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Chapter 1

Friday, March 29th

He’d messed up.

But then...that really wasn’t anything new.

This most recent fuck up wasn’t anything dire, nothing to even slow him down. In the great scheme of all the things he’d fumbled, it was the lightest of them by far. Couldn’t get to thinking about those others though, couldn’t bear to go down that rabbit hole. The scale was a large and varied one, and the worst of it stretched to such lengths that his mind skittered away from it without having to be told. Better to just stick with the shit that was on his plate right now, on what was at hand in the immediate future.

The rest of it could fuck off for a bit.

He’d be dealing with it hard and fast in a matter of hours anyhow.

This latest mess up involved a certain, almost three-year-old, falling asleep at seven the night before, and a daddy too damn tenderhearted and dumb to wake her up. Which meant said two-year-old had just snuck into his predawn bedroom, tiny little feet not giving her away so much as the four-foot long blanket that she dragged behind her. Keeping his eyes closed, Daryl considered his options as they were. Sometimes, when God was smiling down on him, his daughter would see him still asleep and crawl into bed with him, wait until he got up or fall back asleep herself.

But other times…

“S’walkin’ time, Da.” Said in the loudest stage whisper in the world, he felt as she sidled closer to his nonmoving form. “S’woods walkin’ time, Da”

Figured, that that big judgmental prick in the sky was picking today to be vindictive.

Just really set the tone for how things were probably going to go.

Cracking an eye open, he was greeted with a very near view of his girl. Hall light spilling into his room, he noted the way a small percentage of her shockingly soft blanket was bunched in chubby toddler arms, the blue fabric trailing behind her like a bumbling caterpillar. Hair a couple shades darker than his own and twice as light in weight, it swayed in an ethereal little cloud around her face. His high cheekbones softened with baby fat and tinged with pink, his mouth, but the slightest bit fuller and redder. Eyes that were that same far-flung blue as she’d always had, a true navy shade, and shot through with lighter electric hues, they seemed to hide so much more than they showed.

“Mornin’ Kit.”

His reward was a smile so broad it halfway closed those beautiful blues before she was shoving her blankie onto the mattress and into his side. Daryl lifted a tired arm and pulled the thing out of the way so that she could scamper on up after the fuzzy covering. Sockless feet still managed to slip on the wooden frame, until he helped boost her up by her pajama bottoms. Auri crawled carefully closer until she could peer at him, warm hand sloppily but lovingly pawing away the hair that hid some of his face from hers.

“You gonna git up?” she asked, hand soft on his cheek, immediately continuing without giving him a chance to answer. “You gonna git up an’ put on you shirt an’ go woods walkin’ with me?” The hand that had been smooshing his face moved to pat his back reassuringly in a well-practiced routine that she’d developed when waking daddy. “You put yo shirt on over you owies, and we go walkin’?”

Half of his mouth curled up.

“Yeah Kit, we c’n go walkin’.”

Little lips peppered his bare back with kisses, each one with an accompanying smacking sound and her added mwah mwah as his scars were shown more attention than he’d ever thought to be comfortable getting. But this ritual was one that happened almost daily, and today it only made his eyes burn instead of water. And that was mostly because after all this time she still remembered to do it, even though the other set of lips, the ones that’d started the habit, were no longer there to cover his other side with tingling spots.

When she was satisfied with her work, Auri leaned back to the side to smile at him brightly, clearly pleased with herself.  His mouth curved up in an answering grin that made her laugh in a tinkling way. Daryl raised his arm, rolling slightly, and her body launched itself forward, chasing a hug that he barely had time to catch her for without their faces colliding. Surprisingly strong arms, for all their tiny size, viced around his neck as she pressed their cheeks together until his teeth hurt.

“I give your owies loves, so we c’n go walkin’,” she informed him, grip tightening slightly as he rolled them over so she was on his chest. “I can go with you Da, I can.”

His heart condensed too far as if someone had accidentally tread over it with some heavy ass work boots, hearing the note of trepidation in her statement. Like he’d leave her, or that anyone would do so willingly. Arms constricting just that much more, Daryl released her suddenly to prod careful fingers along her ribs and legs.

“Ya can huh?” he asked, eliciting high pitched squeals from her. “Ya think so?”

“Yeah!” Her laughter was so bubbling; he felt it in his lungs like carbonation and continued tickling. Auri’s compact little form wiggled and twitched, but she stubbornly refused to release her hold on his neck. “Daddy!”

