Rick can’t figure out Daryl’s age: it looks like the younger Dixon brother was living under three inches of grime even before the damn apocalypse hit – it’s pigmented into his skin, fine lines where he’s squinted against the sun - his face is both old and young. At a guess, Rick would say either side of thirty but then again – mentally - he don’t seem any more mature than Carl. Hot-headed and surly as a teenager, setting his tent up further away from the camp, hiding out in his ‘bedroom’ like a sulky shit while the adults convene. It’s how Rick tends to view him in those first few months. A hoodlum tough – the redneck variety.
Rick’s seen plenty enough of the type, and the truth is, he doesn’t have the time or inclination to see more. He leaves Dixon to find his own true self. If Daryl needs to figure out who he is without Merle defining his every step, well and good, but Rick doesn’t want any part of it. Rick’s already drawn his gun twice on the other man, scuffed up the dust as he and Shane took him down, felt Daryl struggle against him, sweaty and dirt-streaked, slippery as an eel. He’s too unpredictable, he turns on his own kind with a knife or crossbow raised, and Rick feels if he draws his weapon for a third time then it will be the end. He won’t hesitate to shoot – say what you will – but Rick’s a man of conviction.
(((except Daryl lowers his eyes, lets his weapon drop - he backs down every time Rick stands against him, shifting the weight onto the balls of his feet or swaying like a rattlesnake - if Shane were here, he’d goad Daryl, say the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time, turn that submissiveness into anger, fire him up with a good doggy joke. Rick says nothing of the sort but keeps his gun held steady - a promise plain as the steel of his barrel - I will kill you if you don’t back down)))
Except there’s so few humans left.
Rick avoids the potential outcome, he seeks out Shane’s council or shoots the breeze with Glenn, he’ll curl himself around Lori at night, and spend a few precious moments with Carl at dawn. He’ll sit on top of the RV with Dale, shaded under the umbrella, his community spread out below. Rick’s tense, intense – your head’s too busy, Shane would complain - Rick’s tense and in this new-world order he’s ready to put down any stray Walker who wanders onto their path, or any rabid dog found in their own midst. He knew Merle’s sort. Rick’s attended thousands of domestic disputes when the law governed. He knows the Dixon’s intimately, can imagine their Pa, morality, fights, their rattlesnake quickness. On the periphery of his vision, he keeps Daryl in sight at all times.
If there’s a pre-existing threat to this gaggle of survivors, then the danger will come from that quarter.
The first time Daryl met the law he was four years old, sprawled in front of the cartoon network in dirty underwear and a singlet that was three sizes too big. The police took the door right off it’s hinges with a battering ram, came inside with shotguns raised, hollering like banshees. They ransacked the place, turned the couch over, they stripped the mattresses, smashed a few plates, they dragged all the cupboards out into the yard and upturned them in front of the neighbours. They tipped the TV over carelessly, an old black and white behemoth that didn’t smash on impact but sparked dangerously, and finally, they dragged his Pa away after shattering his tibia with their rifle butts. He fought every step of the way, hollering loudly as any policeman. Daryl doesn’t recall them ever saying a word to him. Men in black helmets and ski masks and combat boots with SWAT in block printing. The detectives who came in later offered his brother a cigarette while they waited for his mom to arrive. Merle bummed a few drags then handed it over to Daryl so he could try it, too.
Afterward, when everyone left and the shouting stopped, Merle fixed the door as best he could, which basically meant propping it upright against the doorframe and hoping like shit nobody would knock too hard. Instead of watching TV that summer – or any other summer for that matter - Daryl read comic books; X-men, Avengers, Hawkeye. They were dirt poor his family but Merle brought them home once a week, glossy covers, pristine pages filled with costumes that were gay as fuck; until one day, the police came looking for Merle, too. Turns out, comic books wasn’t the only thing Merle was stealing.
Daryl knew they were different. It’s the type of knowledge that creeps in, the way people would stare at them on the street like they were a carnie freak-show, or lower their voices to a whisper when they walked by. How the kids in the neighbourhood would sometimes let him play - and other times, they’d haul ass on their BMX bikes - leave Daryl standing in the dust, chasing after them on foot. They would role-play and they would fight, and when it was time to play Cowboys and Indians, Daryl always knew which side he was on. He chose the losing side, each and every time. Indian, he’d say, and he’d hunt them down, eyes glittering, feet silent in the brush. I’m the Indian.
