The door of the RV slams and Daryl startles awake.
He reaches for his crossbow but finds himself punching the cupboards of Dale's RV, his wrist cracking as his fist met the unforgiving wood.
He sits up, holding his fist and preparing for the stitches to pull, but nothing comes.
"What the hell – "
He looks over to the sleeper in the back of the RV, spotting Carol's prone form, her face red and puffy, as if she'd been crying.
No, he remembered, she had been, so that was expected, but hell, he really didn't remember falling asleep on the floor of the RV. He didn't remember falling asleep at all, actually.
What he did remember was the way the night air smelled like burning flesh and how Carol had collapsed into Lori's arms. He remembered digging her daughter's grave and the way the barn burned.
He decides not to overthink it. He must have followed her in here, must have wanted to make sure she was okay.
After Rick had put the girl down, he and Carol stayed that way for a good long time, in the dirt, clinging to each other like they were all that was left. It wasn't until Lori had coaxed her from his arms, had dragged her away to get cleaned up, that he realized how angry, how empty he felt.
No one bothered with him when he stormed away; they were too busy with their own shit, with the million other problems that were piling up on each other.
And that was fine.
He had ended up spending most the day digging that child's grave, not caring that his stiches had all torn or that his hands bled from blisters, staining the wood of the shovel's handle. He didn't care about much of anything at that moment and for the rest of the night he had kept to himself, mostly, content to stew in his own misery.
The realization of his failure, of all the false hope he had been feeding her, saccharine sweet, all roses and niceties, had hit him with more force than anything physical ever could have.
That night had been thick with mourning and anger and so much pain –
Daryl rubs his eyes before pulling himself up. His wounds are oddly quiet this morning; the usual soreness and throbbing completely absent. He figured he was healing, but really, those wounds were about the only ones doing so, he couldn't say much for that gaping hole Sophia's death had caused.
But really, what did he expect. His life had been full of pain, full of wounds that turned into ugly, barely healed scars. How could he have been so stupid to think this would have been any different?
He steps out of the RV, feet landing on hard pavement and he feels like his world has been turned upside down.
"Rick, we're not going anywhere like this, I need more parts -" Daryl stops the man midsentence because did he not see how pissed he was? Had they made the decision while he was asleep? Had they just picked up and left without so much as waking him to inform him so he could collect his shit?
"What the hell 's goin' on?" He asks Dale and Rick as he closes the RV's side hatch. The older man turns around, confusion written all over his features and Rick tilts his head, unsure of where this is all going.
"Why're we back on the highway?" Andrea steps down from the top of the RV, Dale's rifle in her hand. The same rifle she had aimed at his head a few days before. "Ya'll could've told me we were movin' on, who the hell made this decision?"
"What are you talking about?" Rick tries and hell, the man looks genuinely confused.
"Why the hell did we leave the farm?" He elaborates because what the hell, what was wrong with them?
"The farm?" Dale raises and eyebrow, looking back at Rick and then at Andrea. "Am I missing something?"
"Daryl, calm down, what are you talking about?" Rick tries and now Shane's approaching, pulling the police cap off his head, running his hands through his hair.
Unless Shane could grow a full head of hair overnight something was very fucking wrong.
"What's the hold up man, the sooner we find Sophia the sooner we can get on to Fort Benning."
"Sophia?" Daryl asks and where the fuck did Shane get off talking about Sophia. He knew full well what happened to the girl. "Find Sophia?"
"You piece of shit," He lunges at the man and hell, Shane looks genuinely surprised before they both fall to the ground, throwing punches before Rick rips him of the man.
"Daryl!" No one knows what to make of the attack and they all just stand there, watching.
"He's lost it, Rick." Shane says, picking himself of the ground, "After we find Sophia, he's going his own way. He's too dangerous."
After we find Sophia?
"You know what happened to Sophia, you bastard." Rick has him pinned to the ground, his face digging into the gravel, but he struggles regardless. "You're the one that opened that damn barn, you saw what happened to her –"
He manages to buck Rick but he doesn't get very far as something lands heavy on the back of his head, sending him into unconsciousness.
He wakes up in the RV, listening to the slam of the door, and he's on his feet.
He lifts his shirt and his head spins when he sees the absolute lack of stitches. His head, too, is fine, no sign of the graze and he checks the other side just in case he went batshit insane over night.
Which, clearly, he has, because when he leaves the RV they're all there standing in those exact fucking positions doing the same damn thing.
This is a dream, just a fucking dream.
"Rick, we're not going anywhere like this, I need more parts -"
"What the fuck is this?" He tries again and there they are, acting so damn innocent, like they have no idea what he's talking about.Bullshit, how could they not know? Did they all collectively decide to just fucking forget?
It's like déjà vu, watching as the situation degrades the exact same way as before, as in his dream.
He's face down on the ground again and he doesn't understand. Doesn't understand why no one is talking about the barn, or Herschel or Sophia … why they are talking about looking for her.
It ends the same, with him spiraling towards unconsciousness.
The third day is the same. A door slams and he wakes up on the floor of the RV.
His hand goes to his temple. No stitches.
He steps out of the RV and there's Dale again.
"Rick, we're not going anywhere like this, I need more parts. I should be able to find something by the time you get back." Daryl stares because this was the fourth time he's heard this, the fourth time he watched as the man rolled down the camper's awning and dusted off that stupid hat.
"What?" Dale had catches him staring and then there's Rick again, head tilted in curiosity.
"Nuthin'." He said because tomorrow would come. It has to.
It's downright disturbing, the near mechanical movements, the way they do everything exactly the same.
He leads them through the woods; the exact same way as always because there's a part of him that asserts this is just a hallucination, a dream, because it has to be.
They reach the tent but he's not crouched down, approaching it cautiously. He's not even looking at it.
Waste of time. He knows what's in it, of course.
But the others don't.
Maybe that's what's most disturbing. They don't seem to be aware of his dilemma, not at all, unless this is the most involved, fucked up example of gas lighting in existence.
"Wait," Rick stops him with a whisper, head nodding over to the tent, "she could be in there."
Daryl shakes his head.
