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Wholly Unmerited

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Daryl Dixon was trailing a little behind the group of men who had found him on the road. He wasn’t quite sure how to feel about them yet. They had a code, and they’d helped him fight off a substantial group of walkers, but there was something about them and their leader that just felt off. Not that it mattered, he’d been separated from Rick and the others and was grateful to not be traveling down this infested road on his own. That didn’t stop him from keeping a wary eye on all of them, especially the one that had tried to “claim” his jacket.

Fortunately, the leader of the raiders, Joe, seemed to have perfect control over the group and also had a strong enough code that as long as Daryl followed the rules everything would be smooth. As smooth as anything ever was these days. It didn’t even matter, he knew he’d only be staying overnight and then he’d be on his way back to the prison.

“Len, it’s your turn to feed the dog,” Joe remarked on the way back to their camp.

“It’s always my turn.” The dark haired man glowered a little.

The leader of the gang smacked Len on the shoulder. “It ain’t my fault you claimed her. You gotta take responsibility if you want her to stick around.”

Daryl looked between the two men with some curiosity. He guessed even a rag-tag group of raiders like this would enjoy having an animal around to keep them company. Even the mangy mutt that had caused him and Beth to be separated during their run for supplies for the prison hadn’t affected the fondness he had for the breed in general. He remained silent, not eager to speak to these men more than he absolutely had to.

The trek to the camp wasn’t too long, and it was also fairly uneventful. The same scenery as was common now marked their path: empty road, abandoned cars, burned out buildings, a few walkers easily took care of by the group. Finally, a distinct camp came into view, set up a bit off the road in an old house. A large doghouse sat next to the porch, with a metal dish half full of water sitting in front of it.

“Hey Pup!” Len called out as the group neared the house, his step picking up a little bit and a smile on his face. “Time for dinner, Daddy’s home!”

Some of the men chuckled and even Daryl’s lips twitched up into a smirk. “What’s ‘er name? Yer dog.”

“We just call her Pup. Sometimes Puppy.” Len grinned at him, “She’s all mine now though, y’hear? I claimed her.” He shook his head and loped over to the doghouse, kicking the side of it, “I got ya something special Pup, come and get it…” He took a knee in front of the opening of the structure and took a chocolate bar out of his satchel, dangling it in front of the dark entrance.

“Ya ain’t ‘sposed to give dogs stuff like ‘at,” Daryl mentioned as he walked past, going up onto the front porch but turning to watch as the rest of the group laughed. He stopped himself from looking as confused as he felt, wondering what he’d said to get such a reaction.

Len was still trying to coax the dog out, but he was now getting a little annoyed and Daryl was starting to wonder if there was even a dog in there at all. “Pup, you got ten seconds to get the hell out here or I swear I’m gon’ whip you.”

There was the clinking of a heavy chain and then a human hand appeared in the opening. Daryl’s hand went to his crossbow, waiting to see a walker come out, but his fingers relaxed and his eyes widened when a small brunette form crawled from the dog house, obviously not a walker, and very obviously not the dog everyone had been referring to.

“Puppy…” Len ran his fingers through the long brown hair of the figure in front of him, almost tenderly, before his fingers clenched and he wrenched a handful of the hair back. The prisoner’s legs scrabbled in the dirt for purchase as their spine bent backward, pulled by Len’s forceful hand “…how many times we talked about you coming to greet me when I get back from a run?”

Daryl’s jaw set hard as he took in the girl that Len had apparently “claimed.” She was short, he could tell that even with her body being contorted like a bendy straw… and she was pretty, far too pretty for hicks like these. A dusting of freckles highlighted the fair skin on her nose, cheeks, and shoulders, and he could see the controlled fear in her eyes from the top of the porch. Her breathing was coming in short bursts and he could see the pulse in her neck as she did her best to nod, “I— I’m sorry…”

“I’m sorry, what?” Len grinned, keeping her head pulled back painfully tight with one hand and running the other up her curved sides. A tiny jerk was the largest wince she could manage in her position and her eyes flitted to Daryl before flinching back to her captor as he traced his free fingers up to the thick metal collar and chain around her neck.

“I’m sorry… master…” The girl whimpered softly, causing a raucous round of laughter from Len and the others.

Daryl could feel his whole body tensing, sick to his stomach as he watched. He ground his teeth as he tried to seem impassive. It took all he had not to release the tension with his fists as Joe’s hand landed on his shoulder. “Come on, let’s get you settled in.” The archer swallowed with some effort, but nodded and let the older man lead him inside the house.

Later that night as they were all sitting at the table with their rations, Daryl looked up from his tin plate of beans, “So what’s up with the girl?”

Len glared as he met Daryl’s eyes, “She’s mine, don’t you go getting any ideas.”

