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The Only Love I Ever Found

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"Stay still or I'll cut your ear off," Carol said under her breath, knife slicing at another lock of hair. Daryl wasn't sure if she meant it as a warning or a threat.

He huffed, as much of an apology as she would get, but obediently held more still as she finished the haircut.

It'd become tradition at this point. She'd hunt him down to whatever spot in the woods he found himself hunkered down in, at least once every other year. She always made it seem like she stumbled upon him on accident, for his sake. He never complained when she took a knife to his hair, for her sake.

Daryl had never been good at holding still unless he was hunting, but the night was soothing enough for now. The crackling fire behind them, that Henry kid somewhere off to the side probably watching them through furtive, confused glances, Dog curled up near his feet, happy to get the occasional ear scratch. Things were calm, almost eerily so. Daryl had gotten used to waiting for the other shoe to drop whenever anything felt too right. Even before the world had gone to shit. Happiness would only last for a moment, a quick distraction to the disaster soon to follow. He'd been born with bad luck and he would die as such.

As if hearing his thoughts, Carol swiped her hands across his shoulders under the pretense of cleaning up stray hairs, but her touch lingered. His eyes flickered up to her face, grateful.

"You really should reconsider my request to stay at Hilltop with Henry for a while," she said, hands back to chopping hair. He looked up at her again, searching her eyes to deliver a glare, but her gaze was stubbornly set on his hair, instead. He was pretty sure she'd cut more than enough by now, but he didn't protest.

"Kid don't need a babysitter," he mumbled, giving his head an involuntary shake when he felt a strand fall to his neck and tickle the sensitive skin there. Carol took it as her cue to stop, and put her knife away.

"I know," she hummed, two hands now free to go through his hair, combing it back with a touch that was too sweet, too soothing. She finally sat down, when before she'd been kneeling up to be taller, and her hands pushed back his newly cut bangs so he'd have nowhere to hide. Not that he ever would hide from her. They were far past that now, almost a decade into knowing each other. "But I'd feel better, knowing you were there."

It wasn't all about Henry, he knew. Tara was guiding Hilltop, she'd have no trouble taking care of this kid. Besides, it wasn't like he would be getting into any trouble by learning how to be the next blacksmith. Daryl wasn't good legal guardian material, specially not for a teenager. Babies and little kids, they were a lot easier to handle.

His heart spared a broken beat for Judith, and he tried not to think of how big she must be already. He hadn't visited Alexandria in a few years now. Every time he tried, every time he got anywhere near the familiar trail that led up to the gates, he couldn't get through with it. He stopped trying somewhere last year. Maybe he'd try again some other time, maybe he'd eventually get tired of living like this, but not for now.

"I like it out here," he said, unprompted, repeating himself. It was a weak attempt at fighting against Carol's wishes, and by the look she gave him, she knew it, too. He'd always cave to whatever she asked of him, within reason. Sometimes he really wondered how they weren't soulmates by default. Soulmates by choice, she had called it once. He let her comb his hair back a few more times before he spoke again. "I'm good here. I don't fit in there, with everyone else."

Not anymore. Not since Rick. It went unsaid, but the smile Carol gave him was a tad too soft to be anything but understanding.

"You know, you're such a grump for someone who sees the world in full color," she teased, humor slithering back into her voice, breaking the sadness that had been looming around them, clouding over their heads in such a warm night.

He scoffed, considered giving her the finger but deciding against it, his head hanging low as he looked at his hands. "I'm a grump because of it."

If she tried to look annoyed, the pinched smile on her face betrayed any attempt at that. There were another few beats of silence between them, as he chewed on the skin of his thumb, eyes scanning her face, knowing she was going to say something else because she always did. It wasn't often that the soulmate topic was brought up between them -- it wasn't often that it was brought up at all since the world went to complete shit --, but whenever it popped up, Carol always had something insightful to share. This time was no different.

"Just because you won't find them, doesn't mean you can't let yourself be happy," she offered this time, her voice still carrying that humorous tone to mask the candidness of her words. She reached out to wrap careful fingers around his forearm and squeezed tight, as if maybe she could force the thought into his bloodstream if she pressed hard enough. "You can still settle down. Be with family again. Have a home."

"I have a home," he protested quickly, head jerking towards the shitty tent behind them. Carol leveled him with a harsh look.

"A couple twigs on the ground and a fire pit isn't a home, Daryl," she sighed, softening her grip on his arm but still letting her hand stay. He covered it with his own, and her face softened again. "I know you. I know what this is."

He didn't doubt that she did. But she stopped talking again, and it made his chest hurt, all the fight leaving him in a quiet sigh. They both knew what he was doing, but he couldn't help it. Six years and he still blamed himself for too much, still couldn't believe he never got Michonne a body to bury, still couldn't imagine living with a family again. His family. Everyone went their separate ways now, everyone had split up and if Daryl didn't feel like he fit in before, he definitely didn't feel it now. Carol had her new life at the Kingdom, his brother was dead, everyone else was busy with their own things. He'd help everyone by steering clear of their path, surviving as he knew best. Alone, with the bare minimum.

