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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.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

 

“Carol.”

Rick’s voice was low and urgent, and his hand was putting just enough pressure on her upper arm to be impossible to ignore without being enough to hurt.

“Whatever it is can wait, Richard. I am busy.” She didn’t even care that she sounded less like the bubbly housewife she was supposed to be and more like someone dangerous.

“You need to get hold of yourself. People are watching.”

“I need to control myself? I do?” Carol looked up, glaring. He was panting after a married like a dog in heat, but Carol was supposed to control herself.

The crowd was still there. At some point, she’d made it to the ground with Daryl’s head in her lap. His vest was folded next to her and she was trying to determine whether she was going to have to cut the shirt away from the wound. It was stuck to him with dried blood, but she could still see there was angry, red swelling surrounding it.

His skin was dry, and the heat was terrifying. The fever had gotten so high so fast, the injury wasn’t that old at all. It was almost like there was something else going on.

“Oh, God,” she ripped the shirt open, ran her hands over the skin that was exposed, searching. “He’s burning up. There might be a bite. Aaron!”

Rick sucked a breath between his teeth. “Calm down.”

“Shut up!” She all but growled at Rick, “Aaron! Did you check for a bite?”

Aaron was there almost immediately, so he couldn’t have gone far. “I tried, but he hit me in the head. I didn’t even get a good look at the gunshot wound.”

Of course not. Daryl wouldn’t have let anyone near him in the condition he’d been in, not if he could help it. “Okay, I’m going to get up. We’ll roll him and check his back and then”

“Carol,” Glenn’s voice broke through. It was softer than Rick’s, suggesting where the other liked to bark orders. “Hey, you know what? I bet Daryl would appreciate it if we took him inside before we checked the rest of him, okay?”

Of course, he would. What was she thinking? Carol sighed, “Move him while he’s out. If he wakes up, he’ll…”

“Fight like a rabid wolf. Yeah. Been there, done that. You meet up with us at the Doc’s, okay? I’ve got this.”

“Okay. Right. That’s a good idea.”

“Um, if we’re going to do that, you’re going to need to let go, okay?”

Well, shit. “Yes. I’ll get his things. Don’t let – “

“Nobody touches him ‘til you’re there. I know the drill.”

“Okay.”

She wasn’t going to make it without Daryl. She’d known that for a while, hadn’t she? Those days when she was alone, putting one foot in front of the other, before she had Tyreese and the girls to focus on. She knew then that she could only take it for a while, and then only if she imagined him healthy and happy and whole surrounded by people who appreciated him. In their home.

Now she felt like she was walking through molasses. Every movement hurt in a way that made her feel old and tired and absolutely paralyzed with fear.

She had to get to the infirmary.

She couldn’t make herself walk toward it. Getting to the infirmary meant seeing the bite that had to be the reason for the fever. She couldn’t see that.

“Hey,” Maggie said softly. The young woman was standing there, looking more than a little worried. She had collected Daryl’s crossbow from the car, and at some point, Glenn had given her the knife.

Carol slung one over her shoulder and took the other. The sheath was on Daryl’s belt, but that’s okay. She would feel better with the knife in hand, and she had the excuse, didn’t she?

“You okay?” Maggie was still looking at her as if she expected something.

“I’m fine. I kicked off my shoes somewhere.”

“I’ll find them.”

“Don’t bother. If you could go to the house and get my boots?”

Maggie blinked, “You sure?”

“It’s just boots. Besides, someone shot him. I’d rather have those if they’re on their way here.”

Maggie nodded, then stood and started dispersing people in different directions. Somewhere along the way the young woman’s willful stubbornness had become confidence. It looked good on her.

“I’m going to just let her do that,” Deanna said. “I spoke with Aaron. They were separated when it happened, so we don’t know if someone else shot him or if it’s an accidental self-inflicted wound.”

“Someone shot him,” Carol said as she stood. Carl ran up with her boots, but it was too awkward to bother with them until she got to somewhere she could divest herself of something. It didn’t feel like enough time had passed for him to be there. She needed to focus.

Deanna was frowning. “Well, I’m sure Pete can tell us for certain.”

“I’ll meet you there,” Carol said, nodding at Carl. “Carry those for me?”

“Yeah. Um – I’m sorry.”

Carol blinked. Oh God, he’d been there already. They found the bite.

She was halfway to the ground when someone took her arm. She didn’t even look to see who it was.

“They found – “

“No! I’ve not been there. I don’t know. I’m sorry he got shot, though.”

“Did you shoot him?” It was something that Daryl would say, and it straightened Carl’s shoulders. Good.

“No.”

“Whoever did might be headed this way. You be ready.”

“Right. And I mean, about the other thing? What Aaron did? I’m really sorry about that. That was not okay.”

Carol blew out a breath. “I don’t think Daryl will remember. His fever is too high.”

Carl nodded, but as he took off at a jog toward where everyone was gathering, he said, “Yeah, but you will. Just because it wasn’t intentional doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt.”

