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“No one’s going to be sad he didn’t come back. Except, maybe Daryl,” Morales says.

Rick’s stomach twists into impossibly tighter and tighter knots. “Daryl?”

“His brother.”

It’s about the family the guy left behind as much as it is about the guy himself. And maybe it’s about Rick’s own family being still out there, somewhere.

 

-

 

Somewhere turns out to be the group’s camp. It’s surreal, through all the impossible horror since Rick woke up, here they are. Rick feels better and worse all at once, but allows himself the reassurance of Lori and Carl in his arms, of Shane across the fire.

The worse is brought up again when Dale asks, “Have you given any thought to Daryl Dixon? He won’t be happy to hear his brother was left behind.”

“I’ll tell him. I dropped the key,” T-Dog says, strained.

Because he has to, because it’s his fault, Rick says, “I cuffed him. That makes him mine.”

Glenn shakes his head, says, “Guys, it’s not a competition,” and then there’s a lot of back-and-forth. When T-Dog tells them that Merle has to be alive, there’s no way the walkers could get to him (“Not that chain, not that padlock.”), Rick knows.

He has to go back.

 

-

 

Rick tentatively tries to talk to Lori about it in the morning, but they’re interrupted by screaming (no, please, Carl), and a walker tearing into a deer just beyond the camp. After it’s put down, there’s undecipherable rustling that makes them all go quiet and tense, waiting for more.

Stepping into sight instead is a man with a crossbow in hand that freezes when he sees the group. Shane lowers his weapon and everyone else turns away, but Rick keeps staring. This has to be Daryl Dixon, back from his hunt.

Rick should stop, but he can’t. There’s Daryl with his sweat dampened hair and clothes dirty from time spent in the woods, with his sharp features and compacted muscle. At least, Rick should get this over with and introduce himself, nice to meet you; I cuffed your brother to a roof.

But no, Rick waits. He falls back to stand with everyone else in the clearing, making sure to keep an eye on Daryl stomping his way over with them. He has Merle’s temper it seems, immediately upset when he sees the deer, cursing and yelling and kicking at the walker.

Dale sighs, “Calm down, son, that isn’t helping,” which starts Daryl yelling in his face. Rick wants to reach out and pull him back, but Shane’s got an arm (with the gun) already between the two.

Daryl backs off easily, going to yank his arrows free. The hostility is already cooling in his voice as he talks, “I was tracking this deer for miles and was going to drag it back to camp. Cook us up some venison.”

Rick looks at Shane, who gazes back at him under the brim of his hat and tells him what he already figured, just wait.

Daryl never misses a beat as he continues, “What do you think, think we can cut around this chewed up part right here?”

“I’d not risk that,” Shane answers. Everyone’s still standing around, but now they’re just waiting for the inevitable.

“That’s a damn shame.” Daryl stands up, taking a moment to pass a curious look over the group. He says, “I got some squirrel, about a dozen or so,” and when blue eyes fall on Rick, it’s like this physical thing. Daryl finishes with, “It’ll have to do,” and Rick forgets all the words he’s been trying to build up.

The walker’s decapitated head wakes up, stalling the confrontation for a little longer. Daryl snaps, “C’mon people, what the hell?” and fires an arrow into the walker’s eye. He pulls it free, saying, “It’s gotta be the brain.”

Daryl walks right past him, heading to camp, and Rick turns to watch him go. Now, it feels like it’s more about the family Merle left behind than the guy himself.

When Shane follows, Rick does too.

 

-

 

Rick tells Daryl the truth. Merle was a danger, and Rick had to do it everyone’s safety. Daryl’s possible interest and curiosity is twisted into pain for his brother, fury making him try to fight Rick and Shane both.

This is what Rick was expecting, what he was waiting for.

Rick barely manages to duck the firewood Daryl throws at him, his side still aching. Shane tackles Daryl to the ground, but doesn’t get a good hold on him, as he’s pulling out a knife and back on his feet.