He was Daryl Dixon. He didn't get to have a soulmate and a picket fence and happiness that didn't come with another shoe dropping eventually. He had bad luck and a lifetime of trauma. He'd survive. 

"You can have good things. You have to let yourself have good things. You can't keep punishing yourself by living in the middle of the woods with a dog," she pushed his hair back again, from where a strand threatened to fall over his eyes. He looked at her, and he didn't want to agree, but a short nod happened anyway. She just had that look in her eyes that always made him agree even if he didn't feel like it. "You deserve better than just surviving, Daryl."

This time when he nodded, his eyes were back down at his hands, fingers idly picking at an old circular burn mark on his skin. He didn't feel like he particularly deserved any of that life with walls. He was fine in the woods. He didn't mind sleeping on the ground or eating squirrel meat every day. He wasn't needed in any of the communities anymore. He couldn't farm for shit, most people had learned to hunt by now, there weren't many runs to be made. He probably wouldn't be able to pay back for a warm bed and a roof over his head, and it'd eat him alive.

Still, a part of him knew it wasn't like that, a part of him knew Carol was right. He'd learned what family meant, eventually, after all those years living with them. After Hershel's farm, after the prison, after the Saviors, after fucking up so many times and still being received with nothing but wide open arms. All those years, all that anger inside of him, and none of them had ever looked at him like he was anything but their brother

It was too much. It became too much after Rick died. Too much comfort, too much love. He never had a family worth shit, and now that he did and it was falling apart, it was overwhelming.

He missed the days when they first got to Alexandria. Sometimes, he had dreams about it. When they were all piled up in the same living room, knives at ready. He'd taken most of the night shift then, staring out into the quiet neighborhood with the crossbow still strapped to his back, because no one else was as suspicious as he was. No one else had as much of a hard time accepting the warmth of a fluffy bed and a hot shower.

He'd lived his whole life expecting the worst, he wasn't about to let his guard down now that the world had gone to shit. He still hadn't ever let his guard down.

"Promise me you'll think about it?" Carol said at last, pulling her hand back from his arm, giving him a hopeful smile.

She looked so different these days, with her hair long, her features softer. It was like her edges had all been rounded out, back to how they were supposed to be, after she'd sharpen them up for survival. She looked like a mother again. It suited her.

He gave her another short nod, offering a fleeting smile once she leaned back, ready to get up.

His little camp in the woods always felt empty after anyone visited. It had been Michonne once, with her pregnant belly still not so big, and her kind eyes. Another time it'd been Maggie, before she left, with little Hershel in her arms, offering a goodbye hug. Aaron had stopped by once, brought him some canned goods and stayed for dinner. Whenever they left and Daryl found himself alone again, it was like he was seeing his camp for what it really was.

A pile of twigs and a fire pit.

So he helped Carol pack her things back onto the carriage, dread already settling down in his chest like a familiar weight, knowing he'd feel so empty without her and Henry around, even if they were only here for a few hours.

"I like your hair like that," he commented, once they were all packed up and ready to go, and she was giving him the look of someone who was considering pulling him into a hug. "'S nice."

She smiled before pulling him into the promised hug, squeezing her arms around his shoulders until he melted against her.

"Think about it," she murmured as she pulled away. "Hilltop would be better with you around.

He only nodded again, because there was no use arguing when they were saying goodbye. He didn't want to taint the moment. There was a good chance he'd give himself just another day or two here before he did show up at Hilltop, but he didn't want to make her any promises.

Daryl watched them go, looked at the back of the carriage until it blurred into the night, lost within the trees. He scratched Dog's ears and let the dread fill his chest as he returned to his quiet campsite.

----

He'd been just a boy when he found his soulmate.

'Found', however, was a loose term for it. He just didn't have a better word. There wasn't anything in English that better conveyed the feeling of such a discovery -- and the feeling of having something for such a fleeting moment, only to lose it forever, a second later. 

Merle had always teased him about the idea of soulmates, ever since little Daryl pointed out that some M&M's were an ugly, muted shade of grey and brown, and he didn't like it. He remembered his father only snarled something he couldn't quite make out, but Merle had absolutely beamed immediately.

"Those are blue, baby brother!" He exploded into a fit of laughter before pulling Daryl into a teasing headlock that was rougher than intended, which the smaller boy was quick to slither away from. "Maybe you'll find ya blue-eyed miss someday, and you'll see it, dummy."

There wasn't much else to remember from his childhood, his dad made sure of it.

He had read about it in that book Carol got, about children who were abuse victims, and how sometimes the brain would lock away certain memories when they were too painful to be remembered. He'd never realized it was a thing people went through. He thought his choppy memory was just a personality trait, he thought he just happened to be a forgetful person. His childhood was so many years ago, it was easy to dismiss it.

But he remembered everything in broken scenes, and even then, it was distant. Merle told him how it all happened, once. It felt like hearing the plot of a movie you never watched, the stories about himself as a boy never quite felt like his own memories.

His dad had always been rough, of course. Abusive. That was a new word he'd learned in the new world. Before all this, before Carol, he'd just say he took a beating hard enough that made him forget his shit.