Carol took a deep breath. She had no idea what she was going to say, but she had maybe three minutes before she had to face whatever was happening to Daryl, and she needed to think about anything other than what might be waiting beyond that doorway.  She may as well start with damage control. “The answer to your earlier question is no, Daryl Dixon is not a homophobe and he will not be bothered by Eric going with them on a longer run. He may not want to be gone for longer himself, though.”

“Well, I suspect that you’re the one who would know. Still, that was a very dangerous thing you did, Carol, you really should have let Aaron and the others handle it.”

“Aaron should have told him he was hallucinating,” Carol said, swallowing around the lump in her throat. “Daryl isn’t dangerous.”

“Do you know what he was seeing?”

“That’s no one’s business.” She wondered what Daryl would think of her letting the misunderstanding blooming in the eyes of the politician flourish? It would be so much simpler. She almost regretted not thinking of it herself when they first arrived.

Thank God, they were there.

Glenn was standing between Daryl and the doctor, his hands on his hips, glaring. “Carol will be here in a minute!”

“Carol is here,” she said. “Did you check?”

Glenn spun around, then threw his hands up in the air, “Not yet. Daryl won’t let me, and this guy didn’t want to wait.”

She laid a hand on Glenn’s shoulder as she passed him. For a moment, she could feel Deanna’s eyes on all of them but couldn’t bring herself to care. Everyone and everything that wasn’t Daryl seemed to waver in and out of existence, anyway.

He had slipped past pale and looked almost gray. His pupils were different sizes, his skin was hot and dry, and he kept staring at the space beside her as if he saw something she couldn’t see. She was too much of a coward to ask him what he was looking at, and instead let herself be comforted by the fact that he was conscious again.

“M’srry” Daryl was still apologizing. Whether for not finding Sophia or for any of a million other things he held himself responsible for, it was impossible to tell. He probably didn’t even know.

“It’s okay. Everything is going to be fine. I need you to be still for me, okay?”

“Hurts.”

“I know. That’s why you’re going to be very still. Can you tell me if you’re hurt anywhere else?”

He couldn’t. She wasn’t even sure he knew who she was right now. That wouldn’t bother her, except it meant he wouldn’t know who the doctor was, either. Daryl didn’t react well to strangers touching him when he was lucid.

When he wasn’t it was worse.

“Listen to me, okay?” she turned his head until his eyes were pointing in her general direction. “I’m going to be right here, and no one is going to hurt you. You’ve been seeing some things that aren’t real, but that’s just the fever. Do you know who I am?”

“Badass ‘s wha’ y’are.”

“Daryl? Do you know my name?”

“My Caro. Everthn’s fuzzy.”

“I know. It’ll get better. I’m right here, so you trust me. Glenn is here with us to help. I’m here, Glenn is here, and the doctor is here. We’ll make sure nobody else gets close to you, okay?”

While she was talking, the doctor had started an IV. She looked up just in time to see him about to give Daryl something she was absolutely certain the other man didn’t want. Instead of stopping him, she shot Glenn a questioning look.

“Sedative,” Glenn said. “And antibiotics.”

Carol nodded.

“Won’t lea’ me? I’m s’rry. Don’ leave.” Daryl slurred.

“I’ll be right here.” She propped his crossbow up against the table, handed the knife to Glenn, and leaned back over Daryl. “Now, I’m going to make sure you don’t have any scratches.”

“Ain’t bit.”

“Good. I’m just going to check for myself. Don’t get too excited, we’ve got an audience.”

He wasn’t awake to tease her back.

 

****

 

“What do you think?” Deanna asked Aaron, just shy of a whisper.

Deanna was leaning against the railing of the house that served as the town’s doctor’s office. A few feet away, the members of Rick’s group had slowly gathered. Aaron was very quietly waiting for them to forget that he was there and to talk to each other, but so far, the only thing that had happened was that Carl Grimes had glared at him with enough venom to kill a lesser man. Eric was unobtrusively hovering near Aaron, still shaking with adrenaline.

Aaron crossed his arms and gave half a shrug. “I don’t think it’s self-inflicted.”

“You say he was seeing a child?”

Aaron nodded. “A little girl named Sophia. Kept making me promise to leave him and take her back. Then he’d be out for a while, mumble a bit, but it always came back to seeing the girl.”

“Who’s Sophia?” Abraham asked, too loudly. Whether he’d heard Aaron or had just chosen that moment to ask a question that had been simmering under the surface for a while, Eric couldn’t tell. Still, the three Alexandrians moved a bit further away to give the group the appearance of privacy. None of them picked their conversation back up.

“Shut up!” Carl stood, glaring. “You weren’t there. You don’t get to talk about her.”

“Carl,” Rick said softly. “No one meant any disrespect.”

Carl turned on his father, glaring, “It doesn’t matter what they mean. You want Daryl to hear? Or Carol?”

“They’re a little busy right now, I think we’re safe.”

