It was something that Daryl Dixon had come to value a whole lot more since the dead started walking. He wasn’t much of a people person, preferring his own company if he was given the choice, but now survival demanded that he live within the heart of a group of strangers, and it was suffocating. There was always someone talking, asking him questions he didn’t wanna answer, or issuing orders he didn’t wanna follow. Merle didn’t take none of their shit, telling them exactly what he would or would not do, but Daryl knew that they needed these people, useless as some of them might be. If Merle got them kicked out of the camp, he doubted either of them would last long, so he kept his head down and got on with it, biting his tongue and letting the inane chatter fade into the background.
The only respite he got was when he went out hunting. Sometimes his brother would tag along, but they never caught much when that happened. Somehow, Merle was still dropping pills on a semi-regular basis, and they made him loud and raucous, scaring away any prey before Daryl could take aim. So, he’d gotten into the habit of slipping away at first light, his crossbow slung over his shoulder and his knife at his waist, venturing into the forest and letting the silence wash over him. He was at home here, surrounded by nature, letting the tracks that cut through the undergrowth and the sounds of the river and the wildlife guide his way. Sure, he came across biters, but out here they tended to be on their own, and he was confident now that he could take down one without too much trouble. Things were vicious but they were slow and dumb as shit. It was only in a crowd that they were a real threat, and most of them were still stumbling round Atlanta, attracting more and more of them to the city with their deafening groans and leaving the surrounding countryside relatively safe for now.
Speak of the devil… A mangled corpse padded towards him, its jaws gnashing, a mass of bloody intestines drooping from the gaping hole in its gut. For a moment, Daryl recoiled, but then he heard his brother’s voice in his ear, as if he was standing beside him. What? You gonna hurl, little brother? Shit, I seen worse than that in juvie. You gotta toughen up. He steeled himself, eyeing the approaching threat with his crossbow raised to his shoulder, waiting for the right moment to strike. You had to get them in the brain, he knew that now, else they’d just keep coming at you. He centred the biter in his sights, taking a deep breath before letting loose a bolt, feeling a smug satisfaction when it buried itself deep in the walker’s skull. It dropped, and he gave it a cursory kick as he retrieved his ammo, pulling it free with a sick squelching sound and wiping it on his trouser leg. Yeah, he could deal with this new world and the horror that came with it. It was about adapting, surviving, and he’d been doing that all his life.
A scuffling noise to his right caught his attention, and he glanced up to see the rear end of a young buck as it bolted through the trees. He knew it must be the one he’d been tracking for the last few hours, and could tell just from its backside that it’d feed the whole camp for a couple of days if they rationed it. Damn biter had distracted him just long enough that the deer had caught his scent and gotten spooked. He took off after it, moving as quickly as he could given the need to be quiet, staying low to the ground, his eyes reading the indentations in the bushes like a map, leading him towards his kill.
The animal’s path took him downhill, closer to the water, and he trailed the river for a mile or so, following the prints it had left in the mud. The dip in the terrain sheltered him from the slight breeze that was ghosting through the trees, stopping his scent from spreading, keeping his presence a secret, at least for the time being. He was in his element now, moving through the undergrowth like a cat, light on his feet, stealthy and spry. It was at times like this that he felt a hell of a lot younger than his forty-odd years, though he knew the ache in his bones that evening would remind him of his age. He’d pay for the long hike when he settled down to sleep, always did.
The tracks curved upwards, away from the river, and still he followed, climbing up the tree-studded slope and cutting across the foot-worn path, plunging into the deeper foliage, stepping carefully over the exposed roots hidden beneath the greenery, his eyes scanning the ground for the snapped stems and broken leaves that told of wildlife passing through. The trail took him to the edge of a clearing, and his breath caught in his throat when he saw the motionless figure of a deer in the centre, its back dappled with shadows as the sun climbed higher in the sky, the heat beating down on the Daryl’s head so that beads of sweat formed on his brow. He lifted his bow, focusing it on the creature’s bulk, inhaling deeply as his finger twitched on the trigger. The buck was alert, its ears twitching, its nose pointed into the breeze. A shot rang out, and the animal crumpled, hitting the ground with a muffled thud.
‘Shit!’ Daryl couldn’t contain his outburst as he strode towards his prey, his eyes flashing with anger. ‘What the hell?’
Two men appeared from the bushes across the open ground, their rifles raised as they stepped cautiously from their hiding spot, watching as the redneck bent to inspect the kill.
‘Ya blew it all to hell! I’ve been trackin’ that damn buck all freakin’ day!’
‘Well, it was us that dropped it, brother,’ the older of the two men spoke, rubbing his hand over his greying beard. ‘So, I don’t see how the state of it is your concern.’ His voice was soft but firm, with the hint of a Latino accent, and Daryl bristled at his words.
‘Nah, ya’ve gotta be kiddin’ me. S’my deer, and I ain’t yer brother, ya hear?’
‘Hey, you need to calm down.’ His comrade, the younger of the two, a skinny guy with a shaved head and tribal tattoos on his arms, spoke up, fidgeting nervously with his weapon as Daryl stared him down. ‘Fair’s fair, man. It’s our bullet, it’s our kill.’
‘Do you have people?’ The first one asked, and Daryl narrowed his eyes as he considered how to answer the question.
‘What’s it to you?’
‘Well, that’s a lotta deer for one person. Maybe we can come to an arrangement.’
‘I’m Carlos.’ The skinny one threw in. ‘This is Felipe. We’ve got a camp, ‘bout a twenty minute walk from here.’
‘You got a name, brother?’ Felipe was watching the archer intently, his rifle trained on his chest, wary of the temperamental stranger.
‘Okay, Daryl. How about we head back to camp and butcher this thing, divide it up. Maybe everyone can go home happy today, huh?’
In all honestly, he couldn’t see another way out of this. He was outnumbered and outgunned, and hell if he was just gonna walk away from the buck he’d hunted down and write the day off as wasted. So, he found himself nodding.
‘Fine. Get that damn thing out my face though.’ He stepped forward, reaching out to push the muzzle of the older man’s rifle to the side, gritting his teeth as he waited to be challenged, but no challenge came.
‘Just a precaution, brother, I’m sure you can understand that.’ He ran his hand through his hair, silver rings glinting against the dark waves. ‘You can never be too careful these days.’ He nodded to Carlos, who also lowered his weapon, and the men stood, caught in an uneasy truce.
‘Carlos.’ Felipe, obviously the leader, nodded his head towards the subject of their conflict, and the young man bent to hoist it onto his shoulder, grimacing when blood dripped down his arm. Daryl had to hand it to him, he had more muscle than he’d first thought. Subconsciously, he was calculating his chances if things took a turn for the violent, but he wasn’t stupid. He’d take a hell of a beating even if he did manage to get the upper hand. Better to play this out, see where it took him. ‘Let’s go home.’
Carlos led the way, whilst his elder fell into step at Daryl’s side. Fantastic. Guess he wanted to talk then.
‘So, you never said whether you had people waiting on you. You got a camp somewhere round here?’
Daryl shrugged, chewing on his thumbnail, determined not to give anything away until he knew who these people were. He hadn’t exactly gelled with his group, but he wasn’t about to turn them over to a bunch of psychos either. Plus, his brother was back there. Nah, they weren’t gonna get anything out of him until he knew what he was dealing with.
‘A man of few words, huh, brother? That’s okay. Our Carlos is the same. Too much of the dope, ain’t that right, Carlo? Smoked it for years. That stuff messes with your head. You smoke?’
He pulled a packet of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, offering one to Daryl, who accepted begrudgingly, pulling out his own lighter. ‘Thanks.’
‘Way I see it,’ Felipe continued. ‘At least tobacco kills the body before it kills the mind, am I right? Not many pleasures left in this life now. No coffee, no baseball, no Sopranos. All I got left is nicotine. That, and sex, but it’s hard to find the privacy or the time these days, huh?’
Every statement he made was phrased as a question, trying to goad Daryl into conversation, but he’d underestimated the younger Dixon’s stubborn nature. He remained silent, refusing to be drawn into saying anything that might reveal something about him or his group, and before long, they were breaking through the treeline into an open field where a smattering of tents were pitched behind a scant barbed-wire fence.
‘Right this way, brother.’ Carlos had split off from them, rounding the enclosure to the back with the deer still slung over his shoulder, whilst Felipe guided Daryl to a makeshift gate guarded by a tall, bald-headed man, with a shotgun clasped in his hands. ‘Don’t worry. Carlos is gonna strip that buck down away from the camp, make sure the scent of the blood doesn’t draw in any unwanted guests. He’ll be back soon with your share of the meat. We’re good, honest people here.’
Daryl nodded, allowing himself to be herded inside, where a small group had gathered at the sound of the hunters’ return. A slender woman, with long, dark hair, streaked through with gold, stepped forwards to embrace the leader, planting a kiss on his cheek.
‘Hey, mama.’ He greeted her softly, stroking her hair back from her face. ‘Told you I’d come home safe, huh?’ He turned back to Daryl. ‘My wife, Rose. If you’d like to join us for dinner, she’ll cook that venison up into a stew like you wouldn’t believe.’ He went on, without giving Daryl a chance to respond to the invitation. ‘You see, we have women here, children, too. It’s getting hard to keep everyone fed and watered, y’know. We’re happy on rations, but the kids, they’re still growing.’
‘I get it.’ Daryl’s eyes scanned over the group, noting the distrust in their faces, the fear in the children’s eyes as they hid behind the legs of their parents. ‘I ain’t tryn’a take no food outta no-one’s mouths, alright? Just wanna get what’s mine ‘n’ I’ll be on my way.’
‘Understood, brother.’ Felipe held a hand to his forehead, shielding his eyes as he studied the people stood before him. ‘Might as well get yourself cleaned up while you’re here, huh? I’ll get Y/N to show you around, get you some water. Where is she, Rose?’
‘She went to fill the bottles at the lake. She should be back by now.’
‘Y/N!’ Felipe’s voice was loud and authoritative, echoing through the camp, and a part of Daryl wanted to tell him to shut the hell up. Didn’t he know the damn undead were drawn in by the noise? But then a woman appeared, a backpack stuffed with water bottles slung over one shoulder, and his mind went blank of everything but the dark eyes that widened in shock as she saw him standing there. Nah. There was no way in hell that the Y/N Felipe had summoned was his Y/N. And yet, she was dropping the bag to the floor with a crunch of crumpled plastic and moving towards him with her arms outstretched.
‘Daryl? Shit, no way. Daryl freakin’ Dixon!’
Daryl sat and drummed his pencil against the edge of the desk, growing antsy and impatient as he watched the hand on the clock creeping slowly round. The only other sound in the classroom was the rustle of paper as the other students turned the pages of the textbook they were supposed to be reading, but Daryl wasn’t interested. School was a trial, an ordeal that had to be experienced before he was released into the big wide world where he could cut his own path, and there wasn’t a damn thing in any of these books that would help him then.
The girl sitting beside him glanced up from her reading to glare at him, disturbed by his constant tapping, and he sped up the pace, scowling right back. Only thing worse than the useless information they were trying to cram into his head was the company he had to keep while they were doing it. Mindless damn morons, who all looked the same, dressed the same, acted the same. He knew they laughed at him, some of them to his face, others behind his back. He didn’t fit in and never had. His hair was messy where he cut it himself with his ma’s old blunt scissors, and his jeans were always too long, hand-me-downs from his brother with patches on the knees. He’d avoid the other kids for as long as he could, cutting through the forest to get to school rather than taking the bus, so his skin was always ingrained with dirt by the time he sat down at his desk. They called him names, beat on him occasionally, but it was nothing he wasn’t used to. He got enough of that at home that he was kinda numb to it all now, or at least, that’s what he told himself. It was easier that way.
The bell rang, signalling the end of the morning’s torture, and Daryl was first out of the classroom door, his backpack slung over one shoulder. He weaved his way through the crowds in the hallway, bursting out into the sunshine and making a beeline for his usual spot at the end of the bleachers, in the far corner of the school playing fields. It was quiet there, hidden from the eyes of would-be bullies and teachers alike, and his friend was already waiting for him when he arrived.
‘Sup, Dare.’ George was stretched out on his back, his head resting on his folded denim jacket, a cigarette dangling from his lips. ‘How’s it going?’
‘Same old.’ Daryl dumped his bag on the grass, dropping down beside it and rummaging for his own pack of smokes. ‘Y’alright?’
‘Yeah, man.’ George glanced in his direction as his lighter flared, igniting the end of his cigarette as he inhaled deeply. ‘Saw your old man down at Rudy’s last night.’
‘Yeah. He looked pretty wasted.’
‘So, what?’ Daryl’s brow creased as he stared his friend down, waiting for him to get to the point. The whole town knew his Dad was a drunk. They didn’t know how nasty it made him though.
‘Just saying, that’s all.’
‘Well, don’t.’ He watched as the playing field began to fill with groups, some talking, laughing, others sitting with their textbooks spread over their knees, cramming in some extra study time, and more still kicking a football around, or tossing a baseball back and forth.
‘I hear Merle’s back.’
‘Yeah, got out last week.’
‘Thought he had a few months to go.’
‘Got out early. Good behaviour.’
‘Really?’ George shot him an incredulous look. ‘Merle?’
‘S’right.’ In truth, Daryl had been pretty shocked himself when his brother had called to say he’d been cleared for early release. A small part of him had hoped that maybe he was cleaning his act up, but realistically he knew that probably wasn’t the case. More likely that he’d had his pipeline cut off inside and needed to get out to make some quick cash, so he’d played nice for as long as it took to get the judges on side. Still, it had been real good having him home, taking some of the focus off of Daryl when his Dad came back steaming and looking for a fight.
‘You think he could get me some weed, man?’
Daryl quirked an eyebrow at his friend. ‘Ask him yaself.’
‘Really? Dude, your brother’s scary as shit. You sure you couldn’t just-‘
‘Nah, man, I ain’t gettin’ involved in that shit.’
George huffed, scrubbing the end of his stub against a patch of dirt and flicking it across the grass. ‘Fine. Guess I’ll stick with Vinnie. I tell you though, man, the quality’s gone down hill.’
‘Why’d ya waste yer cash on that shit, anyway?’ Daryl had never really been into drugs of any kind. He saw what the drink had done to his Dad, the shit dealing had got his brother into, and sworn to just stick to his smokes. ‘Ain’t like it can make this place any more bearable.’
He climbed to his feet, wandering in circles around the small area they claimed as theirs, scuffing the heels of his boots against the ground. His eyes flickered over the bleachers, scanning the faces that sat along the cool metal seats, pausing when he saw one he didn’t recognise.
A girl sat halfway up, apart from the others, obviously eating alone. Her hair was streaked with neon pink, and her eyes were heavily lined with kohl. He thought for a moment how isolated she must feel, watching the conversations going on around her, but she didn’t seem bothered by it, her stance confident despite her apparent lack of company.
‘Hey, George, who’s that?’ He gestured towards the newcomer as his friend climbed to his feet and joined him, staring up at the stranger that had grabbed Daryl’s attention.
‘That’s the new girl. You ain’t seen her yet?’
Daryl shook his head.
‘Think she joined a week ago, maybe two. She’s in my math class.’
‘She don’t got no friends?’
‘Nah, people don’t like her, man. I mean, look at her. She doesn’t fit in round here.’
‘Where’s she from?’
‘Came down from Philly, apparently. Her grandma lives down here, and she’s real sick, so the whole family upped and moved south so her mom could look after her.’
Daryl narrowed his eyes at the extent of George’s information. ‘How’d ya know all this?’
‘I talk to people,’ his friend answered defensively, before crumbling under Daryl’s disbelieving stare. ‘My mom met her mom on the bus. Got talking.’
‘You wanna go talk to her?’ George was watching him warily,
‘Nah.’ Daryl shook his head. ‘Don’t be stupid.’
Still, he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the girl, and when she climbed to her feet and he saw her patched-up jeans and Docs, he couldn’t fight the smile that pulled up the corners of his mouth. Those weren’t hand-me-downs, that was a fashion statement, and it made him feel a little more comfortable, knowing that somewhere on earth, maybe he’d fit in a little better than he did in this backwards town.
She climbed her way down the benches, jumping the last few, rolling her eyes when a nearby gang of girls made a snarky comment about her hair, and raising her middle finger as she sauntered past with an amused smirk on her lips.
‘Ooh, girl’s got attitude.’ George let out a long, low whistle, and Daryl had to agree. She was throwing out ‘don’t-give-a-fuck’ vibes with every step, and he had to respect that. He knew how hard it was to block out the noise, keep your head held high when you could feel the judgemental stares burning into your back, but she just swung her denim-clad hips and kept on walking.
A thought entered his mind and took root, no matter how much he tried to shake it. He had to know her. He was a misfit, always had been. It had a lot to do with his surname and his family’s reputation, but it was also down to his surly manner and vicious temper. He didn’t fit in, and he made no effort to. He’d never met another person like that, outside of his own flesh and blood, and he had to admit he was intrigued. This girl seemed to be a misfit by choice, by design almost, and she made it look damn good. So, maybe, just maybe, she could teach him how to not care. Maybe they could be misfits together.
‘Dare, you’re drooling,’ George teased, nudging Daryl with his elbow, and receiving a harsh punch to the ribs in response. ‘Alright, alright, I’m sorry, man. You like her though, right?’
‘Nah, man. Don’ even know her.’
‘Fine, you’re checking her out then! You think she’s cute.’
Daryl shrugged, hating that he was so painfully obvious. ‘I dunno. She’s just… different.’
‘Yeah, well, it don’t pay to be different round here.’ George’s voice was grave. ‘I mean, people in this town don’t like different. It scares them some.’
‘Damn, I hate this place.’
Daryl’s mind was reeling as Y/N approached, wrapping her arms around his neck and pulling him into a tight embrace. Instinct brought his hand to the curve of her waist, and he breathed in the familiar spicy scent of her, as her hair tickled his nose. God, she was just like he remembered.
The pink streaks were gone from her hair but it was still the same rich colour, though he could see a sprinkling of silver around her temples. Her eyes were as deeply hypnotic as they had ever been, but the laughter lines that used to appear when her face creased with amusement were deeper and, he thought, probably permanently visible. Her skin was more tanned than it had been, unsurprising given her current lifestyle, but she still felt the same as her body pressed up against his.
He wondered how he looked to her, whether she thought the years had been kind. He didn’t look bad for his age, he always thought, whenever he would give himself a cursory glance in the mirror. He was well-built, a family trait, and a life lived predominantly in the outdoors kept his body strong, the muscles in his arms defined. He kept his hair short, though he still cut it himself, and the sun kept it a light, sandy brown. It was his eyes that bothered him. They were the same piercing blue they’d always been, but there was a hardness behind them, a chill that, try as he might, he couldn’t drive away. Could she see it? Probably. Would it scare her? Only time would tell.
‘You too know each other?’ Felipe was watching the reunion with curiosity, his eyes flicking from one to the other as Y/N stepped back from Daryl, keeping her hands on his arms as she studied his face.
‘Yeah,’ she breathed, before regaining her composure and turning to her leader. ‘Yeah, we go way back, old schoolfriends, right, Dixon? But, God, how long has it been?’
‘Yeah,’ he nodded. ‘S’right.’ He didn’t bother to count the years, he knew exactly how long it had been since he’d watched her drive away.
‘Small world.’ Felipe spread his hands wide, regarding Daryl with a touch more trust than he had done before. ‘Well, a friend of Y/N’s is always welcome here, brother.’
‘Thanks.’ He inclined his head slightly in a gesture of acknowledgement, his gaze drifting back to Y/N as her fingers laced through his. ‘Ya said ya had water?’
‘Right, of course. Y/N will see to you, especially now that I know you’ve got a shared past. I’m sure you have a lot to catch up on.’
‘Yeah, I guess we do.’
‘Then go, friend. I’ll get Carlos to bring you your venison when he’s done, and perhaps you might join us for the night.’ When Daryl opened his mouth to argue, Felipe silenced him with a look. ‘No pressure, brother. I’m simply making the offer.’
Again, Daryl nodded, and then the hand clutching his tightened, and he found himself being towed away, following hopelessly behind the girl that had nearly torn his family apart all those years ago.
Y/N’s fingers were warm in his as he followed her out of the camp, across the field, where the whiskery grasses stretched up to his knees. He felt like he was dreaming, her presence so surreal that he kept blinking dazedly down at her as though she might disappear. He was sure he looked gormless, as dumb as the countless walkers he’d taken down over the past few weeks, but inside his brain was working overtime, processing this new development and trying to figure out how to handle it.
He’d loved Y/N, as much as you could love anything when you were a teenage boy with raging hormones and a self-esteem issue, but she’d always been one of the worst damn things to ever walk into his life. She’d strained his relationship with Merle to breaking point and, he thought, those cracks had never fully healed. There was still an underlying tension, and his brother didn’t even know the whole truth of it. If he did… Daryl didn’t even wanna think what sort of reaction that would garner. One of them would end up dead, that was for sure.
Y/N’s hand slipped from his as she moved ahead to climb over a rickety wooden fence, jumping to the ground the other side with ease, and watching expectantly as he followed. She hadn’t said a word since they’d left Felipe, and Daryl knew she was biding her time, wondering which question out of the millions buzzing around in her head she should ask first. They cut diagonally across the hill that stretched out before them, stumbling a little on the rough knots of weeds that sprouted here and there, before the landscape steepened, and Daryl found himself approaching a valley with a small lake at the bottom. The water looked clear, glistening under the sun’s rays, and a childish part of him wanted to break into a run, to submerge himself under its surface and let it wash him clean of the lies that would surely come back to haunt him just as she had.
Instead, he followed her lead, dropping down at the water’s edge, and swinging his bow down to rest beside him, just catching her smirk out of the corner of his eye. ‘What?’
‘Can’t believe you’ve still got that old thing.’
He cast an eye over his weapon, her elegant lines and deadly mechanism, and shrugged. ‘Gets the job done.’
‘I’ll bet.’ She hesitated for a moment, before plunging in. ‘God, Daryl, I can’t believe… I mean, it’s been-‘
‘Twenty-three years,’ he supplied, gnawing on his thumbnail, and seeing her smile slightly at the familiar habit. ‘I remember.’
‘Wow, I guess it has, huh?’ She shook her head. ‘I can’t believe you’re here. I mean, I guess I figured you’d stay local, but what are the chances of this? This is crazy, right?’
He remained silent, staring out over the lake with a grim set to his face. Crazy was the right word. He felt like he was going insane. This couldn’t be happening. He was almost tempted to pinch himself, but he knew from experience that that didn’t wake you up from the worst nightmares.
She pressed on, seemingly undeterred by his surliness. ‘So, how have you been? What have you been doing with your life? Before all this, I mean,’ she added as he raised an eyebrow. ‘God, Daryl, I feel like I’ve missed so much.’
‘Not really,’ he admitted. ‘Ain’t nothin’ much changed since ya left.’
‘Really?’ She ran a hand over the leg of her jeans, brushing away a fly, before sighing. ‘I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. You Dixons are pretty set in your ways.’
There were a hundred different retorts that he could’ve made to that, but he swallowed them down, feeling them sit in his stomach like a lead weight. ‘What about you?’
She snorted, and Daryl felt the weight shift. ‘I actually became a counsellor, believe it or not.’
‘What? Workin’ with depressive types?’
‘Drug-users mostly, some alcoholics. Worked with a lot of kids that came from broken homes, domestic violence situations, that kinda thing. Felt like I had a little insight, I guess, and I wanted to use it to help people.’
‘Insight?’ Daryl felt his lip curl up in a sneer. ‘Ya didn’ live it.’
‘No, but I’ve seen what it can do to people.’ She shrugged. ‘Thought I might be able to make a difference.’
Again, he found himself biting his tongue, knowing her intentions were good, even though her words cut like a knife. ‘Where did ya end up? Ya go back to Philly?’
‘For a while, then New York. I was down here visiting my folks when… Well, when this whole thing started.’
‘Where are they?’ He regretted the question as soon as it left his mouth. He hadn’t seen them in the gathering at the camp, so it was pretty obvious where they were.
‘Didn’t make it.’ Her voice was thick with emotion and Daryl reached up to rest his hand on her shoulder, feeling uncomfortable but needing to make the gesture.
‘What about you? Your Dad, Merle…’
‘Gone.’ The lie escaped before he had time to think it through, though he ultimately would have come to the same decision. He couldn’t risk Y/N coming between him and his brother again, not now. He needed him. ‘S’just me.’
‘Alone?’ Her brow creased with concern. ‘You don’t have a group somewhere out here?’
‘Nah. I’m better on my own, always have been.’
‘I’m alright.’ His tone was assertive, final. He needed her to know from the out that he wasn’t about to sit round the campfire with her people, holding hands and singing about the good old days. This wasn’t the start of something. It was just a pit stop. That damn deer… ‘I’ve survived so far, ain’t I?’
She raised an eyebrow, but nodded all the same, accepting his stance. ‘What about your wife? Kids?’
‘Nah. Never met the right girl.’
‘Never found a girl who could put up with you, you mean?’ she teased, and he smirked at her. ‘I had a guy, for a while. Jensen. Thought that one was for keeps.’
‘Yeah.’ He couldn’t deny that the thought of her with another man hurt him, but he shook it off. Of course, she wasn’t gonna have spent over two decades alone, pining for him, was she? Nah, that sort of thing was reserved for losers like him. ‘What happened?’
‘He wanted kids.’
‘’N’ you didn’t?’
‘Couldn’t.’ She sighed, and his heart broke for her. ‘Not after… I don’t know. They did tests, but it just wasn’t gonna happen.’
‘Not your fault.’ She reached over and ruffled his hair, a move that, had anyone else done it, would’ve cost them their fingers. But her touch had a calming effect on him and he felt himself relax for the first time since he’d run into Felipe and Carlos in the woods. ‘We were just kids, right? Too young and stupid to think about things like consequences, and the bigger picture.’
‘Weren’t that young.’
‘Green, then, maybe.’ She fiddled absentmindedly with a thin silver ring on her middle finger. ‘I don’t know. God, I really messed things up, didn’t I?’ She let out a humourless laugh. ‘Here’s me all happy to see you and you probably hate me.’
‘I don’t hate ya.’ Daryl found a stone beneath his fingers as he splayed his hands out on the ground behind him and picked it up, tossing it into the lake and watching as the ripples spread. ‘Couldn’t. Trust me, I tried.’
‘I don’t blame you.’ She sighed, running a hand through her hair, and he noticed for the first time how tired she looked. ‘Hated myself too for a while there. Still do some nights when it gets a little quiet, you know?’
‘Yeah, I know what that’s like.’
‘Thoughts can get real loud when it’s just you and the stars.’ She glanced over at him and he nodded slowly. ‘I’m sorry, Daryl. And I’m sorry about your dad and your brother.’
‘No, y’ain’t.’ He narrowed his eyes at her, and her cheeks flushed with colour. ‘Ya hated ‘em both by the end.’
‘Yeah, I did,’ she admitted. ‘But you loved them, so I’m still sorry.’
‘Ain’t so sure I loved my ol’ man,’ Daryl scoffed. ‘Shit, he was a mean ol’ bastard.’
‘But you stayed.’
‘Didn’ have nowhere else to go.’ The sun was starting to sink lower in the sky, and he knew he should really get going, try and make it back to the quarry before he lost the light, but he was reluctant to leave. ‘So, what’s the story with Felipe? You know these guys before?’
‘Nah.’ She wrinkled her nose. ‘They scooped me up off the side of the road when I was running from corpses right back at the start. Figured there was safety in numbers so I stuck with them. They seem like good people.’
‘Yeah, looks like y’all got a good setup here.’
‘Sure, for now.’ He cast her a questioning look and she tilted her head to one side as she went on. ‘At some point those biters in the city are gonna start wandering back down the highway, and then… I don’t know, I just get the feeling this is all temporary, you know? Does that sound weird?’
‘Nah, I get it.’ It was the same thing he’d worried about himself, and he knew Shane was already planning where they’d run to when the undead started spreading into the forest.
‘Daryl, you could stay here.’ She kept her tone even, though her eyes were pleading as she turned her gaze on him, and he felt his heartbeat falter under the intensity of her stare. ‘Felipe, he’s always saying we could use more hunters, and there’s plenty of space. Plus, Rose is a seriously incredible cook.’
‘Nah, I’m good.’
‘I can’t, Y/N, alright? I ain’t good with people!’
She fell silent, and when he glanced over at her, her bottom lip was trembling. He cursed himself, filled with guilt over his lies, but knowing that to tell the truth would just cause more pain.
When she finally spoke, her voice was quiet and wavering. ‘I just found you, Daryl.’
‘Hey.’ He felt his resolve weakening and ducked his head to force her to meet his eyes. ‘I know where y’are now. I ain’t gon’ walk out o’ here ‘n’ never see ya again. I’ll come back, I promise.’
‘How do I know you’re not just saying that?’ She sniffed, rubbing her hand over her eyes to scrub away the tears that were forming. ‘I mean, I wouldn’t blame you if you never wanted to see me again.’
‘I ain’t never lied to ya before.’ Even as he said it, he knew that that in itself was a lie, and he cursed inwardly at how easy it was to deceive her. He’d never done it before, not until the moment he told her he was alone in this new world, but now he could see that little falsehood leading to more and more stories being concocted. Still, despite his earlier conviction that this was a one-off that he could walk away from, he couldn’t do that to her or himself.
She was nodding, though her hands were balled into fists on her knees. ‘I know. I just… Don’t get me wrong, these guys are amazing, and I’d probably be dead right now if it wasn’t for them, but they’re… they’re just not…’
‘I know.’ He forced himself to his feet, bending to retrieve his crossbow and slinging it over his shoulder. ‘Look, I gotta go. Gon’ be dark soon.’
She climbed slowly to her feet, brushing her hands off on her jeans, before stepping forwards and wrapping her arms around his waist, burying her face in the collar of his shirt. More than anything, he wanted to hold her, but he knew if he did, he wouldn’t be able to let go, and that would ruin everything. So, he took a step back away from her, the tips of his ears flaring with heat at the physical contact. ‘I’m glad you’re alive, Daryl. Please, please come back to me. Soon.’
The sun beat down on the back of Daryl’s head as he stared at the ground, scuffing his boots against the dusty road. His battered old backpack weighed heavy on his shoulder, stuffed full of books he wouldn’t read for homework he wouldn’t do. His too-big jeans hung low on his hips, torn and frayed at the bottom from dragging in the dirt, and the buttons of his shirt strained over his chest – his hand-me-down uniform, poorly fitting and badly in need of a wash. He could hear the whispers following him, the girlish giggles as his peers judged him and, as per usual, found him wanting, but he put it to the back of his mind, as he crossed to the opposite sidewalk and turned by the liquor store on the corner. He knew he could have avoided this if he’d kept to his usual routine, slipping across the playing fields and into the woods, taking the back way home, finding solitude beneath the canopies of trees that spanned the edge of town, but, for some reason he couldn’t explain, for the past couple of weeks he’d allowed himself to be swallowed up in the crowd of his classmates as they headed down the street, his eyes swivelling left and right in the search of one particular face.
Since the day that Daryl had seen Y/N on the bleachers, he hadn’t been able to get her out of his head. He watched her from a distance as she sat alone, picking at her food, drumming her knees to whatever song was blasting inside her head, seemingly oblivious to the stares she drew. God, he wanted to know her, wanted to hear that music playing in her mind, wanted to figure her out and find out if she recognised a kindred spirit in him too. He knew it was ridiculous, knew she may well the stuck-up bitch that the rumours professed her to be, but he just didn’t believe it. She wasn’t arrogant, she was just confident. It was the quirk of her lips as she took in the carbon-copy cheerleaders, and the arch of her eyebrow when the jocks roared over a point scored. She was amused by it all, and he wanted in on the joke.
He’d seen her a couple of times on the walk home, knew she took the same route as him up ‘til Newman Street, but each time he lost her in the buzz of kids and parents coming out of the elementary school a little way ahead. Still, that meant she lived on the same side of town, so he kept looking for her, every day, hoping he’d manage to track her to her door. He wasn’t sure what he’d do once he got there. He sure as hell wasn’t about to go up and knock and ask her out. But he was curious to see her home, where she shut herself away every night, and he guessed a small part of him wanted it to be just like his: four walls and a few windows; no soul; no sense of belonging; somewhere to escape from. Maybe they could escape together, if he ever got up the damn nerve to speak to her.
A shout pulled him from his thoughts and he cast his eyes around, trying to figure out where it had come from. There were a few guys from the year below clustered around a bench outside the doctor’s surgery, and he figured they were the most likely source, but as the raised voice continued, he noticed that they too were looking round in vague curiosity. A burst of cackled laughter followed, and he felt his body tense up instinctively. He knew that sound – taunting and cruel. He’d been the subject of that kind of laughter too many times to count, and the knot in his stomach forced him into a jog as he darted into one of the side alleys and followed it round to the back of the building where a group of girls were gathered around an upended backpack, picking up the scattered belongings with the tips of their fingernails and passing judgement, before flinging them back to the ground.
Y/N stood a couple of metres away from them, her arms crossed over her chest, trying to maintain an expression of indifference, but he could tell from the flush that coloured her cheeks that she cared. Maybe she was angry, maybe she was upset – he wasn’t good enough at reading people to know, but either way, she looked more vulnerable than he’d ever seen her, and some small part of him wanted to take her in his arms and make it okay.
‘Wha’ the hell’s goin’ on here?’
His voice silenced the group, and the ringleader turned to look at him with a sneer of disdain contorting her features. ‘Oh no, girls, it’s dirty Dixon coming to the rescue!’
A collective giggle filled the silence as he drew himself up, using his height to stare her down, as he stepped forwards, reaching round to dig in the pocket of his backpack. ‘Why’d ya gotta be such a bitch, Tiffany? Give her back her stuff!’
‘Or what? What are you gonna do about, huh, Daryl?’ Her scowl had slipped into a smug smile as she waved a small fabric purse in his face. ‘We’re just about to check out your girlfriend’s make-up. You wanna see? Maybe she’ll share it with you and you can both go round looking like clowns!’
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Y/N’s hands ball into fists at her sides, and he drew his own out from behind his back, watching as Tiffany’s eyes fell to the weapon now clutched between his fingers. ‘What the fuck?’
‘Get outta here, all o’ ya!’
‘You’ve got a fucking knife?’
The blade gave him power, and he edged forward, raising it to his chest, as the girls began to back towards the wall, giving him a wide berth as they moved past him to make their escape. ‘Ya leave her alone now, Tiff, ya hear me?’
‘Yes, okay!’ She had her hands up in front of her, her eyes wide, as she followed her friends, too afraid to turn her back on him as he glared at her. ‘Alright, whatever. God, you’re such a freak!’
Their footsteps echoed down the alley as they turned tail and fled, leaving him alone with the girl who was already on her knees, gathering up her things and hastily shoving them in her bag.
‘Y’alright?’ Daryl dropped into a low crouch, reaching for the discarded make-up bag and passing it over, giving her a tight smile as she took it from him. ‘Don’ let ‘em get t’ ya. This town’s full of idiots. Ain’t worth worryin’ about.’
‘Right.’ She pushed herself upright, scanning the ground for anything she’d missed and stooping to pick up a cracked mirror, snorting to herself as she held it up and studied her reflection. ‘Guess that’s seven years bad luck.’
‘Breaking a mirror?’ When he looked at her blankly, she shook her head, and shoved it in the front pocket of her recovered rucksack, before shouldering it and meeting his gaze. ‘Thanks for stepping in. I was about to kick some ass, but you saved me the trouble
‘Right.’ Daryl raised an eyebrow, but she mirrored his expression in a challenge, and he couldn’t help but laugh. ‘Ya wan’ me t’ walk ya home? I’m pretty sure they’re gone, but-‘
‘I’ll be fine.’ She shut him down immediately, squaring her shoulders as though offended by the implication that she needed looking after, though as she kicked the toe of her boot against the ground, she glanced up at him, one cherry red lip caught between her teeth. ‘You going the same way though?’
‘Pretty sure I am.’
She fell into step beside him as he turned to make his way back to the main road, and he couldn’t help but sneak a peek at her as she strolled along, barely any trace of the discomfort he’d seen moments before. Her mask was back on, but he knew now that that was all it was – a mask, just like the one he wore day in day out. He wasn’t wearing it now. Just having her by his side gave him a confidence that he’d lacked before, and, as he slipped the knife through his belt, he felt himself walking with a swagger that he hadn’t previously had. At Newman Street they turned right, the same way he would’ve gone had he been alone, and he fought back a grin at the thought that she must live in his neighbourhood.
‘So, you always bring a knife to school?’ Her eyes were curious, but there was no fear there. She glanced down at the blade at his hip, then back up at him as she waited for an answer, and he wondered what she’d say if he told her it was to deal with bullies. Probably laugh, if he had to guess.
‘Ain’t for hurtin’ no one. It’s for huntin’.’
She nodded. ‘You hunt? Makes sense.’
‘You always look like you’ve been out running wild in the woods or something. Guess that’s cos you have.’
‘I walk t’ school that way. Beats walkin’ with girls like Tiffany Rhodes.’ She smirked, but he was already casting around for something to keep the conversation going. ‘Yer from Philly, right?’
‘Yeah, moved down here a couple of months ago.’ He sensed a wave of sadness roll off of her as she thought of her home, and he understood. He’d never been anywhere except that small redneck town, but if he had a choice, he’d rather be anywhere else. ‘You ever been?’
‘To Philly? Nah. Ain’t been nowhere much.’
‘You should go. I’ll take you sometime. There’s a diner there that does the best milkshakes in the whole world.’
‘Yeah. It’ll be cool. We’ll go in the summer, once school’s done.’
To say that he was taken aback by her sudden offer of friendship when she knew pretty much nothing about him was an understatement. He’d never experienced anything like it, thought he’d never really had a proper friend before. Sure, he had George, but that was a friendship of necessity if anything. They were both loners who had accepted that there was safety in numbers, and he wasn’t under any illusions that, when school ended in a few months, they’d bother to stay in touch. Other than that, he mostly just hung out with Merle’s friends, who put up with him for his brother. It wasn’t the most thrilling social life.
Did she mean it, he wondered? Or was it just something to say, a casual suggestion thrown in to conversation without any genuine intention of following through? God, he wished he was better at these things, but he guessed for now he’d just take what he could get. She was still talking, telling him about the places she loved, the things she missed, the café in a backstreet that sold pancakes as big as your head, and a museum with art that fascinated and confused her all at once. He liked the sound of her voice, even as he struggled to keep up with what she was saying, liked the sound of her laugh even more, and he hoped this would be the start of a new routine, walking home side by side, putting the anxiety and stress of the school day behind them. He hadn’t even realised how much he needed that before this moment.
All too quickly she was slowing her pace, gesturing towards a small two-floor house, with a porch swing and flowers blooming in the garden. Not like his home then. ‘This is me.’
‘Yeah,’ she shrugged. ‘Grandma’s lived here pretty much forever. She likes things a certain way.
He nodded as though he understood, but he didn’t. In his home, things didn’t have places, they were just tossed aside and left where they landed. Since his mom had died… Well, he spent as little time there as possible.
‘So…’ She’d turned to face him, giving him a shy smile, and he thought how young she’d look without the harsh make-up, like the little girl she used to be. ‘You said something about a back route to school?’
‘Yeah.’ Realising what she was hinting at, he chewed on his lip before extending the offer. ‘I can show ya, if ya want. Pick ya up tomorrow?’
Before he knew what was happening, she’d wrapped her arms around him, holding him for barely a second, before releasing him and disappearing up the path, leaving him feeling bemused, but happier than he’d felt in a long time.
When Y/N wrapped her arms around him as he readied himself to leave, he thought for a moment that she might never let go. Her face was buried in the neck of his shirt, and he could feel the moisture from her tears cutting through the sweat that clung to his skin. He was empty-handed, having refused to take any of the venison in the end, feeling selfish for taking from this group when they believed him to be alone. He’d try and snag a couple of rabbits on the trek back through the forest, anything to cook over the campfire that night and keep the kids’ bellies full.
‘Hey, c’mon.’ He rubbed a hand over her back, waiting for her to loosen her grip so he could ease her away from him and meet her gaze, trying to keep his sincere. ‘I meant what I said. I’ll be back, I promise.’
She was nodding, but her bottom lip was still trembling, and he knew she didn’t believe him, wouldn’t until he proved himself by dropping in on his next hunt. He knew he would. She still had the same hold over him that she had back when he first saw her, first spoke to her and she extended a hand of friendship that would see them both through some damn dark days. Leaving her was killing him, but he had to put his family first this time around. Merle was blood, the only blood he had left, and he couldn’t risk pushing him away.
‘Be safe,’ she whispered, as her arms fell back to her sides, and she stepped back, watching as he raised a hand to Felipe and Rose, before striding back over the field towards the treeline.
Daryl walked home on autopilot. He was vaguely aware of the twists and turns he took along his route but, though his feet were moving, his head was somewhere else entirely. He could smell Y/N on him, just evident over his own musk, and it tantalised his senses, driving him crazy. There was a time when he’d wanted her more than anything else in the world. She’d meant so much to him. He’d have done anything for that girl, went above and beyond for her when she needed him, and yet… Goddamn, it was complicated. He knew he’d made it worse by lying to her. He’d let her think Merle was dead, and he knew that was wrong. But there were things Merle couldn’t know, things he’d kept hidden for over twenty years, and to risk them coming to light now would mean jeopardising everything he had left.
Add to that an inherent instinct to distrust anyone until they proved themselves, and it just made more sense to keep Felipe’s group separate from his own, at least for now, no matter how generous they’d been, taking him in, offering water and food and a place to stay. The old man seemed nice enough, a little overfamiliar maybe, but first impressions weren’t always that accurate these days. He needed to be sure of them all before he could introduce them to Shane and Rick. He could imagine Rose getting on with Lori and Carol though. She had that maternal air about her, like they did, and he thought that some of the others in the camp might have been her kids, albeit pretty much grown now, but he hadn’t looked too closely. His focus had been elsewhere.
His mind slipped back to the moment Y/N had sauntered back into his life, and he felt a wave of emotion wash over him. Nah, he had to get a handle on that. He didn’t do emotions. He’d shut himself down a long time ago in order to cope with the hand he’d been dealt in life, and he wasn’t about to go soft just ‘cause… ‘Cause she was back, and he didn’t have a damn clue what to do with that.
He could just hear Merle now. Look at ya, gettin’ all weepy over a broad. Only good for one thing, little brother, and it ain’t cryin’ over. But this was Y/N. They’d both shed tears over her in the past. She was different. She was the girl that had nearly broken both the Dixon boys.
He could still see her, the day she left, her eyes shining with unspent tears, those cherry red lips jutting out in a pout that broke his heart. She’d climbed into that little banged-up old car she used to drive, and he’d seen her glance back at him in her mirror as she pulled away. A part of him had gone with her as she’d sped to the end of the street and turned out of sight. He’d felt the loss like it was a piece of him that was missing, and his grief had only widened the rift that had built between the brothers, the little cracks deepening until there was suddenly a yawning great chasm which Daryl had had no idea how to cross. It had taken a long time to come back from that.
His brother’s voice echoed through the trees as he neared the camp, louder than the one that drawled judgemental remarks at him in his head, and he rolled his eyes. He’d need to have a word about that before he started drawing in any walkers that had ventured into the woods. Like Y/N had said, it wouldn’t be long before they started spreading out from the city. They needed to be more careful.
He cursed as he realised he’d forgotten to keep his eyes peeled for rabbits or squirrels on his journey back. He hated coming back empty-handed, especially after being out all day. Hunting was about all he felt he had to contribute to the group and he wasn’t proving too good at that. Damn, if he’d had that deer it would’ve raised morale, made the kids happy, sent everyone to bed with full bellies, but it was too late now. He hoped the other camp were having a feast on his prey. Someone oughta be.
Letting out a long, low whistle to announce his presence, Daryl broke through the treeline, making his way to his tent to change his shirt for one that didn’t carry Y/N’s scent, raising a hand in greeting to Dale who was sitting atop his RV keeping watch. He could hear low voices coming from the other side and figured he’d probably made it back just in time for dinner, if there was any to be had.
He stripped off his used shirt and tossed into the corner of the tent on top of the makeshift laundry pile that was routinely collected by one of the women and taken down to the lake, and grabbed a clean one from the stack beside his sleeping bag, shrugging it on and buttoning it. He knew he had to get himself together now, push Y/N out of his mind and just be here. Merle would notice any change in him and latch on to it, poking and prodding until he lashed out, and that wouldn’t help anybody. Still, as he bent to crawl from the tent, he paused to retrieve the dirty shirt from the pile and stuffed it into his sleeping bag. He wasn’t ready to wash away the traces of her just yet.
‘Nice of ya to join us, little brother,’ Merle crowed as Daryl approached the group that was reclining around the small campfire. Most of them had their legs stretched out in front of them, leaning away from the flames, the sticky heat of the Georgia evening already more than warm enough. Merle was shoving greedy helpings of flaky fish into his mouth, and Daryl relaxed slightly at the knowledge that at least someone had done a better job of providing for the group than him today.
‘You hungry?’ Lori’s smile was kind as she made him up a plate of the catch and passed it over, giving him a small nod when he took it and settled himself on the ground beside his brother.
‘You have any luck out there today?’ Shane’s question was inquisitive, not accusatory, but Daryl still felt himself bristle and he narrowed his eyes at the larger man as he tucked into his food.
‘Nah.’ He chewed noisily, swallowing, before continuing. ‘Tracked a buck for most o’ the afternoon, but I got into a scuffle with a walker ‘n’ it took off.’
‘Gotta be more careful, Daryl.’ Merle nudged him with his elbow, before taking a long swig from a water bottle that was balanced in his lap. ‘Can’t go scaring off the food when it’s gettin’ so hard to find.’
‘And what would you know about it?’ Daryl snapped, feeling all eyes turn to him as his abrupt tone disturbed the other conversations taking place around the circle. ‘When was the last time you contributed anythin’ useful, Merle?’
‘My wit and charm are contribution enough.’ The older Dixon gave a self-satisfied smile before catching Amy’s eye and leering at her, causing her to shrink away in disgust.
‘Yeah, well, ya can’t eat charm.’
‘You see many of them out there?’ Rick, the newest addition to the group, had remained quiet, his brow creased as though deep in thought, but now he spoke up, leaving those listening confused. ‘Walkers, I mean. You think there’s a lot of ‘em in the woods?’
Daryl shrugged. ‘Ain’t seen many. One or two. They ain’t ever in groups like ya see in the city. Won’t be long though, ‘fore they start spreadin’ out this way lookin’ for food.’
Rick nodded in agreement, and Daryl noted the look that passed between him and Shane as the mood in the group turned somber. ‘We need to start being more careful: keep the noise down; only light the fire for an hour or two and keep it burning low.’
Daryl grunted in agreement as fearful looks were exchanged, before another thought hit him. ‘Might be worth guttin’ dinner away from the camp as well. Smell o’ blood might draw ‘em in.’ Thank you, Carlos.
Another murmur of assent went around the fire.
‘Well, look at that.’ Merle had sunk back to rest on his elbows, but his smirk was highlighted by the flickering flames when Daryl turned to look at him. ‘Seems like y’ain’t as useless as I thought.’
‘Shut yer mouth, Merle.’
‘Ooooh, baby brother’s gettin’ mad. Ya seem a little on edge tonight, Daryl. Somethin’ on your mind?’
‘I said shut up!’ Daryl was on his feet before he’d registered what he was doing, his fists balled at his sides. His plate had fallen to the floor as he moved and the fish lay in the dirt, forgotten, as he struggled to keep his temper. Shit, why did Merle have to be like this? Always on a mission to get a reaction. Well, he had one now. ‘Why d’you have to keep runnin’ yer mouth off? Ain’t no one here gives a damn about what ya have t’ say!’
‘Oh, really?’ Merle levered himself upright, stepping closer to his brother who held his ground, pushing his chest forward as they stared each other down. ‘Is that true? Am I really boring y’all?’ He turned to the group at his feet, meeting their eyes one by one, but, though some of the stronger members held his gaze, none spoke up, unwilling to get caught up in a tangle that seemed to be more about family than anything else. ‘Well, lookie here, looks like none o’ them mind me voicin’ my opinions. S’just you with the issue here, little brother. So, what are you gonna do about it?’