Hands up, Daryl shrugged, “Not sayin’ she ain’t, just askin’ man.”

Joe looked up from his meal and chided Len, “He’s not trying to take your claim, Len, I’m sure he’s just getting used to the way we do things.”

Daryl’s jaw clenched as he thought about the girl, being treated like an object by men like these. He’d already decided that when he left, he’d be taking her with him, back to the prison where she’d have a chance to be looked after.

“Found her during a raid,” Len said, breaking his train of thought. “Prettiest little thing I ever did see. Special though, walkers don’t like her, they actually ignore her. That’s why I keep her outside, instead of tied to my bed. She’s better than a string of cans for an alarm.”

The archer didn’t reply, just looking between the men and going back to focusing on the food in front of him. His mind was racing, wondering if the story could actually be true. A human that could move among walkers without getting attacked? That seemed too good. An ace for any group. Yet these men didn’t seem to care about anything other than her being a piece of ass and a watchdog. 

Not used to the rules yet, the beds in the house had all been claimed before Daryl could even think about where he was planning on sleeping. He stayed quiet, not claiming anything and just settling into what must have once been a living room on the floor, resting his head on his knapsack and covering up with his poncho for warmth.

After almost half and hour, silence had fallen over the house, and it seemed the rest of the group had finally fallen asleep. Daryl sat up as slowly and quietly as possible, making his way to the front door while being careful not to upset anything that could cause a racket. He was able to open the front door up without fear of knocking a line of tin cans thanks to what Len had said about the girl.

As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he realized that the object of his focus was standing as close as possible to the street. The chain attached to the collar around her neck reached for ten feet back into the dog house and his eyes followed it from there to where her thin form was illuminated by the moon. Despite the fact that her only clothing was an oversized plaid button-up that went almost down to her knees, he could sense that the cold didn’t bother her.

As he approached, her head turned and she looked at him with a sort of calm that was an unnerving difference from the fear she’d shown earlier with Len. “Hey.” He nodded at her, stopping now that she was looking at him. “You ‘kay?” She tilted her head at him, and for a second he regretfully compared her to an actual puppy. He had a flash of wondering if that’s how they decided to name her before he took another step forward. “I’m Daryl. What’s yer name?”

“Puppy.” It seemed to be automatic, for her to answer that way.

His chest tightened painfully. “Yer real name. Not the one the jackasses call you.”

She paused and smiled a little. “Henrietta.”

“Henri. That’s cute.” He took another few steps until there were only a few feet separating them. “You ain’t scared of me.” It wasn’t a question.

“I don’t need to be.”

Daryl had never thought of himself to be very tall, but this little woman was a full head shorter than him at least. He looked her over. “You can’t know that for sure.”

Henrietta raised her hands to rub underneath the heavy collar, wincing a little. “Just because you’re with them doesn’t mean you’re one of them. I can tell.”

“How?”

She shrugged. “When Len had me, you looked like you were in just as much pain as I was. People don’t look like that if they don’t care, and most people don’t care these days. Not enough to show it. Don’t worry, I don’t think the others noticed.” He could see the beginnings of a smile even in the dark. “They’re all pretty dumb.”

“They’re cruel.”

“Cruel and dumb.” She tilted her head again, “But you’re neither of those things.”

Daryl shuffled his feet, moving from side to side as he watched her. After a few moments of silence, he finally spoke again. “Is it true? What they told me about you and the walkers… they said walkers don’t bother you.”

The girl nodded. “God knows why, but they kind of act like I’m not even there. If they do notice me they don’t seem to mind me being around.” She shuddered. “The living have always been more of a danger to me than the dead.”

“That’s obvious…” Daryl’s gaze went to her collar. He could feel his chest heating up in anger again. She was so small and the collar looked heavy and painful and like it had been on for far longer than was humane. Not that it surprised him, based on the small amount of time he’d spent around the group.

A light upstairs in the house turned on and Henrietta went pale. She moved quick as lightening, pushing Daryl towards the house and hissing under her breath, “Go back inside, don’t let them know you’ve been talking to me.”

“I have a group, I’m gonna be goin’ back there, I want to take you with me.” He whispered back, following her lead, but slowly so he could get out what he wanted to say.

She put her head down and her hair slid in front of her face so her expression was hidden. “If only it were that easy.” With one last push, she sent him up the stairs of the porch and hurried back to her dog house, disappearing through the opening.

Daryl got one hand on the door knob before it was flung open with vigor by the silhouette of Joe. “Daryl… what are you doing out here so late?”

The archer shuffled, looking up through greasy bangs. “Just takin a smoke.”

Joe nodded, smiling with a sort of cheerfulness that put the other man on edge in a bad way. “Puppy show her face at all?”

A shrug later, Daryl answered with a simple, “Naw.”