“He thought he found her though, and that he brought her back. Everybody was just standing around staring at them and Carol had to tell him Sophia was dead herself. I should’ve done that for her. Or you should have. We shouldn’t have just stared like it was a tv show or something. If it was me, and I thought Mom was alive? Daryl would’ve stepped up. He wouldn’t have made you tell me what happened.”

“Carl, sometimes when you’re surprised by something, that’s what you do. You can’t blame yourself for not being prepared for something like that to happen. None of us were.”

“Nobody else knew. They didn’t even take his knife. I knew if Daryl got hurt bad to take his weapons away when I was just a little kid,” Carl muttered, but it was much more subdued than his earlier rants.

“Well, don’t go tryin’ that. If Daryl loses it, you do the smart thing.”

“Run?” Rosita interjected. The joke sounded forced, but at least someone was trying. The shock had worn off, and they were settling in for a long wait, now.

“Hell, no.” Abraham said. “Yell for Carol.”

The joke, and the laughter that followed it, was the forced kind that relied on some shared history and wasn’t even really funny to the people laughing. It was the kind of exchange that happened in ICU waiting rooms and ER’s before everything fell apart, meant to make things that can’t be made better at least more bearable for a moment. Eric cast a glance toward Aaron, but his boyfriend was still giving Deanna all his attention.

She was saying, “You should go home. Get cleaned up, have something to eat, and sleep. I’m going to stay here until we hear something, and then speak with Rick about what precautions we should take. Hopefully Mister Dixon will be able to tell us how concerned we should be about the person who shot him.”

“Yeah. Okay. You’ll send someone if – “

“We know where you are if we need you.”

The others seemed more relieved to see them go than anything else, but Eric didn’t hold it against them. They were family, and he and Aaron weren’t. Not yet, anyway. They’d closed ranks around their wounded member and if anything surprised Eric about that it was that Aaron seemed to be almost accepted. More than himself, anyway, and certainly more than Deanna. It was…interesting.

“Well, what do you know about that?” Eric whispered, once they were far enough from the house that none of the people loitering around the porch could hear them. He probably could have spoken at full volume, but there was nothing wrong with being careful. Eric didn’t want to be overheard, and Aaron was blaming himself for lying to Daryl Dixon.

“I didn’t even consider the possibility that it was a real child. I knew he gave the children as a reason to be here, but I just thought it was a generalized soft spot. Like the cliché, you know? Taciturn macho man with a soft spot for children and one-eyed dogs,” he said.

“You should talk to Deanna again later. After you’ve had a shower and a nap.”

“She was there,” Aaron answered, not dismissively, really, but more like he’d forgotten that Eric already knew Deanna had been there.

“Yes, but did she see? You’re the one who was out there with him. So, you tell me. What you saw out there, and then what you saw in here. Whose child was it, his or hers?”

“That’s a little – “

“Think. I know you’re tired, but I’m not being a gossip. Think about it.”

Aaron stopped walking and turned to face him. “You think she’s theirs.”

“Mmmm…. I do. Deanna has been saying that she wants to understand him. That she wants to be able to explain him to the people who think he’s going to go crazy and kill us all. Well, there he is in a nutshell. They lost a daughter. That’s been known to destroy relationships even without the stress of being outside among the dead. It happened long enough ago that some of their own group didn’t even know. Glenn did. Rick. Carl.”

“The ones who have been together since the beginning.”

“They’ve lost a lot of people since then, but it’s the little girl he was saving. It was Carol he wanted to bring her back to. And Carol’s the one he was begging for forgiveness in the middle of main street. Sophia was their daughter.”

“Evidence?”

“He was begging her for forgiveness in the middle of Main Street?” Eric said, archly. “Also, what do you think would have happened if you called him Pookie?”

“I thought I misheard that.”

“Pookie. She said it. And he was used to it.”

“She called herself the group den mother,” Aaron said. Because really, he couldn’t think of two people that would make a stranger fit than the prim little woman who worked in the pantry and the man who skinned animals in the front yard.

“It’s absolutely tragic. I wonder what he was like before?”

“Gentle.” He knew it was true even as he said it. “The way he was talking to the girl. I mean, sure, it was a delusion, but it was just so…he was gentle with her. Sweet, almost.”

“I wonder what telling that story would do for a gaggle of bored housewives who want Deanna to disarm him?”

Aaron blinked. “I should talk to Deanna. Don’t be stopping by the pantry before I do, though.”

“You have the best ideas.”

“Oh, shut up.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

 

Even his teeth hurt.

There was a small hand resting on his forearm, the thumb making circles, and a familiar feel in the air.

“Caro.” It was harder to speak than it should be. His tongue was thick and dry, and his shoulder, arm, and chest felt like they were on fire.

“It’s me.” Her voice was soft and far off sounding, but she got the most important part across good and quick. “We’re safe.”

“I get bit?”

“You were shot. And I gather from your question you don’t remember who did the shooting?”

“Dunno. Double the watch. How’s the buildup at the fences?”

Opening his eyes was too much work, so he just imagined her rolling her eyes at him.

