In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”
Stephen Crane, "The Heart"
i: in the desert
He wishes he could cut things out, like gutting a fish. A few cuts and the right amount of force, and the job’s done. Just a meal with no messy guts or bones to choke on.
His memory’s nothing like that. It’s nothing but bones.
He remembers his fourth-grade teacher, Miss Knox, and how she used to bring an extra sandwich to school each day just for him. She drove him to the public library once to sign him up for his own library card. He never used the card, but he remembers the car ride, how she smiled at him and let him play with the radio, and how he imagined for a moment that it was possible to have a very different kind of life.
But he doesn't remember third grade, or fifth, or much of high school at all, before he dropped out for good.
He remembers his first drink and his first joint and the first time he drove a car. He remembers the first time he had sex. He was 13 years old, and she was a high school girl Merle knew. She was pretty, and nice enough, but the entire act was absolutely terrifying to Daryl in spite of Merle’s detailed, cringe-inducing instructions, and he could tell she was high on something. Driving home after, Merle kept looking expectantly over at Daryl, but Daryl couldn’t find anything to say. Merle looked annoyed, disappointed, like Daryl had fucked up so badly that Merle didn’t know where to begin. Then Daryl puked between his knees onto the floor mat, and Merle punched him hard in the arm and called him a fuckin’ pussy. Merle drove them home in a sullen silence that was intended to be a punishment, but was really a relief.
Daryl remembers the first time he rode a motorcycle. Merle had said he borrowed it from a friend, though he always was shaky on the line between borrowing and theft. Daryl stalled it six times in a row and got so angry he wanted to kick the thing over, but he didn’t. When he finally got it going, he hugged the tank with his knees and felt the way the engine purred and growled between his legs. It made him breathless to hold all that power in his hands, to balance all that force with only the strength of his body. For the briefest moment, he felt like the bike could leave the ground, and him with it, and he could soar far and fast into the sky.
He remembers hunting at a lake with his dad and Merle when he was so small that Merle still carried his gun for him. They were standing on the long, wooden dock at the boat launch. Daryl talked back to his dad, being mouthy again, and his dad tripped him. He fell into the dark, weedy lake, and he must not have known how to swim yet, because he remembers sinking beneath the surface and flailing his arms, panicking for what felt like ages before Merle hauled him out by his hair. As soon as Daryl knocked the water out of his ears, he could hear his dad laughing.
He remembers the nine days he spent lost in the woods on his own, eating under-ripe pawpaws and berries, his ass raw from diarrhea and poison oak. It wasn’t until years later that it occurred to him that, probably, someone should have come looking for him. That it would have been normal to expect rescue, and to be scared when it didn’t come. But he didn’t, and he wasn’t.
He remembers the woman who lived three houses down, who always had lemonade in an orange plastic pitcher in her fridge. On hot days, she'd give Daryl a glass and let him sit inside in front of her window air conditioner while he drank it. Once she gave him a Popsicle from her freezer. It was purple, and it stained his tongue. His dad backhanded him when he saw, splitting Daryl’s bottom lip. The bloody welt tasted sweet, like grapes.
Daryl doesn't remember his grandparents or his mom's sister, though he remembers they existed. They lived nearby, he thinks, but he doesn't remember them being around.
He remembers the way his mom smelled, like Virginia Slims and that boozy-sweat smell that only real drunks have, the smell that’s still there after a hot shower, seeping from their pores. He remembers reaching into the back of the freezer, scraping his bare arm on the thick, sharp buildup of ice, to get bags of frozen peas for her bruised face, and the way she’d always smile at him and say, “Thanks, butterbean.”
He remembers the day the house burnt down with her inside it. It’s still so clear: the bright sunshine and the stitch in his side as he chased after the other kids on their bikes, running as fast as he could. The stench of smoke and burnt plastic. The looks on the neighbours’ faces. He doesn't remember the days that followed, where they lived or whether he went to school. He thinks they lived in a motel for a while, and then in his dad's truck.
He doesn't remember what happened the night Merle left, what finally drove him away. They never talked about it, even years later. There must have been a fight or something, but Daryl can’t recall. He only remembers getting up one morning to find Merle’s stuff gone, and his car, too. Their dad went on like nothing had changed, like it had always been just him and Daryl living in a trailer at the edge of the woods that didn’t have running water. It wasn't much later that the old man kicked Daryl so hard in the side that it hurt to breathe for weeks.