For a second, Daryl considered taking a swing, wondering if he could put enough strength behind it to crack bone and wipe that smug look from Merle’s face, but logic kicked in a beat later, and he took a step back, putting some distance between them. He knew that he’d overreacted, that his anger was more about a feud that had ended a long time ago than it was about his brother’s constant need to put him down. It wasn’t worth starting a fuss over. ‘Ain’t worth it,’ he mumbled, letting his fingers unfurl as he forced his muscles to relax, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck as he edged away from the group. ‘I’mma turn in, get some sleep.’
He could hear the whispers behind his back as he walked away, not quite drowned out by Merle’s harsh bark of laughter. He knew how those people looked at them, the pair of them, like animals, barely house-trained, let alone domesticated. They’d never get it, the undercurrent of tension that existed between them, and he hoped to God they never would. That would mean bringing it to the surface and reliving it all, and he didn’t think he was strong enough for that on top of everything else.
Crawling into his tent, he toed off his boots and slipped between the light fabric folds of his sleeping bag, fumbling in the darkness until his fingers found the bunch of material that he’d shoved inside earlier. He drew it up to his face, burying his nose in it and inhaling deeply. There it was, that slight hint of fragrance that smelt foreign on his clothes, her scent mingling with his own. He tangled his fingers in the shirt, holding it tightly as he lay back and let sleep take him, dragging him back into the past.
Daryl lounged on the front porch of his house, the wooden boards warm against his back as he puffed on a cigarette, watching as the smoke curled into the air above his head. The sun was sinking lower in the sky, the glare directly in his eyes, so he squeezed them shut, unwilling to admit defeat and retreat back into the stuffy, oppressive space inside. His dad had been drinking for most of the afternoon and had now passed out in the sole armchair in the living room, so he’d taken the opportunity to escape for a little while. He couldn’t go far though knowing that, as had become her habit, Y/N would turn up sometime before sunset. It had started right from that very first week that he’d spoken to her, her appearing at his door on a Sunday evening to complain about her crazy family and bemoan the speed with which Monday had come around again.
Their friendship seemed to have come from nowhere, Daryl not having any choice in the matter, though of course he’d never have turned her away. With that one little gesture of stepping between her and the assholes that wanted to tear her down, he’d been accepted into the position of best friend without question, and now he found he missed her when she wasn’t at his side. For his part, he liked how easily she slipped into whatever situation she found herself in. He’d been scared when she’d shown up that first weekend, hammering on the door like she was trying to knock it down, and shooting him a cheeky smile when he yanked it open. He had wondered what the hell a girl like her would made of the disarray in the place he was forced to call home, but she hadn’t so much as flinched, stepping over an overflowing ashtray, and clearing the empty bottles from the broken coffee table so she could drop into the armchair where his dad was now sleeping off the effects of his day drinking, prop her feet up and launch into a story about her folks arguing over Sunday lunch.
A couple of weeks later, she’d invited him round to her Grandma’s place, and he’d gone, tidying himself up as best he could so as to make the best impression possible, but he could still feel her mom’s eyes on him as she followed him from room to room, cleaning everything he touched as though his very presence was making her feel dirty. He had never felt more out of place in his life, so he never went back. Y/N seemed to understand that, so now she came to him, like clockwork, which was why he sat and waited.
When he heard footsteps approach, he held up a hand in greeting, not opening his eyes until a shadow fell across him and blocked out the blinding sun. ‘Oh shit, man, thought ya were someone else.’
Instead of Y/N standing over him, it was his brother, a cocky smirk painted over his features as he nudged Daryl with the toe of his boot. ‘Well, how’s that for a greetin’, little brother? Anyone woulda thought ya weren’t pleased t’ see me.’
‘M’sorry.’ Daryl propped himself up on his elbows as he watched Merle cross his arms, raising an eyebrow as he stared down at him. ‘Just wasn’ expectin’ ya, tha’s all.’
‘Who were ya expectin’ then?’ The smile on his face grew bigger, cluing Daryl in to the fact that he knew exactly who he was waiting for. ‘That cute lil’ piece I’ve seen ya with round town, maybe?’
It wasn’t so much that Daryl had been actively avoiding the moment when Merle and Y/N met, more that he just hadn’t actively encouraged it. The way he saw it, it could go one of two ways: either she’d recoil from his brother’s redneck simplicity and distance herself from the both of them as a result, or she’d find herself won over by his easy charm, and Daryl would end up left out in the cold. It seemed sometimes that she was the only good thing he’d had in his life that had been solely his, and he was reluctant to share her with anyone. ‘Ain’t like that,’ he argued now. ‘She’s a friend.’
‘Man, if she’s lookin’ like that ‘n’ you ain’t interested, there’s gotta be somethin’ wrong with yer head, boy.’
‘Nah, I mean, she’s cute ‘n’ all, but that ain’t why I’m hangin’ out with her. She’s smart, funny. Ain’t never met no one like her before.’ He hadn’t meant to say so much, but once he’d started he’d found it hard to stop. Already he was regretting it though as Merle shot him a lascivious wink.
‘Ahh man, you’ve got it bad, baby brother.’
‘Drop it, Merle.’
‘Ya sayin’ ya don’t like her like that?’
‘I’m sayin’ it ain’t none o’ ya goddamn business.’
Merle dropped into a low crouch beside him, rubbing a hand over the stubble that covered his cheeks. ‘Alright, I hear what you’re sayin’ now. I’ll tell ya what I’ll do. I’ll give ya a couple o’ days t’ get yer head together ‘n’ make yer move. After that though, she’s fair game.’
‘Wha’s that meant t’ mean?’ Daryl bristled at the idea of his brother making a move, and Merle, noticing the tension in the younger Dixon’s jaw, crowed with laughter.
‘Hey, ya can’t go keepin’ a piece like that t’ yerself if ya don’t intend t’ use her to her full potential now, Daryl. It ain’t how the world works!’
A few days later, Daryl paused halfway up the porch steps when the sound of Merle’s laughter spilled out from the crack in the living room window. He’d come the long way home, dropping Y/N off, then heading back into the woods to see if his traps had caught anything worth eating for dinner that night. His dad had been drinking since the weekend and money was getting tight, the cupboards growing bare. He’d had no luck though, finding them all empty, and his stomach had been growling ever since, reminding him that he’d be going to bed hungry. Now, as he heard Y/N’s laugh join his brother’s, he almost threw open the door, shooting his brother an icy glare when he saw how close he was standing to the girl he’d found first.
‘Wha’ the hell’s goin’ on?’ He couldn’t keep the edge from his voice as his gaze flickered between the two of them, noting the slight flush to Y/N’s cheeks and the smug smile on Merle’s face.
‘We’re jus’ talkin’, little brother,’ the elder Dixon drawled, slinging a casual arm around Y/N’s shoulders. Step away, Daryl pleaded with her in his head, his eyes burning into her as though he could move her with the power of his mind. Move away. ‘Y/N here’s been tellin’ me all about wha’ she used t’ do for fun back in Philly. Ya got yerself a wild one here, Dare.’
‘Did she ever tell ya about the time she-’
‘No!’ she shrieked, slapping a hand playfully against his chest to shut him up, and giggling into his shoulder. ‘I didn’t, so stop!’
As her laughter died away, she noticed Daryl’s discomfort, finally stepping out of Merle’s grasp, putting a little distance between them, and giving Daryl an awkward smile. ‘I came to give you this back,’ she offered, digging in her pocket and tugging out his lighter. ‘Not sure how I ended up with it, but I thought you’d probably need it.’ He nodded, his body language still tight and restrained, and she gestured to the door. ‘Guess I should take off.’
‘I’ll walk ya out.’ He half expected Merle to intervene, but he stayed put, watching as Daryl rested his hand against the small of her back as he guided her out of the house. He thought they were free and clear, before Y/N paused, turning back to his brother.
‘So, I’ll see you tomorrow then.’
‘Sure thing, sweetheart. I’ll be there bright ‘n’ early.’
As the door clicked shut, Daryl’s brow creased in confusion as he waited for her to explain. ‘You don’t mind, right?’ Her voice was quiet, though he could make out the trace of excitement bubbling beneath the surface. ‘Just, he asked me out for breakfast before school and… he’s kinda cute.’
‘Ain’t he a little old for you?’
She shrugged. ‘Age gaps don’t really bother me. I want you to be okay with this though. You’re my best friend, and I don’t wanna do anything that’ll make you feel weird or-’
‘S’fine.’ It wasn’t. Of course it wasn’t. She was supposed to be his. His friend. Just his. He’d thought they had the potential to be more one day, slowly building up to saying something or doing something to let her know he liked her more than he’d ever liked anyone, but now it was too late. He couldn’t deny her though. If she liked Merle, she should have the freedom to act on it, no matter what he thought.
‘Are you sure?’
‘I said it’s fine.’ He shoved his hands in his pockets, dropping his gaze to the ground as he scuffed the toe of his boot against the porch. ‘Guess ya don’ need me t’ walk ya t’ school tomorrow then.’
‘Merle said he’d drop me off after. I’ll see you at lunch though.’
He watched her retreating back as she skipped down the steps, heading down the road with a bounce in her step, as though she were already picturing herself on her breakfast date the next day. If she was expecting romance, she’d have a rude awakening. Sure, Merle was all charm when he was trying to get into their pants, but soon as he got what he wanted, he could be cruel and manipulative. He was cut from the same cloth as their dad, and Daryl swore then and there that if he ever hurt her, ever made her shed a single tear, he’d make him pay.
Daryl woke with his shirt still wrapped around him, though as he inhaled deeply, he found it once again smelt more like him than it did Y/N. He lay still for a moment, listening for sounds of life out in the camp, but there was nothing, and that, along with the dull light shining through the canvas of his tent, told him it was still early. Nobody was up and about yet, except, he imagined, Dale, who usually spent the early hours atop his RV, keeping watch as the others slept. Once again, he was struck by the way the apocalypse had thrown this random group of people together and made them dependent on each other for their own survival. Since finding Felipe’s group on the other side of the forest though, he felt a little less weird about it all. At least he knew he wasn’t alone now in surrounding himself with strangers in order to get by. It seemed that most of them hadn’t known each other before either, and they seemed to be rubbing along together okay.
Crawling from his tent, he reached back inside for his crossbow, shouldering it and making his way over to the winnebago, where Dale was, as he’d thought, sitting in his deckchair, book in hand. He looked up as Daryl climbed the ladder to join him on the roof, nodding in greeting and setting the tome down on his knee. ‘Morning.’
‘Any trouble?’ Daryl didn’t feel the need to make small talk, instead getting straight down to business.
‘Good.’ Daryl gave the old man the nearest thing to a smile he could muster, and gestured to his bow. ‘Ya can go get some rest if ya want. I’m alright here for a while.’
‘Thanks.’ Dale groaned as he eased himself to his feet, removing his hat to mop his brow as he shielded his eyes from the sun that had just appeared over the top of the trees. ‘Can I ask you something?’
‘Sure ya goin’ to anyway.’ Daryl sank down in the seat that had just been vacated, stretching his legs out and staring off into the distance.
‘You and your brother, have things always been so tense between the two of you?’
‘Dunno what ya talkin’ bout. Merle ‘n’ me, we’re fine.’
‘I just can’t help but wonder why you’d stick together when all you seem to do is argue. I mean, it can’t be doing either of you any good.’
‘He’s my brother. I wasn’ jus’ gonna leave him.’
‘I told ya we’re fine, okay? Ain’t nobody’s business but ours.’
‘Alright.’ Dale sighed loudly as he picked his way across to the ladder. ‘But keep this in mind. Every time you fight, you drag down the morale of the group, and it’s in short enough supply as it is.’
He disappeared out of sight, and moments later Daryl heard the door of the RV open and close as the old man headed for his bunk. He chewed on his bottom lip as he considered Dale’s words, knowing that he was right no matter how much the truth had riled him up. He’d seen last night around the campfire how much their argument had weighed on the group, the atmosphere shifting from jovial to miserable in the time it took for him to lose his temper. He especially regretted flipping out in front of the kids, but there was nothing he could do about it now. What he didn’t understand though was the inference that there was any possible way at all that Daryl could have considered walking away and leaving his brother when the world went mad. Merle was blood, the only family he had left, and he could not, would not, turn his back on him, no matter how much he drove him crazy.
Even as he thought that though, he found himself glancing in the direction of the other camp, wondering what Y/N was doing, whether she was okay after he wandered, unsuspectingly, back into her life. He’d intended to leave it for a little while before heading back over that way, giving them both time to adjust to the others’ reappearance, but already he could feel himself being pulled in that direction, desperate to see her again, to hold her in his arms. He knew he should stick around today, make things right with Merle, try and repair his reputation in camp, but he knew immediately that he wouldn’t. As soon as someone came to take his place on watch, he’d head out again, tell them he was going hunting, and he’d go straight back to her, where, after all these years, he still felt he belonged.
A low whistle cut through the silence as Daryl moved through the trees and he shot a frustrated glance at his hunting partner as Merle let out a loud guffaw.
‘Hell, I’ll tell ya, those sisters really get my motor runnin’. Wouldn’ mind chasin’ a little o’ that tail, I can tell ya.’
‘They ain’t interested, Merle.’
‘Ah, brother, they jus’ need t’ loosen up a little, let their hair down. I can show ‘em a good time. Make ‘em forget all the worries whizzing round in their pretty little heads. Especially tha’ older one. Damn, blondie got an ass on her.’
Daryl sighed as the elder Dixon chuckled to himself. It wasn’t supposed to go down like this. He’d intended to head out alone, make his way back to Y/N’s camp, maybe spend a little more time with her, but, as he’d readied himself to head out, Merle had crawled from his tent and declared that he needed to take a walk and clear his head. He knew trying to convince him to stay behind would be met with some strong resistance from the rest of the group, so in the end he’d just shrugged his shoulders and resigned himself to his fate.
‘Hey, bro, why in the hell are we heading away from the river?’ Merle’s long-hidden instincts were rising to the surface as he finally clocked on to the fact that Daryl was heading the opposite direction to his usual hunting trail. Following the water usually led them to some sort of wildlife eventually - it was all about survival after all - but Daryl was wary knowing that Felipe and Carlos might also be roaming the forest.
‘Figured I’d try somethin’ different.’
‘Well, that’s a damn fool idea.’
‘Ya don’t like it, ya can always go back to camp.’ He quickened his pace, putting a little distance between him and his brother, but Merle was long-limbed and fit, catching him up with him quickly and matching him stride for stride.
‘Ya tryin’ t’ get rid o’ me, Daryl?’
‘Ya sure? This about that little set-to we had last night?’
‘Ain’t about nothin’. Jus’ sayin’, if ya don’t like my methods, ya don’t gotta be out here.’
Merle grunted, before regarding his brother through narrowed eyes as Daryl struck out at a thick patch of bush with his knife, cutting it back and creating a narrow path. ‘Ya see, if ya ask me, there’s somethin’ on yer mind got ya all messed up. Ain’t like you t’ rile so quick.’
‘Maybe I’m jus’ a tired of you bein’ a dick.’ Daryl rounded on Merle, his blade still clutched in his hand, the two men surrounded by a tangle of brambles as they faced off.
‘Funny how nobody else seems t’ have a problem with it.’
‘Ya sure about that? We covered this yesterday. They’re just too damn scared t’ stand up to ya, tha’s all.’
Merle was breathing hard, his teeth gritted as he used his extra couple of inches to loom over Daryl, his fists clenched at his sides. For a moment, Daryl thought he might actually take a swing at him, and he steeled himself for the impact. He knew he probably deserved it. Merle was right after all. He was just being his usual jackass self and it was getting to him more than normal because his head was wrapped up in his lie. He didn’t wanna be there with Merle and a bunch of strangers. He wanted to be on the other side of the forest with Y/N and it was Merle’s fault that he couldn’t be. That resentment bubbling away below the surface was shortening his fuse. Instead of lashing out at him though, his brother wrapped a muscled arm around his neck, bending his elbow to ruffle Daryl’s hair. ‘Shit, bro, ya need t’ chill out a little. Damn world’s ended, in case ya hadn’t noticed. Ain’t no point fightin’ over somethin’ stupid now, is there?’
Shrugging him off, Daryl let his anger ebb away, taking a deep breath to calm himself. ‘Right. Let’s keep movin’.’
They set off again, the silence settling back over them and easing Daryl’s fraught nerves, though it didn’t last long.
‘’Sides, we’re gon’ need each other when we turn that camp over.’ Merle was smirking at him, a greedy gleam in his eye that didn’t fade when the archer shook his head. ‘Don’ look at me like that, Daryl. Tha’s been the plan the whole time ‘n’ you know it.’
‘That was before.’ The younger Dixon dropped his gaze to the ground, busying himself hunting for tracks that might lead them towards a kill.
‘Before what? We all sat round the campfire singing nursery rhymes? We don’t need these people. I’m tellin’ ya, we take what we can get, then we get gone, jus’ like we said at the start.’
‘Yeah, well, plans change.’ A twig snapped over to his left, and Daryl spun on his heel, swinging his bow round and bringing it up to his chest as he scanned the trees for any sign of movement.
‘Shut up!’ He hushed his brother, finger tensed over the trigger, goosebumps raising on his skin as his body went into high alert. Something was out there, and it sure as hell didn’t feel friendly. A soft snarl tore his gaze back the other way, and he let loose a bolt, dropping a biter as it emerged from behind a thick trunk, its arms reaching for his brother. ‘Damn geeks get e’rywhere.’
‘Well, I’ll be damned!’ Merle gave him a crooked smile before dropping to a knee to examine the corpse, a young girl with half of her face missing, and a vicious wound to her throat. ‘She’s an ugly bitch, ain’t she?’
‘Can’t say she’s my type.’
‘What the hell is your type? I ain’t ever seen ya so much as go on a date, little brother. Was startin’ t’ think ya was out here stickin’ it to the deer.’
Daryl rolled his eyes and opened his mouth to fire back a retort, but as his gaze met his brother’s, he let his jaw snap shut. Merle had drifted off into a memory, and Daryl knew exactly where he was, what he was reliving. Yeah, Daryl had a type and Merle knew perfectly well who that had been. It was a type they shared, but they would never speak of it, and when his brother snapped back to the here and now, he swallowed loudly, rubbing a hand over his forehead and clearing his throat.
‘Ya good?’ Daryl asked quietly as he waited for Merle to slip back behind his bravado, and he wasn’t disappointed when Merle pushed himself to his feet and clapped him on the back.
‘Thanks t’ you.’ He bent to retrieve the arrow from the walker’s skull, wiping the gore on his trousers before handing it back to Daryl. ‘See, this is how it works, bro. You ‘n’ me, we’re blood. Means we got t’ have each others backs, no matter what.’
‘I know that.’
‘So, ya gonna help me then? We’re gonna rob ‘em blind ‘n’ before they know it, we’ll be halfway t’ Mexico.’
Daryl sighed, knowing he didn’t have much choice but to agree at this stage, though he had no intention of seeing it through. ‘Why Mexico?’
‘One word, Daryl.’ Merle winked, reaching a hand down to cup the bulge in his pants as he thrust his hips. ‘Senoritas!’
Daryl smirked as he started moving again, following the path that wound down the ridge as they neared the wood that bordered the quarry. ‘Ain’t no senoritas left that ain’t gonna try ‘n’ eat yer face off.’
A lewd grin spread over his brother’s face as he winked at him, falling into step beside him. ‘I can think o’ worse ways t’ go.’
Changing the subject, Daryl tried to push for some logical conversation, something that wouldn’t make him want to stick one of his own arrows through his eye. ‘So, what d’ya make o’ that sheriff? Rick or whatever his name is?’
‘I think he must have a dick a foot long t’ have got a girl like Lori, tha’s for sure.’
Daryl didn’t want to dwell on that too much. He was sure he couldn’t be the only person in camp who had noticed her disappearing into the woods with Shane a little too often to be foraging for food, returning with her hair tousled and her cheeks flushed. It wasn’t his place to judge or weigh in, but he almost felt bad for the newcomer, even if he was a cop. ‘I reckon there’s gon’ be a little competition for leadership. Him and Shane are gon’ butt heads sooner or later.’
‘An’ which side you gonna be on?’
‘I don’ know,’ Daryl admitted. ‘Both cops, right? Can’t see there’s a whole lot to choose between ‘em.’
‘Well, ain’t gonna matter to us none anyway,’ Merle reassured him. ‘We’ll be long gone by then.’
The Dixon brothers returned to the camp empty-handed once again, and Daryl fought back the flush of shame that threatened to spread over his face when Dale shook his head in disappointment. He knew what the old boy was thinking. Damn useless, the pair of them. Probably spent the whole day bickering and fighting instead of doing something productive and bringing them back something decent to eat. He wasn’t wrong. Merle had continued to be a pain in the ass, unable to keep his voice low enough for them to stand a chance of creeping up on any unsuspecting prey, and soon Daryl had given up and taken him the long way back to camp, no longer bothering to check for tracks or keep his footsteps light.
He kept to himself for the rest of the night, lounging on the ground in front of his tent in lieu of joining the others around the fire. He’d had about as much as he could take of people for one day, and their laughter only grated on him as he cleaned off his bolts, stowing them carefully away ready for the next day’s hunt. He was determined to sneak out at first light before any of the others woke, unwilling to let his efforts to get to Y/N be hampered again. Plus, he knew another day of Merle’s ramblings combined with his short temper would only lead to more arguments at a time when their relationship was the only constant he had to depend on.
He’d just lit up another smoke, determining to make it his last before he called it a night, when he saw Shane break away from the group and pick his way towards him in the darkness. He was an intimidating figure, tall and built, with a natural confidence that automatically put Daryl on the defensive. He blocked out the meager light from the fire as he approached, pausing for a moment when he drew close.
Daryl shrugged, and he dropped down beside him, leaning back on his hands as he shook his head. ‘Your brother’s a douche bag, man.’
Daryl was inclined to agree, but it went against the grain to talk down his family to a stranger. ‘He’s blood, man. Watch yer lip.’
The archer sighed and took a drag on his cigarette, glancing at Shane whose gaze was still focused on the group. ‘He’s got a big mouth is all. He’s a tough bastard. If the camp gets overrun, yer gon’ need him if ya wanna keep e’ryone alive.’
‘That’s about the only reason I haven’t kicked his ass yet.’
They shared a smirk, before Daryl caught himself and sat up straighter, squaring his shoulders. ‘He ain’t always been like this. S’been through stuff, y’know. Life’d be a whole lot easier round here if y’all could cut him some slack.’
‘All I do these days is cut people slack,’ the sheriff snapped, and Daryl watched as he turned his head to track Rick’s path over to his own tent, as he guided Carl and Lori across the camp.
‘Can’t be easy.’
‘That.’ He nodded towards the family as they ducked into the tent, and zipped themselves into their own little world.
Shane rounded on him, his eyes glinting with pent-up anger. ‘I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.’
‘Hey, ain’t none o’ my business.’ Daryl held his hands up in surrender, before taking one last toke and stubbing his smoke out on a patch of dirt beside him. ‘I’mma turn in, get an early start tomorrow.’
As he watched Shane walk away, he couldn’t help but shake his head as he contemplated the tensions in the camp that seemed to be making everybody crazy. There were so many lies just waiting to be brought to light and, he thought, when that day happened, they might all be torn apart. There were a million different places he would rather be, but one stood out in his mind above all the others. Y/N. Tomorrow he’d go back to her. No one was going to stand in his way again.
Sunday afternoons were ruined. What had once been a few hours of easy companionship, relaxed conversation and belly laughs was now a series of tidbits about Y/N’s family drama, each story remaining unfinished as the sound of footsteps on the sidewalk outside or the rumble of a truck passing by tore her attention away from Daryl, her face hopeful as she listened out for his brother, waiting desperately for him to drag himself home from whichever dive bar he’d been doing his shady dealings in that day. As soon as Merle appeared, she would launch herself into his arms, and Daryl would have to avert his eyes as the older Dixon kissed her long and hard, his hands roaming over her body, before he’d settle himself down in the armchair or on the porch and let her curl up in his lap. Daryl hated it. He hated the blissful smile that brightened up her face which was reserved only for Merle, and he hated that she was no longer only his. Sharing her had never been part of the plan and, not only that, but Merle had definitely got the lion’s share. What else could he do though but smile through his pain? If he told her how he felt, how uncomfortable their displays of affection made him, she’d be forced to make a choice, and he was pretty damn sure that the odds weren’t in his favour.
To give Merle his due, he seemed just as smitten as Y/N was. Daryl couldn’t remember a time when he’d ever seemed so besotted by a girl, nor another girl who’d held his brother’s attention for as long as she now had. Somehow she seemed to have rounded off his rough redneck edges, making him seem softer, gentler, and though that meant an easier time of it for Daryl, it left him feeling off-kilter, unsure of his place. He’d been sure that it would only be a matter of time before Merle messed it up - lost his temper, or got too fucked up on the drugs, or got caught with his hand up some other girl’s skirt - but it hadn’t happened yet. Instead, they seemed to grow closer with each passing week and Daryl got pushed to the sidelines.
They’d been together a couple of months when the real bombshell dropped. As he’d become used to, Daryl was sat on the floor of the living room, his back against the wall, idly picking through the butts in his dad’s garish novelty ashtray to see if there was any tobacco left to salvage, whilst Y/N was cradled against Merle’s chest in the armchair, giggling at some lascivious comment that he’d no doubt just rasped into her ear. She pushed herself up out of his embrace to grab a beer from the fridge, leaning against the counter as she popped the cap off.
‘So, I checked with Janie. We’re fine to stay at her place. Her folks are gonna be out of town, and her brother’s pretty cool. I think you’d like him.’
Merle nodded, seeming to know what she was talking about, though Daryl was drawing a blank. 'Sounds good, baby girl. Jus’ let me know if ya need me t’ throw some cash their way for food or anythin’.’
She shook her head. 'It’s probably easier if we just sort ourselves out. They pretty much live on takeaways when they’re left on their own anyway, and there are a lot of places in town I wanna take you to.’
It was all sounded kinda familiar now, and as he listened to them making plans, Daryl suddenly realised where he knew the name. 'Wait, Janie as in yer friend back in Philly?’
'The one and only,’ Y/N declared, beaming at him as she dropped back into Merle’s lap. 'I’m taking Merle back home with me for a couple of weeks once school’s out. Gonna show him my old stomping grounds.’
If she’d reached into his chest, torn his heart out and punctured it with her varnished nails, he didn’t think it would’ve hurt any more than the knowledge that the invitation that she’d extended to him the first time that they’d spoken had now been transferred to Merle without a second thought. I mean, sure, it made sense. Why wouldn’t she wanna take him? He was her boyfriend after all, and Daryl was just… Hell, what was he? A hanger-on? A loser she just couldn’t seem to shake off? 'You gon’ take him to the milkshake place, too?’
He watched as her pretty mouth twisted in confusion before realisation dawned on her face. That made it even worse in his book. She hadn’t pushed him aside, she’d forgotten him completely. 'Oh, damn, I’m sorry, Dixon. I didn’t even…’ She glanced at Merle who was watching the exchange with one eyebrow raised. 'Look, you could come with us, right, baby? There’s room in the truck, and we can-’
'Nah.’ Daryl shut that down immediately, clambering to his feet, and shooting her a steely glare as he crossed to the door. He didn’t want to have to look at them anymore. 'I ain’t nobody’s third wheel.’
Daryl was sitting alone in the corner of the playing field when George strolled over at lunch the following day, a lit cigarette already dangling from his lips. He saw the look of surprise cross his friend’s face when he noted Y/N’s absence but didn’t offer any information until he began to pry.
'Hey, Dare! Where’s your shadow?’
Daryl rolled his eyes, knowing that should really be the other way round, but he just shrugged, reaching out to snag George’s pack of smokes from his shirt pocket as he collapsed to the ground beside him and helping himself. 'Hell if I know.’
'You guys had a fight?’
'Nah,’ Daryl grumbled. 'That’d mean her havin’ t’ leave off humpin’ Merle for five goddamn minutes 'n’ that ain’t gon’ happen.’
George let out a low whistle, shaking his head as he smirked. 'Shit, bitter don’t look good on you, man.’
'Ain’t bitter. Jus’ don’t need t’ see it, tha’s all. That stuff’s disgustin’.’
'Bet ya wouldn’t think that if it was you she was rubbin’ up on.’ Daryl glared at him, elbowing him in the ribs, though not hard enough to leave any sort of mark. 'Hey, I’m just sayin’… If ya like her, you should say somethin’. Might be she went for the other brother 'cause the right one didn’t make a move.’
'And what? Now I’m jus’ sposed t’ go after my brother’s girl? That shit’s messed up, G.’
'No more messed up than the puppy dog eyes you keep shootin’ at her everytime she looks your way.’ A low snarl forced itself from Daryl’s throat and he opened his mouth to defend himself, when he caught sight of her, the subject of their conversation, sauntering across the field towards them. He was barely aware of George watching him until he leant over to whisper in his ear, 'See, that’s exactly what I’m talking about.’
'Shut up!’ Daryl snapped, and George chuckled, stubbing out his cigarette and climbing to his feet.
'Alright, I’mma go grab some food. Brown bagging it just ain’t cutting it today.’ He nodded in greeting as Y/N reached them before leaving them to it, and Daryl found himself unable to meet her eyes as she stared down at him, chewing on her bottom lip.
'Hey,’ she started, kicking the toe of her scuffed-up Doc into the dirt. 'You didn’t wait for me after class?’
Daryl shrugged. 'Had stuff t’ do.’
'I waited for you this morning, too. You never showed.’
Daryl knew it had been a mistake not to go by her house so they could take the back route to school together as they did pretty much every day, but he was still smarting and he hadn’t been ready to face her yet. 'Sorry. Left early. Didn’ think you’d be ready.’
She huffed in frustration, crouching down in front of him and resting her hand on his knee to steady herself. 'Are we okay, Dixon? I mean, I know you were upset yesterday and I totally get it but-’
'We’re fine. M’over it.’
'Just leave it okay.’ He didn’t wanna hear it, how she was with Merle now so he took priority in her plans and her heart and her mind. It would break him and he still had an afternoon of mindnumbing classes to get through before he could lose himself in the woods.
'Fine.’ She reached out to ruffle his hair, a small smile quirking up her lips when he shook her off. 'Can I just say one thing then? I’ll drop it after that, I swear.’ She waited for his reluctant nod before continuing. 'I’m pretty sure I love your brother. He makes me happy and he makes me laugh and we’re good together, I think.’ Her fingers caught his chin as he tried to look away, forcing him to meet her eyes. 'But I also love you. You’re my best friend, Dixon, and I’m sorry that I hurt you. I didn’t mean to push you aside. All this with Merle, it’s just new and exciting and I got a little carried away. You’re my family, dude. If something’s bothering you just talk to me about it, please. Don’t shut me out, okay?’
He nodded, his pain easing a little at her words. He was family? He liked that, even if he would rather be the one in her bed. Maybe he meant more to her than he’d let himself believe after all. 'Okay.’
'So, we’re good?’
'Yeah, we’re good.’
'Great!’ She swivelled round to sit beside him and leant into his side, pressing a playful kiss to his cheek. 'Now, please tell me you haven’t done the chemistry homework 'cause I swear to God, if I have to do detention on my own, I’m gonna jump out of the damn window!’
Daryl stirred at first light, tugging a shirt over his shoulders and buttoning it hurriedly, flattening his hair with the palm of his hand before grabbing his bow and slipping out of the tent. His instincts told him to take off, to get gone before the others woke, but a shallow part of him reminded him where he was going and, instead of stealing into the woods, he headed for the path down to the quarry, nodding at Glenn who was keeping watch atop the RV, having already relieved Dale from the night shift.
The air was fresh this early in the morning, and the water was still, almost like glass, as he stripped off his clothes and waded in. As a hunter, he didn’t bother to wash often, finding that the grime that clung to his skin masked his scent from his prey, giving him a better chance of catching them unawares. Now, as he scrubbed himself clean, layer after layer of dirt peeled away, revealing his deep tan and the defined lines of his muscles. He knew that, across his back, lighter marks would also be uncovered, scars that told of the horrors of his childhood, but in the peace and isolation of the moment, he tried not to let it bother him. There was no one else around to see them, after all. Most were still sleeping, and those that had dragged themselves from their tents had already set to work. When he was satisfied that he was as presentable as he’d ever be, he staggered back to dry land, shaking himself like a dog and sending water droplets flying through the air, before dressing himself and beginning the climb back to the camp.
As he reached the crest of the slope, he grit his teeth at the raised voices that reached his ears, one of whom he recognised as belonging to Merle. He wondered if it was too late to turn around and retreat the way he’d come. The last thing he needed was to be dragged in to more camp drama, but he’d already gone too far.
'Daryl!’ Dale had spotted him and was gesturing for him to join them by the RV. 'Get over here!’
The archer’s shoulders slumped as he made his way over, his whole air dejected as he waited to find out what the hell the problem was this time. 'What? I’m just headin’ out.’
'It’s your brother,’ Dale began, and Daryl’s heart sank. He could see Merle over by the sleeping area, having obviously stormed away from the argument, pacing back and forth. As he watched, he aimed a forceful kick at an empty water bottle sending it flying across the camp, and into the side of Rick’s tent.
'Shit.’ Daryl rubbed a weary hand over his eyes. 'What’s he done now?’
‘Hey, Merle!’ Daryl couldn’t help but roll his eyes when his brother ignored his shout and continued to dig through the clear plastic bag he had clutched in his hands. As he drew closer, he could hear the rattle of pill bottles as Merle examined each label in turn, determining which he would rely on for that day’s high. It was half his problem, Daryl thought, the reason he didn’t play well with others. He was either completely wasted, floating above them all and rambling nonsense, or he was on a comedown, mean and snarky, snapping at people and putting their backs up. Not that any of the others in the group would understand and why the hell should they? They had enough to put up with without taking on Merle’s shit, too. ‘Merle!’
Reaching his brother’s side, his hand snaked out to tear the bag of drugs from his grip, finally getting his attention and earning himself a vicious snarl. ‘Careful now, brother. I don’t wanna have to hurt ya.’
‘Right back atcha, brother.’ Daryl cocked his head to one side, trying to keep his temper under control. ‘Whatcha gotta take these damn things for anyway?’
‘Makes life more interestin’.’
The archer scoffed at that. Only Merle would find life in the damn apocalypse dull enough to need livening up. ‘That’s bull. You’re hooked, Merle. Bad as those redneck scumbags ya used to sell to.’
‘Whatever, man.’ The eldest Dixon made a lunge for the pills, but Daryl snatched them out of reach. ‘Just what the hell ya tryin’ to pull here?’
‘Yer causin’ problems, Merle. I’ve already had the ol’ man in my ear ‘bout ya goin’ off on one at T!’
‘I din’t go off on one.’ He leapt to the defensive, oblivious to the fact that Daryl had heard the shouts. ‘Just pointed out that I ain’t all that comfortable with a damn nigger fetchin’ my drinkin’ water. An’ while we’re on the subject, I ain’t too happy ‘bout havin’ a Chinaman keepin’ watch while I’m sleepin’ neither. Slanty-eyed bastard gon’ be plottin’ all kinds’a things.’
Used to his brother’s racial slurs, Daryl barely flinched, but he could only imagine how the others must have reacted to his outdated attitude. ‘Plottin’ things like makin’ off with all the supplies, ya mean?’
Merle’s eyes narrowed as his little brother challenged him and he took a step forward, smirking when Daryl moved the bag he still held behind his back. ‘Ya got somethin’ to say, little brother? ‘Cause I thought we covered this shit yesterday.’
‘All I’m sayin’ is that, if we’re gon’ take their shit ‘n’ get out without a fuss, we gotta be smart about it. Y’ain’t gon’ be up to it if yer pilled up or hangin’ out yer ass.’ He still had no intention of going through with his brother’s plan, but the change of tack led Merle to sigh heavily, running a hand through his thinning hair as he finally backed down.
‘Guess yer right.’
‘Gotta happen some time.’ Daryl took a deep breath, steeling himself before returning to the real issue. ‘Ya gotta back off o’ T ‘n’ Glenn though, ya hear me. ‘Less you wanna start makin’ water runs ‘n’ sittin’ up on watch half the night yerself?’
‘S’what I thought. Right now, we need ‘em, so ya gotta tone down the attitude, man. Gon’ get our asses kicked outta here with nothin’.’ He tossed the bag at Merle’s chest, unsurprised when the larger man caught it with one hand. ‘I’m goin’ huntin’. Gonna head further out, see if I can pick up any tracks. Don’ know when I’ll be back.’
‘Ya need help?’
‘Nah.’ Daryl brushed him off, stubborn in his reluctance to let anyone stop him from making it to Y/N again. ‘I’m quicker on my own. Ya need to keep yer head down though. Maybe give the truck a tune-up, make sure it’s runnin’ right if we need to take off in a hurry.’
Merle nodded his agreement, huffing loudly as he rested his hands on his head. The anger in his eyes had been replaced by resignation, but now there was something else there, something that Daryl recognised as pain. ‘Ya ever think about her, brother?’
Daryl knew immediately who he was referring to, unable to believe the timing of the conversation given that he’d just found her again. They hadn’t spoken of Y/N in years, both unwilling to open those old wounds, and here Merle was, dragging it all to the surface, just as Daryl was struggling with her reappearance himself. Still, he played dumb, trying to avoid a conversation that could lead him to give himself away. 'Who?’
'Y'know who I’m talking about,’ Merle muttered. 'She got a whole lot to answer for.' He clenched the bag of pills in his fist and Daryl shook his head.
'We were messed up long 'fore she came along 'n’ ya know it.’
’D'ya think about her though?’
'Nah. S'in the past.' He raised his hand to his mouth, chewing on his thumbnail, keeping his gaze trained on the ground, though he couldn’t help asking, 'Why? Do you?’
'These days, I do. Wonderin’ whether she made it, if she’s still alive.’
'She’s still alive,’ Daryl began before catching himself and backtracking. 'I mean, I’ll bet she is. She was always tough, man.’
With his brother lost in his own head, his eyes glazed as he remembered, Daryl rested a hand on his shoulder, pulling him back to the present. 'Lay off the pills today, alright? S'more important shit to do.’
With Merle calm and swearing to give the drugs a rest to keep his head straight for the mechanical work, Daryl crossed the camp to where Dale, T and Glenn were gathered around the singed logs that marked the campfire. They fell silent as they saw him approach and he swallowed his paranoia down, keen to make things right so he could escape. ‘Hey, I‘m sorry ‘bout Merle. He don’t mean nothin’ by it. Just likes to run his mouth, that’s all.’
‘Yeah, well, if he keeps running his mouth, someone’s gonna smack him in it,’ T-Dog bit out, glaring in Merle’s direction, and Daryl fought his natural reaction to square up to him. It wasn’t worth it and it was wasting time.
‘Hey, man, I get it, alright? I’ve talked to him ‘n’ he’s gon’ try ‘n’ back off, but I need y’all to do the same.’
‘And how long’s it gonna last this time?’ Glenn asked, his brow furrowed in a frown. ‘I mean, this isn’t the first time we’ve had this conversation, is it?’
He was right. Several times now, Daryl had been called upon to give his brother a talking to, settle the tensions within the group and make the apologies that they’d never get from Merle.
‘He’s walking a fine line,’ Dale agreed. ‘It would be one thing if he was actually contributing, but he’s just draining our, already meagre, resources.’
‘He’s my brother!’
‘Which is the only reason he’s lasted this long.’ Dale shut down the archer’s protest with a stern look. ‘At some point, the group’s gonna decide enough’s enough. You’ve gotta keep him under control, Daryl.’
The conversation played over in Daryl’s head as he picked his way through the trees, alert for any sign of movement as he headed towards the river, knowing he could follow that down to the clearing where the deer had dropped and find his way to Felipe’s camp from there. He was at a loss for what else to do with Merle, other than continue to try to talk him down whenever he got riled up. Had circumstances been different, maybe they could have broken off from the group, but Daryl felt certain that would lead to their downfall. He was still adamant that there was safety in numbers and the only other group he knew off that might take them in… Well, it wasn’t an option.
Sometimes he felt like he’d spent his whole life paying the price for Merle’s temper and rash decisions. It had been him that bore the brunt of his father’s drunken rage whenever his older brother ended up in juvie for dealing or fighting; him that had been left to rot in their small backwards town when Merle went off to join up, swearing he’d make enough cash to build a life for the two of them somewhere far away, then punching out one of his superiors and getting his ass thrown in jail again; him that had to deal with the fall-out when Y/N had finally seen what a monster his brother could be. He was sick and tired of making excuses for him, but he had no damn clue what else to do. He couldn’t leave him, that was for sure. He felt like he owed him too much.
He finally neared the treeline that he knew bordered the field where the other camp was and paused in the shadows to collect himself, realising that his pulse had started to race. He could hear the quiet chatter of voices drifting across the open field, straining his ears to see if he could pick out any that he recognised, but they were drowned out by the breeze that whispered through the leaves overhead. Pull yourself together, he told himself, shouldering his bow and pulling in a lungful of oxygen, holding it for a moment before exhaling. It’s Y/N. Y’ain’t got nothin’ to be nervous about.
Stepping into the sunlight, he raised a hand to shield his eyes as he covered the distance between the forest and the fences in long, eager strides. He recognised the guy on gate duty and shot him a tight smile as he drew closer, nodding in greeting. ‘Hey man, I was here the other day.’
‘Daryl, right? I remember. Here to see Y/N?’
‘Yeah.’ He could feel the tips of his ears redden at the thought that she must’ve been talking about him. ‘She around?’
‘Should be.’ The guard turned to scan the campsite, his eyes falling on the group’s matriarch as she appeared from a nearby tent, pushing herself upright and brushing grass from her dark jeans. ‘Hey, Rose! You seen Y/N anywhere?’
Rose’s mouth quirked up at the corners as she turned in their direction and took in the return visitor. Despite the extreme circumstances they were living in, she still had smokey paint around her eyes and her lips were stained with a deep burgundy, her nails painted black as she curled a finger and beckoned Daryl over. ‘I’ll find her for you. C’mon.’
Falling into step beside her, Daryl accepted her offer of a smoke, taking the cigarette gratefully from the pack she drew from her back pocket and pulling out his own lighter. The nicotine hit calmed the butterflies that had gone crazy in his stomach at the thought that Y/N was somewhere nearby. The older woman, though, didn’t seem in any hurry to find her, instead leading him to the shade of a thickset tree that stood in one corner of the camp, away from the rest of the group as they went about their daily tasks, and leaning back against the gnarled trunk, one arm crossed beneath her chest.
‘I wasn’t sure we’d see you again.’
‘Din’t have nowhere else to be today. Figured I’d swing by, make sure she’s doin’ alright.’
‘Right. So, you knew Y/N way back when, huh?’ She eyed him curiously as she took a drag, tilting her head to one side as he shifted uncomfortably. ‘She hasn’t got a bad word to say about you, y’know?’
‘Ya been askin’?’ Daryl copied her actions, inhaling deeply before blowing a stream of smoke towards the sky.
‘I like to know what’s going on, get ahead of any drama that might be coming our way.’ She shrugged. ‘It worked with my boys when they were younger. Call it an old habit.’
So, he’d been right – she was a mother, though there was a sadness behind her smile that suggested that her boys weren’t still around. He wondered idly whether she’d lost them when the world had gone to hell, or if they’d been long gone before the dead starting walking. ‘Makes sense. So, what’d she tell ya?’
‘That you were friends. Just friends. Doesn’t add up with the look in her eyes though. I think there was more to it.’
Daryl smirked at the thought of Y/N struggling to define their relationship, finally settling for the easy answer, the one that would lead to the least questions. Wasn’t like there was anything between them anymore anyway. That was all over a long time ago. ‘Sorry to disappoint.’
Rose laughed, tossing her highlighted hair over her shoulder and tapping the ash from her cigarette. ‘Whatever you say. Long as you’re not here to break her heart, we won’t have a problem.’
‘I ain’t got her heart t’ break,’ Daryl reassured her, but she scoffed.
‘Trust me, you own more of that girl’s heart than you’ll ever know.’ At his questioning look, she placed a finger to the side of her nose and winked at him. ‘Mother’s intuition.’
‘Right.’ He swallowed hard as he finished his smoke, dropping the butt to the ground and grinding it under his heel. ‘So, she here?’
‘Down by the water, sweetheart.’ She followed suit, stamping out her smouldering butt with the sole of her boot and brushing her hands together to dust off the ash. ‘You look after her now.’
Daryl was just drifting off in the battered old armchair, his feet kicked up on the coffee table, when a shout from outside roused him. It had been a long, lonely night – Merle and Y/N were out, God knows where, and his dad was down at Rudy’s getting blind drunk as was his usual Friday night tradition – and he’d spent most of it messing with his brother’s truck, using trial and error to teach himself to tune it up, get it running without the persistent rattle that drove him mad. Now, as the raised voices continued, he nestled his head against the stained fabric cushion and tried to shut them out.
‘Ya think ya can make a fool of me, bitch?’
That caught his attention and his eyes flickered open, his brain taking a moment to kick into gear before he heaved himself to his feet and crossed to the window.
Peering through the layer of grime that coated the glass, he could just make out Merle standing on the sidewalk. A half-empty liquor bottle was clutched in his hand and he gestured with it wildly as he continued his tirade.
‘I saw ya, rubbin’ up on him! Ya liked him din’t ya, all smart with his tie ‘n’ his braces. Yeah, ya thought you’d get yaself a bit o’ that!’
‘No!’ Y/N’s anguished cry broke Daryl’s heart and, as Merle turned, looming over her, he could see her holding her hands up to touch him, trying in vain to calm him down. ‘No, Merle, it wasn’t like that. I just-‘
‘Bet ya din’t think I’d see ya, though, right? Thought ya could have yer cake ‘n’ eat it too! Damn girl, ya was all over him like a bitch in heat! Ya’ll have the whole town talkin’, whisperin’ ‘bout how Merle Dixon’s girl can’t keep her damn legs shut!’
‘Stop!’ Her distress had shifted into anger as he ranted on and Daryl wondered how long they’d been fighting as he watched her place two hands in the centre of her boyfriend’s chest and shove him firmly away. ‘You won’t even give me a chance to explain!’
‘Well, here’s ya chance! Start talkin’!’
‘I knew him, that’s all! He came to Grandma’s house to give a valuation, works out of an office in Atlanta. He said he was staying in town tonight! I was just being friendly!’
‘Ah, so it’s about the money, is it?’ Merle’s face was cast in shadow, but Daryl could imagine the smirk that was painted over his features. ‘You let the city boy slip a hand up yer skirt ‘n’ he sticks a couple o’ zeroes on the end o’ the selling price?’
‘You’re sick! Seriously, what is the matter with you?’
‘What’s the matter with me? Ya know, I ain’t so much as looked at another piece since I met ya ‘n’ then ya throw it back in my face!’
‘I didn’t do anything wrong!’
‘Yer just a whore like all the rest of ‘em,’ Merle snarled. ‘Shoulda known a Philly girl’d be puttin’ it about. Not enough street corners in our little town for ya, that it? Havin’ to track yer johns down instead?’
‘Fuck you!’ Daryl heard the crack as Y/N’s hand collided with Merle’s face. He’d been debating whether he should go out and intervene, deciding it was better to stay out of it, but, as the blow hit home, he leapt towards the door.
Merle was chuckling as he jogged down the porch steps, low and dangerous, advancing on Y/N as she backed away, until she was pressed against his truck with nowhere else to go. As far as Daryl knew, he’d never hit a woman, but there was a first time for everything.
‘Hey, Merle!’ He called, tearing his brother’s attention away from the trembling girl before him. Whether she was trembling with fear or rage Daryl wasn’t sure, but he could see her hands shaking at her sides. ‘Ya need to back off, man.’
‘Or what?’ Merle whirled round to face him, taking a swig from the bottle swinging between his fingers. ‘Ya gonna weigh on this one, little brother? Don’t tell me she’s given you a taste ‘n’ all?’
‘Don’t be disgustin’,’ Daryl bit out through gritted teeth. ‘I just don’t wanna see nobody get hurt here.’
‘Oh yeah? Ya see the little bitch take a swing at me?’ He touched his fingertips to his face where his cheek was red from the impact. ‘She’s lucky I din’t lay her out.’
‘Ain’t no need for-‘
‘Ya comin’ down on her side?’ Daryl’s eyes met Y/N’s as the older Dixon strode towards him, his fist clenched. ‘Ya gotta be kiddin’ me!’
‘She loves ya, man. Ain’t no reason for her to be playin’ around.’