“Daryl? Where are you?”

“The hell?”

“You hit your head when you fell. And you’ve had a fever for three days.”

Oh. That must’ve scared her. “In our cell. Just don’t ask me what day it is ‘cause ain’t nobody knows that shit.”

Opening his eyes officially went from ‘hard” to ‘more trouble than it’s worth’. He gave up on that, and instead reached his good hand over to rest it on top of hers. Everything felt like it was under water.

Carol sighed. “Rest now. I’ll be here when you wake up.”

Something was wrong. “What’s wrong?” He gave the eyelid moving thing one more try, and immediately knew why she had sounded odd. They weren’t in the prison. “Oh.” He could feel himself trying to panic, but everything was too heavy and weird to let the feeling through.

Carol leaned over him so he could see her face. He didn’t like the concern in her eyes. And what the hell was she... “The hell you wearin?”

That startled a laugh out of her. “That’s the first thing you ask?”

“Ain’t right.”

“You’re going to be fine. They gave you some pain – “

“Oh, hell no! I’m fine.” Or he would be, if he could just manage to sit up. “Know better than that shit!” His words were slurred in a way that sounded too much like his old man. The panic broke through the glass that had been keeping it distant. Trying to set his chest and back on fire.

“Well, I thought you were dying and I didn’t want you to hurt while you did it, so you’ll just have to forgive me,” Carol snapped. She wasn’t teasing him, either. There was real fear and hurt in her voice. She was blinking too fast, the way she did when she was forcing herself not to cry and she was pushing down on his shoulders. It was far too easy for her to hold him down.

Daryl stopped trying to sit up and let himself fall back. He focused on her until things started to settle back into their proper rhythms. Odd how she could hold him down with a look and anyone else doing it made him lose his shit. Even Merle would’ve had to sit on him by now. It was just because it was Carol. She was probably the only person on the planet he trusted to make sure nobody gave him more than they had to.

He could be pissed off, though. She knew how he felt about that shit. The drugs and the manhandling both. The whole exchange joined up with whatever some asshole dosed him with while he wasn’t lookin’ and had him all over woozy. The world couldn’t decide if it wanted to spin or fade away.

“What is it? What they put in me?”

“Don’t worry so much. I’m taking care of it.”

“Stop it. Dn’t let ‘em. Caro – promise. I don’ want…”

“You rest now. I’m watching it. You’ll be fine, I promise.”

“Just you, though, right? You didn’t let one of these assholes dig around in there did you?”

“Pete is a real doctor, Daryl. But I stayed and watched every move he made.”

Well, that was just going to have to be okay. “Aaron okay?”

“What’s the last thing you remember?”

“Were leavin’. You give me cookies. Was gonna sneak ‘em when he weren’t lookin’ so I didn’t have to share.” Damn, he must be high as a kite if he was running off at the mouth like this. “I’m high.”

Someone who wasn’t her snorted.

“The hell’s here that’s not you?”

“Aaron.”

“Oh.” He thought a second. “I snuck ‘em past him, didn’t I?”

“I don’t think that’s all you’ve snuck past me,” Aaron said. Carol must’ve nodded at him or something, because he came closer. “I was just stopping by to check. I’ll come again tomorrow.”

“Be at that house tomorrow. M’Carol’s gonna take care of that. Ain’tcha?”

“No, I am not. You’re going to stay here until you can walk there under your own power,” Carol said.

“Don’t wanna. Rick’ll help me. Glenn, too.” Wait a minute. There was something. Something important. “I saw her.”

“Daryl?”

“Why ain’t we at home?”

“You’re too high for conversation. Go back to sleep.”

His body betrayed him by obeying her.

 

 

****

 

 

Daryl didn’t know how many times he’d been awake before, but he had a vague sense that it had been more than once. He had fuzzy, half-there memories of Carol being there, in a string of ever more ridiculous outfits. Sweater sets and old lady pants that hid her from the strangers.

She wasn’t here now.

“Carol?”

Glenn jerked awake so spectacularly that he went one direction and the chair went another.

And man, laughing hurt.

“Laugh it up, fuzzball,” Glenn said. “Seriously, if you want to be aware enough to laugh at me that’s a good thing.”

Daryl rolled his eyes. “Carol was here before.”

“You’re in Alexandria, you were shot in the shoulder and it got infected, your fever was really high for too long, and Carol will be back soon. Next question?”

The way Glenn rattled off the most important bits bothered him. It sounded too much like something that had been repeated often. “Damn. How out of it was I?”

“You were swinging a knife around and trying to kill Aaron when he got you back here, if that gives you an idea. And seeing things. Don’t worry, Carol handled it.”

“The hell you mean, handled it?”

Glenn sighed. “I mean that she walked straight up to you, ducked under the knife, put her hand on your face, and you turned into a blubbering manchild who’d gotten his pacifier back. So, no being mean to her, okay? I think she was really freaked out this time.”