Daryl thought his teeth might even be flashing as his smile steadily grew.

“Alrigh’,” he conceded, letting her breathe and sat up. One arm banded her to him as she made sounds like almost-laughs, clearly not sure if she could trust him to keep his fingers from her sides. Auri all but vibrated between his forearm and sternum. “If ya wanna go walkin’ ya gotta use your potty, brush yer teeth, an’ wear yer coat.”

A whine sounded in his ear. “ Nooo , Da.”

The sigh was heavy in his chest as she shook her head against his. Potty training, why in the world did his kid have such an issue with this? Fuckin’ people had always reassured him that girls were so much easier than boys in this particular area. But so far, his little girl was fighting tooth and nail...depending on the day...and the hour.

“Then we can’ go walkin’, Kit, them are the rules lil’ girl.”

Silence.

And then…

“Ok!” Change enough to give him whiplash, his kid let loose of his neck and started scrambling off the bed. “Fast, Daddy, le’s go!” Legs that were still a tad unsteady in the motor skills department took her away with a wobbling run, and he was quick to hop up and follow her.

They went through the motions without a hitch and high-fived after getting her hands washed, and Daryl marveled (in resigned irritation) at how well she did when she wanted to. Kid continually baffled him, seemed to get him way easier than he did her, which was monstrously unfair considering their age difference. But that was another thing he was pretty well goddamned versed in, so it didn’t rile him too much. People, specifically of the female type, were prone to send him stumbling all over the place, and did so rather easily it felt like.

Well, a couple of them did anyway.

Auri sat on the counter, and they brushed their teeth together, making faces at one another in the bathroom mirror. Finishing first, as usual, since she tended to get distracted while watching herself in the mirror, Daryl rinsed his mouth and took a few uninterrupted moments to consider his kit. Big day coming up, his guts writhed with the anxiety of it, but he had to keep things running smooth. Damn kid was like his personal mood ring, advertised his feelings, destroyed the use of his poker face. He still didn’t lie as a rule, especially not to Auri, but hell if he hadn’t learned to sugar coat the shit out of certain things, or smile through the pain to offset her radar.

Speaking of which.

He gave her a lopsided one now as she looked at him once again, remembering to keep brushing when she did. Pale coloring going pearly in the soft bathroom light, she looked angelic, with or without the toothpaste and spit smeared across her round cheeks.

“After walkin’ we gotta getcha dressed up nice alrigh’?” Auri’s eyes immediately sparked up with excitement at his words. “L’let ya pick out whatever dress ya want, but’cha gotta hold still for me when I fix yer hair. Da needs all the help he c’n get, yeah?”

She nodded enthusiastically, managing to track a shining trail up to her nose and down her chin.

He steeled himself, breath wavering more than he’d like.

“Ya wanna look pretty for Mama when we meet her at the airport, right?”

Auri’s face went blank with lack of recognition and Daryl felt the writhing in his gut go from a little old Ribbon Snake to a full-on Timber Rattler in a blink - mind shooting back a few weeks, he couldn’t dislodge the memory that whirled through his mind.

His phone was ringing -

Why in the holy fucking hell was his phone ringing?

His hand flew off the bed and swung heavily at open air, nearly made him topple right the fuck onto the floor. Head finally coming up off of his pillow, he stared at the empty place next to his bed. Light from his phone’s screen made a cone of disorienting brilliance on the wall, and it finally kicked in for him, why things looked strange. Took longer than it should have, it’d been months, how was he still not used to it?

He’d told her she could take the nightstands when she left.

After that last fight.

Diving down, he scooped the device up, eyes squinting at the screen, heart knocking into his throat when he saw the picture that’d come up with the caller ID. He tapped the screen, bringing the phone to his ear while clearing his throat, still managing to croak out a confused greeting.

“Beth?”

A watery breath answered him, and like an idiot, his other hand shot out to check the bed beside him. Like she’d be there, or regardless of the long collection of months, he’d still be able to feel her body heat on his sheets. Unsurprisingly, his hand hit nothing but a cold mattress, and he gave his head a bit of a shake, blinking his eyes as rapidly as possible before hauling himself upright. He had an insane urge to go and check Auri. As if the only reason she’d have to call him would have to do with the kid.

And not a plethora of other shit that’d been plaguing them going on close to a year now.

