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Warm Shadow

Chapter Text

The road seems to stretch to the infinity from Rick’s windshield, but his destination isn’t so far away. Only thirty miles separate him from the ferry he wants to take. He checks the speed he’s making on the dashboard and the tiny, blue numbers on his watch’s display; if nothing out of the ordinary comes up, he should make it to the docks with plenty of time to spare before the last ferry leaves. 

It’s strange to be driving alone right now. The last time he was on this road, Lori was sitting by his side, and Carl was in the back seat. They had laughed and shared stories the whole ride; Rick can still remember the sound of Carl’s disgusted ick when they told him about their failed trip to the Grand Canyon when he was still a baby and how much he’d thrown up. It’s been over a year since they last went on vacation together, the car heavy with way more baggage than three people had any right to carry—not that long ago, in the grand scheme of things. But it still was enough time for everything to change. Now, the car is running lighter and quieter as he speeds through Georgia’s roads, but he’s come to notice he doesn’t hate the solitude. As strange as it may feel, after not being alone more than a few minutes a day for the last sixteen years, Rick trusts some time on his own will do him good. 

The weirdest thing about getting shot and being in a coma for a long period is how time simply vanished, two entire months subtracted from him. In his rational mind, Rick knows he was unconscious for every one of those sixty-something days, but knowing that doesn’t change how eerie it all feels. To him, it seems like one day he was arguing with Lori, and the next he was waking up in a hospital gown with needles shoved in his arm. 

He remembers her words clearly, too, like she’s said them just days ago. They had been arguing about anything and everything for a while then, and that morning’s pretext was Rick’s work hours. She talked without looking at him as she made Carl pancakes, but Rick couldn’t stay and listen because he was already running late, which only seemed to make her even more upset. “I wonder if you still care about us at all,” she had said, like it didn’t matter that Carl was only a few feet away, waiting at the table for his breakfast. Rick left for work feeling tired and defeated; during lunch, he had a little heart-to-heart with Shane about it over burgers and fries, just before they got the radio dispatch. And then everything happened too fast—the roadblock, the car crash, the shooting. 

Got shot one day and woke up the next—that’s how it feels. No sign of the two months between one thing and the other. Time might have frozen for Rick, but it sure didn’t for Lori. Before the shooting, they only shared the bed to sleep, and even that seemed to be a dying privilege, given how familiar he was getting with the couch downstairs. But then he got shot, and when he woke up, Lori seemed determined to fix their marriage. As confused as he felt about everything, at the time, giving their family another try sounded like a good idea, but the following weeks only served to prove how naïve they had been. They should have known better, he reckons. How could nearly dying ever save a failed marriage? 

That year-old trip to the cabin in the woods is the last time Rick remembers them being truly happy as a family. There hadn’t been much intimacy between him and Lori, even back then, but he and Carl spent a lot of time together, fishing and watching birds by the river. Lori had seemed content, which is probably why she suggested they spend a while there during Rick’s recovery. The cabin had been closed since they came home, though, so it took them a few days to get it into living conditions. Dale, a friendly old man who ran one of the town’s two stores, helped them with it, taking care of everything that needed to be done without them ever needing to be present. But the time it took to get the lights working again, get rid of the skunks living in the cabin’s foundation, deal with the hornet’s nest on the woodpile, and a dozen other small things, their old life had already seeped into that odd present Rick was having trouble adapting to. 

It started slowly, with terms of endearment too frequent to be entirely natural, like Lori was always trying too hard to make things different. In no time, they were back to pressed tight lips and silent resentment, until it all blew up in their faces just a day before they were supposed to leave for the cabin. He already knew Shane had taken care of his family while he lay on that hospital bed, looking deader with each day, so finding out they were together wasn’t an entirely unexpected development. Rick doesn’t blame them—after two months, they had no reason to believe he would ever wake up again. The only thing he still doesn’t get is Lori’s effort—and to a point, Shane’s—to try and turn back the clock. Maybe it was out of some misguided feeling of guilt. He doesn’t blame them, really doesn’t. He just wishes they had come clean sooner, right after he woke up, so they all could have avoided that new wave of hurt. 

After that last argument with Lori—not their most heated by far, but definitely the most final—he stopped for a moment, weighing his options, trying to come up with a plan. He didn’t want to be one of those husbands who separate from their wives, but never move out—couples who aren’t married, but aren’t divorced either, and just keep living together, instilling poison in each other with every word and everything they do. They both deserve better. Besides, Carl had already gotten used to having Shane as a close presence in his life, and it didn’t seem fair to just cut him off of his kid’s life just like that. He wouldn’t be punishing just Lori or Shane, but Carl too. And to be honest, Rick is too tired to be interested in punishing anyone. 