"Naw, there ain't nothin' in there." Shane has signaled everyone to stop and joins in the conversation.
"Yeah, you know that for a fact?" The man challenges him, and really, he's right to do so because he has no fucking idea what's happening here.
For them, today is today and tomorrow will come and then today will be yesterday, but for him …
"Yeah, I do." Rick, sensing the conditions were ripe for a more physical altercation, intervened.
"We'll check it out, won't take but a minute." Rick gives a quick glance back at the others, all waiting in anticipation, eyes nervously watching that tent.
"Fine, see what I care. 'S just a guy with a face full of maggots. Opted out." Shane quirks an eyebrow at that and Daryl just stares right back.
It's Shane and Rick who check because, really, Daryl wasn't one for wastin' his time like this.
The two men glance back at him, shock written all over their features.
"Told ya, didn't I?"
He doesn't take part in the morning rituals, merely watches, looking for a crack, for definite proof that this is all a charade.
He doesn't find any.
The church bells sound and they run. They dispatch the Walkers and, as the rest of the group looks around wildly, looking for the source of the bells, he says, "a timer, it's on a timer" but no one hears him.
For a moment, it's just him and the dead in the church and he looks up at that giant wooden crucifix.
He looks it up and down, from thorny crown to feet, before huffing and turning his back.
Carol cries herself to sleep every night and even then, in sleep, she finds no respite.
The door of the RV slams and he wakes up with a thought and really, it's fucking genius because this has to be the reason for all this.
This is the day Sophia gets bit.
The revelation makes him feel like a jackass; all that time looking and really, the search should have ended in the first 24-hours.
But still, this has to be it, right? What else would be so fucking special about this day?
This day isn't special, he decides.
This is hell, plain and simple.
No matter how early he tries to wake up, to get a head of 'schedule', he can't do it.
It won't let him. He calls whatever this is 'it' because anything else would sound crazy.
And he isn't crazy.
On the fourteenth day he can't take it, waking up in that fucking RV again. In a fit of frustration he pushes his brother's motorcycle to the ground. He stares at the long scratch that won't be there tomorrow and walks away.
When Rick asks what is wrong, attentively and carefully, Daryl figures it can't fucking hurt.
"Do you believe in … time travel?" The question feels so stupid coming out of his mouth that he's almost embarrassed.
He manages a glance in the other man's direction
Seeing that Rick is unaware of his predicament and that for the ex-Sheriff today was just like any other today, singular and only once experienced, he handles it well.
There's a momentary slip when Rick's eyebrows hike up to his hairline but then he's serious again, expression imploring and curious.
"I mean, do you think somethin' like that's possible?" Rick removes his hat and turns it over in his hands. Daryl watches, not sure yet, because he's either genuinely thinking about the question or he's trying to figure the best way to handle this new development.
"Time travel?" Luckily Rick is the kind to let curiosity rule over the apprehension of the blatant psychotic break he seems to be suffering.
And maybe that's what this is. He had lost his fucking mind and they had tied him to a tree somewhere and these were his death hallucinations.
If that were the case than his mind was truly fucked because these were some shitty death throes.
"I've never given it much thought." Daryl knows they should be getting on to looking for Sophia soon, that now that everyone's awake they're going to want to get going, so, he wants to move this forward as quick as he can, before anyone else decides to stick their nose in.
Daryl chews his lip. How is he supposed to explain this?
"Livin' the same day over, goin' back to the day before, everyday –" Rick looks like he's trying and he has to credit him for that but the way he's squinting at him, scrutinizing him … it's clear he thinks something's wrong.
"Are you … feeling okay, Daryl?" Daryl huffs and it figures.
"Wait – Daryl." The man hurries ahead of him, giving a quick look around, understanding that this is probably a conversation best kept between them.
"I didn't mean anything by it, it's just, I wasn't expecting it." Rick looks over at the motorcycle on the ground trying for the life of him to figure out how it related to the question, "Does this have something to do with Merle?"
Daryl shakes his head and starts to regret the conversation. How could he have thought for a single second that this was going to work? He was so fucking stupid.
'Naw, this ain't about Merle." He says almost defensively; it's damn exhausting, them all thinking they know him, that every outburst, that every little thing he does has something to do with Merle.
Even with Merle out of the picture he's still in his fucking shadow.
It ends up being Shane, the one who saves him from this attempt at trying to, fuck what was it, reach out. But he refuses to believe that, he ain't one for 'reaching out' or needing help, none of that shit.
"What's the hold up? Ya'll just gonna stand there and shoot the shit? C'mon, man, we got a missing girl to find."
Rick gives him a pointed look, one that says they'd talk about this later, but Daryl knows it ain't happening.
He never talks about time travel again. He can handle this on his own. He has to.
On the thirty-first day he gets bit. He doesn't bother washing the wound or returning to camp.
It wouldn't matter anyway.
"Sophia!" He calls out at the creek bed.
There is no doll there, not like there was, would be, in a few days.
He stands there for a few moments before savagely kicking the log, a vicious growl escaping his throat.
"Sonnuva bitch." And now he's kicking up the water and pebbles and he hopes those two Walkers are around just so he can take his anger out on something, anything.
They don't show up.
Eventually he moves on and finds nothing.
"A flower?" He nods because he knows how this exchange is supposed to go, though with the way things were going it was unlikely it would ever happen 'tomorrow', if tomorrow existed.
This is the only thing that has truly been constant; the one thing he has decided will be allowed to repeat itself.
If – when – he found Sophia it would mean they would –will - never have this conversation, that she would never set to cleaning the RV up, and they'd never see her amongst the dead in that damned barn.
That will just be another day in a timeline that would never come to exist.
The sheer idea of it is too much to grasp so he doesn't think much further on it.
He just knows she needs to hear this, that she should know this story.
"It's a Cherokee Rose –" and he tells her the story again. It's the tenth time now and on some days she asks questions, others she stays silent as tears roll down her cheeks.
Today is a silent day, but regardless, she cries.
She always cries.
There's another thing, he realizes, that he tries to change for good.