Daryl caught beatings all the time after that. His dad had never hesitated to let his fists or his belt do the talking, but it got worse after Merle left. Daryl can’t remember single instances; it’s all blurred together in his memory. He nearly always had a black eye or a sprained wrist or a fat lip, back then. His teachers never said anything to him, not that he was at school very regularly. That was when Daryl began to understand that when adults looked at him, they never looked too close. He began to understand that people could choose not to see what was right in front of them.
Daryl remembers his dad's friends. Low-lifes and bikers who pimped out girls in their old neighbourhood and sold cocaine to college kids. A loud-mouthed creep who made his living selling Nazi belt buckles and shit at the flea market. A wide-eyed, twitchy dude who hung around their place a lot and was always hot-knifing hash at the kitchen table. Every time a car backfired or some kids lit firecrackers outside, the guy would panic and yell shit in some language Daryl didn't know.
He remembers that just the sight of the muddled, greenish-blue anchor tattoo on his dad’s forearm was enough to make Daryl's heart race and his guts turn to water, even into adulthood. Once, years after his old man died, Daryl was at a gas station and the clerk had a faded navy tattoo that was almost identical, and Daryl left in the middle of buying a pack of smokes and a bottle of Wild Turkey to go puke behind a dumpster in the parking lot.
He remembers when Merle finally came back and took him away in the middle of the night, all of Daryl’s shit in a duffel bag thrown in the back of Merle’s ‘72 LeMans that he’d rebuilt with stolen parts. Merle drove so fast that Daryl’s breath caught in his throat, and both of them laughed like they’d really gotten away with something. Hours later, Daryl found himself in the driver's seat of the car down an empty alley in Marietta, waiting for Merle to finish burglarizing a Radio Shack, and he understood perfectly that nobody gets away with anything. Or from anything. Nobody like him, anyway.
Daryl remembers all of that. So many useless things from the old world, from his old life, the time before. He wishes he could trade them all for better things he knows happened but he’s somehow forgotten.
He can't remember the words Beth sang when she played the piano at the funeral home. But he remembers how the sound of her voice made him feel, like he couldn’t pull a full breath into his chest. He remembers the exact rosy-gold sunset colour of her hair in the candlelight.
He can't remember what they talked about all day as they sat in the kitchen of that place, eating peanut butter and jelly straight from the jars, drinking flat diet soda and waiting for that one-eyed dog to come back. But he remembers that he said something that made her laugh and wrinkle her nose, and that he laughed, too.
He remembers the uncertainty in Beth's voice when she murmured oh, and the sick, nervous feeling in his stomach as he rushed away like a fucking idiot to open the door for a herd of walkers.
He remembers running and running and running, his breath sawing in his chest like a knife, until he arrived at a junction and didn't know which way the car went. Didn't know which way to go to find her, and, without her to follow, he stopped right there in the road and couldn't go on.
He remembers the hope that ached in his chest when he and Carol met Noah, and they learned that Beth was alive. Not dead, just gone, like he’d told Rick and Maggie. Like he'd hoped, against all sense.
He remembers every moment in Atlanta. The narrow hospital hallway that felt all wrong the moment they walked in. Stupid, he remembers thinking to himself as he scanned the space, the lack of cover or escape routes. The anxiety that twisted in his stomach when he saw Carol in that wheelchair and the cuts on Beth’s face, the cast on her wrist.
He remembers reaching for Beth, her thin shoulder under his hand, and then her ponytail swishing across his knuckles as she turned back.
Then something happened that he still doesn’t understand. The cop wanted Noah, but Beth wouldn't have it.
"I get it now," she’d said.
The rest he remembers only in pieces, like a nightmare. Beth moved, quick as a snake, a glint of metal in her hand, and the cop’s gun went off. The hallway stank of gun smoke and blood, the shadows long and warped. Beth crumpled to the floor.
He pulled the trigger under his finger. He stood over Beth, the blood spreading across the faded floor tiles until it touched the toe of his boot.
He carried her out.
