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Chapter 1

 

He found Dixon a mile west of where they were supposed to meet, sitting on the bank of a creek, staring intently at something Aaron couldn’t see from his angle of approach. The man was soaking wet and ash white, with a makeshift bandage on his shoulder that was bright red with new blood. Daryl didn’t seem to notice him at all, which was sufficiently unusual that if Aaron found reason to tell the tale in the future, he might use words like remarkable or shocking. Perhaps even astonishing.

“Promise,” he was saying. “Ain’t nobody mad. You was scared is all. Come on out now, and I’ll take ya back to your mama.”

Aaron slowed his approach, not wanting to startle the child that he couldn’t yet see.

He paused a short distance away, confident at this point that Daryl must surely be hiding the fact that he’d noticed Aaron’s arrival and was focused on whatever child he’d found while they were separated.

“She’s real worried, Soph. Gonna be so happy to see ya when we get back.”

Aaron had never heard Daryl Dixon sound even remotely as he did now.

They’d been working together for three months now, and were returning from their fifth recruiting run. They weren’t best friends or anything, but Aaron thought he was beginning to get to know the other man a bit. Three months was a long time in Post Turn time, and he’d never heard Daryl sound like this before.

Honestly, it was a relief. There were those at home who were quite vocal about their fear of Daryl Dixon, and Deanna was beginning to listen to them a bit more than Aaron liked. For now, the plan was to keep him outside of the gates and being useful as much of the time as possible. Deanna was even considering sending him on a longer, more far reaching run to both scavenge and search for recruits. Aaron wasn’t looking forward to bringing that idea up to Eric.

He hadn’t crossed paths with anyone in his search, but the girl’s mother had to be nearby for Daryl to have met up with them.

“Found that house you hid in. You did good. Real good. Hid in that little closet, yeah? I found that. Come on, now, don’t make her wait no more than she’s gotta. We want to see her smile when she sees ya.”

Aaron was very slowly and carefully moving around where he could see the child when Daryl slumped backwards, head and shoulders submerging in the creek.  He jumped forward, rushing to lift Daryl’s head out of the water and check his breathing before he turned to reassure the child.

The child that wasn’t there.

His eyes darted around the area searching for any sign of where she may have gone before the heat coming off his partner registered. Daryl was burning up with fever. He’d likely come to the water to try to cool himself down, Aaron thought, and then started hallucinating.

Aaron drug him the rest of the way out of the water, then pulled back the bandage to check his wound. The gunshot wound oozed blood, and angry red streaks surrounded it like a spiderweb. He slid one hand back from the shoulder, slowly and carefully, feeling for the exit wound. There wasn’t one, but the body under his hands stiffened. A moment later, Daryl’s eyes opened. His expression was completely blank for a long moment before he blinked and visibly noticed Aaron. Breath exploded outward in a half pained, half relieved sound.

“I found her. Gotta get her back.”

“We will,” Aaron said. He didn’t know if you were supposed to reinforce hallucinations, but he didn’t want to try explaining that there was no her to get anywhere. He didn’t know what Daryl’s reaction to that might be. He did know the man seemed intent on getting the non-existent girl home, and anything he could use to help get Daryl moving he could ask forgiveness for later. “Can you walk?”

Daryl rolled his eyes, then seemed surprised by how hard it was to stand up. “Be fine. Just stuck myself. Where’s ‘phia’s doll? Can’t leave…” he looked confused for a moment, then said, “that was yesterday? I already took it back?”

“That’s right.” Just agree with the delirious man, Aaron thought, and he’ll be more likely to cooperate.

“I told her. Knew I was gettin’ close.”

Daryl was on his feet now, one arm slung around Aaron’s shoulder, completely oblivious to the fact that wherever he thought he was right now, the man he was with hadn’t been there. Or maybe he saw Aaron as someone else altogether.

“I’m sure you did. Come on, one foot in front of the other.”

But Daryl was looking around, his breaths coming in quick, sharp gasps.

“No! She was here. Where’d she – “

“She’s right here. I’m watching her. You have a fever. We need to get you back.”

Daryl blinked, then grabbed Aaron’s chin, fingers digging in hard enough to bruise later, and turned his head until he could stare blearily into his eyes before saying, “You gotta, you leave me. You get that girl back to her mama, you hear me? Swear it.”

Before Aaron could tell another lie, Daryl passed out.

It was a mostly controlled fall that ended with the them both on the ground, Daryl’s head and shoulders resting across Aaron’s thighs. They were a mile from where they’d left the car. The car was ten miles from Alexandria.

