slumped over the back of the bike - probably doesn't look too comfortable. "We - we have room, in the car -" Something painful crosses her face, like she's a survivor of a shipwreck noticing how much room there is in the lifeboat. "We can -"

"Naw," Daryl says quietly. "Might as well let her sleep as long as she can. Dunno what the hell is coming next." And frankly, Daryl's not letting the kid out of his sight until he's good and sure there's no other option.

Glenn nods like that makes total sense. Maggie doesn't look at him like he's nuts or anything, but he wonders if he should let Sophia go with them just to make Maggie settle - the missing sister, Hershel, clearly weighing on her mind.

"C'mon then," Daryl grunts, and he starts the bike up again. Sophia's hands sluggishly readjust at his waist, still sleeping.

And off they go again.

Daryl's running point so he doesn't see when or where the third car joins them. Doesn't notice until he pulls over at the spot, sees the car with the rain-faded paint on the windshield, the meager stack of supplies.

This time when he stops, he feels a movement at his back. Sophia finally woke up.

"Hey," he mumbles, peeking over his shoulder. She blinks at him, disoriented, maybe still half asleep. Though she wakes up pretty quick when she notices where they are. Kid hasn't seen the highway since she got scared off it by that first herd. Her hands tighten instinctively around his belt, then loosen.

"Are - are we here?"

"Mhm," Daryl says. His hands go around to the buckle, start to undo it. "Don't get up too fast now - your legs're probably jelly after all that."

"Is - is my mom -"

"Haven't looked proper yet," Daryl cuts off. "Found Glenn and Maggie on the road - they ain't seen anythin' bad happen to her." He neglects to mention that they also hadn't seen her, seen anyone. "We're gonna -"

"Thank God," someone breathes near him, and Daryl jerks back, hand straight to the knife on his belt, before he realizes it's Rick Grimes, sandwiched hidden between two cars.

Behind him, hat still on, wide-eyed and speckled with blood, is Carl.

And there, what's probably going to make Maggie Greene's fucking life, is Hershel.

Rick is stumbling towards them, pure relief on his face, holds out a hand to Daryl - a hand Daryl actually takes. Rick's hand is blood sticky and warm in his own, and he feels a squeeze like Rick's trying to tell if he's a ghost. Rick looks like he's about to say something until his head jerks - hearing the other car, Daryl guesses. Daryl pulls himself off the bike - his legs are steady enough but his stomach feels jerky as hell.

"Maggie'n Glenn are right behind us," Daryl says awkwardly, unable to really look at Hershel - unable to look at the relief, the comfort, when he doesn't know if Sophia'll ever get the same feeling. "Y'seen -"


Sophia, in his periphery, flinches. Carl Grimes runs so fast that hat does blow off his head, face lit up from within.

But where the hell did Lori come from?

That's when Daryl turns, sees the second vehicle - the pickup, stained with blood. Maggie has already abandoned the Hyundai, is sobbing with relief into Hershel's jacket, Glenn advancing like he's not sure if he's meant to go join that hug too, and then the blonde daughter - Beth - is rushing past him too. T-Dog, hanging onto the door of the truck, gloved hand covering his face like he's hiding tears of his own.

He doesn't see anyone else in the truck's cab.

He looks down at Sophia, Sophia who is watching everyone being reunited with a look on her face like she's trying not to cry. He bends down low, looks her in the eye. "Don' matter," Daryl whispers to her. "We'll get what we need and head on back. Do a real search. Don' mean nothin' -"


He's so close to Sophia's face that he sees the instant despair turns to total and utter joy. She spins around on the bike so fast she almost drags the thing down on top of her, Daryl's quick hands the only thing stopping it. She gets about two steps before her wobbly legs, unused to riding a motorcycle at all and certainly not for a midnight tear through the woods, give out under her and she falls.

But it doesn't matter that Sophia falls because there is Carol, Carol practically vaulting out of the bed of the pickup, Carol sprinting so fast she almost trips herself. Carol would never let Sophia fall.

The two of them collapse into the ground, folding into each other so Daryl's not sure where Sophia ends and Carol begins. Sophia is weeping - he can't see her face, just the tangled back of her head, just her hands clinging to Carol's shoulders. Carol's hand cradles the back of Sophia's head, her own face hidden from view as she breathes her daughter in. Daryl's close enough to head some, even though he knows he shouldn't listen - this is private, for all it's happening in front of a crowd. But he can't very well turn off his ears, can he?

"Mommy - Mommy, I'm sorry, I -"

"Sophia - baby, shh, it's okay, I'm here, you're here, we're -"

"- scared you were -"

"Knew he'd find you, knew you'd -"

Daryl hasn't prayed in a long time - maybe never really has - and he's certainly never truly thanked God for anything. Hasn't had a hell of a lot to thank him for.

But there, leaning against the bike, heat radiating from the still-hot exhaust pipes, listening to the Peletiers reunion, he lets himself think one small, dirty, inadequate thank you to a prayer he hadn't even known he'd made.

Thank God.

Maybe it's then, when Daryl's not looking, that Carol remembers him. Which she doesn't need to. Hell, he hadn't done hardly anything - got himself safe and dragged the girl along with him. Hardly remarkable. But Carol has remembered him and is - is beckoning him, from where she's still on the ground, Sophia bundled into him. She lifts one hand and waves him in.

Daryl just shifts, awkwardly. Nods. Yeah, he gets it. She's thankful. Well, so is he. That she's alive, that he didn't abandon her to die on that farm. That he didn't have to tell her girl she's an orphan. He's grateful for a lot of things. They don't have to talk about them.

But when he doesn't go to her, Carol somehow makes her way to him - Sophia still clinging to her like a spider monkey, the two of them somehow getting to him quick enough that he doesn't have time to run away. Not that it'd be running away, he's not a fucking coward. But before he can retreat, to leave them to themselves, Carol is on him, her own face buried in his chest, her shoulders shaking not so different than her daughter's were a couple hours ago. (Or maybe it's the most different thing in the world.)

She doesn't say thank you. She doesn't say anything. She just squeezes him around the shoulder, a kind of hug Daryl's not sure he's ever received before. Everything she wants to say is being squeezed into him and there's Sophia, caught between them, twisted up in the middle and Daryl doesn't know what to do, how to respond.

The two of them are clinging so hard, to him, to each other, it's a wonder they don't pull themselves down with the weight.

So, because he doesn't know what to do, doesn't know where to put his hands, doesn't want them to fall down on the ground again, just because of those reasons - Daryl holds them back.

It's a long moment that ends quickly.

"Where'd you find everyone?" he hears Rick ask. Daryl pulls himself back, suddenly hyperaware of everyone watching. What do they think - that he's horned in on this moment that doesn't belong to him, shoved himself into it? He feels his shoulders pull in, shoves his hands in his pockets. Braces himself.

But no one is looking at him any particular way. Or rather, everyone is looking at each other with a sort of awed gratitude - like they've just noticed how beautiful everyone is, how perfect.

Even Daryl.

"Uh - Daryl found us. Had to give us directions," Glenn says, not a hint of embarrassment in his voice. "T-Dog just started following, couple miles back."

"Where's the rest of us?" Daryl hears himself ask. Marvels at it - the rest of us, heavy and foreign on his tongue but somehow right. Because if Carol made it out, Hershel, Rick, then maybe -

But Rick's face is grim. One shake of the head. "We're the only ones who made it so far."

Then it's a litany of the dead. Shane. (Daryl tries to squash the little unfurling of relief in his stomach.) Patricia. Jimmy.


"She saved me, then I lost her," Carol says.

"We saw her go down," T-Dog says, still hanging from the door of the truck like if he takes two steps either way he'll fall over. Like he needs to be ready to hop back in any second.

This hits Carol. Daryl can see her fingers holding tighter to Sophia. "She - she got me out. Pushed me towards the truck. Don't know if I would have made it if she hadn't - you're sure?"

"There were walkers everywhere," Lori says, which isn't really an answer. The answer is no one knows. How could anyone know, the chaos back there?

"I'll go back," Daryl says, reaching for the bike. He was going to go back anyway, for Carol. What's the difference for Andrea? He remembers her face on the porch that night, her apology.You did good.

She'd looked after the group, always. Looked out for Carol. He owes it to her to at least look.

"No," Rick says, and Daryl stops. Searches Rick's face. He's a decent man - why wouldn't he -

"Can't just leave her," Daryl says. They can't. She's one of the group. She's -

"We don't even know if she's there," Lori says, and even though she says there, Daryl just hears alive.

"She's not there," Rick says firmly. "She isn't. She's somewhere else or she's dead. There's no way to find her."

The others protest a little, but Daryl's listening to that, thinking it through. Yeah. It's different with Carol - if Carol hadn't made it off the farm with the group, she wouldn't leave, not if she thought Sophia might be there. Not if there was the slightest chance. Andrea? She's a survivor. She wouldn't just hide out and wait without a reason. And she had no reason, not without knowing if any of the others were still alive.

Still, it sits in his gut, the decision. He looks at Rick, sees the decision sitting in his gut too.

Maybe that's all it means, to be decent. Doesn't mean you don't do shitty things. Just means you recognize them when you do them.

But they do it anyway.

And they pile back into the vehicles - consolidating again, from three vehicles to two, the Greene's and Glenn taking the Hyundai, T-Dog, and the Grimes in Hershel's red pickup. Carol, Sophia clinging to her waist, seems to hesitate - unsure of where to go, where her and the kid will fit. She looks at Daryl - like Daryl's a solution, like they're gonna ride three to the motorcycle? - but the two of them end up in the back of the pickup with Lori and Carl.

Rick, driving the pickup, takes off first. Daryl on the bike rides in the middle for a minute. Watches as Sophia and Carol settle into each other in the back of the truck - Sophia leaning against her mother's side, Carol absently stroking the girl's hair.

Carol looks out of the back window. Makes eye contact, which he keeps for less than a second - what's he supposed to do? He's on the bike!

But she looks okay. Her and the kid. They look okay. They look like they fit together, key in a lock.

It's a thought he carries with him as he revs the engine, overtakes Rick's car, and takes point as they drive to wherever the hell they're going.


Guys, you have no idea how close I came to Carol actually escaping with Andrea, meaning Daryl and Sophia didn't find her until season 3. But I couldn't do it!

I imagine one or two more chapters to finish this up.

Chapter 22: Blaze

Chapter Text

Daryl hasn't had a ride like this for a while.

It's Merle's bike - Merle wasn't ever great at sharing, but Daryl was always the one taking care of the thing whenever Merle did a stint in lock up. Daryl loves the bike - likes the feel of the wind in his hair, the feel of the handlebars under his palms, the rumble of the engine, the road underneath him. It reminds him of being a kid, sneaking out to the swimming hole out north of town. There was a rope swing there, half-rotted, liable to leave slivers of hemp or whatever embedded in your hands. Daryl would go out in the early mornings or late at night, before the other kids got there or after they left, and he'd swing on that rope as hard as he could, let go and feel himself fly.

Riding the bike feels like flying, even like this. Maybe even especially like this - him leading the convoy, no cars ahead of him, no one else in sight. Just him and the wind and the ground underneath him. Nobody to talk at him, nothing to think about except staying upright, keeping moving. The wind whips past him and it makes the ever-present smell of the end of the world - the reek of death and old blood and rot - stream away. Like it's all going to be okay somehow.

So when he hears the honk from behind him - short, as truncated as possible, but even still a fucking risk - Daryl's pulled back real suddenly to where he is, and where he's going.