She felt so heavy in his arms. He remembers that. Terribly heavy as he carried her down all those stairs, the sound of loud, ugly sobs ringing off the concrete walls the whole goddamn way. He cradled her warm body close, her head tucked into the crook of his arm, hot blood sliding onto his bare skin.
She always was heavier than she looked.
The parking lot is the last thing he remembers. Maggie screaming, Rick and Tyreese trying to take Beth’s body from him while Carol wiped his face with a damp handkerchief. Everyone was crying. So much screaming, and crying, and finally the growls of walkers. The slamming of a car door. Warm glass under his palm, tacky with drying blood.
Then a strange blur, hours he can’t account for. He knows they left Atlanta and headed northeast, toward Noah’s people up around Richmond, but he doesn't recall any of it.
Glenn tells him later that it’s called “grief fog", that short-term memory will fail when a person is stressed or in pain. When a person experiences trauma.
Maybe that’s why his memory’s like this. Maybe that’s why there are so many gaps. Like his brain’s a paper target at a shooting gallery, the wind whistling through all the bullet holes.
Daryl wishes he could choose what to remember and what to forget. If he could, he’d delete everything, rip each memory to pieces, burn it all down like they did that place in the woods. He’d obliterate it all, except that night on the porch, and the day in the funeral home, where they ate until they were full and talked about nothing at all that mattered, and he felt like he was somebody. Like he was somebody’s.
Those memories he would keep.
Instead, he remembers what he remembers, and forgets what he forgets, and none of it matters, anyway.
Dead’s still dead. Gone’s still gone.
Crouching in the back of a van as someone drives it north out of Richmond, he stares out the rear window at the tops of trees as they pass, and he thinks about the texture of Beth’s sweater under his fingertips. He thinks about her hair brushing the back of his hand, and the last real conversation they had: everything he couldn't say to her, and the look of understanding that slowly dawned on her beautiful face.
While he and Rick were figuring out how they were gonna get her and Carol back, Daryl allowed himself to imagine all the things he could say when he saw Beth again. He thought of plenty, though most he knew he’d never have the balls to say out loud.
But in the end, he never got the chance to say anything at all.
Daryl floats above himself like his head’s a helium balloon attached to his body by a long string. He can see himself below, trudging along an endless stretch of sun-baked asphalt with the others. They walk until the blisters on their feet split and bleed. There’s no water and hardly any food, and everyone around him suffers.
He kneels on the forest floor and scrapes nightcrawlers up, breaking his nails in the sandy dirt, and he eats them alive, filthy and wriggling on the back of his tongue.
None of it touches him. He doesn’t care. Even the baby – he dully observes that she gets first crack at whatever water they find, and that Rick and Carl have her, and that’s as much as he can care about any of them. He's hollowed out, like a buck strung up over a trash bag of its own guts.
He starts to come back down into his body when Carol gives him the knife.
She cleaned and sharpened it, he guesses. It's narrow and light, a darting silver minnow of a blade, perfectly suited to Beth’s hip when she carried it for those weeks that they were alone together.
Carol kisses his forehead and he listens when she talks to him.
You have to feel it. You have to let yourself feel it.
Later, he sits alone with Beth's knife on his belt and he digs a lit cigarette into the skin between his thumb and forefinger. Something splits open inside him and everything surges out at once, and he sits there leaning against the trunk of a tree, and he weeps.
He loves her.
He loves her, and he was only just beginning to realise he could feel that way about someone when she got taken. He had only just barely begun to see.
He loves her, and now all of the things they did together, all the things they saw and felt and said are his alone. He’ll be the only one to remember the colour of the moonshine-fueled flames against the dark sky, and how she grimaced when she woke up hungover the next morning, and how she’d groan her sister’s name in aggravation in her sleep sometimes, and the breathless way she laughed when he scooped her up in his arms to carry her to their breakfast of diet soda and pigs’ feet.
He loves her, and she's dead, and his love has nowhere to go, nothing it can be except pain and rage. It burns inside him so wildly that it feels like a physical thing lodged in his throat, choking him.
He cries until his head pounds and his throat is raw, and then he smokes another cigarette and breathes through the urge to puke.
When he walks back to the group, no one says anything. He feels their eyes on him, and it's as uncomfortable as it always is to know that they care. None of them even know what they’re pitying him for, except maybe Rick and Carol, and they don’t even really know.