Yeah, they’d agree, smirking. You're the loser.
Ain’t no escaping history.
He’s known the law since he was four and Daryl knows those cowboys always rode in with judgement shining in their eyes. None of them are worth a damn. They don’t hold a candle to his brother, to his blood; they handcuffed Merle to a rooftop and left him to be eaten alive – and Daryl feels his bones shift, his teeth grate – impotent vengeance singing in his blood.
(((they chained the door; they volunteered to go back, after barely escaping with their own lives. Rick volunteered to go back with him, and the others followed suit)))
Daryl will stare up at the stars, so brilliant now that civilisation has faded, and feel the group skirt around him, nervy and a little distrustful. Good, he’ll think, viciously, and imagines what it would have been like if he’d planted that arrow in T-Dog's skull, the way he had wanted to. It ain’t much different - this new world - and even though him and Rick barely tangled he can feel the law's regard, zeroed in on the back of his skull, watching, waiting.
Rick would pull the trigger, Daryl doesn’t doubt the man’s conviction, he can see it in his level stare, hear it in the even temperament of his voice when they stood on that rooftop, Rick won’t hesitate if it came down to it. Daryl knows he’s not the type of person the community would send a search party out for – heck, Daryl’s known it since he was nine years old when his own daddy couldn't be bothered – they’d leave him behind like so much trash, as easily as they left Merle.
((except they went back for his brother, they tried, and that’s got to count for something, right? The act of trying?))
Him and Merle waited too long to rob these people blind, and now his brother is missing, there’s a new Sherriff in town, replacing Shane, both of them fucking, loving, the same damn woman. Daryl could smell it on Shane and Lori - even if he were blind to their furtive looks and casual strolls into the woods, boning each other and foolishly thinking nobody knew - Daryl had the police sussed out, tracking Shane's movements in prep for the robbery. Shane was more concerned with getting some than camp security. Him and Merle had the place marked as easy prey until Rick arrived and everything went to shit, and now Daryl’s stuck, held in check by something he can’t reckon.
He can see Rick’s profile, stark against the evening light, the shadow of his hat, the metal strapped to his thigh, how he meets Daryl head-on every time he steps out of line.
He doesn’t need the group, Daryl can survive alone, hunt alone, he doesn’t need to be mired in other people’s company. But he doesn’t leave either - and honestly – he has no idea why. Shane laughs in the middle distance, squatting beside Carl as they talk, their heads bent close together. There’s the dull glint of metal pinned to the boy’s shirt, Shane’s badge, the mark of an honorary deputy bestowed on the kid, and Carl’s face glows with childish pride. Brother, Rick and Shane call each other, they’ve known each other since they were kids, and with the stretches Merle has done in juvie, prison, the army, Shane and Rick have spent more time together than Daryl spent with his own kin. You’re my brother, they say, as if its easy.
Daryl lies back down, watching Sophia as she plays on her own, and doesn’t leave.
I was looking out for them, is all, Shane says. He pushes into Lori’s space when he thinks nobody’s looking, body aligned, his hand spread over the width of her shoulder-blade, body curved toward her like a question mark. He told me to run, that he would lay down cover-fire, Shane says, and all the while he holds Otis’ gun, the only gun Otis had. Daryl never completed high school but he ain’t an idiot, and there’s no way Otis can cover Shane - die nobly and heroically like Shane said - when Otis doesn't have a weapon to defend with. What was he doing then, biting the Walkers back? Shane’s full of shit and if Rick can’t see it then it’s because Rick’s choosing not to see it. It ain’t Daryl’s business – they can squabble for leadership, for the love of a woman all they want - at this stage Daryl’s only in it for Sophia, to make sure someone tries to find that stupid girl – that she’s not written off - lost in the woods like an invisible ghost.
Because Carl’s shooting took precedence over everything else, and with the relocation, the shuffle, the struggle to get Hershel to accept them en masse, Sophia got lost, fell down the ladder of importance.