‘She told ya that?’
‘Well, then she’s a goddamn liar as well as a whore!’
‘Don’t talk about her like that!’
‘What ya don’ do about it, bro? Huh? We really gonna fight over her? 'Cause I will kick your bitch ass, I swear!’
As he pushed against Daryl, his chest puffed out, shoulders squared, Daryl could see the pupils of his eyes, tiny pinpricks, barely there. Well, he’d known it would happen eventually. Merle was high as hell and wasted to boot. No wonder he was flipping out. ‘I ain’t gonna fight ya, Merle.’
Daryl shook his head and his brother let out a grunt of frustration, turning and hurling the bottle in his hand against the truck door, inches from where Y/N stood. Glass and amber liquid exploded in a crystal shower and he saw her flinch, lifting her arms to shield her face from the shards that flew towards her.
‘Ya should get inside,’ Daryl urged Merle, moving between him and Y/N, keeping his movements slow and steady. ‘Get ya head down. Y’all can sort this out in the mornin’.’
Without the bottle acting as an anchor, Merle swayed unsteadily on his feet, before a smile spread over his face, his mood switching dizzyingly fast in his intoxicated state. ‘Makin’ up’s half the fun, right?’ He made to move past Daryl towards his girl as his eyes roamed up her bare legs, lingering at the hem of her skirt, but Daryl put his hand up to stop him. ‘Tomorrow, man. Y/N’s tired.’
‘I am,’ she spoke up from behind him. ‘I’m gonna head home. I’ll talk to you in the morning, Merle.’
‘Alright then.’ He nodded slowly, seemingly in a daze, the fight already forgotten as he drifted up the path towards the porch and stumbled up the stairs, heading for his bed, single-minded now that the curtain of rage had lifted, leaving him feeling drained and leaden-limbed. As the door clicked shut behind him, Daryl turned back to Y/N, still slumped against the truck, her face buried in her hands.
‘What the hell happened?’
‘I-I don’t know.’ Her words were muffled and he reached out to lay a hand on her shoulder, sighing when she shrugged him off. ‘He just flipped. I’ve never seen him like that before.’
‘I have,’ Daryl admitted. ‘Wha’ did he take?’
‘Pills? Powder? He’s on somethin’.’
‘No, I…’ She tailed off, reliving the evening in her head, trying to pinpoint where it had all gone wrong. ‘I don’t know. Maybe. I didn’t see.’
As her hands fell to her sides, he reached out to wrap his fingers around her wrist, tugging her against him and stroking over her back when her arms locked around him. He wasn’t one for hugs, but he knew it was what she needed. ‘This ain’t yer fault, alright? Merle, he’s got some issues. Whatever he’s on, that shit just makes it worse.’
‘I wasn’t flirting with that guy, Dixon. I mean, I’d never-‘
‘I know.’ He pulled away, placing a calloused finger beneath her chin to tip her face up to his. ‘Ya should go home, get some sleep. Want me to walk ya?’
‘No,’ she sniffed, wiping a hand over her eyes, though she hadn’t allowed any tears to fall. ‘No, I’ll be fine. Thank you for stepping in. I-I don’t know what would’ve happened if you hadn’t.’
‘Yer gonna sort this out.’ He gave her a forced smile. ‘Yer gon’ be okay, Y/N.’
As he watched her walk away, his own wave of fury crashed over him and he balled his fists, forcing himself to take deep breaths. He’d sworn from the start that if his asshole brother hurt her he’d make him pay, and tonight he had. It didn’t matter if it was bruises or tears, she was in pain and it was Merle’s fault. That didn’t sit right with him, and it took all his strength to turn and walk away, heading down the street towards town, letting his anger out through his determined strides, rather than going back into the house and beating his brother into a bloody pulp. He didn’t think he’d ever truly hated him before, but, in that moment, he came damn close.
As Daryl climbed over the fence and followed the snaking path down into the valley, he could see Y/N sitting beside the water, her knees drawn up under her chin. There was something so painfully familiar about the position that it took his breath away and he had to stop for a minute to let the sting in his chest subside. How many times had she sat like that on his front porch or beside the bleachers on the school playing fields, her fingers drumming against her thighs as he’d bet they were doing now? God, it all seemed so long ago and yet, seeing her sitting there now, it could have just as easily been yesterday.
As though she could feel his stare burning into her skin, she turned to scan the hillside, the grin that spread over her face as she noticed his presence visible even at that distance. She climbed to her feet and began to wave, already pacing forwards, eager to be closer, and, as he jogged down the last few metres of the bank, she met him at the bottom, throwing herself into his arms. Her skin was warm to the touch and the weight of her felt like an anchor to the world that used to be as he lifted her off of her feet, burying his face in her hair and inhaling deeply. All of the stresses – keeping his brother under control, feeding the camp, dealing with the rest of the group – melted away as he held her and, when he set her back on her feet, the happiness in her eyes took him back to his schooldays.
‘You came back.’ She was breathless as she cupped his face, her eyes fixed on his, as if marvelling at his very existence. ‘I didn’t think you would.’
‘Told ya I would.’
‘I know, but…’ She tailed off, not wanting to ruin the moment by raking over their history again. There was plenty of time for that. ‘I’m so glad you’re here.’
‘Ain’t nowhere else I wanna be.’
‘So, I don’t really know what to say.’ Y/N’s voice was thick with emotion and a little unsure as she glanced over at him from her spot the water, rubbing at a scuff on her boot with the tips of her fingers. Daryl was lounging beside her, fiddling with a long piece of grass that he’d plucked on his way down into the valley, and he raised an eyebrow at her as she shook her head. ‘I mean, God, there’s so much to say and so many questions I wanna ask, but I just don’t know where to start.’
‘I told ya, ain’t much changed since ya left, ‘fore all this happened anyway. If ya’d turned up ya’d have thought ya was in a damn time warp or somethin’.’
‘Something must have changed. It’s been so long! I mean, you were talking about trying to get a job at the auto shop in town last time I saw you. Did that work out?’
He shrugged. ‘Not really. Gave me a few shifts here ‘n’ there, but never nothin’ solid. No one was gonna waste their time on a Dixon. Reckon they figured it was only a matter of time ‘til I got myself locked up like my brother.’
At the mention of Merle, he saw her shoulders slump a little and she twisted her fingers together, swallowing hard before she spoke again. ‘What about Merle? He ever settle down?’
More than anything, Daryl wanted to tell her yes, that his brother had found someone nice and gotten married, popped out a couple of kids, sorted himself out. He hated the image of his family he was portraying, but he had to be honest with her, up to a point at least. ‘Nah. He never really changed neither. Never really saw him get serious ‘bout anyone else. He was still pushin’ pills when…’
He tailed off and she completed the sentence for him, sending a sharp stab of betrayal through his chest. ‘When he died.’
Daryl nodded. ‘S’right.’
‘How did it happen?’ she asked, avoiding his gaze as she stared off across the water. ‘Was it before or was it the corpses?’
He was racking his brains, trying to come up with a believable answer that wouldn’t invite any further questions, when he was saved by a shout from above. ‘Y/N, get your ass up here!’
They turned to see a tall figure standing halfway down the sloping hillside with one hand shading their eyes from the sun.
‘What is it, Charlie?’ Y/N called back, twisting round onto her knees to face her comrade who was still beckoning for them to move.
‘Rose says it’s lunchtime!’
‘I’ll eat later!’
‘She said you’d say that! Says it needs to be eaten while it’s hot! Had a loada meat to use up ‘fore it went bad so shift your butt, would you? Might be weeks before we eat this good again!’
Daryl heard her huff, but when she turned back to face him she was smiling. ‘You hungry?’
‘I could eat.’
‘You’re in for a treat then.’
‘So, Y/N said you’re on your own out there, that right, man?’ Charlie was eyeing him curiously as he gnawed on a hunk of meat, grease dripping down his long fingers. 'Gotta be either mad brave or crazy stupid if you ask me!’
Daryl scoffed, shaking his head. 'Nah, man, ain’t neither. Just don’t play too well with others, s’all.’
'I get it. Loner type. That’s cool.’ He wiped the back of his hand over his mouth. 'And you’re from round here?’
'Born 'n’ raised.’
'Dixon and I went to school together,’ Y/N added, stirring her stew as though deep in thought. 'But we hadn’t seen each other for a long time 'til this one stole his deer.’ She elbowed Carlos who was sitting on the other side of her and he smirked, though he ducked his head when he got Daryl’s eye.
'Too damn long.’
'So, you hunt?’ Charlie seemed genuinely interested so Daryl nodded.
'Yeah, since I was a kid.’
'Man, it’s a handy skill to have these days. You take down much?’
'Enough to get by. Ain’t just about knowing how to do it now, s’about beatin’ the biters to it when they smell fresh meat.’
'Ha, I’ll bet. Those biters, man, they ruin everything.’ There was a collective mumble of agreement around the group. ‘So, where were you when you saw your first walker?’ Sensing Daryl’s hesitance, he cocked his head to one side. ‘C’mon, man, everyone has a story!’
The archer shrugged. ‘Ain’t much o’ one. I was out in the woods huntin’, had been for a couple o’ days. Walked back into town to find the whole place had gone crazy. People screamin’, runnin’. Thought maybe we were ‘bout to be nuked or some shit.’
‘That must’ve been scary,’ Y/N sympathised, leaning over to rest a hand on his leg. ‘Not having seen the news, not knowing what was going on. I mean, it was scary enough even after watching the broadcasts.’
‘You said you were visitin’ yer folks?’
‘Yeah.’ He saw grief flash across her face so quickly that he might’ve missed it if he hadn’t known her so well. ‘I missed Mom’s birthday ‘cause of work, so I came down for the weekend. You know they moved a couple of towns over when Grandma died?’ She waited for Daryl to nod, remembering hearing that they’d moved through the town grapevine. ‘I remember sitting there on Saturday night, watching on TV as those things ravaged New York and thanking God that I wasn’t there. They said that the military were handling it, containing the threat. Then, what?’ She looked to Charlie for confirmation. ‘Thirty-six hours later, it reached us, too.’
‘About that, yeah,’ he agreed. ‘I was out riding with my brother. This thing came out of nowhere when we stopped for gas. Dragged him off his bike.’
‘Shit, man. Sounds nasty.’ Like Y/N, Charlie’s expression of grief has been short-lived, and Daryl recognised that determination to put their loss aside and keep going. He’d seen it in members of his own group.
‘It was. I mean, I was carrying and I shot the bastard, but he just kept coming. I didn’t know then to aim for the brain. I just wanted to get him off of Thomas, y’know?’
‘I know what you mean,’ Carlos spoke up, less able to hide his pain than the others, his face contorted in misery as he considered what he’d lost. ‘Damn things tore apart my dog.’
It would’ve been easy for Charlie to take offence at that, the comparison between a dog’s death and his brother’s, but he was nodding in understanding. ‘I saw ‘em tear through a field of cows in minutes. Poor things were swarmed.’
‘What are we talking about over here?’ Rose’s voice interrupted the sombre mood that had fallen over them as they talked of the start of the outbreak and the faces that turned to her were eager for a distraction. ‘If you’re done eating, Felipe’s back from his run. He could use some help unloading the trucks.’
Carlos and Charlie immediately climbed to their feet and Daryl made to follow, keen to muck in and lend a hand when he’d been so well fed and made to feel welcome, but Rose stopped him with a shake of her head. ‘Not you, you’re our guest. Sit. Relax. I’m sure you two still have some catching up to do.’
‘She seems to think you’re my soulmate, returned to claim my heart,’ Y/N informed him dramatically as the matriarch of the group turned on her heel and walked away, and Daryl scoffed.
‘Yeah, I got that impression earlier. Reckons ya told her we’re just friends. Think she thought I might tell her different.’
‘And did you?’
‘Nah.’ He avoided her gaze, feeling her eyes burning in to him as he reached for another hunk of meat and began to rip into it. ‘S’all in the past, right? Ain’t like much happened back then. Sure as hell ain’t going to now.’
If he’d been looking her way, he might have seen her face fall, her whole demeanour changing as she took in the certainness of his words, but he was still staring at his meal, uncomfortable with the turn that the conversation had taken.
‘Right, well, I guess Rose might take some more convincing.’
He heard Y/N inhale sharply, composing herself before surging on. ‘You know, back then, you weren’t just a friend to me, Dixon. What we had… it was short-lived, yeah, and messy and complicated. But I did love you.’
He shrugged. ‘We don’t gotta talk about this.’
‘We don’t have to, but maybe we should.’
‘Nah.’ He could feel the tension in his muscles, knew that he was being cruel, shutting her down when she obviously needed to talk, but he couldn’t do this. He still wanted a little time to enjoy her company, discover who’d she’d become over the last twenty years, before rehashing the past. Besides, it would only lead back to her wanting to talk about Merle again, which would mean him having to spin more lies, and he wanted to avoid that for as long as possible. ‘Like I said, s’ancient history now. We ain’t the same people we were back then. We had a shot ‘n’ it din’t work out. So, let’s just leave it in the past, alright?’
‘I’m not sure it’s that simple-’
‘S’gotta be.’ Again he cut her off, not getting why she was being so damn persistent. ‘I can’t be here if it ain’t. S’too hard.’ When she didn’t speak again, he risked a glance over at her, his heart breaking when he saw the single tear that ran down her cheek. He cursed himself for being so harsh, for allowing old resentments to get in the way of what could be something good in the here and now, but he couldn’t offer her any more than friendship and she needed to know that. ‘M’sorry.’
‘It’s fine.’ She pulled herself together, smiling at him, though he could see the strain it took for her to do so. ‘Honestly, we’re fine. You’re right, it was stupid to even go there. We’re friends, like you said. I don’t wanna lose you, Dixon.’
‘Ya won’t,’ he reassured her, though he knew it was a promise he may not be able to keep. ‘I ain’t lettin’ ya go again.’
A moment passed between them then, two sets of soulful eyes locked together, two minds wallowing in the shared pain of the past as her fingers linked through his, uncaring of the grease that coated his hands. It took him back to another moment like this, sitting beside the school bleachers late at night, the whole place deserted, nobody else around to hear the whispered confessions they made to each other.
He was torn from his reverie, the spell broken, when a loud cheer went up from around them, and he raised his head to see Felipe sauntering into camp with a crate of beer balanced on his shoulder. Behind him came a stream of men, each carrying their own alcoholic offering and the mood in camp lifted instantly.
‘My familia,’ the leader announced as he set his crate down and raised his arms above his head. ‘We hit the jackpot out there today! These past few weeks have been tough, life has gotten hard, there’s no denying it. So, tonight, I think we deserve a little fun, don’t you? Go about your chores this afternoon, get the hard work done, because tonight, my brothers, my sisters… Tonight, we party and celebrate surviving another day!’
Daryl had followed her. He knew that was creepy, maybe too creepy, but he wasn’t sure he cared. The truth was, he was worried. Y/N hadn’t been round much since her fight with Merle, skipping school, no longer showing up at his place on Sunday afternoons, and the couple of times he’d tried to seek her out at her Grandma’s, her mom had told him she was out, though she didn’t know where. So, he’d done what he did best, hiding out in the bushes until he saw her coming down the garden path, then tracking her movements, surprised when they ended up at the edge of the school playing fields. Of all the places he’d thought she might be sneaking off to, this wasn’t one of them.
‘You gonna show yourself now, you big creep?’ Her voice cut through the silence of the night and he couldn’t help but chuckle as he stepped from the shadows, still barely visible in the gloom. It was late and the sun had set long ago, but he could just make out her eyes rolling as she waited for him to catch up.
‘How’d ya know I was there?’
‘Saw you hiding in the hedge from my bedroom window,’ she scoffed, heading towards the bleachers, smirking when he fell into step beside her. ‘Figured you wanted to talk, so I thought I’d lead you somewhere quiet.’
He shoved his hands his pockets, suddenly feeling awkward, though he couldn’t deny that she was right. ‘I just wanted to check in on ya, make sure yer okay, tha’s all.’
‘I’m fine.’ She quickened her pace, but he matched it easily with his long legs.
‘Y’ain’t been round much since-’
‘Haven’t felt much like sitting in classes all day,’ she countered before he could finish. ‘So, sue me! The weather’s been great, school’s nearly over… Guess I felt like I’d earned a little freedom.’
‘Hey, I ain’t arguin’. Jus’ woulda been nice to have a heads up. I was worried.’
He watched as she settled herself on the ground in their usual spot, narrowing her eyes at him ‘til he did the same, the attitude radiating from her in waves until, with a loud sigh, all of the defensiveness went out of her and she let her head fall onto his shoulder, leaning into his side. ‘I know. I’m sorry. Honestly, I’ve been kinda scared.’
‘Of what? My brother?’
‘Well, yeah,’ she admitted. ‘The way he was that night… I’ve never seen him like that before, Dixon. For a moment there I thought he might actually hurt me, and I don’t- I don’t know what to say to him now.’
Daryl nodded slowly, wishing he knew the right words to say to make her feel better or help her out. Instead, all he could manage was, ‘D’ya still love him?’
He felt her shrug and slung an arm around her shoulders when he heard the beginnings of tears in her voice. ‘I don’t know. I’m starting to wonder if I ever did.’
‘Thought things were good ‘fore that night?’
‘They were. They were great. I just- I’m not sure we can get back to that. I don’t wanna be with someone that scares me, Daryl, not even for a second. Seeing him like that changed everything, and I guess I’m not sure, if I really loved him, like proper, full-on, out-of-the-movies love, I’d be able to feel like this. I mean, I don’t even miss him, not really.’ She glanced up at him and he could see her fear, knew she was worried that he would judge her but he didn’t. He couldn’t. Because he did love her and he hated seeing the girl he loved seem so unsure of herself.
‘Ya don’t have to get back with him if it ain’t what ya want, Y/N. Ain’t gonna change nothin’ between you ‘n’ me.’
‘How’d you know that’s what’s bothering me?’
‘’Cause it ain’t just Merle ya’ve been avoidin’.’
Another sigh, louder this time, and she turned her face into his neck, moving in closer when his arm slipped to rest around her waist, spurred on by her need to be held. ‘I’m sorry, Dixon.’
‘S’alright. I get it.’ Some part of him that he would never understand still felt compelled to protect his brother though, to explain why he was like he was, and he broached the subject hesitantly. ‘Y’know, Merle’s a tough son of a bitch. Makes it hard for people to get close to him. The drink ‘n’ drugs, they’re a crutch, tha’s all. Ain’t really his fault.’
‘How is it not? I mean, it’s his decision to use them, right? To get into that state? I’m guessing it happened a lot more often before I came along.’
‘Most weekends,’ Daryl was forced to admit. ‘Even managed to get it inside when he was locked up. S’got friends in pretty low places. He’s just- He’s messed up.’
‘But why? He never really opened up to me, y’know. Never said much at all about his life. What happened to him? Why is he so cold?’
‘Guess it’s our old man’s fault, really.’ Daryl hadn’t told anybody any of this before and it was surprised how easy it was to get the words out. ‘He’s a mean ol’ bastard is our pop.’
‘I know he drinks,’ Y/N ventured tentatively and he nodded.
‘Yeah, he drinks. Don’t know how t’ stop, tha’s the problem. He’s so angry at the world, thinkin’ it owes him somethin’, ‘n’ it’s me ‘n’ Merle that get the brunt of it when he’s gotten himself all twisted up inside.’
‘Brunt of it? Of what?’
He couldn’t say the words, couldn’t explain the viciousness of his father’s attacks, so instead he reached for the back of his collar, tugging at it and dragging his shirt over his head, twisting around so she could see the pale skin of his back. He heard the click of her lighter as she flicked it open to illuminate the scars that marred his skin, the sharp intake of breath as she trailed her fingers over the fresher bruises, still purple in colour, her touch sending a shiver through him and turning the tips of his ears pink. When she didn’t speak, he turned back to her, running a hand through his hair and trying to ignore the look of horror on her face. ‘Merle took worse beatin’s than I ever did, tried t’ protect me from it, much as he could, anyway. ‘Cept he left ‘n’ then it was just me ‘n’ dad.’
‘Shit, Daryl. I had no idea.’
‘No one does ‘n’ ya can’t tell ‘em, okay? Promise me.’
‘I won’t say a word.’
‘What ya don’t get, what ya need to understand, is that for me ‘n’ Merle, yer pretty much the best thing we’ve ever had in our lives, ‘least since mom died. Ain’t too many people willin’ t’ let ya in when yer the sons of the town drunk. We’re a joke round here. But you… Yer different. Guess Merle jus’ couldn’t take the pressure of bein’ good enough for ya no more.’
Daryl thought it might be the most he’d ever spoken, but he needed to make her see what she meant to him, to both of them. He wasn’t trying to repair her relationship with Merle - in fact, he thought it might just kill him if she went back to him - but she needed to be able to make an informed decision, to know she was doing the right thing. And he needed her to know that he wasn’t ever going to make his brother’s mistakes with her, wasn’t going to push her away.
‘There’s gotta be a way out for you, Dixon.’ Her eyes were brimming with tears again, her hands reaching for him, grazing over the cut on his collarbone before snaking around his neck as she hugged him tightly, kneeling at his side, her face buried in his unruly mop of hair. It was a strange sensation, the cotton of her t-shirt pressing against his bare skin, the warmth emanating from her doing nothing to quell the goosebumps that rose to the surface as a reaction to her touch. God, he wanted her, more than he’d ever wanted anything, and her compassion just made the desire even stronger.
‘There ain’t.’ He shook his head and felt her begin to shake at the resignation in his voice. ‘Ain’t nothin’ better out there for me. Merle tried t’ get out ‘n’ look how well that worked out.’
‘But you’re different to him,’ she argued. ‘You’re smarter, sweeter. You could do so much, Dixon, you just need to get the hell away from here.’
He laughed at that, pushing her gently away so he could look her in the eye with a sad smile. ‘I din’t tell ya none o’ this ‘cause I wanted ya t’ save me. I told ya ‘cause I needed ya t’ know.’
‘Hey, yer my best friend, alright? Tha’s enough.’
Her eyes were locked on his, her hands still resting on his shoulders, thumb rubbing over the pulsepoint on his throat, and for a moment, everything melted away but her. His mouth went dry as he tried to read her expression, the atmosphere that had descended over them, every instinct in his body telling him to close the distance between them and kiss her, but he didn’t know how. He wasn’t good at this stuff. Plus, she was his brother’s girl, or she used to be. He still wasn’t sure. Either way, she was off limits and he forced himself to look away, holding out an arm so she could curl against his side again.
‘I love you, Dixon. You know that, right?’
‘I’m glad you told me.’
‘So, ya gonna talk t’ Merle? Sort things out?’ He couldn’t help but ask the question, even though he dreaded the answer.
‘No.’ The word was barely a whisper, though he felt her tense against him as it fell from her lips. ‘No, I don’t think I am. We’re done, Daryl. It’s over.’
‘It ain’t a good idea.’
‘What isn’t?’ Y/N turned to scowl at him as he hefted another container of water onto the stand above the fire, setting it in place and standing back to watch as the flames warmed it from the bottom.
‘This party. S’too dangerous out here t’ be gettin’ drunk ‘n’ reckless.’
‘People need it, Dixon,’ she reminded him, gently. ‘The guys have been getting antsy. They need a release. Felipe will have people on watch. It’s not like we’ll be going out wandering in the woods.’
‘Ya get too loud, ya won’t need to be.’ Daryl narrowed his eyes as she regarded him like a naughty schoolkid regarded an overly-strict parent. ‘Too much noise ‘n’ those walkers are gon’ come to you.’
‘So, we’ll keep it down.’
‘It’s still a bad idea.’
‘Daryl, come on.’ She moved around the fire to his side, reaching for his hand and fixing him with a beseeching gaze. He found himself unable to look away as she smiled up at him, tossing her hair back from her face and cocking her head to one side. ‘Stay and party with us, please, with me. I missed you and life is pretty horrific now, in case you hadn’t noticed. Just give me one night to let loose with my best friend.’
He huffed out a sigh of frustration but nodded all the same, completely unable to say no to her when she was so close to him.
‘Besides,’ she added with a smirk, ‘from what I remember you’re kinda fun when you’re drunk.’
‘I ain’t gon’ be gettin’ drunk.’
Y/N was a bad influence. That was the only explanation Daryl could come up with for his slurred speech and the way the world seemed to be swaying slightly. He didn’t mind it. It was actually kinda pleasant, relaxing. He knew he’d been stressing out before, about her and Merle, about what would happen when the walkers stumbled across their hideouts, about the stupidity of getting drunk when danger lurked in the shadows, but now he felt removed from it all, aware of it, but like it was not really anything for him to worry about. Everything felt pretty fuzzy around the edges and he decided in that moment like he liked it better that way. For the first time, he kinda understood his brother’s reliance on his stash of pills.
Of course, a large part of Daryl’s current contentment was probably to do with the woman leaning into his side, her body vibrating with laughter as she joined in with the raucous conversation. She’d shifted closer to him throughout the evening, her inhibitions lowered as the booze flowed, until she was tucked under his arm, legs bent up and turned towards him so that her thigh pressed against his own. It felt like the most natural thing in the world to wrap an arm around her and pull her into him. The campfire had been built higher than was probably wise, but the heat that it kicked out was welcome as the temperature dropped, and it lit Y/N’s face with a flickering orange glow, highlighting the natural beauty that had appealed to him all those years ago. Once again, he thought how little she’d really changed and he felt warmth surge through his veins when she turned her smiling face up to his.
‘Thank you for staying.’ Her voice was thick, words running together, but he knew her well enough to understand and he nodded. ‘You’re having fun, right?’
‘I’ve had worse nights,’ he admitted begrudgingly, chuckling when she pulled a face. ‘I like watchin’ ya laugh.’
‘And I like watching you use your words, Dixon,’ she teased. ‘For someone that isn’t a people person, you’ve been kind of a chatterbox tonight.’
He raised an eyebrow at her, but she was right. He’d found he had more in common with the guys in her camp than he had with the people in his own. Charlie was a biker and Daryl had developed an interest in motorcycles from his brother, who still had his vintage Triumph chopper back at the quarry. They’d spent a good hour debating the pros and cons of different engines and shocks. Then, when that conversation had tailed off, he discovered that Carlos had been taught to hunt by his uncle, who had lived in the next town over from where Daryl had grown up. That meant they’d both stalked prey through the same woodland, leading to easy discussions about the terrain and their various victories and failures when it came to taking down the wildlife that inhabited the forest. It felt good to share his knowledge and stories without being looked on as a dirty backwards redneck, and he’d felt his confidence grow with each empty beer bottle that he lined up beside him and each nod of agreement he received from Y/N’s comrades.
‘Ya got a decent group here.’
‘One that you might consider joining?’ She caught her bottom lip between her teeth, gazing up at him from beneath dark lashes as her hand reached across to fist his shirt. ‘I want you here, Daryl. I don’t want you to leave again.’
‘You can!’ Her frustration was painted over her pretty face, her pout twisting at his heart until it physically hurt to look at her anymore. ‘You’ve just gotta stop being stubborn about it!’
‘Ain’t bein’ stubborn.’
‘Yes, you are.’ She pushed herself off the ground, swinging into his lap and snaking her arms around his neck. ‘Is it me? Is it ‘cause you don’t wanna stay with me?’
‘You know it ain’t that.’
‘Then why?’ she whined. ‘Please, Dixon, I’m begging you. I can’t say goodbye to you again.’
He sighed, closing his eyes so he didn’t have to see her desperation, and she rested her forehead against his, her skin burning hot, her breath ghosting over his face as she husked, ‘What if I give you a reason to stay?’
He barely had time to process that before her mouth had claimed his, lips moving hungrily over his own as her fingers wound into his hair. She was writhing against him, worked up by whatever thoughts were drifting through her mind and, though he knew he should stop it, he couldn’t bring himself to push her away. When she felt him stir beneath her, rough hands cupping her face as he began to respond, she sunk in deeper, and he lost himself in the taste of her, the feel of her soft skin as he held her to him, trying to hold on to a shred of control as she let hers slip away.
‘No, Y/N, I-’
‘Say you’ll stay with me.’
Her pleas were breathy murmurs when she came up for air, not giving him time to bite out his excuses before her mouth was crashing down on his again, her kisses unrelenting as she devoured him. Her hands had slipped beneath his shirt, mapping his skin and tracing over the scars on his back, and he thought he might fall apart under her touch as he clutched at her thigh, hooking the other arm around her waist to pull her closer.
‘Stay. Stay. Stay.’ It was like a mantra that she chanted whenever her lips left his and, in the end, he stopped fighting it, let her beg him, convince him that it could work, that he could be here with her and let his brother go. It was easy to do with her wrapped around him and the alcohol buzzing through his body.
‘Y/N.’ Her name was all that was grounding him as the moment slipped into something surreal. Shit, this was Y/N. His Y/N. Merle’s Y/N. She was alive and kissing him like she needed him to breathe, and he was just trying to keep up with her, and the history, the hurt, the mess that she’d left behind when she’d driven away from him all those years ago, had faded into nothing at the feeling that she was awakening within him. He didn’t think he was even capable of feeling like this anymore, not with anyone. The girls that had come after her had left him cold, numb, barely lasting for a night before he cut them loose. But here he was, shivering with raw need, and he should have known that it would be her, really. It always was.
‘Come with me.’ She spoke the order against the skin of his throat and he barely contained the groan of pleasure as her mouth moved over him, before she was suddenly pulling away and clambering to her feet, holding out a hand to him. He hesitated before taking it, a nagging voice in the back of his mind breaking through as soon as she broke contact with him. This was a bad idea. He was lying to her. There was too much trauma in their past. Plus, she was drunk and so was he, and it was bound to lead to regrets and awkward excuses in the morning. But he shut it down as her eyes locked on his, levering himself upright and reaching for her again.
‘I’m with ya.’
She was leading him away from the fire, towards the tents, and he could feel her excitement emanating from her, was pulling her back against him so he could nuzzle into the crook of her neck, nipping at the sensitive skin when the screams started.
It took a moment for the sound to fully register with either of them, but then he saw the panic flash across her face and it brought him crashing back down to earth. He spun to take in the scene of destruction before him as walkers stumbled from the trees. The sheer number of them had taken down the fences beneath their weight, leaving the inebriated group vulnerable and, as they instinctively went for their guns to protect themselves, the camp was littered with shots gone wide. No one was in a fit state to hit their targets and the bullets flying were posing just as much of a risk as the ravenous corpses.
‘Get behind me,’ Daryl ordered, shielding Y/N with his body as he bent low and made a dash for the fire where his crossbow was still lying on the ground. He lurched forward, grabbing for it and almost overbalancing, before raising it and feeling its weight in his hands. He’d been doing this for a long time and, even with the beer still taking effect, the weapon was like an extension of him. His finger flinched on the trigger mechanism, letting loose a bolt, and a walker dropped.
‘No!’ Y/N’s shout tore his attention in another direction and he grimaced as he watched Carlos crumple to the floor as blood spurted from a bite on his neck. Seconds later, he saw Felipe swamped as rotting arms dragged him to the ground, heard the squelching sound of tearing flesh, and knew that he, too, was beyond saving. ‘Daryl, do something!’
He’d reloaded his bow as he watched the two men fall, and now he raised it again, firing another bolt into a biter’s skull. It hit its mark and it collapsed, only to have its place taken by another and another as they flooded into the camp, drawn initially by the excited chatter and, now, by the shouts and rattle of gunfire. There were so many of them, too many, and, as he watched Charlie throw himself into the middle of the swarm, his strangled scream echoing from its centre soon after, he realised it was too late. It was over.
‘We gotta go.’ He turned back to Y/N, but she was in a daze, tears spilling down her cheeks as she watched her people get torn apart. A wounded whimper fell from her lips as a stray bullet pierced Rose’s heart and she made to run to her, but Daryl held her back. ‘Ya can’t help her, Y/N. It’s too late. We gotta get out o’ here.’
His glanced wildly around, searching for survivors that he could shepherd into the trees, but there was barely anyone left, and those that were still standing bore bite marks that he knew would be their downfall. It had been a massacre and it would be their turn next if he didn’t get them moving. ‘C’mon!’
His hand found Y/N’s and he laced his fingers through hers, tugging her after him as he sprinted for the treeline. The walkers had come from the west, so he headed north, cutting through the trees with practised ease despite the darkness, catching his girl around the waist when she tripped, keeping her upright and propelling her onwards. He could hear movement around them, so he kept as quiet as possible, no matter how much he wanted to say something, reassure her that he was going to make this okay. Right now, their footsteps were drowned out by the chaos they’d left behind and the corpses were still heading that way. He didn’t want to do anything to attract their attention.
He wasn’t sure how long they’d been running when she finally collapsed, exhausted, her body trembling under the onslaught of the sobs that came as she curled into a ball at his feet. Even now, when he was sure that they’d put enough distance between themselves and the walkers, he couldn’t find the words to comfort her. So, instead he dropped down beside her and took her into his arms again, holding her as she cried. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘We’ve gotta go back, Daryl. There-there might be survivors or people m-might be hurt and th-they might need our help.’
‘We will,’ he promised, though he doubted that there wouldn’t be anybody left to find. He knew she needed it, needed to see it with her own eyes. He could give her that. ‘We’ll head back when it gets light. Give the corpses time t’ move on.’
She nodded, scrubbing a hand over her face as she fought to compose herself. They fell silent then, rocking back and forth as they sat in the undergrowth, lost in their own thoughts. Her grief was tangible, like a dark cloud that had descended over her and extinguished that spark that had reminded him of the teenage girl he’d fallen in love with way back when. For his part, he was caught in a vicious argument in his head about what came next. Could he take her back to the quarry camp, expose his lies and risk Merle finding out exactly what it was that he’d taken from him all those years ago? Or did he cut them off, stick with her out in the forest and build a new life with her at his side? Could they even survive, just the two of them? As the first rays of sun drifted through the trees, casting dappled light over their surroundings, the path forward was no clearer.
‘Where the hell d’ya get all that from?’ Daryl couldn’t help but scoff as he selected a bottle from the stash that Y/N had revealed in her backpack, brushing the dust from its label to reveal what it contained. ‘Seriously, peach schnapps?’
‘I think there’s Rosehip Wine somewhere, too,’ she giggled, shrugging when he shot her a quizzical look. ‘I raided Grandma’s liquor cabinet.’
‘Well, we only have a week left of school before we’re released into the world and trusted to be responsible adults. I figured we’d earned some time to let our hair down.’
‘Ain’t that what the end o’ year party’s for?’ he challenged, drawing another laugh from her as she shook her head.
‘’Cause you totally intend to go to that?’
‘Might do. If ya wanna.’ He waited for that to register with her before changing the subject, pulling another option from her bag and screwing his nose up at the discoloured liquid inside. ‘So, what’s least likely t’ kill me outta this stuff?’
‘Erm.’ Her brow furrowed in concentration as she studied her haul, before choosing a darker bottle and handing it to him with a flourish. ‘Sweet sherry?’
‘Christ.’ Daryl grimaced but twisted the lid off anyway, tipping his head back and taking a long swig. ‘Man, that’s disgustin’.’
‘That’s fine.’ She leaned across to take it from him, gulping down a mouthful herself. ‘More for me, then.’
Since he’d opened up to her about his Dad, showing her his scars and listening to her doubts about her relationship with Merle, Daryl and Y/N had only grown closer. They met most nights now, hiking through the woods to their spot on the school playing fields and talking into the early hours. He knew she was trying to give him a reason to get out of the house and away from his family, but he wasn’t about to turn it down due to pride or anything else. He knew she enjoyed his company and he knew she had her own demons too. They were stronger together, so they stuck together. He liked it that way.
‘So, how was dinner with your folks?’ he asked, finally locating a bottle of mediocre whiskey and opting for that over her drink of choice. ‘Bad as you thought?’
‘Worse.’ She wrinkled her nose. ‘Mom started prying into how things ended with Merle, then Dad started ranting on about the age difference and decided that I must have inherited my slutty tendencies from her, and then she accused him of sleeping with his partner at work.’ A sigh escaped her, her smile faltering as she relived the argument. ‘Honestly, I think it’s better when they don’t try to take an interest in my life.’
‘She was askin’ ‘bout Merle? Tha’s been over for weeks.’
‘Yep. Y’know my folks, always a beat behind.’
‘What about you? Your old man about when you got home?’
Daryl shook his head. ‘Nah, just my brother, ‘n’ he ain’t talkin’ to me much these days anyway.’
They exchanged a look and he saw her shoulders sag a little. ‘I’m sorry. I feel like I’ve kinda driven the two of you apart.’
‘Nah, he jus’ gets like this sometimes,’ he reassured her. ‘He’ll get over it. Always does. Don’t worry ‘bout it.’
‘That whole thing was such a mistake.’ She nudged his knee with the toe of her boot, playfully. ‘Seriously, Dixon, you should’ve warned me! What was I even thinking?’
‘Would ya’ve listened if I did? ‘Sides, ya liked him back then.’
‘I guess. Still, could’ve warned me what he could get like though.’
He shifted, uncomfortably, feeling like he’d let her down in some way, like he owed her an explanation. Since the night she’d told him that she and Merle were done, they’d avoided the subject, barely mentioning his brother until now, and he wondered if it had been eating at her all this time. ‘Guess I din’t wanna sound like, jealous or somethin’. I dunno.’
‘I would never have thought that. You had me to yourself for a fair while before I met Merle. You could’ve made a move if you were interested.’
Whether she sensed that the conversation was putting him on edge, or whether she needed to change the subject herself, he wasn’t sure, but he was grateful when she plastered a grin on her face and tossed her hair back. ‘Goddamn, this sherry is really strong.’
‘Or maybe yer just a lightweight.’
‘Shut up.’ She shoved against him with her shoulder, coming to rest against his side, her eyes focused on the school buildings, looming shadows in the gloom. ‘God, can you believe this is all nearly over?’
‘Countin’ down the days.’
‘What are we gonna do when it’s done? What are you going to do, Dixon?’
‘I don’ know. Whatever I wanna.’ When she didn’t speak, he leant his head against hers, letting his eyes flicker closed. ‘’N’ yer gonna go off t’ college ‘n’ forget e’rythin’ about this redneck town.’
‘Don’t say that.’
‘S’true. Ya gon’ go out ‘n’ get a good job ‘n’ marry a nice man ‘n’ pop out a kid or two. Things are jus’ gonna get better for you after high school.’
‘They might get better for you, too,’ she ventured. ‘Get away from here, Dixon, away from your dad, away from Merle.’
‘’N’ do what? With my grades, ain’t no one gonna want me.’
‘I don’t know. You could get a job at a garage. You’re good with cars, right?’
‘All self-taught though. Don’t got nothin’ on paper.’
‘That might not matter.’
‘You don’t gotta worry about me.’ He shut down her attempts at encouragement, knowing that it wasn’t going to happen. He was stuck here, doomed to walk in his old man’s footsteps and become just as big a waste of space, no doubt. ‘I’mma be fine right here. S’where I belong.’
They lost track of time, sitting on the grass, talking nonsense as they worked their way through the assorted spirits that Y/N had managed to sneak out of the house. Daryl’s head felt fuzzy, his limbs heavy as he collapsed back against the ground, one arm tucked behind his head as he stared up at the stars. When Y/N flopped down beside him, rolling over to rest her head on his chest, it felt perfectly natural to wrap an arm around her shoulders and brush his lips against her hair. Her body was warm pressed against his and he couldn’t help but wonder if things would be different if he had made a move sooner. Would she have turned him down if he’d tried something back then?
‘What’s that?’ She’d tipped her head up to frown at him in confusion and he felt the tips of his ears grow hot as he realised he’d spoken aloud, lips loosened by the alcohol buzzing through his veins.
‘No, don’t do that. Tell me.’
He took a deep breath, the need to know how she really felt about him seizing him suddenly and urgently. ‘Jus’ wonderin’ what ya would’ve done if I had made a move back then, before Merle. Run a mile, prob’ly.’
‘No.’ The shake of her head was exaggerated as she pushed herself up on her elbow, leaning over him, her hand resting on his chest. ‘No, Dixon, you’re wrong. Half the reason I’m kicking myself now is that I messed things up, hooking up with Merle. Because now nothing can happen between us and that… That’s just… I can’t think about it because, if I do, I wanna cry.’
‘So, why din’t ya ever say nothin’?’
‘You’re the only real friend I’ve got here. I didn’t want to- to complicate things, I guess. You never seemed interested.’
‘I was,’ he admitted. ‘Still am, kinda.’
She smirked, trying to fight the flicker of hope that he saw in her eyes. ‘That’s the whiskey talking.’
‘No, it ain’t,’ he insisted. ‘Never met no one like ya before. Yer the coolest girl I know. Hella pretty too. Any guy’d be lucky to have ya. Merle was jus’ too stupid to see that.’
She fell silent for a moment then and, when she spoke again, her voice was thick with tears. ‘I chose the wrong brother, didn’t I?’
Daryl nodded, taken aback when she threw her body across his, snaking her arms around his neck as she hugged him tightly. The scent of her was overwhelming as he breathed her in, her weight across his chest grounding him when he thought his heart might shatter into pieces. She trembled under the force of her drunken sobs, her tears dripping onto Daryl’s throat and trickling down to soak the tufts of grass that framed his face.
Unsure what else to do, he stroked along the ridge of her spine, his touch light, trying to soothe her. He wasn’t good at this, but he desperately wanted to give her what she needed. ‘Hey, hey, look at me.’
When she pulled back to meet his gaze, her eyes were red and puffy, her bottom lip quivering as she fought to keep it together. ‘I’m sorry, Dixon.’
‘Y’ain’t gotta be.’
‘I ruined everything.’
‘Nah, ya din’t. Yer my best friend, Y/N. That ain’t ruined.’
‘Stop. It is what is it, alright? Gotta make the best of what we’ve got now.’
She was nodding, though her tears continued to fall, and when she curled back into his side, she slipped her hand between the buttons of his shirt, clutching the fabric tightly as though clinging on to the one constant she had left in her life. They lay like that until the sun came up.
Daryl had been right. There was nothing left. The camp was in ruins, bodies littering the ground, blood staining the grass red. The fire had long burnt out, the smoky scent dispersing and leaving behind the nauseating smell of rotting flesh. He watched as Y/N moved between the corpses, bending down to close the eyes of those she knew. She had surprised him, keeping it together when they’d broken through the treeline and could finally see the full extent of the destruction, but he supposed she probably didn’t have any tears left to cry. She’d sobbed them all out on his shoulder through the night.
Now, trying to give her the space she needed to grieve, Daryl headed towards fence that divided the field from the slope that led down into the valley, pausing to grab a shovel that had obviously been used as a weapon the previous evening. There was a strip of earth just before the fenceline that was clear from any of the chaos, its grass untouched, not a spot of red marring the earth, and it was there that he began to dig. He wasn’t sure how many graves would be needed, so he just kept going, forming a neat line of holes ready for whenever Y/N was ready to say goodbye. It felt good to be doing something productive, something that would help her, and the ache in his muscles reminded him that he was still alive, still standing, against all the odds. It had been reckless to get so wasted last night and yet he hadn’t paid the price for that mistake like so many of the others. He didn’t want to dwell too much on why that was.
When he finally heard her approach, he downed his spade, climbing out of the pit he was working on and holding his arms out to her without a word. She stepped into his embrace, sagging against him as he supported her, burying her face in the crook of his neck despite the sweat that slicked his skin and the dirt that clung to him.
‘Graves,’ she said at last, stepping away to look at his work.
‘Thought you’d wanna bury the ones you knew.’
She nodded. ‘Thank you. I didn’t even think about it.’
‘Don’t gotta now.’
She exhaled loudly, running her fingers through her hair as she turned to look back over the camp. ‘So, we bury the bodies, and then what? Where do we go from here?’
Daryl couldn’t answer her.
Daryl didn’t know how long they’d been walking. It felt like the hours had all blended together as he navigated his way through the forest, constantly alert for danger as Y/N’s hand grew damp in his. Had she been more focused, she may have noticed that he was simply leading her in circles, drawing her along the river for several miles before cutting up through the trees and doubling back, only to rejoin the river again and follow its route for a while longer. But she was lost in her grief, blinded by shock, and so his reluctance to stray too far from the quarry had gone unnoticed.
He was still warring with himself over what to do next. He knew the sensible thing to do would be to take her back with him, introduce her to the group and let them take her in. He could see her in his head, laughing with Andrea and perhaps Lori, rolling her eyes at Shane’s illusions of authority and getting stuck in with the chores around camp. But what he couldn’t picture, perhaps because he couldn’t bring himself to, was her reunion with his brother. Would it be nostalgic? Cruel? Distant? Would she assume that Daryl had told him everything once she’d left, dropping him in the shit and damaging his relationship with Merle beyond repair? Would she judge him because he’d kept it to himself for all these years, leaving his brother in the dark in order to avoid driving him away? They were questions that Daryl couldn’t answer and had no desire to. And so, he walked.
The other image whirling around in his brain, of course, was her smile as she cupped his face in her hands, her mouth descending on his. He couldn’t get the feel of it out of his head. Neither one of them had mentioned it and he couldn’t imagine she was even thinking about it given everything that had happened after, but the truth was that they’d come very close to crossing a line. What would have happened had she led him back to her tent? He thought he could see where it had been heading, but maybe he’d been wrong. He wasn’t good at reading the signs and it had been a long time since a girl had looked at him that way, so maybe she’d just intended for them to talk. Maybe, once the buzz of inebriation had worn off, she would have let him down gently and sent him on his way. It was killing him not knowing where he stood, but he wasn’t tactless enough to bring it up now, even as he stroked his thumb over her knuckles, wordlessly encouraging her to keep moving, to keep going. As far as she knew, there was no other choice.
‘We’re losing light,’ he pointed out eventually, on the third day after the party had ended in a slaughter. ‘Should set up camp here.’
She only nodded, letting her bag drop to the floor as she went robotically about the routine that they’d fallen in to over the past couple of nights, setting up a perimeter with the wire and tin cans that they’d salvaged from what was left of her camp and digging out a small hollow in which to build a fire. Daryl swept through the bushes nearby, checking for signs of danger, and, finding none, returned to find her crouched beside the feeble flame, fanning it gently as it built. ‘Have we got food?’
His heart broke a little as he shook his head, his stomach twisting painfully with hunger. The herd sweeping through had driven any wildlife out of the area and, despite his tracking skills, Daryl had failed miserably to kill them any dinner. It would be the third night of going to sleep hungry and he felt responsible as her mouth tightened into a thin line. ‘M’sorry.’
‘It’s okay.’ She settled down in the dirt, her head falling into her hands as she let out a shaky breath. ‘It’s okay. We’ll be fine.’
‘We will.’ He dropped down beside her, resting his bow against a tree and rubbing his hand over her back in soothing circles. ‘S’the herd, tha’s all. Scared e’rythin’ away. Won’t be long ‘fore they come outta hidin’ then I’ll hunt ya down a feast, I promise.’
That earned him a small smile, enough to cause his heartbeat to falter as she leaned into his side. ‘I don’t know what I’d do without you, Dixon. You’re always saving me.’
‘You are. What you did for me back then, what you’re doing for me now… I don’t know how I can ever thank you.’
‘Ya don’t gotta thank me, girl. I’d do anythin’ for you, ya know that.’
‘’N’ I know yer hurtin’, grievin’ or whatever, but if ya wanna talk or somethin’, I’m here.’
‘I know that too.’ His arm slid around her waist and she nestled closer, turning her face into his neck, her lips grazing the sensitive spot above his collarbone. She must have felt him stiffen, because she did it again and this time he could feel her mouth curve against his skin. ‘I guess we never talked did we, about what happened before…’
She tailed off and he squeezed her tighter, feeling her push through the images that had flooded her brain at the memory. ‘S’alright. We don’t gotta if y’ain’t ready.’
‘I am.’ She steeled herself, turning to him with an expression that he couldn’t quite read. ‘I need you to know what I’m feeling, Dixon. It’s just us out here now, you and me, and I am so glad you’re here. I don’t want anything simmering beneath the surface that might tear us apart, okay?’
He swallowed hard. ‘I get it.’
‘Okay, so, obviously, I like you,’ she began. ‘You walked back in to my life and I felt like I was that messed-up teenager again, stumbling over my words and making a fool of myself in front of the guy I’ve got a crush on. But it’s more than that. You walk into that camp and I feel safe again for the first time since this all started. I feel like I’m home when I’m with you. I felt it twenty years ago and I still feel it now. And I’m sorry if that’s not what you wanna hear, but I needed to say it. It’s you and me, Dixon. I guess it’s always gonna feel right.’