He tries, in his own way, to keep Rick and Lori from letting Carl go with them. It's a delicate procedure and there are days where it is unavoidable, but he does his best.
In fact, it happens more often than not and there's a part of him that wonders whether he is supposed to worry over it. It sounds harsh but he figures the kid survived the first time so reason stood that he would this day as well.
Now, he wasn't the sentimental type and he had maybe talked to the kid once, but the idea of the kid experiencing such a thing over and over, even if he wasn't aware of it, seemed downright fucked.
So, he does what he can, whether it's through distracting Rick and not letting the kid get a word in or more blunt tactics.
He learned two things. What didn't work and what definitely didn't work.
The latter was discovered when he had just come out with it.
"You bring that kid out there 'n he's gonna get fucking killed, just like Sophia."
His tone hadn't helped any but excuse him if he was feeling a little fucking on edge these days.
It was the first time, maybe ever, that the entire group was down his fucking throat. Every single one of them looked like they wanted him to die a terrible, painful death and they all had had a lot to say about it.
Even he wasn't stupid enough to try thatone again.
It took him damn near a month to figure out, but what seemed to work best was out right refusing to lead the group with a kid tagging along. It earned him a good glare from Lori and Carl but most of the time it worked.
But that was on the rare occasion he went along with the group. Now, he tried his best to go out on his own without the rest of them dragging him down.
And sometimes it worked itself out.
On some nights he comes back and Carl is still there.
Then there were the times that people were frantically filling him in, telling him about 'some-Zorro-woman-on-a-horse' and how Carl got shot and they needed to get to 'some farm'. That was exhausting.
Worse were the nights Lori waited at the RV and he figures on those nights Maggie never intercepted them – he had been leading them that day, originally, after all. She just wears a hole in the pavement with all her pacing.
"They're fine." He lies, because what's the point? Tomorrow everything would go back to they way things had been this morning.
He goes out at night, sometimes, and Andrea almost always follows.
He doesn't refuse her company, mainly because, with the day almost over, he doesn't really see any harm in it.
He doesn't have much to say, as caught up in his own thoughts as he is, but they always manage a version of that original conversation:
"I don't know if I want to live … or if I have to, or if it's just a habit."
"I don't see how it's any of your concern, or business, but … I don't really know anymore."
"What's living? What does that mean, anymore?"
It does nothing for either of their moods.
Difference is, Daryl remembers it the next day.
Even the weather is the same, he notices.
He wakes up to the same blue sky and he would give anything for it to rain. That same damn storm cloud comes around but it never rains and everyday, around noon, there's that noticeable spike in humidity …
The sounds, too; and he thinks it gets to him more than anything.
His senses are all tuned to the repetition, now, but the sounds …. It's like hearing a song you know all the words to over and over again.
He hears that flock of birds overhead and innately knows that the locusts are going to start up again afterwards. He knows that crunch of a wrapper is Lori giving Carl a granola bar they found on the highway.
Even the fucking trees rustle on queue.
A car door opens and he knows, without looking, that it's Glenn making the racket and that the man is going to speak.
"All these cars and no painkillers." Daryl mumbles to himself, and, like an echo, Glenn says the same.
"All these cars and no painkillers." And, just like he always does when this conversation occurs, Dale answers.
"Nothing at all?" Daryl huffs, his tone almost sarcastic, like a petulant child, "There's got to be something."
"Nothing at all? There's got to be something." Their tirade continues accordingly and he does what he can to busy himself but no matter where he goes everything he hears is on repeat.
He's so sick of this fucking song.
He feels like he's not real, like none of this could possibly be real.
There's an entire week where he feels numb. Not the kind of numb he has been feeling for years, since that day when he was nine years old, no, that kind still lets the anger and pain and frustration and all the other negative things, necessary-for-survival things through.
This is a real numbness; the kind where everything happening in front of him feels like a movie, like he's not really part of it.
"We'll find her." Rick says to Carol, again – againandagainandagain - and Daryl just stares because doesn't he know he has said this before. How could he not know? How could they notknow?
He slips away from the conversation, from the group, and it's all so easy because he knows which way they are looking, where they are going.
For a week he continues his search in that state, dazed, slipping away each day, and it's a half-hearted thing.
Finally, the numbness gives way to frustration and he snaps.
It's the realization that he's crossed a deer trail he's seen too many times before. The realization that this, too, would be another wasted day.
"Sophia!" He shouts as he steps over a patch of mud he knows to be there, "Sophia!"
The locusts sound, rising and falling predictably and really, he's had enough.
"Where the fuck are you!" And it sounds so ridiculous but he doesn't care. There's no one around to hear him or witness him losing his fucking shit, and even if there were it's not like there was going to be a tomorrow.
He paces for a moment as he allows himself to process this breakdown and he realizes just how fucking trapped he is.
He wipes an arm across his eyes.
"This is bullshit," an understatement, he thinks, a huge one, but he continues yelling to absolutely no one, "this is fucking bullshit!"
He throws his crossbow, a low growl catching in his throat and there's a loud 'twang' as the string snaps and arrows go tumbling.
After a week of cold detachment he falls to his knees, vaguely noticing the 'squish' sound they make as they're planted into warm, stagnant mud.
"Where are you …"
He's out on his own, again. It's better this way, he realizes. They've been getting farther and farther from the area of their original search and the group becomes more suspicious with each deviation.
He realizes with belated interest that he's nearing Herschel's farm.
He's been slowly making his way towards it. If Sophia had ended up in that barn, that means she had to have been close, though he can't be sure whether it had been as a Walker or before she had been bit.
He's walking stealthily ahead, crossbow in front of him when the deer appears, just standing there, ears twitching forward and backwards.
He considers taking the animal down for a moment and then realizes there's no damn point, it wouldn't be worth the effort and he was pretty sure no one would be jumping at the opportunity to have a proper deer roast.
He shakes his head and takes a step forward, shooing it away, but the damn thing stays rooted in it's spot, ears twitching backwards again.
"Go on, git." His brow furrows in confusion.
There's a gunshot and he suddenly he's falling backwards into a siting position and then onto his back, clutching the area just above his right knee.