“She’s gonna forget me.” The statement was said slowly, punctuated every other word with a deep breath in order to complete the sentence. Daryl felt a pang like an engine block getting dropped on his chest when his feet landed on the floor, shoulders hunching as he rested his elbows on his knees and his forehead in his palm. “I shouldn’t go.”

The last word barely got through before the sounds of her soft crying came over the line, and Daryl hated himself with a ferocity he hadn’t felt since finding out he’d ignorantly brought a child into the world by way of a nameless junkie, subjecting said little soul to pains she should never have felt. Here again, was hurt laid at his feet because of choices he’d made.

“Ain’t gonna forget ya,” he said lowly, calm and gentle like he did when Auri managed to skin a knee or have a nightmare. “S’only for a week, Beth. Lil’ Kit ain’t gonna forget her mama in just a’ week.”

Beth got quieter. Instead of reassuring him, he knew without seeing her that she’d only begun to cry harder. Daryl could easily picture her curled up on her childhood bed, maybe even in that little side bathroom off of her room, one arm hugging her knees while the other held the phone away so that he couldn’t hear.

With a surge he was on his feet, prowling through the house they’d rented together, that used to be all of theirs, but now basically was only he and Auri’s.

He needed a cigarette.

His feet whispered over the hardwood floors, expertly avoiding strewn toys and random household items Auri had taken a liking to. His eyes snapped around to the many large windows that all unveiled some snapshot of the woods outside. He got the back door unlocked and opened, each of his movements housing barely restrained aggression. Bare soles and heels on the chilled boards, Daryl was grateful for the leaching of heat from his over-warm body. He refused to say anything, all the possibilities in his head sounded too hollow, might make her think he was trying to get her off the phone.

His cigarette was lit and he’d gotten one decent drag when her voice came back on the line.

“You don’t get it,” she said, more despair than accusation in the statement. “When we’re together now it’s like...it’s like…”

She broke off.

His thumb was moments away from sliding off the ridge of his brow to dig out his fucking eyeball with the pressure he was exerting to avoid gathering up Auri and driving to the Greene Farm at...he pulled his phone back to look at the screen...three o’clock in the morning.

“It’s like she’s finally gettin’ it, that I’m not her-”

“Don’t.” He sounded goddamned strangled, the attempt at talking doing its best to choke him. “Tha’s not it. Alrigh’? You been busy with classes is all. She’s just been spendin’ more time with me.”

“All she says,” another break, hard breath, “is that she wants her daddy. She’s fine when she’s with my parents, but with me....”

The skin bunched under his thumb as his brows furrowed in thought.

“When she’s upset here wi’ me, she says she wants ‘er mama.”

Quiet. A sniffle.

“You just sayin’ that?” A twitch of his lips over the pain in his chest. “You sure she wasn’t talking about Flower Mommy?” She added to the question another one that was almost lower than he could catch. “Or Jessie?”

His face screwed up in confusion.

“Stop, ya know it’s you.” He wasn’t sure what was happening to his tone right now. It was turning into something warmer than strict consolation warranted. “S’always gonna be you, girl. C’mon now.”

Steady breaths met this, and Daryl felt a slight amount of weight roll off of him.

“I know,” she said at last, and then again, stronger. “I know. I do. You’re right. Classes are just stressin’ me out…”

There was a silence then, like the quiet before the kill, but he swallowed his way through it - didn’t let it color his response any kind of way.

“I know.” Something eased, Daryl couldn’t have explained to anyone how he knew that Beth had calmed down, that they’d successfully navigated some unknown minefield just now, but it was true all the same. “Could bring her ta’ see ya off at the airport if ya want.”

His adrenaline fluttered at the idea.

Another pause, this one thoughtful, but he could almost hear her shake her head before the answer came.

“No I, I mean we already said goodbye today. Don’t wanna upset her all over again.”

A nod she couldn’t see, and he crushed the idiotic disappointment that was seeping through his lungs with the nicotine and cigarette smoke.

“Makes sense.”

“Thank you, Daryl.” It sounded rushed, but that didn’t lessen the surprise he felt at hearing the words in any event. “You didn’t have to do that. Talk me off the ledge and all...I shouldn’t have called maybe.” He opened his mouth but snapped it shut when she steamrolled on. “I heard you when you said what ya did. I don’t plan on makin’ this a habit, ok?”

“S’fine Beth,” he said, finishing his smoke and stubbing it out in the ashtray.