He’d been worrying at his bottom lip with his teeth as she spoke, barely able to process her words. Never in his wildest dreams would he have expected her to feel that way and, now that she was telling him that she did, he didn’t know how to react. It still felt wrong as much as it felt right to him. She was his brother’s girl first and the way things had ended between them… It hadn’t exactly been amicable. And now, everything she knew about the man he’d become was based on a lie and she’d fallen for it hook, line and sinker, just like he’d fallen for her all over again.
She was waiting for him to speak, to say something, anything, and he cleared his throat as he tried to find his voice. ‘So, when ya kissed me back there, that was ‘cause ya wanted…’
‘You,’ she finished for him. ‘I wanted you. I still do.’
‘Right.’ He saw the moment she recognised his struggle and noted that her reaction seemed to be almost instinctive as she reached for his face and drew his mouth down to hers. Her kiss was different this time, more tentative without the faux-confidence of alcohol in her system. Her lips were softer, less demanding, and she whimpered when his arms slipped around her and tugged her closer. He was in control now, deepening the kiss as he explored her, tasting her and toying with her as she fell to pieces in his arms. She was right - it felt like coming home: the softness of her body as it melded against his and the small breathy noise she made when he pulled away; the warmth of her fingers as they grazed over his arms, kneading at the muscles as he tensed beneath her touch.
‘Daryl.’ When his name fell from her lips, he let go of the last shred of control he had left, laying her back on the leaf-littered ground so he could lower himself down on top of her, planting a forearm either side of her head so he could hover over her and press heated kisses down her neck and along the dipped neckline of her tank top. Her hands had slipped beneath his shirt again, her nails scraping over his skin. ‘Please.’
There was nothing else then but the sound of her voice husking in his ear, her soft moans as he moved above her, claiming her as his for the first time, clothing tossed aside as the physical and emotional barriers between them melted away; the sweet, spicy scent of her surrounding him, flooding into his lungs and filling him with ecstasy; the salty taste of her sweat-slicked skin and the feel of her all around him. He was sure that in reality it was quick, animalistic, raw, as all of the hurt and lust and confusion built up into something that exploded within them at the same moment, sending them crashing back down to earth, clinging to each other desperately. But to him it felt momentous, like his world had righted itself on its axis, like the dead coming back to life and everything that had happened afterwards had been driving him towards this very moment. For the first time, everything made sense.
Afterwards, they lay together in the dirt, panting as they held each other close, their eyes locked on each other as the waves of pleasure ebbed away. She was shaking and Daryl reached for his jacket, pulling it over her as best he could to fend off the cold. There was nothing he could do to quell her hunger though as he heard her stomach grumble quietly, his own churning as he tried to push down his human needs. He didn’t want anything to ruin this moment, but the truth of the matter was that she was his now, his girl, his responsibility, and they both needed food if they were going to make it.
‘I want ya t’ stay here tomorrow, alright?’ he murmured as he pressed a soft kiss to her forehead, rubbing his nose against hers when she lifted her head to look at him. ‘Perimeter’s secure. Should be fine for a couple o’ hours.’
‘Why? Where are you going?’
‘Got an idea of somewhere I can hit up for supplies. Ain’t sure how safe it is though. Better t’ go alone, get in ‘n’ out quick.’
‘Dixon, I don’t think-’
‘Trust me, okay? I’ll be fine. I’ll come back for ya, I promise.’
She nodded, but he could tell she wasn’t happy when she rolled away from him, though she shuffled until her back was pressed against his chest. ‘I can’t lose you, Daryl, not now.’
‘Ya won’t.’ He knew it was selfish of him to exaggerate the risks, but he needed her to understand why he couldn’t take her with him. In reality, there was next to no risk at all. He knew exactly where he was going and he knew he’d find exactly what they needed. He’d shot Merle down the last time he’d talked about robbing the quarry camp, taking their supplies and taking off, but now, he realised, that plan was the only one he had. He’d leave before dawn, be in and out before they stirred. The only real challenge would be staying off the radar of whoever was on watch duty, but he could play it stealthy when he needed to. It still didn’t sit right with him, but as he watched over Y/N as she drifted off to sleep, he decided exactly where his loyalty lay.
The end of year party. Never in a million years did Daryl think he’d end up at one of these lame school events, yet here he was. He knew Y/N had wanted to come. She was going back to stay with some friends in Philly over the summer and they’d all be talking about their last dances, and she wanted to be able to weigh in and talk about this, though it wasn’t much to talk about. A bonfire in one corner of the playing field and some cheesy pop songs being pumped out over the sound system. There were a few discreet kegs that some of the jocks had stowed away beneath the bleachers, as if the teachers would never figure that out, but so far they were turning a blind eye. Didn’t really matter to him. Daryl wasn’t drinking anyway. After the drunken confessions he’d shared with Y/N the week before, he figured he was better off staying in control and not losing his head. Besides, she was the only high he needed as he watched her spin in lazy circles to the music, her plastic cup swinging from her fingers as she stretched her arms out, her head tipped back as she laughed. He knew that if he could see them her eyes would be glazed, that he’d be able to smell the beer on her breath when she came closer, but he didn’t mind. He kinda liked being in a position to look out for her anyway.
She was dancing closer now, moving towards where he sat on the grass with his legs stretched out in front of him. ‘Dixon!’
‘You havin’ fun?’
‘Best time ever!’ She startled him as she dropped into his lap, her arms snaking around his neck as her fingers weaved into his hair. ‘Come and dance with me.’
‘Please.’ She pouted at him. ‘S’no fun dancing on my own.’
‘Thought you were havin’ the best time ever,’ he challenged her and she giggled drunkenly.
‘Okay, Mr Know-It-All, shut up.’ Her face turned serious as their eyes met and she stroked a finger over his cheek thoughtfully. ‘Thank you for coming with me. I know you didn’t really wanna.’
‘Din’t want ya to have to come on ya own.’
‘Is there anything you wouldn’t do for me?’
‘I’m gonna miss you, Daryl.’ They hadn’t really talked about it, the fact that she was leaving in a few days, first for the summer, then for college. It was the grey cloud on his horizon and he’d chosen to ignore it, knowing that no matter what he did, that rain was gonna come. ‘I can’t believe I’m not gonna be able to see you every day.’
‘Are you gonna miss me?’
‘Course I am,’ he reassured her. ‘Yer all I got, Y/N.’
‘So, why haven’t you asked me to stay?’
He scoffed at how pathetically girly she sounded, so unlike her usual self. Had he thought about telling her not to go? Of course, but it wasn’t his place to ask that of her. Besides, he could see her potential. She needed to get out of this dead-end town and go see the world. He didn’t want her to end up stuck with him, resenting him because of what he’d asked her to give up. ‘’Cause ya gotta go. Yer better than this place ‘n’ ya gotta go out there ‘n’ take over the world or somethin’.’
‘What if my world is here?’
He opened his mouth to respond when he caught on to her meaning and his jaw snapped shut as he gazed up at her. She looked beautiful in the glow of the bonfire, her eyes dark with kohl and those cherry red lips… Goddammit, if only things had been different. ‘I can’t be that for ya, Y/N. We talked about this.’
‘But what if you came with me? Then we wouldn’t need to worry about your brother and-’
‘I’d just hold ya back.’
She shook her head. ‘You wouldn’t. I don’t even know if I can do this without you. I don’t wanna leave you, Daryl. I don’t wanna go.’
‘Ya have to.’ He gave her a small half-smile, one corner of his mouth quirking up as he cocked his head to one side, watching her wide eyes fill with tears. ‘C’mon, girl, yer stronger than this.’
‘Not without you, I’m not.’
‘Yeah, y’are. Ya were badass when I met ya, so don’t gimme that bull.’
She perked up a little at that, squaring her shoulders and tossing her hair back. ‘I am kind of a badass, right?’
‘Total badass, yeah.’
‘For what?’ He frowned at her as she tugged on the ends of his hair, pulling a growl from his throat.
‘For always knowing the right thing to say. And for putting up with me when I’m drunk and emotional and clingy.’
‘Kinda like ya clingy,’ he admitted, biting his lip when she squirmed in his lap. ‘’Sides, I get it. I hate the thought of ya leavin’, but it’s for the best.’
She sighed, her fingers trailing over his shoulders to draw lazy patterns over his chest through his shirt. ‘You ever feel like we kinda missed our chance?’
Daryl had let her convince him to dance with her then, motivated more by the fear that it might be his only chance than by any desire to actually move to the music. They’d compromised, holding each other in the shadows of the treeline and swaying gently to the beat. Her eyes sparkled as she watched him watching her and he felt his body react, urging him to pull her closer. He ignored the instinct, letting her guide him as she stepped forward, resting her head on his shoulder as the song ended and another began, and shortly afterwards he’d led her away into the forest, taking her home before she had any more to drink and her father placed the blame on him.
He could feel her reluctance for the night to end as she dragged her feet, slowing their pace almost to a halt, before darting off between the trees, swinging around the thick trunks and grinning at him as though expecting him to give chase. ‘Y/N, knock it off. Yer old man’s gonna kill me if I don’t get ya back soon.’
‘No, he won’t,’ she insisted. ‘He just pretends to care so that he doesn’t look like a bad father. He won’t even notice what time I walk through that door.’ It was a depressing reality and yet she said it with a mischievous smile on her face as she disappeared out of sight again, only the rustle of her movement through the undergrowth keeping him alert to her whereabouts.
‘Where ya goin’?’
‘You’re the tracker,’ she called back. ‘Come find me.’
Her laughter was contagious and he took off through the trees, following her voice, spinning wildly round when she doubled-back, losing his bearings for a moment. ‘Y/N?’
‘You know, you’re really not very good at this.’
‘No excuses, Dixon.’
Again, the sing-song sound of her voice led him and he knew he was close when he could hear her breathing. He paused, listening, straining to figure out which direction her soft pants were coming from, when he felt something ghost over his back and then she was there in front of him, snaking a tongue out to wet her bottom lip as she leaned in. He wasn’t expecting the kiss and for a moment he was struck dumb, unable to do anything except revel in the feel of her mouth moving on his. But then her hands were creeping up to tug at his hair again and he groaned, wrapping her up in his arms as he backed her towards a tree, pinning her there with his hips so he could cup her face and kiss her back greedily. She tasted like beer and the sugar sweetness of the punch, and she smelt like smoky bonfire, and he thought if he could wrap all of his memories of her up in this moment, then he could carry that with him for the rest of his life. When he finally broke away they were both breathing hard, and it took a second or two before he could rasp, ‘What was that?’
‘Something to remember me by.’
Y/N was still sleeping when he left and he wondered for a moment whether or not to wake her. He decided against it, knowing it would lead to more questions about where he was headed that he didn’t have time to fend off right now. The perimeter was still set up, so she’d be alerted to anything that approached with enough time to get her shit together, he was confident of that. So, he dressed quietly and slipped away as she began to stir.
Now, as he stood peering out from the treeline at the camp that was still, technically, his home, he couldn’t have felt more like an outsider. He wondered if he’d been missed around the campfire the last few nights and thought he probably hadn’t, unless Merle had gotten rowdy and they’d needed his assistance to shut him down. That was pretty much all he was good for for these people, he told himself. Not for Y/N though. For her he was vital and that steeled him to do what needed to be done. He could see the old man on the top of the RV, his binoculars hanging from his neck as he thumbed through an old paperback, but nobody else appeared to be up yet, a small mercy for which he was grateful. He didn’t want to talk about this. He knew petty theft was the coward’s option, but it was all he could bring himself to do.
The group’s supplies were kept in a small tent towards the back of the sleeping area, so Daryl followed the treeline along, keeping to the shadows until he got closer. From his new position, he couldn’t see Dale over the top of the Grimes’ tent so he’d just have to trust that that meant that Dale couldn’t see him either, cross his fingers and go for it. Drawing his knife from his belt, he shouldered his bow, took a deep breath and got ready to move.
Daryl darted out of the shadows, moving fast, keeping low to the ground in the hope that the large tent inhabited by Rick and his family would shield him from Dale’s view. His target, one of the smaller tents where the group kept their supplies, was thankfully towards the rear of the camp, and he reached it easily, dropping to the ground behind it, breathing hard. He had his knife clutched in his fist, and he brandished it now, easing the point into the rough canvas and drawing the blade downwards, creating a slit in the fabric that would allow him to creep in and get what he needed without having to risk being seen approaching from the front. He made to slide inside, but his bow made him bulky and he cursed under his breath, raising it up and over his head and resting it on the ground beside him. There was nowhere else he could stow it without risking another dash back to the treeline, and he figured that was more likely to get him caught than leaving the weapon out in the open. Now, he could slip inside, though it was still a struggle with his broad shoulders and he thought how much easier it would have been had he been able to bring Y/N along. She would be far better at this whole stealthy breaking and entering thing, he was sure. He was light on his feet and fast, but she had size on her side.
Under the cover of the canvas, he swung his bag down to rest on the groundsheet and he did a quick mental inventory of what the group had available and what they might be able to spare. He might have sunk to his brother’s depths in his decision to steal from them, but he didn’t want to leave them dangerously short. They had kids among their numbers and he didn’t think he could do anything that might endanger the life of a… No, that was a bad train of thought, his heart racing as his brain tried to drag him back through the years, and he shook his head, bringing his focus back to the present. He couldn’t let himself get distracted now.
To his left was a diminishing stack of canned food and he took only a couple, sliding them into his pack carefully to avoid them clunking together. There was a generous pile of jerky, which suited him, and he helped himself to several packets, along with a box of cereal bars which, if rationed, should last them a little while. They had a sizeable supply of water which he knew was collected from a source nearby, so he filled the rest of the space he had with bottles, vital when he didn’t know where they were heading next. Satisfied with his haul, he turned to leave, pleased that the whole ordeal had been easier than he’d imagined, but the glint of guns in Rick’s munitions bag caught his eye and he stooped to examine the boxes of bullets stacked inside. He knew Y/N carried, thought he knew what gun it was that she tucked into her waistband, and he added the appropriate box of ammo to his load, just in case.
Movement to the side of the tent caught his eye and he ducked instinctively, unsure of the angle of the sun and whether he would be seen silhouetted against the canvas. He tried to keep his body below the height of the larger water bottles, hoping he wouldn’t be detected. If they caught him now with his bag full of supplies, he wasn’t sure what they’d do. It sure as hell wouldn’t go down too well.
‘Morning,’ he heard Rick’s voice call, and he was answered by several others: Glenn, he thought, Andrea and perhaps Carol. They all sounded tired, voices still thick with sleep, and it was obvious that they had only just surfaced from their sleeping bags. ‘Merle, your brother back yet?’
‘Not yet.’ His brother’s familiar drawl had him squeezing his eyes shut, the sense of his own betrayal so intense that it was like a piercing pain in his head. ‘Said he was goin’ out further. Should be back tonight I’d reckon, ‘less he got his dumb ass bit or somethin’.’
‘Alright then.’ He could see Rick’s outline through the fabric now as the sheriff stretched, his hands coming to rest on his hips, and the slight figure of Lori as she crawled into the daylight and joined him.
‘Are you gonna talk to Shane today?’ Her voice was lowered, and he knew the conversation wasn’t meant for anyone else to hear.
‘I’m gonna try.’
‘And you really think the CDC is the way to go?’
‘I’m sure of it. It makes sense, Lori, think about it.’
‘Oh, I have been thinking about it.’
‘I’m gonna need your support in this. It’ll end up going to a vote, you know that.’
‘So, have I got it?’
There was a loaded pause and then only the sound of footsteps retreating, as Rick sighed huffed in frustration. Dammit, he couldn’t help but feel for the guy. Daryl wasn’t sure if he was aware that his wife and Shane had been at it like damn rabbits before he arrived in camp, but he knew first-hand that love triangles were damn messy things. No one escaped unscathed.
As the voices around him faded away, he let out the breath he’d been holding, counting slowly to ten before crawling towards the opening that he’d created and easing his body out, trying to muffle the sound as much as possible. His bow was where he’d left it and he shouldered it as he took off towards the forest, not daring to look back to find out if he’d been seen. But there were no shouts of recognition, no thud of heavy boots behind him, and the relief that flooded through him as the bag of supplies weighed heavy on his shoulder had him on a high, despite the nagging voice in his head that scolded him for taking from the people that had taken him in, that were depending on him. He had someone else depending on him now and, he realised, she came before everyone this time around. He wasn’t going to make the same mistakes again.
As he began the walk back to the small makeshift camp where he’d left Y/N, he let himself enjoy the tranquility, just for a moment. The sun was already warm, even this early in the day, and it shone through the trees, casting dappled shadows over the undergrowth. It prickled over his skin, soothing the niggling pains that had sprung up from the endless days of walking and his exertions the night before. Damn, he’d used muscles he’d forgotten he had as he drove her to the edge, and now he ached deliciously. He still couldn’t believe that it had happened, that she’d let him touch her, take her, claim her, and he wondered how his brother can have experienced that and still been fool enough to drive her away. All Daryl really wanted to do was wrap himself around her and hold on tight, fearing that at some point she’d come to her senses and cast him out into the cold.
The look of excitement on her face when she came into view though quieted all his doubts, and, as he drew nearer, she flung herself into his arms.
He chuckled against her hair as he held her to him, growling a little when she dug her nails into his shoulders. ‘Dunno what ya mean.’
‘You! Sneaking out while I was sleeping! I swear to God, Dixon, you scared the hell outta me.’
‘Told ya I was goin’ today.’
‘Yeah, but I thought you’d at least say goodbye.’ She pulled away from him, glaring up at him though he could see from the slight quirk of her lips that she wasn’t really mad.
‘Didn’ need to say g’bye. Knew I was comin’ back.’ He shrugged off his bow and the pack full of supplies when she stepped back, letting them drop to the ground before he took her into his arms again. ‘Got food.’
‘Did you now?’
‘Uh huh. Ya hungry?’
‘Not for food.’ Her smile was lascivious as she tugged at his shirt, letting out a soft moan of contentment when he bent his head to kiss her, still revelling in the fact that he was apparently allowed to do that. His hands slipped to the backs of her thigh, hoisting her up so that he had better access to her mouth as she wrapped her legs around him, her fingers weaving in to his hair to hold him close. ‘This feels good, right? Us, I mean.’
Her breath hitched in her throat as he kissed up her neck, enjoying the way tightened her grip on him, her eyes drifting closed as his stubble scratched against her skin. ‘Daryl…’
He was seconds away from losing control, lowering her to the ground and taking what he needed from her, when a cruel laugh stilled his movements, and he let her slide down his body to the ground, her eyes wide as she glanced around in shock. She was looking past him, her mouth dropping open as she processed what she was seeing, but Daryl didn’t need to turn around. He would recognise that laugh anywhere, could already picture his brother stepping out from behind the bushes, face twisted into a cold mask of mirth despite the fact that he’d be hurting somewhere deep down, his pain caused by his brother, at the sight before him. Her gasp of fear, of disbelief, confirmed it for him, and he finally spun to face Merle as he emerged from the shadows, his rifle raised before him. ‘Well, well, well, little brother. Looks like you have some explaining to do.’
Daryl heard Merle before he saw him. He was whistling, some indistinguishable tune broken here and there as his brother paused to call an over-enthusiastic greeting to the neighbours. Daryl could imagine the sneers that crossed their faces as they hurried inside, slamming their doors with more force than was necessary to emphasise the point that Merle Dixon was definitely not wanted. Another stint in lock-up had just lowered their already disdainful opinions on the eldest son and his jaunty attitude as he returned home after just over a year did nothing to prove them wrong. But then, Merle didn’t do remorse. Never had. As he rounded the corner into view, the shit-eating grin painted over his face only drove that point home, and his time behind bars, Daryl noted, had done nothing to lessen his swagger as he strutted down the street. Some things never changed and it seemed that Merle was one of them.
For his part, Daryl wasn’t sure how he felt about his brother’s return. Things between them had been strained for a while before he got busted, though they’d never addressed the cause of the tension, and it had certainly been quieter without him around. However, with Y/N gone and George having drifted off to do his own thing when school finished, Merle was pretty much all he’d had left. He’d by lying if he said it was his brother’s company he craved, but he was too damn lonely to care at this point, so he raised a hand and levered himself to his feet as the sparkly-eyed redneck reached the porch.
‘My oh my, this is quite the welcome party,’ Merle drawled as he climbed the steps, raising a brow at Daryl who gave him a sheepish smile. He was the only one there and that more through chance than any sort of intention. He just didn’t have anywhere else to be. 'Old man home?’
'Nah, out drinkin’.’
'It ain’t even noon.’ Merle leant back, placing a hand over his heart in a fake show of shock at his father’s alcoholism. 'Well, guess if ya can’t beat 'em, join 'em.’
He shoved past Daryl into the house, emerging again moments later minus his bag and with a beer in hand. 'Yer gon’ end up jus’ like him if y’ain’t careful.’
'Nah, brother, ain’t gonna happen.’ He sounded so sure of himself, unusually chipper given the turn that the conversation had taken, and Daryl could tell he had news that he was just busting to share. 'See, I done some thinkin’, sittin’ in that cell o’ mine.’
'Hope ya din’t hurt yerself.’ Merle’s response to that was to slap him round the back of the head and Daryl bit his lip, determining to keep mouth shut whilst his brother spat out whatever it was that he had to say.
'See, I figured that Dad’s whole problem was that he din’t have a strong woman to keep him in line. Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved my mama, God rest her soul, but she weren’t never no match for our old man’s temper.’ Daryl nodded in agreement and he continued. 'Well, I said to myself, I gotta get me one o’ those ballsy types, ain’t afraid to shout me down when I’m gettin’ like I get, then enjoy the makin’ up after, 'n’ I realised I’d already found one.’
Daryl felt his stomach dip as his brother grinned at him, suddenly knowing exactly where this was going. 'Ya did?’
'Y/N, man. Damn, girl was just what I needed 'n’ I messed it up.’
'S’a few years too late t’ be realising that now.’
His grin grew bigger and Daryl’s discomfort only increased. 'Apparently not.’
'Ya spoken to her?’
'Wrote her at college.’
'How’d ya even know where t’ send it?’
He shrugged. 'Knew what school she was at so just sent it there 'n’ hoped the fates would intervene.’
“N’ did they?’
The smirk that spread across Merle’s face cut his heart in two and he dropped his gaze to the ground, scuffing his boot against a patch of splintered wood. 'Course they did, baby brother. S’meant t’ be, I’m tellin’ ya.’
'So, she wrote ya back?’ It was too awful for Daryl to even contemplate. She was his and, even if he hadn’t spoken to her for a while, he still felt fiercely possessive over her. That one kiss they’d shared still crept into his thoughts when he least expected it and dominated his dreams.
'Damn right she did,’ Merle crowed. 'We’ve been havin’ ourselves quite the little exchange of late 'n’ I’m tellin’ ya, she still wants me. I can feel it.’
'Ain’t gonna do ya much good,’ Daryl grumbled, failing in his attempt to maintain an air of indifference. 'She’s miles away. What’s even the point of tryin’?’
'Well, now, that’s where you’re wrong, man. She’s comin’ back.’
Daryl turned wide eyes on his brother, his jaw dropping open as he considered whether that could possibly be true. Why in the hell would she be doing that? She’d made it out, was free of the deadbeat town he called home. There was no way in hell she’d be crawling back to her folks after so long, was there? 'Nah, man, that don’t make no sense.’
'Sure it does. She’s done with school. Graduates tomorrow. Then she’s comin’ back to crash with her folks 'til she figures out what’s next.’
'She won’t stay long.’ It was a prayer more than a certainty, and it only caused Merle to square his shoulders, shooting a wink at Daryl as he drew a packet of powder from his pocket.
'Guess that all depends on how hard I try t’ convince her.’
She was coming home. That simple fact whirled around Daryl’s mind as he lay in bed that night, stretched out on the sagging mattress with his arms crossed behind his head. He still couldn’t work out what exactly that meant. When she’d first left, they’d made the effort to keep in touch but it hadn’t lasted. She used to write him long, articulate letters detailing the little things that made her smile, describing the new friends that she’d made and insisting on how much she missed him, how no one had replaced him in her affections. But he was shit at that stuff and his attempts to match her were embarrassing so in the end he just stopped replying. It had taken a while, months in fact, but eventually the letters had slowed and then ceased completely, and, just like that, that chapter of his life was over. Done.
She hadn’t bothered to come home, spending her holidays in Philly, so it wasn’t like there was a chance of bumping into her on the street. The one time she had returned for her Grandma’s funeral, he’d been away on a fishing trip with Merle and his old man had spent the entire week too wasted to remember if anybody had called by looking for him. He figured that was probably for the best. Seeing her again would’ve just stirred all those feelings up inside him and he’d worked real hard to push them down, smothering them 'til they barely smouldered anymore. Until now. The news of her return had fanned those embers until the flame was burning in his chest, hot and fierce, scorching him from the inside out. He wanted to see her, needed to, and yet he didn’t even know if that was his place anymore. Could you go that long without talking to someone and expect to just pick up where you left off? Well, he thought bitterly, it seemed she’d done just that with Merle.
The thought of her correspondence with his brother wasn’t sitting well with him, tying his stomach into knots as he tried to figure out exactly what they’d have to talk about. Honestly, he’d thought she’d grown to hate Merle, but he supposed they’d only really had the one fight which had brought things to a sudden, climatic ending. Maybe she was realising that she’d been wrong, regretting throwing what they had away over one argument, remembering what it was that she’d liked about him. Stranger things had happened, he guessed, though not many. And what about all those things she’d whispered to him in the darkness on the school playing field? Had she meant any of them or was she just lonely? Maybe he’d just been the easier option.
As dawn crept around, Daryl found that sleep still evaded him and he knew in his gut that he wouldn’t be getting any rest until he saw her face. He was done for, totally and completely under her spell just at the simple notion of being close to her again, and that was a dangerous hold for her to have.
Daryl was frozen to the spot. He couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t think… He couldn’t do anything except stand and watch his lie unravel. Merle hadn’t recognised Y/N straight away, that became clear. He was still regarding them both through narrowed eyes, his tongue snaking out over his lips as he smirked at his brother.
‘Yer out here pretendin’ to be huntin’ ‘n’ instead yer bumpin’ uglies with this cute lil’ piece right here. ‘N’ there was me feelin’ guilty ‘bout not pullin’ my weight. If this is what ya mean by ‘providin’ for the group’ then, hell, I gotta tell ya, I’m all in!’
‘What? Don’t go all shy on me now. Gotta say, man, I’m proud o’ ya. God’s honest truth, I was startin’ to think ya was battin’ for the other team if ya get my drift.’ When Daryl growled deep in his chest, Merle only laughed, shaking his head in amusement. ‘Oh, don’t take it personal, like. I’m just sayin’, y’ain’t never been one to go chasin’ after a skirt ‘n’ the ones ya did bring home weren’t much to look at. But this one… Geez, brother, she could hit me up anytime.’
He was edging closer, his gaze drifting over Y/N’s curves, too distracted by her figure to have even bothered to look at her face yet. Typical Merle. All about what he could grab hold of rather than what’d be looking back at him. It had tended to be the other way round for Daryl. He had chosen his past conquests ‘cause of their eyes. It was the first thing he noticed about a woman. Y/N had the prettiest eyes he’d ever seen, whether they were lined with heavy kohl like they’d been back when they first met, or edged by tiny creases that deepened when she smiled. Now, as he spared a glance at her, they were wide with shock and watery with tears, and he knew the time would come when he could see resentment and betrayal there, too. He hated that.
‘Wha’s a matter, guys? Pissed I interrupted ya ‘fore ya got yer rocks off? Ya can carry on if ya wanna, trust me, I don’ mind. I ain’t got nothin’ better to do today than watch you two crazy kids gettin’ freaky.’
That was it. Daryl felt his temper flare, and he snapped. ‘Shut up!’
‘Oooh, baby brother never was one for the, err, more public displays of affection now, were ya, Dare? Always wondered if that was ‘cause he was hidin’ somethin’.’ He wiggled his little finger, antagonising Daryl further, and he moved towards Merle, intent on wiping that damn smirk off his face, but he halted in his tracks as Y/N finally found her voice, tearing the brothers’ attention away from each other as she stepped forwards, separating them with her body. There it was now, that resentment that Daryl knew was coming, but her gaze only lingered on him for a second before she turned to the older Dixon, her words thick with emotion when she finally spoke.
‘M-Merle? Merle Dixon?’
‘M-Merle? Merle Dixon?’ Y/N’s eyes were wide, her hands shaking as she took in the man before her. ‘What- What… How is that even possible?’ She turned to Daryl, her brow creasing into a deep frown. ‘Daryl? What the hell is this? What the hell is happening here?’
Daryl couldn’t speak. All he could do was watch in horror as recognition spread over his brother’s face.
‘Well, I’ll be damned. Y/N? Shit, girl, that you?’
‘What exactly d’ya think yer doin’ with baby bro here, huh? D’ya forget which brother it is that gets yer juices flowin’? That it?’
‘Merle-’ Daryl tried to interject, finally finding his voice, but Merle was on a role.
‘Nah, see, this here don’ look like no happy reunion t’ me. This looks like somethin’ tha’s been goin’ on. Which means ya knew she was alive,’ he spat, rounding on the younger Dixon, ‘’N’ ya didn’ say nothin’, not a damn word.’
‘Wha’? It ain’t like that? S’that what ya was gonna say?’ The sneer on his face reminded Daryl painfully of his father but he stood his ground as Merle advanced. ‘Well, why don’t ya tell me what it’s like then, Daryl? Huh? Explain it to ya dumb big brother.’
‘I-I… It ain’t like that. I jus’-’
‘I thought you were dead.’ Y/N’s voice wavered as she spoke over him, shutting down his pitiful explanation. ‘I thought you were dead and he… He let me think that. How could you do that to me?’ Tears spilled down her cheeks as she looked to Daryl for answers.
‘Look, I’m sorry, alright. It was stupid. I jus’-’
‘Just what? Lied? Used me?’
‘Do you know how many people have lost everything? I have nobody left, don’t you get that? I thought you were like me! I thought you were alone! And this whole time…’
A rustle in the undergrowth over to Daryl’s left caught his attention and he span to assess the situation, taking measure of the threat as several walkers approached, drawn in by the raised voices. Stooping to retrieve his crossbow from the ground, he brought it up in front of him, sending a bolt flying through the air and watching as the corpse nearest to him dropped. Merle had also sprung into action, firing off several shots, each one hitting its mark, whilst Y/N was still frozen to the spot, rendered useless by her shock.
When the area was clear, Daryl took a deep breath and shouldered his weapon again, reaching for the pack that was still full of stolen supplies. ‘Look, we can’t do this here. Gon’ bring a whole damn herd down on our asses.’
Merle nodded, grudgingly. ‘Fine. Let’s get back to camp, but mark my words, brother, this ain’t over. You got a hell of a lot of explainin’ to do.’
‘Camp?’ Her little whimper broke his heart as Y/N focused on just another lie on Daryl’s long list. ‘Of course, you have a camp! Is anything you told me remotely true, Daryl?’
‘No! Don’t say anything!’ She held up a hand to silence him. ‘I wouldn’t believe a word that came out of your mouth anyway, not after this.’
Daryl only grunted, turning his back on the both of them to make his way back to camp. The bag weighed heavy on his shoulder, physical evidence of the betrayal that he knew he couldn’t deny any longer, and he hitched it up further, grimacing when the cans inside clunked together. How the hell had he thought he could actually pull this off? And what sorta sick, twisted person did you have to be to invent a world where your brother was dead? It had only been a matter of time before his lies were revealed, he knew that now, and, if Y/N and Merle became close again, bonding over their anger, it would only be a matter of time before more painful truths came out.
Thankfully, for now, they both remained silent, letting the archer take the lead, winding through the undergrowth as the sun rose higher in the sky, throwing dappled shadows over their bodies. Daryl could feel their confusion and hurt radiating towards him, their glaring eyes burning through the back of his shirt, but he refused to turn and face them. They had every right to be mad and he needed to use this time to try and find a way to explain that wouldn’t completely tear him and his brother apart, a way that would allow the lies of so many years ago to stay in the past. Anything else would end in disaster and he really would lose everything.
The murmur of voices alerted him to the fact that they were nearly there and he altered his direction slightly, bringing them closer to the treeline. A muffled gasp behind him followed by a soft thud had him whirling round to see that Y/N had fallen, her boot caught on a dense tangle of brambles and instinctively he backtracked to offer her his hand, but Merle was already there, slipping his arms under hers to haul her to her feet.
‘I got it.’
‘No, I can-’
‘I said I got it.’ Merle’s eyes flashed as he stared his brother down and Daryl stepped back, though he couldn’t fight the urge to roll his eyes. This was just what he needed, Merle acting like the big man, trying to take care of her single-handed and pushing Daryl out. ‘I don’ think she wants yer hands on her right now anyway.’
‘Wha’s that s’posed to mean?’
‘It means, little brother, that you’ve done fucked up big time, runnin’ round tellin’ lies.’
‘Ya don’t know what yer talkin’ ‘bout, Merle!’
‘I reckon I know enough!’
‘I don’t need either of you to speak for me.’ Y/N bit out from between gritted teeth as her eyes flickered between the warring Dixons. She shrugged out of Merle’s grasp, steadying herself as she moved away, shaking her head. ‘Honest to God, you haven’t changed a bit, either of you. Grow up! I’m not some little girl that needs you to look after her,’ she snapped at Merle as he reached out to take hold of her elbow, letting his hand fall back to his side, disheartened. ‘And I’m not some kinda toy you can just manipulate.’ That was aimed at Daryl. ‘God, you just made it all up, everything you told me! Like I was just a character in some story you conjured up in your head! Is that how bad things are now, Dixon? Gotta rely on a little escapism to keep you going?’
‘No, Y/N, I swear, I-’
Once again, he was interrupted, but this time it was by Rick’s Southern drawl as footsteps crashed through the vegetation that bordered the forest. ‘Daryl? Merle? What’s goin’ out here?’
‘Could hear your voices from across the camp,’ Shane added, appearing behind the concerned-looking sheriff. ‘Gonna bring a whole bunch of trouble down on us if you’re not careful.’
When neither of the brothers responded, their eyes fell on the newcomer, and Rick cocked his head to one side, looking back to them questioningly. ‘Who’s this?’
Daryl waited for Merle to speak, opening his own mouth when his brother didn’t, but Y/N beat him to it, stepping forward and proffering her hand, drawing herself up and squaring her shoulders. If it weren’t for the tell-tale puffiness around her eyes, Daryl doubted anyone would have known the distress she was currently in. ‘I’m Y/N. Sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude. I was part of a camp over on the other side of the forest, but… Well, that’s gone now. Daryl and Merle, they, err, they thought it’d be okay if I came back with them. I can go though, if that’s gonna be a problem.’
‘It’s no problem,’ Rick reassured her, sighing when Shane shot him a pointed look. ‘It’s not. She hasn’t got anyone else.’
‘’Sides, she’s with us,’ Merle finally spoke up, fixing his steely gaze on Shane who still looked unsure. ‘Knew her before the world went to hell. These two crazy kids went t’ school together way back when. We can vouch for her.’
Daryl knew that the word of two no-good rednecks would hold little weight with the rest of the group, but Rick was already ushering her forward, leading her out of the trees and towards the small set-up they called home. ‘It’s okay. You’re safe now. We’ll get you set up with a tent and some clothes.’
Shane was still watching the two brothers who were studiously avoiding looking at each other, each shuffling uncomfortably. ‘What’s going on here?’
‘Nothin’,’ Daryl snapped defensively, cursing himself when he saw the man bristle.
‘What my little brother means,’ Merle added, slinging an arm around Daryl’s shoulders though his muscles were tensed, the movement awkward, ‘is that it’s nothin’ any o’ y’all need to worry about. Fam’ly stuff, that’s all.’
‘Right.’ Shane nodded. ‘Well, I’d appreciate it if you could keep your damn voices down, alright? You’ll get us all killed.’
He turned to walk away, Daryl making as if to follow him, when Merle’s grip on him tightened and he pulled him round so that they were face-to-face. ‘Oh, we ain’t done here.’
‘Yeah, we are.’
‘Nah, see, I was thinkin’, it was only the other day that I asked ya ‘bout her, whether ya thought she was still alive, ‘n’ ya din’t say nothin’, not a damn thing! ‘N’ then I walk into the woods, follow ya ‘cause yer sneakin’ about like ya got somethin’ to hide, ‘n’ she’s wrapped round ya like ivy on a tree. Ya wanna tell me what tha’s all about?’
‘Jus’ happened,’ Daryl shrugged, desperate to avoid the conversation until he’d had time to get his head straight. ‘Din’t mean nothin’.’
‘Oh really? Ya tellin’ me she don’t mean nothin’ to ya?’
‘I don’ know. Don’ really know what it means. S’new, tha’s all I meant.’
‘Well, s’funny, ‘cause what ya say ‘n’ what ya mean seem to be two very different things these days, Daryl.’
‘Look, I gotta make sure she’s okay.’ Once again, he turned to leave and, once again, Merle stopped him.
‘Y’ain’t gotta do nothin’ of the sort, little brother. She’s my ex, that means she’s my problem. I’ll sort it.’
‘She ain’t a problem!’
‘Ya keep rubbin’ up on her like that, she’s sure gonna be.’
‘Really? Ya stakin’ a claim, Merle?’ Daryl snarled. ‘What ya had with her was over years ago ‘n’ if ya remember that far back, she left ya. She don’t want ya no more, old man. She din’t want ya then ‘n’ she sure as hell don’t want ya now.’
‘Is that right?’ The older Dixon took a step forward so that the brothers were nose to nose, their chests heaving as they each fought to keep their tempers. ‘’Cause it seems to me, she ain’t really been given the choice. Did ya tell her I was dead, Dare? Is that true?’
Daryl couldn’t speak, the shame that wrapped itself around him suffocating as the tips of his ears reddened. He had. He had done that. He couldn’t deny it. He imagined how he’d have felt if Merle had done the same to him and he knew it would’ve damn near killed him.
‘Well, the truth’s out now ‘n’ I notice she ain’t so much as held yer hand since she laid eyes on me,’ Merle continued, a smirk quirking his lips as he tormented his brother. ‘So, maybe it ain’t so cut ‘n’ dry now y’ain’t the only Dixon on offer. That what ya were worried about?’
‘I’m tellin’ ya, brother, ya started a fight y’ain’t gonna win. That girl is mine. Always has been, always will be. S’just a matter of time ‘til she’s cosying up in my tent so ya better back the hell off.’
‘Oh, don’t push me, Darlena. Remember who it is yer talkin’ to. Ya know y’ain’t never gonna be strong enough t’ take me down, little brother. Yer still the weak, pathetic lil’ boy that let her slip through yer fingers back then. She might not see it yet, but she will. ‘N’ I’m gonna be there when she does.’
It was another week before Daryl finally saw Y/N. He’d been starting to doubt that she was back in town at all, though he had to admit, even if only to himself, that he’d been finding reasons to go out, afraid to stay at home in case she came by or, worse, in case she didn’t. He honestly didn’t know what she’d be like with him now that so much time had passed and he wasn’t sure he could take it if she was different, distant, especially now her and Merle seemed to be back on good terms. His brother hadn’t mentioned seeing her either, though Daryl wasn’t sure he’d tell him if he had. He must know it was driving Daryl crazy and that would be better than coke for the older Dixon.
Then suddenly, there she was, sitting at one of the small tables outside of a small cafe in the centre of town, sipping a coffee and scribbling in a notebook. She was so familiar, yet entirely different, and Daryl felt immediately uncomfortable, as though she was a completely new person. Gone were the pink streaks in her hair and the heavy kohl that lined her eyes. Gone were the patched jeans and ratty Doc Martens. The girl in front of him had an easy confidence that radiated from her and her outfit was casual but well-fitted and… well, grown-up, he supposed. Like she’d gone away a rebellious, misfit teenager and come back a young adult ready to take on the world.
Daryl cast a nervous glance over his own jeans, hanging low on his hips, fraying around the bottoms where they scuffed along the ground under the heels of his battered boots. His shirt was stained, one of Merle’s hand-me-downs, and he’d ripped the sleeves off, finding them too restrictive when he was out hunting. It was practical, but now it felt scruffy and dumb. He knew his hair could have done with a wash too, and he hadn’t bothered to tackle it with a pair of scissors for too long so that it fell into his eyes, but it hadn’t seemed to matter before now. Now it all felt wrong.
He was distracted from his harsh self-critique when the girl across the street finally noticed him, raising a hand to wave him over, a wide grin pulling at the corners of her mouth. The smile was the same, welcoming and bordered by cherry red lips. At least that was something.
‘Hey,’ Y/N greeted him, standing to wrap her arms around him, holding him tight for several beats before releasing him and stepping back to run an appraising eye over him. Daryl felt the tips of his ears redden under her scrutiny, but her smile only grew and she reached up to ruffle his hair. ‘Damn, Dixon, you haven’t changed at all!’
‘Can’t say the same for you,’ he pointed out, though he softened the observation by adding, ‘Ya look good, Y/N.’
‘I am good.’ She settled back down in her seat, nodding at the one opposite, and Daryl dropped down as expected, though he tugged at his fingers as he struggled to think of what to say. It had never been this hard before.
‘Merle said ya was comin’ back.’
‘Right, yeah.’ She took another sip of coffee. ‘Been back a few days now. I swung by your place but there was nobody home.’
‘I figured. Anyway, I got my degree but I couldn’t decide what it was I actually wanted to do, so, I thought, why not move back in with the folks for a while? I don’t wanna make the wrong decision, y’know, end up in a job I hate.’
‘Plus, I wanted to see you. God, how long has it been?’
‘Since ya left, pretty much.’
‘You know I wrote to you.’
‘You stopped writing back.’
‘Ain’t good at that stuff. Never knew what to say.’
She gave him a sad smile. ‘I thought maybe you’d moved on, found yourself a nice girl to settle down with.’
He scoffed at that. ‘Nah, nothin’ like that.’
He tried to read into her small nod and the deep breath she took before forging ahead, but drew a blank. ‘Yeah, me neither. Too damn busy with college work and work work and everything else.’
‘Ya been workin’?’ That was a safe subject, so Daryl latched onto it. ‘What ya been doin’?’
‘Just bar shifts,’ she answered with a shrug. ‘Shit pay, lousy hours and a whole lotta drunks, but it meant I had a little spare cash to play with. What about you?’
Daryl shook his head. ‘Nah. Ain’t been doin’ much o’ nothin’.’
‘Daryl, that’s such a waste. You’re smart. You could do anything you want to!’
He knew that was bullshit but he smiled to humour her. ‘Been teachin’ myself ‘bout cars ‘n’ bikes. Properly like, not jus’ messin’ with Merle’s ol’ truck. Figure once I’m ready I’ll see if I can get some hours at the autoshop across town.’
‘That’s more like it. Seriously, Dixon, you really spent the past, what, four years doing nothing?’
‘Not nothin’,’ he argued defensively. ‘Merle’s been in ‘n’ outta lock-up ‘n’ someone’s gotta take care o’ the old man.’
‘How is your pop? Merle said he was still drinking.’
‘Worse than ever.’
‘I ain’t. Hopefully, one o’ these days he’ll drink himself t’ death ‘n’ do us all a favour.’
He saw her eyes widen at his statement, but she let it wash over her. ‘And how’re things with you and your brother?’
‘Y’oughta know that.’
‘Only from his point of view,’ she countered, and he rolled his eyes.
‘Alright, I guess. S’like I said, he ain’t exactly been around.’
‘Yeah, I wasn’t exactly surprised to hear he was back behind bars.’
‘He said he wrote ya.’
She laughed. ‘He did. That was kinda out of the blue.’
‘Ya still wrote back though.’
‘Why not? Everything that happened between us was so long ago now. Water under the bridge or whatever.’
Silence fell over the small table, the atmosphere thick with unspoken words, until she glanced at her watch and cursed. ‘Shit, sorry, I gotta run. I promised Mom I’d run to the store for her and I’ve been gone about three hours now.’
Daryl climbed to his feet as she gathered her things, slinging her bag over her shoulder before turning to face him. ‘Guess I’ll see ya around then.’
‘Tonight,’ she instructed, quirking an eyebrow at him. ‘Our spot. Just you and me. We’ll catch up properly, okay?’
She wanted to see him again. That was promising and Daryl felt the tension in his body ease a little. ‘Fine. Don’t go bringin’ no sweet sherry shit though, alright?’
‘I’m not making any promises.’ She winked, pushing herself up on tiptoes to plant a soft kiss against his cheek. ‘See you later, Dixon.’
He watched as she walked away, her hips swinging in the skirt she wore, heeled boots clicking against the pavement. Damn, he still wanted her just as much as he had the day she left, he realised. He’d pushed his feelings down for his own sanity but just a few minutes in her company and he was a mess for her again. He could still conjure up the memory of the taste of her lips the one and only time she’d kissed him after the dance that night and the thought made his stomach dip. Sure he’d kissed girls since then, but not one had even come close to making him feel like she did. They didn’t even compare.
A fresher memory pushed its way to the surface, his brother crowing as he informed Daryl of the correspondence he’d been having with the girl who’d left them both behind, and he shook his head to clear it of his brother’s smirk and Y/N’s tantalising scent. What the hell was he doing? It was pretty clear she was back for Merle. Why else would she have come back right after he started writing to her? She’d obviously come to see if she’d made a mistake ending things when she had and Daryl couldn’t get in her way. He knew his brother was an ass and he’d told her that before, but maybe she needed to find out for herself. Again. Even if it killed him to watch it happen.
For now, all he could do was hold on to the fact that it was him she wanted to see tonight. She hadn’t mentioned a time, he realised, and, honestly, he’d be hard pushed to remember when they used to meet way back when. Pretty much straight after dinner so they could fit in as much time as possible together before her curfew rolled around. He doubted she had a curfew anymore, so what time should he turn up? He didn’t wanna look too eager and be waiting there when she showed, but equally he didn’t want to leave her waiting for hours. Exhaling loudly, he turned and weaved his way back through town, heading towards the forest that would take him the back way to the school playing fields. He could lurk in the treeline he figured, emerge at the same time as her and cancel out any risk of looking stupid. That was the safest bet. He didn’t have anything better to do anyway.
As Merle sauntered away, satisfied having had the last word, Daryl growled low in his throat. His brother wasn’t bothered that he’d lied about him being dead, or that he’d hidden Y/N’s existence from him. All he cared about was that Daryl might be about to steal his girl away from him. Man, if only he knew… But Daryl knew he could never know. That was the whole point of this, wasn’t it? To stop him from finding out the truth about what had happened when Y/N came back from college. To stop him discovering why she’d packed up her little car and left again. Daryl had kept the secret for all of these years but one tiny slip up from Y/N and it would all have been for nothing.
Needing to act, to do something, just to distract his mind from the mess that he’d gotten himself in to, Daryl crossed to the supply tent, nodding a greeting to Glenn and Dale as he passed, halting in his tracks when he nearly fell over a shrieking Sophia as she tore past him, with Carl in pursuit. Their childish giggles brought a smile to his face, easing his anxiety just a little, and he watched them for a moment before continuing on his way. Ducking under the canopy, he let his pack fall to the floor and dropped to his knees, unpacking what he’d taken and replacing it carefully amongst the stacks of food that the group had gathered.
‘What are you doing?’
Daryl twisted his neck to see Dale eyeing him curiously. ‘Wha’s it look like?’
‘Did you take those?’
‘Don’t matter. I’m puttin’ ‘em back now.’
‘It does matter, Daryl. Did you take them?’ Daryl’s silence and narrowed eyes was the only answer the old man needed and he sighed. ‘And I thought it was your brother that I needed to watch out for.’
‘Ya don’ need to be watchin’ either of us.’ Daryl bristled. ‘We’re good, alright? Ya’d be better off watchin’ what’s comin’ outta them trees. Ran into some walkers out there. They’re startin’ to spread out from the city.’
His attempt at distracting Dale failed, as he figured out what the archer was trying to do. ‘I’m always watching. I won’t tell Shane about this, not yet, but it can’t happen again. Your brother causes enough trouble round here. If they find out about this they’ll have you both out on your asses.’
‘Let ‘em try.’ Finished with his task, Daryl crawled back out of the tent, forcing Dale backwards as he pushed himself upright. ‘Go back to yer RV, old man. Ain’t none of this any of yer damn business.’