No one does.
Then the sky opens, and some of them seem happy, standing there getting soaked in rain, laughing and lying down in the road, crying to God, for fuck’s sake, but he feels empty again. Empty and drained and more tired than he's ever been in his life.
It’s the first time he ever really considers bailing on this whole shit show. Just taking one of the handguns and eating a bullet. He could do it quick, before any of them could do something stupid like try to stop him.
He doesn’t act on it. He just thinks about it, later, sitting in a piss-stinking corner of the barn where they hole up that night. He turns the thought over and over, her knife in his hands.
It’s so much to think about, though, and it’s exhausting. He’d have to pick the right moment and do it fast, do it properly. As the sun goes down and everyone settles in around the barn to sleep, the idea loses its appeal. Just continuing to survive is a hard habit to break, and it’s his turn to keep watch.
You have to put it away.
He puts it away, and makes himself go sit with the others.
But when Rick calls them all the walking dead, Daryl feels an uncomfortable resentment rise in him, and he turns away from all of them.
They’re not dead. They’re not them. They’re completely, painfully alive, and it’s fucking bullshit that they’re all breathing and she isn’t.
He doesn't sleep. He keeps watch and paces, and when rain and wind whip the sides of the barn and a herd of walkers hammers on the doors, he holds the dead at bay until the others join him and they all hold together.
They survive the night, and Daryl's awake to hear the first birdsong just before sunrise.
He’s been avoiding talking to anyone, but especially Maggie. He's afraid of what will happen if he does. What she might ask, and what he might fail to put into words she'd understand. But she's wading through a swamp the same as he is, and when she sits down beside him in the quiet dawn, he's surprised to find that it helps to talk about Beth.
It helps to say something about the girl he loves, even if it’s only what he can stand to say to Maggie, that Beth was tough. It helps to say out loud that she was real, that she was here, that she was something before she was nothing. For a moment it’s like a light has turned back on, and Beth isn’t dead, just gone someplace else for a while.
Maggie smiles at him. It’s weak, but it’s still a smile. Maggie will be all right. She’s got Glenn, and she’s got that same thing that Beth had: hope, always. She takes the music box he fixed for her and leaves him to rest there in the dirt.
Daryl watches as she crouches down to wake Sasha, and the two head out of the barn. There’s not much physical resemblance between Beth and her sister, and Daryl wonders if both of them took after their mothers. He can’t remember if Beth ever said. It’d be a strange thing to ask Maggie, so he guesses he’ll never know.
Anyway, it doesn’t much matter. Someday, he won’t even be able to remember what Beth looked like. Because she’s not gone someplace else for a while. She’s dead.
It feels like his chest has been blown open by a shotgun. Something bitter crawls inside that space. It curls up there and waits.
Then a stranger comes to them and says he has good news.
Daryl hates the place immediately, and most of the people in it. It's a comforting kind of contempt because it's one he felt long before the dead rose and walked. He'd have hated Alexandria, before, too, and there's familiarity in that.
Sheep, Merle whispers in his memory. Found yourself a whole flock of dumb fuckin’ sheep, little brother, and there ain't a shepherd dog in sight.
The people in Alexandria are sheltered and stupid, and they look at him like a freak. Just like how Rick and Glenn and even Carol used to look at him, back before the CDC. They looked at him with suspicion and disgust, a foulmouthed, violent redneck who happened to be useful.
So there’s familiarity in that, too.
He guts a possum on Rick’s clean front porch, and only refrains from telling the woman in charge to go fuck herself because he knows it would anger Rick, and because he meant what he says: the boy and the baby matter. They deserve something that at least resembles a life.
The group gets two houses, but they spend the first night together in just one of them. Daryl sets up by one of the windows, right next to Judith’s playpen. The window has a good vantage point of the road that leads to the town’s gates. Everyone’s quiet and trying to act like they’re all right, but it’s not that easy. They’re tense, and when there’s a knock at the front door, everyone goes still.
It’s the woman in charge. Deanna. Doing the neighbourly thing, checking in on all of them. Saying some foolish bullshit about jobs.
And I’m just trying to figure Mr. Dixon out. But I will.