So that night, after fighting with Lori for the last time, he looked at the suitcase already half-made for their intended season in the cabin, and thought to himself, why not? The cabin was already in decent shape, and Rick could use the quiet before getting back on his feet. As it is, he still got two more months of medical leave ahead of him; even for a desk job, he still needs a lot more physical therapy for his weakened muscles and diminished lung capacity, but it’s nothing he can’t do on his own after having so many sessions at the hospital. Shane and Lori made a feeble attempt to change his mind, but their reluctance didn’t last long. With the news of them being together so fresh, actively clashing with him would take more nerve than either of them had at the moment. Besides, he wouldn’t be on his own, not truly. There were other cabins in a somewhat close range, and the town was only a few minutes away. Dale promised to check in on Rick every now and then as well, so they had nothing to worry about. 

So far, his drive to the ferry was pretty uneventful—the worst thing being no radio signal after he left King County. He’d had time to listen to a melancholic song before losing signal, and now the man’s deep voice is stuck in his head. It’s been over ten minutes since he turned off the radio after catching nothing but static, the sun almost setting in that cloudy late afternoon, but he’s still humming the song’s tune, fingers drumming softly on the steering wheel. 

He’s just mumbled the chorus for the fifth time when a shadow by the side of the road catches his attention. Despite the empty road, he’s just shy of 45, so it’s easy to roll to a stop just a few yards away. He puts the car on neutral and looks back through the rearview mirror, trying to make out what is that dark figure he’s seeing. His first thought is that it’s just roadkill, but the size of it is off. Anyone who hit something that big would probably have gotten in a serious accident, and there are no brake marks on the asphalt. Rick narrows his eyes, curious. It kind of looks… like a person. 

Making up his mind, he parks the sedan and turns off the engine, but leaves the lights on. After another quick glance to the rearview mirror, he gets off the car and walks slowly towards the shadow on the ground. It’s definitely a person, probably someone who needs his help, but he still regrets leaving the Python in the glove box. He doesn’t go back to get it, though, and cautiously approaches the person instead.

It’s a young man fallen on his side; his slightly swollen lip and puffy eye tell Rick this was probably the result of a violent altercation. At first, Rick worries he might be dead, and has already pulled his cellphone out to call 911, but then he hears the man groaning and stirring on the ground. He thrusts the phone back in his pocket and crouches next to the stranger, helping him sit up.

The man blinks a pair of light blue eyes several times, frowning, before he looks at Rick and around himself.

“Do you know where you are?” Rick asks.

The man’s Adam’s apple rises and falls once before he replies. “Yeah. Sort of.”

“How old are you?” Rick says. It’s more than curiosity that makes him ask. Confusion or memory loss could indicate brain damage. He leans in, trying to check the young man’s pupils—no sign of dilatation—and the stranger flinches. Instinct has Rick reaching for his belt, but there’s no flashlight there that he can use to check the man’s reflexes.

“I’m not asking ‘cause I wanna get to know you better. I need to make sure you’re all right. C’mon, answer me. How old are you? What’s your name?” he says as clearly as he can, knelt next to the man, asphalt biting through his jeans.

“Name’s Daryl. I’m twenty-three,” he says, patting the ground around himself until his fingers close around the handle of a worn backpack.

“Daryl, can you tell me what happened?” Rick should probably drive him to the nearest station; he’ll probably lose the last ferry, but it’s okay. There’s another one in the morning.

Daryl ignores his question for a moment, fumbling through his backpack, checking its contents.

“Some assholes took my bike,” he says like it’s nothing and tries to stand up.

Rick touches his elbow to give him some support, but the young man flinches again and Rick pulls his hand back.

“Careful. You might have a concussion. We need to get you to a station, so you can give your statement. But first I gotta take you to the hospital, get your head checked.”

Daryl looks at him, brow furrowed with mistrust. “You a cop or somethin’?”

By the tone of the question, Rick can already tell cops aren’t Daryl’s favorite people.

“Or something,” he says, hoping it doesn’t scare him off completely. Rick is a cop, but he’s on leave for the next few months, so it isn’t the same, is it?