“Well… she’s shy of strangers. Didn’t figure she would be comfortable around you right away.”

Daryl stopped himself from replying and just shrugged his way inside, going back to his place on the floor of the main room as Joe closed the door and went back upstairs. He was so worked up over the whole situation with the girl in the dog house that it took him a good hour or so to fall asleep, and even then it was only because he was too physically exhausted to keep his eyes open.

Chapter Text

“You sure you got to go? We could use another archer.” Joe was making one last attempt to convince Daryl to stay with their group.

The younger man slung his crossbow over his shoulder and nodded towards the road, “Yeah, I’m sure.”

Joe slapped him on the back and shook his head, “Well fine. Can’t blame me for trying.”

The other raiders stood on the porch along with their captive, who Len had tucked under his arm like a trophy. Daryl glanced up at her through his bangs before giving a silent nod of thanks to Joe and turning to walk up the road, knapsack in hand. He only stayed on the road for as long as he needed to make sure he wasn’t being followed and then veered off into the trees, keeping low to the ground and moving fast to get back to the house he’d just left.

He was just in time to spot the entire group grabbing their weapons and heading back down the road on a run. The vantage point he had was from almost a block away behind another house, but he still could see clear as day when Len pulled Henrietta up by her hair and forced her to give him a “goodbye kiss”. His jaw clenched at the sight but with some effort he looked away and settled in between two shrubs. Even a productive run for supplies could take half the day, and he’d rather not run into the whole group on his way to steal someone they considered to be theirs. So he waited for a solid half hour before starting to make his way over to the doghouse.

Henrietta was sitting on the porch with a hacksaw in one hand, and her chain in the other. It took her a few moments to realize that Daryl was watching her, and when she did feel his presence she looked up with a flash of such abject terror that his heart broke a little. He noticed that even in the few seconds of her looking up that she had altered her hold on the saw to allow for a faster chopping motion.

The archer held his hands up, “Just me.” Her face softened a little, but it was going to take a while for her to calm completely down from the panic of being caught by one of the group trying to escape. “Pretty innovative.” He nodded at the saw, and the part of the chain that she’d obviously been working on for a while. There was a piece of one of the thick chinks that had been worked halfway through, and the saw blade looked pretty broken down. She flinched a little as he took another step towards her and he crouched down so he wouldn’t be so tall. “Hey, you’re okay, thought you weren’t scared of me.” He said, half teasing, half worrying that he’d dreamed it and she really didn’t trust him.

“You came back…” She swallowed hard and he could tell she was fighting tears.

“Course I did. Said I was gon’ take you with me, din’ I?” Daryl held out his hand and wiggled his fingers, “Give that here.”

Henrietta passed the chain and saw over to him and he moved to sit cross-legged in the dirt, his back against the side of the doghouse as he examined it. “I’ve been working on it whenever they leave, but I haven’t made much progress. I think it’s a soft steel chain, but I don’t have anything to hold it steady to get the right force behind it so it’s taking forever.” She paused when she saw Daryl giving her a curious look. “My dad was a maintenance guy.”

He just raised an eyebrow and shrugged. After another moment of comparing the chain and the saw he just shook his head in disgust. “Without a clamp and a new saw this would take another few days, what about what it’s attached to? Or like a key, for the collar part?” Daryl took her hand and led her to sit next to him so he could look at the heavy collar closer. It took everything in him not to boil over with rage when he saw the way it had cut into her neck and shoulders.

“It locks in the back. Len has the key around his neck.”

“Course he does.” Daryl rolled his eyes and stood up, “So where does this thing go?” He asked, motioning to the length of the chain he was holding.

The girl took the chain from his hand as she moved towards the side of the porch. “It goes through a hole in the back of the doghouse and it goes all the way back to that big tree in the back yard.” She walked as far as she could before the length was cut short by the doghouse and pointed back. The top of the tree she had mentioned could be seen above the roof. “They wanted to make sure I couldn’t reach where it was attached.”

“You din’ think to use that hacksaw to cut the chain out of the doghouse?” Daryl sounded put out as he made his way carefully to the back yard.

“Of course I did, but then what— saw down an entire oak tree? If I couldn’t detach the chain from there easily enough and they found me trying to escape…” Henrietta shuddered. “Besides, this chain is crazy thick and hella long and I am just one very small person. How the heck would I get away lugging all that around?”

“Geez,” Daryl came back from around the house and trudged towards her with his crossbow drawn in case of walkers passing by, “I wasn’ askin’ for a damn novel.” She crossed her arms and was about to reply when he cut her off by shaking his head. “That chain is a lot longer than I thought though. No way we can take it with us.”

“Told you.” Henrietta muttered under her breath.

“Whatever.” Daryl shrugged as he walked past her.

She followed him to sit on the porch, “So…. what now?”