Christ, he hates this shit. Mr. Dixon.
Daryl looks out the window and doesn’t respond.
Everyone eats, and then they settle in for the night, spreading themselves out on the floor beside one another like a pack of dogs. One by one, Daryl can hear them all drop off into restless sleep.
Rick is the last one awake with him, walking Judith around the house as she drifts off with her chubby cheek on his shoulder. When he comes to lay her down in the playpen, he looks at Daryl.
“Get some sleep.”
Daryl stares back at him for a moment, then grunts. Rick seems to accept this, for he nods, and then turns and leaves the room, flicking the last table lamp off as he goes.
The room is dark and quiet but for the sound of deep breathing and the occasional restless murmur from one of the others.
Daryl sits, leaning against the window frame, until his back and his shoulders ache and his ass goes numb, staring out the window into the dim street.
He wants to leave.
He thinks about it, about stepping over the sleeping people around him and slipping silently out the door. He’d jump off the porch and run to the gates and be gone before whichever dumbass is on watch could stop him, if they’d even try.
After that, he doesn’t know. He doesn’t care. He’d just be gone.
Judith turns onto her side in her sleep and heaves an enormous sigh.
Daryl slides off the coffee table he’s been perched on to sit on the floor, leaning against the wall beneath the window. Judith’s got one little arm thrown over her head and her other hand against her face. She makes soft snuffling sounds in her sleep. Daryl watches her for a long time.
Lil’ Asskicker made it. She made it. Just like you did. Just like you said they all could’ve. I didn’t believe you. Couldn’t. But here they all are.
Daryl listens to the crickets outside, and he stares up at the ceiling and tries to make his mind go blank and fuzzy like it was right after Atlanta.
It doesn’t really work. His brain won’t shut up long enough for sleep to take hold. He’s barely slept in weeks and it’s wearing on him, but he can’t seem to pass out.
As soon as the others begin to stir in the morning, he heads out onto the porch, sitting down with his back against the railing, and has a smoke. His eyes feel like two charcoal briquettes lodged in his skull.
Rick comes out onto the porch and tells Daryl everyone’s going to explore. The whole group troops past with tense, hopeful faces, except for Sasha, who goes, but scowling.
Daryl stays right there on the porch, watching people pass by on bikes, walking dogs, talking and laughing with one another like anything about this place is normal.
It unnerves him. It makes him feel like he’s going out of his mind, like someone is playing a massive, fucked-up prank on him.
What actually pisses him off, though, is Carol.
She puts on a clean outfit and a whole new personality, besides. It’s fucking strange, her in slacks and a sweater, going to make casseroles. Then she makes some crack about hosing him down, and he wants to shout what the fuck is wrong with you?
He doesn’t, though. He tells her she looks ridiculous, which she does, and she ignores him, disappearing down the sidewalk to go meet the neighbours.
It’s all a bit too much like finding himself stoned out of his mind at 4 AM watching an old rerun of The Twilight Zone, half-asleep and uncertain what’s real.
Geek ears, he thinks. He wants to go out into the woods and kill him some walkers, string their ears on a bootlace and wear it around his neck. He wants to dig worms out of the bare dirt. He wants to eat a rabbit’s liver while it’s still warm. He wants to rub filth and blood and ash all over his skin. He wants to leave this place and go stay in the woods until something takes him out.
But he doesn’t, because Beth said he got away from it. She really believed that, and in spite of everything, some small, stupid part of him still wants to believe it, too.
That and, despite the load of bull they’re all currently buying, he’d rather be within screaming distance when the shit inevitably hits the fan.
So everyone goes off to explore. To make casseroles. To make friends. To learn names and faces and fit in. They all go off to do that on this beautiful, sunny day, and Daryl sits on his ass in the shade of the porch, and the bitter thing inside of his chest grows bigger.
It grows angrier.
He realises dimly that he’s pissed at all of them. It makes no sense; they don’t need to stay stuck like he is, just because he is. It’s nobody’s job to give a hot shit how he feels. It doesn’t matter. It never has.
A soft whisper: it does matter.
Daryl gets to his feet, grabbing his bow as he goes. He skips the front steps and lands hard on the sidewalk, his shins protesting. He ignores the pain and heads for the front gates.
