The impenetrable black of night was broken only by the flickering flames of the fire that burned in the centre of the makeshift camp, warming your legs as you pulled them up to your chest, wrapping your arms around your knees. Though the day had been warm, as the sun had slipped lower in the sky a chill had set in, raising goosebumps over your flesh, and you were grateful for the heat now as you fidgeted against the hard ground. Across from you, the amber glow danced over tanned skin, casting half of the archer’s face into shadow as he tore meat from the bones of his latest kill, chewing on it determinedly before swallowing hard, throat bobbing with the motion. The crackle of the wood as it darkened into ash was the only sound, the silence suffocating as you watched his every move through pain-laced eyes, searching for a sign – anything, anything – that might indicate that he was actually pleased you were there.
There was nothing.
You wondered in that moment whether you’d made a mistake.
‘Rick Grimes is dead.’
The words were spoken in hushed tones amongst small groups huddled on front porches or in the quiet of the evening gathered around dining tables, secure in people’s homes and in the company of friends. The rumours had been rife, and now Father Gabriel was standing before you all in the church and announcing that it was true. The unthinkable had happened. Rick Grimes is dead.
You’d arrived late, sneaking into the back of the room and leaning against the smooth wood-panelled wall, folding your arms over your chest as you listened to his gentle voice repeating the words, explaining how your leader had died to protect the community, sacrificing himself to ensure that the endless herd of walkers would not reach Alexandria’s walls. Something tightened in your stomach: not grief – you hadn’t known the ex-sheriff that well after all – but something like it. Compassion, you supposed, for the family that he left behind, both blood relations and the close-knit group that had entered the Safe Zone at his side. You knew what it was like to lose someone you loved, had lost far too many to even count at this point, years in to the end to the world, and, as your eyes searched the bodies that bordered the room, they settled on Michonne and recognised the misery on her face.
As the meeting came to an end, you turned to leave, drawn up short by the hunched figure of Daryl Dixon propped in the doorway. His dark hair was falling in waves over his eyes, and your fingers itched to reach out and stroke it back, but he scoffed before you could either indulge or deny the impulse. It seemed a strange reaction. You knew he and Rick had been close, almost brothers, and you’d expected to see desolation writ over his features when he lifted his head. Instead it was defiance.
‘What?’ you asked, strangely oblivious to the crowd that were surging past you as people hurried to free themselves from the building’s confines to gossip or cry or simply return to work now that those piercing blue eyes were locked on yours. ‘What is it?’
‘He ain’t dead.’
You frowned, waiting for him to go on, pressing him when he lapsed into silence, gnawing on his bottom lip as his gaze flicked down to the floor. ‘What do you mean? I thought-‘
‘Ain’t dead if there’s no body. Never found one. Nothin’. Ain’t dead, just gone.’
You hadn’t known that. You couldn’t help but wonder if that made it better or worse for Michonne, not having anything to bury, not really knowing for sure just what had happened, where Rick had ended up. It couldn’t be easy. ‘I guess, people don’t know what to do with that. With someone being gone, I mean. If someone’s dead, we grieve them and we move on. There’s… closure, or something. Maybe that’s why Gabe said what he said.’
‘Ain’t right though,’ Daryl argued, and for the first time you sensed the tension rolling off of him, threading through his muscles so that his stance was rigid, unnatural. ‘Dead means there’s no one out there lookin’ for him. Dead means we’ve given up. He deserves better than that.’
This time you did reach out, resting your fingers on the tanned skin of his forearm, ghosting them along its length until they brushed over the back of his hand and he flinched away. He turned from you then, stalking out of the church and away down the street, and you huffed out a sigh. You weren’t sure what you would’ve said anyway, how to help him, how to reach him. He wasn’t good at letting people in at the best of times, and the only way to ever really get him to talk was to find yourself on watch with him in the dead of the night while the rest of the community slept. Only then did he relax, would maybe even crack a joke or two as you whiled away the hours together. You’d liked that side of him but it had been a long while since you’d seen it, before the war and the hard work that came after. Now, you wondered if you’d ever see it again.