Which is, Rick says, a screwed-up look to his face, nowhere right now.

Daryl doesn't get why everyone's snapping back and forth all of a sudden. That moment on the road earlier, when they'd all found each other, it'd been a moment of perfect alignment - or at least it'd seemed to be. Now they all snipe and pick and whine and it's getting Daryl's hackles up. It's not the worst place to stop, and it's almost always better to stop because you want to than because you have to. There's water over there, plenty of wood. Hell, those stone ruins'll be a good refuge from the wind, let them sleep with their backs up against something. So why is everyone losing their shit?

"Watch your mouth," Hershel says brusquely when Maggie says ass. Which makes Daryl look at them all like they're fucking crazy - what? They're so pampered they're gonna flip over the word ass? The fuck is he gonna do with these people? - but then Hershel continues. "Everyone stop panicking and listen to Rick."

Daryl looks the others over. Sees the draw to Lori's mouth, the way Maggie's head is constantly twitching, her hands on the gun like she's trying to be ready for whatever comes next. Carol, shivering slightly, arms bare to the wind while Sophia tucks her hands inside the overlong sleeves of her mama's sweater. Lori's arms wrapped around Carl like she's got to protect him from a chill. Hell. There's no reason to panic yet. Ain't nothing even happened, yet. How is he going to last with these people (his people, a voice in his head reminds him) when they're bugging out over nothing?

Carol's got one hand over Sophia's body, pulling her close in. The other hand is worrying at her lip - a move Daryl's familiar with but never seen on Carol. He finds himself staring at it. What's got her so worried? What's she seeing that he isn't?

Unless it's just the sniping back at forth. That's something that gets Daryl too - is getting to him now, is crawling up under his skin, making his shoulders hunch, his grip adjust on his bow. Sometimes actual fighting is easier to take because at least Daryl feels like he can do something - if someone starts yelling, he'll sure as hell yell back. He'll throw a punch if they're getting thrown. But this back and forth, this hissing almost argument, sets his teeth on edge. Never knowing which way it's going to spill, if the ember'll fizzle out and die or if it'll explode into a full blaze of a fight. He doesn't know which outcome to prepare for and it makes him antsy, sure. So maybe that's what Carol's picking at her lip about.

"We'll make camp over there," Rick says finally, pointing towards the water, the stones that Daryl's already spotted. Which makes Daryl feel okay all of a sudden, which then makes Daryl feel stupid as shit. The fuck does he need an okay from Rick Grimes for? Sure, it's a relief Rick isn't so stupid he can't see the best place to hunker down when it's two feet in front of him, but why does Daryl give a shit?

"Does this feel right to you?" Carol murmurs suddenly - low enough that he knows it's only meant for him. No one else is listening to her any - hardly anyone does, something that makes a lick of anger curl through him. Shit, what do these people think? That she's dead weight, that she doesn't have eyes or a gut of her own, that she can't have opinions like the rest of them?

Daryl forces the anger down though and looks around. Nothing about the area screams danger to him, but Carol's distrust of it makes him feel even edgier. His fingers run over the arrows he's got left - five, the cylinders the same ones he'd spent ages sanding back at the farm, nowhere near as good as the carbon fiber bolts he's used to. He needs more ammo. They all do.

What is Carol seeing here that he's missed? He meets her eyes, follows them.

Follows them all the way to Rick.

His eyes cut between the two of them, narrowing. Rick's being kinda intense, a little in everyone's face, but nothing that Daryl can't handle. Maybe it's the adrenaline or whatever the fuck happened out there with Shane and Randall still working through him. But Daryl's not scared of Rick, not now, and it makes him suddenly uneasy, makes him look at Rick harder. Should he be scared?

Should Carol?

It makes him wonder how many people looked at Ed and didn't see what Carol saw, how many things she'd noticed that no one else had ever thought to look for. What isn't Daryl looking for?

"Y'know I found Randall, right?" Daryl says, eyes fixed on Rick. He doesn't notice himself tilting his body until he hears the scuff of Sophia's sneakers against the pavement, sheltered behind him. He tells Rick what he saw, watches as the man goes too still, as some wheels turn in his mind, as the others question and push and panic even harder.

It reminds him of something Merle would say. His daddy too. Uncle Jess. Hell, every teacher he'd ever had would whip this out whenever anyone kicked up a hint of fuss. Quit that crying or I'll give you something to cry about!

It's like Rick thinks, Quit that panicking, or I'll give you something to panic about!

And so he does.

"We're all infected," Rick says, barely more than a whisper.

"What?" Daryl hears himself asking. He feels Sophia's hands, suddenly, gripping the back of his vest. He can feel them tightening, like she's trying to hide how scared she is, trying to pretend they aren't shaking.

Daryl feels dirty all of a sudden, all over, a thin layer of filth that isn't dirt or blood, that can't be washed out. For just a moment he wishes for a cigarette, a minute alone, wishes he could scratch whatever the fuck is inside him out, burn it with fire or drain it from his blood, because he feels tainted and sick and what's in him -

We're all infected thuds in his head, bangs back and forth between his ears, and all Daryl does is grip his bow tighter, feel Sophia's iron grip on the back of his vest, feels his shoulders pull, braced.

"And you never said anything?" Carol says from behind him, and Daryl shifts to look at her - feels Sophia shift with him, keep Daryl between her and Rick. Carol's shifting too, her hands still on Sophia - the three of them all tangled together - but she's not hiding. Her eyes are fierce and it's the maddest Daryl's ever seen her look, especially in front of the others.

Maybe this is what Carol was seeing that Daryl missed. Maybe this is it, just this, and sure this is bad - we're all infected - but whatever Rick's hiding could be so much fucking worse. This is - salvageable. This is manageable. They can live with this.

But when Rick walks off, he feels Sophia's hands loosen their hold on him and feels his own shoulders release. He doesn't know quite what to do with that.

"C'mon then," Daryl grunts after a moment - the others all staring after Rick, Lori heading towards him, nobody looking each other in the eye - we're all infected. Daryl pushes the voice out of his head, turns around to look at Sophia.

"We better get that firewood," Daryl mumbles. He jerks his head. Sophia nods then looks at her mother. Oh, shit. Probably should have checked with Carol first.

But when he looks at her, Carol just nods her head right back.

"Stay close to Daryl," she says, pressing a kiss to Sophia's head.

"You - mean, y'can come too. If you - should get as much as we can," Daryl adds, fingers running over the cams, the trigger box, the stock of his bow. He's not going to split the two of them up if he doesn't have to.

Carol looks at him, a hint of surprise on her face he's not sure how to translate. What - she thinks he doesn't think she can carry firewood? But she just nods again, takes Sophia's hand, and gives it a squeeze. Daryl can see goosebumps on Carol's bare arms and scowls. He's not wearing much - two layers of shirts, his vest - but it's more than she's got. When they're out of sight, he'll get her something.

"C'mon," he says again, stalking off, not checking if they follow or not. "Before you freeze to death."

The Peletiers don't say anything but he can hear the crunch of their feet in the leaves behind him as he goes.

There's never a moment when they're out of each other's sight - Daryl's not stupid. He's not going to let them get split up in another patch of Georgia woods. But he waits until Sophia is out of immediate earshot - her tongue poking out the side of her mouth with concentration, like she's been tasked with the most important work in the world, fingers shifting through the leaf litter looking for anything that'll do as tinder - to talk to Carol.

"Sorry 'bout Andrea," he mumbles. Doesn't make eye contact. Crouches down, starts sorting through branches, looking for ones that are dead and dry and usable.

"She saved me," Carol says softly. "She - I wasn't going to leave. Not without - " Daryl looks up. Sophia's holding the front of Carol's sweater out like an apron, scooping leaves and little twigs into it. "But she said - she said, Daryl will find her. And when he does, she'll need her mother."

He turns back. Carol's not looking at him - her eyes also fixed on Sophia. He watches the long line of her throat as she swallows down whatever it is she's feeling.

"We should have gone back," Carol says, suddenly fierce. Now she's looking at Daryl, her eyes so blue. "Rick -"

"Rick ain't wrong," Daryl says slowly. He picks at the seam of his pants with one hand. "She ain't got no reason to stay close. We ain't - we wouldn't find her fast." If they found her at all. "We ain't got nowhere to settle up, launch a search." The words sound reasonable to his ears but he remembers Andrea on the porch again. You did good, Daryl. It feels wrong, leaving one of their own behind. "Ain't no point goin' back if it means losin' more of us."

"You don't need to defend him," Carol says. "Just because he -"

"We need 'im," Daryl says brusquely. "Gotta be with people now. Only way to make it."

Something turns in his stomach - that's exactly what Randall had said, before Daryl beat the shit out of him.

But Rick is different. Rick is decent. Daryl's not hitching his wagon to someone that's going to lead them all in raping and pillaging the countryside. It's different than what Randall had done. Isn't it?

Carol looks at him. A long look. Then nods her head, once. She shivers, suddenly, and Daryl swears at himself - the fuck is wrong with him? - as he strips off his vest and the first layer of shirts, hands it over to her.

"Ain't clean," he says roughly. Carol doesn't take the shirt right away - to be fair, it is rank, covered in walker ooze and smelling like sweat and cigarettes. He shoves it out towards her again. "Go on, take it. Got another." Obviously - he's wearing it. He counts himself lucky that he'd put on practically all the clothes he had that morning - the chill in the air making him layer up the way he had as a kid, when there'd never been enough money for summer clothes or winter clothes. He just had clothes, and he'd wear more in winter and less in summer and that was that.

"You sure?"

Daryl lets out an exasperated puff of air. "Shit, if I weren't I wouldn't've offered." Maybe the shirt is too dirty? Well if it is, fuck her. She'll figure out soon enough that dirt is nothing next to cold -

But she's taking it before he can pull it back, slipping it over her shoulders, slim fingers buttoning it up. It falls big on her - whatever. More coverage. She folds back the sleeves and gives him a small smile.

"Thank you."

Daryl practically snorts at that. "Whatever."

Sophia lopes over to them then - maybe she's favoring the bum ankle some, but not enough for Daryl to be worried. She gestures with the overfull front of her sweater.

"Is this enough? I did what you said, I left anything that was like damp and I didn't pick anything that was living and -"

Daryl jerks his head once. "Uh - yeah. Good." Sophia beams at him, her grimy face all lit up. It makes him feel awkward and uncomfortable, so he leans back down, grabs up all the wood he's found. Shoves it at Carol, who is also smiling - almost like she's laughing at him. Which normally would make him spit nails - the fuck is she laughing at? What, she wants him to act like a total dick to her kid? - but this time just makes him feel more awkward, the back of his neck suddenly hot.

"Better get back," he barks, grabbing the rest of the logs. "Make camp, 'fore it gets too dark."

Carol's grin makes him clumsy the whole way back.

Daryl's had worse campsites. The stone walls keep the wind off of them and the fire radiates heat. It's almost cheery. They've got the food they'd left for Sophia on the highway so they eat - a can of beans, a jar of peanut butter, the kids passing back and forth a bottle of Gatorade. It's quiet around the fire - everyone staring into the flames, most of them making some kind of contact with each other. Beth is cradled under Hershel's arm, his hand on Maggie's, Maggie and Glenn sitting so close their legs touch, hands intertwined. Carl next to his mama, his face blank in the reflected light. T-Dog taking first watch, up on top of the wall. Normally Daryl'd appreciate the quiet, but it just makes him remember what Rick said earlier. In the woods he'd forgotten, and in setting up camp. He'd had shit to do, couldn't waste time thinking. But now, in the quiet, it's clear that everyone's mind has returned to the same thing.