Daryl snorts, getting his backpack on his shoulders. “Just my luck,” he grunts as if to himself. “Not goin’ to no station. ‘Sides, the bike wasn’t mine, anyway.”

Rick gives the man a once-over. If he was lying on his back on the side of the road, there’s a good chance he got a heavy blow to the head, and even if he is on his feet and talking, there’s no way to know if he’s actually okay just from looking at him.

But Daryl sees him staring, and doesn’t seem to like what he reads into it. “I didn’t steal nothing. ‘Twas my brother’s. He owed lots o’ people. ‘Bout time someone showed up to collect.”

He starts to walk away, backpack on his shoulders, slow steps down the road in the same direction Rick was driving. He seems perfectly in his element, worn-out jeans hanging low from his hips, a red bandana swinging from his back pocket, the wings on his leather vest peeking behind the backpack, his gait betraying no immediate worries. Still, seeing Daryl like that—a lone figure in the desert road—fills Rick with apprehension.

“You still need to go to the hospital,” he yells after the man. “You could be bleeding into your brain,” he adds, even if it’s a little far-fetched. Daryl shows no symptoms like disorientation and nausea, and his balance looks good.

“My skull’s pretty thick. Got beaten up worse ‘fore,” Daryl says without looking back, untroubled like previous head injuries weren’t reason for even more concern. “‘Sides, got no insurance.”

“It’s thirty miles with nothing but empty road out there,” Rick tries for the last time. “You sure you wanna walk all that? At least lemme give you a ride.”

That seems to get Daryl’s attention; he turns around and stares at Rick, evaluating him. The way he stands on his side, like he’s trying to make himself a smaller target, eyes permanently suspicious, it seems like the refusal is on the tip of his tongue, as absurd as that would be given current circumstances.

But then Daryl seems to think it over and says, “Lead the way,” cocking his head to Rick’s car, parked a few yards down the road.

They make their way to the car in silence. Rick unlocks the doors with the alarm and takes the driver’s seat. Next to him, Daryl slides to the passenger’s side, feeling blindly under the cushion for the lever and pushes the seat backwards, giving his legs more space to stretch, moving around Rick’s decade-old sedan like it’s his. Rick watches him a second more before turning his face to the road and starting the engine.

They drive in silence for a few minutes. Rick tries to think of any subject they can talk about, but nothing rolls off his tongue—which makes no sense. Being complete strangers as they are, anything they say about themselves is a potential subject, but the young man’s demeanor doesn’t exactly encourage Rick to strike a conversation, as much as he wants to.

Daryl starts rummaging through his backpack until he pulls a pack of Marlboros and a lighter. Rick is pretty sure filling your body with nicotine isn’t part of the first aid guidelines after you take a beating, but he knows better than saying something about it. Instead, he rolls down Daryl’s window some, using the button on his left side. The man nods in thanks, taking a long drag from his cigarette and flicking the ashes out the window.

“So, Officer Friendly,” he says and takes a pause. The moniker sounds foreign in his tongue, like it’s a word he borrowed from someone and doesn’t know exactly what to do with it yet. “Where you headed?”

Rick glances at the man smoking a cigarette next to him, unfazed like he hasn’t just lost his means of transportation, taken a beating and been left for dead by the side of the road, only to be rescued by a cop—which, in Daryl’s world, seems to be a bad thing. It’s such a dumb idea giving personal information to a stranger, especially a stranger he’s met under such circumstances; still, Rick hears himself saying, “I’m taking the ferry across the river. Gonna spend a month or so in the family’s cabin, on the outskirts of the woods.”

“Didn’t know cops got such long vacations,” Daryl says between puffs of smoke.

“I’m on medical leave. Got shot in the line of duty,” he says, then adds when he sees Daryl scanning his body, “Right here.” He touches the place where a raised scar hides under his shirt.

He waits to hear some comment on that, but Daryl says nothing, taking a final drag from his cigarette instead. He then puts out the cinder on the tip of his fingers, like someone would do to a candle, without as much as a hiss at the burn, before tossing the cigarette butt out of the window. Rick sees all that, but keeps to himself.

They drive a couple miles more before Rick says, “What about your brother? What’s he gonna say when he finds out some guys took his bike?”

He expects Daryl to dodge his question, but the answer comes at once.

“He’d have to show up first.”

Rick looks briefly at Daryl, raising his eyebrows to tell him he’s listening.

“Haven’t seen his ugly ass in over a year. Got the hell outta Dodge once he realized he’d never be able to pay all the dealers he owed in Georgia,” he says with a sharp look at Rick.