You weren’t surprised when he disappeared the next day. You realised, when you heard the news, that you’d almost been expecting it. Daryl wasn’t the sort of man that would give up without a fight, not on his friends, his family. He’d keep searching until he managed to quiet the voices in his head. You only hoped it wouldn’t take too long.
You glanced up at the thick rasp of Daryl’s voice, your gaze falling to the skewered squirrel you held in your hand, twisting it this way and that as the fire painted it yellow-orange. You weren’t hungry. The knot in your stomach had seen off your appetite and the lump in your throat you were sure would make it impossible to swallow it down anyway, but you nodded slowly, drawing it closer so you could nibble on your meal, taking small bites in a bid to show willing.
The archer watched you closely for a moment, eyes narrowing, and then the corners of his lips twitched as if he was fighting against a smirk.
‘Ya don’t like squirrel?’
‘No, i-it’s nice. I’m just… Not hungry, I guess.’
‘Gotta be. Ya walked all this way.’
‘Seemed like a good idea at the time,’ you admitted, and any hint of amusement fell away, his face hardening again, before he turned his attention back to the fire, irises glowing golden.
‘Still don’t know why ya came.’
It wasn’t a question. His voice didn’t carry that upward inflection that might indicate that he expected an answer, but still the words hung in the air between you, expectant. ‘I didn’t want you to be alone.’
Days went by. Weeks passed in the blink of an eye. Months…
Life went on as normal. Daryl’s absence had little impact on the community as he’d already been spending more time at the Sanctuary and Hilltop than he had within Alexandria’s walls, but you noticed it. You felt it a little more with each hour that passed without catching a glimpse of his back as he walked away, without trading a smile as you passed each other in the street. You hadn’t realised, you supposed, how much you’d come to depend on his solidity, his unwavering strength in the face of any task, any obstacle, and you wondered how he was faring out there, alone in the wild, endlessly searching.
If you were honest with yourself, you knew he probably preferred it. It suited him better, out in the woods, surrounded by nature with dirt ingrained in his skin. You’d seen it shining out of him on the one occasion that he’d allowed you to venture out there with him, intent on learning to hunt: his satisfaction, the sense of freedom that filled him. He’d deemed you useless after a couple of hours and led you back to the gates before disappearing off on his own once again, but it had stayed with you, the life in his eyes and the easy smile on his face. Would you ever see it again?
That question alone had you worried. What if he never came back? What if he too disappeared like Rick: not dead, just gone? What if the isolation drove him mad? It wasn’t right, you decided then and there. It wasn’t right that he was the only one still clinging on to hope. It wasn’t right that he was the only one still out there looking. It wasn’t right that he was spending every day alone, nobody to talk to, to sit with of an evening and just shoot the breeze. It would be enough to break the spirit of even the most resilient of people, and Daryl had been through so much. It hurt your heart just to think of it.
‘Michonne!’ She’d been passing by you as you’d lost yourself to your thoughts, and you’d called out before you’d even really processed her presence. She paused, turning to look at you, tossing her braids over her shoulder. ‘Sorry, I-I just…’
You tailed off as she visibly relaxed, hand falling from her hip, a kind smile softening her face. ‘You doing okay, Y/N?’
‘Yeah, I’m fine,’ you assured her. ‘I just, I wondered if you’d seen Daryl recently.’
You knew she knew where he was. She’d brought news of him once or twice, that he was alive, but no, he hadn’t found anything yet. He was moving out further, heading along the river, still determined, still hoping.
‘A week or so ago,’ she told you now. ‘Why? Do you need me to pass on a message?’
‘No.’ You shook your head quickly. ‘I just thought you might tell me where he was or, maybe, where he was headed? I-I’d like to catch up with him myself some time, just check in, y’know? I miss seeing him around here.’
‘I’m not sure that’s…’ Her words faltered as her gaze raked over your face, and then she nodded, eyes brightening. ‘Y’know what? Sure. Why don’t you come by this evening and I’ll point it out for you on a map, make sure you’re clear about where you’re headed? It’s easy to get lost out there.’