We're all infected.

Rick is alone - standing to one side, face looking like a much more haggard version of Carl's. There's something there, some kind of blank hurt, that matches on their faces. The only thing Rick said when he'd come back from whatever he and Lori had been doing was "We'll save most of the food. Don't know when we'll get more. We should drink the water, the Gatorade - refill the bottles from the lake before we leave tomorrow."

And then he'd leaned back and just watched.

"We're not safe with him," Carol whispers suddenly from Daryl's left. She'd stopped grinning the moment Rick came back to camp and now, as he watches the others, she watches him, her eyes tracking every minor adjustment the man makes. Sophia, half asleep against her ma's side, stiffens slightly. Her eyes too go toward Rick, and Daryl scowls. Shit. Why's Carol got to freak the kid out? "Keeping something like that from us?"

Daryl just shrugs. "Did what he hadta," he mumbles. His stomach gurgles quietly and Daryl pulls a hand over it, hoping Carol didn't hear. He'd passed along all the food without eating anything - hell, he'd gone longer than this without, and the others don't know what hunger feels like. Not really. They'll find out soon enough, he figures. Might as well give them one night more.

"What he thought he had to."

Daryl chews at the skin on his thumb - a timeworn tradition when he's hungry.

"He always thinks he has to," Carol whispers more urgently. "But what if he's wrong?"

Her hand passes over Sophia's head, and Daryl hears Carol clear as day, even if she isn't saying it out loud.

Rick left Sophia because he thought he had to. He left Andrea. Who will he leave next?

"Why do you need him?" Carol asks. Sophia's eyes flick from Carol's face to Daryl's and she tenses even more. Kid probably thinks they're fighting. Daryl's not sure they aren't. He's not sure what this is, what the point of the conversation is. "He's just going to pull you down."

"Nah," Daryl says uncomfortably. He leans over, shoves at the logs with a stick, stokes the fire. "Rick's done all right by me."

Rick had. And he'd done all right by Rick, too. Ain't no reason Rick has to do all the heavy lifting. Rick's a decent guy. He's good. He'll do what he can, make the hard decisions. He's a leader, a real one, not someone like Merle or his dad. They need that.

Carol doesn't get it, if she thinks Rick's going to pull Daryl down. Daryl's the one who pulls people down. They need Rick to help pull them back up.

"You're his henchman," Carol whispers, so softly Daryl almost doesn't hear her. But he does and he feels his fists clench, his jaw set in a scowl. That's what she thinks of him? A henchman, a lackey, some little bitch taking orders -

She's not wrong. Hell, he'd been doing that more than half his life, following Merle, jumping when he said jump without even asking how high. But it hurts to hear it, to hear how she sees him, it hurts and it makes him pissed and being pissed always feel better than hurting so he feeds into it, about to snap at her when -

"And I'm a burden," Carol finishes. The loathing in her voice is ringing clear as a bell and it's sort of surprising to Daryl to hear it directed at herself - he used to that tone belonging to him. He blinks at her, suddenly unsure. "And Sophia - " Carol swallows, her hand twined in Sophia's hair.

He left her. Rick left Sophia in the woods.

He'd never do that with Carl.

"You never left her," Carol says instead. Her eyes are on him, moving over his face like she's trying to read him, trying to figure him out - well, good luck with that, because Daryl doesn't know what the fuck he's feeling right now. "You wouldn't. You deserve better." Her hand moves out of Sophia's hair, brushes down her back. Like she's trying to calm Sophia down, undo the tense set of her shoulders. But Sophia doesn't relax. Just keeps looking between her mom and Daryl like she's not sure what's coming. Well, Daryl's with her. He doesn't know where the hell this is going either.

"You deserve better," Carol says again. And Daryl's about to fight her on that - because what the fuck does she know about what Daryl deserves? She doesn't know shit about him, she doesn't see him at all, not if she looks at Rick, who is probably the most decent guy Daryl's ever seen, and thinks Daryl's somehow more than him. But before he can snap, she adds: "She does."

She meaning Sophia. And well - Daryl won't argue that. After all the shit they've been through, Sophia and Carol deserve way more than anyone is ever going to give them. Especially now.

Daryl looks away. Doesn't know how to respond, his feelings all tangled and twisted inside him in a way he can't articulate or sort through. So he's not surprised when he goes to ask a question and it comes out sounding angry.

"What do you want?"

He sees Sophia stiffen a little at his tone and he grimaces, picks at a hangnail till he feels the slippery slide of blood. Shit. Didn't mean to scare her.

"A man of honor," Carol says. Her voice suddenly sounds very small, but when he looks at her she doesn't look scared or sad and or pissed or anything.

She's just looking at him like he'll be able to give her what she wants. And Daryl knows he can't.

"Rick has honor," he spits, and he wants to say more. Wants to explain he isn't who she thinks he is - he isn't some knight in shining armor, he isn't some good guy. He's done shit, bad shit. He's dirt and blood all the way down, and just because he helped her girl out doesn't mean that other shit is gone. He's not a leader, he's a follower, and if she wants him to lead them he's going to lead them straight into disaster. Daryl is only just starting to maybe figure out what it means to be decent. Rick knows this already, knows all of it. Knows how to help people, how to keep them safe, how to take care of them. Daryl's hardly able to take care of himself.

He's not a man of honor. He can't be. And if they left, the three of them, they struck out and tried to make it on their own, they'd figure that out soon enough.

And they'd end up hurt. Or dead. Probably both. Probably fast.

He's a follower, not a leader. They need a leader. They need Rick.

There's a snap of twigs nearby before he has to say more, and he's up quicker than he can blink. "What is that?" Beth asks, eyes wide in her pale face.

"Could be anythin'," Daryl says. He's categorizing in his head. It doesn't sound heavy enough for a walker. Maybe food? "Could be a raccoon, could be a possum -" Shit, possum'd cook up pretty good right now. They'd be able to hold off on the other cans for a while, that'd be good, maybe that'd take some of the pressure off Rick, make him -

"Walker?" Glenn says. And the others are off panicking again.

"We need to leave," Carol says - loudly, like she's not just talking to Daryl anymore. This one is aimed straight at Rick. "What are we waiting for?"

Rick talks and it sounds reasonable - the words do, at least. But the tone Rick has isn't the same one he used before, back on the farm. There's an edge to it, like Rick himself isn't fully able to keep control.

"No one is going anywhere!" Rick says, suddenly sharp. The blood on the side of his face looks especially red in the firelight, almost threatening, and this is a tone Daryl knows. This is listen to me, or else. This is quit whining or I'll give you something to whine about.

"Do something," Carol says, and Daryl's about to bite her head off - what the hell does she want from him? - but it's not Daryl she's talking to. It's Rick. Carol's standing and Sophia's there at her side, hanging on to her ma with both hands, and when Rick snaps back at Carol Sophia's whole body flinches. Daryl can see her hands tug at Carol, like she's trying to pull her away, pull her back from danger.

Keep her safe.

"I am doing something!" Rick snaps, he face too close to Carol's and too angry, and Daryl himself takes a step forward. He shouldn't talk to her like that, not with Sophia there, not with Sophia obviously scared shitless someone's going to slam Carol across the face. After he takes the step, he reconsiders. It's not like Sophia hadn't been looking at him the same way a second ago, he probably shouldn't get too close - but when Sophia's head turns back and sees him, the only thing on her face is relief.

"I'm keeping this group together. Alive! I've been doing that all along, no matter what. I didn't ask for this! I killed my best friend for you people, for Christ's sake!"

By that time, Daryl's got a hand on Carol's arm. He'd gotten up maybe to say something to Rick, to get in between the two of them, but now the most important thing just seems to be getting Carol back out of the line of fire. She doesn't fight him. She just goes.

He can feel her arm shaking a little under his hand.

Rick's talking now about Shane - how he was, how he pushed, how he threatened. And none of it is new to Daryl.

What is new is this tone from Rick - the barely hidden pain, the argument he's making even though no one is fighting him. "He gave me no choice!" Rick says, like any of them thought Shane would.

Shit. Maybe it isn't possible, to be decent in this world anymore. Maybe if you are, it just gets used against you. Like Shane's trick with Randall. And if something gets used against you enough, you have two options.

You can let yourself get taken down by it, or you can shore yourself up against it.

Rick's not taken down. But Daryl's not sure what that exactly means any more for his decency.

Carl Grimes is crying behind them - like his heart is broken. Daryl remembers when Lori was missing, Shane coming into a room and Carl instantly relaxing, like Shane would make it all okay. Yeah, Shane'd probably needed killing. Daryl doesn't doubt that.

But Carl Grimes didn't know and he's crying as if his whole world has shattered.

"My hands are clean," Rick says like he's trying to convince himself, and Daryl feels one of Sophia's hands clinging to his vest again, little and shaking and scared.

And then Rick's going all my way or the highway, and Daryl's familiar with this. Has heard it from Merle a million times, from his dad a trillion.You think you can do better out there by yourself? Go ahead and try, you pathetic shit. You wouldn't last a day without me. Ain't nobody gonna care about you like me, little brother. You need me.

No one leaves. None of them.

Carol doesn't even look back at Daryl, but her arm, still in his grip, feels tense. He wonders how often she'd heard the same shit.

If he were different - if he were who Carol thinks he is, if he were as good as Rick, now is the time he'd say something. He'd take Carol and Sophia and head back to the road, load the three of them onto the bike, ride off into the night. He'd find some place for them, somewhere like the farm, he'd provide for them and keep them safe, and nothing'd be able to get at them. Not walkers, not people like Randall or Shane, nobody like Will Dixon or Ed Peletier. If he were stronger or smarter or better, if he weren't some fuckup with a temper and a broken brain that makes him burn himself and snap at little girls, he'd do it. There's the door. He could go.

If he were different. But he isn't. He's just Daryl and he's just as frozen as the rest of them, listening as Rick tells them all that it isn't a democracy anymore.

There's nothing left to say after that.

Carol pulls her arm away the second Rick is gone. Daryl lets go - he'd sort of forgot he was holding it, had gone still like a rabbit being hunted the second Rick started yelling. Stupid. As Carol turns back around, Sophia throws herself into her stomach, shoulders shaking. Beth Greene is crying too, and he can hear Carl's high whimpers in the background, Lori's gentle shushing. Glenn looks like someone punched him in the stomach. T-Dog, high above them, is looking off into the distance like he wishes he could jump off that wall and run. But he doesn't.

None of them do.

They just stay there, still, silent, the only noise the crackling of flames and the occasional snap of a twig.

The others fall asleep eventually. Daryl wonders about building a lean-to or at least laying out something approaching a bed for the kids, but it's like everyone is too traumatized to do more than fall where they sit. Even T-Dog, once he's relieved from watch, just leans himself against one of the walls, lids getting heavier and heavier as he stares into the fire. It's a dumb way to sleep - they're all probably gonna wake up stiff and sore and freezing - but all of them sleep, eventually. It's been too long of a day, almost twenty-four hours since they fled the farm, everyone ready to drop.

Carol's one of the last to go. Daryl, now on watch, watches as her hand rubs Sophia's back, getting slower and slower until she too drifts off.

It's not too long after that Rick comes back.