He needs to get out of this place before he explodes. Even if it’s just for a while. Even if it’s just for a minute, he has to get away. Before he does something to ruin it for the rest of them.
The gates are open as he approaches, the gatekeeper letting a group in. It’s Glenn, Tara, and Noah, and they’re with two of the locals. One of Deanna’s sons and the guy who let them in when they arrived with Aaron.
Daryl doesn’t hear what’s going on. He doesn’t need to. Glenn’s visibly pissed, anger rolling off him in waves that make Daryl’s scalp prickle. Others have gathered, Rick and Michonne and Maggie, as well as Deanna and a few random passerby. Deanna’s douchebag son tries to mad dog Glenn, and when he throws a punch that Glenn dodges, Daryl doesn’t even think. He just reacts.
His knees hit the concrete, his hands around the other guy’s throat. There’s barely a beat and then Rick’s on top of him, his arms around him, trying to haul him back, his voice harsh in Daryl’s ear.
not gonna do this now
Daryl lets Rick pull him off. The guy scrambles away, hands clutching his throat, stunned and terrified. Good. Daryl paces back and forth, unsatisfied, eager to split his knuckles open on the guy’s teeth, while Deanna and Rick try to calm everyone down, and Deanna takes the opportunity to ask Rick to be the fucking town constable.
Rick looks pleased, and so does Michonne. So do Maggie and Deanna.
After everything, Rick’s going back to being a fucking cop.
A wave of loathing surges through Daryl, and suddenly it’s Rick’s teeth he wants to knock out. He scoffs, grabbing his crossbow off the ground, and goes back the way he came.
This place is a fucking joke, and so is everyone in it. Including his group. Including him.
He wants to leave. He wants to go, and be gone.
But he doesn’t leave. He walks back to Rick’s porch, and crouches there with his knees bent and his face hidden behind his arms, and he thinks again about geek ears, and eating worms out of the ground, and the smell of his own skin burning.
One by one, everyone gets jobs assigned to them. They make friends with the townspeople, and when they gather at Rick’s for meals, there are names mentioned in passing that Daryl doesn’t recognize. Neighbours and friends. The doctor and the woman who makes jam and the guy on Maple Street who knows a thing or two about gardening.
Strangers. He doesn't want to get to know these strangers. He can't stand any more people.
Daryl doesn’t get a job. He doesn’t make friends. He sleeps on Rick’s living room floor, and sometimes out on the porch.
No one mentions Beth anymore.
Not that they did, much, before. Some of them didn't even know her, after all. Hell, Daryl barely knew her until after the prison. Until it was just them, and she saved him.
But it’s been a little over six weeks since Atlanta, and Maggie and Glenn and Rick and Carol and Carl and Michonne and the others from the prison don't talk about her anymore. They don't ask him their clumsy questions, either, their head-tilted, How're you holding up? questions.
That’s how it works, now. That’s how it has to be. People can’t get bogged down in every single loss.
Besides, Daryl’s passed the allotted amount of time for mourning a member of the group. There’s no reason for him to still wake up every morning feeling like something is crawling up his throat to strangle him. No one expects him to still give a shit.
After all, she was just a girl.
Just Maggie’s sister. Just Judith’s babysitter. Just one piece of a larger whole, who only mattered because she was connected to the rest, and insignificant in her own right.
Just another dead girl.
Rick and Carol want a back-up plan for if – when – the safe zone gets overrun or attacked. Daryl doesn’t disagree.
Meeting with them out in the woods about sneaking the guns out of inventory is oddly comforting. It’s familiar. It makes more sense to him to be making a plan than to be sitting around failing to do whatever it is these supposedly normal people do all day. It’s good to know, too, that he’s not the only one who thinks this place is full of dipshits.
They’re both squirrely as hell about the whole thing, but he goes along with it, because what the hell else is he going to do, exactly? Rick still calls most of the shots, and Carol calls plenty of her own, too, and the way they look at him, he knows they expect him to fall in line.
Fine. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. It never has.
But then Carol tells him he has to try.
She doesn’t finish the sentence, but he can fill in the blanks just fine on his own. She means try to fit in. Try to adapt. Try to be normal.
Try to move on.