He tells Carol about the Cherokee Rose. He goes out into the woods every day, and he promises himself he’ll find her, that they won’t lose this girl with the asshole daddy and with the mother who had been battered blue. He goes out every day because he can see the effect on Carol – what losing Sophia has done to her – the way she cries, muffled into her pillowcase and it makes him…uneasy. Startled, maybe, to come face to face with that kind of love. He can’t look away from Carol’s grief and he can’t stand to be in its presence. He makes a bet with himself. He’ll find Sophia, while all these ass-wipes run through their daytime soaps and drama, and Daryl thinks when he finds her, lost in the woods, it might be like finding himself.
Nine years old and no one giving a damn, Merle gone in juvie and his dad on another bender.
It’s the only thing Daryl wants. Just this once. To come out ahead, to prove he’s worth something, what little skills he has brought to bear and proven useful. He wants that little girl to know how much she was loved – and Sophia would know it, she would have to know it – written plain as writing on Carol’s face. She wouldn’t return to indifference, to her father’s belt and cigarette burns on her thighs, he thinks that might be worth it, to see the knowledge settle into Sophia's eyes.
He finds her alright – but Daryl cast himself in the role of the Indian (the loser) a long time ago – the Cherokee Rose is the only memento that decorates Sophia’s grave, delicate white petals stained like china bone, left behind on the trail like so many other children in the past, falling rotten and lost. Nobody rescued her. Nobody found her in the woods, nobody brought her back safe and sound. Whole.
Yeah you're an awesome tracker, Shane bites out. Bringing us back dolls to play with and her in the barn the entire time.
She didn’t even try to rescue herself, Carol will say, voice strained with agony, tears. Her fingers catch in his vest, tug at the material and he thinks, for a minute, she’s trying to tell him something. He shrugs her off. He stalks away. He should have done that months ago, taken his brother’s bike and ghosted. You did more for that little girl than her own daddy did, Carol implores.
It was Rick who shot Sophia, one clean bullet to the forehead.
He did it when everyone else was incapable, frozen in horror, the silence heavy after the hail of bullets that preceded it. It should have been Shane is the first thing Daryl thinks, he started it, forced it on everyone else when he broke the bolts and chain that secured the barn. Shane with his bluster, with his hollering; busting down doors like the lawmen of Daryl’s past. If Shane was keen enough to start it then he should have been keen enough to end it, except he froze like every other member, turned his face away from Sophia, and it was up to Rick to kill that little girl while Carol wept in the dirt. He manned up and did what was necessary, gun-hand steady, and the expression on Rick’s face was terrible. It’s the first time Daryl really looks at him – and sees something other than a badge.
It’s barely forty-eight hours later when Rick finds himself in the same position, standing over a member of his community with his gun drawn and heavy. Except this time it’s not an eleven-year-old girl, limbs thin as a rail, it’s Dale and his eyes are wild in the dark, entirely human.
The air is rank. Carl is crying, everyone seems to be crying. Dale is wordless, pitiful sounds low as an animal escape him, his singlet black with blood. Rick’s sways unsteadily before Daryl puts a hand on his wrist and forces Rick’s aim down. “I got it.” He blinks, feels his knees almost give, and watches as Daryl takes the weight off him. “Sorry, brother,” Daryl murmurs, his voice low, and looks Dale square in the eye.
Rick thought he knew the meaning of the word, granted, he never had siblings, but he grew up with Shane practically from the cradle, except his brother’s teeth have been at his throat and Rick feels shredded.
Dale is still himself; it’s not like killing Sophia, who was a shell, nothing but a Walker, there's stark terror and a whole world of pain. Daryl does the act for him, and he’s grateful, almost as grateful as Dale is. He doesn’t place the added weight on Rick, or make him carry the burden alone. Mercifully, he’s quick.
Shane and him were always competitive - as kids, as teenagers in high school, as police out of high school - in polite society it was good natured fun, in the new world order, it feels like he’s pitted against a man who knows his every move. Who doesn’t joke but sneers and calls him weak, who says to Rick’s face that he’s a better father and a better husband than Rick could ever hope to be. Rick thought he knew where the threat would come from – first impressions sealed it – how he and Shane took Daryl down together that very first day, working in tandem like so many other arrests. Daryl was lethal, both with his crossbow and with his knife, an expert tracker and damn near silent on his feet. He kept that boy on the edge of his vision at all times, except the threat didn’t come from Daryl, it came from Rick’s blind spot, his right-hand man. Shane, Shane.
