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Shattered Memories

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Even before the world went to shit, Daryl Dixon has never gone from toe to heel with heavy intent. His footsteps are light, carefully considered and just plain fucking smart. His pa used to scream at him the minute he heard one tread on the stair case; tell him that he was a heavy set goddamn idiot who would scare off game with his clumping feet so he shut that shit down quick. From the age of ten he's been treading softly, balancing all his weight into his feet, feeling the ground through his boots and reading it, listening to the soft pop and crunch of stone. It's easier in grass, if he doesn't let his pants caress the blades and make them sing out his approach.

He had to learn, his pa said or he wouldn't get fucking nowhere. So he learnt. Sometimes he practiced all night, crossing from the splintered wooden door to the hole punched walls of his bedroom, tracing the creaking beams with a held breath and a prayer that his pa wasn't gonna fly up the stairs and beat him silly for interrupting his poker game. First he practiced bare foot, endless hours staring at the sprouting hair on his toes. He tried socks next. They were slippery against the wood and challenged him until the heels of his feet ached.

When he was brave enough to try it in boots, he fucked it up too many times to count, his stomach rolling at his pa screaming through the floor, the vibrations riding from his feet to his teeth, rattling his whole skull. Got more than a few beatings those times. Running was easier because it was adrenaline based, easy to switch off his brain and he had to do it outside so his heart wasn't galloping in his damn chest waiting for a blow to the upside of his head. Running though, wasn't his choice like the walking was. His pa said it weren't good enough, didn't impress him one fucking bit that Daryl devoted hours of his life to transferring between his heel and toes, balancing carefully with all his weight dragging him down.

Had to learn to run, his pa said. Chase the deer when it disappears around the bend, run away from that rabid squirrel that tries to tear his fucking throat out after he kills its furry brother. He knows how to creep quietly, he knows how to disappear without a trace and he knows how to recognise feet after so long of looking at his own, analysing their curves and bends so they mould to the floor. Footprints are easy, animal prints are harder. Not to recognise, once he finds them. Telling a deer and a dog apart is a piece of piss. It's actually finding the little fuckers that's the problem.

Such a problem that he's been hunting for going on two hours now and he still ain't turned up no dinner for him and Aaron. His partner is back in camp, not far from where Daryl's scanning a dry bank of mud, crossbow held out to the side and hair blinding his vision. It's getting long, but there ain't no one complaining at him for it, so he don't see no problem neither. They all expect him to be some wild fucking animal anyhow, might as well look like one. Animal prints ain't turning up for him, but human ones are. Solid too, pressed hard into the dirt by sure and quick feet, conscious ones. Not a walker then, but a man or woman. Kid feet ain't as big or wide.

There's someone out here.

He's been seeing their prints for a few miles now, but he can't decide whether to find the human attached to them. Whole point of them being out here is to find people, give them a chance; bring them back to Alexandria. Only problem with seeking them out now is he's alone with Aaron back at camp. Aaron's the sweet talker, the trusting face. Ain't no man, woman or child coming with Daryl Dixon when they see his big dirty body and grizzly face with two weeks' worth of beard. He's only gonna scare whoever it is and he only wants dinner right now anyhow.

Sun's gonna be gone in less than an hour and he ain't rooting around in the dark for food. It ain't like they ain't got no meat saved from last night, but it ain't a lot and they're gonna be even hungrier if they don't get more. No fucking animals around here though. Probably scared off or eaten by walkers. Those fuckers don't think it's enough to be a constant damn pain in the ass, but they gotta eat all the food sources too. All these years later, Daryl's pretty damn sick of the sight of them, numbed to their broken jaws and dangling intestines.

He don't let himself think about it much, but sometimes he don't stop the thoughts, can't help them: when is it gonna be over? When will he stop having to heft this damn bow and shoot something between the eyes? He ain't sick of killing, he's sick of expecting to. He's sick of knowing that he won't go a day without getting sprayed with blood and bits of brain. Human, walker; animal, it's all the same now. So fucking repetitive it's mind numbing. His whole existence is. Ain't nothing bright and colourful no more, it's just all grey. The grey of brain slush. Daryl rolls his neck and shakes out his shoulders.