There was a slight breeze to the day and it picked up, blowing Daryl’s hair into his face as he replied, “Now we find a way to get that key.”

Chapter Text

Daryl shifted a little as he stretched his legs, sitting against one of the porch railings. “I don’ like this plan.”

“So you’ve said.” Henrietta’s soft voice sounded from the depths of the doghouse. She was staying out of sight so there would be little reason for any of the group to think Daryl had even been talking to her when they came back. “Just remember, you’re a heartless bastard who could care less about me.”

“I’m not good at this actin’ stuff. Never have been.”

“Really?” The girl’s head peeked out from the opening, laying on her stomach and balancing her chin on a delicate hand. “I guess that doesn’t surprise me.”

The archer crossed his arms and frowned a little. “Oh yeah? Why’s that?”

She shrugged. “You just don’t really seem the type.”

“I get it, redneck trailer trash, ain’t the first time I’ve heard somethin’ like ‘at.” He looked away fast, not liking the fact that he felt hurt. This was only the second time he’d even talked to this girl. It wasn’t like she was saying or implying anything that he didn’t already know or hadn’t already been said to him a million times. So why did it matter so much?

“That’s not it. You just strike me as someone who’s very sincere, and loyal. Plus you’ve got nice eyes. Sincere, loyal people with nice eyes don’t make good liars. Or manipulators.” Henrietta smiled softly at him, her own eyes warm and reassuring.

“Stop.” He looked away. “I ain’t none of those things.”

The girl stayed silent until the quiet was too much for him and he glanced back at her. She didn’t smile, didn’t move, and just replied in the most genuine tone he’d ever heard before. “You’re all of those things, and more I’m sure. I just haven’t known you long enough to figure out the rest of it yet… but I will.”

Daryl’s jaw twitched as he watched her. The hardest part of this whole situation was trying to figure her out. It was obvious that she’d seen her fair share of horrible things, and to cap it all off here she was chained to a doghouse living in fear of a man who treated here like a plaything. Yet she hadn’t lost any of her trust for people she thought deserved it, or any of her optimism. She was trying, and trying harder than other people who were alive and free. It also confused him that she felt so comfortable with him. Even people he knew would sometimes get nervous with him around. When he’d been younger he’d had the disdainful eyes of his entire community on him, including his father. He certainly didn’t feel deserving of this girl’s kindness, for whatever the hell reason she was giving it to him while being shown none herself.

She was still watching him, and she opened her mouth to say something else but was stopped short by the sound of the raiders coming back. They were causing a bit of a racket, excited about something. When they turned the corner Daryl could see why as Len and the bigger one were struggling with a large buck between them.           

Joe noticed the archer first, his eyes widening and then a large smile splitting his face. “Well now, you didn’t stay away for long. You reconsider my proposition?”

Now the others were looking at him too. Len seemed to be the only one displeased about the situation, but that emotion was cut short by Henrietta. She crawled out of the doghouse and ran over to him, her eyes wide and nervous, but also excited. “Wow… th-that’s a big deer…”

Then Len was grinning, “Yeah? You like that Puppy? Maybe if you’re good we’ll let you have some.”

Henrietta swallowed and nodded, then looked down as she shuffled her feet, “If… if I’m good c-can I sleep inside t-tonight?”

“What do we say when making requests?” Len set his half of the deer down and bent down to look her in the eye, taking her jaw in his hand and forcing her to look at him when she hesitated.

“P-please master…” She looked up at the raider with such a lost and pitiful expression that it took everything Daryl had to not step in.

Len grinned even wider. “Well now, that was so pretty I may just have to let you.” Then he jerked his finger back in the direction of the doghouse. “Now go on, we need to clean this deer.”

She stepped back and let the men carry the deer past her and up to the porch. Daryl moved to help and Len snarled at him, “This deer is claimed. It ain’t any of yours.”

Joe shrugged, “Front legs weren’t ever claimed, you can have those Daryl.”

Len looked furious but he wasn’t about to argue with Joe so he stayed quiet as the three of them got the deer into the kitchen. Daryl helped dress the animal as well, and an hour later the entire group was sitting around a fire pit outside watching the meat roast. It smelled delicious, and once it was done they all ate their fill, Len feeding Henrietta as she sat on his lap.

A few times the raider caught Daryl watching and told him to stop looking at his girl. Daryl did his best to look annoyed and indifferent, “I couldn’t care less about yer damn girl, stop goin’ on about it.”

After a while Len stood, taking a key out from under his shirt where it was situated on a chain and unlocked the collar around Henrietta’s neck. It was the first time Daryl was seeing her without it and he couldn’t help but wince sympathetically at the deep scars and wounds where the heavy metal had dug into her skin. “We’re turning in,” Len tossed a deer bone into the fire and put a heavy hand on the small girl’s shoulders, leading her towards the house.