It’s easy to make the overture the following day, to take the time to thank him. Daryl sways like a rattlesnake, can’t keep his feet still, but Rick knows it for what it is now, fight or flight, sees how he finches when people draw close unexpectedly. There’s surprise when Ricks offer his hand-shake, then grudgingly, Daryl says: “Can’t let you do all the heavy lifting.”
Daryl doesn’t know how to be a leader, he doesn’t want the added responsibility, he’d never challenge the person in charge. He knows how to look after himself - and if he was ever pissed, he’d leave without a word said - but he’d never stab anyone in the back. It occurs to Rick, belatedly, that he’s trying to figure out how he fits into the group, and it occurs to him, belatedly, that a dangerous man who doesn’t care to lead, is the best type of person to have on his side.
Shane stares at him disbelievingly. You want Daryl as your wing-man? It’s an easy question, stated with desultory arrogance. Rick looks over his shoulder to where Daryl is standing by the porch step, and thinks it has an even easier answer.
THIRD’S A CHARM
When Daryl doesn’t come out of Woodbury with the rest of the group, they go back for him. That was never in question. Rick won’t leave his people behind. Daryl’s proven his worth a thousand times, kept them alive during the winter months when food was lean and has been Rick’s rock, his right-hand, since the moment Shane tried to kill him, since Lori died. He’s not negotiable. They’d raid that town, go house by house, break down every door if necessary. They go back because Daryl’s his – his people, his man - and Rick’s not in the habit of letting things go.
(Lori knew that, she took it to her grave. Shane knew it, too)
They don’t talk much, but when they do it’s plain. I need you, Rick whispers and catches the way Daryl’s eyes widen, the way he swallows convulsively, like the words have never been directed at him before. Rick watches, sharp and satisfied, as Daryl backs down and nods. In the seven months between the farm being over-run and arriving at the prison, Daryl saved his life countless times. Rick knows the true meaning of brotherhood now – he just never counted on Merle coming out of Woodbury with Daryl at his side – he never counted on Daryl’s loyalty being divided.
And when he made the ultimatum, as steady and firm as he knew how – Daryl can come to the prison, but not his brother – he never thought Daryl would challenge him, oh, he argued all right, but he doesn’t challenge, and in the end, he doesn’t accept Rick’s terms or back down either. He walks into the woods instead, crossbow over his shoulder, knapsack in hand, and leaves without any hint of bitterness, without a shred of blame. He chooses his kin over Rick, and Rick’s centre - the steady rock that kept him balanced - disintegrates.
They never talked much, but when they do, it’s plain. I need you, Rick had revealed, and not a word of it was a lie. He doesn’t play head-games with Daryl, he’s honest, and Rick always has been. He can’t breathe inside the prison, the walls are dark, the shadows take on a life of their own. It’s panic, he thinks, or it's exhaustion, it’s a war brewing on the horizon and it’s his brother, gone from him. He closes his ears to the voices that call his name, and follows her soft lullaby, he walks outside, waits by the fence-line, stalks the perimeter in a silent vigil.
He’s waiting for something - a sign - his vision, his Lori, had said.
“They’re all going to die,” Merle reveals. "Getting out of the way is the smartest thing we've ever done."
They came back for him, it takes a while for Daryl to actually realise it – for it to sink in - he’s never been worth much to anyone before but they came back, out-matched and out-gunned, to save his hide. Daryl can’t leave Merle, Merle’s kin, but Rick is something else altogether. He’s a brother, wounded, and he has enough bruises to match Daryl’s own scars. He’s battered into something recognisable, and Daryl finds himself thinking about the words he said, the hand that gripped his forearm so desperately. We started something, you and I.
He always knew which side he would fall on, which side he would die on. He knows his place now, where he belongs, and he doesn’t define himself by his brother. Or by his brother. He saves the family on the bridge because it’s the right thing to do – and he goes back for Rick – because Rick needs people - he needs Daryl - and sometimes, Rick needs to be reminded of who he was and who he is. He goes back, with Merle in tow, because in the end, it’s the right thing to do.
It’s an army against a few and Merle's right – history doesn’t take kindly to those odds - but Daryl always knew he was an Indian.