‘Hey, ya got a minute?’
Y/N glanced up from where she was folding a small pile of clothes that she’d been given by the other ladies in the camp, to see Daryl peering in through the opening of her tent. She’d split away from the rest of the group an hour or so before claiming to be exhausted, but in reality, the archer was sure she just needed a little time to get her head straight. He’d waited for Merle to call it a night before picking his way over, knowing he wouldn’t be getting any sleep unless he cleared the air. Still, as she watched him now, waiting for him to duck inside and settle himself on the ground, he didn’t have a damn clue what he was going to say.
‘What do you want, Dixon?’ She was mad, he could tell by her tone, by the short huff that followed her words and he sucked in a breath, wishing he was better at this kind of stuff.
‘Jus’ wanted to check on ya, make sure yer alright.’
‘Got e’rything ya need?’
He nodded, realising that she wasn’t going to make this easy for him and who could blame her? ‘Look, I’m sorry ‘bout before.’
‘Before? Oh, you mean lying to me about your brother being dead and about toughing it out on your own? Don’t sweat it, Dixon. It’s nothing!’ Finished with the pile of clothes, she set it aside, crossing her legs to get comfortable and cocking her head, questioningly. ‘You do remember my history with Merle, right? He was a massive part of my life, as much as you are, maybe even more so, and you told me he was gone! You told me you had no-one!’
‘I know. M’sorry, Y/N, I jus’-’
‘No, no, not sorry. Sorry isn’t going to cut it, okay? I’m not sure what you did is even remotely forgivable, I’m really not.’ At his small grunt of pain, she shook her head, running a hand through her hair. ‘I want an explanation, Daryl. I think you at least owe me that.’
When he didn’t immediately respond, she continued, and he felt the knot in his stomach tighten as he realised how far he’d fallen in her estimations. ‘Because you see, what it looks like is that you just wanted to have your chance with me. Like, maybe you were a little bitter that nothing serious ever really happened with us, so you thought you’d take a shot whilst Merle was out of the picture. Is that what it was, huh? What would have happened if your brother hadn’t shown up today? You’d use me ‘til you got bored then suddenly remember this camp existed? Stumble across it like, oh, wow, what a damn coincidence?’
‘Stop!’ Daryl pleaded with her, but she was on a roll and he could feel his heart splintering as she tore into him.
‘God, are you really that messed up? Do you really need to pretend that your brother’s dead to get up the confidence to make a move? It was cute when we were teenagers, Dixon, but you’re supposed to be all grown up now! That sibling rivalry should’ve died a long time ago, but no, here you are, still fighting to get the upper hand! It’s pathetic!’
Her words were like a match to dry kindling and his anger ignited with a low growl. ‘Yeah, ‘n’ who the hell knows why things between us are so fucked up, right? Ain’t like no-one ever muscled their way into our lives, messed e’rythin’ up then ran off instead o’ facing the damn consequences!’ Y/N’s face fell, but he didn’t stop, couldn’t stop, too caught up in the moment to think about what he was saying. ‘I lied for ya, Y/N, I did what ya needed me t’ do, ‘n’ it nearly ripped my fam’ly apart. He’s my brother. I couldn’ risk that happenin’ again!’
‘Then why even come back, Daryl? You could’ve just walked away after that first time that Nero brought you to the camp. If I messed things up that much, why did you come back for me?’
They were both breathing hard now, gazes locked on each other, Y/N’s lip quivering as she tried to hold it together. More than anything, Daryl wanted to reach out to her, pull her close and make it all okay, but he knew she needed the truth. It was the only way to make her understand.
‘Look, I never told him, alright? I never told Merle the truth ‘bout what happened back then.’
‘You didn’t?’ She looked shocked, though Daryl couldn’t imagine why. Was it really that unthinkable that he’d carried the secret for all these years? Goddamn, Merle would kill him if he ever found out what they’d done.
‘Nah. Never really knew how ‘n’ then it jus’ didn’t seem to matter no more. We din’t talk about ya. Was just easier that way, I guess.’ He sighed. ‘When I saw ya that day at yer camp, I had e’ry intention of jus’ walkin’ away, I did. I was scared that if you were back, then Merle might find out the truth ‘n’ he’s all I got left. S’just me ‘n’ him, y’know? Finding out now… He’d do somethin’ stupid, get himself killed, prob’ly take me down with him. I couldn’t let that happen.’
She was nodding slowly, her mouth hanging open as she processed his confession. ‘I can’t believe you never said anything to him.’
‘Promised ya I wouldn’t.’ Daryl shrugged. ‘I shoulda jus’ left ya alone, I know that. Ya had Nero ‘n’ Rose. They seemed like good people. But, God, Y/N, I’ve missed ya. Din’t even realise how much ‘til I saw ya standin’ there. ‘N’ I couldn’t stay away.’
Comprehension had spread across her face as he spoke and he knew she was now following his train of thought, understanding if not forgiving just yet. ‘You know, I used to think about you. Not all the time, but some nights when I’d had a bad day or I’d had a fight with Jensen, I used to lay awake and think about all those hours we spent sitting in the corner of the playing fields. I used to think about what you did for me, wonder if you’d told him, if you’d ever managed to make things right. I never imagined… God, Dixon, I still can’t believe what you did for me.’
‘Was the right thing to do. Ya needed me.’
‘I still need you,’ she confessed, and he felt a surge of hope as she reached for his hand, linking her fingers through his. ‘Dammit, I’m so, so mad at you, Daryl, but I still need you. I always have. I just… I wish things had been different. I wish things were different now. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.’
Kiss me, he wanted to say. Let me hold ya for a while. But he didn’t. He knew that it would only make things harder if they tried to carry on what they’d started in the woods. He needed to clear the air with his brother before they could decide what they were to each other and where to go from here.
‘I gotta talk to Merle.’
‘He’s pretty wigged ‘bout ya bein’ back. Thinks it’s on him to keep ya safe now ‘cause you’ve got history.’
She scoffed and he smirked at the lighthearted noise as the heavy atmosphere in the tent lifted. ‘Yeah, ‘cause I don’t even know how I’ve lasted this long without Merle Dixon looking out for me.’
‘I’ll straighten things out, I promise.’
She gave him a sad smile, leaning forward to press a soft kiss to his cheek as he carded his fingers through her hair and breathed in her comforting scent, letting it ease the tension in his bones.
When he turned to leave, she called out to him, halting him just before he slipped back out into the night. ‘Daryl! I won’t say anything. To Merle, I mean, about what happened, what we did. It can stay our secret.’
Somehow, Daryl didn’t think it would be that easy.
After a restless night, Daryl crawled from his tent to find Merle already up and about, smoking a cigarette as he sat, cross-legged beside his bike, tinkering with the engine. He barely spared the archer a glance as he crossed the camp towards him, just ducking his head and continuing to work, but Daryl was undeterred. He couldn’t leave it any longer without having this out. It’d drive him mad otherwise.
‘Can we talk?’
‘Ain’t nothin’ to talk about, little brother.’ Merle shut him down immediately with a shake of his head, huffing when Daryl ignored him, leaning back against the truck as he watched Merle squint into the motorcycle’s workings.
‘Don’t do that.’
‘Pretend like y’ain’t mad. I know you, Merle. I can tell when yer angry.’
‘I ain’t angry, Daryl.’ The older brother eased himself to his feet, tossing a screwdriver into the bed of the old pick-up and wiping his hands on his trousers, leaving behind trails of black grease. ‘I get why ya did it, I do. Hey, if ya wan’ my sloppy seconds, I ain’t gonna judge ya for that. She’s a lil firecracker in the sack from what I remember. Course, that was a while ago. She still got it?’
‘Don’t talk about her like that.’
‘Ohhh man, don’t tell me ya’ve gone ‘n’ fallen for her!’ Merle crowed. ‘Now, tha’s a dangerous game to go playin’ with that one. Don’t ya remember what she did to me, man? Left me high ‘n’ dry without so much as a kiss goodbye for ol’ Merle.’
Daryl’s jaw clenched, his teeth grinding together as he fought to keep his temper. ‘Was a long time ago.’
‘Yeah, it was ‘n’ I ain’t ashamed to say it took me a damn long while to get over that.’
Merle took a step towards him, pointing a finger into his chest, though it took him a moment to find the words to phrase his next statement. ‘I guess, what I don’t understand is why ya hid it from me. If ya’d told me ya was bangin’ my ex, I’d’ve given ya my blessin’. Might’ve asked ya to let me sneak a peak, see if the old chassis’ still in good shape if ya know what I mean, but-’
‘Nah, ya wouldn’t, man,’ Daryl argued. ‘That’s bullshit ‘n’ ya know it.’
‘What makes ya say that?’
‘’Cause ya loved her. I remember how cut up ya were after she left.’
‘I bounced back.’
‘Yeah, after a good long while, like ya said. I was there, Merle, I saw ya-’
‘Stop.’ Merle hung his head, taking a deep breath as he fought to push down the memories that Daryl was dragging to the surface. ‘So, what? You ‘n’ her together now? That what ya’ve come to tell me?’
‘I don’t know what we are,’ the archer admitted. ‘We ain’t really talked about it. I din’t come here to talk about that. I came here to try ‘n’ make things right.’
‘Ya told her I was dead.’
‘Was that wishful thinkin’, baby brother? Ya lookin’ to get ol’ Merle outta ya way, huh?’ When Daryl scoffed, Merle shook his head. ‘I ain’t jokin’. I know these assholes want rid of me ‘n’ it’d leave ya free ‘n’ clear to hook up with Y/N, right? Maybe I should be watchin’ my back. You out to get me, Daryl?’
‘Yer high,’ Daryl laughed off the notion, but Merle was teetering on a knife edge and his brother’s disbelieving chuckle pushed him closer to the brink.
His hand snagged a fistful of Daryl’s shirt, yanking him closer so that he could smell the smoke on his brother’s breath. ‘Don’ ya go laughin’ at me, Darlena. I ain’t seein’ much funny in this situation now.’
‘I ain’t laughin’ at ya.’ Daryl tried to push him away, but the elder Dixon’s grip only tightened. ‘Goddammit, I’m tryin’ to apologise.’
‘Apologies don’t mean shit,’ Merle snarled. ‘Yer just as bad as the rest of ‘em. Think I’m just some good for nothin’ redneck, huh? Well, I got news for you, little brother. We’re the same, you and me. Cut from the same damn cloth.’
‘No, we ain’t!’ Daryl had had enough, swinging his arm around to clock Merle around the cheek with his fist, the impact startling the bigger man enough that he released the archer who swiftly backed away. ‘Ya wanna know why it’s me she wants this time? ‘Cause I’m nothin’ like you. Yer barely ever even here, Merle. Spend half yer life away with the damn fairies, trippin’ yer balls off, then ya wonder why I managed to sneak away ‘n’ steal her from ya, huh? Ya need to suck it up, man. Sort yerself out. I’m done dealin’ with yer shit.’
Merle lunged forward as though he were about to attack, but he reined himself in before he reached his brother, stalking towards the truck and pulling the door open, scooping his pack out of the footwell. ‘Fine. I’m better off alone anyway.’
For a glorious few seconds, Daryl thought that his brother was bluffing, threatening to go charging off on his own into the woods in order to get him to back down and relinquish his claim on Y/N. But then the shadows between the trees swallowed up his muscled frame and Daryl felt a fresh wave of the panic that he’d worked so hard to control wash over him and drag him under.
The small bar was hot and rammed, full of dusty rednecks and smart businessmen alike as they drank away the stresses of the past week. The bass of the music that blasted from the beat-up old jukebox in one corner vibrated through the legs of the stool where Daryl was perched, sipping on a beer as Y/N chatted away next to him, telling him about her week and her job hunt. She’d picked up a few shifts behind the very bar that he now leaned on, but tonight was her night off and she’d told him that she needed something other than a few hours hiding out on the school playing fields to relax her this time. She needed dancing and tequila, maybe a few games of pool. It had been news to him, but he couldn’t say no to her, even now, so here they were.
‘Anyway, Mom pretty much told me that I’ve got a couple of months to get my shit together and then I’m out on my ass,’ she was saying, shouting over the steady beat and clash of voices that surrounded them. ‘I told her I was just trying to figure out what I’m meant to be doing, that I don’t wanna end up stuck in a dead-end job that I hate, but she just told me to suck it up. I mean, I don’t think I’m being unreasonable, right?’
Daryl shook his head, though he wasn’t really sure he had an opinion on the matter or that she cared either way. In all honesty, he still thought she was crazy for stepping foot back in this deadbeat town and he kind of agreed with her mom. Better stuck in a dead-end job somewhere else than withering away in this place.
‘Maybe I should take a year out,’ she was musing now. ‘Hey, we both could. We could pool our money, put it towards a campervan or something, and just take off! Road trip! What do you think?’
‘Hard to take a year out when y’ain’t been doin’ nothin’,’ Daryl drawled, taking a swig of his drink. ‘Ain’t got no money to pool neither.’
‘Well, we could save up. I’ll bet I could talk Joe into giving you some shifts here and-’
Daryl snorted with laughter. ‘Joe ain’t gonna hire me. He’s turfed my ol’ man out more times than he could count. Same with Merle. Ain’t nobody in this town gonna trust a Dixon.’
‘Fine,’ Y/N huffed. ‘Shoot down my brilliant plan. I just thought it could be fun.’
‘Y’ain’t s’posed to be havin’ fun. Tha’s what college is for, ain’t it? Yer s’posed to be doin’ more now.’
‘Like gettin’ out o’ here. Changin’ the world or some shit. I don’t know.’ His fingers found the edge of the label on his bottle and he scratched at it, peeling the damp paper away from the glass. ‘Always thought ya was meant for more than this.’
‘Yeah, well, I always thought the same about you,’ she countered and they both fell silent, stuck at an impasse.
This seemed to happen a lot since she’d gotten back, Daryl realised. It was like they were both so frustrated by each other, disappointed somehow in what they’d both become, that they didn’t know how to have a proper conversation anymore. The nights they spent up on the field were quieter than they used to be, the conversation stilted, only finding common ground when they discussed the good old days. In contrast, he knew she was getting on better with his brother than she ever had and that hurt him more than he could take.
‘Ya got any plans this weekend?’ It was a lame question, but it was the only one that Daryl could think of to break the awkwardness that had settled over them and he was relieved when she shrugged.
‘Not really. Working tomorrow night. Thought we could maybe head out for a walk or something tomorrow morning?’
‘Sounds good,’ he agreed. ‘Could always take the truck up to the river on Sunday. Do some fishin’.’
‘Sure.’ He knew she hated fishing, but he’d also known she wouldn’t say no. See, that was the strange thing, the thing he didn’t get. Things between them had changed. It wasn’t easy anymore. They were so different that they’d lost the natural back and forth that they used to have and yet they still spent every second of their spare time together, like magnets, drawn to each other even as the friendship they’d had faded out. Of course, they were going to spend the weekend together and probably most of next week and next weekend. It was a foregone conclusion. Daryl wasn’t about to fight it. He just didn’t really understand why. Besides, he figured, she could always stretch out on the bank with a magazine while he baited his hook.
‘Cool. I’ll let Merle know.’ It was his brother’s truck after all. He supposed he should really ask his permission before taking it and gunning it out of town.
‘Ask him now.’ Y/N’s voice was lighter as he processed her words and he turned to see her break in to an eager smile as his brother stepped into the bar, shoulders squared, oozing confidence with his easy swagger. ‘I didn’t know he was coming out tonight.’
‘He’s out e’ry night,’ Daryl grunted, going back to his drink, hoping that she would do the same and ignore Merle’s presence, but of course, she was sliding from her stool, resting a hand on his arm as she leaned in close.
‘I’m gonna go say hi, okay?’
She wormed her way into the crowd, weaving between groups of people, cutting through conversations, until she reached the arrogant redneck, throwing herself into his arms and laughing as he scooped her up and swung her round. Daryl hadn’t seen them together since she’d gotten back and somehow he’d hoped that, in the flesh, things would be as uncomfortable between them as they were between him and her, but it became quickly evident that that was not the case. When he set her down, she leaned into his side, his arm remaining wrapped around her waist as he drew her into the quick banter of his group of friends and her eyes sparkled as she matched their wit with her own razor-sharp barbs. Damn, she looked like she belonged there, with Merle and his cronies, and Daryl thought he might not ever have felt such an outsider as he did in that moment.
Still, he told himself, she’d come back to him soon. She’d come here with him after all, so she wouldn’t just ditch him for his brother as soon as Merle showed up. But, as the minutes ticked by and Daryl worked his way down one beer, then another, it became clear that she’d found better company to spend the night in.
Finishing his drink with a loud slurp, he staggered to his feet, the alcohol rushing to his head as he pushed himself upright, and shrugged on his jacket, trying hard not to look at her. She and Merle were between him and the exit though and he had to shoulder his way past her to get by. She frowned up at him when she realised who it was that was trying to leave, reaching out to snag his wrist and halting him in his tracks.
‘Dixon, where are you going? I thought we were hanging out.’
‘Yeah, so did I,’ he snarled, unable to contain the hurt and embarrassment that were coursing through him.
‘Oh, don’t go getting all jealous now jus’ ‘cause I stole yer skirt away from ya for five minutes,’ Merle chuckled, winking at him and causing Daryl’s hackles to rise. ‘She was just about to head on back over to ya now, weren’t ya, sweetheart?’
‘I was,’ Y/N insisted. ‘Or you could come join us here. C’mon, I’ll get you another drink, okay?’
‘Don’ want another drink,’ Daryl yanked himself out of her grasp, noting the shock in her eyes as he stepped away from her. ‘Look, I know when I ain’t wanted. I don’ need yer pity.’
‘I’m goin’ home.’ Their eyes locked and he could see the confusion in her gaze but he didn’t understand it. God, he didn’t understand anything about her anymore. ‘Have a good night. Ya deserve each other.’
With that, he spun on his heel and stalked out of the door.
‘Hey, can ya tell Y/N I had to head out?’ Daryl was trying his best to keep his tone calm, friendly, but he knew that his tension was evident in the grim set of his mouth and the way he threw the words over his shoulder at Rick who was watching him in concern. The archer was throwing supplies into his bag, a packet of jerky and a couple of bottles of water, slinging it over his shoulder before retrieving his bow from where it rested on the ground beside the tent.
‘Where are you going?’
‘To find my brother.’
‘I’m not sure that’s a good idea.’ The sheriff removed his hat, rubbing a hand over his forehead, sweat already beading on his skin in the intense heat. ‘Might be better to give him time to cool down. He’ll come back when he’s good and ready.’
‘Ya don’t know Merle,’ Daryl spat. ‘He don’t cool down. He gets mad ‘n’ then he gets stupid.’
‘Jus’ tell her, alright?’ He hated the thought of leaving just when Y/N probably needed him the most, but he couldn’t stand the thought of Merle out there alone, reckless and probably high as a damn kite by now. So, he spun on his heel, leaving Rick behind, though he didn’t miss the shake of the other man’s head as he charged off into the trees. He had to find him. He’d find him, bring him home and then, somehow, he’d make it right.
Daryl didn’t know why he’d been so worried. Yeah, of course, Merle was as high as a damn kite, though God knows what he’d taken this time. Surely his stash had to be dwindling by now. He’d been relying on his chemical oblivion as a crutch since the dead started walking and, as far as Daryl knew, he hadn’t stumbled across anything to replenish his stock during any of the supply runs he’d deigned to go along on. Still, he was obviously managing to eke out what he had as, within a half hour of following his brother into the trees, Daryl could hear him whistling loudly, the tune wavering and unfamiliar. Being high made him reckless, sure, but it also made him pretty damn easy to track.
Before long, he could just about make out the shadowy bulk of his figure as he weaved through the undergrowth, his rifle clutched in his hand as though he were hunting, though Daryl was pretty sure any wildlife would have fled as soon as they heard his approach. He cut left, taking a wide circle around Merle and cutting off his path, leaning against the solid trunk of an aged and bowing tree and waiting for his brother to stumble across him.
‘How’d the hell you get here?’ Merle’s eyes narrowed as soon as the archer came into view and he adjusted his grip on his gun, almost as if he were considering raising it. Thinking better of it, he let it slip round to hang from its strap over his shoulder, freeing his hands up to clap slowly when Daryl refused to answer. ‘Well, congratulations, little brother. See those tracking skills I taught ya are still pretty fresh in that thick skull o’ yers.’
‘Don’t need no damn tracking skills when yer crashin’ about whistlin’ like that,’ Daryl pointed out. ‘Gonna get yerself killed, man.’
‘Ain’t that what ya want?’ At first, Daryl had assumed from Merle’s reaction that he was more bothered by him hiding Y/N’s survival from him than by his claim that he was dead, but it was becoming increasingly clear that Merle was more hurt by the lie than he’d initially let on. ‘I let a herd o’ walkers get a bite o’ this fine ass ‘n’ yer free to carry on with Y/N without havin’ to lie to her face, right?’
‘Look, I’m sorry, alright? I was tryin’ to apologise before but ya jus’ walked off.’
‘Maybe I don’ wanna hear it.’
‘Well, maybe ya gotta hear it.’ Daryl straightened up, taking a step towards his brother. ‘Look, I know it was wrong, alright? But things got so messed up before when Y/N was around. I didn’ want things to get that bad again.’
‘Hell, that was a long time ago, Daryl. We’re all grown-ups now. Surely enough water’s run under that bridge that we could all have been civil, right?’
‘That ain’t what ya said back when ya first found out. Ya told me ya was gon’ win her back.’
‘Ahh, man, I was jus’ messin’ with ya. I’m over that. I moved on to bigger ‘n’ better things when she skipped town.’
‘Ya tellin’ me it don’t still hurt when ya think ‘bout what she did to ya back then?’
Merle squared his shoulders, refusing to let his emotion show as a steely mask slipped over his face, his natural instinct leaning towards the defensive. ‘Hey, I ain’t some lil girly girl, y’know, Darlena! Some of us can control our feelin’s. Ain’t like I’ve been pinin’ for her the last twenty odd years or nothin’.’
‘Nah, don’t give me no more damn excuses!’ Merle was growing tired of the conversation, antsy to keep moving, but Daryl refused to let him pass.
‘They ain’t excuses.’
‘Yeah, man, they are. Yer jus’ tryin’ to make yerself feel better, tha’s all this is. If I hadn’t followed ya yesterday, ya’d still be lyin’ to the both of us ‘n’ hell, ya’d prob’ly have taken off without a second thought about ol’ Merle here.’
‘It ain’t like that.’ Daryl could feel his shame forcing its way to the surface, colouring the tips of his ears and making his skin burn. ‘I’d’ve told her… eventually.’
‘Oh, really?’ Merle shook his head. ‘Ya can tell yerself that all ya want, baby brother, but it’s bullshit ‘n’ we both know it.’
‘It ain’t. We were dyin’ out here, Merle. Why’d ya think I stole them supplies, huh? We weren’t never gonna make it on our own!’
‘’N’ tha’s s’posed to make me feel better?’ Merle’s temper was fraying, his volume rising as he let out a cold and disbelieving cackle of laughter. ‘So, what yer sayin’ then is that ya woulda come back ‘cause ya couldn’t keep yerselves fed ‘n’ alive without a lil back-up, is that right? Nothin’ to do with yer brother, yer own flesh ‘n’ blood waitin’ on ya back at the camp? Nothin’ to do with the fact that ya was jus’ lyin’ to yourself ‘n’ to her the whole damn time?’
Daryl sighed, squeezing his eyes shut as he fought to keep control of the situation. He could tell by the heaviness of his brother’s breathing that he was balancing on a knife edge and he couldn’t afford to let him tip over. Hell, it wasn’t like he could even deny it, really. Merle was right. He was a bastard for what he’d done, but there wasn’t a damn thing he could do to change it now. ‘What d’ya want from me, man? Want me to stand back ‘n’ let ya pick things back up with her, is that it? Want me to walk away now ‘n’ die out here alone? Would that make ya feel better?’
‘What would make me feel better is ya havin’ a lil more respect for yer big brother! I damn near raised ya, in case ya’ve forgotten! Don’t that mean nothin’ to ya no more, Daryl? Ya get ya dick wet from some skirt that screwed us both over way back when ‘n’ suddenly I’m the damn bad guy?’
‘Don’t talk about her like that!’ Daryl’s reaction was instinctive but it only encouraged Merle’s rage.
‘Oh, I see how it is!’
‘Nah, ya don’t! It ain’t like that, Merle, ‘n’ don’t go thinkin’ ya can stand there ‘n’ tell me ya raised me! I raised my-damn-self!’
‘Really, now? Tell me more!’
‘Ya was never there! Ya was always locked up or off gettin’ ya ass shot at! Ya left me there with him, Merle!’
‘Is that what this is about? Yer mad at me for leavin’ ya with the old man?’
‘No!’ Daryl growled in frustration. ‘No, it ain’t about that, but don’t stand there ‘n’ act like I owe ya somethin’ ‘cause I don’t! It’s about her, ‘n’ it’s always been about her, ain’t it? She comes along ‘n’ suddenly blood don’t count for nothin’!’
‘Well, ain’t that nice!’
‘S’not just me, man. Was the same for you back then ‘n’ ya know it!’
‘All I know, baby brother, is that there is a damn knife in my back right now ‘n’ e’ry word that comes outta yer mouth is jus’ twistin’ away, ain’t it?’
In the back of his mind, Daryl could vaguely remember a time when he and Merle hadn’t fought all the time. Hell, there used to be months where they’d barely even speak, just grunting at each other in passing, and more time still when they’d been pretty damn close, going out fishing and hunting and hanging out with Merle’s friends. But theses days it kind of felt like they were trapped in one long argument, with peaceful interludes when they escaped each others’ company. Sure, a part of him blamed the drugs that warped the elder Dixon’s mind, but he knew that it was more than that. Even before he’d found Y/N, there’d been a resentment bubbling up inside of him, causing him to feel a bitterness towards his brother and an anger that he could remain so oblivious to what Daryl had had to do for him. It got harder when he was surrounded by guys like Rick and Morales, good men who were trying to do best by their families even when the world had gone to shit. He used to look up to Merle but now he couldn’t help but find him wanting. Still, they were family and he couldn’t stand the thought of losing him, wishing he knew the right words to shut this down once and for all. ‘Look, I told ya I’m sorry, alright? I don’ know what else ya want me to say. I came to find ya t’ drag ya ass back to camp. S’gotta count for somethin’, don’t it?’
‘Well, joke’s on you, bro, ‘cause I ain’t goin’ back!’
‘Nah, man, I’m-’ A snarl from the undergrowth silenced Merle and he span, swinging the butt of his rifle around to smash it into the head of the walker who was dragging itself through the patch of bushes to his right, the thin branches tearing at its skin as its body emerged from the dense leaves. The corpse fell, its body twisting sickeningly and Merle flipped the gun in his hands, sending a shot into the centre of its skull. ‘Goddammit.’
‘S’more of ‘em.’ Daryl was watching in horror as the forest came alive with the groans of the dead, the slow shuffling rustle of their feet as they followed the sounds of raised voices, seeking flesh, their hunger insatiable. He couldn’t tell how many there were. The shadows played tricks on his eyes, but he was damn sure there were more than the two of them could take alone. ‘C’mon, we gotta move.’
‘I told ya, I ain’t goin’ back!’
Another body stepped into view, arms reaching, putrid fingers clutching at the air in front of Daryl’s face and he let loose a bolt from his crossbow, stooping to retrieve it from the head of the corpse when it dropped. ‘Ya just gonna stay out here ‘n’ die? S’too many of ‘em, Merle! We gotta go!’
Finally seeing sense as more and more walkers stumbled into view, Merle cussed, his voice low and ragged, before he nodded his submission. Unable to waste any more time, Daryl took off the way he’d come, Merle hot on his heels as they pounded along the foot-worn track that wove through the trees. Conscious that leading the herd back towards the camp could end in a bloody massacre, the archer quickened his pace, straining to put as much distance between himself and the biters as he could, overshooting the path that would lead back to the quarry in the hopes of sending them deeper into the forest, before doubling back, trying to keep his movements quiet, barely daring to breathe as the undead passed by just metres away. Merle had shadowed him, quiet for now, though Daryl could hear his breath coming in heavy puffs. They’d paused for a moment, waiting for the bulk of the crowd to move on, but they needed to get out of there before anything pulled them back in their direction.
Catching his brother’s eye, Daryl inclined his head before setting off once more, set now on getting back to the camp and warning them of the potential threat in the forest. It was the closest he’d ever seen walkers to the quarry before and he knew this was just the beginning. They were spreading out from the city now, wandering the countryside, and it was only a matter of time before they found the little collection of tents that the group called home and tore it to pieces.
A shout from behind him had the archer spinning on his heels, growling in frustration when he saw Merle go down hard, a lone corpse on top of him, its jaws snapping just millimetres from his face. His hands were wrapped around its throat, leaving him unable to defend himself, and it was instinct that had Daryl raising his bow once more. His finger flinched on the trigger, time slowing as the bolt whistled through the air, sliding through rotting flesh and stilling its writhing as it slumped forwards over Merle. His relief was short-lived though as a pained howl forced its way from his brother’s throat.
‘Merle!’ Daryl fell to his knees, yanking the walker away and gasping in horror when it refused to move. His fingers found the arrow, travelling along its smooth shaft, creeping over the biter’s mangled skull before finding the rest of its length, erupting from the rotting forehead and piercing the skin of his brother’s shoulder. ‘Shit, man! Shit!’
‘Now see what ya’ve done.’
It was a simple greeting but it had Daryl flustered, scrambling for the right thing to say as Y/N lowered herself to the ground beside him, sighing as she crossed her legs and rested her elbows on her knees, letting her hair fall into her face. It had been weeks since they’d last sat together on the playing fields like this. Daryl knew she’d waited for him here for every evening for days before she’d finally given up, realising that he wasn’t coming, and he’d only left his hiding place in the treeline to sink down in his usual spot once she’d stopped coming. He knew he was being stubborn, but hell, a guy needed some time to lick his wounds sometimes, right? And if he was a little embarrassed about how he’d acted that night in the bar, well that was just another reason to want to be alone.
He knew she’d been seeing Merle, though he’d been uncharacteristically quiet about it. Daryl guessed that meant it was serious and that hurt more than if his brother had been crowing about it and rubbing it in his face.
Realising that she was still waiting for a response, he mumbled a greeting of his own, glad of his cigarette to keep his hands and mouth occupied as she fiddled with the cuffs of her hoody, stretching them over her thumbs like she used to when they were teenagers.
'Is it okay that I’m here?’ she asked eventually.
Daryl shrugged. 'Free country.’
'Don’t do that. Can we just talk, please?’
He shot her a sideways glance, shrugging again, though it took all of his self-control not to smirk at her huff of frustration. He couldn’t help it. The new Y/N left him feeling out of his depth, inadequate and intimidated, but the one that sat beside him now reminded him of the girl that had been glued to his side through the last year of school. He realised how much he’d missed her as she plucked a wildflower from the grass and twisted it between her fingers.
'Daryl, what the hell is going on with you? I thought we were friends and then you just walked out on me. I don’t even know what I did wrong.’
'Din’t do nothin’ wrong. Jus’ wasn’t gonna waste my time waitin’ when it was Merle ya wanted.’
She frowned at him before realisation flashed across her face. 'You thought… Me and Merle?’
'Makes sense. Knew ya were writin’ to him. Ya was all over him when he walked in. Guess you guys got close again, huh?’
'Don’ ya remember how he treated ya? How scared ya were that night he went off on one? 'Cause I do.’
'Daryl, it wasn’t like that-’
'Ya told me ya’d picked the wrong brother. Ya told me it was me ya wanted.’ It was all coming out now and Daryl had to take a deep breath to rein himself in. 'Woulda been one thing if ya’d gone off to college 'n’ met someone. Someone that could give ya a better life, y’know? But goin’ back to Merle. I jus- I don’t get it, tha’s all. Ya deserve better.’
'And that’s you, is it?’ Y/N bit out, shooting daggers at him with those pretty eyes.
'Nah. Maybe. I don’ know,’ he admitted. 'Jus’ know it ain’t him. Least I don’ spend half my life high as a kite 'n’ the other half in lock-up.’
This time Y/N’s sigh was thick with emotion and he echoed it, stubbing out his smoke and waiting for her to speak.
'God, we’re so stupid.’ A spasm of rage shook her body and she pounded her fists against the ground, making Daryl flinch away. 'I’m so fucking stupid!’
'No, you just… You don’t get it, Dixon, okay? Yes, I got close to Merle again, you’re right. I responded to his letters and I met him for drinks and I think we were actually doing a pretty decent job of being friends!’
'Friends? Tha’s it?’
'Yes! That’s all it was!’
'But why would ya wanna be friends with that jackass?’
'For you, you jerk! When I left, things between you and Merle sucked and it was my fault. I hated that! I hated that we couldn’t be together because of how things were between the two of you! I thought, if me and Merle could be friends, that maybe we could find a way to make it work! That maybe he’d find a way to be okay with us being together!’
'Yer serious? Tha’s why ya were spendin’ so much time with him?’
'Yeah.’ She ran a hand through her hair, pushing it back from her face so that he could see the puffiness of her eyes, the tell-tale tear tracks that stained her cheeks. 'God, it was all for you, Daryl.’
Hope stirred in his heart and he cleared his throat, ducking his head and gnawing on his bottom lip as he tried to figure out what to say next. Where did they go from here? And how in the hell could he find the words to apologise for acting like a jealous piece of shit? 'M’sorry,’ was all he could manage though it knew it wasn’t good enough. 'I shouldn’ o’ doubted ya. Jus’ feel like e’rythin’s different since ya got back. Din’t think ya looked at me like that no more.’
'Not sure I know how not to look at you like that. You’re the first guy I ever fell in love with, Dixon.’
Love. That was a big word. Did Daryl love her? He wasn’t even sure he really knew what that was, how it felt to be in love with another person. He was intoxicated by her, that was for sure. But love? Yeah, maybe. Maybe that had been it all along. 'But I ain’t done nothin’ with my life. Ya been off livin’ 'n’ I’ve just been stuck here. I’m still the same guy I was when ya left.’
'I know.’ She have him a sad smile. 'I think that’s what I like about you. My folks are a mess, my grandma’s gone, I’ve got no job, no real plan, my friends are all over the place… But you, you’re steady. No matter what happens, I know you’re gonna be the exact same person you’ve always been and that's… I need that. You’re my rock.’
Daryl had never thought about it like that. Life was so turbulent, particularly when living under the same roof as his old man and Merle. Consistency had been his coping mechanism, he supposed, and now it was hers too. 'Glad I can help,’ he offered with a grin. 'So, what happens now?’
He’d expected a coy smile, maybe even a kiss, but instead Y/N let out a wounded whimper and clambered to her feet. His eyes tracked her movements as she paced back and forth, wringing her hands together. She was obviously distressed and his stomach knotted as he shifted on to his knees, waiting for a signal that might tell him what she needed. 'Okay, I need to tell you something and you’re not gonna like it, Dixon, but it's… God, it’s all such a big mess and I don’t- I don’t know what to do!’
She wouldn’t look at him, didn’t wait for a response before barrelling on.
'That night at the bar after you walked out, I didn’t have a clue what was wrong with you but you- you looked at me like you hated me. I was so cut up about it, Daryl, and Merle was… God, he was so sweet and someone kept buying rounds of shots and… I don’t even really know how it happened but… Dammit, I’m sorry, Daryl, I’m so sorry. I’ve screwed everything up.’
'Ya slept with him?’ Her nod was almost imperceptible but Daryl caught it and let a low growl escape his throat before he caught himself. Yeah, it hurt like an arrow to the gut, he couldn’t deny it, but he wasn’t going to throw something good away over it. He couldn’t, not again. 'Look, it don’ matter, okay? It din’t mean nothin’. Merle’ll jus’ have to accept it. I want ya, Y/N. I don’ wanna throw this away over a mistake.’
'Thing is, Merle thinks… Well, he thinks it means we’re back together.’
“N’ ya let him think it?’
'Not at first. I tried to tell him it was a one-time thing, that I wasn’t interested in him like that anymore.’
Daryl waited for the punchline though he was sure as hell he didn’t wanna hear it. 'But?’
'But things changed and I had to- I had to do something, okay? So, I told him we were back on.’
'Ya what?’ Daryl had tried to be understanding, had tried to see things from her point of view. A drunken mistake was one thing but this… This he couldn’t wrap his head around. 'Are ya kiddin’ me? Then ya come out here 'n’ tell me it’s me ya want? What the hell game ya playin’ here, Y/N? Ya say ya don’ wanna make things bad between us again, then ya go 'n’ do this?’
'No, Daryl, it’s not like that!’
'Well, wha’s it like then? Huh? Ya gonna have to tell me 'cause I sure as hell don’ get it!’
'Spit it out. Wha’ the hell ya thinkin’, girl? Seriously, what the hell is goin’ on with you?’
He fixed her with a piercing glare, his breaths coming in short, ragged pants as his temper took over. He couldn’t believe she’d done this to him again. He couldn’t believe he’d let her mess with his head just like she had the last time. And then, with her next words, everything changed and the world as he knew it came crashing down around him.
Daryl hunched over his brother, letting his bow fall to the ground so he could strip off his shirt, bunching it up in his fist and preparing to pull the bolt from his shoulder.
'What’re ya doin’, man?’ Merle argued. 'Ya gotta leave it in. S’the only thing stemmin’ the blood flow.’
'Yeah, 'n’ I’m sure the damn walker brains soaking into it gonna do ya the world o’ good,’ Daryl snapped back.
'Yer gonna tear me to pieces, brother.’
He could see the fear in Merle’s eyes and he knew he was right, but there was gore seeping from the fallen corpse’s skull and he knew he couldn’t risk it getting into his brother’s bloodstream. Bracing himself, he wrapped a hand around the bolt and tugged hard. He felt it catch on bone, scraping sickeningly as Merle let out an agonised shout, but then it came free, ripping at the skin as the head emerged, dripping with blood. Daryl shoved the bulk of the walker away, immediately jamming his wadded up shirt against Merle’s wound to try to staunch the flow of blood. 'Y’okay?’
'Alright, let’s get ya up.’ Daryl was painfully aware that Merle’s cries would likely have turned the herd back in their direction and he was anxious to get ahead of them before they came stumbling back through the trees, but Merle’s face had paled, his eyes growing watery as he glanced back down at the fallen corpse on the ground.
'Say, bro, that arrowhead musta picked up all sorts o’ walker bits before it hit me, right?’
Daryl had been trying not to think about. 'Nah, man, it woulda wiped off on yer shirt. C’mon.’
Still though, Merle refused to move, ignoring Daryl’s grunts of frustration. 'Is this it, baby brother? Am I gonna die?’
‘Y’ain’t gonna die,’ Daryl bit out, though he sounded a hell of a lot more sure than he felt. He knew he needed to do something, anything, but the only solution he had was only going to cause Merle more pain. Still, as his brother’s desperate eyes found his, he knew he had no choice. If he didn’t try and Merle turned, he knew he’d never forgive himself. ‘Over here.’
He led Merle a short distance to the foot of a large tree, the trunk broad, the roots snaking up from the ground in large gnarled knots. Settling him down against the rough bark, he reached into his back pocket for the dirty rag that was stuffed there and passed it over, watching as Merle’s brow creased in confusion. ‘Wha’s this for?’
‘Bite down on,’ Daryl confirmed, nodding at him to shove the wadded fabric into his mouth. ‘Can’ have ya yellin’ ‘n’ screamin’. Gonna bring that whole herd back down on our asses.’
‘What are ya gon’ do?’ The archer didn’t think he’d ever seen fear like that in his brother’s eyes before and it stuck in his throat, making it hard to swallow.
‘What’s gotta be done,’ was all he said, reaching for the knife at his hip before another thought struck him. ‘Ya got booze?’
With the rag tucked between his teeth Merle couldn’t answer, but he tipped his head towards his pack and Daryl rolled his eyes, never failing to be amazed by the older man’s ability to maintain a steady supply of drugs and liquor, even as the world fell apart. Rifling through the bag, he came across a half-filled hip flask, unscrewing the lid and taking a sniff.
‘Vodka, man? Since when d’ya drink this shit?’
Merle shrugged as if to say beggars couldn’t be choosers and Daryl resealed the container, setting it down on the ground and going for his knife once more. Nausea rose in his throat at the thought of what he was about to do, but he choked it down, steadying himself as he met Merle’s gaze once again.
The blade slid easily into the open wound, eliciting a muffled howl from Merle, whose eyes were screwed tight shut as he fought to stay conscious. Daryl almost thought it might be better if he let himself pass out. He worked quickly, cutting away at the flesh that had come in direct contact with the infected bolt, scraping it out in bloody, meaty chunks and wiping his knife on his trousers before plunging back in. In all honesty, he thought he might be doing more harm than good, unable to distinguish between fat and muscle and tendons as he dug a hole into his brother’s shoulder. The grunts coming from between Merle’s gritted teeth were animalistic and agonised, increasing in volume when, satisfied that he’d done all he could do, Daryl unscrewed the flask once again and cleansed the wound with the vodka, holding the deep welt open to ensure that the liquid would seep inside.
Off in the distance he could hear the growls and snarls drawing closer and, packing away the bottle and tucking his knife back into his belt, he shouldered the pack and slipped one arm around Merle’s waist. ‘C’mon, we gotta go.’
Merle spat the rag out onto the floor, struggling to his feet but, as soon as he reached his full height, his legs gave way and he sank back to the ground. ‘Sorry, brother… Lil’ dizzy…’ With that, his eyes closed and no amount of tugging or prodding from Daryl could stir him.
‘Well, alright then. Guess we’re stayin’ here.’
Darkness had fallen by the time Merle came to. Daryl had had no choice but to cut down large swathes of undergrowth and foliage from low-hanging branches to tug over him and his brother, hiding them from view as the corpses passed them by. There was a dicey moment when one had fallen, tripping over a ridge in the mud. It had turned its head to the side, milky eyes locking with the archer’s, and Daryl had held his breath and prayed that the thing would move right along. Thankfully it had and, soon after, the last stragglers had disappeared from sight and the forest had fallen silent once again. He’d crawled out from beneath the cover and set about making the area they seemed doomed to spend the night in as secure as possible with the few supplies he had, but he already knew he’d have to sit up and keep watch ‘til morning came.
He was skinning a rabbit that had had the misfortune to dart across his path as he worked when his brother began to stir, and he avoided his gaze as his eyes flickered open and he let out a low groan. 'Where the hell are we?
'Few miles out from the camp. Ain’t no way I was gettin’ ya back there tonight.’
Merle grunted, moving to sit up a little straighter but grimacing and stilling when the movement pulled on his wound. Though Daryl had patched it up as best he could, he knew it could do with redressing, and he was pretty sure his brother’s painkiller stash would come in handy now too.
'How’re ya feelin’?’ he ventured, finally risking a glance up to meet the elder Dixon’s eyes and wishing he hadn’t as he took in the sheen of sweat that covered his skin, the pallid colour of his face.
‘Hot.’ Merle reached for his pack, undoing the zip with one hand and delving inside to retrieve a rag not unlike the one Daryl had had him bite down on several hours earlier. Rednecks always had rags comin’ outta their damn ears, Daryl thought with a smirk. He watched as his brother tossed the bag aside and wiped his brow with the dirty fabric, wincing when the beads of sweat trickled into his eyes. ‘I’m burnin’ up over here, man.’
Panic set in deep in Daryl’s chest, tightening around his lungs and making it hard to breathe but he forced a smile, nodding his head, seeking to calm Merle down as he knew he’d done all he could to fight off the infection. ‘Ya need someone t’ take a look at that shoulder. I ain’t no doctor. Need to get it properly cleaned up 'fore it gets infected. Not that kinda infected,’ he added when Merle raised an eyebrow at him. ‘The regular kind.’
'Far as I know we ain’t got a doctor back there anyway.’
'Nah,’ Daryl conceded. 'But that Carol lady’s pretty good at patchin’ people up. We can get her t’ take a look. Got more supplies back there too. Clean bandages. We’ll get ya fixed in no time.’
'Why?’ Merle’s voice was so quiet that Daryl barely heard the question but he rolled his eyes as he registered what he was asking. 'Thought ya wanted me outta the picture.’
'What? I’m jus’ sayin’ it’s a little ironic, tha’s all. Ya told her I was dead 'n’ now I might just be by mornin’.’
'Y'ain’t gonna die,’ Daryl insisted, repeating the same words he’d used right before scraping out his brother’s wound with the blade of his knife. He could still feel it catching on bone, still smell the coppery tang of blood in the air. ’'N’ I ain’t havin’ this conversation with ya again, alright? I apologised. I know it was stupid. But I don’ know the right thing to say when ya can’t make up ya damn mind what it is ya actually want!’
'Wha’ the hell’s that s'posed to mean?’
'One minute she’s yer girl 'n’ yer gonna win her back! Next we’ve got yer blessin’ 'n’ ya don’t care! Are ya over her or not, Merle, 'cause we all gotta find some way of gettin’ along now that she’s with us, y'know that right?’
Merle sighed, long and loud, reaching up to rub a hand over his tired eyes. 'I dunno, brother. Guess seein’ her again’s got me more messed up than I thought.’
'You 'n’ me both.’
'She was never yours, man. Ya don’t know her like I did. Ya don’ know what it was like with us. Ya don’ know what it’s like to lose her.’
Daryl grit his teeth. He did know. He knew better than anyone. He’d loved her since he was a teenager in one way or another, and it was only when he saw her again that he realised he’d never really let that go. Losing her had hurt him just as much as it had hurt Merle, even more so maybe, as he’d known that she didn’t really want to leave. She’d had no choice. Things had taken a turn for the toxic and she’d had to get out while she still could. Daryl had helped her but it had killed him to do it. Still, he couldn’t admit to any of that, not here, not like this, so he settled for shrugging noncommittally and skewered a hunk of rabbit meat on a length of stick, holding it over the low flame of the small fire he’d built. 'Ya hungry?’
'Don’ change the subject, man. Ya wanted to talk about this this mornin’ so let’s talk. Hell, might be the last chance we get.’
'Y'ain’t gonna die.’
'Whatever. What is this with you two, huh? Ya love her?’
Something in Merle’s eyes and the reality that he really might die because of Daryl’s moment of stupidity loosened his tongue and he swallowed hard, before nodding slowly. 'Yeah, man, I do. Always have.’
'Even back then?’
'I knew it. Ya son of a bitch. Ya was stickin’ it to her back then too, weren’t ya? Jus’ like I thought.’
'Nah, man, it wasn’ like that. Nothin’ happened. Not 'til after.’
Merle didn’t speak, but his eyes had darkened and, when Daryl looked up to pass him the roasted meat, he was fixing him with a murderous glare. 'All I did for ya, little brother, 'n’ this is the thanks I get.’
'Eat yer rabbit,’ Daryl snapped, growing agitated by the tension that hung over them now. God, if Merle knew the truth about what Daryl had actually done… Hell, maybe it was better to let him think it was just an affair that had run Y/N out of town. It was easier than the truth.
At first light, Daryl set to work extinguishing the fire and packing away their things, readying himself to move as soon as Merle woke up. His breathing had been a little laboured as he slept and he desperately wanted to get someone else to take a look at the wound, see if they thought it was a normal infection or the type that would turn him in to a wandering, mindless corpse. Leaning over him to retrieve the bag of meds that lay by his side, Daryl could feel the heat coming off of him, and, when he touched his hand to Merle’s forehead it was burning and slick with sweat.
'Time to go?’ Merle murmured, awakening at Daryl’s touch and the archer nodded.
'Gotta get ya back to camp, man.’
'Alright.’ This time when Daryl pulled his brother to his feet, he remained standing, though he was unsteady and had to lean on him for support. It would be a long journey back at this rate so the sooner they started the better.
They walked in silence, their pace slow and stilted, Merle occasionally letting out a pained groan when the path became uneven, jolting his body and pulling on the gaping hole in his shoulder. The blood had soaked through the fabric that Daryl had dressed it with the night before, and he wasn’t sure if it was the bleeding or something else that was making Merle’s arm heavier across his shoulders, his skin scorching hot.
'Nearly there,’ Daryl spoke up finally as he spied the telltale gap in the treeline that would lead them home, and not before time too as he was practically dragging Merle now, struggling under the strain, wanting nothing more than to hand him over to somebody with more of an idea of what they were doing than he did and sleep for a week.