‘That’d be great, thank you.’
‘You really care about him, huh?’
‘Oh, I…’ Her observation had taken you by surprise, but, when you thought about it, you realised that you did. Something about the redneck archer had wrapped itself around the very core of you and, now that you had the promise of seeing him again within your reach, you could feel it burning bright. ‘I guess I do, yeah. I worry about him.’
‘He’s one of the good ones, Y/N.’
The next morning you woke with the dawn. The dense canopies overhead cast the camp in shadow, but the soft breeze tossed the leaves aside, allowing a dappling of light to dance over your eyelids, coaxing you back to consciousness as you stretched against the blanket bunched beneath you. Easing yourself up on your elbows, you peered across the small clearing through bleary eyes. The fire was long since extinguished, just a black pit left where it had flickered hours before, and a couple of clean shirts hung from low branches as they had when you arrived, drying in the heat of the day. Daryl was nowhere to be seen, but his pack was still there, resting against the thick trunk of a gnarled old tree, so you knew he hadn’t abandoned you completely.
With a groan you rose to your feet, stretching out your muscles and listening to your joints pop. The shrill call of a bird sounded somewhere high overhead and the obvious sign of life reassured you as you quickly stripped off your tank top, reaching into your own bag for another and pulling it over your head. It did little to freshen you up but you supposed it was better than nothing, and you reached for your knife, slipping it into the holster on your belt as you took the worn path between the trees that led away from the camp.
Everywhere you looked was green and vibrant, the woody scent of nature filling your lungs with every breath as you walked, your pace unhurried, your mind wandering as the peace and calm of the forest took hold of you. For a beat you understood fully why Daryl felt so at home out here, and you entertained the idea of never going back, of seeing out the rest of your days with the archer, forever wandering, but then his face when you’d finally caught up with him the previous afternoon flashed across your mind and your optimism wilted.
He hadn’t looked upset by your appearance. He hadn’t even looked annoyed. No, the truth was he’d looked thoroughly unbothered, unaffected, and that stung more than you cared to admit. You’d always considered yourself close to him, as much as anyone could be close to a man who rarely spoke and tended to keep his eyes fixed on the ground, and you’d certainly gelled with him more than any of the Safe Zone’s other inhabitants, with the possible exception of Aaron. From what you could work out, you’d had similar upbringings – small towns, small families, not a lot of money around and a disdain for education that had left you with few prospects in life – and you thought he’d recognised that, been drawn to you too. That belief had driven you to pack up your things, leave your home and trek out into the countryside alone, only your knife and a handful of bullets for protection, just to find him, and it seemed now that it had been misplaced. He hadn’t been glad to see you. You were just another mouth to feed.
Up ahead, a blinding flash of sunlight told you that you were heading towards water of some kind, and you paused to listen to the splashes that were drifting your way. For a moment you considered the possibility that it might be a walker or, worse, a stranger, closer to Daryl’s camp than he’d be comfortable with, but you wouldn’t find out hiding in the shadows, so you pressed on, slipping into the trees where you wouldn’t be so easily seen and creeping forwards until you found the treeline. Before you the ground dipped sharply into a small lake, the banks just brown dirt with a smattering of wildflowers here and there. The water shimmered in the rays that came down from above, sparkling diamonds seemingly floating over its surface as ripples spread from the figure that stood in its midst.
Daryl’s back was to you as he washed himself, tossing handfuls of water up and over his broad shoulders, the droplets trickling over his skin down the length of his body as it tapered inwards, the surface of the lake lapping around his waist where you could just make out the dark band of his boxers. But it wasn’t the masculine shape of him that made your mouth go dry. Touch-starved as you might be, you weren’t overcome with lust in that moment, fighting to keep yourself in place while every cell strained towards him. No, it was the scars that marred the perfection of him that caught your attention and punched a gasp from your chest. Thin white lines criss-crossed over his spine, so many of them, signs of a violent past. How had he got them? Your mind drifted back to the few conversations you’d had about life before, your childhoods, your families, and you couldn’t help but recall now the way he’d shut down as you’d spoken about your parents, how the only information he’d really offered up had been about his brother. So, maybe your upbringings hadn’t been as similar as you’d first thought. You swallowed hard. The man had so many secrets he was hiding from you. Maybe you didn’t really know him at all.