What the hell …
The pain ripples through his leg, radiating and terrible, and he gasps.
"Fuck, fuck –" He lifts his hands staring down at the steadily flowing crimson. A buck shot, a fucking buckshot, all shrapnel from having passed through that deer.
His leg, the side of his knee, it all looks like ground meat. Blood literally pulses from the wound.
"Sonnuva bitch –" He catches the sound of something trampling through the woods and his head snaps up, causing a horrendous wave of dizziness.
"Hello? Oh my God, is something there?" The man, the likely shooter, is cursing to himself and Daryl pushes himself back into a sitting position.
The man breaks through the foliage gasping as he surges forward in a somewhat lumbering gait.
Otis, he realizes, thisisOtis.
This is how it fucking happened? He thinks, putting two and two together. They had taken a break to look at a deer?This is how Carl got shot?
"Oh my God, I didn't see you," Otis is at his side and it's downright disturbing. He had attended this man's funeral, had listened as his family said their peace, "Jesus, let me help, I can help. What's your name? Jesus, we have to get to the farm, to Herschel."
Daryl grits his teeth and pushes the man away.
He's already light headed and suspects the man managed to nick an artery, so, he really doesn't have the time to make niceties.
"Shuddup and listen." Otis pulls back, shocked. His blood-covered hands are shaking.
"No, no, listen, I can help, okay? Just calm –"
"Otis, shut the fuck up!" If he wasn't bleeding out and having a conversation with a previously dead man, the look of absolute disbelief on Otis' face would have been amusing.
"This morning you found a Walker, a girl," Otis is shaking his head like he can barely comprehend the words coming out of his mouth, so, Daryl lurches forward, grapping his shirt, "listen to me! You found a little girl this morning –"
And Otis is nodding despite himself.
"Yeah, yes, yes, a little girl. How did you –" Daryl groans, half in frustration and half from pain. Little black spots are starting to cloud his vision and he really doesn't have time for this.
"Where'd you find her? Did you see her get bit? When did this happen?"
"I – uh – she was already turned, already sick when I found her." Right, he thinks, they thought this was an illness, just an illness. Idiots, all of 'em.
"Where was she?" Daryl holds his leg and glares at him, urging him on.
"Fuck! Where did you find her?" He yells at him when Otis just stares.
Daryl briefly wonders what the man must be thinking. Here he is, bleeding out, and instead of asking for help he is asking the man about things he has know business knowing.
He can only imagine what kind of story the man will go back to the farm with.
"Just a ways from here, the swamp – in the swamp, that's where I found her."
Daryl nods, taking the information and willing himself to fucking remember it.
The swamp, Otis found her in the swamp.
"Just hold on, Jesus Christ –" Otis manages but Daryl's not listening anymore, doesn't need to.
The swamp, remember the swamp, Otis found her in the swamp.
He's on his back again and he's vaguely aware of the pain, the pressure Otis is putting on his leg.
The swamp, he thinks.
Moments later, Daryl Dixon dies.
He wakes up with a gasp, creating such a commotion that Carol wakes up.
"Daryl? Is everything ok?" But he doesn't have time for her.
He nearly runs out of the RV, crossbow on his back. He brushes by Rick and Shane and everyone else, doesn't even answer when they call after him as he enters the woods.
Today he is going to find Sophia.
Only he doesn't. The swamp is fucking huge and it's full of Walkers.
When dusk finally arrives he finds himself walking to the farm. It doesn't take him long. He breaks the tree line and there it is, the farmhouse; the lights are all on and there's commotion in one of the rooms. He's pretty sure it's Rick that's standing with his back to the window.
But he doesn't care.
He sits and watches the barn the rest of the night.
He has covered so much land, somuch land, and he knows these woods fairly intimately now, but no matter what, he misses her, for eighty-five straight days, he misses her.
On the eighty-sixth day it finally happens –
- and it is easily the worst day yet.
He heads for the swamps again, but veers south a bit, just before the ground becomes soft and the vegetation changes.
Just as he begins his search, really gets his head on and starts planning the day, he sees her, walking through the underbrush.
And it's all so good for a minute and it would've been elating, even, but he can see it right away; she is long since been bitten.
With a weariness he hadn't ever felt in himself, he lifts his crossbow.
He puts an arrow through her skull, easy and clean, and takes her back to camp.
Carol sobs the entire night and Daryl tries to stay awake, tries to sit through the sunrise with her, but whatever 'it' is that had pulled him into this nightmare of repetition wouldn't allow it.
He passes out midsentence.
He wakes in the RV, 'I'm sorry' still fresh on his lips.
He would find her that way a few more times, unable to intercept the moment in which she had been bitten, but he never again brings her back to Carol.
When it happens for the fourth time he puts her down and buries her amongst a bed of Cherokee roses.
He doesn't know why he feels compelled to do it but it seems like the right thing to do; seems like maybe, just maybe that was the key out of this hell.
He knows better, however, and it's no surprise when he wakes up in the RV the next morning.
He thinks about killing himself once.
And it's a fleeting, dark thing.
He had never considered 'opting out' and sure wasn't pussy enough to think it would be a good idea and fuck, he thinks, this ain't about you,it'sabout Sophia.
But still, the idea briefly floats through his mind as he watches Shane cleaning his rifle, Andrea standing by, brooding, angry.
He's staring and Shane looks up, almost annoyed.
"You need something, Daryl?" Daryl huffs and now Andrea is looking at him, only her expression is softer.
He knows he seems off today.
He's tired, not physically, he always wakes up the same, never sore or suffering from injuries of the day before; it's a mental tiredness, a fatigue that has become so deeply rooted it manages to transcend the repetition of 'time.'
He's tired of this highway, of the people and their mechanical movements. He's tired of those woods and of killing the same fucking walkers. He's tired of seeing her cry.
He says something incendiary, something that pisses Shane off, a variation of a hundred other things he's said in the past few weeks.
They're both up and throwing fists and the others are trying to intervene.
He's yelling about Sophia and he knows how insane he must sound when he mentions a farm and a barn full of Walkers. They think he's lost his mind.