But as they staggered out onto the grassy field that sat above the quarry, it was to find it empty. The tents were gone, the cars too, and Dale’s RV. All that remained was Merle’s truck with his bike in the back, a car with a note stuck to the hood and patches of blood staining the grass.
Y/N’s hand was clammy in Daryl’s, her fingers laced through his, seeking comfort as they walked together in silence. It was late, the darkness closing in around them as they cut around the back of the liquor store and continued through town. It had been two weeks since she’d told him of her predicament and now their evenings were spent locked in a debate about what she should do next. Daryl didn’t want to dictate to her, but he was trying to push her in to telling Merle. He honestly couldn’t say whether his brother would stand up and support her but he felt he deserved to know, and it may help her to make the decision that she needed to make. She was resistant, however, afraid of his reaction and scared of tying herself down when she was so young, to a man that she had no real desire to be with.
Tonight, she’d cried in his arms, her strong facade crumbling as she fell to pieces. Daryl knew her well enough to know how damn terrified she was, but he’d still been surprised to see her so vulnerable. He’d held her, not knowing what else to do, reassuring her over and over that it would be okay, but she’d remained distraught.
‘How?’ she’d whimpered, gazing up at him with a challenge behind her watery eyes. ‘How is it going to be okay? Even if Merle doesn’t walk away, this baby will still grow up without a father. I don’t want to be with him, Daryl.’
‘Y’ain’t alone in this, Y/N, no matter what.’
‘Ya got me.’ His words had silenced her for a moment as she’d processed what he was saying.
‘But your brother-‘
‘It don’ matter. We could leave, set up somewhere new. Jus’ you ‘n’ me. Ya know I’d take care of ya.’
‘You’d really do that for me?’
‘Ya know I would. But ya gotta tell him first. At least give him a chance to step up.’
She’d sighed then, shaking her head sadly. ‘I don’t think I can.’
She hadn’t said any more about his offer, content to spend the next hour clinging to him, arms wrapped tight around him as she buried her face in his chest and tried to calm herself as he rubbed soothing circles over her back. He remembered a time when a simple touch from her would’ve scared the shit out of him, not used to easy affection offered up by anybody, but now he cradled her to him, breathing her in and wishing he knew what to do to make things easier.
Now, as they neared her house, she pushed herself up on tiptoes pressing a soft kiss to his cheek. ‘Thank you, Dixon.’
‘Anytime. Yer gon’ be fine, Y/N.’ She smiled at him, though it didn’t reach her eyes, and he sensed her hesitance as she toyed with the latch on the garden gate. ‘Wha’s wrong?’
‘I don’t wanna go in there.’
‘Why not?’ He knew she still hadn’t said anything about her pregnancy to her parents, but she’d never been afraid to step inside before.
She sighed, stepping back onto the sidewalk, gesticulating with her hands as she tried to explain. ‘Every time I walk through that door, I’m scared that they’re gonna look at me and know, or they’re gonna sense that something’s wrong, or they’re gonna see a bump, and I can’t handle that. They’re already at each other’s throats half the time and I’m pretty sure I’m the only thing keeping them together. If they find out how bad I’ve fucked up…’
‘Hey. If they split, it ain’t yer fault.’
‘But it will feel like it is. What if this is the last straw for them? How am I supposed to live with that?’
‘Y’ain’t even showin’.’
‘I feel like I am.’
‘Well, y’ain’t.’ But she was gazing at him pleadingly and when she looked at him like that he was powerless to resist her. ‘Ya wanna crash at mine?’
She began to nod, though she caught herself, her brow creasing with a frown. ‘What about Merle?’
‘It’s Friday night. He won’t be back ‘til late. We’ll just hole up in my room.’ He slung an arm around her shoulders, dragging her with him as he continued towards the turning that would take them back to the little rundown cottage he called home.
Daryl woke early, unaccustomed to another warm body being pressed to his in his bed. Initially, they’d drifted off back-to-back, spines flush on the narrow single mattress, but during the night he’d shifted to face her and was now curled against her, his hand resting over her stomach, her fingers linked through his.
Moving slowly so as not to disturb her, Daryl untangled his limbs, inching towards the edge of the bed and levering himself upright. He was still wearing yesterday’s clothes and he felt stiff and grubby, stretching out his muscles before he slipped from the room. He was halfway to the kitchen to grab a drink when movement in the armchair that stood in the living room caught his eye and he sidled into Merle’s vision as his brother raised an eyebrow at him.
‘Ya jus’ got in?’
‘Nah, got back hours ago,’ Merle replied, his tone calm and conversational though there was a tightness in his jaw that Daryl recognised as an effort to keep his temper.
‘How come yer still up?’
Merle climbed to his feet, stepping forward towards Daryl who instinctively backed away. ‘Funny thing ‘bout this shitheap house, little brother.’ He paused to gesture round the small space, his mouth quirking in a cruel smile. ‘The walls are thin as paper.’
‘S’that got t’ do with-‘
‘I could hear ya talkin’ in there,’ Merle continued, cutting him off. ‘Hear ya laughin’. Y/N stay the night, did she?’
‘Yeah.’ Daryl couldn’t see any point in lying and it wasn’t as if anything had actually happened. ‘Folks were fightin’. She din’t wanna go home.’
‘So, she stayed here? In yer bed?’
‘Ain’t like that, Merle.’
‘Oh, really? Then how come it wasn’ my bed she was hidin’ out in, huh? Ya do know she’s s’posed to be with me, right?’
‘Ya weren’t here.’
‘So, she was fair game?’
‘Nah, man. Stop twistin’ it. We’re jus’ friends.’
Merle scoffed, shaking his head. ‘I ain’t sure if yer lyin’ to me or yerself but y’ain’t jus’ friends, Darlena. I see the way ya look at her. Was the same back ‘fore she left for college.’
‘Nah, I’m seein’ things real clear right now.’ Merle advanced on Daryl, forcing him backwards until he tripped over an abandoned beer bottle and fell against the wall. ‘Wha’ were the two of ya laughin’ at, huh? Laughin’ at ol’ Merle, were ya? Havin’ a good ol’ time at my expense while ya touched her ‘neath the covers?’
‘I din’t lay a finger on ‘er!’
‘S’a mighty small bed, bro.’
‘Quit lyin’ to me!’ Merle snarled. ‘How long’s this been goin’ on?’
‘I’m tellin’ ya the truth, man! I wouldn’ do that to ya!’
Daryl didn’t realise Merle had swung for him until the blow caught him around the cheek, his ears ringing as his head smacked against the wall. His vision swam as he dropped to the ground, blinking slowly to try to cure the dizzying sensation of the impact, his fingers drifting up to prod tentatively at the bruise that he was sure would be forming.
Merle had never hit him before. He knew other brothers tussled and fought, but their old man had beaten on the both of them enough that they’d always shied away from violence, cutting each other down with words instead. It felt like a line crossed, taking them both by surprise, as Merle’s gaze flicked between his bunched fist and his little brother on the floor at his feet.
‘Daryl?’ Y/N’s voice broke through the tension and Merle turned on his heel to see her standing in the doorway, running a hand through sleep-mussed hair, eyes narrowing as she took in the scene before her.
‘What the hell’s going on?’
‘Like ya don’t know,’ Merle growled, his gaze roaming over her as though searching for evidence of her betrayal. ‘All this, s’cause of you.’
‘Don’t.’ Daryl was pushing himself to his feet, his shock melting into anger as he saw the hurt bloom on Y/N’s face. ‘Don’ talk to her like that.’
‘Looks like Darlena grew some balls!’ Merle strode across the room towards the front door, throwing his parting shot over his shoulder as he stormed from the house. ‘Y’all are welcome to each other.’
Propping his brother against the hood of his truck, Daryl strode over to the car that had been abandoned at the camp, ripping the note from it with more aggression than was necessary. He’d been counting on them being there, on someone with more skill than he had to be around to patch Merle up and try to fight off the fever that was still burning through him. Finding the field empty, seeing the sticky red blood coating the grass, had shaken him up and mixed with his fear for his brother was his panic about where the hell Y/N might be. She’d have gone with them, he knew that. She’d have had no choice. Something had gone down, that much was obvious, something bad, and she couldn’t have stayed alone, even if she wanted to wait for them to get back.
His eyes scanned over the scrawl, taking in the detail and giving a stiff nod. So, they were heading for the CDC. It was a long drive and a big risk. Whatever had happened had scared them into thinking it was worth making the attempt.
Slipping the paper behind the wiper blade, he ran a hand through his hair as he turned to Merle, whose face was the palest he thought he’d ever seen, dark eyes like tar-pits against his white skin. For once in his life, he was looking to Daryl for answers but the archer knew that he wouldn’t like what he had to say.
‘They’re headin’ for the CDC.’
‘Somethin’ went down here. We gotta go after ‘em.’
The note that Rick had left behind seemed to indicate that they were taking the back roads to the CDC, steering clear of any towns if they could, weaving their way through open countryside. It made sense, Daryl figured. You get any sort of built-up residential area, you get a ton of places to raid for supplies, but you also run the risk of getting boxed in by walkers. It was safer to skirt around them and keep moving, eke out what they had until they made it and hope that their destination held the answers that they were looking for.
It didn’t take long for him to help Merle into the passenger seat of the truck, stowing their packs in the foot well. His brother was still sweating like a pig, his skin fiery hot to the touch. The shock of finding the camp gone had snapped him back to lucidity but, now, as Daryl drove, he could see the older Dixon fading in and out of consciousness. He knew the dressing needed to be changed on the wound, that he needed to check it out and see if there was a visible infection that Merle needed help to fight, but he was torn between pulling over and taking care of it and keeping going, afraid to let any more distance open up between them and Y/N.
Glancing over at his brother’s sleeping figure, he sighed loudly, reaching over to shake his knee. ‘Hey, ya gotta stay with me, man.’ When there was no response, he tried again, shaking him harder this time. ‘Merle, c’mon, quit messin’ around.’
But still nothing. The brakes of the truck let out a loud creak as he rolled it to a halt, leaning across his brother’s legs to retrieve his pack, before pulling Merle’s shirt down over his shoulder to expose the dirty, bloodied fabric that was currently serving as a bandage. Peeling it carefully away from the skin, he grimaced at the sight of it, gooey with blood and pus, dark red lines radiating from it, snaking out across his shoulder. Retrieving a bottle of water from his bag, Daryl grabbed a clean shirt from the bottom and soaked a little of the material, using it to clean Merle up as best he could. When he was content that there was nothing else he could do, he tore a strip from the bottom and wadded it up to act as a bandage, strapping it on with the same shoelaces that he’d used before. He knew without medical supplies he was just putting off the inevitable, but the obvious infection gave him hope. Perhaps it was that then that was causing his brother’s current state, rather than the walker gore that had penetrated it with the tip of the bolt.
As he packed the supplies back into the backpack, his patient began to stir, and Daryl shoved his bag back between his knees, reaching next for Merle’s. He rifled through it for a moment or two before his fingers found the clear cellophane of the package that carried his brother’s selection of pills, and he pulled it out, peering at it as he twisted each bottle to examine the contents. Finding an array of antibiotics, he chose the strongest and tipped a couple into his palm, nudging Merle with his elbow. ‘Here. Take these.’
‘Wha’?’ Merle was still out of it, but his fingers crept across to grab the capsules out of Daryl’s hand. He tossed them into his mouth and swallowed them dry, drawing a smirk from his brother. Typical Merle. Years of practice necking things he really shouldn’t had sure paid off today.
Several hours later, their journey was slowed again by a walker wandering in the road. The tarmac was bordered by gentle tree-studded slopes that led up into the forest and the corpse was weaving from side to side, occasionally attempting to climb a little way before falling back to the bottom and struggling to its feet once again.
Usually, Daryl would have driven round it or, if feeling particularly vicious, run it down with a victorious yell, but something about this one stopped him. There was something about it that was familiar, the dark, tousled hair and scruff on its chin, and the pale-check of its short-sleeved shirt. Merle raised an eyebrow at him when he swung open his door and slid out, landing on the ground with a gentle thud, his knife already drawn. The corpse turned its head to look at him, before its body followed suit, confirming Daryl’s fears, and he stepped forward to plunge his knife into its skull, dragging it out of the road to clear their path.
As he climbed back behind the wheel, Merle coughed quietly, rubbing a hand over his forehead. ‘Wasn’ that-’
‘D’ya think that means-’
‘Nah.’ Daryl shut his brother down abruptly. ‘The rest of ‘em must’a made it.’
‘How’d ya figure?’
‘We ain’ passed another car for miles now ‘n’ I didn’ recognise any of ‘em back there. Gotta be enough of ‘em alive t’ keep drivin’.’
Merle nodded slowly. ‘Ya think she’s with ‘em?’
‘Ain’ no reason she wouldn’t be.’
‘There was a lot of blood back there, man.’
‘Don’ mean it was hers. She can take care of herself.’ He didn’t know that, of course he didn’t, but Daryl couldn’t let himself think for even a second that Y/N might be dead. He’d fall to pieces right then and there and he had to keep going, for him and for Merle. ‘She’ll be with ‘em when we catch up, you’ll see. Jus’ gotta keep movin’.’
‘I ain’t sure I’ll last that long,’ Merle admitted. ‘Achin’ like a bitch over here.’
Daryl avoided his brother’s gaze, keeping his eyes fixed on the road as he started the truck up once again. ‘Yer gon’ be fine. Y’always were a drama queen.’
‘’N’ ya never were good at facin’ up to reality.’
Daryl shook his head. ‘I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout this. Yer all patched up for now. Soon as we find the others, we’ll be able to get yer fixed with some proper bandages ‘n’ shit. They can’t be much further on now. Won’ be long ‘fore they’ll be stoppin’ for the night. We’re losin’ light fast.’
They didn’t find them that night. Or the next. They were both exhausted, growing increasingly irritable stuck in that truck together, and Daryl was getting more and more concerned over Merle’s condition. He was still in and out, sleeping for half the day and rambling, mostly incoherently, about the old days when he was conscious. His shirt was constantly soaked with sweat and he moved as though his limbs were weighted down with lead. Sleeping at the roadside, cramped up in the passenger seat, couldn’t help, the archer thought, but there wasn’t a lot of choice. For his part, he was sitting up all night, keeping watch, and he felt like he was seeing the world through a blur.
As they getting ready to settle down on the third evening, preparing to spend another night alone, Daryl emerged from the forest, his concentration on his zipper as he tugged it up, bow slung across his shoulder as he strode back towards the road. It was quiet this far out in the sticks, not even a walker to be seen for the past few hours, so it took him unawares when Merle barrelled towards him and knocked him to the ground. For a moment, he couldn’t breathe, the oxygen having been forced from his lungs by the impact, but then there were hands around his throat and his instincts kicked in as he flailed wildly, tossing his torso from side to side to try and loosen his brother’s grip.
‘Merle! Gerroff o’ me!’
‘Y’ain’t gettin’ a piece o’ me,’ his brother was shouting, his voice echoing along the narrow lane of tarmac that snaked between the trees. ‘Ya think yer gettin’ a taste of ol’ Merle than yer gon’ be real disappointed!’
‘S’me,’ Daryl tried to choke out but the pressure around his neck was making it hard to speak and it came out as an inaudible croak. ‘Merle, s’me!’
‘I’mma send ya back t’ the hell ya came from, ya piece of shit!’ Daryl barely had time to register what was happening before the grip on his throat loosened and then a knife was plunging down towards his face. He wrenched his head to the side at the last second, the blade just swiping across his cheek, before he used all of the strength that he had to roll his brother off of him.
Merle recovered quickly, given his injury, clambering back to his feet, ready to attack again. ‘Oh, yer a tricky one, ain’t ya!’
‘Merle, wha’ the hell are ya doin’?’ But Daryl’s pleas fell on deaf ears as his brother approached again, swinging for him with his weapon still clutched in his hand. This time it caught the archer’s chest, slicing through his plaid shirt and leaving a thin trail of blood behind, before whipping back round and cutting a deep gash into his arm.
Daryl didn’t want to hurt his brother. He’d done enough of that recently, with the truth about Y/N and the poorly aimed bolt, but it was becoming pretty clear that Merle was hallucinating and intent on taking down whatever it was that Daryl had become in his mind. He was like a man possessed, lashing out again and again, backing the archer up until his spine was pressed against the truck door and he had nowhere left to run. Only then did he fight back, picking his moment and bringing his foot up to plant it in the centre of Merle’s stomach and send him toppling backwards. As soon as he went down, Daryl fell to his knees beside him, aiming a solid punch at his face in the hope that it might knock some sense back into him. But still he struggled beneath him, so Daryl struck him again and again, until, panting, Merle reemerged from his clouded stupor, blinking dazedly as he raised his arms to block the next blow.
‘D-Daryl, man, wha’ the hell happened?’
Daryl sank back onto the road, breathing hard, wiping the blood from his knuckles. ‘Ya jus’ came at me, man.’
‘Nah, nah I din’t. There was a walker ‘n’ I tried t’-’
‘There ain’t no walkers. S’just me.’
The brothers eyed each other warily for a moment, untrusting, both reeling from the fight, bloodied and bruised. It was Daryl that moved first, easing himself to his feet and offering his hand to Merle to haul him upright.
‘M’sorry, little brother. I-I din’t…’ The tears in his eyes shone in the encroaching darkness and Daryl swallowed back his own wave of emotion. ‘Wha’s happenin’ t’ me?’
Daryl knew that what he was doing was wrong. He wasn’t stupid. A girl’s journal was a completely private, totally personal thing. And yet, as the notebook slipped from Y/N’s fingers, he couldn’t stop himself from reaching out for it, turning it in his hands, smoothing his palms over the cover. She’d been crashing at his place more and more often in a bid to avoid her folks and it wasn’t like Merle was around anyway. He’d been steering clear of both of them since their fight and Daryl couldn’t say he minded. He was still reeling from the violent turn the argument had taken and besides, it meant that Y/N was free to curl up in his bed and let herself drift off. without worrying about what her baby daddy might think. She was mumbling in her sleep, her face buried in the pillow and Daryl watched her for a moment before turning his attention back to the object he held.
It wasn’t like he wanted to betray her trust. That was the last thing he was looking to do. He seemed to be the only person she actually wanted to be around these days and he didn’t want to ruin that and leave her with no one. But he needed to know what she was thinking, what the hell was going on in her head. She still hadn’t told Merle what was going on, refused to even talk about her pregnancy anymore, and he didn’t have a clue how to help her. Maybe a peek inside her head would show him how to get through to her. That would be the best thing for both of them.
Swallowing hard and casting another glance her way, he flicked open the cover, revealing a page of her neat, sloping handwriting, line after line of her innermost thoughts. He couldn’t do this. He shouldn’t. But, now that her words were right there in front of him, he couldn’t stop himself from beginning to read.
So, I never really saw the point in keeping a diary. I’ve always been one of those life is for living kinda people, y'know? I’d rather be out having fun than writing about it. And why would I need some tacky notebook to keep all my memories safe? They’re all up here, in my head, and my mom always tells me I’ve got a pretty thick skull so there’s no chance of these babies escaping. But I guess things have changed.
Because now you’re here. You’re in my tummy right now, growing into whoever the hell you’re gonna be and, damn, if that hasn’t turned all of our lives upside down.
He couldn’t help but smirk at that. Kid sure had turned their whole world upside down and it wasn’t even here yet, barely big enough to form a bump in Y/N’s stomach. He kinda liked that she was writing to it though, the little person growing inside her. It warmed his heart in a way that he couldn’t explain and reassured him that she wasn’t in total denial.
I’m gonna be honest with you right now, kid, you haven’t got a whole lot going for you. That makes me sad. It makes me scared too. You’ve got a mama who can’t settle, can’t make any decisions about what the hell she actually wants to do with her life, and seems to just mess everything up at every turn. You’ve got grandparents that’ll probably be too busy drinking or fighting to care much about what you’ve got going on. You’ve got a daddy who, honestly, doesn’t even know about you yet because he might just be the biggest mistake I’ve ever made. And you’ve got an uncle.
Boy, kid, did you win the damn lottery when it came to your Uncle Daryl. He’s the only reason that I know things are gonna be okay. I’m trying to picture him with you right now and I can’t quite see it… Daryl Dixon with a baby in his arms… but I know he’ll step up as soon as you get here. You’ll have to be a little forgiving with him because he can come across hella surly sometimes, but damn, he is gonna love you. He has so much love in his heart, that guy, and we are so so so lucky that he’s chosen to share it with us. Yeah, Uncle Daryl is definitely the one you can depend on.
Tears had sprung up in Daryl’s eyes as they read and reread what Y/N had said about him. He spent so much time being defensive, hiding himself away from a world that seemed to judge him at every turn, but here she was, the one person that had seen through his walls as if they were made of glass, and she thought the world of him.
His gaze flicked back to her where she lay, curled on the narrow mattress behind him, and he longed to reach out for her, to trail his fingers over her cheek, comb her hair back from her face, kiss her like he really wanted to. If there any doubt before that he loved her, it was settled now by her acceptance and total understanding of who he was. But, as his eyes travelled south to her stomach, he scrubbed his arm across his face to wipe away the evidence of his emotions, shaking his head as he scolded himself. Not the time. Man, there couldn’t have been a worse time.
He turned back to the journal, turning the page and letting out a quiet huff of disbelief at the next sentence.
God, it would be so much easier if you were his.
And there it was, what they both wanted. But the simple fact was that Merle had got there first and there was nothing that either of them could do about it.
If he was your daddy maybe this knot of fear in my stomach wouldn’t be getting bigger every day. Seriously, you’re gonna be fighting for space in there soon. But, nope, your mama screwed that up years ago and she just keeps making it worse and worse. Not that he seems to mind. He offered to run away with me, you know? Take us and just leave town, settle down somewhere and raise you like a proper family. I still haven’t decided whether I’m gonna take him up on that. He says I have to tell Merle about you first and I know he’s right but I just can't… I can’t give him the chance to be in your life. I think Daryl’s hoping that his brother might clean his act up if he knows he’s gonna be a daddy, but I just don’t see it happening. And if it does, I don’t see it lasting. So, you can see, I’m not exactly bringing you in to an ideal situation out here. Hell, I wouldn’t blame you if you just wanted to stay in there forever.
So, you see, kid, there’s my problem. The choice I have to make. I can give you the perfect little family. I don’t know where that might be or how we’ll get by but we’d find a way and maybe even be happy. But to do that, I have to tear another family apart. The Dixon brothers have their issues, don’t get me wrong, but all I’ve done since I moved down here is come between them and now I might be about to split them up forever. How can I do that, baby? How could I live with myself? I know Merle’s a bit of a wild card, and he’s spent more time locked up over the past few years than he has doing anything worthwhile, but Daryl loves him. He depends on him, not that he’d ever admit it. And I think there’s a part of Merle that depends on Daryl. His little brother is the only thing that keeps him remotely grounded and if I take him away then your daddy might just self-destruct… I don’t know what to do. I wish I knew what to do.
It was a bleak picture that she painted and Daryl felt his heart shatter at the position she now found herself in. He hadn’t realised how much it was playing on her mind, the growing rift between him and his brother, and he wished that he could hold her and tell her that it was okay. Except he couldn’t. Because it wasn’t. She was right. He and Merle needed each other, but how much could that count for when Daryl knew that he, at least, needed her more. That the only thing worth destroying his family for was the new family they could build together.
Damn, they’d messed her up and she’d done a number on them too. There wasn’t one person in this twisted little triangle that was going to make it out of this without getting hurt, he thought. He resolved then and there to make sure that that pain never touched the little life that she’d made.
His offer still stood. He’d leave with her tomorrow if she asked him too, and he knew he’d find a way to provide for her and his little niece or nephew when they arrived, even if it meant digging ditches or sweeping floors. He wasn’t fussy. He could see it so easily in his head. They’d be happy. They wouldn’t have much but it’d be enough, he was sure of it. But Merle lurked in the corner, casting a dark shadow over the scene and he sighed as he continued to read, realising that he’d reached the last page.
The only good part of any of this is you, my baby. The possibility of you. God, you terrify me more than I can begin to explain and some nights I lie awake convincing myself that I can’t do this, but then I think of you, curled up in there, counting on me. All the things you could do. All the things you could be. And suddenly that focus that I’ve been lacking is crystal clear. Maybe I’m not meant to change the world. Maybe I’m not supposed to be some fancy, career-driven suit in the city. Maybe I’m just supposed to be your mom and I am totally okay with that.
We’re in this together, baby, you and me. So that’s why I’m writing this. To remind myself of this moment of clarity and to keep me fighting when things get hard, because I know they’re going to get really really hard.
I’ll meet you on the other side.
Letting the book fall closed in his lap, Daryl squeezed his eyes shut, trying to process the thoughts that were whirling around in her mind. He hadn’t known that she’d sit up at night, worrying, and he wondered whether she watched him sleep like he’d been watching her.
At least now he knew. He knew she wanted the kid, that she’d accepted what was happening to her and that she was already completely in love with the child even if she’d never admit it. It was something and it was a starting point as far as him knowing the right thing to say, the right way to give her the support she needed.
Setting the diary on the top of his drawers, he eased himself to his feet, crawling into the bed behind her and curling himself against her when she stirred and rolled to face the wall. Her spicy scent wrapped itself around him as he buried his face in her hair, nuzzling into the crook of her neck as she shifted closer to him, her hand creeping up to rest over his.
‘Daryl?’ Her voice was thick with sleep.
‘M’here.’ He held her tighter, locking her up in his embrace as she hummed contentedly. ‘S’gon’ be alright, Y/N.’
Daryl scrubbed an arm across his face, bringing it away smeared in blood. His wounds stung but his pain was the last thing on his mind. Reaching a hand out to his brother, he hauled Merle to his feet, steadying him when he stumbled, gaze unfocused. His crazy five minutes had obviously taken its toll, as had the beating that Daryl had given him in self-defence, and his skin was glazed with sweat.
‘S’gonna be alright, man. C’mon, let’s get ya back in the truck.’
‘Ya should jus’ kill me now,’ he slurred, his head lolling backwards as Daryl struggled to guide him across the grass to where their vehicle was parked up at the side of the road.
‘I mean it. Ain’t gon’ be long ‘fore I turn, brother. We both know it. Another episode like that ‘n’ I’m gonna be takin’ ya with me.’
‘Ya din’t know what ya were doin’.’
Daryl sighed, adjusting his grip on the older Dixon. ‘Ya don’ know what yer sayin’. S’been a long day.’
He was reaching for the passenger door handle when he froze, alert to the sounds of movement in the wood behind them. Instinctively, his fingers wrapped around his knife where it was tucked into his belt, tensed, ready to slide it free as soon as it was needed. Merle was leaning more heavily on him with each passing second, and he knew he needed to set him down if there was a fight on its way. The noise they’d been making not ten minutes earlier could’ve drawn in a whole herd with the luck they were having.
Merle coughed and Daryl hushed him, shaking his head and nodding in the direction of the trees, but his brother was too out of it to care.
He could make out footsteps now, moving slowly through the undergrowth, drawing nearer, and he squinted into the shadows, searching for shapes that seemed out of place. And then a broad figure stepped into view, followed by another, this one leaner, both with guns raised before them.
Daryl breathed a sigh of relief as the two men emerged, lowering their weapons when they realised who had caused the commotion that had caught their attention and led them here.
‘We did it, man,’ he rasped in Merle’s ear as his brother slumped against him, Shane and Rick looking on in curious horror. ‘We found ‘em. S’all gon’ be fine.’
Daryl leant forward over the wheel, peering out into the gloom as he searched for the narrow track that would lead them to the clearing where the group had set up camp for the night. They’d been there a few hours, pausing to rest and forage for supplies, when they’d heard shouts from the road, and Rick and Shane had broken away to check it out. Daryl bet they were pretty damn disappointed to find the Dixon brothers, beaten and bloodied, looking for all the world like the redneck good-for-nothing’s that they were. Yet, they’d said nothing, exchanging an unsettled look, but taking the situation in their stride and directing him to drive up the road another couple of hundred yards, keeping an eye out for the break in the trees.
Finally spotting the turning, Daryl eased the truck around the tight corner, darkness settling in around them as the forest blocked out the little remaining light. It was eerie, though he daren’t flick his lights to full beam and risk drawing in the undead, so he simply grit his teeth and kept on going. The glow of a campfire in between the thick trunks told him he was on the right track, and he rolled the vehicle to a halt behind the old RV, letting out a sigh of relief. They’d made it.
Glancing to his right, he saw that Merle was slumped against the door, his breathing shallow, the slick of sweat that had coated his skin still evident as it trickled from his forehead. Yeah, they’d made it alright, but was it too late?
Sliding from his seat, Daryl rounded the truck and pulled open the passenger door, catching Merle’s weight in his arms and struggling to support him as he slithered to the ground. He barely flinched at the impact and panic bloomed in Daryl’s chest. ‘Hey, I need help here!’
Rick was at his side in seconds, sliding his arm around Merle’s back and helping Daryl to support him as they dragged him over to the fireside, laying him gently down in the leaf litter as the flames highlighted the pallid shade of his face.
Lori had left Carl sitting beside Sophia and made her way over, crouching to examine the elder Dixon with a frown contorting her delicate features. ‘What happened?’
‘Took a bolt in the shoulder,’ Daryl admitted, avoiding their eyes as he felt a wave of judgement break over them. ‘Went through a walker first. Tried to clean it as best I could but he ain’t been right since, burnin’ up, in ‘n’ out o’ consciousness. Was hallucinating back there, too – s’what the shouts were.’ He shook his head, trying to block out the image of his brother coming at him with the knife in his hand. ‘Thing is, I ain’t sure if it’s just a regular infection or if-‘
‘He’s gonna turn,’ Rick finished for him, resting a hand on his hip.
Daryl shook his head helplessly. ‘Thought if I got him back to ya, one o’ y’all could take a look.’
‘Carol,’ Lori called, summoning the grey-haired lady from her place in the circle where the other members of the group were looking on in horror. As Daryl turned to watch her approach, he finally laid eyes on Y/N, who had risen from her seat and was regarding him through wide eyes. Leaving Merle, he picked his way over to her, clasping her face in his hands, gaze roaming over her as he searched for any sign of injury or pain.
‘S’good.’ His arms fell back to his sides as he made to turn away, content that she was safe and unharmed, but she reached out for him, narrow fingers wrapping around his forearm.
‘What the hell happened, Dixon?’
‘S’a long story.’
‘Are you okay?’
He nodded, catching his bottom lip between his teeth as he fought to stay strong. All he really wanted to do was hold her, wrap her up in his arms and cling to her as he fell apart, the weight of the stresses that he’d carried for the past few days finally breaking him down, but he knew that he couldn’t. Not yet. Merle needed him.
‘You don’t look okay,’ she observed. ‘Is that your blood?’
Casting an eye over his clothes, he realised that blood was smeared over his arms, soaking through his shirt, the plaid fabric now a dark, dirty red and he shook his head. ‘Not all of it.’
‘But you’re hurt?’
‘Just a few cuts, s’all. Nothin’ ya need t’ worry about.’
‘What about Merle?’
He shrugged. ‘I don’ know.’
‘S’my fault,’ he admitted, needing her to know. ‘I did it. If he dies, tha’s on me.’ A muffled gasp left her throat before she could stop it and she stepped forward, arms spread wide as she tried to embrace him but he stepped back, out of her reach. He couldn’t. He couldn’t let her touch him or he’d crumble. ‘Gotta get back over there. M’sorry.’
When he returned to Merle’s side, Carol was crouching over him, the putrid makeshift bandage dangling from her fingers as she grimaced at the festering wound beneath. It hadn’t even begun to heal, still tacky with blood, pus oozing from the centre. Dark lines were still winding out across his skin, filled with poison, and it was those that seemed to be the focus on Carol’s concern. ‘It’s definitely infected.’
‘No kiddin’,’ Daryl bit out, though he immediately regretted it when she shot him a hurt look. ‘S’it from the walker though?’
‘Hard to tell,’ she admitted. ‘I’m no doctor, but it looks like a normal infection to me. Could be both. I don’t know. I’m sorry.’
‘So, wha’ do we do?’
‘We clean it up,’ she announced decisively. ‘Dress it properly with padding from the first aid kit. And then we pray.’
Pray. Daryl could have swung for Carol when that had been her solution, but, of course, he never would have. Seems her husband did enough of that, but apparently that vermin had been taken out back at the quarry. Damn shame, that wasn’t. But praying? Seriously. It wasn’t Daryl’s style and, even with his brother’s life hanging in the balance, he just couldn’t do it. He’d convinced himself that if he could just get Merle back to the group it’d all be okay. He knew Carol had spent enough time in and out of hospital with a whole variety of injuries during her marriage so surely she’d be the best-placed to sort the older Dixon out. But, no. Pray! He scoffed aloud. It’d be a cold day in hell.
He’d volunteered to sit up and keep watch despite his exhaustion after Carol and Lori had tended to both Merle’s wound and his own, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to rest whilst his brother was still in such a bad way. He’d thought that the rest of the group was asleep but, through the darkness, he watched as a shadowy figure rose from the ground and made their way towards him, stumbling as they tried to navigate between the sleeping bodies. He wasn’t surprised to see it was Y/N when she reached him, settling herself at his side and leaning into him, her head coming to rest on his shoulder. He’d avoided her after their brief exchange earlier, wanting to be alone, to have a little while to collect himself, but he’d felt her gaze on him. He knew she’d hate it, being given the cold shoulder, and he guessed that she couldn’t sleep either.
‘I was so scared, Dixon,’ she murmured and the emotion in her voice broke his heart, so that he barely had to think about it before snaking his arm around her waist and pulling her closer. ‘You left and then the camp got overrun and we had to leave and I was so scared that you wouldn’t find us, that I’d never see you again.’
‘M’sorry.’ He turned his head to bury his face in her hair, inhaling deeply and letting her scent ground him. ‘Never meant t’ leave ya. But Merle-‘
‘I know,’ she reassured him. ‘I just… I don’t wanna lose you.’
‘Ya don’ need to worry ‘bout that.’ She raised her head to look at him, her watery irises locking with his own. ‘I ain’t never leavin’ ya again.’
He knew as he said it that it was true. He couldn’t do that to her again, or to himself. It didn’t matter where he went from here on out, he’d be taking her with him. He knew that would mean some difficult conversations with his brother, but he was determined that they’d get to the bottom of it. They had to. They were family.
‘How’s Merle doing?’ As if reading his thoughts, Y/N leant forward to study the unconscious figure propped against a tree a few yards away. From this distance, Daryl could see the steady rise and fall of his chest and that was enough to keep him going for now. He was alive. That was something.
‘Wound’s infected. Ain’t sure if it’s the regular kind or the turn-ya-into-one-o’-them kind. Either way, he’s hangin’ on.’
‘I should’ve talked to him,’ she said with a sigh. ‘It should’ve been me, not you. Maybe I could’ve smoothed things over or-‘
‘Nah.’ Daryl cut her off, as fear fluttered in his chest. A conversation between the two of them had been exactly what he’d been hoping to avoid when he’d told that stupid lie in the first place. He didn’t see how he could stop it now though. ‘He would o’ reacted the same, either way. I made a real mess o’ things.’
‘You ever think it might be easier to just tell him the truth?’ Y/N asked hesitantly, and Daryl knew she felt his hackles rise. ‘Get it all out there. No more secrets, no more lies.’
‘He’d hate us both.’
‘Maybe, but he’d get over it. He’d have to. We need people with this world the way it is, and I kinda feel like it would just be better if-‘
‘I said no, alright? Ain’t nobody tellin’ him nothin’.’ His arm was still around her, his grip biting into her waist, and he had to force himself to relax before he hurt her. ‘Ya don’ know him like I do. Ya don’ know what it did to him when ya left. If he finds out… It don’t matter what he needs, he won’ be able to see past anythin’ but what we did, ‘n’ he’ll do somethin’ stupid.’
‘Okay!’ She held her hands up in submission, and Daryl took a deep breath, squeezing his eyes shut as he fought to calm himself. ‘I’m sorry. I won’t say anything, okay?’
‘Alright.’ He nodded. ‘M’sorry. I jus’… S’bad enough that I might lose him t’ this. If it makes it, I can’ risk drivin’ him away. He’s fam’ly. Only blood I got left.’
‘I get it.’ She stretched up to cup his cheek in her hand, coaxing him down until she could brush her lips against his.
As soon as he tasted her, all of the tension left his body. He felt like he could breathe again, and he took control, deepening the kiss and hauling her into his arms, uncaring of the way the movement pulled at the cut on his chest. Her fingers were tangled in his hair, her body warm against his, and he held her so tightly he thought he might break her, but she just whimpered into his mouth, winding her arms around his neck and pulling him even closer.
They were so lost. Lost in their lies, lost in their worry for the man fighting for his life just metres away, lost in this world where surviving one day to the next was a challenge and a struggle. But in each other they found their way, their clarity, and it was a need that overcame everything else. The darkness hid them from prying eyes as they kissed like their lives depended on it, reacquainting themselves with the sensation after what felt like far too long apart. He’d thought he’d spend the whole night stealing glances at his brother, worrying about him, counting every breath, but she was the perfect distraction, just what he needed, and there was no way he was letting her go.
‘Go on.’ Daryl gave Y/N a gentle nudge, encouraging her to cross the tacky floor of the bar to where Merle was slumped on one of the bar stools, absently twisting a glass of whiskey in his fingers. 'Ya can do this, I know ya can.’
‘Daryl-’ she began, her voice pleading as she turned big, doe eyes on him, tugging on his heart, though he refused to let it show.
'I’m gon’ be right here, I promise. Ya gotta talk to him, Y/N.’
He gave her another push, relieved when she finally broke away from him. He saw her gather herself, drawing herself up tall before she started to walk, taking her time to approach her ex, who was oblivious to the exchange that had taken place behind him.
It had taken a long while to get Y/N to finally agree to tell Merle about the little life growing inside her. She was scared half to death, but Daryl still insisted that his brother needed to know. Of course, even when she had finally conceded, they’d needed to track him down. He was still avoiding the house, seemingly convinced that she and Daryl were doing the dirty on him behind his back, but it hadn’t been hard to find him in the end. Just like his old man, Merle had a taste for alcohol when times got hard.
Daryl slouched along the back wall as he watched her make her move, keeping out of sight, finally coming to a halt behind a sturdy support pillar that stood a few metres away from where she was now sliding on to the stool beside Merle’s, wringing her hands anxiously as she waited for him to look up. From his position, Daryl could see the smirk that crossed Merle’s features when he noticed her presence, and he could just make out the waver in Y/N’s voice as she began to speak.
'Long time, no see, huh?’
'Ain’t that surprisin’ is it?’ Merle replied, arching an eyebrow at her as he took a sip of his drink. His words were slurred and Daryl grimaced at the fact that Y/N would have to deliver the news to him while he was in that state. 'Wasn’ gon’ stick around 'n’ watch ya playin’ house with little bro.’
'Nothing’s going on between me and Daryl, Merle.’
'Yeah, whatever ya say, sweetheart. Ya can lie all ya want but ol’ Merle ain’t as dumb as ya think he is. I seen the pair o’ ya, sneakin’ around, whisperin’ together. My own brother 'n’ my girl.’
Daryl could practically feel Y/N’s exasperation as she took a deep breath and tried again, changing the subject in an attempt to ease the tension. 'So, how have you been?’
'Fuckin’ peachy.’ Merle downed what remained in his glass and slid it across the bar, raising his hand to catch the barman’s attention.
'Don’t you think you’ve had enough?’ Y/N asked tentatively and Daryl grit his teeth, already anticipating what sort of response that would get.
'Who d'ya think you are, huh?’ Merle growled, shooting daggers at her from glazed eyes. ‘Ya think you got any right to tell me what t’ do when ya’ve been crawlin’ into my brother’s bed at night? We ain’t together no more, darlin’, in case ya were gettin’ any ideas! Yer jus’ another whore that climbed on my dick a time or two ‘fore movin’ on to the next loser, tha’s what you are.’
‘Alright, alright, I’m sorry.’ She held her hands up in surrender and he went back to observing his glass as the barman sloshed another measure of amber liquid into it. 'You have to know that’s not what it was though, Merle, you and me. There was a time when I thought I loved you and-’
'Ancient history,’ he bit out, cutting her off. 'Prob'ly for the best. Was startin’ to get bored of the same ol’ routine e'ry night anyways.’
'Oh, c'mon, don’t look so hurt now. Only so long a guy like me can be puttin’ all the damn effort in. S'my fault. Should o’ known better than to chase a skirt with so little experience.’
Y/N’s head tipped back and Daryl imagined her blinking back tears, trying to hold it together as Merle’s venom seeped into her system. 'Look, Merle, we need to talk, so if you could just-’
But she didn’t even reach the end of her request before his brother cut her off. 'Talk? What the hell we gotta talk about? Ya wan’ another go, is that it? Baby brother not quite scratchin’ those itches for ya?’
'God!’ For the first time she raised her voice, her hand slamming down on the wooden bartop and drawing attention from around the room. 'Do you always have to be such an ass?’
Merle just blinked at her and took another swig of his drink, smacking his lips together as the liquor burned his throat.
‘Merle,’ she began again, taking a deep breath before she ploughed on. 'I need to tell you something and I need you to hear me, okay? It’s important and I…’ She tailed off as the older Dixon emptied his glass, setting it down on the bar and easing himself to his feet with a groan. ‘Where are you going?’
'Home. I’m done here.’
Y/N’s hand reached for his arm, clutching it tightly as she pleaded with him to stay. 'No, please, I’m trying to-’
'Get yer hand off o’ me.’
She slid from the stool, blocking his exit. 'Merle, c'mon, we need to-’
'I said, gerroff!’
It was like it all happened in slow motion. Daryl saw his brother yank his arm back, trying to release himself from Y/N’s grasp, before whipping it forward when that didn’t work, attempting to shake her off. Except that he was wasted and unaware of his own strength, and Y/N was thrown off balance by his movements. When he moved to shove past her, set on making his escape, his elbow caught her in the stomach sending her careering back into the bar with a pained cry.
'Y/N!’ Daryl stumbled out from behind the pillar, clumsy in his rush to reach her side, and Merle turned wide eyes on him, shock writ over his face. He hadn’t meant to hurt her, Daryl knew, but he had and in that moment he hated him. 'Get out o’ here, Merle!’
‘But I- I din’t-’
Daryl was at her side now, wrapping an arm around her waist as she curled into his chest, sobbing into his shirt, her whole body shaking. 'I got 'er. Just go!’
When the door clicked closed behind Merle’s departing figure, Daryl turned his attention to Y/N, tangling his fingers in her hair to pull her face back so he could take in her tear-streaked cheeks. 'Y'alright?’
'I-I think so.’
Her hand was resting possessively over her stomach and Daryl couldn’t help but remember the words that she’d written to her unborn child in that journal of hers. 'Maybe we should get ya to a hospital, just in case.’
Several hours later, hugging her knees to her chest as she curled up on the bed in a small cubicle in the hospital’s emergency room, Y/N burst into tears as the doctor reassured her that her baby was fine.
‘You were lucky,’ the fresh-faced intern told her. ‘Could’ve been a whole different story. You should be more careful.’
Daryl had wanted to punch him, to wipe that sanctimonious look off his damn face, but instead he’d helped Y/N up, letting her lean on him as he guided her back along the corridor to the truck that sat in the parking lot. Opening the door for her, he offered his hand and she clutched it tightly as she climbed inside, refusing to let go even as he went to move away.
‘Hey, c’mon, let me get ya home.’
‘Daryl.’ Her voice was a quiet whisper that penetrated deep into Daryl’s heart and he met her eyes as she pulled him closer. ‘Thank you.’ When her lips brushed his in a ghost of a kiss, he froze, letting her take the lead, but instead of sinking in deeper, she pulled back, a sad smile playing at the corners of her mouth. ‘I’m so scared.’
‘Ya don’ have to be.’
‘How am I supposed to tell that man that I’m having his child?’
‘With me by your side,’ Daryl decided in that moment. ‘I ain’t gonna make ya face him alone next time, I promise.’
As the first rays of light filtered through the trees, Daryl gazed down at the girl sleeping beside him, her head resting in his lap as the sun danced over her features. He could still taste her, had spent endless hours kissing her as the rest of the group slept, and he felt grounded again for the first time since Merle had come across them in the woods. Damn, she did things to him. He couldn’t explain it, didn’t think he’d be able to even if he was better with words than he was, but he knew he was completely addicted to whatever it was. For the first time, he understood his brother’s dependence on the pills. If they made him feel even a fraction of what Y/N awoke in Daryl, then it was no wonder he kept going back for more.
Merle had made it through the night, his chest still rising and falling in a steady rhythm. Daryl could still see a sheen of sweat glistening on his skin, but he’d regained a little of his colour at least. Perhaps Carol’s prayers had worked, or perhaps it was just a trick of the light, but either way, the old redneck had lived to see another day.
The door to the RV swung open, tearing the archer’s gaze away from his brother, and Dale stepped out onto the dusty forest floor, his rifle dangling from his shoulder. When he turned Daryl’s way, he raised a hand, calling softly to avoid disturbing the rest of the group. ‘I’ll take watch if you wanna grab some rest, son.’
‘Nah.’ Daryl shook his head, though he slowly eased himself out from beneath Y/N, pushing himself upright and stretching out his limbs before shouldering his bow. ‘I’mma go hunt, see if I can scare up some breakfast.’
‘Don’t go far.’
He wouldn’t. He spared a last glance down at his girl as she slept, her face peaceful, her lips parted slightly. There was no way he was straying more than a few yards from her this time. She needed him and, hell, he needed her just as bad.
The sound of the camp waking up drew Daryl back to the clearing. The sun had crept higher, casting dappled light over the leaf-strewn ground, and it was already growing warm, a sure sign that by midday it would be scorching. His hunt had been relatively fruitful and a half-dozen squirrels hung from his arm on a string, ready to be stripped and cooked over the fire. It wasn’t much to go round the whole group, but it was better than nothing, and it would do them all good to supplement their supply of tins and cereal bars with something fresh.
As he stepped out from between the trees, his eyes automatically searched out Y/N and a shiver ran through him when he couldn’t find her right away. Slinging his kills down onto the ground beside the tree where he’d spent the night, he scanned the flurry of activity, trying to swallow down the panic that was rising in his chest. It looked like they were planning to move on, get back on the road, milling around and packing up their gear, ferrying it back to the cars. Merle wasn’t where he’d spent the night either and, with a low growl, Daryl caught Shane’s arm as he passed him, halting him in his tracks and receiving a stern glare in return.
‘Where is she?’
‘Seriously, you wanna watch how you talk to me.’ Daryl’s eyes narrowed and Shane shook his head, smirking as his fingers wrapped around the gun in his holster. ‘Check your truck, asshole. She’s helping Merle change his dressing.’
The thought of Y/N alone with Merle make his stomach knot and Daryl gave a small nod of thanks, before brushing past the former deputy and heading down the line of vehicles to where he’d rolled their truck to a stop the previous evening. Sure enough, he could see Merle perched on the edge of the bed, the tailgate hanging down, as Y/N held a clean bandage to his wound, her bottom lip caught between her teeth as she concentrated on taping it in place, smoothing it over with her fingers. When she was finished, she smiled up at the older Dixon from beneath her lashes, a small giggle escaping her at whatever Merle was saying, and then she closed up the first aid kit and hopped up to sit beside him.
As far as Daryl was aware, the two of them hadn’t spoken at any length since he’d brought her back into their lives and, after Y/N’s suggestion in the early hours that maybe it’d be easier to just come clean and tell his brother the truth, it unsettled him to see her reach for his hand, holding it in her lap as her expression grew serious. She couldn’t be telling him, could she? Breaking it to him while she thought Daryl was gone, hoping to deal with the fallout before he returned? Nah, she must know better than that. Merle’s temper may have mellowed a little with age but he was still unpredictable and she’d seen the evidence of that.
Still, when he saw his brother swallow hard, ducking his head to avoid her gaze, nodding slowly, he couldn’t help himself, edging forward along the bulk of the RV and straining to hear the conversation that he wasn’t a part of.
‘Ain’t gonna lie,’ Merle was saying, his voice a gruff rasp, ‘it sure did knock me for six seein’ ya again, seein’ ya alive. I know I din’t deal with it very well ‘n’ I’m sorry for that.’