Shit. Damn. Fuck. “Fuck. What did I do? I didn’t – no, nevermind.”

Glenn smirked. “Wouldn’t you like to know.”

“You little shit.”

Daryl had just opened his mouth to say that, but someone beat him to it.

Carol was leaning against the doorframe, her arms crossed, glaring at Glenn. She had her boots on. He really liked those boots. He might put up with the sweater sets if she kept the boots.

Not that it mattered. They weren’t like that.

“Sorry, Carol.” Glenn said. “I was just really glad that you’re back, Daryl. I’ll see you guys later.”

“I didn’t do that did I?”

“You didn’t do anything wrong. If you don’t remember, though, that may be for the best.”

“Fuck.”

“Well, you weren’t in any shape to do that.” The teasing lacked the spark that it used to have. The teasing hint that maybe, just maybe, one of them was serious. Instead, there was an awkward distance that he didn’t know how to cross. He hated it.

“But I ain’t bit.”

“No.” She moved across the room and pulled Glenn’s chair close to the table he was laying on. “You were not. You scared me, Pookie.”

“Yeah? Sorry.”

“Don’t say that. You don’t have anything to be sorry about.” She bit her lip, and Daryl was suddenly very aware of the fact that he wasn’t wearing a shirt. The blankets were pulled all the way up to his chin, but whoever had checked him and had been thorough, and they never bothered to give his clothes back.

“Sounds like there’s a but in there somewhere.”

She tucked the blankets around him more firmly. “I checked you. The doctor removed the bullet and handled your meds, but even he didn’t get the whole show. I had to be sure. I don’t trust him.”

“S’okay,” he said. It had happened before. She knew that he preferred her to anyone else. Carol – well, she was Carol. She’d been his go-to for things like getting stitched up or checked for scratches forever now. “What’s wrong? Somethin’ ain’t right.”

“We can talk more about it later, but for now I need you to go along with me on this. There’s a bit of speculation going on about what we…well, what we are. To each other. I’ve been going with just not confirming or denying…”

“Ain’t none of their business what the hell we are or we ain’t. You tell ‘em to fuck right off.” He looked away from her. He wasn’t sure he was up to seeing her face while she got all embarrassed. “I know you don’t want that, what they think don’t mean shit. We’re still us, though, right?”

Carol sighed, and he couldn’t resist. He had to look at her.

She was sitting with her elbows on her knees, all curled over, covering her face with her hands.

“Oh. ‘s me you want to fuck off, ain’t it?”

Her head flew up, “No! I just, I thought it would make you uncomfortable. I don’t want that.”

Something wasn’t computing. “That don’t make sense. Why would I be that?”

She shrugged. “Let’s not do this right now. You’re still hurt. How’s the pain, do you need something?”

Daryl blinked. “You let them give me that shit, didn’t you?”

“You only had enough to keep you from moving during the surgery and to let you rest. I promise.”

“Liar. I ain’t hurtin’ bad enough.”

“That’s because you’re mostly healed. It’s been a week. The antibiotics may be making you a little woozy.”

He lost a week?

A week of seeing her every time he woke up. Enough times that Glenn was a shock. A week of mumbling who knew what while he was under the influence of…

“What did I say?”

Carol laughed. “Mostly that my clothes look ridiculous. You were glad to see me in proper footwear, and that made Aaron laugh for some reason. You didn’t say anything under the influence of painkillers that would really bother you. I promise.”

“And they think we’re together because I got sappy?”

There. That look. The one that jumped up then ran back behind her mask.

“I went a little - let’s just say overboard. When I thought I was going to lose you? Glenn at least kept me from stripping you down and checking for bites on the lawn, but I – well, the only way not to completely blow my cover was to let them think that we’d been working our way through a hard time. So that means it’s up to you whether we make up or split up.”

“I’m sure as hell not splittin’ up.”

“You aren’t under any obligation.”

“You want me to leave you the hell alone, just say so. Don’t go makin’ some weird excuse.”

“I don’t want anything of the sort.”

“Coulda fooled me. Been runnin’ from me since you found us all the way back at Terminus.” Daryl cleared his throat. It was now or never. He was usually a never kind of guy, but the very thought of that option made his hands shake and his palms sweat. “Real sorry I didn’t find you instead. Governor was just there, didn’t even get to hit Rick once afore he showed up, and then everything just went all to shit. Then you found us, but it’s different. So don’t go sayin’ it’s me that needs to decide anything, I told you when we’s lookin’ for…I’m right here. Tryin’.”

She looked a little too surprised for his comfort. “Okay. Maybe we can go slow?”

“Fuckin’ turtle outrun us last Winter sometime. No. You’re all in or all out. I ain’t playin’ no soap opera bullshit for these people.”

Carol smiled. Nodded. Wiped at her eyes and bit her bottom lip, then nodded again.  “I’m in.”

“That’s decided, then,” he said.

“I think so, yes.”

“Anything else I need to know before you get me my clothes and I go back to the house?”