Daryl stayed where he was, glaring into the fire until everyone else had turned in as well after setting up a perimeter of cans and lines since their “watch dog” wasn’t going to be outside tonight. Once all the lights were out in the house and it seemed like everyone had settled in for the night he grabbed a heavy branch and made his way towards the forest, in the opposite direction of where he knew the prison to be. It was against his nature to set a false trail but he did his best. After setting the scene for the path he’d be leading the group down tomorrow he methodically back tracked, covering that up as well as he could while making his way back to the camp.

The fire had dwindled down and Daryl stepped around it, his steps silent as he went into the house and settled into the main room like he had the night before. As his eyes closed he heard the tiniest creak on the stairs, and his lips twitched up in a knowing smile.

Chapter Text

The first thing that struck Daryl when he woke up was Len’s fist. He growled, massaging his jaw as he jerked away from the attack and staggered to his feet with his arms up in defense. “The hell?”

“Where’s my girl?” Len yelled as he strode forward, getting right up in the archer’s face. “You come on back and now she’s gone!”

“For tha last time I don’ even care about no girl!” Daryl shoved the taller man away, right into Joe and Lou who were trying to calm the situation down.

Joe positioned himself between the two men and looked from one to the other. “Okay now, let’s figure this out. Len, did you secure her to the bed like you always do?”

Len looked down in frustration, “I did! I know I did…”

“Daryl, did you take her?”

The archer glared through his bangs, “No.”

“Well now we have a predicament.” Joe smiled in a way that made Daryl feel uncomfortable. “Cause either Daryl is lyin’, which is an actionable offence… or you just blamed him for somethin’ that was your own damn fault for bein’ stupid which isn’t technically against the rules, but it does seem awful coward-like.”

Len clenched his jaw, “I’m no coward.”

There was a pause as the leader of the group gave Daryl a chance to speak his case as well and he took the silent offer, hoping not to seem too eager. “Look, I’ll prove it to ya. I’m a good tracker, I’ll help ya find ‘er.”

The grin Joe gave him now was just as unsettling as the last one had been. “There now, see? I think this has all been just one unfortunate misunderstanding. Let’s go out and find our poor lost puppy.”

Less than ten minutes later Daryl was leading them down the forest path that he’d perfected the night before. It was rougher than he thought it would be, acting as though this was the first time he’d seen the trail and he didn’t already know each footprint and snapped branch that was ahead of them. Fortunately the others seemed to be relying completely on his know-how and didn’t speak up or really step in to help themselves. Not that they would have known what to look for. As far as Daryl was aware, none of them were trackers themselves.

The trail took to the left a little, as Daryl had known it would, and then slowly started becoming harder and harder to follow before they were all going in circles trying to find where to go next.

Len howled in frustration as even Daryl started to look perplexed. “Why would the trail disappear like ‘at?” He motioned all around and then pointed an accusing finger at the other archer. “How do we even know you been sendin’ us the right way round all this time!”

“He’s been following a trail Len,” Joe said, his tone as good-natured as always. “I’ve been paying attention. The trail just isn’t here anymore. Or we can’t find it. That ain’t his fault. You wouldn’t lead us astray, would you?”

Daryl shook his head. “Naw.” He was moving back and forth on his feet, trying to stay loose in case Len took a shot at him like he had earlier. “Maybe she noticed and started covering it up.”

“Like that bitch would be smart enough…” Lou piped up, his tone not angry, just like he was stating any old fact. Like he was saying the sky was blue.

The group was eerily silent for a few moments before Joe finally spoke again. “Well we ain’t gonna get anything done just standing here. Let’s all split up and meet back at the camp by sundown. Hopefully one of us will have some luck.”

“I think I should go with Daryl.” Len replied sullenly. “Make sure he’s all right.”

Daryl glared and was about to answer back when Joe took over the conversation again, “I think he’s proved himself enough by now. Would you rather cover more ground and actually find your damn dog or go have a pissing contest?”

The taller of the two hung his head a little and mumbled that he’d rather have his Puppy back, and Joe nodded in approval. Each raider in turn was pointed in a different direction and Daryl was given his last. He started off into the trees, pretending to keep a careful eye out for a trail he knew was nonexistent. After keeping that charade up for a good ten minutes, he felt confident enough to drop it altogether and broke into a run. It was lucky that he’d been sent in the general direction of the camp anyway, so he didn’t have to double back much. He still kept an ear out for any of the others in case they’d made their way in this direction during their search.

As he left the forest, Daryl looked to the left and saw the house that the raiders had turned into their camp about 150 feet away down the railroad tracks. He crossed over to the other side and made his way into the abandoned town, still moving with caution in case there were new walkers about.