Rick pulls him away from Shane and he snaps, pushing the other man away,
"Y' killed her, you fuckin' killed her –"They're all standing around him like he's some kind of rabid animal and when Carol gasps he knows he's lost it.
But he doesn't care. A low growl leaves his throat and suddenly he's lunging at the two men. Everything goes black when Shane swings the butt of his shotgun into his jaw.
He awakes in the RV and swears his jaw is tingling.
He knows it's wishful thinking.
His heart is hammering in his chest when he sees her one morning, knees tucked close to her chest, her back to a tree.
He can hear her quiet sobs and it sets him into a run.
He can't believe it, he can't fucking believe it.
Relief floods every inch of his being and he's certain what he is feeling could actually be called happiness and hell, that was an emotion he had long been estranged with.
"Sophia!" He realizes she could and would never understand the desperation in his voice or the upturning of his lips.
Lord knows he's had time to mull it over some. To them it would seem he had become a completely different person over night, in fact it was becoming clear with each passing day that he was changing.
Each day he was rewarded with new, strange stares, more confused glances, countless 'are you feeling okay-s?'
But what could he do about it?
None of them would ever understand any of this and he figured that would be aggravating if he really cared.
He had stopped caring about anything but finding Sophia a long time ago.
He pushes himself forward, catching her head turning towards him, peering around the tree.
Her eyes are wet with tears and she is covered with dirt but she is human, he can see it in her eyes, in the way they're widening in pure recognition.
But the sight of him only makes her sob harder and she makes no move to stand.
"Sophia! Best be getting' back to your mama, she's been so –" The words come out rushed because shit, this is the moment he has been living for since this repetitive hell began, the moment he had to be living for …
His words die on his lips as she finally turns all the way around, reaching for him with an outstretched arm, the other clutching her doll.
Her expression is caught between pain and utter anguish, all pinched as fat tears fall without any sign of stopping.
"I want my mommy, I – I want my mom, it hurts so much – " Her neck is oozing red and the wound is fresh, so fresh that it's still pulsing.
He feels like he's been punched in the gut as she gets to her feet and stumbles toward him.
"Please, take me to my mommy, I want to go home! Daryl, I want to go home …" He's frozen and only just manages to get his muscles to cooperate again when she latches onto him.
He finds himself falling to one knee to accommodate her as she melts into him, hand grasping his shirt and head buried into his chest.
"Sophia –" It's the weakest most pathetic thing he has ever heard out of his own mouth.
"I don't want to get sick, I just want to see my mommy –" Every word is a choked sob as she gasps for air, stuttering her words; Daryl recognizes it as the kind of crying that is completely inconsolable.
He's done it himself, but only once, and that was so very long ago …
"I want to see her, take me, please …" She pulls at his shirt, too weak to do anything else because fuck, she's so pale and has lost so much blood. He knows she doesn't have much time.
"We'll go, just –" He has never been so at a loss for words in his entire life, " – just not now."
She either doesn't hear him or accepts his answer because she doesn't argue.
"Am I gonna get sick? I don't wanna be one of them, please don't let me get sick –" She looks up at him as if he has the power to change it and it breaks his fucking heart.
His chest tightens, a feeling so familiar from childhood but near exiled from adulthood.
"No, you're not gonna get sick." He hardly knows what to do with the bundle hugging his chest, so he does what he's seen Rick and Lori do, what he's seen Carol do, and rocks her the best he can, the movement awkward and foreign. "You're gonna be just fine, ya hear?"
"But it hurts and I-I don't feel good." Her voice has taken on such a high, hysterical pitch he can hardly understand her.
"You're –" He stops trying to think of what the fuck he should say. Comfort had never been his strong point. Add physical contact with that and it came as natural to him as flying.
"You're just gonna … fall asleep, okay?" It comes out slow and awkward, a clear sign of a lie made up on the spot. But she doesn't pick up on it, as young as she is. "And when ya wake up, your mama's gonna be right there, waitin' for ya."
She looks up at him again and he can't stand the way she is grimacing, he knows from experience that those bites hurt and it's just damn unfair that she has to suffer this.
"You promise?" It's so quiet, so born of pain and exhaustion that it seems absolutely grotesque coming from her mouth – she's just a fucking kid, he thinks as his throat tightens, joining his chest in their emotional betrayal.
"Yeah, kid, I promise."
He stays with her, holding her, until the sobbing stops, until she is unnaturally quiet and falls limp in his arms, her doll falling to the ground.
"I'm so sorry, Sophia."
His face feels too hot and it is with something akin to humiliation that he realizes he is crying. He can't stop it, whatever it is inside him that is churning so violently, creating waves of anguish and pain so intense it is almost a physical thing.
He puts her down with his buck knife before she has a chance to reanimate but he doesn't let her go, can't let her go.
So close, you were so fucking close.
An almost animalistic cry of rage escapes his throat but there's nothing cathartic about it.
He doesn't return to camp that night.
But he wakes up on the floor of the RV all the same.
He doesn't go back to that spot, to the swamp, for a month. He just can't.
Each morning he slips away, sometime between waking and the argument Dale and Andrea are always destined to have, and then he just walks.
He walks into the woods opposite the side Sophia ran into, crossbow on his back. Before he had always kept it at the ready, but now …
Sometimes there are Walkers, sometimes not. He even, on one strange, single occasion that has yet to repeat itself, runs into another group of people.
They're smaller in number but twice as wary.
They point their weapons at him, ask who he is, what he's doing out in the woods alone, if he's been bitten –
He wonders what would happen if he joined them. Would that sever his ties to the group, to Sophia? Would it stop this, this thing he lived in?
But, Daryl knows better.
He tells them to mind their own and never sees them again.
By his count, and he has been keeping count for some morbid reason, it's around day one hundred twenty two.
How does that feel? That treacherous voice within him whispers every morning, That little girl dies every day, alone, because you're too pussy to faceher.
Daryl is pretty certain this is what going crazy feels like, only this is worse. There's absolutely no way out, he doesn't even have control over that, his own life.
One hundred and twenty two days, one hundred and twenty two times that little girl died 'cuz o fyou. One hundred and twenty times she didn'thave to.