Daryl wonders if he was watching them or if it's just good timing, but there he is, picking his way over the path - careful not to step on a twig or kick a rock or make any noise that would jolt the others awake in a panic. Rick sees Daryl and comes over to the rock wall Daryl stands on, keeping watch. He'd probably gone over to the lake to cool off - his face is clean now, or cleaner, the blood from the farm washed away. He's holding a bottle of water and he climbs up on the wall, offers it to Daryl, who shakes his head.

"Gotta boil it first," Daryl grunts, and jerks his chin at the abandoned, empty bean can. "Less you wanna shit yourself silly."

"Right," Rick says. He puts the water down. Looks out, over the pitiful view the height of the wall gives them. He doesn't look at Daryl. "All quiet here?"

"Mhm," Daryl says. "No walkers or nothin'. Whatever we heard earlier, ran off quick." Daryl doesn't let himself think about what it might have been - a huge, fat possum, maybe a fox, a raccoon -

"Good," Rick says, and then he goes quiet again.

He seems a lot calmer, a lot more together than he did before. Whatever it was with Shane, talking about it seems to have done some good. It settles Daryl down some - he's spent most of his watch biting his thumb and wondering if they should run, him and Carol and Sophia, knowing it's a stupid idea but unable to let it go.

The way Rick'd been earlier, it'd reminded him of shitty things and shitty people. But this Rick is more like the one he's been seeing all along - the guy that goes back for a methhead that tried to jump him, the guy who runs headfirst into trouble to help the group. The guy Dale looked at and said, he's a decent man. A leader. He's good.

If Rick stays like this, then they'll be okay. They won't have to leave. If Rick stays good, stays decent - they'll work it out. Somehow.

Daryl tries not to think how many men stay decent after showing the uglier side of themselves.

"Earlier?" Daryl says, and Rick tenses at his side.


"Ain't - ain't a democracy anymore, whatever. S'fine," Daryl says, hands readjusting on his bow. "But uh - y'yell at Carol like that again? Scare her girl?" Daryl looks at Rick - makes eye contact, something Daryl does so rarely he's barely sure how to do it. Rick's gaze is open, brow slightly furrowed, Daryl's eyes in a squint. "Y'do that," Daryl says roughly, not breaking the eye contact, "We're gone. Y'hear?"

Rick's eyes are unreadable in the moonlight, the fire long since died down to embers. "I hear," he says finally, and Daryl breaks the gaze almost immediately.

"Good," Daryl grunts. They stay there in silence for another long moment.

"I can stand watch now," Rick says. "If you want to catch a little sleep."

Daryl doesn't want to - it's so much easier to see shit coming when you're awake. But it's been a long day for him too, a long couple of days - he hasn't hardly slept since that night on Dale's RV. So he just grunts again and drops off the wall as Rick pulls out the Colt Python, checks it.

"We'll do an ammo run tomorrow," Rick says softly as Daryl starts to find himself a spot. "After gas. We'll get organized. I can make it work, Daryl." Daryl looks back and he can't see Rick's face at all - his whole body now just a lonely silhouette, the last man in the world. "I'll make it work. Keep us alive. All of us. I will."

Daryl's not sure if Rick's trying to convince Daryl or himself.

He finds a spot - the only one left that isn't taken up by a sprawled leg, a curled up arm. It's far from the fire but what does he care? It'll be morning soon enough. As he settles it, he sees something - a twitch of movement from the corner where Carol and Sophia set up.

But when he looks again, he can't tell if it was anything more than a trick of the dark.

Chapter 23: Seeking

Chapter Text

It's a pain in the ass that the pick-up is the vehicle out of gas. They probably could all cram into the pick-up - it'd be uncomfortable as hell and they'd be bouncing around like popcorn in the truck bed, but they probably could fit ten people in the pick-up. The Hyundai? Not so much.

The numbers are constantly running through Daryl's head as they play the world's dumbest version of Tetris. Three Greenes plus Glenn. (How, after only a couple weeks, is Glenn now lumped in with Maggie's family for headcounts, part and parcel?) Three Grimes. That's seven. Carol and Sophia, nine. Then T-Dog and Daryl, the outliers, to make eleven. The Hyundai will fit five normally, maybe seven or eight if people ride in the back and Carl and Sophia ride on some laps. Daryl's not sure why he's doing all this math - he's fine. He's got the bike.

It'd be easier if they left a group of people behind in the pick-up. But they haven't got enough weaponry to comfortably share it across two locations, and besides. Rick said yesterday that they weren't splitting up.

It's not a democracy anymore. They don't split up.

But even Rick can't fit ten people in a car built for five. So they do split up a little.

Which is how Daryl ends up with Carol Peletier riding pillion with him, Sophia sandwiched uncomfortably between them.

"Sorry," Carol says as she settles clumsily on the back of the bike. She can't figure out where to hold on to, where to put her feet. It's the first thing she's said to Daryl since last night.

"Like this, Mom," Sophia says, demonstrating. Kid's a natural - Daryl sure as shit hadn't taken any time to tell her the best way to hang on. Sophia points to a mark on her pants. "Just careful 'cause the pipes down there get really hot." Daryl feels a stab of guilt. Yeah, probably should have warned her about the exhaust pipes. Shit.

"Right." Carol shifts, pulls her legs up. Loops her arms around Sophia. They're so close it doesn't take much for Carol to lean forward, kiss the top of her head, a move so automatic that neither of the two seems to really notice it. Daryl looks away, messes with a saddlebag.

"Can go slow," Daryl grunts, squinting at the two of them. The last thing they need is someone falling off, cracking their head on the pavement, or getting scoured with road rash. Not on top of everything else. "Should anyway - don't wanna get too far ahead of the rest of 'em." Daryl hooks a thumb back to where Hershel is trying to maneuver himself into an overfull backseat before Rick promotes him to the passenger seat, Carl whining about having to be on a lap, Glenn looking awkwardly at Lori.

"Um - should - Carl can sit on my lap, if that'd be - I mean, just because you've like - already got a baby in there, so - if like, Carl would squish the baby, we can -"

"Glenn," Lori grits out, "Quit while you're ahead."

Glenn ends up crammed into the trunk of the car with Maggie. It's probably meant to be a punishment for pissing Lori off, but they look snug enough as Rick closes them in, Maggie leaning her head against Glenn's shoulder, rifle spread across their laps.

Daryl's glad Sophia's stuck between him and Carol, even though it's probably not so nice for her. But he'd at least already gotten used to the feel of her against his back - it doesn't bother him as much as it could. And Carol's pissed at him, he's sure, pissed he didn't sneak 'em off in the middle of the night, pissed Daryl isn't what she wants him to be. The idea of a pissed Carol shoved up against the evidence of his shitty life, his dumb choices, makes him twitch. So he's glad it's just Sophia there, Sophia hanging onto his belt, Carol just extra weight on the back as they pull off down the road, going slow, looking for anything that'll give them what they need.

Daryl told Sophia before they left to keep track of the turns. He's doing it too, so is Rick he's sure, maybe Hershel, but the kid does better with a project. He knows that much by now. Every turn they take, every crossroad, he feels her hands tap against his side. Probably doesn't even know she's doing it. Like she's trying to tap the memory into her brain, left hand for left turns, right hand for right. Smart.

They stop at the first possible place they see, some podunk gas station and mechanics tucked off the road, half-hidden by trees.

"All right," Rick says as everyone pours out of the clown ride of the Hyundai. "T-Dog, Daryl, Glenn, you're with me. Everyone else, back in the car. Hershel, you be in the driver's seat, in case we need a getaway. Carl, sit in the way back so you can open the trunk quick if we come out hot."

"What - you're just going to take them and leave the little women out here to tat lace? Pine for our menfolk?" Maggie snipes.

"Daddy's a man," Beth says, and Maggie gives her a withering glare that almost seems straight out of Merle's playbook - a sharp reminder that they're sisters. "What? I'm just saying - just because Daddy's old doesn't mean he's not -"

"I'm a man too," Carl pipes up, but Rick shuts that down with one look. Carl slumps back into the seat, his hat tipping low over his forehead so all you can see is his scowl.

"You're leaving more than half our manpower behind," Maggie tries again. ("Doncha mean woman power?" Beth mumbles, but Maggie ignores her like a pro.) "I can help. I'm good with the gun, and I've done runs before, loads of them. Glenn, tell him -"

"She's -" Glenn starts, but both of them stop at the look on Rick's face.

It's not a democracy anymore. Maggie gets back into the car.

The gas pumps outside are tapped, but there's a garage at the side with gas cans and half-fixed cars, so they set to siphoning them with tubing they find. Daryl and T-Dog do that - the familiar acrid taste that means it's working, the sound of the gas hitting the bottom of the can that helps ease some of the tension. It'll be all right. They'll get the gas, they'll find new shelter, they'll be okay.

"Don't know if it'll be enough to get us anywhere," T-Dog grumbles as they fill up another can. "Burned gas to get here, gonna burn more to get back - "

"Enough to get us to more gas, I guess," Daryl grunts. What other option is there?

T-Dog looks at him, practically rolls his eyes. "Yeah, man. Whatever."

Before Daryl can snap at him, Rick and Glenn re-emerge from the back office. Rick's wiping off his knife. Glenn has a half-full box of shop rags under his arm.

"One gun, two boxes of ammo," Rick says. "Might be more in the main shop. It's something."

Glenn holds up a set of keys. "Found these too. I didn't see any broken windows when we pulled up, did you guys?"

T-Dog shakes his head. Daryl just keeps siphoning.

"So - maybe they're the keys to the store. If it's locked -"

Might be there's still something worth having inside. Yeah. Okay.

From six cars in various states, they get about two and a half cannisters of gas - maybe twelve, fifteen gallons total. Not enough to get them anywhere substantial, but. Something.

All Glenn's hope about the keys is bullshit - there's a back window shattered and someone clearly did a raid at some point. Not like the place is huge or anything. Ain't some name-brand gas station with name-brand supplies, one of them places that might as well be a grocery store. It's just some shitty mom-and-pop place with one refrigerator and two rows of shelves. Whoever raided must have come pretty early on though - the shelves are thick with dust, the air is stale. There's a walker behind the counter with a shotgun blast to the chest - whoever came hadn't come in friendly. T-Dog takes it out quick, and after that it's silent. Whoever it was had come early enough to still be picky - they'd cleared all the booze, the cigarettes, the condoms, the best of the snacks. Daryl swears when he sees the empty Slim Jim container. Jerky would have been fucking useful.

But there is some food left - mostly flavored chips, sour cream and onion, barbecue, shit that'll make them thirsty rather than fill them up. A couple of jars of French onion dip and salsa that have rolled under the rows, an overturned box of five-hour energy drinks that Daryl eyes warily. Could be good to be awake, but the crash probably wouldn't be worth it. A stomped bag of crumbled pretzels. It's not much, but it's something. There are bottles of water in the dark fridge - that's a fucking jackpot. Glenn's picking through a box on the floor that looks like it used to hold Twinkies or something before it got stepped on. T-Dog is ransacking behind the counter and emerges with another gun and a metal baseball bat. Rick is scanning everything like he's got some secret list in his head, like he's compiling all the shit in front of him, sorting it into 'we need it' or 'we don't.'

Daryl swings by the front of the cash register - the candy section was probably pretty pitiful even when the store was in full swing, but there are a few boxes of dusty gum that Daryl crams into his pockets. There's a thing of lighters behind the counter, and Daryl helps himself to some of those, too. There's even a little display rack of shitty pocket knives, and Daryl debates grabbing one for Sophia. Even Carl has his little belt knife. Sophia could do with something too. But the knives here are all shitty mass-produced imported shit - blade would probably bend before it did any damage, and bad tools are worse than no tools at all. He leaves them and just adds a knife to the list of necessities he's keeping in his head for Carol and Sophia. Real boots for the two of them. Knives. Maybe a bow for Sophia, if he could find one with a decent enough draw weight.