‘Nah, it ain’t. M’pretty sure the reason ya skipped town in the first place was ‘cause I scared ya all to hell ‘n’ I don’ wan’ be the reason ya take off again.’ He cleared his throat, tipping his head back to stare up at the crisscross of branches above them. ‘S’real good havin’ ya here, Y/N. For me ‘n’ for my baby brother.’
‘Really?’ Her tone was disbelieving and Daryl imagined that, if he could see her better, she might even be smirking. ‘You really think me being here is a good thing for Daryl? C’mon, Merle, you hate the idea of us being together. You’ve made that pretty clear.’
‘Yeah, yeah, alright, I may have screwed up there,’ he admitted. ‘Like I said, seein’ ya again after all this time, it messed me up, jus’ like it did when ya left. I couldn’ handle it, ‘specially not seein’ ya wrapped around him like that. Ya still felt like mine. Ain’t like we ever really broke up. ‘N’ I guess it jus’… It made me wonder if I was right ‘bout e’rythin’ back then.’
‘Right about what? Me and Daryl?’
‘Yeah. I was pretty damn sure he was stickin’ it to ya, all those nights ya spent in his room.’
‘It was never like that,’ she insisted, and Daryl felt his heart splinter, though he knew she was right. He’d never touched her back then, not like that, no matter how badly they may both have wanted it. ‘He was my best friend. It wasn’t him that came between us, Merle.’
For a moment, Daryl thought he might argue, but to his surprise, he backed down immediately, shooting Y/N a sad smile. ‘Well, then I guess I messed it up all on my own, huh? Think that might actually be worse.’
Her grip on Merle’s hand must have tightened because he laced his fingers through hers, inching closer across the metal surface.
‘Look, I don’t want to make things difficult between you and your brother, Merle. But I love Daryl and, honestly, once the world ended, I thought that was me pretty much done being happy, forever. I lost everything and everyone that I loved, so finding him again, after all this time… It feels like a last chance, like something I’ve got to hold on to with every ounce of strength that I have. Do you get that?’ She waited for Merle’s nod before continuing. ‘But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t like you back then. I did, a whole lot for a while. And I’d like us to be friends if you think there’s even a remote possibility that you might find some way to be okay with all of this.’
‘I’ll be okay,’ Merle reassured her, and if Daryl hadn’t heard the softness in his brother’s voice, he wouldn’t have believed that he was capable of it. ‘Hell, chances are I ain’t gon’ be around much longer anyway.’
‘Don’t say that-’
‘S’true. Somethin’s happenin’ t’ me ‘n’ I ain’t stupid. I got a whole tonne o’ walker bits inside o’ me ‘n’ it’s workin’ its way through my system right now causin’ all sorts o’ trouble.’
‘But you look so much better than you did last night.’
‘Maybe. Truth is, I think it might be better for e’ryone if I turned. ‘Specially Daryl.’
‘That’s not true.’
‘Ain’t it? All I’ve ever done is hold the boy back. He don’ need me, I can see it. Hell, e’ryone can see it. He deserves better.’
‘You know that wouldn’t be true if you managed to lay off the pills and the drink,’ Y/N challenged him and a chuckle rumbled deep in his chest.
‘I’m too old t’ start givin’ shit up now. Can’ get a good-for-nothin’ redneck like me t’ change his ways for nothin’. Trust me, I know. Never could get the old man off the bottle.’
‘Look, I ain’t gon’ get all weepy about it.’ He turned beseeching eyes on her and Daryl noticed how her shoulders tensed as she stared right back. ‘I jus’ need to ask ya, if it happens, if this damn bolt-wound should be the end o’ me, look out for him for me. He’s gon’ blame himself ‘n’ he won’ be able to live with that. He’s gon’ need ya more than ever. Boy’s been cryin’ out for someone to look after him his whole life ‘n’ he got stuck with me and our daddy. ‘Bout time he had a good woman t’ sort him out.’
Y/N sniffled, her hand lifting to her face, and Daryl guessed that she was wiping away tears. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say anything that nice about him before.’
‘Yeah, well, s’been a lot o’ water under that bridge. Guess it ain’t ‘til ya have to face yer own mortality that ya start wonderin’ if ya din’t jus’ waste a whole lot o’ time bein’ angry ‘bout things that happened a long time ago.’
‘Well, I’m sorry if I was a part of that.’ Y/N’s voice wavered and Daryl stepped out from his hiding place just in time to hear her confess, ‘Things were a lot more complicated back then than you know.’
‘S’goin’ on here?’ he interrupted the conversation, striding over to where they both sat and tossing his crossbow into the bed of the truck between them, forcing them apart. ‘She get ya patched up good, man?’
‘Hell yeah, baby brother.’ Merle fixed him with a watery-eyed grin. ‘S’got the magic touch, this one. Yer a lucky man.’
Daryl glossed over the easy acceptance of his new relationship, casting an eye over his brother’s face, at the sheen of sweat that still coated his skin and the slight flush to his cheeks. ‘How ya feelin’?’
‘Doin’ okay. I don’ think I ever thanked ya for gettin’ me here, so…’
‘No need. S’my fault yer in that state.’ He didn’t miss the look that Y/N and Merle exchanged, though he tried to ignore it. It was easy for Merle to say that Daryl shouldn’t be blaming himself, but he was the one that had fired the damn bolt that had done the damage. There was no getting away from that. ‘Least y’ain’t hallucinatin’ no more. Can’ have ya crashin’ round the camp killin’ imaginary walkers. Shane’ll kick yer ass out for scarin’ the kids.’
Y/N laughed again and Daryl had to admit that it felt good, the three of them talking without the undercurrent of tension that usually buzzed in the air. Maybe he should’ve just sent Y/N to talk to Merle in the first place. He seemed a damn sight better at keeping his temper around her than he did Daryl. But her hint at the complications she’d been facing back then echoed through the archer’s mind and he couldn’t help but wonder if she would have elaborated if he hadn’t cut in.
His fears were interrupted when she slid from the truck, tucking herself against his side and pressing a soft kiss to his cheek. ‘Did you manage to catch us any breakfast? Dale said that’s where you disappeared to.’
‘Din’t go far,’ he promised her. ‘Got some squirrel t’ grill up soon as they’re stripped ‘n’ cleaned.’
‘Best get on that then.’ She wrinkled her nose at the thought, even as she drew her knife from her belt. ‘Your brother needs to keep his strength up if he’s going to get better. And he will get better,’ she added pointedly, nudging his dangling foot with the toe of her boot. ‘We should get started if we wanna eat before we roll out. Rick wants to get gone sooner rather than later.’
As she led Daryl away, he glanced back over his shoulder to see Merle watching them with a dazed smile painted over his features. He looked peaceful, relaxed, all hint of agitation or pain gone, and a debate raged within him as he tried to figure out if that was a good sign or just the calm before the storm.
The money felt dirty in Daryl’s hands, a bundle of notes that probably amounted to more than he’d ever held in his life before. He wasn’t sure why he’d felt the need to do it, steal from his old man, rifling through his pockets while he was passed out cold, but he just had a bad feeling. He wasn’t sure how Y/N’s news was gonna go down with Merle when they met to tell him together that afternoon, and having a little cash as a back-up plan to get them out of there made him feel a whole lot better about things. He’d sold his dirt bike too, the one he and Merle had fixed up together when he was a kid. As he’d got older, he’d added to it, modifying it with whatever parts he could get his hands on, but it had been collecting dust round the back of the house for a couple of years now so it was no great loss. It hadn’t brought in much, but that with what he’d raided from his dad had amounted to enough to give them a little bit of a safety net.
Glancing at the clock that hung crooked on the wall above the TV, he sucked in a breath, tucking the roll of money into the bottom of his leather knife holster and striding into his room to stow it under his mattress, before taking a moment to collect himself. There was no way this attempt at breaking the news to his brother could go any worse than it had before, he told himself, but even as he thought it, he knew that wasn’t true. What had happened had been an accident, and it was damn lucky that it hadn’t ended more nastily than it did, but she hadn’t even gotten close to telling him that he’d knocked her up. Once he found out that he was gonna be a daddy, there was no telling what he’d do. As recently as a couple of months ago, Daryl would’ve been convinced that, even if he took the news badly, there was no way he’d hurt Y/N, but since Merle had lashed out and smacked him, he wasn’t sure that there was any line his brother wouldn’t cross if he was loaded enough.
The knock at the door tore him from his reverie and he hurried to answer it, noting the dark hollows beneath Y/N’s eyes as she brushed past him, wringing her hands as she paced the living room, chewing on her bottom lip. He knew women were supposed to glow when they were expecting, but she just looked wrung out, exhausted and stressed to hell, and he hated that he couldn’t just take those worries away for her.
‘What time did you say he’d be home?’ she asked, without offering a greeting and Daryl moved to block her path, resting a hand on her shoulder as she stilled, though he could feel the tension in her body.
‘Shouldn’ be long now. Ya gotta calm down though.’
‘Well, if you could give me any tips on how to do that, that’d be great,’ she snapped, her expression softening when he took a step back, hurt by her outburst. ‘Sorry. I’m sorry. I just… This didn’t go so well last time and I…’ Her hand drifted to rest on her stomach and Daryl nodded in understanding.
‘I know. I get it, alright, but I ain’t gon’ let that happen again.’
She moved towards him, tipping her face up so he could lean his forehead against hers, reaching for her hips so he could pull her closer as they drew strength from each other. ‘I know.’
‘S’all gon’ be fine, Y/N, I promise.’
‘I know.’ Her eyes met his and his heart faltered a little at what he saw there. It wasn’t often that anybody had believed in him - Daryl Dixon: dirty redneck and a waste of space, just like the rest of his family - but in Y/N’s gaze he saw her complete and utter trust that he would make things okay. ‘Daryl-’
She was interrupted when the front door flew open, but instead of Merle appearing, it was Daryl’s old man that leaned against the door frame, red-faced and panting, practically trembling with rage. The stench of liquor rolled off of him in waves and his eyes were bloodshot and glazed as they came to rest on Daryl who squared his shoulders, readying himself for the onslaught.
‘Ya think ya can steal from me ‘n’ get away with it?’ his father growled, low and menacing, save for the slight slur to his words. ‘Ya think I wasn’ gon’ notice?’
‘Notice what?’ Playing dumb, Daryl ran a hand through his hair, trying to hide the fact that it was shaking from Y/N who was watching him through wide eyes.
‘Notice what?’ the older man mocked him, copying his movements and his tone as he stepped into the room, slamming the door shut behind him. ‘See, I reached into my pocket t’ pay off my tab with ol’ Earl down at the bar - son of a bitch won’ serve me no more ‘til we’re square, ya see. Thinks I ain’t good for it or somethin’ - ‘n’ wha’ did I find? Nothin’!’ He turned his pockets out to emphasise his point, fixing Daryl with a venomous glare. ‘No cash. S’all gone.’
‘Ya pro’ly spent it, Dad.’ Daryl shrugged. ‘Wouldn’ be the first time ya spent all our food money ‘n’ forgot about it.’
He wasn’t sure where the bravado was coming from, except that Y/N’s panic had increased tenfold since his father had walked in and he needed to show her that he was man enough to stand up for himself, to protect her. When his old man gave a strangled roar and lunged for him, Daryl ducked so that the first blow only caught him around his ear instead of full in the face as was intended. ‘Ya think ya can talk t’ me like-’
The next blow hit its mark and Daryl fell back, off-balance, crashing to the floor when it was followed with a kick to the back of his knee. For someone so wasted that they were swaying, his dad sure moved quick on his feet when he was on the attack. As Daryl struggled to crawl away, his father sank to the ground beside him, looming over him as thick meaty fingers wrapped around his throat. ‘Where is it?’
‘I-I don’ know what yer-’
‘Tell me where it is!’ His fist collided with Daryl’s face and blood spurted from his nose as it crunched under the impact. ‘Ya useless sack o’ shit, I know ya took it, so ‘less ya tell me where it is right the hell now…’ He tailed off, landing another sickening thud to his son’s face, and Daryl zoned out, letting his mind wander so that he didn’t have to focus on the pain or the fear that was rising in his chest or Y/N’s cries as she watched on, helpless to stop what was happening. She shouldn’t have had to see this, she shouldn’t be having to deal with this on top of everything else.
When the weight on top of him was wrenched away, Daryl blinked dazedly, unsure of what was going on until he heard his brother’s feral growl. ‘Wha’ the hell d’ya think yer doin’?’
‘He took my money!’
‘S’bullshit, Dad, ‘n’ ya know it! Ya drank our damn money, jus’ like ya do e’ry month!’
‘Nah, son, ya don’ understand. It was there this mornin’ ‘n’ now it’s gone, ‘n’ it was this lil’ prick that stole it from me!’
As Daryl staggered to his feet, the room spinning slightly, intent on going to Y/N to shield her from what he knew was about to happen, his dad whirled towards him, advancing on him again.
‘Don’ ya lay another damn finger on him, Dad, or I swear t’ God-’
‘Wha? What are ya gon’ do, Merle?’ The vein in his old man’s head was throbbing now, his hands balled into fists as he stood between his sons, drunk and furious. ‘Ya gon’ lay hands on the man who raised ya? Who made ya into the man y’are today?’
‘If ya take another swing for my baby brother, tha’s exactly what I’m gonna do.’
They were of a similar build, Merle and his old man, both tall and sturdy, though Merle was strong now, the muscles in his arms defined as he prepared himself to do what needed to be done, whereas his dad had withered in his old age, worn down by heavy drinking. As they faced off, Daryl finally managed to reach Y/N, drawing her behind his back.
‘He’s my son. I can do wha’ I wan’ with him ‘n’ what I want is t’ teach him a damn lesson!’
‘Well, yer gon’ have t’ go through me.’
‘I ain’t got a problem with that.’
They clashed like two bulls locking horns, wrestling for dominance, looking for an opening. Fists flew and pained grunts filled the small space as they beat on each other. Daryl could tell by the glimpses he caught of his brother’s face that this was killing him, that he hated having to hurt his old man, but his father was cruel and callous and there was no other way to regain control when he flew off the handle, fuelled by liquor and self-righteousness. Even despite his reluctance though, it seemed like Merle retained the upper hand, and Daryl found himself wanting to cover his eyes, hating that he was being forced to face the mess that his family had become as his brother pounded on his father, using just enough strength to keep him down. Until an elbow caught him in the face and sent him reeling backwards.
‘Oh shit,’ Daryl murmured as he stepped forward to help, holding up his hands. ‘C’mon, Dad, ya gotta calm down.’
‘Calm down? Calm down?’ His father’s expression was indignant, blood seeping from several cuts on his face as he turned to face his youngest boy. ‘My own damn blood, one of ‘em stealin’ from me ‘n’ the other one beatin’ me down, ‘n’ ya wan’ me t’ calm down?’
He went for Daryl again, forcing him up against the wall, and, Merle, back on his feet, moved to tear him away, wrapping a strong arm around his chest and wrenching hard, releasing his hold to send the old man flying backwards. He flailed wildly as he fell, twisting in an attempt to regain his balance, and the brothers could only watch in horror as he caught Y/N square in the chest with his fist. A small whimper escaped her as she was knocked to the floor by the impact, one arm wrapped around her stomach to protect the baby, so that she couldn’t reach out to prevent her head from smacking against the coffee table with a sickening crack.
Daryl’s father crawled to his feet before Y/N had even managed to push herself upright, and the smirk on his face as he turned to his sons made Daryl itch to launch himself at him and pummel the life from his worthless body. ‘Now see what ya did.’
‘He seems more lucid than yesterday,’ Daryl observed, casting a glance over towards his brother as he and Y/N sat side by side, working on skinning the squirrels that he’d caught for breakfast. His hands were sticky with blood and the coppery tang of it hung in the air, but he’d been surprised by how easily his girl took to the task, getting down and dirty as they prepared the meal for the group. ‘S’gotta be a good sign.’
She nodded, not looking up from her work. ‘He definitely seems better.’
‘Ya think he’s gon’ be okay?’
‘I don’t know, Daryl.’ She sighed, casting aside the animal in her hands and reaching for the next. ‘I guess, we’ll just have to hope, right?’
‘Guess so.’ He watched her for a moment, swallowing hard, before asking, ‘Wha’ were the two of ya talkin’ about? Seemed t’ be gettin’ pretty close when I interrupted.’
‘You, actually,’ she admitted, shooting him a shy smile. ‘I think you should try talking to him again.’
‘Ain’t up for a fight right now.’
‘And I don’t think you’ll get one,’ she pushed, quirking an eyebrow at him. ‘Didn’t you see him back there? He’s calmer, less agitated. I think he’s really okay with this now. Maybe he just needed some time to-’
‘Or maybe he was jus’ tryin’ t’ get on yer good side,’ Daryl cut her off, though he’d heard the sincerity in his brother’s voice.
She huffed quietly, tossing her hair out of her face. ‘You know, a long time ago you promised me that you were going to fix things with him, Dixon. Do you remember that? Because it seems to me they’re just as bad as ever between the two of you.’
The archer shifted uncomfortably, avoiding her eyes as he twirled his knife in his fingers. ‘Yeah, well, y’know what he’s like.’
‘I do. But he’s your brother.’ Placing the last squirrel on top of the pile, she climbed to her feet, dragging her arm across her forehead to mop the sweat from her brow. ‘I got this from here. Go, talk to him, please. For me.’
‘Fine.’ Daryl levered himself up from the ground, stepping forehead and stooping to steal a kiss. ‘Anythin’ for you.’
Still, as he left her and headed back to the truck were Merle was still sitting slumped in the bed, he steeled himself for the fight that he was sure he was walking into.
‘Y’alright?’ Daryl’s approach was cautious. Merle was still slumped in the bed of the truck, staring off into space, a lit cigarette dangling from his lips. He looked a little washed out after his conversation with Y/N, and Daryl found himself wondering how much of his smile had been forced, how much it had taken out of him to put on that bravado for her. ‘Hey, Merle. M’talkin’ to you.’
He nudged his brother’s foot with his elbow as he came to rest against the dropped tailgate, finally capturing his attention and earning himself a grunt for his trouble. ‘Wha’ d’ya want?’
‘Y/N’s cookin’ up them squirrels now. I’ll bring ya some.’
Merle shrugged noncommittally, inhaling a deep breath of smoke. ‘Ain’t hungry.’
‘Ya gotta eat, man. Gotta keep yer strength up.’ When the older Dixon didn’t respond, Daryl heaved himself up to sit on the dusty metal, brushing his hands off on his trousers as Merle’s eyes narrowed. ‘Saw the two of ya talkin’ before.’
‘What about it?’
‘Jus’ looked pretty friendly, s’all.’ More silence. ‘Reckon ya’ve found a way t’ be okay with all this?’
Merle considered that for a moment, rolling his cigarette between his fingers and watching the tendrils of smoke curl into the air. ‘M’okay with her. Still ain’t so sure ‘bout you.’
Daryl sighed. ‘Merle-’
‘I know I hurt her bad back then, bro,’ Merle admitted, cutting him off as he shifted to sit up straighter, bending his knees so he could rest his forearms on them. ‘Ain’t really surprisin’ that this time round she’s gone for the safer brother now, is it?’
‘S’that what ya think this is?’ Daryl felt himself bristle though he knew there was an element of truth in it. When Merle and Y/N’s relationship had spun out of control, when his rage and addictions had become too much for her to handle, Daryl’s calm, easy friendship had been her rock. Maybe it was natural that she was clinging to that now more than ever, with the world in the state it was in. But was there anything wrong with that? Wasn’t everyone really just searching for someone to make them feel safe, keep their head above water?
‘Hell if I know. But I can tell from that sappy grin on her face that ya make her happy ‘n’ I want that for her.’ It pained Merle to admit it, Daryl could tell by the grimace that contorted his face as he bit out the words. Still, it sounded like he wanted go on, and when he didn’t, Daryl finished for him.
‘But not for me.’
Merle shook his head, his mouth twisting into a smirk though it didn’t hide the sadness in his eyes. ‘Yer my brother, man. Y’ain’t s’posed t’ chase my leftovers.’
‘Even if I love her?’
‘Ya loved her back then too. Any fool could see it! S’why I flipped when I thought ya was hittin’ that.’
‘Ya don’t think that no more?’ The last time they’d had this conversation, Merle had seemed pretty damn sure that there’d been something going on all those years ago, something far more physical than anything that had taken place between them back then, and he’d heard him question Y/N about it again not an hour ago. But now, he seemed less sure, more willing to accept that maybe it had all been more innocent that he’d ever cared to believe.
‘She told me ya weren’t.’
‘’N’ ya believe her but not me?’ It sounded like a question, but it wasn’t really and they both knew it. Of course, Merle would believe her. He was putty in her hands just like he had been before. If only he knew… But he couldn’t, not ever.
‘Wha’ can I say? Girl’s got an honest face.’
Daryl nodded, rubbing a hand over his brow as the sun pricked at his skin. He wasn’t sure where to go from here. Merle hadn’t been putting on an act with Y/N like he’d first thought, but it was clear that, although he’d been willing to forgive her, his anger for his brother ran far deeper. ‘Look, we gotta find a way t’ make this work, Merle. I ain’t tryin’ to rub it in yer face but we gotta stick together if we’re gon’ make it to the CDC.’
‘I got a way to make it work, baby brother. I’mma sit here ‘n’ keep my mouth shut ‘n’ wait to die.’ His voice was flat and a look of resignation settled on his face, knotting Daryl’s guts until he felt sick with it all.
‘Stop makin’ promises ya can’t keep.’
‘Ya look a whole lot better than yesterday,’ Daryl insisted, and it was true, though he’d grown pale again, and he could feel the heat that was emanating from his feverish body.
‘Still hurts though, man. I’m still burnin’ up here ‘n’ when I close my eyes…’
He tailed off and Daryl swallowed down the lump in his throat to choke out, ‘What?’
‘It don’ matter. Fever dreams, s’all it is.’
‘What can I do?’ Before they’d found the group, at least he’d had a task, a mission, something to hold on to. He just had to keep Merle alive until he found them and it would all be okay. It gave him focus, a purpose. Now though, they were back with their people and things were still going to shit. He needed to fight it, however he could.
‘Ya can look after her, ya hear me?’ At Daryl’s look of surprise, Merle pressed on, as though passing a mantle, the sincerity of the moment knocking Daryl for six. ‘Tha’s on you now. I know I did a damn shitty job of it way back when ‘n’ that was ‘fore the dead started chowin’ down on people, but-’
‘I ain’t gon’ let anythin’ happen to her,’ Daryl promised.
‘Well, tha’s alright then.’
‘So, we’re good?’
‘Good as we’re gon’ get.’
‘Ya lost Jim, right?’
Rick spun on his heel at the gruff rasp of Daryl’s voice, abandoning his task of slinging packs into the bag of his car and removing his hat to ran a hand through his sweat-dampened hair. ‘Yeah, that’s right. How did you-’
‘Saw him out there on the road. Put him down,’ Daryl explained. ‘He get bit?’
‘Yeah, back at the quarry.’
‘’N’ what happened then?’
‘What do you-’
‘How long did it take for him t’ turn?’
Daryl could see Rick doing the calculations in his mind, but time all sort of ran together these days with no set routine to measure it by, and the shake of his head was hardly surprising. ‘I don’t know. Less than a day. Maybe eighteen hours?’
‘’N’ wha’ was he like before that?’
‘Look.’ Rick tried to calm the agitated archer. ‘You’d be better off talking to Jacqui about it. She was the one that was with him.’
‘I’m askin’ you,’ Daryl spat, turning away from the sheriff to aim a kick at a rolled-up sleeping bag lying on the ground.
‘Hey, okay, just calm down.’ Rick thought again, exhaling loudly before he began to reel off the list of symptoms that had marked Jim’s final moments. ‘He had a fever, and he was hurting. Said it felt like his bones were made of glass. And he was seeing things, hallucinating. He didn’t wanna sleep ‘cause there were monsters in his dreams.’ Daryl’s increasing look of horror silenced him, and he reached out to rest a hand on the archer’s shoulder, drawing it back quickly when he was shrugged off. ‘Look, I know you’re worried and it doesn’t look good, but Merle… he’s still alive and it’s been days. Most of those things you can get just from a regular infection, and your brother’s probably going through withdrawal as well. I mean, that’s… that’s gonna be tough on anybody.’
‘He thinks he’s dyin’,’ Daryl confessed, scrubbing a hand over his eyes as a wave of emotion broke over him. ‘S’like he’s given up. S’my fault. I did this to him.’
‘It’s not your fault. You didn’t mean for this to happen.’
‘Like that matters! I shot my own brother with a bolt covered in walker brains.’
‘Hey, we’ve all wanted to shoot your brother at some point.’ Rick was smirking, trying to lighten the mood, but Daryl wasn’t in the place to listen to him making jokes.
‘Ya think tha’s funny? Guess he’s jus’ another dead redneck to you, huh? You cops are all the same!’
‘No, Daryl, that’s not what I-’
Storming away across the camp, Daryl flung himself into the cab of the truck and leant his arms on the steering wheel, bowing his head as he fought to gain control over his anger and his misery. He knew deep down that the sheriff had been trying to help, that he didn’t really want Merle dead despite the trouble that naturally seemed to follow his big brother, but he just couldn’t picture a world where Merle wasn’t at his side. Dixons stuck together: that was how it was supposed to be. You didn’t have anybody else when you were a Dixon. Except now, peering through the grimy windshield at the group as they gathered around the campfire to take their tiny ration of breakfast before they moved off, he realised that maybe he did have more people than he thought. After all, they’d taken them right back in when they’d found them, despite how horrific that scene out on the road must’ve looked. They’d patched Merle up and now they were taking off again, together, in search of somewhere that might have answers. And right there, in the centre, dishing out the charred meat, was Y/N.
Daryl could just make out Y/N’s figure folded on the ground beside the bleachers as he broke through the treeline. It had been nearly a week since he’d last seen her and, in all honesty, he wasn’t all that surprised. Everything had turned into such a mess. Another attempt to tell Merle, another trip to the emergency room… Hell, even he couldn’t stand to be around him so he didn’t expect Y/N to feel any differently.
As he drew closer, he could make out the vivid red gash that began at her hairline and split her brow, crisscrossed with small black stitches, ugly and heartbreaking, and he had to drop his gaze, unable to look at her knowing that he bore at least a little of the responsibility for hurting her. The gasp that escaped her as he stood before her reminded him that he was quite the pathetic picture himself, with his broken nose and two black eyes.
‘Hi.’ Her voice broke the silence, tiny and unsure, and he eased himself down beside her, not trusting himself to speak just yet. ‘Thank you for coming.’
‘Well, I got yer note. Ya said ya needed t’ talk.’
‘I do.’ She nodded slowly, as though she was contemplating what it was that she needed to say, before deciding to start with something easy. ‘How are you?’
‘M’fine,’ Daryl lied. I miss you. I’m sorry. I hate myself. ‘How about you? How’s that healin’?’
‘Slowly,’ she admitted, prodding tentatively at the skin around the wound with a grimace. ‘Doc says there’s no infection though, so that’s good.’
‘Yeah, tha’s…’ He tailed off, unable to keep up the act of nonchalance any longer. ‘Shit, Y/N, I’m sorry. My old man, he’s… He’s out o’ control half the time but I never thought… Ya never should’a got caught up in it like that. I should’a got ya out o’ there ‘n’-’
‘Stop.’ Her fingers covered his hand where it hovered in front of his mouth, his thumbnail ragged and bleeding where he’d gnawed at the skin near constantly over the past few days, going over and over what he could have done differently. ‘It wasn’t your fault.’
‘It was, a lil’ bit.’ I did it. I stole the money. For you, for us, for the future.
‘No, no, it wasn’t. You’re a good guy, Dixon, and you’re my best friend. This… this isn’t because of you.’
Silence fell between them as he laced his fingers through hers, and they stared out into the darkness, both lost in their own thoughts. In the gloom, the old school playing field seemed to stretch on forever. The scent of cut grass hung heavy in the air and there was a freshness to the night that felt like rain.
Finally, she cleared her throat, commanding Daryl’s attention again and he twisted around to face her, rubbing his thumb over her knuckles as he waited for her to speak. ‘Daryl, I love you, you know that, right?’ She barrelled on, without waiting for him to respond. ‘But your family - your dad and Merle - they’re bad people. They’re violent and they’re addicts and they… They scare me.
‘I won’ let ‘em hurt ya again, Y/N-’
‘I know. I know that, Daryl, but I…’ She swallowed hard, taking a deep breath, her voice dropping into a broken whisper. ‘God, this is hard.’
‘What is it? Wha’s wrong?’
Her eyes met his and he knew what she was going to say before the words left her mouth. ‘I don’t think I can have this baby.’
‘I know, okay? I know what you’re gonna say. You’re gonna tell me that it’ll be okay, and that we’ll make it work, and that we can run away and build a life together, and we’ll be safe and happy and things will be good. But I don’t believe that anymore, Daryl. I’m sorry. This baby… It’s going to tie me to your family for the rest of my life and I just… I don’t want that. I can’t spend the rest of my life waiting for Merle to show up and muscle his way in and hurt my child. I can’t bear the thought of my baby growing up to become like his daddy or his granddaddy. I just… I can’t do it.’
‘And I won’t ask you to do that for me, okay? I won’t. I may hate them, more than I have ever hated anyone in my life, but they’re your family, Daryl, your blood and I just know, if I take you away from them, if I ask you to do this for me, you’re gonna resent me one day, and I can’t stand the thought of that.’
‘I wouldn’t,’ he insisted. ‘I’d never… I’d do anythin’ for ya, ya gotta know that.’
‘I do. I do, but I don’t want you to have to live with any regrets.’
‘I’d never regret ya.’
‘You say that now, but-’
‘No. No, ya can make this decision if it’s what ya want, but don’ make me yer excuse, alright? It ain’t fair.’
She took a deep breath, bowing her head as she collected herself, and, when she spoke again, her voice was calmer, more even. ‘It’s not an excuse, it’s just… Look, this isn’t what I wanted from my life, okay? Since I found out that I was pregnant, I’ve lied to pretty much everyone, and I’ve given up even thinking about what it is that I actually want to do because what’s even the point? And I’ve been to the ER twice, Daryl! Twice! Because either your brother or your father have lashed out and I’ve gotten caught in the crossfire. It just feels like every single thing that’s happened is a sign, y’know, that maybe this isn’t the right thing or the right time or… I don’t know. I’m sorry. I know you’ll probably think less of me for this but I just… I can’t do it, okay? I can’t.’
‘I don’ think less of ya.’ Daryl slipped his finger beneath her chin, lifting her face to meet his gaze. ‘But are ya sure this is what ya wan’? I mean, maybe ya should take a little longer t’ think about it or-’
‘It’s all I’ve been thinking about for weeks now.’ She sighed. ‘There was a moment there when I was so excited to have this kid, there was, but… it didn’t last. And since then it’s just been stress and pain and fear, and I just want it to be over.’
Daryl nodded, knowing that her mind was made up, realising that there was nothing he could say to change things. ‘When?’
‘I don’t know yet.’ She drew her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms around them and tugging at the sleeves of her baggy sweater until they covered her hands. ‘I’m probably gonna have to tell my folks. They’ll try to talk me out of it, I know they will. They’ll probably never look at me the same way again, but I can’t afford it without their help.’
‘I might be able t’ help with that,’ Daryl grunted, hating that the money he’d taken, that had caused the fight that had contributed to this decision, would now be used for this. ‘I got some cash. Was savin’ it, in case ya decided t’ leave, thought we could use it to set up somewhere new, but if this is what ya want…’
‘You- I mean- You’d do that for me?’
‘Course I would. I told ya, I’d do anythin’ for ya.’
Her mouth opened and closed for a moment as she processed his offer, before a grim determination settled over her features. ‘How much have you got?’
‘Prob’ly not enough,’ he confessed and her face fell. ‘Look, I’ll sort somethin’, alright? Ya don’t gotta tell yer folks. We’ll find a way.’ He faltered for a moment. ‘Long as yer sure this is what ya want.’
‘I’m sure.’ She gave him a small smile, a little of the anxiety that had been weighing her down seeming to lift now that she’d decided on a path to take. ‘I’ve gotta do this, Daryl. It’ll be better for everyone. You’ll see.’
‘How’d it go?’ Daryl glanced round at the sound of Y/N’s voice beside him, and felt his turmoil dissipate at the sight of her big eyes staring up at him, her fingers trailing over his arm as she waited for his answer. ‘With Merle, I mean. Is everything okay with the two of you?’
They’d eaten a hasty breakfast, Carol ensuring that the patient ate a least a couple of mouthfuls which he did, with a sullen look on his face. Now, with the cars packed, it was time to get on the road again. Merle had been helped into the RV, with the hope that he’d be more comfortable stretched out on the bed in there than in the rickety old truck. Daryl was just giving the engine a quick once-over to ensure it was good to go before the convoy rolled out.
‘S’better than it was,’ he assured her. ‘Din’t lose his temper ‘n’ storm off this time, so tha’s somethin’, right?’
‘But I thought-’
‘Look, he’s forgiven ya, alright? The two of you are good. Y’ain’t got nothin’ to worry about.’
He saw her brow crease with confusion before realisation flashed across her face as she sighed. ‘But he’s still mad at you. You’re family, I guess. Harder to let things go.’ When Daryl’s face fell, her hand crept up to cup his cheek, stroking over his scruff. ‘You’ll get there, Dixon. It’s just gonna take some time.’
‘What if he don’t got time?’ was all Daryl could say, before Shane let out a piercing whistle and the rumble of engines shuddering into life filled the air. ‘C’mon, we gotta go.’
Y/N was laughing. Her head was tipped back, skin crinkling around her eyes, lips parted as her body shook with mirth, the sunlight picking out the different tones in her hair and making it shine. Her feet were resting on the dash of the truck, toes scrunching against the warm plastic, and her elbow was resting on the lip of the open window. Daryl thought, as he stole glances at her from behind the wheel, that she was still the most beautiful thing that he’d ever seen.
They’d been driving for several hours now, weaving their way through jams of abandoned cars. To begin with, they’d been silent, each lost in their own thoughts, though their fingers were laced together between them. But then Y/N had turned to him with a grin on her face and starting reminiscing about old times, drunken nights by the school bleachers, lazy Sunday afternoon walks in the woods and the people they loved to hate in their classes at school, and he’d let himself be drawn in, enjoying her catty comments and sarcastic humour just as he always had. He felt like he was a teenager again, young and in love, and he found it was the distraction he needed.
‘Oh man, do you remember Mrs Richards?’ she was cackling now, pausing to catch her breath before another burst of giggles escaped her. ‘She had that picture of her cat on her desk and she always smelt like raspberry razzles!’
‘George always reckoned she was hot under the collar for Mr Davies.’
‘Mr Davies?’ Her nose wrinkled as she racked her brain trying to place the name, before letting out a loud, ‘Ha!’ when it finally hit her. ‘The gym teacher? You think?’
‘S’what George said.’
‘Nah.’ She shook her head. ‘Would never have worked.’
‘Why’d ya think?’
‘Mr Davies had, like, three dogs! Poor Mr Kibbles wouldn’t have made it through one day of that hook-up!’
Daryl couldn’t keep the smirk from his face as she creased up once again, her laugh ringing in his ears like a song he wanted to put on repeat. It had been too long since he’d heard her laugh like that. Not since that liquor-fuelled night at her last camp, right before… He shut the thoughts down, not allowing himself to go there. Right here, right now, she was happy. And that made him happy too. ‘Yer crazy, girl.’
‘Yeah, you kinda love it though.’
‘I do.’ Their eyes met for a moment, and Daryl felt his face warm at the desire he saw there.
The moment was broken when the car in front rolled to a halt, and Daryl eased off the gas, pulling the truck up behind it.
‘Wait here,’ he instructed, already sliding from his seat and reaching down for his crossbow, fixing her with a stern look before shutting the door behind him.
Dale was shaking his head, dabbing his forehead with a rag as he stood before the steaming engine of his RV. ‘Dammit.’
‘S’goin’ on?’ Daryl was one of the first out of his car and he peered into the vehicle’s workings.
‘Darn belt’s gone.’
The old man spread his hands. ‘She’s not cut out for these long trips anymore.’
‘S’not cut out for anythin’ but the junkyard,’ the archer observed, as Shane joined him by the winnebago.
‘It’s gone again?’
‘Yep,’ Dale confirmed.
‘Great.’ Shane rolled his eyes, his jaw tightening, before making a snap decision. ‘I’ll double back to that jam we passed a few miles back, scout around, see if I can find anything that might fit. That suit you?’
His question was aimed at Rick who had appeared with Lori and the kid close behind him. ‘Yeah,’ Rick agreed, casting an eye towards the sky. ‘Should have another few hours of daylight. If you hurry back we’ll have time to get off the road, find somewhere to make camp before dark.’
‘I’ll come with you,’ Glenn offered from the open doorway of the caravan. ‘Search will be quicker with two of us.’
With the plan agreed, Glenn and Shane jogged back to the deputy’s jeep, and Daryl climbed the steps into the RV, peering along the length of the living area towards the bedroom at the back. ‘How’s it goin’ in here?’
‘He’s doing okay,’ Jacqui reassured him, rising from her seat at his brother’s side and joining him. ‘He’s sleeping now but he’s been talking, rambling on like he does. The journey doesn’t seem to be taking it out of him like it did with… with Jim,’ she finished, swallowing hard. ‘The pain’s less I think. He’s still running a fever though.’
‘S’a good sign that he ain’t hurtin’ so bad though, right?’
‘I’d say so. I can’t promise anything though. I mean, none of us really know how this works.’
‘Might if we get to the CDC,’ Daryl muttered. ‘S’gon’ be another week at this rate.’ Snapping himself out of his mood, Daryl nodded gratefully to Jacqui, retreating back to the truck and tugging open the passenger door.
Y/N had curled into a ball, flipping through a paperback book that she’d obviously borrowed from one of the others, but his return had her sitting up straight and chucking it onto the dash, concern in her eyes. ‘Everything okay? It’s not Merle, is it?’
‘Nah. RV’s packed up again. Shane ‘n’ Glenn are off searchin’ for parts.’
‘So, we’re stuck here?’ She shared his frustration, he could tell, keen to keep moving, and he knew neither of them could face sitting on their asses for however long it took to get things running again.
‘Wan’ go hunt? Reckon we could duck into the trees, see if we can pick up any tracks, maybe find some water.’
‘Oh, God, yes.’
The carpet of leaves crunched beneath them as Daryl rolled Y/N onto her back, holding his weight over her with a forearm planted on either side of her head as his lips crashed down on hers once again. Her hands had found their way beneath his shirt, nails clawing over the bare skin of his back as she writhed beneath him, dragging him closer as her breath left her in needy gasps.
They’d only been hunting for a half hour when she’d stopped and turned to him with a flirtatious smile on her face, beckoning him closer before backing him up against a tree and pulling his mouth down to hers. He’d lost himself in the taste of her, the feel of her warm body pressed to his, and the sweet, spicy scent of her mingling with the earthiness of the forest. It felt like it had been forever since they’d last been alone, away from the group and prying eyes, free to explore each other and revel in a relationship that at this point had survived more than anybody could ever have guessed.
And now, as he sunk into her, he had to bite down hard on his bottom lip to prevent the guttural groan of pure pleasure from forcing its way up his throat. He’d never ever known that it could be like this, that it could be about more than just a cheap thrill, sloppy kisses and faltering movements. He’d never known that it could feel like finding your place in the world, a place where you truly fit and that you could never get enough of. Her legs locked around him as she spurred him on, fingers lacing into his hair to draw him in for more hungry kisses, breathing him in. God, he wanted to hold her tighter, wanted to bury himself in her and stay that way forever. It was safe here. Safe and warm and there was no CDC and no walkers and no Merle who may or may not be dying, and he wanted to stay there for the rest of his days.
Afterwards, as the shockwaves ebbed away, he shuffled backwards to lean back against the trunk of the tree and she crawled after him, tucking herself into his side and leaning her head on his chest, listening to the rhythmic thrum of his heartbeat. Her fingers found his, lacing together and resting on the firm planes of his stomach, rising and falling with each breath, and he bowed his head to bury his face in her hair, letting his eyes drift closed as he allowed the buzz of bliss settle around him.
Finally, Y/N yawned, running a hand through her hair, a small smile quirking her lips when she pulled it away with a twig clasped in her fingers. ‘Oh, well, this is a good look.’
On closer inspection, dirt now stained her skin, and her hair was a tangled mess, but Daryl thought that she looked like some kind of woodland nymph, magical and intriguing, though he’d never have told her that, instead just grinning at her as he reached up to retrieve a stray leaf that was tucked into the locks. ‘Yer perfect.’
She glowed at the compliment, before her face fell serious, her voice wavering as she asked, ‘Can this be the start of something?’
‘Whaddya mean?’ Daryl frowned, unsure. ‘Thought we already started somethin’.’
‘No, I mean, can this… can we just put all of the shit behind us now? The guilt and Merle and all of the death. Can this be the start of something good?’
She looked so hopeful, staring up at him with those eyes, those eyes that could convince him to do pretty much anything, and he found himself nodding, even though he wasn’t sure he believed that anything completely good could exist anymore without being touched by something dark. ‘It can.’
Returning to camp with smiles on their faces and sparkles in their eyes, their fingers still interlinked, swinging between them with the momentum of their movement, it didn’t take a genius to tell that there hadn’t been a lot of hunting going on in the forest. Not that anyone asked. The RV was patched up and ready to get moving again, and Rick and Shane were poring over a map, deciding on where best to turn off to set up camp for the night.
‘Everything okay?’ Lori asked as Y/N hopped up onto the hood of the truck, one arm snaking around Daryl’s neck as he leaned beside her.
George hadn’t changed much. He still looked just like he had in high school. He’d filled out a little, Daryl supposed, and his hair was longer, but he had the same lazy smile and the scent of weed still hung in the air around him. Daryl had kinda known he’d end up here when he’d told Y/N to leave it with him, that he’d sort everything for her. He wasn’t sure why he was taking the lead on something that made his stomach churn and his heart break, but it had seemed to relieve a little of her misery, so it had to be worth it. He’d meant what he’d said - he’d do anything for her and, right now, that meant this.
‘Hey man,’ he greeted him, shifting uncomfortably against the creaky wooden floorboards. He was standing in the centre aisle of the liquor store where George worked on a Friday night, and George looked up from where he’d been stacking cans on a bottom shelf at the sound of his old school friend’s voice.
‘Well, I’ll be damned. Daryl Dixon. Long time, no speak.’
‘Yeah, man, too long,’ Daryl clapped him on the back as he pushed himself to his feet, taking a moment to run an eye over the youngest Dixon before letting out a laugh.
‘Hell, you haven’t changed a bit.’
‘Jus’ thinkin’ the same ‘bout you.’ Daryl pulled a packet of cigarettes from his pocket, flicking his lighter as he quirked an eyebrow George’s way. ‘Ya got time for a smoke?’
Minutes later they were huddled in the back alley behind the store, toking on their smokes and making the kind of small talk that Daryl usually hated. But he needed something, a favour or information, and so he went along with it, listening as George talked about his girlfriend and his folks and asked about Merle.
‘And what about Y/N? Heard she’s back in town.’
‘Yeah, she is,’ Daryl confirmed, though he didn’t offer any more. He was getting antsy, desperate to get the answers he needed but reluctant to ask the questions.
‘You guys still hang out?’
‘Yeah, man.’ Daryl dropped the butt of his cigarette to the ground and stamped it out with his boot, leaning back against the wall.
The conversation had slowed and, as George also discarded his smoke, Daryl sensed that he was about to make his excuses and return to work. If he was going to ask, he had to do it now. ‘Hey, yer sister still workin’ at that clinic a couple o’ towns over?’ He tried to keep his tone level, his face blank, as though he were simply continuing to catch up, but he saw realisation flicker over George’s face before he nodded.
‘Yeah. Yeah, she is. Why?’
‘I was wond'rin’, how’s that work exactly? I heard they, er, sort people for cheap, right?’
‘Depends what you mean by sort people,’ George countered and Daryl dropped his gaze to the ground, gnawing on his thumbnail, though there wasn’t much left to chew. ‘You in trouble, Dare?’
‘Not me. Askin’ for a friend.’
‘Nah. A new friend. Ya don’ know her.’
George considered that for a moment before speaking again. ‘Yeah, they can help. Won’t cost much and they don’t ask questions. Reckon they won’t even take her name.’
‘’N’ it’s legit?’ Daryl asked. ‘I mean, they ain’t gon’ hurt her or nothin’?’
‘Nah, man, it’s all straight up. Don’t even need an appointment. You just turn up and they’ll… sort you, I guess.’
Y/N’s hand gripped his tightly as they sat in the truck outside the innocuous-looking building. It looked fairly white and clinical, but there was no signage and the small car park was empty, save for them. She’d been silent since he’d picked her up a little while ago, lost in her own thoughts on the drive over, and he couldn’t help but be worried for her. He’d laid awake long into the night, trying to conjure up a way to change her mind, but he’d drawn a blank. She seemed so sure that this was something that she had to do and Daryl had no clue how to convince her otherwise. Her mouth was set in a thin line, her eyes squeezed tight shut, and he murmured to her, offering her one last chance to back out.
‘Ya don’ have to do this.’
‘I do.’ As if those two little words spurred her on, she released her grip on him, watery eyes flickering open, and reached for the handle on the truck’s door. When Daryl moved to do the same though, she stopped him, her fingers trailing down his arm as she tried to explain. ‘I-I think I… I think this is something that I… I need to do this on my own, Daryl.’
‘Ya sure?’ He hated the idea of her walking in there alone, afraid, not knowing what to expect, but she was nodding at him insistently.
‘I need to. I’m sorry. I know you drove all the way here.’
‘Hey, s’fine,’ he reassured her. ‘Here.’ He handed over the roll of notes that he’d retrieved from beneath his mattress that morning and she took them, giving him a tight smile.
‘Thank you, Dixon.’
She turned to slip out of the truck, but something made her hesitate and she twisted back round towards him, her lip caught between her teeth before she inhaled sharply. ‘You know I can’t stay, right?’
‘Ya wha’?’ It took Daryl a moment to register what she’d said, but when his mind caught up, his brow creased in a frown. ‘Yer leavin’?’
‘I’ve got to. This place is just… It’s too much. There’s too many memories now and I can’t- I can’t be here anymore.’
What about me? Daryl wanted to ask. What about us? But he knew how selfish that would be, so he settled for rasping, ‘Where ya gon’ go?’
‘Back to Philly. Janie’s got a spare room, so…’
‘When it’s done.’
With that, she slid to the ground and let the door fall closed, not looking back as she crossed the parking lot and disappeared into the clinic.
When she reemerged a couple of hours later, her cheeks were stained with tears, and her arm was wrapped around her stomach as though she was in pain, but she didn’t speak, no matter how many times Daryl asked. Instead, she curled up in her seat, drawing her knees up to her chest, and sobbed the whole way home.
It was done. Time to go.
There was a light rain dampening the ground of the clearing where the group had chosen to set up camp for the night, so tents had been unpacked and erected around the fire, providing shelter as they slept. Daryl had checked in on Merle before turning in, finding him still sleeping, though it seemed his fever seemed to have cooled a little, reassuring the archer that he might at least make it through another night.
Now, tucked away from the world with Y/N curled against his side, he thought that maybe she’d been right and that maybe this was the start of something good, and she might have been thinking the same as, when he brushed a soft kiss against her forehead, she asked, ‘Do you ever feel like maybe all of the bad stuff was worth it because it brought us here?’
Daryl shot her a questioning look. ‘How’d ya mean?’
‘I mean all of the stuff before, with Merle and your dad and the baby… It was horrible and traumatic and it ruined my life for a while, but if it hadn’t happened then maybe we wouldn’t be lying here like this right now.’
He considered that for a moment. ‘D’ya ever think about it? The kid, I mean. Who they’d’ve been now if ya hadn’…’ He tailed off, unable to say the word still, after all this time, and he felt her tense in his arms.
‘All the time.’
‘Sorry, I din’t mean to-’
‘No, no, it’s okay.’ She eased herself upright, leaning over him, so he could see the tears gathering in her eyes as she spoke. ‘Getting rid of that baby was the single hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life, Daryl. God, it hurt, and it messed me up so bad that I couldn’t have another one, you know that. And I think about it every single day. Who would that child have been? What would they have done? But then I look at this world that we’re living in and I think would I really want my child, my son or my daughter, to be living like this? Scared and fighting to survive every second of the day… And I think maybe I wouldn’t and it just makes me more certain that it was the right thing to do. I wasn’t in the right place to be a mother and, God, your brother… He wasn’t ever gonna step up and be a dad, no matter what you might say. If you’re honest with yourself you know that and you knew it back then too. That’s why you helped me.’