When he gets back on that one hundred and twenty first day, the first time he actually comes back at night in a month, everyone's there save for Andrea and the atmosphere is tense, heavy.
"Where the fuck were you, man?" Shane is on him before he has a chance to hop over the guardrail.
"Shane …" Rick's voice is thick and sorrowful; he doesn't even look up from his place at the RV, arms around Lori and Carl. The mother's eyes are rimmed red and she's shushing her son as he sobs into her shirt.
He looks around, really seeing the scene before him. Carol, too, is sniffling, arms crossed tight across her chest, as Glenn stands next to her, his own eyes red and puffy. T-Dog is nowhere in sight and Daryl remembers, for the first time in a long while, that the man had been suffering from a blood infection.
And Dale … Daryl knows shock when he sees it.
Had your head so far up your own ass, so wrapped up in fucking self pity, y' didn't even notice.
"Andreas dead. Walker got her." Shane all but spits at him before shaking his head and making his way back to the group, the blame clear in his voice.
They needed you and you've been wandering around the woods, moanin' like a little bitch.
He had spent enough time bitching about it; his little walkabout was over, for good, and it was time to actually do something.
Man. The. Fuck. Up.
For the first time in the one hundred and twenty two days he's been living this day, he starts to realize that this thing isn't a curse, isn't hell or a fucking punishment.
It is the exact opposite.
It's a fucking opportunity.
He wakes up in the RV with a plan, a God honest plan.
How it has taken him this long to figure that it might help to actually think about the situation and not just jump right in, haphazardly, he'll never really understand.
He's always considered himself a man of action, the kind who got things done, but if the last hundred and some days have proved anything, it was that he seriously needed review his methodology.
And for the first time since this all began, his head feels clear.
He steps out of the RV, confident, and makes his way to Merle's bike, going through the checklist in his head.
He grabs his stash of pills, pulling out the painkillers and Doxy, and makes his way to Dale, who is, as usual, discussing the lack of medications with Glenn.
""All these cars and no painkillers." Glenn mutters.
"Nothing at all? There's got to be some-" He doesn't get to finish.
"Painkillers and Doxycycline, and not the generic stuff." He pushes them at the man and Dale accepts them with a raised eyebrow, not bothering to hide his surprise. "Got Merle's stash."
"This is – thank you … Daryl." He gives the two stunned men a small nod and moves on.
It's a small start but it's a step in the right direction.
He doesn't sneak away anymore, doesn't need to, because as weird as it is, he's starting to understand how to talk to these people, how to talk to get through their thick skulls.
It's not that he cares; it would be a cold day in hell when Daryl Dixon starts worrying about their delicate sensibilities.
It's just easier this way, knowing the right thing to say.
He knows he needs to be patient with Rick and direct with Shane, knows that Lori responds better when he's calm, controlled. By now he knows better than to curse and yell in front of Carl, to say things that will scare the kid – there was no faster way than to insight the collective anger of the Grimes – and he knows that it only takes one word of praise, or just a single positive word thrown in Glenn's direction to get him to fold, to do what you need him to do.
He knows these things, be he doesn't care. He's not doing it because he wants to get to know them and he sure as hell doesn't do it for their sake.
Or, at least that's what he tells himself.
He knows more than how to talk to them, though, and the thought aggravates him.
He doesn't need to know these things, doesn't want to know them.
He doesn't need to know that, sometimes, when he thinks he's alone, Dale makes small, passing comments to a woman named Irma.
He doesn't need to know that Carl has a little crush on Sophia, or that (and this information was all obtained in one cringe worthy conversation between the two) Glenn's first girlfriend was Katherine Sanders and they were fourteen and she dumped him for Mike Torres.
He doesn't need to know that, like Carol, Lori is taken to fits of crying at night, though she is so quiet, you'd never really know unless you caught her, which he had.
He doesn't need to know Carol's prayer, the one she says every night, so routinely that he too knows the words.
He doesn't need to know what those almost faded scars on Shane's neck mean. He's figured it out by now, and he really doesn't need to know; it only makes being around him harder.
He doesn't need to know that sometimes Rick doesn't sleep at all because the man is trying to bear the weight of the world all by himself.
He doesn't need to know any of this because, when it you boil it down, these people ain't his kin.
Regardless, he doesn't forget any of it, not a single bit.
He's back to his nightly searches with Andrea. He doesn't know why he starts doing it again, he knows full well where Sophia is come nighttime, but there's something about her company that he might actually … enjoy.
There's no bullshit with her, not really. Yeah, she is somewhat of a buzzkill now, but he knows it gets better, knows what she's capable of.
Merle would call him a pussy, torture him over it; well, Daryl could imagine him saying, ain't you and Blondie getting' on like two old ladies, she's suregot you whipped, brother.
They walk together, aimless and without purpose, though Andrea isn't aware of that detail, and they talk, though sometimes it's no more than a word or two.
She tells him about Amy and mermaids, about purpose and life and how she just doesn't know anymore.
He learns that if he wants more he has to coax her a bit and that he has to choose his words very fucking carefully.
He learned that after the first slap to the face; and the second, third, and fourth.
She tells him stories, all sorts. Sad ones, embarrassing ones, ones about Amy, ones about her life as a lawyer; she tells him about her first impressions of him, the time Merle came onto her, the first Walker she killed …
And he tells her ones in return. He talks about his tattoos when she asks, about Merle, what he did before, a few stories from childhood; he talks about Walkers and Sophia and his first impressions of her …
It's strange, he thinks, how much he knows about her, how much they've both come to know about each other.
The only difference is, when this is all over, she won't remember a damn thing about him.
Andrea kisses him.
Daryl knows she's lost and confused and fucking depressed but still, it happens, and he does nothing to stop it.
She clings to him, arms raking, desperate as she deepens the kiss. His hands land on the small of her back and he breathes in, taking in her scent; it's intoxicating, refreshing.
Neither of them return to the RV that night.
When he wakes up the 'next' morning in the RV he tries to remember exactly what he said.
She slaps him that night, for the fifth time.