Damn silly thing was shaped like a giant tortoise. Beth had come home with it after some shopping trip, said there was no reason why he should have an ugly old can as an ashtray when there were cute alternatives.

Auri called it Franklin…

Christ, there wasn’t a single fucking thing in his life that didn’t remind him of the two of them.

“You really think it’ll be ok?”

“Goin’ ta’ Ireland, woman.” He smiled to himself a little, before running a tongue tip over his bottom lip. “Take that scary ass sister a’ yours an’ enjoy yourselves. Tell Tara an’ Denise I said ta’ keep y’all hydrated, alrigh’?”

A breath of a laugh made him shut his eyes.

It’d been the longest time since he’d heard even the ghost of that sound.  And months since he’d seen or talked to her directly. He was a recovering addict, getting a second-hand high that he knew he shouldn’t chase. Being clean and sober from his habit had left him unfulfilled and wanting, but he’d made his bed and all that. The thing was a bitch to sleep in these days. He couldn’t be sure anymore, if his abstinence was fucking worth it.

Their silence was a different breed than what it had been. It seemed to him that they were dragging it out, listening intently to the nothingness on the other side, hoping it would last a little longer. Both of them reluctant to get off the now stagnant line.

But that could’ve been wishful thinking on his part.

“So,” she said, haltingly as if she hadn’t thought past that first word. “You’re doin’ ok?”

He ran a blunt fingernail over his sweats-covered kneecap. There was no good way of answering that, no way that didn’t involve either lying or telling her something that would, without a doubt, make things more awkward. A reply was still attempting to work its way out of him when she sighed.

“Well, I guess, I guess I’ll let ya go.”

“L’meet ya at the airport.” He had no control over his goddamn mouth. “When y’all get back, me an’ Kit we’ll be there.”

There was rustling like she’d sat up or somehow changed position.

“Really?”

He grunted in answer. “Didn’t yer folks get internet an’ all that?” At her affirmative mhmm , he kept going, because he was clearly all in at this point. “They can do that Skip thing-”

“Skype,” she corrected, in a familiar knee-jerk kind of way that tugged at him.

“We’ll work out the time difference,” he muttered, feeling red-faced for some reason. “Can bring Auri over to your parents.”

He hoped she didn’t point out that he could do the same thing from his place without having to make the trip. If he was going to be able to follow through on his word, and see her in a week, he’d need the days in between now and then to prepare for it.

“Could text me pictures.” Yeah, there was definitely a burn going steady in his cheeks and the tips of his ears - been a while since that had happened. “L’show ‘em to ‘er if…” He had to clear his throat to continue. “If it’ll make ya feel better about it.”  

He wasn’t sure when exactly he’d gotten to his feet, had started pacing the back quarter of the wraparound porch while he waited for her answer.

“That’d be…” He was pretty sure she’d started crying again, but it wasn’t that desperate kind that it had been earlier, so it didn’t panic him nearly as much. “Great. It’d be so great, thank you.”

“Ain’t nothin’.” And it wasn’t, not in comparison to the things she and her family had done for him and Aurora. Plus, together or not, he couldn’t stop himself from trying to make Beth Greene happy. “Git some sleep, girl. Got a’ long ass trip tomorrow.”

“Ok,” she said, conceding. “Goodnight, Daryl.”

“Night Beth.”

He’d done all of it too.

Taken Auri over, or had whoever was watching her take her over so that Beth could see her and the two could visit about all of what was happening during Mama’s Adventure . Listening intently from the front porch or next room like some creep-ass voyeur as the two groups talked excitedly back and forth. Dosing himself with hits of Beth’s voice, her laughter, trying to introduce her back into his system by small amounts.

Feeling that good old rush with a shiver of anticipation that he couldn’t help.

Heart floating up instead of beating as it should, each time his phone buzzed with a new image of her and the others, all beaming and happy, swathes of green and stone grey stretching out behind them.

Just another little hit, a little taste of her.

Only, now it appeared he might have a bigger issue on his hands, Auri blinking at him as if she’d never heard the word “mama” before in her life. Illogical as all hell, he couldn’t stop the dread from padding around his gut on big ole’ wolf paws and settling down all at home and shit. Like he normally did, Daryl repeated the question in a slightly different way, trying to figure out just which part of it was throwing his girl for a loop.

“You excited ta’ see Mama?”

Auri chewed on the bristles of her toothbrush thoughtfully for a moment. “Mama’s at school?”