Daryl slashes at Rick and misses. He brings the knife down in a hard stab, but Rick catches his arm and Shane’s right there catching him up in a tight hold. They get the knife out of his hand and the three of them end up on the ground with Rick crouched in front of the restrained Daryl.

Daryl’s breathing hard, tears in his eyes and sorrow evident, but he’s still angry. Rick leans in, says, “I was hoping we could have a rational discussion on this topic. Do you think we can manage that?”

Daryl says nothing, eyes clenching shut and still straining against Shane’s arms.

“Do you think we can manage that?”

Daryl’s wheezing heavily at this point, and a glance towards Shane has him nodding and letting Daryl go. Daryl points at Shane, narrowing his eyes as he struggles to catch his breath. The sound hurts Rick, desperate sucks of breath as Daryl slumps there on the ground.

Rick crouches down, leaning in to catch Daryl’s gaze again. “What I did was not on a whim. Your brother does not play well with others.

“It’s not Rick’s fault,” T-Dog interrupts, and both look up at him.

T-Dog admits dropping the key and relays the same thing to Daryl: Merle has to be alive, there’s no way the walkers can get him.

When Rick says, “It’s gotta count for something,” and Daryl’s hostile look is turned to him, not bothering to cover his tears.

“To hell with all y’all,” Daryl snarls. His voice breaks as it softens, desperate, “Just tell me where he is, so’s I can go get him.”

Lori says, “He’ll show you,” and everyone stops to look at her. She’s staring at Rick, and Rick’s throat closes up. “Isn’t that right?”

Rick nods slowly. “I’m going back.”

He has to.

Chapter Text

When Daryl asks Rick to go with him on a survey of the immediate area around Hershel’s place, Rick is torn between what sounds like a good idea and still not wanting to leave Carl. He’s recovering, out of danger for now, but Rick’s still so scared.

Shane looks like he wants to offer to go instead, but after the terrifyingly close call the last time he went out, and the fact the group is finally together again and just trying to catch their breaths, well, Rick wants to do this.

Lori and Daryl engage in an intense staring match that ends with Lori’s sharp, “I don’t like this,” and Daryl’s softer, “I promise, we’ll be back before you know it.”

Lori lets out a shaky breath. “I swear you better not come back without him.”

She confesses in a whisper as she turns to wrap Rick up in a hug, “At least you’re going with Daryl.”

 

-

 

Shane and Lori watch them leave from Hershel’s porch. Rick swears every step feels like an increase in weight of the guilt in his stomach (what if, what if, what if), but Daryl breaks him out of it with a hard nudge to the ribs and “Your kid’s gonna be just fine, you hear me?”

Once they’re amongst the trees, they move slow and careful over grass, root, and rock. There’s the occasional flutter of birds, shuffle of little creatures, but no walking dead.

It’s at least an hour before Daryl breaks their companionable silence with, “You want a lesson real quick?”

For a moment Rick doesn’t know what he means, but then he remembers the two of them, trampling through these woods in search of Sophia. “If we got the time.”

“That’s why I said real quick.”

Rick allows Daryl to pull him off to the side. His fingers, free of gloves, press warm and slightly calloused into the inner curve of his elbow. Daryl points with his other hand, voice pitched low, “Do you see that?”

“No,” and Rick really doesn’t. He shoots a nervous look around, sees nothing, and then looks back to where Daryl is indicating, and still sees nothing.

Daryl brings Rick around to the opposite side to face the sun. He crouches, one finger tracing above the slightest depression on the ground. He glances, sees Rick not copying, and tugs him down lower. With his mouth near Rick’s ear, he says, “Look at the leaves. It’s real soft around here. They just sprang back up after.”

Daryl clears some away, parts the grass, and oh, there: Rick can see the curve of a hoof in the soil, faint but distinct. Daryl’s eyes dance further along the cut of trees in front of them, saying, “The doe’s long gone. The dew woulda been wiped away.”

Daryl turns his head back to look at Rick, and his half-smile becomes close to a genuine one, and maybe Rick rather likes it. “You’ll start to see it all as a bigger picture.”

The bigger picture.