Daryl doesn’t agree to her request or bother to argue. He chews the inside of his lip and says nothing, and the three of them walk back to the safe zone without speaking. As they draw closer to the gates, a sick feeling builds in the pit of Daryl’s stomach, and he veers away, ignoring their calls to him, and goes into the woods.
He walks for a time, leaving the road and the town behind, and every step he takes, he feels the knots in his stomach loosen. Eventually he stops at the bank of a narrow stream and looks around.
It’s overcast and cool enough that Daryl’s actually comfortable. He’s always been hot-blooded, and it feels good when the breeze touches his bare arms. He splashes his way across the creek and heads into deeper woods.
In his path, he spots a small pile of deer scat. It hasn’t dried up, yet, and when he crouches down and touches it, it’s still holding a bit of body heat from the deer that left it there, more than can be accounted for by the air, given its shady location. The deer was here recently.
Daryl scans the ground, and spots the deer’s small, pointed prints, heading southwest.
He stands and tracks the trail for a while, but when he follows it into a clearing, he finds it’s been trod over by walkers, and the trail’s all mucked up. There’s no blood or gore anywhere that he can see, so the deer must have passed through before the walkers. But he can’t seem to pick it up, though he beats the bush, kicking the leaf litter aside in search of even one little hoofprint.
Annoyed, he’s standing there scanning the forest floor when he hears a branch snap.
He lifts his bow and turns in the direction of the noise, but he can’t see anything between the trees. Keeping his bow up in one hand, he follows it. It didn’t sound anything like a deer, or walkers, for that matter. He wants to know what it was.
Daryl walks somewhat aimlessly for several minutes, still checking the ground for the deer’s trail, waiting for whatever’s in the woods with him to make another sound.
Then he hears a branch snap off to his side, and the distinctive sound of a person’s footfall. He spins, lifting his crossbow.
“Come out! Now!”
Hands raised, Aaron emerges from behind a thick stand of bush, looking sheepish and only slightly wary of the crossbow trained on his face. Daryl lowers his weapon.
“You can tell the difference between walkers and humans by sound?”
It’s a stupid question, as far as Daryl is concerned, but then, he shouldn’t be surprised that someone from Alexandria doesn’t know their ass from their elbow.
Daryl lets Aaron follow him, anyway. He talks, which is not ideal, but he's careful enough that Daryl can't even reasonably tell him to shut the fuck up, so he lets him.
That would have been tolerable enough – fucking irritating, but tolerable, because Aaron can talk all he wants but that doesn’t mean Daryl has to answer – but then there’s the goddamn horse.
The horse stands, his flesh twitching with nerves, and he watches the two of them from the edge of the field where the trees give way to tall grass and wildflowers.
Aaron tells Daryl he’s been trying to catch him. They stand in silence and watch the horse watch them, his massive prey eyes belying the inner calculations he makes, weighing their presence against his need to graze.
Eventually the horse calms enough to allow himself to rip a few mouthfuls of grass up from the turf, but his whole body is still tense and flinching, waiting for something to lunge at him.
What a mindfuck, Daryl thinks, for the horse to one day trust the two-legged creatures around him, and the next, find them trying to rip the meat from his bones.
Daryl wants to catch him. He wants to help Aaron take the horse back to Alexandria so that he will be safe and a bunch of children Daryl’s avoided meeting will be happy. He wants the stupid horse not to be afraid anymore.
So he takes the lead rope from Aaron, and he tries.
The horse gets away, of course, and, like idiots, he and Aaron maintain hope and track it, and then they get the pleasure of watching a handful of walkers take the animal down as it screams in terror.
They take care of the walkers, too little, too late, and Aaron puts the horse out of its misery.
Daryl stands behind him and watches dark blood and brain matter leak out into the dirt, and though he expects to maybe feel something like envy, he doesn’t. The horse isn’t better off dead and no longer suffering. It isn’t anything at all, now. It’s nothing. It’s gone.
Aaron's disappointed. More than disappointed; Daryl can see that catching the horse meant something more to Aaron. When Daryl hears the break in Aaron’s voice, the guilt for not having caught the horse in time, Daryl feels sick and sad, his chest aching. The guy just wanted to catch a stupid, scared animal and give it a home, give the orphaned kids in the safe zone something to smile about.