By the front door, there's one of them revolving bookshelves. Daryl's on it immediately. There's a map of the whole state, one of just western Georgia, some pamphlets about local tourist attractions that Daryl grabs just in case. Might give them an idea of a direction to go in. On the bottom, a cheerful paperback bible, some shitty Christian fiction. A romance novel faded from the sun. Some thick thrillers with sniper's scopes embossed in the cover. Daryl stoops down to take a closer look - in case there's anything useful, that's all. Like there's a book on edible plants or doomsday prepping hiding in the chick-lit.

There's nothing useful there at all. Just fiction, novels, and probably pretty shitty ones, if they were on sale in a gas station. But the ones at the bottom have the too bright colors of kid's books - or young adult, whatever. Books for teenagers. Daryl stares at them, chewing his thumbnail.

"What'd you find?" Rick asks, almost making Daryl jump, and he holds up the maps, the lighters. A pack of gum. Rick nods approvingly.

"Good. C'mon, let's get back out there. A car parked out front could draw attention."

The other three of them fall into line - T-Dog with some of the gas, Rick with the rest, Glenn hastily filling up a backpack he must have found in the back office. Daryl grabs another almost full bag of food, shoves the maps and shit into it. Slings it over his shoulder as they all make their way back out front - Carl's anxious face peering out of the bloody back window, Carol and Sophia huddled in the backseat with Beth and Lori, Maggie scowling from the passenger seat next to her father, gun pointed out the window to prove she's ready if any action happens.

"All right," Rick says, pulling open the car trunk. "Got what we need. Let's get back."

No one says anything as they re-arrange themselves back into the car around their new haul - the gas cans, a bag of food. Glenn hooks one of the bags of food to Carol's back. "It won't blow off, right?" Glenn asks anxiously as Carol re-mounts the bike.

Daryl doesn't even dignify that with a response. Just kicks the engine into gear.

"Daryl, you take point," Rick says as he reclaims the Hyundai's driver seat. "Keep an eye out."

Like Daryl'd do anything different.

"Y'remember the way?" he asks Sophia, who nods quickly.

"Yeah. I even checked with Mr. Hershel - he was keeping track too, from the car, and we had all the same turns."

"Good work," Daryl grunts, and he can see Carol over Sophia's head. Sophia is beaming at him, and even Carol looks softer. He can't tell if she's smiling at Daryl or at her fucking brainiac kid, but it doesn't matter because at least she's not biting his head off or whatever. "I take a wrong turn, you gimme a wallop, turn me the right way round."

"I will," Sophia says solemnly, and Carol's smile grows a little bit wider.

It makes Daryl almost want to fake going the wrong way, just so Sophia could correct him.


When they get back to the old stone house and the water, the pick-up is still there. Which is sort of a relief - Daryl had hotwired too many cars in his youth to feel exactly comfortable just leaving one on the side of the road. He's hoping they're gonna camp out here another night - keeps remembering the scuffling from last night, the hope that the woods around them are filled with potential food and they can save the convenience store scraps for when they're really desperate. But almost immediately Rick's got them all breaking down camp, what little there is of it, sorting the supplies out so each vehicle has a little of everything, so they don't get totally fucked if they lose the car with all the food in it or something. (Daryl tries not to think of what kind of situation they'd be in where they'd only lose the car and the supplies and not the people riding in the car. Not fucking helpful.)

With the pick-up, seating arrangements get nicer. Seems like there'll be a Greene family car with Maggie, Hershel, Beth, and Glenn in the Hyundai, with T-Dog along for the ride, and a Grimes family car with Lori, Rick, and Carl, Carol and Sophia shoved in alongside 'em. Carol doesn't look pleased about this - vaguely, in the back of his mind, Daryl remembers this is the same road trip configuration they'd had back when Sophia went missing - but she doesn't say anything, just ends up huddled with Lori and Beth Greene, splitting the rations into two piles.

"It should be three," Carol says after a long moment. "We should store some things in the motorcycle." She looks over at Daryl, who is turning a bent cigarette over and over in his fingers. Glenn'd found it back in the shop office while Daryl was siphoning gas, had slipped it to him like a gift. Daryl's trying to decide if he should smoke it right off or save it. When Carol looks at him he has an absurd impulse to hide it - remembers the last time she saw him smoking, when she'd seen what he'd done with it. (The scab on his hand, barely visible anymore, almost healed.) He shoves the cigarette up his sleeve so quick he's shocked he doesn't snap the damn thing in half.

"What?" Daryl barks. Beth Greene flinches at his tone, but Carol just stays even, and Lori has already started pulling a small group of things out - a can of baby corn, a jar of peanut butter, a lighter, some shop rags.

"You can fit some things, right? In the saddlebags?"

Daryl nods, curtly. He doesn't have anything really in the saddlebags - he'd had a gun, but it'd got lost somewhere in the shuffle. (He sees the handle something mighty familiar poking out of Carl's jean pocket and makes a note to ask Rick about it.) Most of the stuff in there is Merle's, and probably not useful shit either. He could make room.

"Here," Lori says. One of the extra maps, some pamphlets, a handful of rations. "She's right - everyone should have a little something. Just in case."

Daryl just scowls and grunts and takes the shit. What good is a single can of corn going to do if their whole group somehow gets stranded with just the bike for cover? But he takes it because it's not a democracy and he can't imagine sassing Lori'll go over good with Rick.

Plus, he should probably deal with the saddlebags before they set out. Do a purge.

It's not like Merle is going to come asking for any of that shit.

Which is how Sophia finds him, the paltry remnants of Merle's life scattered around him, a knot in this throat like a fist. He's almost glad of the excuse to stop looking at the shit - a ratty undershirt, a flannel, couple extra pairs of socks that'll come in useful. (Daryl pockets the drugs he finds tucked away in each balled up pair - meth, maybe molly, a handful of opiates. Those might come in useful too.) The battered lighter with the US Army insignia etched into it, a stack of well-worn magazines, a busted-up bible that Daryl thinks may have belonged to their grandpa - a man Daryl'd never met that Merle had fond memories of. It's good to look away until he realizes who has come close and what she can see.

"Shit girl, what're you sneakin' around for?" Daryl yelps, practically doing a slide tackle to cover up Merle's stash of pornos. Sophia blinks at him from the side. At some point her and Carol had swapped outerwear - Carol's got her sweater back and Sophia's wearing Daryl's old shitty shirt.

"I - I thought you heard me. Sorry."

"Whatever," Daryl huffs, making sure he's sitting on the dirty magazines - ain't no shit a kid should see.

"Sorry," Sophia says again. Her fingers are rubbing over the cuff of his shirt - the cuffs hang pretty low, past her knuckles. "My d - I mean. I know sneaking is - is rude. I'm sorry."

Daryl scowls. Fuck Ed. "Hell, s'a useful skill. Gotta getcha out in the woods, all quiet like that? Could sneak up on a deer no problem. Fuckin' handy." Shit. His goddamn mouth. "I mean - y'know. Ain't a thing to be sorry for."

Sophia gives him a small smile and seems to take this as an invitation. (Hell, maybe it is - Daryl doesn't know what the fuck he's doing anymore.) She squats down next to him - the shirt hanging so long on her that she can practically tuck her legs into it.

"What are you doing?"

"Makin' room for supplies. Y'know. Like the others."

Sophia nods. Looks at the stuff as Daryl sorts it all brutally - keeps the lighter, the clothes. Hesitates over the bible - it'd belonged to his father's father, he thinks, that's family history, that should mean something. But it doesn't mean shit to Daryl. He wonders if Hershel would want it - fucking biblethumper. Maybe he'd appreciate it.

"What're you doing?" Daryl asks back as he starts to reload the saddlebags. He likes packing, always has. Likes finding the best way for things to fit together, likes running down the list making sure he has what he needs. Like poor man's Tetris, he thinks as he tries to figure out how to fit all the cans in cushioned with socks to prevent rattling. He looks up at Sophia as he works. Her hands gripping her knees as she sits in front of him, content to watch. "Why ain't you with Carl?"

Sophia shrugs, but he can see her hands on her knees go tighter. "He's with his dad. He's -" Sophia shrugs again. "I don't know."

"You and Carl fightin'?"

She shakes her head vehemently, blonde hair flipping. "No! No, not - just - I don't know." She shrugs, a little miserably. "He's my friend, and I don't know how to - I don't know."

Yeah. Daryl remembers Carl's face last night, the almost keening cries that had taken a long time to fade out, the sullen set to his mouth as they start the day. He seems to be ping-ponging between Lori and Rick, unsure of which one he should be angrier at, trying to get comfort and rejecting it in equal measures. Poor kid.

"Prob'ly needs some time," Daryl mumbles. It's some kind of bullshit people on TV say - it's not anything Daryl thinks he's ever said before.

Sophia just nods. Her face is sad and full of a sort of awful understanding - knowing that the world is fucked up and sometimes the only thing to do is let it be fucked up, try and wait it out, and suffer.

"How - how come you don't want to leave?"

The question hangs in the air and it makes Daryl check whose listening real quick - Lori and Carol and Beth still sorting shit, Glenn and T-Dog figuring out weaponry, Rick poring over a map spread over the hood of the pick-up with Carl at his elbow, Hershel pointing out locations of interest. No one near enough to hear. But once he figures that out Daryl scowls, almost feels the back of his neck flush - the fuck does he care if someone's listening? He's not some scared kid, watching what he says, hiding what he means -

"We are leavin'," Daryl says, spreading a hand out over the packed saddlebags. Sophia frowns at him, a face that looks so much like her ma's it's eerie.

"No, I mean - like what you and my mom were talking about. Last night." One of Sophia's hands has abandoned her knee and is now tugging at the grass she's sitting on - not quite yanking it up by the roots, but a sort of rhythmic pull, like she's trying to see how close she can get to jerking the things up. "Like how come you - want to stay. With them."

But it's not them she's worried about. He sees her eyes flick off to one side - like she wants to keep Rick in her sights but doesn't want to turn her head, doesn't want to let on that she's watching him.

Rick, behind her, frowns at his map. Drums his fingers over it as he scours it, grid by grid, looking for somewhere, anywhere, that'll keep them safe.

"You wanna leave 'em?" Daryl asks. He jerks his chin in Carl's direction. "Carl? His ma? Hershel an' them?"

"No?" Sophia says, the end of the sentence going up like it's a question, like she's trying to give the right answer and doesn't know what that is. "No, I - I don't want to leave Carl."

"Can't do it just the three of us," Daryl mutters. (He doesn't even really notice the words - the three of us.) "S'a good group. Good people. We'll do better with them."

Sophia hums, an unconvinced noise.

"An' they'll do better with us, too," Daryl adds. Which is true. He's been hunting longer than half the group has been alive. He's lived through more shitty winters than he can count, winters without warm enough clothes or central heating. He's had more lean times than anyone should and he's made it through all of them.

If he leaves, it's only a matter of time before the others starve.

And Sophia could be a hunter too, Daryl thinks. She's older than he was when he started - hell, he remembers trailing his pa and Uncle Jess when he was about six with Merle's old Remington before he had strength enough for even the weakest bow's draw weight. But she's quiet and she's patient and she listens to shit. Observant or whatever. She could learn it, he's pretty sure.

