Sometimes, Daryl wondered what might've happened if he'd met the Summers sisters back in Atlanta, or if they'd have stumbled across the group while they were set up on Hershel's farm. Back when they'd all had more folk to hold onto. Back when they'd all still believed it might someday be over.
Buffy might weigh in at ninety-eight pounds soaking wet, but she packed more punch than anyone else in the group. And Dawn had a mouth on her, for all she mostly sat apart with those journals of hers. He'd have loved to see what Merle would've made of them-- or more accurately, maybe, what they would have left of Merle. Or Shane, or Ed; neither one suffered fools. They'd have been good company for Andrea and Carol... and maybe it would have eased them some, too. Buffy was more closed off than Rick a lot of the time, and Dawn didn't hardly let nobody but her sister touch her.
Maybe they'd been that way before spending half a year fighting the zombie apocalypse alone. Or... he might could've met Buffy when she still knew how to enjoy the moments between the battles.
...'Course, she probably wouldn't have let Daryl within arm's length of her, then. He'd been walking in Merle's shadow all his life, and never bothered to keep a rein on his tongue nor his temper 'til after he had to go it alone awhile. It had taken some time to get used to the idea of other peoples' lives mattering to him-- and of him, actually mattering to other people.
He took another step along the path, absently searching out the next spot to place his foot to minimize noise while visions of a tiny, feminine warrior administered a beat down in his thoughts. He had a feeling she'd have straightened his shit out quicker than the end of the world had-- but she probably wouldn't have given him the time of day, elsewise. Which would've been a shame; she was real pretty when she remembered how to smile.
A twig cracked somewhere in front of him, and the voice of his patrol partner carried back to him, muted almost to a whisper. "Earth to Daryl? I hope you enjoyed your vacation to la-la land, 'cause we've got company."
"Shit." He shook off the daydream and hurried to Buffy's side, absently resting a callused hand on her shoulder as they peered around a wide tree trunk. A groaning, slow-shambling herd was moving through a shallow gulley on the other side, blocking them off from the straight route back to camp. If the geeks had been all bunched up together, it might not have been a problem to dodge 'em-- but the way they were all strung out was usually a sign there were a lot more coming. "I count, what, fifteen of 'em?"
She nodded, shoulder shifting under his hand, shifting her own crossbow to a ready position-- one of the smaller types, with maybe half the range of his but effective enough at the distances they usually fought. "We might be able to break through before the rest of the herd arrives, but we still won't be able to get to camp; we'll end up having to lead them off somewhere. There's no way we'll make it across without being seen."
Daryl frowned, eyeing the slope of the ground on the far side of the gulley and the width of the gaps between the trees. "Fresh-lookin' bunch like these, they usually move pretty fast. I dunno. Think we can maybe go around, get in front of 'em?"
He nocked an arrow as he spoke, then wedged another between his teeth. Two shots would probably be all he would get; with only the two of 'em, he'd have to go hand to hand after that. At least they both had bladed weapons on 'em; it could've been worse. The herd could've found 'em while they were in the stream. The group always washed in pairs these days-- for the buddy system; no one in their right mind tempted fate any other way, not even Maggie and Glenn, who went at it like bunnies every time they found a few minutes someplace secure-- but he'd defy anyone to fight off a mob of walkers that size in their birthday suit.
Buffy contemplated that a moment, then shook her head. "We were down that way yesterday, remember? The gulley's steeper, and the brush is pretty thick. It'd take too long; they might find the camp by the time we get around them."
Daryl had wondered a time or two if the herd that'd run them off the farm would've found 'em if not for that lone gunshot beforehand. Probably, though. In a group their size, odds were some unexpected noise would draw the geeks eventually if they were anywhere within earshot. And from what he remembered of the terrain, they were definitely in earshot, if the noise was loud enough.
He grunted around the arrow. "Fair point. All right, then. On my go?"
Buffy gave him a wry look, then checked to make sure the handle of her shiny axe-thing was loose in its sheath at her hip, raised her crossbow to eye level, and stepped out from behind the tree. She looked kind of like a pixie, in snug worn shorts with a pale green sleeveless tee and her golden hair cut short like a halo, but her green eyes were sharp and dangerous. He didn't know what she'd done before she'd come to them, but he surely knew a predator when he saw one.
"Ready or not...." she said in a sing-song tone of voice, smirking as the nearest walker moaned in greeting.
Daryl rolled his eyes and stepped out on the other side of the tree. A second later, the nearest two geeks each sprouted a feathered shaft through one eye, collapsing where they stood-- as ten more suddenly slowed their pace, heads tracking in the direction of the intruders.
"Bring it," he replied, plucking his second arrow out of his mouth to reload.
Buffy was quicker, though; the woman had unbelievable reflexes. She reloaded and fired her second bolt while the geeks' momentum was still carrying them forward, piercing the nearest one through the temple. Daryl was still re-cocking his bow while Buffy finished her shot; her baby bow was back on the other side of her belt and her axe sweeping up to slice a snarling head before his finger had even finished pulling the trigger. He used that shot to nail another geek coming up beside her through the back of its open mouth, then stooped to snag his first arrow from the downed walker's eye.