He develops a routine.
He starts the morning digging out those pills, marveling for a moment how real this all is, the pills always at the same level and always in his bag, and he gives them to Dale. The conversation devolves over time and is currently a grunt and a curt, "Painkillers and Doxy."
Daryl doesn't wait for them to say anything; he just walks away.
And back into the RV, reaching into that cabinet next to the bathroom where he knows Andrea's gun to be.
He can't let it happen again, Andrea dying, and he reckons the best way to ensure that is to let her have her fucking gun, Dale be damned.
He presses it into her hand, "You're fine, y' hear?"
When she looks at him there is nothing but gratitude and all he can think about is that kiss.
He then goes to where Rick and Shane are bent over the small arsenal of weapons, discussing the day's search, trying to plan before the others join in.
"Naw, the best way to go about it is to split up …"
It becomes more natural, his taking control of the situation, and with each passing day he manages it so fluidly that only the initial surprise amongst the others remains.
Shane questions him, sometimes, wondering what makes the hunter think he knows these damn woods so well. But ultimately, they all just seem happy, relieved, that someone seems so damn confident, so in control.
It takes a week or so, but he figures out which routes keep people from getting killed, hurt, or, as it's happened once or twice, crossing his path.
And he always splits them up, sending them off into directions where he knows they won't stumble on a herd of Walkers or Otis and his damn deer.
They split into two groups, Rick and Shane leading each. Rick's group following the creek bed south, away from Otis, and Shane's group towards the west, towards the church.
"What about you? I think we should stick together." Rick almost always says that, but Daryl has figured out how this works by now.
"'M better on my own, besides, it'll spread us out, let us cover more land," that parts for Shane because he knows the man wants this over with, knows that Shane could give a shit about his safety. The next parts for Rick, "and we don't want that little girl out after nightfall, ain't safe out there at night, for anyone, let alone Sophia."
Daryl shoulders the crossbow and it seems to be enough.
Daryl knows it works because when he comes back that night, everyone's there, safe, alive.
It takes a while to perfect. There are things he can't control. Sometimes the wrong words will set Shane off, or he'll miss a step, or lose control himself, and it will send the whole thing tumbling, but after a few solid weeks of practice, Daryl feels like he's got it down, that at least the core of the group is safe.
But still, he doesn't waste time celebrating or feeling good about what he's managed.
Sophia was still out there, but unlike before, things don't feel so damn hopeless.
He brings her Cherokee Roses again, tells her the story, sits with her when she cries, manages to not just bow out when things get uncomfortable for him.
"I'm going to find her, Carol," He says and he knows it's true, "I promise."
Day two hundred is exactly the same as the rest.
He follows the same routine, ensures the same safety measures are in place, and heads out, towards the swamp.
Only this day is different because this, this is the day he would find Sophia.
But, not like before, when she's already been bitten, not like that at all.
He sees the Walker s he's rounding the western most border of the swamp. Daryl casually lifts the crossbow, ready to kill it, swiftly and quickly, when he hears the shout.
It's decidedly feminine, young, scared, and he doesn't need to see her to know it's Sophia.
And there she is, crawling out from her hiding place in the hollow of a dead tree, on her hands and knees; the Walker is so close, within an arms length of her and before he can think, can really process the scene, he's running, shouting.
He needs to get closer to take a shot, just a little bit closer …
"Hey! You stupid, dead bastard, over here!" But it's not enough; the Walker has his sights set on Sophia.
The disgusting wretch grabs her shirt, pulling at her and he lines up the shot. It's a bit of a stretch with all the hanging vegetation and distance, the angle, but he doesn't miss, he never misses …
Its putrefied teeth are inches from her neck when his arrow finds its place in its skull, knocking it forward, on top of the crying, squealing child.
His heart is pounding so heavily in his chest he is actually light headed, but he sets himself into a run again.
Please, he begs, a testament to how badly he wants this because he's never begged in his entire fucking life, pleasebeokay.
"Sophia!" He thinks for one terrifying second that he is too late, that maybe the arrow went through the Walker and into her small frame, but at the sound of his voice she is scooting backwards, out from under the twice dead monster.
And she's crying, hysterical and babbling, but she's alive, so perfectly fucking alive.
"Daryl!" She cries out, launching herself forward into his arms.
He holds onto her as she sobs.
"It almost got me." She increases her grip around his torso and he doesn't stop her when she crawls onto his lap.
He's breathing heavily, borderline hyperventilating, but she doesn't notice. He tries to calm himself, reminds himself that she couldn't possibly understand his reaction to finding her.
"I'm sorry," she whines and he tries to hush her, "I got scared, I know Mr. Grimes told me to stay, but I got scared, thought I heard something."
She unloads her fears and he tells her it's okay, tells her that she didn't do anything wrong, that she's safe now.
She sniffs and looks up at him and he can't help but give a cursory glance at her neck, just to be sure, to prove that this is fucking happening.
"I just want to go home, can you take me to my mommy? Please?" She asks as if he might refuse and that alone is nearly enough to send him over the edge.
She would never understand …
It takes all his willpower to not say 'hell yeah', so instead he nods and swallows the lump in his throat, forcing back the moisture gathering in his eyes.
"Let's go home, Sophia." His voice cracks but he's sure she doesn't catch on.
Sophia's lips quiver and she bursts into relieved tears, arms wrapped around his neck, holding on as he stands. He slides his arms under her knees and back, repositioning her, and within seconds she is asleep.
He holds her tight and begins to run.
They wander back into camp at dusk, just when the sky is beginning to take on the same warm colors it always does, a lurid mix of oranges and reds.
He's exhausted in every manner of the word. Sophia is dead weight in his arms, no doubt drained from her ordeal, and his legs are burning from having run the majority of the 2.5 miles she had managed to walk over the course of her day spent missing.
Daryl has no idea what to expect from the others and the thought has created a nervous knot in his gut.
How do you live amongst a group of people after something like this, something so surreal and indefinable?
He couldn't hide behind the fact that they were strangers, couldn't use that as an excuse to keep his distance, his head down, because that was bullshit now. He knew more about these people than he had ever needed to know.