A startled gasp from outside of the tent had Daryl lunging for the door, his knife in his hand as he drew down the zipper and peered out into the clearing. The circle of tents cast strange shadows over the ground in the last glow of the embers of the fire, and the dull light was just enough that he could make out the stumbling figure of Merle retreating into the trees.
‘What is it?’ Y/N’s face was a mask of fear as Daryl turned back to her with horror painted over his features. ‘Daryl, what’s wrong?’
‘Merle.’ The word stuck in his throat as he reached for his pack, moving on autopilot as he holstered his knife and reached for his gun, tucking that into his belt too, retrieving his bow from the corner and slinging it over his shoulder.
‘What?’ Her hand found his arm, gripping him tightly, pulling him round to face her. ‘What’s going on?’
‘He was outside. I-I don’ know-’
‘He heard us?’ Now her panic reflected his own as he nodded dumbly.
‘Might’ve. He just took off. I gotta go after him.’
‘No, Daryl, don’t leave me, please.’ Her voice was tiny, her eyes pleading as he faltered, single-minded intention pushed aside as his heart broke. ‘Remember what happened last time?’
But he couldn’t just sit there while his brother wandered the forest in the darkness, angry and confused and sick, maybe dying, and he pushed aside his own pain, whispering, ‘I’m sorry,’ as he ducked through the entrance to the tent and took off.
As soon as he was out of sight of the camp, darkness closed in around Daryl, taunting his senses as he strained to make out which direction Merle might have headed. He had a small torch tucked in the side pocket of his bag, and he fumbled for it now, flicking it on and clamping it between his teeth, wanting his hands free to hold his bow steady, ready to take down anything that might be lurking between the trees.
The night had never bothered him, the gloom and the blindness. He’d spent far too much time wandering the woods of his hometown at all hours, navigating his way by pure instinct, just able to make out shapes as his eyes adjusted. Now though, a pit of terror had formed in his stomach and it was expanding, like a whirlpool, out of control and dangerous. His brother was out here. Merle, still not up to full strength and running on raw, painful emotion, was staggering around somewhere, driven on by his desire to not be there anymore, and it was Daryl’s fault. His and Y/N’s.
The rustle of undergrowth behind him had the archer spinning wildly on his heel, squinting back the way he’d come. His heart was hammering in his ears, but the beam of the torch showed nothing there but wizened old trunks and thick branches, their leaves whispering in the breeze. The rain was still falling and, Daryl realised now, it was cold out, goosebumps raising over his skin as he shivered. He’d not bothered to shrug on his jacket in his hurry to go after his brother and now he regretted the decision. You could go back and get it, the voice in his head reminded him, but he pushed the impulse down. No. There wasn’t time. He had to keep moving, that’d warm him up.
It was funny, how much the voice in his head had begun to sound like Y/N. In just a short space of time, she’d come back into his life and turned it all upside down, just as she had all those years ago. He could taste her kisses on his lips, see her eyes widening as she watched him prepare to set off, hear her voice as she pleaded with him not to go. His heart pulsed with pain as he allowed himself to dwell on it for just a moment. He’d told her he wouldn’t leave her again. He’d told her he’d keep her at his side. But there was only one person left in the world who meant as much to him as she did and it was him that Daryl was searching for now. It was an impossible decision and he was torn in two as his conscience warred with his gut, but she was safe back at camp, surrounded by survivors who would protect her. Merle was alone.
Morning was still a long way off when Daryl dropped into a crouch, his fingers hovering over something foreign that had been picked up in his torch’s glare. Pinching it between his thumb and forefinger, he held it up to his face, nose wrinkling when he realised what it was. Bloodied and half-caked in mud, Merle’s bandage was still warm from his skin, discarded in a fit of pique as he marched onward. No bandage meant that infection could get in, that he was leaving himself vulnerable, and Daryl growled deep in his throat. He was a damn idiot. He pushed himself back up to his full height, studying the ground for tracks, hesitating when he heard a choked rasp coming from a few yards away. A dense, rambling bush stood to his left and he circled around it, his finger poised over the mechanism on his crossbow, ready to let loose a bolt if the moment required.
Merle was slumped at the foot of a tree, his breath coming in heavy pants as he pressed his hand to the wound on his shoulder. In the beam of torchlight, his face was deathly white, his eyes unfocused, but he grit his teeth and lifted his head when Daryl stepped into view, letting his bow fall to his side and taking the torch from his mouth.
‘Merle, ya gotta-’
‘Is it true?’ He cut Daryl off, his voice hoarse, though it still echoed through the silent wood. 'Did she-? Did I-? The two of ya…?’ He tailed off, fixing his brother with a piercing glare. ’S'true, ain’t it?’
'Look, man, I’ll explain e'rythin’, alright?’ Daryl moved closer, trying to get a better read on Merle’s condition but the eldest Dixon held a hand up stop him. 'I got t’ get ya back to camp first though. Got t’ get ya cleaned up, man. Ya ripped yer damn bandage off.’
'Got wet,’ Merle said with a shrug. ’'N’ I ain’t goin’ anywhere with you.’
'No!’ His brother forced himself to his feet, steadying himself against the tree, though he still wobbled alarmingly. ‘Ya don’ get t’ stand there 'n’ act like yer the reasonable one. Poor Daryl, chasin’ after crazy ol’ Merle. Ya… Ya lied t’ me, baby brother. Ya’ve been lyin’ for years.’
Daryl couldn’t argue. It was true. He couldn’t claim the higher ground here. ’M'sorry.’
‘Jus’ tell me why.’
For a moment, Merle’s expression softened and Daryl made the mistake of thinking that maybe this would be easier than he’d imagined. Maybe enough time had passed that his brother would be able to understand why they’d done what they did and let it go. He’d been under Y/N’s spell before himself. He knew what it was like to want to do anything for her. But then his eyes flashed with anger and he let out a guttural, non-coherent bellow. 'Her? Her?! She ain’t fam'ly, man! She’s just a skirt with a pretty face! 'N’ ya put her before me? Before your own blood?’
'Ya know that ain’t true,’ Daryl protested, but Merle wasn’t done.
'Ya betrayed me, brother! All those years ya made me feel goddamn awful leavin’ ya with our old man. All those years ya made me pay with yer sad little smile 'n’ yer silent treatment, like I let ya down by tryin’ t’ get my own ass out o’ there! 'N’ the whole time ya had a knife stuck in my back 'n’ ya were jus’ twistin’, weren’t ya?’
'Then why? 'N’ don’ jus’ say for her, or I swear t’ God I will beat yer ass into the ground.’ It wasn’t much of a threat when he could barely hold himself upright but Daryl knew he had to find a way to salvage the situation. Opening his mouth to speak though, he found himself cut off by a small voice cutting through the gloom.
'Because he loved me.’ Y/N appeared from around the bush, her figure highlighted by the glow of Daryl’s torch as he whipped his head round to look at her.
'What the hell are ya doin’ out here?’ he snapped, the weight of the responsibility he felt for his brother doubling at the realisation that he’d led her out here too. Now he had two lives that he had to watch out for and, with emotions running high, it felt like too much.
Y/N ignored him, moving closer to Merle, her hands outstretched as though trying to calm a wild animal. 'He loved me, even back then. And I knew, and maybe I took advantage of that a little bit, but I was scared, Merle. I was young and I was scared and I was stupid, and Daryl was the only one I thought I could turn to.’
Merle was gawping at her, his jaw hanging open, and, if Daryl had to guess, he’d say his big brother couldn’t believe that she’d put herself at risk to come out here and track him down. But then his mouth snapped shut and he bit out, 'Ya should'a come to me. Was my damn kid. Ya should'a-’
'I know.’ Her voice was thick and throaty and Daryl knew that, if he could see her face, her eyes would be shining with tears. 'I know that, Merle, but I tried and both times I ended up getting hurt. Your family was a mess and I’m not putting that on you or blaming you. Hell, my family was pretty much the dictionary definition of dysfunctional too, y'know? But it wasn’t what I wanted. I couldn’t bring a child into that.’
'I get it,’ he confessed, his eyes fixed on hers. ‘I get why ya did what ya did. I ain’t stupid. I ain’t exactly cut out t’ be a daddy now 'n’ I was even worse back then. Not like I had any decent role models to go on, right? It ain’t you I’m mad at.’
'Don’t blame Daryl for this, Merle, please,’ Y/N begged him. 'I asked him not to tell you. He helped me because he knew I couldn’t do it alone. And then I left town and I hurt him, really bad, and he still kept his word to me. Please don’t hold that against him now.’
'He might'a kept his word t’ you,’ Merle growled, 'but he betrayed me. My own brother. I don’ see a way t’ get past this.’
'Don’ say that,’ Daryl spoke up at last, taking another step forward, though he left a few inches of distance between himself and Y/N, not wanting to rile Merle up any more. 'It was done, man. There was no point draggin’ it all up when there wasn’ even a baby left t’ tell ya 'bout.’ He saw Y/N flinch beside him and mentally kicked himself for being so blunt.
'But ya knew why she left,’ Merle hissed at him. 'Ya knew why she disappeared without sayin’ nothin’. Ya knew how much I hated myself after what happened with dad, when we hurt her, 'n’ then she was just gone 'n’ I never got a chance to make it right. Ya knew that 'n’ ya knew what it did t’ me 'n’ ya din’t say a word! Ya weren’ the only one that loved her!’
'I thought it’d be easier that way.’ Every word out of Daryl’s mouth sounded like an excuse and he hated it. 'Thought ya’d move on, get past it, 'n’ ya did!’
'Nah,’ Merle disagreed with a shake of his head. 'Nah, I din’t, baby brother. Not really 'n’ ya know it. Look at us, man! Neither one of us has ever gotten close to anyone else since her 'n’ why’d ya think that is? Ya tellin’ me ya never thought about her in all those years?’
'Course I did.’
'So, why’d ya think I din’t?’ They’d reached an impasse and Merle drew himself up tall, his anger fuelling him and giving him strength, colouring cheeks that only minutes ago had been as pale as the moon that hung in the sky above them. ‘Yer a damn liar, Daryl. Ya lied back then, ya spent the next twenty-odd years lyin’, then ya lied to Y/N when ya finally found her again. And ya expect me to jus’ forgive 'n’ forget? Ain’t that simple now, is it, bro?’
And then, before Daryl could speak or defend himself any further, Merle launched himself at him.
The town was quiet as Daryl wandered the streets, heading for Y/N’s place but taking his time, meandering along as the first rays of light filtered through the clouds. He was in no hurry. He knew that when he got there it would just be the start of a goodbye that he couldn’t bear to think about, so he tucked his hands in his pockets and took the long way round.
He hadn’t slept in days. It was haunting him, what they’d done. Not so much the decision that Y/N had made but the fact that she’d made it without even telling Merle, that he’d helped her without letting his brother in on the secret. He knew, deep down, that it was unlikely Merle would’ve stepped up and done what he needed to do, but there was a small part of him that had hoped that a baby might be just the thing to straighten his brother out. Still, when his old man had wandered in raging drunk again at some ridiculous hour, he’d taken one look at him and understood fully why it was that Y/N was leaving. Who the hell would wanna stay close to the damn Dixon family? He barely did and he was blood.
Finally, he reached the end of her street and, unable to put it off any longer, crossed the road and followed the sidewalk round to her folks’ place. Her beat-up little car was parked up outside, the trunk open and the engine idling, and a couple of bulky hold-alls were blocking the gate, waiting to be stowed away. He didn’t think he’d ever seen her actually drive before, being that most places in a small town were walking distance and, when they did venture further afield, she preferred to climb up in his truck and let him do the driving while she fiddled with the radio. The thought of her travelling all the way to Philly, alone, just her and her conscience, made his heart twist painfully, but he shut the feeling down, stooping to retrieve her bags and tucking them carefully away for her.
As he pushed the door closed, she appeared on her front porch, a couple of boxes teetering precariously in her arms. He hurried to help her, taking them from her as he nodded in greeting.
‘I wasn’t sure you’d come,’ she admitted as he followed her back down the path.
'Wasn’ gon’ let ya leave without sayin’ goodbye,’ he muttered, though the word stuck in his throat.
She tugged open the rear door of her car, standing aside as he deposited the boxes on her back seat, straightening up to find her watching him through watery eyes. 'God, I thought this was hard when I was leaving for college.’
'Was a long time ago now.’
'Yeah, it was.’ She scrubbed her hand across her eyes, shaking her head. 'With everything that’s happened since then, it kinda feels like another life.’
Daryl understood that, but he didn’t want to dwell on it so he changed the subject, gesturing towards the house. 'Yer folks comin’ out to see ya off?’
'Not home,’ she bit out through gritted teeth. ‘Mom’s staying with a friend in New York and Dad's… Honestly, I don’t really know where he is. I don’t think either of them were that bothered when I told them I was moving out.’
’M'sure they’ll miss ya more than ya think.’ He didn’t know why he was trying to comfort her. He didn’t have a lot of time for her parents, always too busy arguing to pay their daughter any mind. Perhaps if they’d been different, more present, more supportive, she might not have… No, he couldn’t go there. That burden was on his family, not hers.
She was smirking when he met her gaze, cherry red lips quirking to one side. 'Well, that makes one of us. Honest to God, I probably shouldn’t even have stayed as long as I did. I kinda hate this place, y'know.’
'No, I mean, even before… As soon as I started college it was like a whole new world opened up to me, like I remembered who I used to be back in Philly before I got beaten down by small-town bullies and narrow minds. I swore I’d never come back and, once I got back, I swore I wouldn’t stay.’
'So, why did ya?’ Daryl eyed her curiously, cocking his head to one side as he leant back against the car, legs crossed at the ankles and arms folded.
He watched as she shuffled uncomfortably, eyes dropping to the ground before glancing back up to meet his, the intensity boring deep into his soul. 'You.’
He snorted, shaking his head. 'Ya shouldn’ be wastin’ yer life here 'cause o’ me. Y'always were meant for more.’
'But I love you, Dixon. Think I always have. Ever since you rescued me from that bitch Tiffany, you’ve been the one person I could always count on. I don’t really know what I’ll do without you in my life.’
'I can still be in yer life,’ he offered, though he knew as soon as her face fell that it wasn’t what she wanted.
'I-I can’t, Daryl, I’m sorry. I need this to be a clean break or it’s just gonna be ten times harder…’ She huffed out a frustrated sigh as tears welled up in her eyes again. 'I need to let this place go and I think that means letting you go too.’
'I get it.’ The words tasted bitter in his mouth but he knew it was probably for the best.
'Besides,’ she continued, 'you need to make things right with your brother. He’s your family and I saw how he stepped in when your pop was beating on you. He loves you in his own warped way. You’ve gotta fix things.’
'Not sure I’m ready for that yet.’
‘You will be,’ she assured him, and the logic in him told him she was right. It had always been him and Merle against the world, even though his brother could be a jackass. They needed each other. There wasn’t anyone else looking out for the Dixons. 'And I want you to promise me something else.’
‘I want you to try. You walk round this town staring at the ground because you’re a Dixon and you know that everyone thinks you’re just like your dad and your brother. But you’re not, Daryl. You’re smart and you’re kind and you’re meant for more than just skulking around town wasting your life away. People will see that one day, they will, but you’ve gotta try. Make an effort. Get a job. Make something of yourself. You deserve that chance.’
Her unwavering belief in him brought a lump to Daryl’s throat and he wished he could be that man that she saw when she looked at him. He knew he was a waste of space, destined to become just another lowlife redneck, but he desperately didn’t want to disappoint her, so he cleared his throat and admitted, 'Autoshop across town’s lookin’ for apprentices. Figured I’d drop by, see if they had any work goin’.’ It was true, he’d seen the ad in the window of the grocery store and it had caught his interest, but he knew he’d be turned away as soon as they realised who he was. Still, didn’t hurt to hope, for her.
'That’s great, Dixon.’ She was beaming at him, her hand reaching for his and squeezing it tightly. 'They’ll be lucky to have you. You keep that old junker of a truck running so you must have some kind of magic touch.’
'Hey!’ He nudged her, feigning offence at the comment. 'Don’ go raggin’ on my truck, girl. Look what yer drivin’. Ya sure this ol’ thing’s gon’ get ya all the way to Philly?’
’S'gonna have to.’ Her smile faded as she checked her watch, releasing his hand to run her fingers through her hair as she took a shaky breath. 'I should probably get going. I told Janie I’d be there before dark.’
’S'a long drive. Ya gon’ be okay?’
'Mmhmm.’ She chewed on her bottom lip for a moment, as though thinking and for a fraction of a second he thought she just might change her mind. But then she murmured, 'Gotta be,’ and the glimmer of hope faded to black.
'Well, alright then.’ He pushed himself away from the car, moving past her to open the driver’s side door and shooting her a tight smile, trying to hold it together for another few minutes. 'Drive safe. I hope… I hope ya find whatever it is yer lookin’ for, Y/N.’
'I already did.’ Her resolve broke along with her voice as she fell into his arms, holding him tightly, and he wished that he could put all of her broken pieces back together and make it okay. 'God, I don’t think I can do this.’
'Ya can.’ It killed him to say it, cut him to the core, but he knew this was what she wanted, what she needed.
'I’m gonna miss you, Daryl Dixon.’
'Not half as much as I’m gon’ miss you.’ He buried his face in her hair as her arms snaked around his neck, inhaling the sweet, spicy scent of her and committing it to his memory. 'Yer my best friend. I’m always gon’ be here for ya, remember that.’
‘I know.’ They held each other for a beat longer before she pulled away, her cheeks streaked with tears and her bottom lip jutting out in a pout. 'I-I gotta go. If I don’t go now, I never will.’
'So, go.’ Daryl let his hand slip to the small of her back, guiding her towards the open door, giving her the push she needed, and she stooped to climb inside before pausing and turning back to him with a wild and desperate look in her eyes.
He wasn’t ready for the kiss. Her fingers locked around the back of his neck, pulling his mouth down to hers, and then he was drowning in her, the taste of her, the feel of her pressed against him and the small whimper that caught in her throat when he finally began to kiss her back. He put everything he had into that kiss, hoping it might convey all the things he wanted to tell her but couldn’t - that he loved her, that he wanted her, that if she asked him to go with her, he’d slide in beside her and leave his family behind without a second thought, because, if he had her, he didn’t need anything else. But she didn’t ask and he knew she wouldn’t, and then she was pulling away, choking back tears as she slid behind the wheel and pulled the door closed. She didn’t say goodbye. There was no need. That kiss has said it all.
As the car edged away from the kerb, rolling slowly out onto the street, Daryl followed it, staggering into the centre of the road as he watched her drive away. There was an ache in his chest unlike anything he’d ever experienced and he wondered for a moment whether he might just die right there. As she turned the corner and disappeared from sight, the pain intensified and he dropped to the ground with a wounded cry. She was gone. His girl. And she was never coming back.
Daryl hit the ground hard, the air forced from his lungs by the weight of the man on top of him. For a moment he laid there, too dazed to move, but then the onslaught began. There was no strength behind Merle’s blows. He was still weak, all of his energy expended on his hasty exit from the camp. But his fists were relentless as they lashed out at whatever part of the archer they could reach. Still, Daryl couldn’t fight back. He wouldn’t. He deserved this and Merle needed it. He needed to feel strong again, to unleash his anger. It was the only way to truly get him back.
Somewhere, out of sight, Daryl could hear Y/N’s voice, pleading, thick with tears, as she begged Merle to stop.
‘Please, Merle, don’t. Stop! You have to stop! It’s not his fault! It was me, it was all me, and I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Merle. Please, stop!’
And then another sound, faint at first but growing louder, getting closer. Snarls and growls and soft, shuffling footsteps. They danced on the breeze, the wind playing tricks on Daryl’s mind, leaving him disorientated, with no clue where the threat was coming from.
And still Merle’s assault went on.
‘Merle- Merle, stop. Merle, ya gotta- Will ya jus’ stop for a minute?’
Daryl finally raised his arms to shield himself from his brothers’’ blows, groping blindly for his wrists as he tried to break into the violent haze that had descended over him. He could feel the joints grinding beneath his fingers as Merle flexed his fists, and then, finally, he stilled, and Daryl shoved him to the side, rolling him off of him and onto the damp, leaf-littered ground. A grunt of pain fell from his lips as his weight fell onto his bad shoulder, but the archer barely heard it, already scrambling to his feet and holding up a hand, signalling Y/N to stay still, to keep quiet as he strained to hear the snarls that reverberated through the trees.
He still couldn’t tell which direction they were coming from. When Y/N’s eyes widened, he knew she’d heard them too, but she only shrugged, unable to locate the source any more than he could. The damn wind and the dense undergrowth were playing tricks, and Daryl found himself spinning in a circle, trying to figure out which way to move.
Merle had eased himself into a sitting position, leaning back on his good arm, observing his brother through narrowed eyes. Though his outburst of aggression was over, he was still smarting from the betrayal that was so painfully fresh for him, though it had happened so many years ago, and his mind was lost in the fog of history, oblivious to the current threat.
‘We gotta go,’ Daryl instructed, giving up on his attempt to pinpoint the walkers that were following the sounds of the fight.
‘Where?’ Y/N’s voice was panicked and he grit his teeth, hating the fear that was writ over her face.
‘I don’ know. Can’t tell. But we can’t stay here. They’re comin’.’ He turned to his brother, frowning when he saw him still on the ground and reached down to grasp him under the arm, yanking him to his feet. ‘C’mon, we gotta move.’
‘I ain’ goin’ nowhere with you.’ Merle tore himself from Daryl’s grip, almost overbalancing as he did so, though he managed to recover before he hit the floor again. ‘I don’t need ya. I don’t need none of ya.’
The archer rolled his eyes, flinging a desperate look over his shoulder at Y/N who stepped forward to help. ‘Hey, don’t be like that, Merle, please. I get it, okay? I know we hurt you, and I know you hate us both right now, but there are corpses somewhere in this forest and they heard you two going at it, and now they’re coming for us. So, we’ve gotta move, please.’
Her pleading broke Daryl’s heart, the fear in her voice and the way it wavered as she tried to contain it, but Merle remained unmoved. ‘So, let ‘em have me. I’ll be a fine fuckin’ feast for some lucky geek, huh?’
‘Don’ say that,’ Daryl started to argue but Merle cut him off.
‘Why the hell not, brother? Huh? Sure as hell’d make life easier for the two of you without havin’ to look me in the eye e’ryday, right? Chances are I’m already well on my way to turnin’ into one of ‘em anyway.’
‘Give it up, Dare! I’m done. I’m jus’… I’m done.’ He teetered for a moment, unsteady, before collapsing backwards, slumping to the ground with a look of resignation on his face. ‘Jus’ leave me. I ain’t gon’ be no one’s burden anymore.’
Y/N’s look of fear had shifted into one of exasperation as Daryl shot her a broken look, and she surged forwards, aiming a vicious kick at Merle’s foot, forcing him to look up at her. ‘Get the fuck up.’ Her words were slow, stern and, Daryl had to admit, terrifying, her eyes flashing with anger as she dropped into a low crouch as Merle’s side. ‘I mean it, Merle. You get your damn ass up right now or I swear to God I will shoot you myself.’
‘Y/N,’ Daryl warned but she ignored him, her focus entirely on his brother now.
‘Do you really think you can do this? Just give up? After everything? Do you really think I’m gonna leave you to just die here? And don’t go thinking it’s about you. You’re a mess, Merle. You turned into exactly the man I always knew you’d be. But I’m not letting you do this to Daryl, okay? Because he fucking loves the bones of you, for some reason that I cannot begin to comprehend right now, and I am not gonna let him carry that guilt for the rest of his goddamn life, so I am gonna get you out of here. We both are. Now, get up.’
It was one hell of a speech. Lesser men would have crumbled. Daryl could feel goosebumps rising over his skin as he watched her berate his big brother. For a moment, he thought it might have been in vain as Merle continued to stare blankly at her, but then he was pushing himself to his feet, brushing aside the hand Daryl offered, determined to do it on his own. As soon as he was upright, he closed the distance between him and his ex, looming over her, intimidating with his size. ‘Ya think ya can jus’ tell ol’ Merle what t’ do after e’rythin’?’
‘Yeah, I do.’ If she felt uncomfortable at his proximity she didn’t show it, unflinching as his breath ghosted over her face. ‘And look, you’re on your feet, so looks like I’m right. Now, let’s go!’
She looked at Daryl for his agreement, and he nodded, ducking beneath Merle’s arm to support him, though he kept his bow clutched in one hand, ready to raise at a moment’s notice if needed.
He took off into the trees, weaving his way between them, pausing every now and then to listen out for the sounds of the undead. No matter how far they ran, which way they headed, they never seemed to get any nearer or further away, and he had to rely on his instincts to keep track of the route they took, just as afraid now of losing the camp as he was of what was looking in the darkness. The sky was lightening, just a little, and he navigated his way as best he could, not wanting to use the torch and draw any walkers that might be passing by their way. Y/N was on his heels. He could hear the soft pants of her breathing, the crunch of her boots through the undergrowth. It should be her he was supporting, protecting, not his brother, but his sense of responsibility weighed heavy on his shoulders, even as Merle muttered inanely in his ear.
HIs guilt hung over him like a stormcloud. Even as he channelled his focus entirely on keeping the two people he loved the most out of harm’s way, his subconscious was fixed on an image of Merle’s face, the look of betrayal and fury and pain that had mingled into an expression that clenched at Daryl’s insides and churned in his gut. There were more important things to deal with, he knew. Survival was a battle now, even more so as they continued on along a worn animal track, no idea where it might lead them, and the lies and anguish of the past should be left to rot, but it just wasn’t that easy. He owed his brother a debt that he knew he’d never be able to repay and he hated how that felt.
A hand on his shoulder brought him skidding to a halt and he turned to see Y/N’s face contorted in horror. ‘Listen. Do they sound louder to you?’
Honestly, Daryl couldn’t tell at first, with his own heart pounding in his ears and Merle’s murmured barbs and the wind still whistling through the trees, rustling the leaves above their heads. But then he picked it out, above all the noise, the heavy shuffling footsteps and, over that, the throaty growls and snapping jaws of numerous walkers. ‘Shit.’
‘What do we do? Where are they?’
‘This way.’ Daryl made a snap decision, turning back on himself and forcing his way through a patch of dense bush, ignoring the discomfort as twigs and thorns tore at his clothes. Merle was leaning more heavily on him now and he knew his brother was exhausted. He should be resting, not tramping through the forest in the early hours.
‘Dixon!’ Y/N’s shout had him spinning for the second time in a matter of minutes, and his gaze found hers as she struggled to free herself from the tangle of brambles.
‘Shit,’ he bit out again, depositing Merle against a tree and hurrying back to her. He slung his bow over his shoulder, freeing his knife from its holster and working the blade through the twisted limbs of the bush, cutting away at them until she could pull herself through, her top shredded around her midriff, and her arms bloodied with scratches. ‘Y’okay?’
‘I’m good,’ she assured him, brushing the droplets of red from her skin, though that only succeeded it smearing it down to her wrists. ‘Let’s go.’
But it was too late. That brief pause had given the corpses time to catch up with them, her shout for help drawing them in. There were shadows moving between the trees now, perilously close, too many to count, and Merle was swaying on the spot, his own knife drawn and clenched in his fist as a wizened old woman with sunken eyes and a broken jaw reached out for him. He lurched forward, plunging the blade into her skull even as Daryl shouted a warning, more monsters closing in on him from behind.
He didn’t think. He only reacted. Throwing himself towards his brother, Daryl became a machine, lashing out left and right, burying his knife into rotting, squelching brains and moving on before the bodies had even hit the ground. He could see his brother doing the same, though his movements were slower, jerky, his survival instincts kicking in and flooding his weakened system with adrenaline, giving him the energy he needed to fight on for at least a while longer. When he reached Merle’s side, he cast a glance over his shoulder at Y/N, who had uncovered a large rock from the soil at the base of the bush and was driving it into the belly of a walker, knocking it on its ass before driving her boot into the centre of its face. ‘Ya good?’
She nodded, breathless, even as clutching fingers clawed at her shoulder and she leapt into action again.
Daryl was torn. Both Merle and Y/N seemed to be holding their own for the time being, but the biters just kept coming and he knew they’d tire eventually. His eyes were combing their surroundings, looking for an exit, a way out, but each time he came close to forming a plan, his thoughts would be ripped away by rancid breath and yellowed eyes, his muscles aching as he twisted and turned, ducking beneath outstretched arms and aiming sharp kicks at crumbling joints, dropping the ravenous creatures to the ground.
He lost all sense of time as he fought, only sparing seconds to glimpse at his brother and his girl before he was drawn back into the battle. The morning was growing lighter, cutting through the gloom, though that only made the scene more horrifying. The ground was slick with blood and gore and, as the wind died down, the snarls and sickening squelching amplified until they echoed through Daryl’s head. It took far too long for him to realise that the wood had fallen silent, that the walkers had all been dispatched, and that he could finally breathe again.
Merle was leaning heavily against a tree, hunched over as though he were trying not to vomit, his face alarmingly pale, sweat dripping from his forehead. His knees gave way and he dropped to the ground, resting his head against the rough bark.
‘M’okay.’ The elder brother held out a hand, warning Daryl not to come any closer, as he caught his breath, drained both physically and emotionally, with nothing left to give.
Daryl nodded, shooting Merle one last look before he spun towards the last place he’d spotted Y/N, eyes widening in horror at the sight that greeted him.
She was frozen in place, eyes as round as saucers in her face, hair plastered to her skin. Her breath was coming in short, stuttering gasps and her hands hovered over the patch of skin just below the dip of her right collarbone. Her shirt was ripped away, the flesh beneath mangled and bloody, the teeth marks evident at the edges of the bite.
Nausea rose in Daryl’s throat as her gaze locked on his and her lips parted as a pained whimper fell into the cool, dawn air. ‘Daryl, it hurts.’
And, with this, it’s all over. Thank you so so so much for all of the support and love that you’ve given to this story. It has broken me to write it as I’m sure it’s broken some of you to read. This last part wasn’t easy at all, but I always knew this was how it was going to end. I hope you can see how it might lead into and explain some of Daryl’s actions and decisions in Season Two of the show. Thank you for sticking with me to the bitter end and I really hope you enjoy (?) the final chapter. Here we go…
The seconds that it took for Daryl to reach Y/N’s side felt like millennia. He reached her just as she fell, arms stretching out to cradle her before she hit the ground, softening the impact and lowering her slowly the rest of the way. Her skin was scorching hot, sticky with sweat, and her eyes were glazed as she gazed up at him.
‘No, no, no, no, no.’
‘I’m sorry,’ she husked, fingers drifting up to stroke gently over his cheek before falling back to her side, her muscles already weakened as her body began to shut down. ‘I’m so sorry, Dixon.’
‘No!’ His voice was a harsh yell in the silent forest, and he felt her jolt at the sudden noise. ‘No! This ain’t happenin’!’
‘I’m bit. I don’t know how- I didn’t mean to-’
‘Nah.’ He shook his head, chewing on his bottom lip, mind reeling as he fought for a way out of this situation. ‘Nah, not you. I can’t lose ya, Y/N. I just got ya back!’
‘I’m sorry.’ Her eyes were drifting closed, her head lolling to the side and he drove his fist into the ground, needing the physical pain to distract him from the agony that was tearing into his heart. He could have stopped this. He should have been at her side, protecting her through the fight, should have taken a different route, should have done something, anything, to save her from this fate.
A heavy hand landed on his shoulder and then Merle was there, dropping to his knees on the other side of her battered body. His eyes were watery as he stared down at her, a heavy sigh making his shoulders heave. ‘Ah, man, I… Shit.’
‘I gotta… I gotta do somethin’.’ Daryl was on his feet in an instant, stooping to slide his arms beneath her, preparing to lift her, to carry her all the way back to camp if that’s what it took. Somebody would know what to do. Somebody would be able to help her. An agonised cry forced its way from her throat as he hoisted her into the air and Merle’s fingers wrapped around his forearm.
‘Yer hurtin’ her, brother.’
‘Set her down now, real careful.’ He guided Daryl, not loosening his grasp until Y/N was settled on the ground again, the grimace sliding from her face as soon as her body stilled. ‘There ya go.’
‘I can’t jus’ sit here,’ Daryl snapped at him, his frustration and fear combining and niggling at the edges of his temper. ‘I can’t jus’- How the hell did this happen?’
‘Damn walkers were e’rywhere, man. Woods were crawlin’. Ain’t nothin’ ya could’a done.’
‘Ya don’ know that!’
‘Hey, c’mon now.’ Merle’s hand was on his shoulder again, pushing him down until he was sprawled on the ground at her side, his eyes glued to her gaunt face. She somehow already looked corpse-like, her cheeks hollowed, lips thin and dry. ‘She needs ya now, Daryl.’
‘How can ya say that?’ he snapped, shooting Merle an anguished look. ‘How can ya sit there ‘n’ tell me what she needs? Y’ain’t cared much ‘bout that since ya found out she was back.’
‘Nah, I don’ wanna hear it. Ya couldn’ jus’ let us be happy, could ya? Ya know how much time I wasted runnin’ after yer stupid ass when I could’a been with her? S’yer fault we’re out here right now, Merle! This is on you!’
Merle’s head dropped, a shaky breath leaving him as he nodded slowly. ‘I know, man. M’sorry.’
‘Nah, that ain’ good enough!’
‘Look, I know I’ve been all over the damn place, alright? This… this infection, s’been kickin’ my ass, man. Fever dreams ‘n’ shit. Ain’t even sure what fights have happened in my head ‘n’ what’s been real.’
‘Hey, whatever, brother. I can’ change whatcha think o’ me. But I thought I was dyin’ ‘n’ that-’
‘Y’ain’t dyin’!’ Daryl’s hold on his temper slipped away. ‘Look at her, Merle! Take a good look! She got bit minutes ago ‘n’ she ain’t gonna make it through the next hour! Can’t ya see that? Look at her face!’
Merle could only nod. ‘Yeah, I can see that now, but before… Hell, I was scared, man. I needed ya ‘n’ it was like she was all ya could see. Jus’ like it was back then.’
The silence rolled back in as the brothers glared at each other, before turning their attention back to Y/N as she gasped, fidgeting against the leaf-strewn ground. Slipping off his vest, Daryl folded it and, easing a hand beneath her neck to ease her head up, positioned it beneath her as a pillow. She seemed to settle then, falling quiet again, and he sighed, fighting against the tears that had welled in his eyes as they inevitably fell on her wound.
The minutes ticked up by, punctuated by the slow rise and fall of her chest as she clung to life, the fever wracking her body. Wildlife rustled in the undergrowth, drawn in by the stench of death that hung in the air, and, in different circumstances, Daryl would be swinging his crossbow into action, hunting down a meal for the camp. But he couldn’t think of anything beyond the girl that lay in front of him. He didn’t think he’d ever felt so powerless as he did sitting there, doing nothing, as she slowly slipped away from him.
It felt like his own life was losing its meaning. Whenever Y/N had been present, he’d gravitated towards her. She’d dominated his every thought, his every decision. The years without her had felt empty and void of any sort of hope, but her reappearance had given him a reason to go on, despite the fact that the world had gone to shit. How was he supposed to keep going after this? What the hell reason did he have to not just lay down and die at her side?
The look on Merle’s face mirrored his own and he realised in that moment that his brother loved her just as much as he ever had. It might not have been the same as the way Daryl felt. It was a love warped by dependencies and a scarred past, but it was still love. This moment was killing them both.
‘M’sorry, alright?’ the archer muttered. ‘M’sorry that I din’t tell ya ‘bout the kid. M’sorry I din’t tell ya why she left town. I was jus’ tryin’ t’ protect ‘er.’
‘I know, baby brother.’
‘’N’ m’sorry I lied to her ‘bout ya when I found her. It wasn’ that I din’t want ya around. I jus’… There were so many secrets, y’know?’
‘I get it. Hell, I’d prob’ly have done the same if I was the nice one, right? If I was the one she wanted I’d’ve shifted heaven ‘n’ earth t’ make her happy.’
‘Ya had her though, man. She was yers ‘fore she was mine ‘n’ ya-’
‘Messed it up, I know. Damn stupid. But it din’t take long ‘fore she realised she was with the wrong brother,’ Merle confessed and Daryl frowned. ‘Was written all over her face e’ry time ya walked into the room ‘n’ it jus’ about killed me t’ see it. Guess I din’t handle it too well, huh?’
The archer could only shrug. He’d never noticed. Not ‘til she’d sat there and spelled her feelings out for him on the school playing fields one night, and by that point it had all been too late. He didn’t want to betray his brother by hooking up with his ex. Look, how well that turned out. The irony wasn’t lost on him. ‘S’all in the past now, man. It don’ matter no more. Not what happened back then. None of it matters.’
‘’Cept it does, brother,’ Merle insisted, pausing when Y/N’s breath caught in her throat, a small choking noise holding both of the brother’s frozen until she exhaled again, in and out, still with them for now. ‘’Cause all this shit, it’s dragged it all up again ‘n’ s’like it was yesterday. I don’ wanna go over ‘n’ over it, y’know, but I… I don’ know how t’ move past it. I ain’t good with all this emotional shit, Dare, y’know that, but… I could’a had a kid. I could’a been a daddy. ‘N’ I din’t even know about it ‘til now. Tha’… I don’ really know how t’ feel about that.’
Two sets of piercing blue eyes locked together, the brothers simply taking in the man that each of them had become, the twists and turns and heartbreak that had formed them into these two damaged, shut-off human beings. They’d been the most consistent things in each other’s lives, even with Merle getting himself locked up every few years and Daryl descending into dark periods of depression whenever his lies weighed too heavily on him. But now there was a definite shift, even more tangible than the one back then, a division, a crack in the foundations of their relationship that felt too deep to ever repair. It broke Daryl’s heart almost as much as the sight of his girl fighting for every breath, and he thought he might drown under the despair that rolled over him.
Before the waves could drag him under, a small voice spoke from between them, immediately grabbing their attention and Daryl forced a crooked smile onto his face as he reached for Y/N’s hand.
‘Guess it takes me dying to finally get you two to talk, huh?’ She sounded hoarse, her throat dry, every word taking a monumental amount of effort.
‘Well, we ain’t got nothin’ better t’ do, sittin’ round out here.’ He didn’t know how he did it, keeping his tone light-hearted and teasing, when it was all he could do not to burst into loud, hiccuping sobs and beg her not to leave him. ‘Ya look like shit, girl.’
‘You always were a charmer, Dixon.’ She turned her focus to Merle who was watching the exchange from beneath a furrowed brow. ‘You need to look after your brother for me. You asked me to do that for you the other day, but looks like you’re gonna outlast me. Who’d have thought, huh?’ She attempted a laugh, but it only prompted a coughing fit that seemed to shake her weakened body until Daryl thought she might just give up, but she regained control, taking deep breaths, waiting until they’d died down before continuing. ‘You need each other, the two of you. You need to pull together, not apart. Please, promise me you’ll do that.’
Merle nodded, dumbly. ‘M’sorry.’
‘I know.’ She twisted her neck to look at Daryl again, and he saw a finality in her eyes that he couldn’t bear. ‘I love you, Dixon. I’ve loved you since I was a teenager. Didn’t matter who else came into my life, they didn’t even begin to compare to that boy that used to sneak away with me in the dark. The day you came back into my life… that was a good day. I won’t ever regret it.’
‘It led ya here,’ Daryl murmured. ‘If I’d’ve left ya alone, ya might not be-’
‘I’d have died when they attacked my camp,’ she cut him off, and he thought she might have smirked at him if she had the strength. ‘Instead I got more time with you and I have cherished every single second. Please, Daryl, don’t let this break you. We had a little more time and that’s all anyone can really ask for now, isn’t it? You made me happy again.’
He couldn’t fight the tears anymore. They spilled from his eyes, trailing down his cheeks and clinging to his scruff in salty crystal droplets. He opened his mouth to speak but no words would come, so instead he ducked his head and kissed her. She didn’t move. Her lips were burning against his, but he didn’t care, breathing in her scent, committing her taste to memory, revelling in the softness of her skin against his. He wanted to stay that way forever, to pretend that none of this was happening and die right there, locked together, a perfect moment of peace, but he couldn’t. Still, he stayed close, leaning his forehead against hers when he broke the kiss, her breath warm on his cheek, his eyes squeezed shut, trying to take himself back to their tent just hours ago, when she’d been curled in his arms and they’d been lost in each other.
‘She’s gone, brother.’ Merle’s voice brought Daryl’s head up at last, and he realised that he was right. She was still. Her last breath drifting into the air and away towards the heavens.
‘No!’ He fell forwards, burying his face in the soft fabric that covered her stomach, uncaring of the blood that stained his skin, wishing that her arms would come around him and hold him close. But that wouldn’t happen now. She was gone, his girl, the one who’d offered him friendship, love, hope for something better. Now all there was was this twisting, clenching, agonising pain in his heart that stole his breath away.
He sat like that for a long time, Merle watching over him, before he took a last, shuddering breath and forced himself to lift his head, knowing what needed to be done. He reached for his blade, abandoned at his side, forgotten about until now, and clutched it tightly, his knuckles turning white. He held it poised over the centre of her forehead, urging himself to do it. He couldn’t let her become one of those things. He wouldn’t. He had to do it now.
‘Let me.’ Merle’s fingers were wrapping around his wrist, guiding his hand away and easing the blade from his grip.
‘Nah, should be me.’
‘Don’ put that on yerself, brother. Ya don’ wanna know wha’ it feels like t’ do that to her.’
He didn’t have the strength to fight and he gave in then, fixing his gaze on the ground as Merle did what needed to be done. The noise alone turned his stomach and he thought he might be sick but he forced it down. He had to be strong. He had to pull himself together. There was still work to do.
‘Gotta get her back t’ camp,’ he mumbled, pushing himself to his feet, reaching for her again, scooping her up as he’d done when he’d still been determined to rescue her. This time there was no resistance, though Merle was watching him questioningly. ‘Gotta bury her. S’what she deserves.’
‘Alright, man.’ Merle grimaced as he clambered up from the ground.
‘Can ya make it?’
‘Don’ worry ‘bout me.’
How they made it back to camp, Daryl would never know. He wasn’t even sure where in the forest they’d ended up as they hurried along narrow paths and shoved their way through dense thickets in their attempts to evade the danger. He didn’t know how long it took or how far they’d walked. All he knew as he stepped into the clearing where the group was preparing to move off, packing their tents away and loading up the trunks of the cars, was that the muscles in his arms were straining against Y/N’s dead weight and that the coppery stench of her blood was suffocating as it filled his nose. Horrified eyes turned to watch him as he carried her to his tent, still standing in the far corner, and laid her carefully down in front of it, reaching up to wipe the sweat from his brow.
‘What happened?’ Lori was at his side, staring disbelievingly at the stricken body, but Daryl couldn’t answer. He didn’t even look at her as he strode over to the truck and reached into the bed for a shovel.
The rest of the morning passed quietly, each member of the group moving carefully around the small mound of earth that dominated their thoughts as the Dixon brothers stood over it. Merle had rallied enough to help Daryl dig, but now he seemed pale and shaky again, and Carol had forced more meds on him, dragging him away for just long enough to redress his wound. Their stuff was packed, the cars waiting to roll off, and this would be the final goodbye that either of them got.
Merle cleared his throat, tearing Daryl from his reverie, and the archer somehow knew what his brother was going to say before he even opened his mouth.
‘I’m leavin’, brother.’ When he received no response, he continued. ‘I need some time. I can’ just… I can’ just pretend none of it ever happened. M’sorry.’
‘Where ya gon’ go?’
‘Thought I might try for Fort Benning. Reckon Shane was on t’ somethin’ there. If ya don’ get no luck at the CDC maybe ya’ll find me there.’
Daryl exhaled sharply, shaking his head. ‘Yer still weak, man. Ya sure ya can do this?’
‘Don’ got no choice. I can’t stay.’
‘Don’ offer to come, baby brother. Ya know that ain’ gon’ end well for either of us. I can’ just forgive ‘n’ forget. Don’ matter what she wanted.’
‘’N’ what if I asked ya t’ stay?’ It was a desperate attempt to reach out, to cling to his brother when he needed him the most of all, but Merle was already backing away, his pack slung over his shoulder. When had he retrieved it from the footwell of the truck? Daryl wasn’t sure. Everything felt out of focus, time doing crazy things, and he thought he might be going mad.
‘Can’ do it, man. Ya stay alive now, ya hear me? These folks’ll need ya. ‘N’ it’s what she would’a wanted.’
‘I’ll see ya.’ He clapped a hand on Daryl’s back, leaving him standing at the graveside as he moved away, pausing beside Shane to mutter a hasty explanation before giving the archer one last nod and disappearing into the maze of trees once more.
‘I’ll see ya, brother.’
The journey to the CDC was long. Daryl drove alone. The group had rallied round him, trying to pick him up, keep him going, but he’d pushed them away. He couldn’t deal with their kind words and motivational speeches. He’d lost the only things that had ever mattered to him in the space of a few hours and the wound was too deep to be healed by a hug and a shoulder to cry on. It was all he could do to keep his foot on the gas pedal and not turn around and go tearing off after his brother, but he knew that Merle didn’t want that, that they’d most likely come to blows if he did. His brother was still angry, hurting more than Daryl could ever imagine. He’d lost Y/N and, in his mind, a child, and he needed time to grieve for them both. The only trouble was, with the world the way it was, you never knew just how much time you had left.
As the convoy rolled to a halt, pausing in their travels to eat and seek out fresh water, let the kids stretch their legs, Daryl remained in his truck, watching as Carl and Sophia laughed together at the side of the road. They were so young, fresh-faced, seemingly unaffected by the hell they were now growing up in. And his mind drifted to another child. What would Y/N’s kid have been like if she hadn’t made the choice she did? Would it have been a boy or a girl? He kinda liked to think it would have been a girl. He liked the idea of that. A niece for him to spoil and watch over. She’d have been smart as anything, just like her mom, and wily too, full of fun with a good head on her shoulders. She’d have had those big doe eyes that could convince him to do just about anything, and lips that, when she was old enough, she’d paint cherry-red and quirk up in an easy smile. Damn, he’d have loved her with everything he had, and, right now, he’d still have something to cling to, a reason for living, instead of the gnawing hole of despair in his stomach.
The tears that he’d been fighting to keep at bay welled in his eyes and he tightened his grip on the wheel, his knuckles turning pale, as he took several deep shaky breaths. The nagging ache in his chest sharpened, and he swallowed the wounded cry that it threatened to draw from him. He didn’t think he’d ever felt so alone in his life, even surrounded by the survivors that continued to pull together to keep the group moving on. Letting his head fall back against the headrest, he scrubbed the salty tracks from his cheeks, gnawing on his bottom lip as he tried to focus himself on the task at hand. The CDC. Just get there. Then see what came next.
The kids were playing now, dishing out cards from the pack that Dale had found in the RV, and giggling as they engaged in a hushed game of Snap! How was it that their innocence seemed to have survived the undead and the losses they’d suffered? Daryl only wished he could be so carefree in the face of his grief. It was then that he realised that he’d found his reason to keep on surviving. He might never have had a kid, a niece or a nephew to look out for, let alone one of his own. He might never have known that baby whose existence he’d hidden from his brother, until it had been wiped out in the blink of an eye. But there were two kids in this group who were still living and learning, and he vowed in that moment that he’d do whatever he could to keep them safe. Didn’t matter that he didn’t know them. Didn’t matter that they had damn near nothing to do with him. He’d watch out for them, keep an eye on them when their parents couldn’t. There’d been enough death.
He didn’t believe in karma, not really. But maybe, just maybe, if he took on the responsibility for Carl and Sophia’s lives, he’d make up for what he and Y/N had done, their lies and the pain they’d caused. He’d make up for letting her down, leading her into the forest and letting her get bit as he fought at Merle’s side. And maybe, just maybe, he’d get his brother back one day.
As the group reconvened at the cars, clambering back into their seats, and engines around him rumbled back into life, he released the brake and took up his place in the convoy once again. Her presence was still with him, her laugh echoing through his mind as her ghost watched over him, and the road stretched off into the distance, leading into the unknown. And Daryl Dixon kept on going, filled with a renewed sense of purpose, and secure in the knowledge that he had nothing left to lose.