Carol sighed. “I’ll bring you some clothes, but you have to promise to stay here until the doctor releases you. No fighting him, no matter how much you want to.”

“You don’t need to be sleepin’ in no chair.”

“It’s fine,” she said. “You’ve never been awake this long. I think you’ll probably be home tonight or in the morning, anyway.” She was avoiding his eyes again.

 “Okay.” There was still something bothering her, something that she didn’t want to say but obviously needed to. “What else?”

“It’s just – no one should say anything to you. But if they do, Deanna or Reg or maybe Aaron? They would be the only ones. If they say anything to you about it? Sophia was yours.”

All the air left the room. “What’d I say?” Damn. “Didn’t mean it. I’m – “

“Don’t you say you’re sorry again. It was nothing like that. You were hallucinating. You mentioned her. She was obviously someone to both of us, so I just made her someone to both of us. You can set them straight if you want.”

“You want me to? They won’t never mention – “

“That’s up to you, Daryl. I’ll just, I’ll just go get you those clothes.”

She was gone before he could come up with words to say to her.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

 

If they say anything to you about it? Sophia was yours.

Sophia was yours.

Daryl knew that he’d said something when she said that. It must have been an okay thing to say, because even though she’d run like Satan himself was hot on her heels, she hadn’t seemed mad or anything. Clothes, right? She was just going to get his clothes.

There were clean clothes on the chair.

She hadn’t really left to fetch clothes, anyway, and they both knew it.

The act of sitting up was still a lot more difficult than it should be, though, and truth be told Daryl wasn’t all that anxious to chase her down and try to pry what she meant out of her.  The world was still a little fuzzy, and there was a part of him that wondered if he was maybe still dreaming. If he could just remember what he might have said…but recent memory was a hazy jumble of faces and voices without real words. Mumblings that he couldn’t glean any meaning from overlaid with pain and, just on the edge, something soft and good.

Sophia was yours.

Forever ago, when the world was changed but not yet lost, he had imagined what it would be like to watch a little girl run across a field and into her mama’s arms. He had imagined it a thousand different ways. It had started with the idea that he could slip away, quiet-like, and just watch them. Later, though? When Carol would look at him like he was there, like she saw some version of him that was the way he wanted to be and not some preconceived notion of who he must surely be, it had changed. He’d started to let himself think about what he could be to the girl. He started thinking that maybe there was some use to knowing the things that kids shouldn’t ever have to know.

He had thought that he could maybe help Carol with her, since the girl’s piece of shit old man was gone. He could talk to her about how noticing all the little tells of a person who might turn on you in the next second was good training for not getting surprised by Walkers. Maybe explain to her how noticing the tension in a set of shoulders and the way someone bigger and stronger than you moved could be good training for noticing the marks that people and animals left behind them.

He never thought he could be anything to Carol, not back then. He was so far beneath a woman like her that every day felt like waiting for her to figure out she was just imagining what she kept acting like she saw in him. And after he knew that all of it was just his dumb ass making up stories? How him wanting to be something he wasn’t had made him tell Carol, over and over again, that there was hope because he was seeing signs?

Sophia’d felt like his. Felt more like his than he wanted to admit to himself. More than that, she’d felt like him, when he was a little fucker just trying to dodge swing after swing until he could get away. She ran because she was conditioned to run. She ran because running was always safer than standing. She ran because the world was scary and just kept getting scarier and nobody had taught her that she could fight back yet. She was him in a way that was a lot more obvious looking back than it had been at the time.

So, he made it all about him.

Sophia wasn’t mine!

He’d acted a damn fool, grieving his fantasies while the person he wanted to please, grieved for her real little girl. At the time, he couldn’t have explained why it hurt so much if he’d been inclined to try. Now, he kinda wondered how much of trying to save her was wishing that someone, anyone, had at least tried to save him.

He couldn’t understand how Carol could ever forgive him for it. They’d talked about it once, during the long winter between the farm and the prison. Just once. It was awkward and painful and lasted about three sentences, and afterwards they seldom spoke of Sophia. Rarely, when they were alone and no one else was near enough to hear, Carol would share bits and pieces of her memories of Sophia with him. The good bits. He never knew what to say, never knew how to act beyond just listening. But as time passed, his dreams of finding the little girl changed from how it would have felt for him to be a hero to how it would have felt for the three of them to be a family.

Sophia was yours.

She didn’t know. She couldn’t know what those words did to his insides. The jumbled mass of guilt and longing that punched its way through his chest, and the hollowness that chased after it because it wasn’t real.

It was all part of her little housewife charade. Plugging him into Ed’s place.

Well, he wasn’t Edward fucking Peletier.

Sophia was yours.

But he put an end to that, didn’t he? All in or all out. No playing at it for the natives.

She said she was in.

He didn’t have the first damned clue if that meant what he thought it meant. Surely there was more to it than that. Otherwise, they would have stopped circling one another at a safe distance ages ago. It couldn’t, after all, be as simple as just…asking her.