You inched backwards, knowing instinctively that you weren’t supposed to see him like this, exposed, vulnerable, but a twig snapped beneath your weight as you shifted, and Daryl’s head snapped up, swinging round as his eyes picked you out of the shadows. They narrowed, his face contorting in a frown, and then he was striding towards you, sending the water rolling in waves towards the bank, smacking into the compacted dirt, foamy and spattering. Hitching himself up, he snatched up his shirt, sliding it on without making any attempt to dry himself, and shaking his head when you stepped from your hiding place, hands raised in uncertain surrender.
‘Hey, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were- I was just- I woke up and you were gone and I-‘
‘Get packed up,’ he snapped as he stepped into his jeans, jamming his feet into his boots and stalking past you back along the path that had led you there, buttoning his shirt as he went. The fabric clung to his skin, and you could see the muscles shifting in his back as he fought against his temper. ‘Gotta get goin’.’
‘Y-you actually want me to come?’
You hated the surprise in your tone. It sounded pathetic, even to your own ears, and you hated the idea that that might only make him madder, but he finally stilled, glancing back at you as you hurried to keep up, almost running into him though you stopped yourself just in time. He seemed to consider the question as if he hadn’t even realised it was a choice, before shrugging, digging the toe of his boot into the ground as he avoided meeting your gaze. ‘Can’t let ya go wanderin’ off on yer own now.’
‘Why not? I made it here, didn’t I? I came out here on my own to find you.’
‘Wouldn’ve done if I’d had a say,’ he bit back, before turning his back again, oblivious to the arrow he’d just shot through your heart.
You were concentrating hard. Though you’d seen the route that Michonne suggested you take on a map, that was far different from navigating your way along the back roads, cutting through dense forest to save time as you sought the river that would lead you the rest of the way. You should have been nervous, painfully aware that you were out in the wild, alone and sparsely armed, and you were. Michonne had been worried, you knew, but you’d brushed off her concerns, too determined to let them stop you now that the decision had been made. Instead you swore that you’d stay alert, move quickly and quietly and, in the end, you supposed, she just hadn’t cared enough to try and stop you.
But, despite your promises to her, the distraction of excitement kept creeping up on you, unbidden: a giddy feeling so far removed from any other emotion you’d experienced since the dead started walking that you almost hadn’t recognised it at first. Her words, her observation, echoed in your mind - ‘You really care about him…’ - and, though at the time it had surprised you to realise just how right she was, now you had space to examine your feelings you wondered whether they in fact went even deeper than that. Memories flooded your mind and you allowed them, slipping into the past as you heard the first telltale burbling of running water, and then the river was there before you and you adjusted your path to walk parallel to its bank, confident at last that you were headed in the right direction.
The first time you’d seen Daryl had been the day he arrived at Alexandria. Of course, you hadn’t known his name then, hadn’t known anything about any of them, except that they looked filthy, dead on their feet with exhaustion and gaunt with hunger. You’d watched from afar as Aaron had led them along the main Street, bordered on both sides by tidy gardens and well-kept houses, and thought how incredibly out of place they looked, almost feral. You’d been the same when you came in, alone and terrified, numb with grief and beyond caring whether you lived or died. For so long you’d found it hard to adjust, to connect with your new neighbours, and you’d walked the community with your eyes fixed on the ground, uncomfortable anywhere except the world in your head. Even as the memory hit you, your eyes had fallen on the archer. Like you, his gaze was fixed pointedly on the toes of his boots, shoulders hunched, a dead opposum hanging from his fingers. One of his comrades spoke to him and he shrugged, muttering a reply from the corner of his mouth before taking his thumb between his teeth and gnawing at the nail. You’d recognised so much of yourself in him at that moment that you’d found yourself desperately wanting to go to him, to reassure him that he’d find his way, his place in the small town, just as you had, but then Deanna had appeared and you’d turned away with a roll of your eyes, knowing that the entrance exam was about to begin. But he’d remained in your mind even as you went back to work, that itchy feeling of not belonging emanating from him and how it took you back. You only hoped they’d pass muster with the powers that be and be allowed to stay. You knew just from looking at them how much they needed it.