Rick can see a challenge in that confession, speaking so plainly of illegal activities to someone who has already admitted to being a man of the law. Rick keeps his eyes on the road, but from his peripheral vision, he knows Daryl has lifted an eyebrow to him.

“Do you miss him?”

The question clearly comes as a shock, probably so different from whatever it was that Daryl was expecting. He lowers his head for a moment, seeming to consider the question for the first time.

“Sometimes,” he says, and doesn’t offer another word on the matter.

Rick doesn’t push it either.

For a moment, it seems like that is going to be all the conversation they’ll have, and the two of them do a few more miles in silence. The sky darkens even further, both the waning moon and the clouds making for an especially shadowy night. Daryl lights another cigarette and smokes all of it before he speaks again.

“And what does the ol’ lady says ‘bout you spending all that time away from home?” Daryl says, resuming the conversation as if they’d never stopped talking.

Rick shrugged, but the fingers on his left hand absently touch the ring that isn’t there anymore. “I reckon she stopped thinking about it sometime in the two months I spent in a coma, probably around the time she started screwing my best friend.”

Saying it like that is unfair to Lori, but he’s unable to resist the temptation to challenge Daryl too. Alone in that car, having just met, they could’ve played pretend that their lives were just swell, made small talk about the weather, about nothing at all, but Daryl had chosen to be brutally honest and Rick doesn’t want to be anything less.

“Shit, man,” Daryl says, and something in his voice sounds a little less defensive, and Rick counts that a win.

“It’s all right. I didn’t care as much as I’d expect to. We weren’t good for each other before I got in a coma either. At least my son likes the guy.” It’s true. As much as there’s a part of him that resents them both and feels cut off from his own family, mostly he saw it coming long before getting shot. Not that it would be like it was, with his best friend and all, but he knew he and Lori wouldn’t last long. Hoped they wouldn’t last long, sometimes, too. And if Carl is going to have a stepfather, there are worse choices than Shane Walsh.

“I’m Rick, by the way,” Rick says, when he realizes he hadn’t introduced himself to the man currently in his car. “Rick Grimes.”

He waits for Daryl to say his last name, but the man gives him nothing. In fact, Daryl is silent for so long, his face resting on his right shoulder, that Rick is afraid he’s fallen asleep, which Rick isn’t sure he should be doing so shortly after taking a blow to the head. He’s debating whether or not to shake him awake when the young man’s voice cuts through the silence.

“Thank you. For helping me out back there.” Daryl is now facing him, his steel blue eyes shining like stars in the dark.

Rick wants to say something, but doesn’t know what. He gives a short nod, feeling his mouth dry like he hasn’t had a drop of water in a day, and gets his eyes back on the road.

When they reach their destination, Rick parks the car next to the dock the ferry is moored alongside. It’s the end of the line for both of them—Rick will cross the river and Daryl will be off to… wherever drifters go. Rick knows him for less than two hours, but he feels a wistful pang in his chest when they get out of the car and stand in the empty parking lot.

Daryl walks around the sedan and leans against the hood, lighting another cigarette and inhaling it lazily. Rick locks the car and stands in front of him, staring.

“I guess this is good-bye then,” Rick says foolishly. For the last five minutes, his brain was going back and forth around the words, The ferry doesn’t leave for some time yet. Why don’t we go grab a bite?

“Yeah, suppose it is,” Daryl says, looking at Rick behind a curtain of dark, straight hair.

Rick considers offering him money, but he doesn’t have much in his wallet, and Daryl looks the type who would take offense, even if he also looks like he doesn’t have two dimes to rub together.

Daryl straightens up and kicks the toes of his boots on the asphalt, getting ready to leave. “Nice meeting you, Rick Grimes. See ya.” He turns around and starts walking, slowly putting distance between them.

“See you, Daryl,” Rick says after him.

Daryl lifts one of his hands above his head. Rick wishes he’d take one last look behind, but Daryl never does.

The ferry leaves right on schedule, fifty-eight minutes after Rick arrived at the docks. He eats a sandwich in a nearby diner while he waits, trying not to think of how wrong it feels to be eating it alone, but he can’t help wondering what they’d be talking about if Daryl was here, what he would choose to eat, if he’d take a soda, tea or nothing.