(He tries not to think about how sweet she is, how nice. Is she ever going to be able to kill another living thing? She'll have to learn. She'll just have to. The only option left.)

"We can be good to each other," Daryl finishes. His fingers are tugging and picking at his scabbed-up cuticles. "We'll be a'right. All of us. An' Rick - Rick'll doall right by us."

Sophia doesn't even hum at that. Just looks at him, those brown eyes tracking over his face.

"He - last night he was. Kinda scary," Sophia mumbles, her voice very small. Like if she says it quiet enough Rick won't know.

"Jus' - that happens," Daryl says awkwardly. She knows it happens. That's why she's freaked - because she knows it happens, that men get angry, that men snap and lose their tempers and do shit they're sorry for later. She knows all that stuff. That's what's frightening. "But Rick - he's, y'know. He ain't - " Daryl wants to say Rick isn't like that. He really wants to say that. He's almost sure it's true.

Almost. And he's not gonna lie to her.

"He ain't gonna do nothin' to you," Daryl says instead. "Wouldn't let 'im, even if he wanted to."

Sophia's face suddenly looks startled, which makes Daryl feel like shit. What had he done last night to make her think he'd take Rick's side over hers? Rick's a damn adult, can look after his own fucking self. Shit.

"Girl, I told you a'ready - back at the farm. Ain't gonna let nobody get at you or your ma. Or nothing, neither." He thinks of walkers, the whole herd of them, rotting hands reaching out through the smoke of the barn fire, him and Sophia and Carol all somehow making it through unscathed.

What are the odds that will happen again, the next time they get trapped in a corner they can't get out of?

Whatever. He doesn't need to know the odds. Daryl's shitty at math anyway. He'll just have to keep it from happening. Keep them all safe. The only option left.

"You promise?"

The words are so small Daryl barely hears them. But he doesn't need to hear them to know what they are.

"Yeah," he grunts, hoping he isn't making the biggest mistake in the world. "Promise."

Sophia nods at him. Not necessarily on board - he doesn't think she's gonna go play dominoes with Rick anytime soon - but like she heard him. Like she understands.

"Okay," she says softly, andher hands are shuffling over her knees again and a thought hits him so fast he can't even stop it from flying out of his mouth.

"Where's your doll at?"

Sophia's face, already sad, suddenly looks miserable. She shrugs, arms winding tighter around her legs. "Um. I don't - I guess I lost her. Getting away from the farm."

Daryl can't remember if she had it when he found her in the stables. When had she lost it - when Daryl was pulling her onto the bike? When he practically dragged her off that porch? Had she had the fucking thing until he threw her over the back of the bike and fucking tore through the trees for a full night, swerving all over the place? She'd held on to the fucking thing for near a week lost in the woods.

And now it was gone.

"I - I mean, it doesn't matter," Sophia says quickly. "It's - it's just a doll. It doesn't matter. It was Eliza's doll anyway." Eliza Morales, whose little brother will keep company with that lost doll forever, the two of them left behind on Hershel's land. "I'm twelve. I'm too old for dolls."

Daryl knows that. Remembers her saying it before. But still.

It's hard to lose the last solid thing you have to hold on to.

"Catch," Daryl says roughly, and he chucks a packet of gum at her. She doesn't quite catch it, but she doesn't drop it either. She looks at it almost puzzled. It's one of the dumb kid-friendly ones that are meant to blow bubbles eight feet wide or some shit. Fruit punch flavored, which Daryl thinks sounds nasty but remembers liking as a kid.

"For if you get hungry," he says. "Pop a piece in, chew it for a long time. Tricks your body into thinkin' it's full. Or y'know. Fuller." He suddenly feels stupid. Kid lost her doll and he's given her - something to chew on? But it's the only thing he has.

"Thanks," Sophia says shyly. She looks at it for a long moment, then pockets the package, which Daryl silently approves of. Yeah. Even if she's hungry, she's holding off in case she gets hungrier later. Smart.

"Help me load these up then," he grunts, pulling himself to his feet. He offers the kid a hand - she's been putting a good face on but he'd be damned if her ankle weren't complaining like crazy. This seems borne out by the fact she grabs on to him with practically no hesitation as he hauls her up. Daryl makes sure he's still standing on top of Merle's dirty mags. "Take this over to the bike, I'll show you."

Sophia almost crumples over the weight of the saddlebag, which gets a snort from Daryl. But she doesn't go under - just wobbles precariously, to the left, to the right, before finding some equilibrium.

"You got it," Daryl says. "G'wan. I'm right behind you."

He waits until the kid's back is fully turned to fling them magazines into the woods like some kind of poisoned frisbee.

Chapter 24: Enough


(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Once the cars all loaded up, they head south. Daryl can't argue with this. (No one can because it's not a democracy anymore.) Herd came from up north, Atlanta way. If they go south, steer clear of the cities, that seems as good a plan as any, for now at least.

Rick's picked a spit of a town called Moreland for them to stay the night, southeast of their current location. "Hershel says there's an animal hospital there - might have medical supplies, things like that." The fact that they don't urgently need medical supplies doesn't seem to factor in, or maybe it does. They're begging for trouble not having that shit. Daryl remembers Hershel's face when he was all fucked up from his misadventure at the creek bed. I had no idea we'd be going through the antibiotics so quickly.

"We'll stay there tonight," Rick says firmly. "Scope out the rest of the area in the morning, see what's left to find."

So that's what they do. It's not a democracy.

It's nearing dusk when they finally get there - a trip that normally would have taken maybe forty minutes before takes four different roads and almost five hours. They skirt past one clump of walkers - barely more than twenty, hardly a herd but still too many - and detour north to shake them which adds another two hours to their trip.

When they finally arrive, the animal hospital is miraculously untouched. There's a post-it hanging by one corner in the window. RAJIV, GONE TO ATLANTA TO FIND JENNY. BE BACK ASAP. FEED SCHEDULE ON CLIPBOARD. GOD BLESS.

Daryl, Glenn, and Rick clear the place. Daryl jimmies the lock - no point breaking windows when they'd just have to cover up the hole. Rick seems to be getting the hang of Maggie, because he sets her on guard at the back of the building with a gun, puts T-Dog at the front. Carol's behind the wheel of the pick-up at the backdoor, Lori in the Hyundai at the front, kids split between cars, Hershel waiting for the go-ahead to get in and start seeking out the good stuff.

There's nothing in there, or at least nothing immediately dangerous. Glenn pukes when they open the back kennel and find what's left of the animals. (Hershel just closes his eyes, looking a million years old. Maybe he's saying a prayer.)

They close that door and bring the others in, set up camp in the reception area, just in time for the sun to set.

Someone puts forth the idea of lighting a fire - maybe Beth. Rick doesn't even need to shoot that idea down. Daryl does it for him, quick. There's no chimney - what do they want, to die of carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation? No one says much after that.

"Hey," Rick whispers. It's dark and they've all spread out their separate ways to sleep after a dinner of chips and dip - Rick seemed to agree about saving the cans. Daryl's got himself set up in the corner, back to the wall, which is how he prefers to sleep. In the dark like this, he can barely make out the outline of Lori and Carl curled up on a waiting room couch, the big lump in the other corner hidden by a desk that's Carol and Sophia, Beth Greene's white-blonde hair shining somehow even with virtually no light. He thinks he can smell the reek coming from the back kennel, but maybe that's just because he knows it's there. Maybe the others can't tell.

"Hey," Rick says again, and Daryl tenses up. What? They'd done everything he said, all day, they'd done right, what's Rick going to say to them now in the dark that he couldn't have told them earlier? Daryl feels almost trapped at that moment, feels his fists bunch. Well fuck Rick, fuck him, they've done everything he asked -

"We did it," Rick says, that low rasp in his voice sounding smoothed out. "Good work today, all of you. We did it."

No one else says anything. But it's like they all let out a little sigh, a little relief. A little something.

It's not a democracy. But maybe it's enough.

The next day is the same damn thing. They wake up, eat a little something - Daryl needs them to hunker down in one place so he can go off for a few hours and fucking hunt - clear up their things, and get back into the cars. They scope out the rest of the area, see what they find, which is not bad. Most people seem to have left, either for Atlanta or some FEMA center or to family or just elsewhere, figuring they could outrun whatever was happening, wait it out. They figured it wrong, but it means the town is empty, a few scattered walkers, a decent handful of supplies. A lot of it is spoiled - soured milk in busted refrigerators, withered and shriveled fruits and vegetables, the now weirdly familiar stink of decaying meat - but they grab every can they can find, and a reasonable amount of other shit too.

"We gotta get organized," Rick says after they hit the first house like a demented round of Supermarket Sweep. So they try. They hit two more houses, each one getting marginally less manic before they hit the jackpot.

"We're staying here tonight," Rick says, and nobody even thinks about arguing.

It's a two-story white clapboard house. It has blue shutters, a chimney, and a pantry Daryl thinks he'd literally kill for. Cans of vegetables, chili, tuna, black beans, garbanzo beans, kidney beans, navy beans - shit these people must have loved beans - bags of rice, canned peaches, fucking boxes of jello, for chrissake. Daryl's stomach clenches almost painfully at the sight, and Carol almost throws them all out of her way when she sees it.

"I'll start on dinner," she says without anyone even asking. "Go on, do the rest of the house, I'll take care of this -"

Daryl still wishes he could get out and hunt - maybe tomorrow, if they stay here another night. This canned shit should be the last resort, the emergency stuff. But he can't bring himself to argue as Carol goes to town on that pantry, Sophia at her elbow smiling as her mom hands down can after can.

The rest of the house is about par for the course - some painkillers in the bathroom, the good stuff leftover from somebody's dental work, a mess of batteries in the front hall, camping lantern, jackets that look about the right size for the kids. It's not until Daryl opens the last bedroom door that he thinks again, jackpot.

And then he feels like shit because the jackpot is the room of a fifteen-year-old girl who best case scenario is scraping out survival somewhere and worse case is stumbling around eating people's faces. But still.

It's halfway between little girl room and full-blown teenager - the walls painted sky blue with little puffy clouds near the ceiling but also papered over with concert posters and photos of friends, weirdly intense charcoal sketches, a twin bed painted white with stickers stuck all over it. But those things aren't what Daryl's looking at. He's not even really looking at the clothes, even though there's a hoodie draped over the back of the chair that'll only be a little big on Sophia, and what look like combat boots poking out from under the bed.

No, what's got him practically pumping his fist is the bookshelf, crammed almost to overflowing.

Daryl's not a reader. He doesn't know shit about books and he doesn't care. Last book he'd read was probably listening to Sophia stumble through that Little House shit back at the farm, and before that, he doesn't even know. And it's not like he'd been paying perfect attention when Sophia talked to him about that book Ed'd taken from her, the one with the girl with the bow who slept in trees. But he remembers enough to start running his finger down the line of titles, waiting for something to jump out at him.

Had to do with - hunger? Or thirst? Some shit like that.

"What are you doing?" he hears from behind him, and he scowls at the door. Glenn is there with a load of quilts and pillows, looking perplexed.

"Lookin' for somethin'," Daryl barks, his head turning almost immediately back to the bookshelf.

"Yeah, but - what?"

Daryl doesn't deign to respond. The titles under his finger mean nothing to him and suddenly he feels a flicker of stupidity. The fuck is he doing? Fucking dumb, wasting time hunting down something like this when there's real shit to do, real work to be done. Fucking dumb, fucking -

His finger thuds against the spine of a book and stops. Black cover, yellow letters. He pulls it down off the shelf, squints at the back of it. Waits for the letters to settle down.