Blue paint was chipping off the sides of the small cottage he stopped in front of. The stone wall that had been in front of it was falling apart as well and as he moved the metal gate out of the way it fell off its hinges and to the ground with a clang so loud it made him jump and swing his head in all directions to reassure himself that it hadn’t attracted any biters.

The door cracked open ever so slightly and Henrietta peeked her head out. “Come on, get in.”

“Shouldn’t be opening the door. What if it wasn’t me?”

The girl smiled, “There’s a window, I checked to make sure.”

Daryl nodded and went into the house, glancing at her as she closed the door after him. She had found new clothes: a pair of jeans being held up by a tightly cinched belt, a loose t-shirt, and a jacket so oversized it went to her knees. His gaze must have lingered because she felt the need to explain, “I had to find something else. I could still feel… him… all over me in that other shirt.”

Pain shot through him as he thought about everything she must have been through at the hands of Len. It made him all the more determined to make sure she never experienced anything like that again. “Let’s go, we should be far away by the time they realize I’m not helping them anymore.” Daryl said, his voice urgent.

She nodded and held a finger up to him before skipping into the next room and grabbing a large duffel bag. The zipper was straining over the amount of stuff in the bag and he raised an eyebrow at her. “It’s food and meds and things.” Henri smiled. “I want to be able to contribute. It’s heavier than it looks, it won’t slow us down, I promise,” she remarked as she put the strap over her shoulder.

They left the cottage through a back door and made their way through the large field that stretched behind the town. As the tall grass brushed against their waists Daryl reshuffled his crossbow and tossed his other weapon to Henri, “You don’t got one.” He shrugged when she examined the weapon critically.

She looked down at the rifle he’d given her then back up at him. “You know I don’t know how to use this thing, right?”

He came to a halt, “Stop.” The tone he used was incredulous.

“I’m not kidding.” Henri laughed, the sound brighter now that they were outside of the town and she was no longer in chains. “I was going to, my Dad actually bought me a rifle for my birthday, before the world went to hell. He just never got a chance to teach me.” She ran her fingers along the barrel thoughtfully.

Her companion was silent for a moment before holding out his hand. “Here,” Daryl motioned for her to give the gun back to him, “I’ll teach ya while we move.” A smile lit her features as she handed the weapon over and he slung his crossbow over his shoulder before taking it. “See this lever? That’s the bolt handle. Ya gotta move it up, like that,” He demonstrated, “before pulling it back. You won’t hav’ta force it, it comes back easy if you do it right.”

Henri was paying close attention as he walked her through the steps of prepping the rifle, loading it, where the safety was, and how to hold it to shoot it properly. As he looked down the barrel during his demonstration, however, he paused. She glanced down towards the end of the field, where it intersected with the train tracks. “What is it? Did you see something?”

Daryl shook his head, but he still looked uneasy. “Naw… just a walker.”

After a few moments she finally nodded, “Okay.” Her voice was full of trust that he felt he hadn’t earned yet.

“You think you can handle this?” The archer asked, reaching to hand the rifle back to her as they continued on. “Best to be on the safe side.”

“How is handing a civilian a loaded gun safe?” Henri smiled teasingly.

“We’ll both be armed.” Daryl smirked a little, explaining even though he was fairly certain she was just yanking his chain. He winced internally at the turn of phrase, the memory of her being literally yanked around in a chain was far too fresh and painful. “Sides, you seem like the sorta girl ta catch on quick.”

Henri took the compliment along with the gun and just smiled at him again, this time more sincere than teasing. With the rifle in her hands again Daryl removed his crossbow from around his shoulders and held it loose enough to be comfortable but attentively enough that he’d be able to fire it accurately at a moments notice. They reached the edge of the field and into a new section of forest along the tracks and Daryl moved ahead a few strides to scout the trail out. His natural tendency to protect was kicking in, even though he understood that Henri would be safer than he would with the walkers aversion to her. Without seeing it in action however, he was still wary of how that unique trait actually worked and he wasn’t willing to trust her life with it just yet.

Suddenly the sound of her calm steps turned into a panicked shuffle behind him and he spun around just in time to hear her yelp in fear and see one of the raiders, Lou, tackling her to the ground. “Henri!”

The girl may have been slight, but she was still strong enough to swing the butt of the rifle at Lou’s head and it connected with a sickening thud. The raider cursed and lashed out at her in a daze, grabbing the rifle and trying to wrestle it from her as she held onto it for dear life. Daryl was just raising his crossbow and taking aim when a shot rang out, echoing through the forest.

 

 

Chapter Text

“Wait, wait, Daryl…” Henrietta gasped as he drug her through the woods at a full out sprint, “Daryl please…” 

The archer slowed to a fast walk before stopping and letting go of her hand. When he turned back to look at her, he could see she was breathing fast and it wasn’t from the running. Her chest was heaving and her eyes were wide and she was scraping at the blood on her hands and clothes in a frantic manner. 