Usually true these days, and a much better answer than a blank stare.

“Mama’s been bye-bye on her adventure,” he said lightly, reminding her. “Wen’ across the big lake an’ everythin’. Real far.” The toothbrush left her mouth as fine brows bunched. “You remember? Been talkin’ to ‘er an’ Aunt Maggs on Nana Netty’s and Papaw’s computer?”

A little bulb seemed to go off, and his sigh of relief happened right when her gasp did.

“Mama’s over the ocean !”

Daryl grinned, he hadn’t thought that she’d remember the new word, but the kid was like a sponge...when she wanted to be. Dropping her toothbrush in the sink, she scooted around on the countertop, almost toppling over in excitement.

“Mama’s in my toy!” At his confused look she giggled and shook her head. “Not my toy , her in a plane .” Kid delivered the clarification like Daryl had been the one to say that Beth was currently living in Auri’s Little People plane that was currently “parked” somewhere near the fireplace out in the living room.

“Right, an’ we’re gonna go get her.”

Auri’s mouth went into a jaw-dropped look of complete shock, eyes cartoonishly huge.

And then the cascade of words started.

“We go an’ get Mama? Ok! Ok! I can go with you Daddy, I can. An’ we go get Mama an’ we all go in you car, an’ then we come home. We go an’ Mama can come home, for a minute jus’ for a minute, Daddy. Ok?” He shook his head, but Auri was reaching for him, and he couldn’t quite get the words out to stop her. “An’ we can swing, an’ sing sunshine, an’ just for a minute an’ then Mama go to school with her backpack, but we go, come home first ok?”

“Kit,” he began, holding her as he headed for her bedroom. “I don’ know if Mama can come home yet, alrigh’? But if she ain’t too tired we’ll see if she wants ta’ go git some food or somethin’, go to the place with the big toy in’nit.”

The glow receded from her cheeks right in front of his eyes, and Daryl had to blink away as she started speaking again, this time slower, uncertain.

“Mama’s at school still?”  

Fuck.

He didn’t have the skill necessary to make this understandable.

“Yeah Kit, she’s gotta go back to school. She’s got a lil’ while though, we’ll ask her to play for a bit ‘fore she heads back.”

Her gaze twisted its way into him, and Daryl barely overcame the impulse to shrug the tightness out of his shoulders. If he looked at her face, he’d be done for, that shit had been rough enough the first time around when she was younger and just cried all the time when Beth didn’t come home each night. He’d survived it because he’d had to, because it was necessary, and because it was his damn fault that it was happening in the first place. Having her ability to talk so well now, to plead, to beg, that’d get bad real fast.

Needed to avoid it if he could.

“I want my mama.”

Like any of her other emotions, sadness hit her quick. No doubt if he were man enough to look over at her now, instead of feigning serious consideration of what outfit to put her in for their walk, he’d see those lips that’d littered his back with kisses pressed together and down curving. It was the eyes that’d get him though. He was the world’s biggest wimp when it came to his girls and tears -

Not his girls.

Girl.

Just Auri.

But Auri was as much Beth’s as she was his. That was for damn certain. Like that talking thing, kid would run on a mile a minute, given that there were only people she knew well in the area to hear her. About the time someone she only saw now and then entered the vicinity, Kit would clam up quick, turn into the exact approximation of her daddy. Worse maybe, because no one would be able to get even a grunt or smile from her, girl would turn all stoic and needy.

But when it was just him, or her grandparents - or Beth - she’d sing and shine like a star.

“Gonna get yer mama,” he said matter of factly, after taking a moment to get his shit together. “In just a little while, now ya still wanna go woods walkin’ or not?”

The silence dragged on, interspersed with the muffled sounds of his rifling through her closet.

“Yeah.”

Small, not excited about it anymore.

He fucked up again couldn’t help it, turning, he glanced at her and met with a listlessly staring little kit, who watched his mindless movements. It wasn’t like he could change his answer, or make it all better for his baby girl, and not for the last time he found himself gathering all his self-loathing and balling it together. He kept it somewhere under his ribs for safe keeping.

His ears caught the sound of his front lock opening, and he tensed, it was still early. Might not even be five yet.

Who?

The door swung open and he was trying to decide between putting Auri down or taking her with him when a voice bellowed through the house.

Honey! I’m home!

Jesus fuckin’ Christ.

“Mer-mer!”