In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem... participate in the annual Hunger Games... Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen...


"S'like that girl in your book. All belted in like she did with the trees."


Fucking jackpot.

Carol's in the kitchen when he gets downstairs, the others still busy in different parts of the house. Glenn is in the living room, setting up some kind of enormous bed with all the pillows and quilts from upstairs and Sophia is helping him by passing him pillows. Every time she passes one, it somehow ends up hitting Glenn in the face. (Daryl can't tell if that's Glenn's fault or Sophia's.) He cuts through fast, book shoved under his vest, just in case.

Carol's got a handful of cans in front of her and a glass casserole dish and she's stirring at it and adding spices and shit like some kind of TV cook. She looks up when she hears footsteps, then goes straight back to work when she sees it's Daryl.

"I mean it's not from scratch but it should taste fine," Carol says as Daryl comes up to her. "I'm going for something like tuna noodle casserole without the noodles. I mean, they have noodles but I didn't want to wait for the water to boil. Can you get the racks from inside the oven? We're going to have to jury rig something if we want to heat this up in the fireplace. It'll be edible if we can't but I think a hot meal would do wonders for -"

"Found somethin'," Daryl says abruptly and shoves the book practically under her nose.

It takes Carol less than a second to recognize it - well, duh. She'd seen the thing before. She looks at the book and then up at him and her face is almost comical with how dumbstruck she looks.

"What - how?"

"Upstairs," Daryl says. "S'kid's room, all kindsa sh - stuff. Saw it when I was lookin' around." He hears a squawk come from the living room - probably Glenn getting nailed in the face with a blanket or something. Daryl shoves the book out at Carol again. She still hasn't taken it, staring at it like she can't believe it's really there. "Prob'ly more y'all could use if you go up later, clothes or whatever, but I thought -" Here Daryl starts to doubt himself. Is it not the right book? Is it weird that he found it, that he remembered it? Does Carol think it's off, that he's paid so much attention to her kid? "It's - it's that book, right? That she likes. With the kid in the tree with the bow?"

"I - yes, it's - Daryl," Carol says, and she looks at him with a look too open and emotional. He can't read it. There's too much in it, something like joy and awe, something like gratitude, something that almost looks like tears, and Daryl can't read any of it and if he could he wouldn't understand it. So he looks away, down at the book, the cover somehow blacker against his dirty hands, the faintly raised edges to the letters. "Daryl, she'll - she'll love it."

Daryl shrugs, still looking at the book in his hands. "Whatever. Jus' saw it when I was lookin' for useful shit, thought - kid might as well have it. Since she lost her doll or whatever."

"She'll love it," Carol says again. "She's in the living room with Glenn if you -"

But Daryl frowns and shoves the book towards her again. "Ain't - you can give her it," he mumbles, finally daring to look back at Carol. Carol's gotten whatever the fuck was happening with her face under control, but now she looks almost puzzled. "You're her mama."

"You found it," Carol says. "You should -"

"You're her mama," Daryl says again, and he holds out the book. Carol still doesn't grab it.

"It'll mean a lot that you even looked for it," Carol says. "That you thought of her. You should give it to her. She'll - "

"You're her ma," Daryl just repeats for the third time. Why is this so hard to get? "Fuck, just take it already!" He ducks a look over his shoulder - that'd be just his luck, if Sophia saw him yelling at her ma when he was just trying to do something nice. But she's seemingly absorbed in her task, hair golden in the afternoon light streaming through the window. Still, before she can hear them, Daryl finally just drops the fucking thing on the counter next to the casserole dish and storms off to see if the others have finished clearing the house yet. She can give it to the kid or not. Ain't his problem any longer.

If Daryl was hoping that was the end of it, he's out of luck.

He found Rick in the backyard, squinting at the big picture windows, looking up and down the street as if trying to sense the nearest walker. "Tomorrow, if this place still seems good, we'll have to board that up," Rick says, and Daryl just nods. They should probably board it up tonight to guarantee they get a tomorrow, but they'd have to find boards somewhere and it's getting dark. Fucking fall - it'll be getting darker every day now. "You think this place could work?"

Daryl shrugs. It's got a front driveway where the pick-up is parked, nose out to the road, and someone maneuvered the Hyundai around back, which is good - two exits. The food store ain't nothing to sneeze at, and it's a corner lot - they can see a decent distance down two roads, could maybe set up a perimeter. Haven't heard a single person, living or dead, for a while. Daryl chews his thumbnail as he looks around, looking for problems, and finally, he shrugs.

"Could do," Daryl mutters, which is enough for Rick. Rick nods and the two of them head back inside. The smell of a homecooked meal slaps Daryl in the face as soon as the door opens. (Daryl can't remember the last time that happened to him, walking into a house to a meal cooked for him to eat.) He doesn't even get a proper chance to enjoy it though because suddenly there's Sophia, barreling towards him, practically skipping as she waves that fucking book in the air like she's found gold.

"Daryl! Daryl, look!!"

"M'lookin'," Daryl mumbles. His ears are burning already. Shit. Did Carol tell her?

"It's the book I was telling you about! The Hunger Games!"

Daryl doesn't know where to look. "Cool," he says awkwardly. He can see Carol standing a little way back. She gives him a tiny, almost unnoticeable nod, and Daryl feels his shoulders relax a little. Good. If he couldn't deal with whatever the fuck Carol's face had been doing earlier, he sure as hell can't deal with whatever shit Sophia'd have done. It's better this way, coming from her ma. Makes more sense.

"Mom found it - she said maybe if we look upstairs they might even have the second book!" Sophia is hugging the thing to her chest. Hell, maybe it's a better replacement for that doll than he thought. Really something to hold on to, cuddled under one arm. "Mom says I shouldn't start reading it until after dinner but - "

"It's about ready," Carol says. She's hauling the thing out of the fire with an oven mitt, a huge spoon in her hand as she doles out portions into fucking matching china with silver cutlery. "If you're all -"

She doesn't have to say more. Everyone is practically diving at the food. Somehow Daryl finds himself sitting between Sophia and Carl, who is looking at the book skeptically. (It's the first look on his face that hasn't been sullen or scared since Shane Walsh died, so Daryl figures that's a win.)

"I'm going to start over from the beginning so I remember everything," Sophia is chattering in between spoonfuls. The food is savory and warm and doesn't taste as if it came from a can. It's maybe the best thing Daryl's ever tasted. "You should read it after me, Carl, you'd like it -"

"Maybe," Carl says doubtfully.

"You too Daryl," Sophia says, and Daryl sees her mother hide a grin behind a bite of casserole. "You'd like it. Katniss has a bow and she knows everything about the woods and she was a hunter before she had to go to the games and she'd hit every squirrel in the eye -"

"Good shot," Daryl grunts as he eats another bite.

"Maybe if we stay here we can do a Reading Day," Sophia says, looking at her ma. But then she stiffens slightly, her eyes darting toward Rick, who doesn't seem to be paying any attention to her. "I mean - if there isn't other work to do or anything. Or -"

"I'll be surprised if you don't finish it tonight," Carol breaks in, a fondness in her tone. "Seems like I'll wake up and you'll be huddled by the fire, just trying to read one more page.

"Nuh-uh," Sophia says - still a little subdued, but apparently heartened by her mama's voice and Rick's inattention. "I'm going to ration it. Like with the cans. So it can last. In case it's the last one for a while. "

It hits Daryl again - this kid.

He doesn't know that he's ever known a kid before, other than when he was one himself. And the kids in town, in the neighborhood, they'd always stood at a remove from him - the Dixons were dirt poor, smelly, didn't fight fair, had a scary daddy and a burned up ma. Wasn't like there was anything about them that made other people want to get close, especially kids. But he thinks even among other kids, Sophia's got to be one that stands out. Sharp as a tack, thoughtful - and hell, even Carl Grimes has grown on him, with his dumb hat and his knack for tripping into danger. But Sophia's different. Rationing books like they're food, like stories and words are just as important to her survival.

He doesn't notice right away that he's looking at Sophia until she looks back at him and smiles. She's got the book in her lap, is balancing her bowl on top of it, like she can't bear to put it down even for a moment.

"You can read it too, if you want," Sophia offers again, shyly this time. Her voice is quieter - like she doesn't want anyone else to hear, like it's something just for him. Kid doesn't even know he had any part in finding the damn thing and still she's sharing it with him, the excitement, the happiness, the thing itself. If she'd known he'd have thought it was out of gratitude or obligation. Since she doesn't know, Daryl's not sure what to think, why she's offering these things to him.

"Mhm," Daryl says through a mouthful of food. "Maybe."

And Sophia grins at him, an honest-to-god grin.

Daryl doesn't know if he's ever grinned in his life, but he doesn't scowl as he focuses his attention back on his food, to the other conversations around the living room, the back of his neck feeling hot for some reason.

"There's a couple of beds upstairs," T-Dog is saying to Rick. "Don't know about you but I'm tired of the floor."

"We shouldn't split up," Rick says immediately. "House isn't locked down - we have visitors in the night, we don't want to have to go through every room to find everybody. Plus the fireplace is in here."

T-Dog nods resignedly. "Still - might pull down some of the mattresses, at least. I ain't no twelve years old, man, my back -"

Which is how Daryl finds himself in the world's most demented slumber party.

Carl and Sophia are giggling - fucking giggling - as they jump from mattress to mattress, Carl trying to get serious air, knocking over some decorative figurine as he attempts a somersault. It's late - Glenn and Maggie have gone upstairs to one of the bedrooms for first watch, Hershel aiming a look at their backs as T-Dog ribs them. ("Remember, you're meant to be watching! Which means eyes on the window, not each other, and -") Rick looks like he knows he should break up the party but seems loathe to - and Daryl gets why. This is the happiest Daryl's ever seen Carl.

It's only after Carl smashes another ornament that Lori steps in, puts her hands on his shoulders. "Okay, I think that's enough destruction for one night. Bed."

Carl's mood changes like a flipped switch - his face suddenly stormy. His eyes seek out Rick, who raises an eyebrow.

"What'd Mom just say? Bed, now. For all of us."

But Rick doesn't look at Lori when he says it, and Lori doesn't look at him.

Sophia had stopped the second Lori stepped forward and is now sitting on the edge of a mattress, book in hand. Like she's trying to pretend she was never jumping at all, her eyes flicking towards Rick. Daryl plops down next to her, the mattress sinking under his weight. She looks at him.

"Lemme see," he grunts and holds out a hand for the book. Kid hands it over no questions. Daryl thumbs through it. "Whatcha gonna do? Chapter a day?"

"I guess," Sophia says quietly.

Daryl grunts then hands the book back. Stands up. Grabs one end of the mattress and tugs it. The thing slides along the wooden floor like it's going over ice. Sophia lets out an undignified yelp, grabs the edges so she doesn't fly off, which feels like an overreaction. He's not pulling that hard, and it's only a twin mattress.

"Ah! Where are you -"

"Gotta be closer to the fire if you're gonna be able to read," Daryl mutters, depositing the mattress as close to the hearth as he dares. He doesn't want the kid to catch light, after all.

"Do me next," Carl says from another mattress - this one king-sized. How the fuck T-Dog got it down the stairs, Daryl has no idea. Probably just tipped it over the banister and hoped for the best.