What the fuck was he supposed to do with all that?
Nothin', he thinks,y' keep your damn mouth shut because the only thing they're gonna see is a crazy redneck whose done one day of good deeds inhis whole life.
Those other one-hundred and ninety-nine, he tells himself, firmly, as though it would make it true, ain't never happened.
He just hopes it isn't obvious, his barely held together composure.
Sure, they're gonna think the whole thing odd, his sudden altruism, but the last thing he needs is for them to think he's turned into a complete fucking pussy overnight.
His nerves are so frayed, not willing to believe this is real, that this is finally happening because to do so when it's not … he's not sure he can wake up to today again.
Not after this.
He can hear the quiet murmurings of the group as he reaches the embankment below the highway; can hear Carol sniffling in response to Rick's quiet, "I'm sorry, Carol."
Any anxiety he was feeling momentarily vanishes and he hoists her up, jostling her gentle-like but enough to disturb her sleep.
"Sophia, wake up." She looks up at him, bleary eyed, fatigue still clear in her face, and then they're up and over the embankment, stepping over the guardrail.
"Oh my – Sophia! My Sophia!" At the sound of her mother's voice Sophia is squirming and out of Daryl's arms and they the girl collapses in her mother's arms, sending them both to the pavement, both crying tears of relief.
Daryl stares because it's all he can do. He's rooted to the spot, because damn, it's all so fucking strange, watching this while simultaneously seeing images of the barn and Carol crying on the ground in his arms. It's the same scene, but so different.
He sees Rick putting a bullet in Sophia's head and the plumes of smoke rising over the farmstead. He sees a doll in a stream and a copperhead snake, he sees Carol, broken and weak and so sad …
Only these memories are as good as dreams, nightmares, because they mean nothing, absolutely nothing.
Carol pulls him out of those terrible memories, face wet with tears as she looks at him and stands, pulling her daughter up with her.
Before he can process what she is doing, she is grabbing at his shirt, pulling him into a hug, complete with Sophia hugging his hip.
"Thank you," she whispers, clutching him with strength he didn't know she possessed, "Thank you for bringing my baby back to me."
The weight of those two-hundred days come crashing down on top of him and he squeezes his eyes shut.
"Thank you." She repeats over and over again, almost as though she knows.
He's very aware of the fact that the group is staring at him, at them, but he doesn't much care.
Daryl hugs her back.
They're quiet and careful, but the atmosphere is relaxed and jubilant.
He didn't know what he was expecting when he managed to bring Sophia back, but it wasn't this.
He hadn't expected Dale to take his watch or the way the older man gave him an approving nod and a small pat on the shoulder, or for T-Dog to thank him for the medication, something that had become so autonomous he had completely forgotten about it.
He didn't expect the sheer gratitude from Rick, the way he shook his hand for finding Sophia, for keeping her safe, for, Daryl realized, saving him from that guilt.
He didn't expect Andrea to sit up with him, or to tell the story about how he himself had been lost in the woods when he was a child. Hadn't expected to tell the entire group that story. Hadn't expected Andrea to laugh this time.
He especially didn't expect the small kiss to his cheek Sophia had given before retiring for the night. She was quick, sneaky, and had blushed something fierce before making her way back to Carol.
He didn't, hadn't, expected any of it but really, he ain't complaining.
He stays up for a while longer, until it's just him and Andrea outside the RV and Dale on top of it.
It's hard, he finds, to sit here and not bring up their previous conversations. So instead, they sit in silence until she speaks up.
"How'd you know you'd find her? You were so sure this morning, so confident …"
Daryl shrugs because the truth was all too strange.
"I knew she was out there, alone, just a kid … no one deserves that." Andrea nods, accepting it for now, but she still looks lost, hunched over and tired.
An idea strikes and Daryl knows it's a damn long shot but he figures he might as well try, figures he knows her well enough.
"I'm gonna go for a walk, clear my head." Andrea looks up and he knows he doesn't need to ask.
"I'm coming with you."
For the second time in two hundred days, she kisses him.
The door of the RV slams and Daryl startles awake.
Immediately, his stomach drops.
No, no, this ain't right, this can't be right …
It can't be because his arms are slightly sore and they feel heavy, as though he had only just relinquished her, and his eyes are tired and fuck, this can't be right ….
I found her, he thinks, because that's what this fucking was, what he was supposed to do, I found Sophia …
"Daryl?" He sits up so fast he sees stars and he's afraid to turn, afraid it's some kind of fucked hallucination, but there's Carol, standing tentatively in the RV's entranceway.
"Carol." He sounds like shit, exhausted, and he realizes that those aches and that subtle fatigue aren't imagined. He's never been so happy to feel exhausted.
"I'm sorry to bother you, I didn't know you were still sleeping," She trails off and Daryl is afraid to move, afraid to spook her, afraid that if he moves she'll just disappear, so he waits, "I can come back –"
"No!" It comes out a little too eager and he dials it back, theydon'tknow,don'tunderstand, he reminds himself, "No, it's fine."
He thinks for a moment that this is a cruel trick and the words dribble out of his mouth, hesitant.
"Sophia … is she …"
"Sleeping," Carol smiles and he realizes there are tears in her eyes again, but this time, she looks happy, happier than he's ever seen, "She had a long day. She told me, all of us, about what happened."
He gets to his feet to face her more directly and fights the treacherous weakness in his legs; this is really happening.
"How she almost got bit," Carol lifts a hand to wipe away a stray tear; it occurs to him that he's seen this woman cry enough for their entire group, one hundred times over, "how you saved her."
"Promised you I would." Two hundred times, he wants to add, but doesn't.
"I know." She says, quietly, thoughtfully. "You're every bit as good as them, you know, Rick and Shane."
Daryl does his best not to show his surprise because that was something from another time, another world, he thinks. But still, he can't stop the small quirk of his lip, drifting up into a small smile.
She wipes at her face again and takes a deep breath before reaching for his hand, gentle, as not to take him by surprise.
"Come on, let's get you something to eat before we head out."
She pulls him towards the door and he steps out into the new day.