Daryl barely got Auri balanced on two feet before she was tearing out of the room and towards the front of the house, small feet pounding the hardwood floors. Snatching the first two items that looked warm enough, he made his trek down the hall to the large living room. The house was set up similarly to the way his old cabin had been. Communal areas all open floor plan, but in this residence, one hall led to one of the spare rooms and the laundry room, while the other hall led to the other spare room, one of the bathrooms, and the master which had a bathroom as well.

Daryl still couldn’t believe he lived in a house with two bathrooms, felt fucking ostentatious most of the time.

Ostentatious...he really needed to stop cyberstalking Beth’s Pinterest boards.

Cyberstalking.

He really needed to stop using his phone so goddamn much.

Merle had Auri up in his arms by the time Daryl hit the living room, giant grin firmly in place as his niece planted a big kiss on his cheek. Rawboned and hard-edged, his big brother still looked like one of the last people someone would want to run into in a back alley. He’d been out of jail though, since the last time, held down a graveyard shift at the superstore - pocketed items now and then to keep life interesting. Long as he wasn’t snorting or shooting anything, Daryl didn’t really give a shit about that last part of Merle’s work ethic.

Keeping Auri’s uncle clean was enough of a miracle without expecting model behavior.

Not to mention the man had best stay away from anything harder than alcohol, considering his mooching ass still lived with them - basically.

“Yer lucky she was already up,” he said, the warning not a light one, not that it affected Merle any. The grin turned into a smirk as he hugged Aurora to him. “Told ya not t’do that shit this early.”

“Daddy,” Auri said, tone disapproving. “Don’t say shit .”

Daryl’s lips quirked at her earnest expression. It was a flash of Beth’s, down to the furrowed brow and the little hand on hip that lost a lot of its impact considering she was still being held by Uncle Mer-mer.

But he got the message.

“Sorry, kid.”

“Yeah, Daddy,” Merle added, jumping in. “Don’t say shit .”

“Merle-”

“Mer-mer, don’t you say shit too!

But now she was laughing, fingers dancing over Merle’s neck and chest, doing her best to tickle him. Playing along, his brother twitched and groused loudly, apologizing and begging for mercy. This only made her laugh harder of course, and finally, Daryl felt some of the tightness in his chest from earlier go away. He’d thank him for it if Merle weren’t such an utter pain in the ass most all of the time.

“Simmer down, Daddy ,” Merle deadpanned, beginning to reap his revenge, tickling Auri’s sides as he spoke. “Was headed out to m’place an’ heard lil’ Miss Meatball here yappin’ up a’ storm.” He allowed her to breathe as they grinned together. “Thought I’d stop by on my way ta’ bed an’ get me some loves.”

“How’s that rundown piece a’-” He flicked his gaze to Auri and back to Merle, pulling a face at his brother’s knowing smirk. “Crud, treatin’ ya?”

“Got it fixed up just fine, don’t you worry.”

Daryl rolled his eyes and beckoned to Auri with a quick gesture. “RV was stripped bare when ya got it, Merle.”

“Yeah well, things is easy to straighten out once you get yerself one a’ these nifty job things, and ain’t flushin’ all yer earnin’s down your veins.” Daryl didn’t have much of a reply to that, not one that didn’t involve copious amounts of words that his daughter wouldn’t approve of anyhow. The always watchful eyes of his brother clocked the warm outfit in Daryl’s hands. “Y’all goin’ walkin’?”  

“Yeah, she was wantin’ to.”

Merle sat Auri down, heavy jaw jutting in a crooked smile when she immediately started wrestling off different pieces of clothing. It was still dark out, but that had never mattered to his kit for some reason. They’d grab their flashlights and head out, as long as it wasn’t too cold, and meander around the small game trails for an hour or more, depending on how much time he had. Daryl had started it before she could join him for the walking itself, would carry her around the cabin and then farther out into the woods, she’d taken some of her first steps out amongst the trees.

“Well I’ll leave y’all to it,” his brother said, smile receding a bit as he thought about something while watching Daryl help Auri into her clothes. “Lil’ Sister comin’ home t’day?”

His muscles froze part way through getting a knit sweater with a unicorn on the front onto Auri, who whined when she couldn’t find her way through the fabric. Keeping his eyes firmly on task, he nodded tightly, forcing a twitch to his mouth any time his kid looked up at him.

Lil’ Sister.