He took down the sixth geek with the head of that arrow, punching straight into the brainstem, then jumped back out of the way of a lunger, leaning back to let Buffy's blade whistle by overhead. The top of the seventh geek's head came clean off, exposing its rotting insides; he gagged a little as black blood and brain matter splattered on his jeans, then stuffed the arrow in his quiver and drew his long knife off-handed.
"Not so fast, bite boys," Buffy snarked as she shook hair and bone off her weapon and swung back into motion. "If anyone here's going to get their teeth into Daryl, it won't be one of you."
Daryl snorted, a grin curving his mouth as he stowed his crossbow and followed, carefully staying just out of the arc of her swing.
Buffy had become a focused whirlwind of destruction, gore streaking her limbs as she dodged and struck one walker after another. He managed to retrieve his second arrow and both of hers, stabbing another couple through the eye with his knife as they scrambled down the near side of the gulley and up the other; then the leading element turned around and started coming for 'em, and the geeks at the back of the pack crowded forward en masse.
It took him a moment to realize there were fewer than he'd expected, though; there weren't any new ones coming into the gulley out of the trees. Daryl stabbed another walker in the eye as he scanned that direction to make sure, then stumbled as the knife got caught in a decaying cheekbone. He yanked at it, futilely; then a small heel in a worn hiking boot flashed by, kicking the geek square in the chest. The release of tension sent both geek and Daryl sprawling to the ground, and he hastily rolled out of the way, scrabbling through the loam to reclaim his fallen blade while the battle continued overhead.
Buffy looked like a goddess in motion from that perspective, one of those old-timey ones that showed up in the history books he'd barely read in school. He'd seen a picture of one of 'em wearing a tight-wrapped, sleeveless dress cut off above the knee, a quiver of arrows on her back and a buck crouched under her hand; he could see why folk would worship a woman like that. Even with scars visible on her neck and gore streaked across her face to mar her otherwise perfect skin, Buffy was a vision such as a man like him should never aspire to.
Good thing, then, that Daryl Dixon's definition of should had never been the same as most folks'.
He got slowly to his feet as she slew the last of the walkers coming at 'em, then stilled as she swept her gaze up and down the gulley, checking for more. He knew her hearing was sharper than his... just like he knew that the next few minutes, while her blood was still up, were practically the only time her defenses were down. They'd been doing the flirtation thing for awhile now, but she tended to back away when he showed her any real tenderness; he wasn't sure what it would take to convince her he was serious, but 'til then he'd just keep doing what he was doing, taking it one fight at a time.
Buffy didn't ever talk about her past, much. She'd told him, kind of jokingly the first time their eyes had met over their respective weapons, that she didn't fall in love anymore-- but that she'd be happy to show his crossbow a good time. He figured her heart had been broke bad, at some point. But whose hadn't, these days? They had to live sometime, or what was the point of surviving at all?
"Was that really all of them?" she said warily, absently scrubbing the mess off her blade with the hem of her filthy shirt as she eyed the windrow of fallen corpses. "I thought for sure there would be more."
"Maybe they're local," he shrugged. "Didn't have time to hook up with one of the bigger herds. Good thing for us."
"Good thing," she shook her head. Then she looked down at herself. "Ugh. And we just bathed, too. I don't suppose we could head back to the stream?"
He grinned at the dismayed look on her face. "Nah. Think we're just gonna have to stink it out for now; we better tell the others what happened. You never know. Maybe the next place we stop will still have running water."
"Yeah, and maybe we'll find a cache of chocolate bars. Or god, even Twinkies." She groaned, sliding the axe back into its sheath and scraping the back of a grimy hand over the worst of the mess on her face.
He wiped his knife clean on his jeans, then put down the crossbow for a moment and stripped out of his shirt, making a slow, stretching game of it. He caught her darting a quick look at his tattoos; she had to've seen them while they were scrubbing down, but there was a world of difference between stolen peeks and this kind of deliberate show. He grinned at her, then reached up to frame her chin with one hand. "Here, let me."
Buffy stared at him wide-eyed while he brushed the shirt over her forehead, wiping dark fluid off suntanned skin. Her pulse beat visibly in the hollow of her throat, and she swayed a bit; just enough to let Daryl know he'd got through.
He leaned in slow enough to give her plenty of warning, then pressed his lips softly to hers, just a bare brush of skin against skin. She met him there for a moment, sharing breaths; then pulled back abruptly, recollecting herself.
"Ah, I think that's good? Rick and Glenn brought several buckets back this morning; I can trade sponge baths with Lori."
"Let me know when so I can watch," he replied, teasingly. Then he strung the threadbare shirt through a belt loop and stepped back, retrieving the crossbow.
Buffy actually blushed at that, and her eyes stayed on him as he moved; she let him take point without any arguing.
She always turned away, but it took her longer and longer to do it, every time. One of these days, she'd stop running. And when she did, he'd be there, waiting.