For a moment, he thought about it. He could just walk away. Tell the people back home that they’d split up and Daryl never made the rendezvous point. He could lead a search team out this way, maybe find him alive, maybe just find his body. They could find him Walking, put him down, grieve, and move on. It would solve so many problems. People would shake their heads, talk about how tragic it was, but almost everyone would be secretly glad that the scary, feral man wasn’t right there in front of them.

Daryl Dixon obviously cooperated with and defended the group he arrived with but getting the man to integrate was proving impossible. Inside the walls, if he wasn’t glaring threateningly at someone who walked by him, he was skinning animals in the front yard or sharpening the monstrous knife that no fewer than eight people had asked Deana to confiscate. Aaron couldn’t even get him to talk about where he was from, and they’d spent more time outside the walls together than in Alexandria since Daryl arrived in the community. It may be best for everyone if he didn’t return.

Aaron sat, stunned and more than a little disgusted at the turn his thoughts had taken. That he’d contemplated it at all made him feel like he was going to throw up. That wasn’t the man he was, and it wasn’t a man he ever wanted to be. The world may have changed, but Aaron wasn’t willing to change with it. Not that much.

In his interview, Daryl said the kids deserved a roof.

There was something there. There was someone there worth knowing. Aaron had been wrong about people before, but not this time. No, if Daryl died before they got back to Alexandria, it wouldn’t be from any action or inaction on Aaron’s part.

“Come on. Let’s get you home,” Aaron said aloud, as if Daryl could hear him. The dead weight of man in his lap didn’t respond. Aaron sighed. “I don’t have the first clue how I’m gonna do that if you don’t wake up, you know.”

Aaron had two or three inches on the other man, but it was a struggle to get him into a fireman’s carry. It was an awkward and difficult task he had in front of him.

“One foot in front of the other, right?” Aaron said. Then, “I’m talking to an unconscious person.”

He had managed more difficult tasks. The obstacles were different in his life before the end of the world, but in some ways, nothing had really changed. Aaron had been in parts of the world where it was a longer hike to get help, and where the help was a lot less helpful when you got to it, and he’d always come out of those situations fine. Eventually. This was not a big deal.

Almost immediately, as if to taunt his optimism, he could hear the shuffling steps of a Walker closing on them from the left.

It didn’t take them long at all to draw the interest of the dead. “See what you’ve gone and done with all your chatter?”

Daryl didn’t answer him.

He sped up as much as he could, but it wasn’t very long before one emaciated shambling corpse became two, and then two became three, and then Aaron was forced to lean Daryl up against the nearest tree.

“If you wanted to get up and help, now would be a great time to do that.”

Daryl mumbled something that sounded remarkably like ‘Fuck off’, but Aaron couldn’t be sure.

Risky or not, he had to use the gun for two of them. He was good with a knife, but he didn’t pretend that he could kill three up close without either him or Daryl getting too up close and personal with the things. Even using the gun, it was a near thing in the end. He was winded and sore from carrying Daryl as far as he had. The car wasn’t far now, and he decided to multi-task and catch his breath while he considered his options.

The fireman’s carry was still likely the best way to go about it. It was a lot harder to pick Dixon up than it had been to put him down.

“I don’t suppose you want to wake up now?”

Daryl said something that may or may not have been, “Needs better shoes.”

Aaron snickered. “You never struck me as a shoe kind of guy, Dixon.” The thought tickled at his mind, though. This may be his best chance to get to know a few things. “Who needs better shoes?”

He was answered by a gagging sound and wet splatter on the back of his calves.

Well, shit.

He got Daryl back on the ground, this time in something resembling the fetal position, and tried to clear out his mouth before he really choked.

The force with which Daryl’s closed fist impacted with the side of his head should have been beyond the other man, and it left Aaron dazed for several heartbeats. When his vision cleared, Daryl was pushing himself backwards on the ground, too weak to stand but still trying to run, his eyes wide.

“Hey! Hey, don’t do that. You’re sick. You’re okay. We have to get back to the car. Daryl?”

Daryl stopped, his breaths coming in short, sharp gasps. “The fuck?”

“You with me?”

“Aaron?”

“Thank God. You’ve been pretty out of it,” he made sure he sounded casual as he crossed to Dixon and held out a hand, “Let me help you up.”

Daryl coughed, then spit, then rolled to his hands and knees before slowly gaining his feet. He did all of it without looking at Aaron or accepting his hand, and Aaron took that as a sign that he was at least mostly lucid.

“Feel like shit,” Daryl said, swaying.

“You’re in your right mind, and that’s better than a minute ago.” He meant the words the words to be a comfort, but he could tell from the look on Daryl’s face that it was the opposite. “Don’t worry, you didn’t say anything embarrassing. You just talked about shoes. Look, I don’t know if it was the vomiting or if your fever broke, but the closer we can get to the car before you fall flat on your face again the better. I’m tired of carrying you.”