Daryl strode back to her in a few quick steps, taking her hands in his, “Hey, hey look at me.” 

Her breath was coming in quick little whimpers and he could see her eyes starting to tear up. She didn’t seem to hear him the first few times he asked her to meet his gaze, but then she raised her head and the look she gave him was so full of emotion it almost made him regret insisting. 

“I killed him, I killed him and…” Tears started to fall fast down her cheeks “... he deserved it… they all do… they hurt me again and again and they didn’t care… so why…” A hoarse sob broke in her throat as she looked down at her hands in his “...why does it matter? Why am I… I can’t…”

“It matters cause yer a good person… Henri…” Daryl let go of one of her hands and put his fingers against her cheek. “You gotta good soul. I can tell that easy. S’why I don’t need to ask you no questions to take you with me. I don’t have to.” 

She shook her head, “I’m not… I killed him…” 

“You did what you had to. I wish I’d been the one to do it.” Daryl suddenly pulled her into a tight embrace. The gesture surprised even him, just the fact that he had done it without thinking, on impulse. “It’s the world now. It’s harsh, and we’ve all had to do things we don’t wanna. Things that make us sick inside.” He held her at arms length, bending to look her in the eyes even when she wouldn’t lift her face. “Y’said you knew I was good. I’ve killed people. That make me bad?” 

Big eyes shot up to his, “No--”

“Then trust me when I say it don’t make you bad neither.” 

Henrietta bit her lip, but he could see the relief blossoming in her face. She nodded. The tension was leaving her body slowly, but it was leaving, and that was progress. 

Daryl looked behind them, his jaw working the only thing that betrayed his nervousness. “We gotta keep movin’. There’s no way they didn’t hear that shot, and they seem the vengeful type.” 

This time he didn’t even jerk when she slipped her hand into his and they continued to make their way through the forest, this time at just a quick careful walk instead of a run. There was a sort of silent understanding that passed between them for a while as Daryl made the path and Henrietta just followed his footsteps. It was obvious he was trying to disturb the ground as little as possible now, using rocks or logs to make progress so there would be no footprints. The path was staggered, never a straight line. 

It was a good hour into this routine that Daryl suddenly spoke. “That the first time you killed someone? Your reaction… I just… figured.” 

“Never specifically killed. Didn’t save? Too many to count. I don’t like to think about it.” 

He looked back at her and there was that gut wrenching pain in her eyes again. 

Daryl nodded and stayed quiet a little longer before he responded. His fingers squeezed her hand reassuringly. “It ain’t on us to save everyone.”

Henrietta didn’t respond, but the answering pressure on the hand she held let him know she heard. 

A few miles down the trail Henrietta paused and tilted her head to the side. “Is that a river? There’s a river near here?” 

“Should be, if we’re goin’ the right way.” Daryl nodded. 

“We should stop, get water…” 

Daryl glanced at her, “We got enough to get us back.” 

She bit her lip a little and looked towards the sound of water again. 

A twitch lifted Daryl’s mouth ever so slightly. “Guess s’more wouldn’t hurt.” The smile Henrietta sent in his direction made him stop in his tracks and stare at her a tick before letting his hair fall in his face as he motioned in the direction of the river. “C’mon, let’s go.” 

Henrietta skipped along next to him, her eyes shining with excitement as the kept moving close to the sound of the water. When it finally came into view she went running right up to it, her oversized boots sinking into the mud a little. 

“‘S just a river.” Daryl spoke from behind her and she looked over her shoulder at him, laughing as she ran her hands through the cool water. 

“I love the water. I always have. I haven’t been able to be around any in a while though.” She shook her head and rubbed her hands together, some of the dried blood that still remained coming off finally. “Ah… would you mind…” She straightened up and rubbed the back of her neck with a hand. 

“What?” He asked, watching her. 

She blushed a little, “I don’t want the first impression your friends get of me to be me covered in blood… especially someone else’s.”

Realization hit Daryl like a ton of bricks and his eyebrows went up. “Oh, uh… yeah, ‘course…” He looked around for an escape, “I’ll just… wait up this hill a little.” 

Daryl could feel her eyes on him as he turned awkwardly and walked back up the hill to sit against a tree not too far away from her, his back facing her. 

After a few minutes he heard a splash and a faint squeak about how cold the water was. He couldn’t hold back a chuckle and called without looking, “You want some water with that ice?”

“It’s just fine, thank you very much…” The response quivered a bit, as if she was working to keep her teeth from chattering as she said it. 

“Uh-huh.” 

“Shut up.” 

In between splashes he could hear her humming to herself a little bit and he smiled to himself, flicking his knife into the dirt between his legs again and again.