Daryl remembers Beth standing by the railroad tracks, the morning after they fled the prison together, her stubborn hope sputtering out when they found the mess the walkers had made of the children who’d called the prison home. The empty little shoe just lying there in the gore.
That things always end this way, completely fucked, doesn't make it any easier to stand.
But the only other option is to be gone. To be nothing.
“You were tryin’ to help him,” he says, for whatever it’s worth to Aaron.
They walk back to the walls together, in silence.
Aaron said he should go to the party. He stands outside Deanna and Reg’s house and watches the silhouettes moving across the clean, tasteful drapes. People talking and laughing, and music playing. Normal people doing normal things, he guesses, except it was never normal for him and that, at least, has not changed at all.
This isn’t the kind of party he’d have gone to before the turn, and it sure as shit isn’t now, either.
He turns and walks back to Rick's.
But then Aaron sees him from his front porch and invites him in for dinner. For some serious spaghetti.
He stands there in the street, feeling like he could jump out of his skin, as Aaron waits for him to answer.
Carol told him to try.
Beth would want him to try, too. She’d be trying, if she was here. He'd look over at her and she'd give him an encouraging smile, a little wobble of her head.
C'mon. You can do it. You can.
If she wasn’t gone, and nothing.
Daryl puts one foot in front of the other, and he follows Aaron inside, his ears burning when he catches a glimpse of the small, pleased smile on Aaron's face.
It’s warm and welcoming inside their house. Eric is sitting at the kitchen counter, his busted ankle resting up on another stool, and he grins when Daryl shuffles awkwardly into the room. Aaron clears his throat.
“Look who I found outside.”
“An escapee from The Party,” Eric says, shuddering. “Please, Aaron, get this poor man a drink.”
Aaron pours him a large glass of red wine, and it gives Daryl something to do with his hands while he stands there feeling clumsy and out-of-place, watching the two of them finish making dinner.
There’s something different about a house when people who love each other live there. It’s like something else lives there with them. Something warm. Daryl remembers feeling the same way the first time he stepped over the threshold of Hershel Greene’s house. Whatever else the Greenes were, it was clear that they were the kind of family who loved each other.
It was strange. It made him feel like an alien. It still does.
But it’s bearable. Strange, but bearable, because they sit down to eat, and Aaron and Eric find a way to carry the conversation through Daryl’s long silences without excluding him altogether. They don’t ask him anything about before. They don’t ask him how he’s adjusting or what he thinks of Alexandria.
Daryl likes Aaron. Eric too, and it’s only partly because the two men make a mean spaghetti dinner.
It’s something else. Something about Aaron's eyes when he listens, how he seems to understand a lot without Daryl having to explain. There’s no pity in him, just a quiet kindness that makes Daryl feel like the way he is might actually be okay.
They're just nice people, good people, and eating dinner with them isn't painful or annoying. It's okay. It might even be good. Then, as they’re finishing up, Eric lets it slip. They want him for something.
They want him to take Eric’s place with Aaron out on scouting runs.
It annoys him, a bit, that they got him in here and fed him dinner and wine instead of just asking him straight up. But it’s not like that, or not exactly like that. Daryl can tell. They’d have invited him in anyway. So he considers it while he stands in Aaron’s bright garage and looks at the collection of random bike parts spread out all over the place.
It's something to do, something to keep him busy, and that's probably for the best. It's dangerous too, which suits him – if he dies out there trying to convince random assholes to join this joke of a town, that's fine.
It’ll take him outside the walls. Like Aaron says. That appeals to him.
But in the end, what decides it for him is the way Aaron says, you do know the difference between a good person and a bad person.
Beth would want him to do this. She would want this for him. He knows that, somehow, deep in his bones, in the pit of his guts. She would believe that this matters, that this is the job he has to do.
So he nods. He tells Aaron he’s gonna get him some rabbits, and Aaron smiles.
He meets with Rick and Carol again, and he says he doesn’t want one of the guns they’ve stolen, because Carol told him to try, and he is. He’s fucking trying.
They look at him like he’s a stranger.
When they get back to Alexandria, they go their separate ways.
The next morning, Daryl gets up before dawn, goes out into the woods, and catches three rabbits for Aaron.