Daryl didn’t make a sound the whole way. Every so often, Aaron would cast a look at him only to see the other man staring straight ahead and biting his bottom lip. He didn’t slow down again until they were ten feet from the car, when his forward momentum changed direction and he was halfway to the ground before Aaron even noticed he was falling.

 

 

***

 

 

Working in the pantry was exhausting in a way to which Carol was no longer accustomed.

She arrived early, primped and freshly pressed, armed with a vapid smile and uncomfortable shoes. Of all the requirements of the role she assigned herself - with possibly too little forethought – upon their arrival in the upper-middle-class suburb of Alexandria, she regrets the shoes the most. She remembers spending the early days of the new world in unsuitable shoes, and it isn’t an experience she wants to repeat. Clothes are, for the most part, just clothes. The smile and the idle chit chat about things that never really mattered were much more exhausting than looking, as Daryl had so succinctly put it, ridiculous. The whole community was ridiculous. It was surreal. Manicured lawns without even the first attempt at a back-yard garden, kitchens with dishwashers and laundry rooms that wasted water.

Alexandria hovered somewhere between illusion and delusion, and it made Carol want to scream at them.

They were all going to die.

Better them than her people. Still, as the days wore on, it became harder not to learn individual names. Not to pick up on trivial things about Olivia and Denise and Kim and Patsy and Aaron and Eric and, Lord help her, Enid. Enid, who wasn’t remotely like Sophia used to be but might be something like Sophia would have been. Enid had been outside the walls, Carl was already getting attached, and sometimes it was just a little bit too much for Carol. She needed a place where she could let go of everything, except this wasn’t a world where anyone got to do that, so she may as well sort the lima beans and hope for the best.

Honestly, it wasn’t just Enid. Or Sam, and she wasn’t even poking around the edges of that situation this afternoon. Everything was just a little too much for Carol these days. She wanted, more than anything, a chance to just tuck herself away from everyone and breathe.

A little time alone was the goal when Carol smiled at Olivia and tossed some excuse over her shoulder as she slipped out the door of the pantry and into the late afternoon light. A short walk in the fresh air would help her get out of her own head. She decided on a leisurely lap around the inner perimeter – the block, around the block – keeping her smile firmly in place and lifting a hand in greeting every now and then.

“Good afternoon.” Deanna fell into step beside her at the halfway point, and Carol stifled the urge to scream. The solitude had been nice while it lasted. “Olivia was saying that you’ve settled in nicely.”

“It isn’t much different than organizing a household, just a bit grander in scale,” Carol said. She shrugged. “I do hope that they have a bit better luck with getting some of the rarer items on the list this trip, though. A little bit of chocolate can go a long way for morale.”

Deanna was nodding along. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. I was thinking that Mr. Dixon and Aaron may have greater success if they ranged a bit further afield. It would mean being gone longer, though. It’s possible that Eric would insist on accompanying Aaron if he were to be gone for more than a couple of days, and – I’m not sure how to ask this delicately…”

“If Daryl was uncomfortable with anything about Aaron, he wouldn’t have spent the last three months mostly outside the walls with him.” Carol stated. Deanna was perceptive in an irritatingly scattershot fashion. She seemed perpetually on the verge of ferreting out Carol’s secrets somehow, and yet remained remarkably naïve about issues inside of her own community. Carol didn’t dislike the other woman so much as she was frustrated by her. Perhaps her greatest sin, Deanna Monroe was completely clueless about the content of Daryl’s character.

It wouldn’t do for Carol to show a strong reaction to what felt like a further than usual maligning of Daryl. She had heard enough whispered comments to know that they had a problem in that regard, but she had so far been unable to defuse the situation. A rousing tale of being saved by Daryl Dixon only resulted in patronizing looks and remarks that of course someone like him had been useful outside the walls.

She was still considering what direction to take the current conversation when the sounds of a scuffle caught their attention.

She knew it was him before they turned the corner. Somewhere in her subconscious something in the quality of the sound registered and there was a wave of relief like an exhale, muscles loosening even as her chest tightened.

Aaron and Daryl were back. That was a good thing. But that knowledge was quickly chased by the knowledge that something was very wrong. Something more than a fit of temper.

Three feet away from the car they left in, the two men were struggling on the ground, oblivious to the crowd that was gathering around them.

She wasn’t going to be able to fix this.

Just as Daryl threw Aaron away from him Deanna said, “We can’t have this,” under her breath. She took off at a purposeful clip toward the altercation.