When the ferry weighs anchor and sails away, Rick is flashed with memories of Carl, Lori and him standing against the railing on the passenger’s area, the wind blowing on their hairs, the sun shining bright above them, and Carl pointing excitedly at the different flocks of birds he saw. This time, Rick is alone and stays in the vehicle, his seat reclined, lost in thought. A strong smell of tobacco lingers inside the car; Rick is probably going to have to get it professionally cleaned eventually, but for now, his nostrils flare and he inhales deeply. If he closes his eyes and concentrates, he can almost believe Daryl is still sitting next to him, puffing out columns of smoke on the passenger seat.

On the other side of the river, his car is one of the first to leave the ferry. His first stop is at Dale’s store. The old man has already closed shop for the day, but he knows Rick is coming, and it only takes a quick ring to the doorbell to get him on the doorstep, greeting Rick with a smile and a warm pat on the back. He hands over the cabin’s keys—they had sent it to him so he could take care of the repairs—as well as a few crates of produce bearing the stamp of the Greene’s farms. Rick has brought a decent amount of groceries and supplies in the trunk of his car, but he’s glad to have fresh vegetables and eggs as well.

He gets to the cabin shortly after, and as soon as he opens the front door, he knows he’s made the right call coming here. The smell of cleanness mixed with wood and nature invades his nostrils, instead of the stale air you would expect from a house that has been closed for over a year, and he thanks Dale once again in silence. The cabin is small, but it looks cozy tonight, instead of cramped. He places the Python on the counter separating the kitchen from the living room and takes a few minutes unloading the groceries, and organizing what goes in the cupboards and what needs to be refrigerated. He drags his suitcase to the bedroom, but decides to take a bath before putting all his clothes in the wardrobe. He isn’t sweaty, but he doesn’t feel clean either, and soaking in hot water always makes him feel better in the end, so he takes a towel and a soap from his suitcase and heads to the bathroom.

He leaves the tub once the water starts feeling unpleasantly lukewarm, and stops in front of the mirror to look at himself, wiping the droplets of steam that had condensed on the cold surface. Back at the hospital, they gave him weekly shaves, but he’s always been a hairy man—at least where his face is concerned—and he woke up from the coma with a short, salt-n-pepper stubble covering half his face. As a cop, Rick had always kept himself clean shaven, but now that he’s on leave, his face hasn’t seen a razorblade ever since he woke up. The relatively thick beard makes him look older than thirty-seven, but Rick kind of likes that. Lately, he often feels a lot older than his age, so maybe it’s only fitting that his face matches his mindset.

The summer is nearly over and the cool winds of fall are blowing closer every day, but the temperature is pleasant enough that Rick doesn’t get dressed immediately after getting out of bath. Instead, he wraps a towel around his hips and enjoys the goosebumps that spread all over his skin as the water on his body starts drying naturally while he busies himself with unpacking his suitcase.

He immediately regrets his decision when he hears the noise of something moving outside. It can be just an animal that wandered too close to the cabin, but it can be a person, too—and people with good intentions don’t sneak around, they knock on the door. Be it animal or perp, defending himself half-naked is a bad idea, he muses as he makes his way to the kitchen, grabbing the Python he had left on the counter.

He hears the noise again, louder this time, and there is no room for doubt: someone is on his back porch. The town isn’t famous for its crime rates, at least not as much as other nearby towns where meth is a serious problem, but Rick is still on alert as he walks to the cabin’s back door, past the kitchen and the small laundry area.

Stepping with his heels and toes, trying to be as silent as possible, Rick pulls opens the door and then pushes the screen with one hand, holding it so it won’t slam, the Python in a firm grip in his other hand. He takes a few steps outside, and sees the trespasser in the dark, lurking by the woodpile.

“Freeze,” he yells in his best crime show voice, raising his gun, but he might’ve as well said Run!, because the man dashes as soon as the words is out of his mouth.

Rick is having a fraction of a second long inner debate on whether or not he should give chase—and how is he going to chase anyone through the woods barefoot and in a towel?—when two things happen at once: the sliver of moon in the sky shines enough light that Rick can see the tips of two dirty wings on the man’s vest, peeking behind his backpack, and the man trips on something—a rock, the root of a tree, mud from the soft rain that had fallen that morning, who knows—and falls noisily on the ground, halting his fall with his open palms.

Rick hurries next to him, towel swinging wildly and threatening to fall around his hips, toes digging into cold mud. It’s him, Rick knows it’s him, but his stomach still simmers with anticipation when the young man turns around and stares at him in the dark.

“You gonna pull the trigger or what?” Daryl says, eyes shining with defiance.