Of course, they’d been accepted. Despite Deanna’s protestations that the community was secure and that the walkers would never find their way past their fences, they had been in no position to turn down a group of warriors such as those Rick led. They’d been assigned job roles and begun to forge relationships with the others that resided there, some more easily than others, but you hadn’t had the opportunity to speak to Daryl until the night of the Monroes’ cocktail party. They’d thrown it to welcome the group, an honour that you’d certainly never been afforded, but you knew from instinct that it wasn’t something they’d be comfortable with and it appeared you were right. They’d clung to the edges of the room, sipping on their liquor with deep frowns creasing their brows, looking thoroughly disturbed by the suburban normality of it all. The archer hadn’t even bothered to show. After an awkward hour spent listening to the lady that lived next door complaining about the lack of decent kitchen equipment, her worries purely selfish and shallow in the face of the world’s destruction, you’d decided that you’d had enough and slipped away, pausing on the porch to suck in deep lungfuls of the cool night air. That had been when you’d seen him, scuffing his heels against the street as he strolled along. A lit cigarette had dangled from his lips, and he had a Tupperware box in his hand, containing what you knew from experience to be some of Eric’s homemade bolognese, and you smiled to yourself at the idea that maybe he was managing to forge some kind of connection, at last.
‘You’re missing a great party,’ you’d called out, hoping the sarcasm in your tone was evident, and it must have been because he arched a brow, the end of his smoke glowing as he inhaled.
‘Sorry, had other plans.’
‘So I see.’ You nodded towards his leftovers. ‘Eric doesn’t pull out all the stops for just anyone, y’know?’ You tripped down the porch steps towards him, holding out your hand. ‘I’m Y/N.’
‘Daryl.’ He fingers had covered yours, his handshake firm, strong.
‘I know.’ He’d turned to start walking again, and you fell into step beside him, relieved to be heading for home and your bed as the alcohol in your system dragged on your limbs. ‘So, how are you finding it here?’
‘You hate it, right?’
‘Nah.’ He’d shrugged. ‘Jus’ takes some gettin’ used to, tha’s all.’ He paused before going on. ‘Aaron, he reckons I can head out with him, try ‘n’ find more people to bring in here.’
‘Recruiting, huh? You reckon you’re cut out for that?’
‘Mmhmm, gotta be. Don’t do too well behind fences. ‘Specially not in this kinda neighbourhood.’
‘You’ll do just fine,’ you’d told him and you’d honestly believed it.
And he had. It had taken time for him and the rest of the group to learn to trust the Alexandrians and vice versa, but they’d got there in the end, and the war had only solidified those bonds. Though it wasn’t his role, Daryl’s restlessness had often led him to cover watch duty through the night, high up on the platform that looked out over the Safe Zone’s fences, and you’d joined him several times, talking at him until you’d managed to chip away at his defences enough that he’d give you something back. It had felt good the first time he’d let you in, told you something real, something true. It had felt like a reward for hours of hard work, and you’d beamed as you listened to him talking about the dirt bikes he’d fixed up with his brother when he was a boy and the track they’d carved out through the forest behind their house. That had been the first hint that there was more to this man than a steely exterior and a dark glare, and it had spurred you on, desperate to know more. He’d become a puzzle that you wanted so badly to solve, a riddle you needed to figure out, and with each new revelation you felt a warmth inside your chest that would carry you through the next few days until you saw him again. You hadn’t realised until that moment, snaking along the riverside intent on tracking him down, that maybe what you were actually doing was falling in love.