Carol followed, pushing the why’s out of her mind in favor of focusing on calming things down first when someone – she was pretty sure it was Eric – shouted, “He’s got a knife!”

The damn shoes slowed her down, so she kicked them off about the time she passed Deanna.

“It’s the fever,” Aaron was saying as she grew closer. His hands were raised, his palms facing out in front of him. He was trying to catch Daryl’s eye.

Fever. Oh.

This, at least, was familiar. She’d seen him injured too many times to count, and more than once she’d met the man he became when his mind was clouded with pain or illness. It would be embarrassing, later, but better to be embarrassed than exiled.

She should know, having been both at one time or another. That thought was stifled as quickly as it surfaced. She ignored it with the ease of practice while she took stock of the current situation.

Daryl had his back to the car, Aaron in front of him, and Abraham was coming up on his left too fast. Carol and Deana were approaching from the right, or more importantly, the knife side.

There were too many Alexandrians, and no one that she could count on in a situation like this. She had no doubt they were coming, the commotion was loud enough to have drawn the attention of everyone remotely nearby, but it would take too long. Abraham was too new. He wouldn’t have even the first clue what to do, and if he grabbed at Daryl right now someone was going to get hurt.

It would kill Daryl if he hurt someone while he was out of his head.

Aaron said, “You found her, remember? We’re back. We’re just going to take her to the doctor to check her out, okay?”

Daryl hesitated. It wasn’t long, but it was enough for Aaron to see.

Carol was five steps away from them when Aaron continued, although she could have heard him a block away, damn him.

“We’re getting Sophia back, me and you. You found her.”

It felt like a mule kicked her in the chest, and she stumbled. Whatever she had been about to say was forgotten, her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth, but she must have made a sound. She had to, because Daryl’s head whipped around like he was looking for the source of a sound and she was able to make out the desperation on his features.

“Sophia!” He shouted it, loud.

There were too many people here for this to be happening. It wasn’t any of their business.

People were talking about knives and fevers, but she knew all of that. There were hands grabbing at her that she had to push away, and someone stepped between them that she had to shove out of the way, but she finally, finally made it to Daryl. She reached up and cupped his cheek with her hand.

She was going to have to yell.

“Daryl!” She put just enough pressure on his face to convince him to turn his head so she could look into his eyes. They were glassy looking and so full of hope that she nearly didn’t know them for his. It broke her heart to see it now. “You’re hurt. You have a fever. You’re a little confused.”

“Found her. She was next to this creek. You seen her yet?”

“We did find her, Pookie. She was in the barn.” She tried to soften her tone but forcing the words out through a throat that was closing up on her made them sound strangled and odd.

“Gone?”

Carol nodded. “Yes. Sophia’s gone.”

The sound he made as his knees buckled would echo in her head for all of her days.

It sounded the way she felt when she was alone and her mind chased phantoms down rabbit holes. It probably sounded a little the way she did forever ago, when only Daryl’s arms around her kept her in this world at all.

She threaded the fingers of one hand through Daryl’s hair. His arms were tight around her knees. Daryl had dropped the knife and she started to kick it away before she realized she was barefoot. She continued to try to sooth him with one hand and gestured toward the knife with the other. Glenn swooped in and grabbed it.

Thank God someone got here who would know how to help.

 “It’s his shoulder. And he’s burning up. I’ll need antibiotics and get these people out of here,” she said, marveling at how business-like her voice sounded when she was shaking apart on the inside. Glenn looked everywhere except at her – or probably Daryl - as he nodded.

This was a disaster. Daryl was going to be mortified when he was himself again. Probably a third of the town was here now, staring at them and hearing him sob ‘Sorry’s’ into her thighs.

Aaron was looking at her like he’d never seen her before in his life. So was Deanna, and right now the woman was the greater concern.

“He was seeing a little girl. I used that to get him home. I’m sorry.” Aaron ran a hand down his face, half relieved and half apologetic. He was still breathless, and he didn’t look much better than Daryl.

She didn’t know if he was talking to her, to Daryl, or to Deanna. Carol nodded anyway.

“It’s best you just leave us,” she said.

“I sent for Doctor Anderson. If Aaron and Abraham can help get him to the infirmary, the doctor should be arriving soon. Is the bullet still inside of him?” Deanna’s voice was soft with false understanding. Politician empathy. Bullshit.

“Yeah,” Aaron said, “I didn’t have any way of getting it out, so I just brought him straight here.”

Daryl’s weight was leaning against her so hard that she knew he had lost consciousness. At least he’d finally stopped talking. First, they would get him to the infirmary. Then Carol could figure who heard what and come up with a story that would explain everything away.