He's gonna have to make the trek back to Aaron and let him know they're going without tonight. He fucking hates that. Aaron's the face, the voice, the hope and Daryl's the provider. He's the one that gets the meat, the water, kills the walkers; seeks out the unbeaten path to travel. He's the resourceful one, but now he can't even bring back no fucking food. Pathetic, Merle would say it and he's saying it now. Shame won't let him go back empty handed though. If he ain't getting no meat, he's gonna have to get that person to come with him, the prints he's been seeing for miles.

He ain't the pretty boy with the nice words, but he only seen one set of prints, never two. This ain't someone with a travel companion. They're on their own and Daryl could bet his fucking crossbow they're close to insanity. Hell, he is and he's surrounded by people all the time. He hefts the bow back up and starts actively following the prints, the sun dipping low in the sky and casting darkness over him like an old friend. Daryl walks in silence a lot, but there's something about walking with someone else and choosing to be silent that's satisfactory.

The world is so busy. Not in the way it was before, full of cars and people and speech. Now it's loud because of how fucking silent it is. The silence is a heavy, solid thing all on its own, distinct and tangible. He tastes it on his tongue the way he can taste the odour of the dead. Not something he smells any more, too numb now, too much bad smell on top of wretched smell to distinguish the scent of rotted brain compared to spoilt meat or exposed organs. Being silent with someone walking right next to you is a choice. Being silent because the world is forcing you to ain't something he enjoys, and sometimes he presses his foot harder into the dirt than he needs to just to make the dry mud crack.

It's satisfying to hear it breathe new life, new sounds that ain't hungry moans or shattered screams or that fucking song about being good. Now he walks in silence because there's no one to walk beside him anymore. No one to get on his last nerve and no one to make him bark out for them to shut the fuck up. Frankly, it ain't that there's no one, it's just there ain't no one like the one person he's always looking for out the corner of his eye. Sometimes he's not even sure of who that is his own damn self. Sometimes he don't know if he's looking for grey hair and weathered skin or blonde hair and a stupid fucking smile.

Sometimes he don't know if he cares and then sometimes he cares so fucking much he don't wanna care ever again because it fucking hurts and he's tired of hurting. He's tired of the ache in his arms and the hunger in his gut and the itch in his eye because he ain't slept in three days.

He's so damn tired of this shit.

Pulling his focus back into walking, he pays attention to his feet, too lost in the dirt passing beneath his boots. The prints diverge through the trees and he follows, peering closer in the slant of branches lost in shadows. The sun is nearly gone and he wants to be back in camp before darkness reaches him and his new companion. The prints are lost a little in the trees where rain has swelled up in the mud and the branches, raising goose bumps on his bare arms. It takes a while for him to find them again and they trace through the tight corpse of tree trunks before he finally breaks out into the dip of a main road.

Fuck, if they went up on the road he's lost them. But no, there they are, tracks through the bend at the base of the road curving onto a cross and he keeps going, glancing over his shoulders to determine the space he's travelled. It shouldn't be too hard to get back, not if he follows his new prints and the strangers old ones, all the way back to Aaron. He keeps going, chewing the inside of his lip, trying to think of the bullshit Aaron uses to get people to trust him. Ways to stay smart, in case the fucker he's tracking tries to get one up on him. If he has to kill them, he won't tell Aaron. He don't like it, ain't much he keeps from his partner but he ain't ready for it yet.

Whole of Alexandria ain't fucking ready for 'it' yet, but it won't take long. No matter what, tragedy follows and for some reason, it follows Rick like the fucking plague that's taken the world. Daryl always thought he wasn't real lucky, but doom follows that man like a hell hound and frankly, he's waiting for the other shoe to drop. Long as he makes it out with the kids and Carol, ain't too much worry going into the inevitable end. Always been his plan: to get them three. The rest can look after themselves. Hell, Carol can too, but that's the point. She's the kid's best chance, the mother they need.

Tough and strong, someone to look after them because frankly, there ain't no one else he trusts. He'd get Maggie too, but he don't care to think why. He loves Rick like the brother he ain't got no more, but Rick ain't cut out for both. The prison taught Daryl that. When Rick devotes himself to his kids, he's weaker and sometimes downright fucking useless. Survival? That gets Rick going, keeps him alive. Revenge and being threatened too, Rick don't wanna admit it, but it fuels him. More than his kids? Daryl ain't gonna tell him that any time soon, but yeah, it's true. Human instinct. Protect itself.