 

Chapter Text

The sun was starting to set a bit when they finally reached a road that Daryl seemed to recognize. “This here… we’re getting close. Prolly ‘nother fifteen minutes or so.”

“That’s… good.” Henrietta spun a strand of still damp hair around her index finger. 

Her tone made Daryl stop and look at her. “What?” 

She shrugged. “The living have always been more of a threat to me than the dead. I know they’re your friends… and I do trust you … but it’s just hard for me. You know?” 

“Yeah I got it.” Daryl moved the strap of her satchel to his other shoulder. He’d offered to carry it after the river. “It was hard for me to trust them at first. But they earned it, and then some. Can’t make it far these days if yer alone.” 

The smile Henrietta sent him was hesitant, but the warmth he’d come to expect in the short time he’d known her was back. “So… you never told me, how’d you come to be all the way out there if your group is all the way back here?” 

Daryl chuckled, “Stupid dog split up me an’ my partner on a run for supplies. Brought a herd right to us. I tol’ her to take the car and get out, head back an’ I’d meet up with her.” He shrugged, “but then I had to swing wide around ‘em an’ those psychos helped me out.”

“By psychos you mean Len and the others.” 

He gave a brief nod. “Lucky thing though. Found you din’ I?” 

This time her answering smile caught him off guard. That unquestioning faith, he saw it whenever she looked at him now and he wasn’t really sure what to do with it… but he also couldn’t say he hated it. 

He shook his head and started walking again, hoping she would ignore his awkwardness. 

“What?” She asked as she trailed behind him, still grinning ear to ear. 

“For someone livin’ through the end of the world, goin’ through what you did, you sure smile an awful lot.” He tried to sound gruff, but he was pretty sure he failed.

“I figure if I can find one good thing to hold onto, then I’ll be able to smile through anything.” Henrietta sounded content, peaceful even. 

“Oh yeah? Was’ that?” 

“You, obviously.” 

“Stop.” 

“No, you stop.” 

He turned and raised an eyebrow at her, but he couldn’t hold her cheerful gaze for long before he had to turn back around so she wouldn’t see his cheeks heat up. Not that she would’ve been able to tell under all the dirt and grime, but still. 

They remained in companionable silence for another ten minutes, until the prison was just around the bend of the road. Every now and then he could hear her humming a little tune under her breath, one he didn’t recognize but he wasn’t about to ask. Conversations with her always ended up a bit too sincere for him. It wasn’t like that was a bad thing, just unknown and unfamiliar territory. 

“The prison has some good fences around it, but there’s always a few walkers around, trying to get in ‘em. So stick close and we’ll go in low, and whoever is on watch will open the gate.” 

Henrietta looked up at him as they rounded the curve and the safe haven of the prison came into view. “Yes sir.”

Daryl rolled his eyes a bit at the little salute she gave him, a serious look on her face but a sparkle in her eyes. “Okay, come on lil’ soldier.” 

He tried not to smile when he heard her laughing under her breath behind him as they crept down the road toward the prison gate. 

It didn’t take long for a few walkers to notice them, but the archer noticed that though some of them took a few steps towards Henrietta, their dead eyes passed right over her in favor of him. He sunk his knife into a few of them before he heard someone call his name. 

Maggie was at the inside gate, sliding it across now that she recognized him while Glenn worked the other mechanism that swung the outside gate open. There weren’t as many walkers as usual to block their way as Daryl and Henrietta ran through the two openings, or at least that’s what Daryl figured. Once they were through and the gates were closed behind them however, he looked back and realized that it was more like the walkers to the sides just hadn’t really noticed them. 

He didn’t have time to wonder if that was Henri’s fault before Glenn and Maggie approached them. 

“Hey man, good to have you back.” Glenn nodded, his face serious. “We were a bit worried when Beth came back without you.” 

“Rick wanted to go find you,” Maggie continued, though her attention was being drawn by the newcomer that Daryl had brought and she wasn’t really looking at him anymore, “but we knew you’d be okay. Who’s this?” 

Daryl looked over at Henri, who seemed to be sinking into herself and she seemed even smaller than normal. Though the clothes she’d changed into after the river, basically just an oversized flannel shirt that went down to her knees and oversized boots that swallowed half of her calves, didn’t help that picture at all. It hadn’t even occurred to him until now how young the ensemble made her look. 

“I’m, um, my name is Pu--” She blushed, tugging at one of her sleeves anxiously and side stepping behind Daryl ever so slightly. “I’m Henrietta.” 

“Welcome to the group, Henrietta.” 

Henri jumped at the new voice behind her and turned with such speed that Daryl had to catch her to keep her boots from toppling her over. 

Rick Grimes bent down slightly and held out his hand to her with a smile, “Name's Rick, I’m pleased to meet you.”