But he remembered the sky was a weird sad brownish color, once. He remembered the discolored M&M's. He remembered his own eyes in the mirror, a dull shade of grey. He remembered how Merle would tease him about not seeing the blue on their mother's apron, and he learned, eventually, to tease Merle back about how his older brother couldn't see the green in the trees.

Daryl didn't even have the time to fantasize about meeting his soulmate, because he was so young. Romance was the last thing in his mind at that point, filled with grief for his mother, carrying guilt that didn't belong to him, missing his brother. Merle had just left their place, which left Daryl as the main target for his dad's anger.

He didn't remember much else, then, but he remembered meeting him. His soulmate

Barely so, but the memory was still stubbornly hanging on in his mind, because there wasn't anything that could compare to seeing a new color for the first time. Older kids at school and movies and books were always talking about this, this big fantasy, the moment you look into your soulmate's eyes and you can see the color of their eyes for the first time. And the world would shift, and it'd be a big explosion, and a grand moment.

Daryl didn't remember any of that, to be honest. He just remembered the pair of blue eyes staring back at him. There were no explosions, no swelling music between them. They were both kids.

He remembered it had been on a busy place, a place with a bunch of other kids around, and Daryl figured it could be a school. He remembered the sky on the way home that day, how blue it was. 

He remembered patching up his own wounds from his dad's beating that night. He remembered the hospital trip five days later, when the cuts got infected because he was only twelve years old, he couldn't patch his back up properly, and he remembered how blue the nurses' scrubs were.

Not long after that, they moved to another town, as his father wanted to make sure his son would never meet that boy again. As if Daryl had any desire to seek him out after everything that happened.

Merle filled him in on it one night, when they were already grown men, the both of them several beers in after a failed hunting trip. He hadn't been home when it happened, but he was the one who visited days later and ended up taking Daryl to the hospital.

It was a group home, not a school, Merle told him. The cops had taken Daryl there to be looked after for one afternoon, while his father was dealing with some trouble after a DUI. Just minutes before their father came to pick him up, he locked eyes with a younger boy in whatever playroom everyone was kept in, and it happened.

Daryl tried not to be offended at how Merle looked physically pained and mildly disgusted telling that part. His little brother with another man for a soulmate. The tragedy.

Their dad lost his mind when he found out. Dragged Daryl all the way back home and gave him a beating between whiskey sips and horrible slurs. Daryl was happy to not remember that part, most of all. He'd forgotten a lot of his father's abuse when it came to the act itself -- he remembered sometimes how it stung, or how he cried, or how he had to clean up the blood and take care of the bruises afterwards. Flashes of memories, random scenes sprinkled in.

It had been long enough now that even the memories Daryl kept had started to fade. He'd been through so much since the walkers started roaming, his childhood was a distant thought more than anything. His mother’s voice, his father’s face, things that slipped away from him, too.

He couldn't remember the eyes all that well anymore, or how it felt to look into them, or how that hospital trip went. It was all long gone now. His memories, and his soulmate, everything lost to time.

Daryl Dixon found his soulmate at twelve, and then never saw him again. It was just his luck.

He told himself he didn't mind it.

----

Even if the sound of Dog's slightest shuffle didn't wake him up immediately, the sudden sprint and distant barking certainly would.

As soon as Dog moved, Daryl was blinking his eyes open, and as soon as he saw the dog run, he was up on his feet, grabbing his crossbow. It was second nature by now, to wake up running, to aim and shoot before you could even see straight.

He stood there, crossbow raised to his eyes, ears listening past his hammering heart to be aware of any danger. Dog had run straight into the forest, losing himself between the trees, quick as usual. It couldn’t be a walker, Dog didn't chase after those.

And then he barked. And barked, and barked some more, and Daryl was already running after him against his best judgement. He kept his crossbow raised and his eyes wide open and he moved quietly around the trail he knew.

"Dog! Ya damn thing, c'mere," he whispered into the dark, but his voice was clearly swallowed by the incessant barking.

A few more steps and he still couldn't see Dog, though the barking was growing louder as he inched closer. The animal was either in danger or extremely excited, there was no in between. Daryl didn't want to show his face yet without knowing what was the situation first, so he used the forest's darkness to keep himself hidden as he moved. Two more steps and he could see Dog's tail -- which was wagging furiously.

Daryl's shoulders visibly relaxed, though he kept his crossbow still at ready. Dog was usually a better judge of character than he was, he wouldn't behave this openly towards someone who seemed like a threat.

And then Daryl heard the voice, a quiet sound behind all of Dog's noise. Words that were laced with exhaustion and a touch of morbid irony in the face of a barking dog.

"Okay! Okay, puppy, okay," the man pleaded, and when Daryl shuffled to get a better look, he saw two shaky hands raised up in the air, a beard, long hair flowing down from a beanie. This guy was in surrender mode, as if Dog was holding him at gunpoint. "You know what, I'm not gonna hurt you, pup, so if you're gonna kill me, just do it. Might as well. I've lived enough. I draw the line at dog slaughter, okay?"

Daryl snickered so loudly that he compromised his hiding spot.