Especially men, their dick leads them all the damn time and they're always looking for a dick measuring contest with anyone who'll do it. When the shit hits the fan and it will, Daryl's gonna get the kids out because ain't no one got Rick like himself. He stops suddenly, his subconscious rearing up and telling him to look, listen. A new cluster of trees where the footsteps depart through. He follows more consciously, noting the softer prints. Tired. Exhausted. Ready to crash and anywhere around here too. Raising the bow, ignoring that familiar groan in his biceps, he puts one foot out and crouches.

There's a thick nestles of leaves here and he has to fight through to the middle that he sees. When he's through, the first thing he takes in is a thick black material. Sleeping bag. Hair at the top, blonde from what he can see not covered with a baseball cap and spiky. Man then. Feet were small for a dude, so he's thin, wiry, probably a little like Eric. He can take that. He's wrestled with Rick enough times to know he can take a fair amount of weight, this dude ain't gonna be nothing. Daryl steps closer, listening to the dead silence in every step, still feeling that pathetic bubble of pride in his chest followed by the bitter sting of rejection from his pa's lack of interest.

He's too far back in the past today, allowing himself to mull in shit he knows is gonna hurt later. In his brother's dry crackle and his ma's faint smile, in the twinkling jar of moonshine under the glare of its namesake. He circles around the head of the sleeping guy and bends at the knees, trying to find the strangers face. Might actually be dead. He can't see no moving which means this guy could turn any minute and bite him in his fucking foot. Daryl tips over on his toes, raising his foot to nudge the dude with the toe of his boot. There's a sudden eruption of motion and he jumps back, swings the bow up and prepares to aim.

Until the nasty slice of cotton hits him full in the face, the zip poking into his eye as he stumbles back and curses, gripping the bow with one hand as he pushes the heel of his other hand into his eye socket; forces bursts of multi coloured stars to flare. He tries to aim with one hand as he blinks his other one back into function, the eye that's actually working blinded by his hair. He's shaving it all off when he kills this bastard and gets back to his fucking house. He growls as the sleeping bag lands on his bow, slowing the arrow down when he releases and missing the dodging figure.

He just about gets a flash of denim as the guy rolls forward across the ground and collides into his knees. The weight weakens them and then a hard chop to the back of his legs floor him.

He goes down like a sack of bricks. "Fuck!"

A body throws against him until he's flat on his back, the crossbow skidding out into the embrace of leaves, leaving Daryl with his hands. He uses them against the waist he feels, grabbing so that he can flip them and noticing the slender figure, the curve where his fingers dig and knowing even before the breasts brush him in the face that he's fighting a woman. The hair threw him off and now he's left dumb struck, even in a fight sent stone still by the soft skin of this stranger's waist under his hands, exposed by her top riding up. Her flesh is hot and despite it all, makes his cock swell hard and fast. He groans as the body above him lifts upwards, bringing a face into focus.

Daryl squints his eyes and feels his gut drop because it might be because he's let his head slide into the past today or it might be that he's finally gone around the fucking bend, but the face he's staring at looks a hell of a fucking lot like hers. She snarls at him and it pulls at the clotted lines on her cheekbone, her head, on the puckered little bullet scar…

His throat convulses and he tries to grip this woman's arms, this woman that might be her fucking doppelgänger, just older and thinner, hair mostly covered by the cap but now a thick rope of braid falling out and whacking him in the shoulder. She slips like a fucking snake though, slamming her hand into his throat and cutting off his air supply. Fuck that. He bucks up with his hips and ignores the tightening of his balls at the roll that felt like the imitation of something fucking else entirely. He heaves her to the side and rolls, shoving his knees over her arms and squeezing them down into the dirt, pinned flat by his weight.

The first proper look he gets at her and his stomach jumps, threatening the lining of it because there's definitely no fucking food in there to throw back out. He can't help it. He's a fucking idiot, but who else wouldn't? Who else couldn't? Who could take the not knowing? Because this is ain't no doppelgänger, that ain't no stranger struggling underneath him and he ain't fucking brain dead, not yet because he would have to be not to recognise them blue eyes he sees every time his own close.

His chest heaves as he fights her, breaking up the name all weird until it sounds so goddamn holy. "Beth?"

She stops, eyes sparked in recognition and fuck, fuck, he's gonna be sick.