Hell, no. He must’ve misunderstood something. He still had some of that shit running through his veins or something.

By the time he made his way over to the side table and the neatly folded pile of clean clothes that could only have been put there by the woman who just left to find more of them, he was breathing hard and there was sweat dripping from his forehead. His left arm was next to useless and his right hand was holding the sheet around him.

He was not going to need help to get dressed. But figuring out how to achieve that was at least enough to get those other, more uncomfortable, thoughts out of his head for a few minutes.  If he bent at the knees, he could reach them without having to bend over and making the dizziness worse.

“Hey, don’t do that,” Rick said.

Daryl huffed. “Putting some damn clothes on.”

“Okay. Sure. Just try not to fall on your ass when you do it.” Rick’s hand under his elbow started out hesitant but grew stronger when Daryl leaned into the assist. “Come on. I’ll help you to the chair and bring the clothes to you.”

“You ain’t puttin’ my damn pants on me.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

It felt better to sit down than he really wanted anyone else to know.

Rick dumped the pile of clothes in his lap like it was no big deal, then moved back, resting his hands on his hips.

Rick Grimes - shaved, primped, and back in uniform - felt surreal. Out of context. Wrong.

“Can’t remember who shot me. Gotta be a bad thing.”

Rick blinked, “You let us worry about that. You need to concentrate on getting back on your feet.”

His tone said it all. The urgency there wasn’t for Daryl to be well, it was for Daryl to be well enough to fight.

“Won’t let you down. What do you know so far?”

“That’s not what I – “Rick ran one hand down his face, pinching the bridge of his nose in a gesture that Daryl had come to look on with trepidation. This was Rick walking the fine edge between pragmatism and paranoia, and Daryl didn’t want to be the thing that pushed him in the wrong direction.

“Okay,” Daryl said. “You just let me know when you need me. I’ll be ready. I won’t –“

“I don’t doubt that,” Rick said, softly. “I wanted to talk to you about something else.”

Oh. Well, hell. Daryl didn’t want to talk about anything else that Rick might think he needed to talk about right now.

“Don’t wanna talk about anything else right now.”

“I get that. I do. But you need to know what people are saying.”

“Know all about that. You got a problem with it?”

“You don’t?”

He looked so surprised that Daryl was suddenly unsure. “Think we might be talking about different things,” he said. “’Cause I ain’t heard a damn thing that you ought to think I’d have a problem with.”

Sometime when he was distracted, Rick had dropped to the floor and untangled his feet from his pants legs. Daryl ignored that and started shoving his good arm into his shirt. Rick straightened and stepped back so fast it looked almost like he thought Daryl was about to start swinging.

“Some of the locals got the wrong idea about you and Carol. So far no one has come out and asked, but there’s gossip. Look, you’ve been outside a lot, and that’s fine, it’s good. But some people have been uncomfortable, and I think it might be – “

“Ain’t wrong,” Daryl said, bluntly. “Ain’t none of their business, but ain’t like they got the wrong idea.”

Rick blinked. He started to say something, stopped, then shook his head and started again, “I mean that they – “

“It ain’t your business, either.”

“Daryl?”

“Don’t act like you don’t know. I let a lot of shit go, ‘cause the world sucks and I had to, but forgave ain’t forgot, and you need to back the hell off of me right the hell now. Ain’t their business. Ain’t your business. Me and her are between me and her.”

Someone knocked on the door, and Daryl looked away from his old friend to see Aaron standing there, a stack of clothes under one arm.

“Sorry to interrupt. Carol asked if I could drop these by. It looks like you have it covered, though, so – “

“Run out of here so fast she forgot she brought clothes already,” Daryl grumbled. “Woman won’t ever just slow down a little.”

Rick made a sound that was a little too close to a laugh for Daryl’s comfort.

“Is that why you were in such a hurry when I came in?”

A more clueless asshole than Rick Grimes had never been born. “Get the hell out of here so I can put on some pants.” Daryl was only half-sure he would be able to finish dressing on his own. One hand was holding the edges of his button-down together and the other was busy being useless. “First, get this damn mummy wrappin’ off me so I can – “

“Not me!” Rick said, holding his hands out in front of him. “Bandages stay put.”

“How the hell am I gonna wear a shirt all tied down like this?” The bandaging wrapped all the way around his chest and upper arm, pinning his left arm to his side nearly to the elbow.

“The idea is for you to not move the arm until there’s less chance of pulling out your stitches,” Aaron said. He moved closer than Daryl liked, and Rick just stared, allowing it. “If you just drape it over the shoulder, you might be able to button enough to keep it mostly closed.”

The extra clothes were deposited neatly on the table, and the other man reached out as if to help.

“Did I fuckin’ say you could touch me?” He liked Aaron. He did. The hurt look on the other man’s face was a pain in the ass, too, because he was pretty sure the guy thought that came from a place that it really didn’t.

Aaron backed up.