"Tomorrow," Lori says before Daryl's forced to respond. She rests a hand on Carl's back, and Carl's shoulders twitch. He lays down without complaint, but his whole body screams that the only reason he's doing it is so Lori will stop talking to him. Lori shoots a look at Rick, but Rick isn't looking at her. Is on the other end of the mattress, pulling off his boots. Rick stares at his socked feet for a long moment, then tugs the boots back on. Yeah. Daryl's not exactly trusting that this place'll last long enough to get shoes on if the shit hits the fan.

Everyone's settling all around them. Beth Greene and her daddy have their hands clasped in the corner, eyes closed. T-Dog is already sprawled out over a mattress, arms and legs akimbo and practically snoring. The Grimes mattress, a little island of quiet tension, the adults turned back to back, Carl in the middle like the world's worst barricade.

Carol's got a heap of blankets and is setting up on the floor next to Sophia. Sophia's already lying on her stomach, nose practically in the fire, the book laid out in front of her. She doesn't seem to notice as Carol lays down beside her, Carol's eyes fixed on Sophia's face.

Daryl wonders what it must feel like, to be able to see your heart beating outside your chest like that, walking around bared to the world and all its dangers. Wonders how you could stand it, knowing how vulnerable it makes you, having to spend every moment trying to protect it. Daryl's own heart is a mean little thing, hidden away in his chest, toughened by years of scars and ill-treatment. He can't imagine looking at it like it's something precious, treating it like it's anything more than the thing keeping him alive. Nothing more, nothing less.

Daryl wonders, watching as Sophia's tongue creeps out of the corner of her mouth with concentration, her hair shining in the flickering glow of the flames, if it's worth it.

Looking at Carol, he thinks he knows the answer.

He takes over from Glenn and Maggie around midnight - Glenn holding that old pocket watch to show Daryl yeah, it's his fucking turn, not like Daryl was arguing. They've set up in what looks like the master bedroom - it's got windows on two walls, which gives him a decent enough view, even if that view is just darkness. He opens a window, lets the cool air hit him in the face, wake him up some. Listens for any noises. But the noises he hears aren't ones he can translate as well as the ones in the woods. No twigs snapping, no yips or howls or scrambles of animal feet in brush. There's a tinkling coming from far off somewhere - maybe a windchime, blowing around even with nobody left to hear it. There's no buzz or hum of electricity, no distant sounds of voices or cars or TV sets going. It's a quiet Daryl can't read and he finds himself pulling the chair right up to the window, his head almost hanging out of it, listening and waiting for something to go wrong.

He's got Merle's old lighter in his hand and he finds himself flipping it open and shut, open and shut, the metal heavy and warm in his grip.

He's meant to be on watch until four, figures it's probably around two or two-thirty when he hears something. It's not coming from outside, though - it's the sound behind him, the scuff of feet climbing the stairs, the floorboards creaking and settling under the weight. It feels like shouting in the stillness of the house, the quiet of the world outside. He's surprised Rick and them downstairs don't wake up and come running.

Daryl wonders when he stopped being surprised at Carol following him as her head peeks around the doorframe. She's got a stub of a candle in her hand like some kind of Victorian ghost lady. Daryl snorts seeing it, turns back to the window as Carol puts the thing on a nightstand.

"S'late," Daryl mumbles.

"I know." She seems to take it for permission, because she's coming into the room, closing the door quietly behind her. She perches on the end of the bed - this must have been where T-Dog found the king mattress because the frame is the only thing left, but she makes herself a little spot there and sits.

"Y'want somethin'?" Daryl asks after a while. The wooden bedframe can't be that comfortable.

"Woke up. Couldn't fall back to sleep." She's looking at the nightstands next to the bed - his and hers, one side cluttered with books, the other with a pair of glasses and a remote. An abandoned glass of water, dust floating in it. An empty photo frame, face up, like someone knew they couldn't haul the whole thing but needed the picture inside, wouldn't leave without it.

Daryl wonders if Carol has nightmares too. Like Sophia, like him. Hell, probably the whole damn group's got something to wake up screaming from now. But still.

Daryl's started flipping the lighter again, almost without noticing. There's something soothing about the action, the flick of his wrist, the sound of the metal cover snapping into place.

"What's that?"

It's not like he'd forgotten Carol was there, but her question startles him. He flips the case closed roughly and gets part of his thumb pinched in it. Hisses.

"S'just a lighter," Daryl mumbles, freeing his finger. The sting fades almost immediately but he picks at the spot with his fingers, the rough, chewed-up skin of his cuticle. "Was Merle's."

There's a silence from Carol on the bedframe, and then suddenly she's right next to him, her hand outstretched like she wants to see the thing. So he hands it to her. The second it leaves his hands he feels dumb. She probably hadn't meant it like she wanted to see it. And it's not like it's some family heirloom or whatever. Just a shitty, scratched, probably sweaty thing.

But Carol's turning it over in her hands - a finger tracing the initials engraved on the back, the wings of the eagle on the front.

"I didn't know he was in the army," Carol says softly, returning the lighter to him, and Daryl snorts as his fingers close back around the stupid thing.

"Yeah, for like two minutes." It'd been over two years, three and a half if you counted the time he'd spent locked up in the brig or whatever. "Punched a sergeant, knocked out his teeth. Dishonorable discharge." Daryl offers a grin toward Carol, although it doesn't feel funny. "Tol' you there weren't no flowers bloomin' anywhere for him."

Suddenly Carol's hand is on his. Her fingers are cool and smooth and compared to her his hands feel like paws or oven mitts or something. Delicate is the word, maybe. But her hand closes over his fist, the one with the lighter inside, and she gives him a little squeeze.

"He's your brother," Carol says quietly. "You're allowed to miss him."

Daryl grunts. "Whatever."

But Carol doesn't move her hand.

And neither does he.

They sit there by the window for a while like that. The air from outside is brisk and smells clean and Daryl closes his eyes for a moment, breathes it in.

"You need to know something," Carol says, hand still over his. "What you've done for my girl today? Her daddy would have never - could never -" Carol stops then, squeezes his hand once more. "If you think we should stay - I trust you."

"Don't gotta," Daryl says immediately. "Ain't done nothin' to -"

"You've done enough," Carol says firmly. "You've done more than enough. If you think we'll be safer here than somewhere else - I trust you. I do."

"Rick'll do all right by us," Daryl mumbles.

"I don't care about Rick," Carol shoots back. "You'll do all right by us. You will."

The weight of that is suddenly so suffocating that he can't breathe. He yanks his hand away from Carol, half expects her to flinch at the suddenness of it. But she just releases him, doesn't try to talk anymore. Maybe she can tell he's on the verge of freaking out at her, that maybe he'd be yelling if they weren't trying to keep a low profile, if there weren't a house of sleeping people underneath them. Hell, even knowing all that, he's about to snarl something ugly at her, make her see who she's talking to. Who does she think he is? Why does she think that? She should know better than anyone else what kind of man he's always been, the only kind of man he knew how to be.

He should do it. But he doesn't. Just sits there, hardly breathing, teeth gritted and hand locked around the metal of the lighter, trying to figure out what the fuck he's meant to do with all this shit.

They hear the footsteps on the stairs at the same time. Carol goes back to sit on the bed frame - because she doesn't want to be seen so close to him? Because she's trying to give him room to fucking collect himself? Because she's scared he'll get in trouble?

"Hey, Daryl, I - oh." T-Dog, looking rumpled, blinks at them in the doorway. "I - I'm next on watch."

"Ain't four yet," Daryl mumbles, looking out the window. The sky is shifting from black to gray but not nearly enough for it to be four in the morning. Daryl may not have a watch, but he knows that much.

"Yeah, I - you know, woke up, couldn't fall back to sleep."

"It's going around," Carol murmurs, and T-Dog shoots her a grin like he isn't even embarrassed.

"Yeah. Guess so. Thought I might as well relieve you anyway - I was out like a light earlier, don't figure I need too much more sleep."

Daryl grunts and shoves the lighter in his pocket. Gathers his bow, checks for his knives, gives T-Dog the chair.

"Ain't seen nothin'," he mumbles. "Opened the windows in case I could hear somethin', but it's quiet. That herd we passed yesterday, they'd be northeast of us now, so I keep checkin' that way, but ain't seen nothin'."

"Good," T-Dog says as he sets himself up - gun on the windowsill, knife next to it. (But what fucking good would that do?) "Thanks, man."

Daryl blinks at him, unsure of what he's done to earn thanks.

"Night," Carol says from behind him, and T-Dog smiles at her again.

"Think you mean morning," he says, and he turns to the window. "I got it. Go get some sleep, if you can."

The staircase is dark and wide and Daryl doesn't realize until Carol almost bumps into him that she left her candle upstairs.

"It's fine," Carol says when Daryl makes to turn back and get it. "We're almost there."

He just grunts. The living room is pretty much how he left it - piles of sleeping people, although it's quieter without T-Dog's snoring. Sophia must have fallen asleep reading - she's still hunched forward, face near the smoldering embers of the fire, forehead awkwardly pillowed on the pages of her book. Daryl creeps closer, trying to move as quiet as he can in his boots, and puts another log on the fire. It'd be nice if they woke up and the thing was still burning.

Since he's right there, it seems easy to reach out and tug the book out from under Sophia's head. He'd just found the damn thing - shouldn't let the kid drool all over the pages in her sleep.

He thought he was pretty swift at it, but the removal of her paper pillow jars Sophia, and she twists a little on the mattress. Daryl freezes, hoping she'll just stay asleep.

"Mama?" Sophia slurs and Daryl blushes as Carol, from where she's lying herself down next to Sophia, grins at him. He waits for her to say something, reach out a hand, but she doesn't, so Daryl awkwardly offers something.

"Naw - s'just me. Movin' your book. G'back to sleep."

There's a moment, maybe the moment when she hears a man's voice, when the kid goes rigid and her eyes pop open. But a second later, she relaxes again, eyes sleepily lowering again, curling over in the blanket. There's something sad about the way the kid makes herself as small as she can in sleep, like she's trying to present the littlest target possible.

"G'nite D'ryl," Sophia mumbles, and then she's out again.

Daryl avoids Carol's eyes and does the quietest stomping he can to the place he'd made himself over in the corner - back to two walls, as far as he can get from the fire. He settles down and he looks at them all - the Grimes family in an unhappy puddle, Maggie and Glenn twined around each other, Hershel with one hand over his heart as he sleeps, Beth'd white-blonde head resting on his arm. He looks at his people, at Sophia's face, carefree and almost babyish in sleep, Carol's hand creeping out close enough to touch her, like she's making sure the kid's still there. The pile of packs in the corner, the stag head over the fireplace that someone had put Carl's hat on, the faint remaining smell of dinner, the low crackle of the flames. From overhead, a creak, a step - T-Dog pacing maybe, or just moving his chair.

His people. Tomorrow won't be as good as today, Daryl's pretty sure. They've had two good days in a row and that's two more than Daryl was expecting. But maybe they'll keep ending days like this, all of them huddled up, resting, keeping watch, protecting each other. Or maybe they'll end up camping out in the rain somewhere, freezing, no food, walkers coming, Rick hollering. Daryl doesn't know.

But for now, he thinks, settling himself in, listening to the heavy breathing of the others (his people), his stomach full, warm and safe and just bid a good night, for now, Daryl thinks -

It's enough.


And that's that! I'm going to start posting part two - Tales from the Traveling Library - that chronicles their life on the road between Season 2 and Season 3, potentially with some more Carol/Sophia POV. Thanks everyone for reading and for all your comments!! Let me know if there's something in particular you're looking forward to in the next part!

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