Not that Merle would have listened if he had, but Daryl didn’t know why he’d never told his brother to stop calling her that. Maybe because, as he’d already known, it would have done him no good, Merle wasn’t one to listen most of the time. Or perhaps it was because it reminded him of the times where it’d felt like his life couldn’t get any more perfect. That kind of thing was hard to let go of. The other possibility, the one he tried to ignore, was that maybe he was hoping that it meant Merle still saw their breakup as a momentary thing, one that’d work itself out given some time.

Which might make it true.

Might be a pipe dream, but crazier shit had worked out for him in the past.

They walked Merle to his RV, Auri hopping over the grass as it gradually got taller closer to Merle’s living area. Daryl made the internal note to mow as quickly as he could snag a minute, no point bringing it up to the older Dixon, Merle wasn’t real domestic unless it came to his niece.

Shocked the shit out of him, first time he’d seen big badass Merle make a PB&J sandwich and huddle down on a rainy afternoon to watch cartoons with the kit, sharing the food between them as the colors danced across the screen.

“You be good for yer daddy,” Merle instructed, pausing on the first step of the RV. “An’ remember...”

“To hold hands,” Auri recited, reaching up dutifully to clasp two of Daryl’s fingers with her small hand. “C’mon, Da.”

He nodded a goodbye to Merle and clicked his flashlight on, smiling at her when she did the same. Beth had gotten them each one for Christmas, even though they’d been split up at the time, a black one for him and a pink one for Auri. Kid was as crazy as her mama, had almost been more excited about the flashlight than she had her toys.

He’d gotten Beth a present too, of course, sent it along with Auri when he’d dropped her off with Hershel for the day, a necklace that split down the middle, Mama Bear on one side and baby bear on the other, little etchings on the metal to match.

Because last week hadn’t been the first time that she’d been worried about the security of her role in Auri’s life. Daryl wasn’t quite sure what else he could do, or what he had done ever, to make her think he’d try and take Auri away from her. But then, the shit between them had gotten so complicated, and there were such high stakes.

It took him a terribly long time to notice how quiet his kid was being. Kit could usually scare off game in a good five-mile radius while they were walking. Something that might have bothered him before, except he’d taken to hunting at particular times, times when she had a sitter, and he could clean the kill out in the utility shed which was a reasonably safe distance away from the house. Come to think of it, that was another goddamn thing he needed to get taken care of, the shed was spilling over with holiday decorations. Couldn’t just throw the shit out, they’d all bought it together that first year, fuck sakes, he’d gotten a lot of it on his own in an attempt to make Kit happier after everything had gone to hell.

Looking down at his kid, Daryl squeezed her warm fingers, glad for the millionth time she’d inherited his furnace-like body heat. Auri craned her head back to meet his eyes, flashlight darting through the trees as she lost focus on the path. He offered her a small smile, she gave one back in response, but it barely held and then she was back to watching the ground move under her feet.

“M’sure Mama’s gonna be real happy ta’ see ya, Kit.” His attempt got zero response as they followed the winding path. “Bet we’ll have fun, playin’ in the big toy.”

“Yeah.”

Whoo boy , never a good sign when she wasn’t excited for the giant playhouse at the fast food place. He had obviously been fucking missing it, how much she’d been putting things together lately. He and Beth had used about every excuse in the book, explaining why mama wasn’t home anymore to swing or play or bake or...Daryl had thought they had things under control for the most part, but that was nowhere near the mark.

He held in a breath and sold his soul.

Anything to get a smile.

“Might be,” he hedged slowly, trying to get her attention. “We could talk Mama into lettin’ us get a treat. If yer good, eat your breakfast an’ keep usin’ your potty. Mama might share one a’ them ice cream shakes with us from Jerry’s.”

He’d had her at the word treat.

“Yeah!” Back to full throttle thrilled, she hopped a little while yanking on his hand. “Mama’s eat ice cream with us?”

“Think I know ‘er weakness,” he said, lips twitching. “You tell her we’ll get a’ caramel marshmallow shake, she’ll let us for sure.”

They went over the words a couple of times - marshmallow she was already well acquainted with and in love with - but the two together was a tongue twister. Auri giggled through the rest of their walk, laughing harder and harder each time she tangled the two words together. Daryl was unreservedly smiling just as widely as she was, out in the woods, where only his kit and the trees could see him.

Might not be too bad a day after all.

Long as he didn’t mess up anymore...