Rick’s expression was so accusatory that Daryl wanted to just hit him. Probably, he acknowledged, because he knew that if he did Rick would forgive him for it. He could yell at him. Call him every name in the book. Maybe even punch him in the face, because he really felt like hitting something right now and Rick was here. And a day or three from now all would be forgotten.

“Daryl doesn’t like to be touched by anyone,” Rick said in a tone that, in Daryl’s opinion, fully explained why Merle had called him Officer Friendly. “It’s nothing personal.”

“Not a damn two-year-old, either. If I could get a word in edgewise I could explain my own self.”

“He’s also in a mood,” Rick sighed.

That was – well, that was fairly accurate to be honest.

Damn.

Daryl closed his eyes and counted backwards from ten, then met Rick’s eyes and said, “I can’t get my own damn pants on.”

And Carol knew he wouldn’t be able to. And she left. And then sent Aaron instead of coming back.

“You ready for help?”

No. He was not ready for damned help.

“Shit.”

“I promise not to look,” Rick sounded like a man at the edge of his patience.

“Nah. Carol’ll be back later. Think I’ll just sit here.”

Rick glanced at Aaron, then at Daryl, then at the doorway. “People know you’re awake. You could have company any minute.”

Asshole.

“You ever say a fuckin’ word -”

“Our secret,” Rick said.

“I’ll keep everyone out until you’re ready,” Aaron added, nodding before turning to go.

And he was an asshole too, damnit. Daryl didn’t know why Aaron had to be so damned nice all the time. It made it almost impossible to stay mad at the guy.

They’d been through things like this before. Rick waited while Daryl took a few breaths, then took one deep one and held it. It didn’t take long at all, really, but when Daryl finally exhaled, he was standing and mostly dressed.

“Thanks,” he whispered.

“What I’m here for,” Rick nodded. He met Daryl’s eyes for a moment that stretched into the awkward, then whispered, “the part about Sophia.”

 “Mine,” Daryl choked out. “Ain’t talkin’ about that.”

 “Explains a lot, actually. Daryl – “he seemed to think better of saying whatever it was he almost said, and instead he whispered, “I’m sorry. For a lot of things.”

It wasn’t until he was gone that Daryl realized Rick had somehow taken him to mean she had really been his all along. Their leader was probably creating a whole backstory now. Some lifetime television story of the construction worker and the cheating housewife running through his head, trying to make all the pieces fit. Lookin’ back and changing the context of every interaction since the quarry.

Daryl doubted that was quite what Carol had in mind.

Son of a bitch.

 

 

***

 

Carol was a coward.

She thought, once, that she was over her cowardice. That she moved past it. That she had grown strong.

But she just handed Aaron a stack of clothes and sent him off toward Daryl while she scurried back into the house and pulled the biggest pot she could find out of the cabinet. There was still venison to be turned into a stew, and if water chestnuts and canned asparagus weren’t traditional stew ingredients, at least the dented up can of potatoes would add some more bulk.

Carol needed to get dinner on. Because Daryl was out there, and Carol was in here, and Carol was a coward.

It didn’t matter, anyway.

She could feel every heartbeat at the top of her head, and every muscle in her back and neck ached.

All in or all out.

Of course, he didn’t know what she’d done. Didn’t know she murdered a child in her care. Didn’t know that she had been so blind that she let that child kill her sister, all the while thinking that she’d gotten through to the girl.

It’s up to you, Daryl.

That’s just it, though, isn’t it? Everything was up to him.

“Need help?” Carol hadn’t even heard her enter the kitchen, but there stood Michonne, holding a can of tomatoes. That would work.

“Those will go nicely. Thank you.”

Michonne blinked, then said, “Yeah. Not what I meant.”

She really and truly could not endure one more solicitous smile from someone who didn’t know her.

“I’ve got it. Thank you, though.” She smiled. Nodded. Cheery Carol. Everything’s fine here. Move along.

“When I first got to the prison, I wasn’t in a good headspace. I wasn’t in a good headspace for most of our time together,” Michonne said.

“I don’t need a heart to heart chat. I need to get this on the stove or we’ll all be hungry tonight.”

“That’s fine. I can stay and help, or I can go and leave you to it. So long as you know that I’m here, and I’ve been there, and I can listen. Or keep other people away if that’s what you need. Even Daryl.”

Carol stopped moving.

Something deep in her chest was pushing outward, as if it were about to burst from her body like an Alien in a horror movie. She just kept blinking and breathing until the sensation receded enough for her to speak. “I don’t need Daryl to stay away,” she whispered, “but everyone else is fair game.”

“Really? Because when he was unconscious no one could pull you away, but now the that he’s awake, well, here you are.”

“He needs a few minutes.”

“Ah,” Michonne smiled and crossed her arms. “He needs.”

“You know what? I could use your help, after all.” Carol smiled her best perfect housewife smile. “I was doing a stew. Thank you so much.”

She made it all the way to her room and closed the door behind her. Locked it. Stretched out on the bed as if she weren’t far too wired to take a nap.

She stared at the ceiling until the sunlight through the window turned muted and gray.