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You'll Never See The End of the Road (While You're Traveling With Me)

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Prologue

It's been weeks since they left the farm, weeks since Rick stood by the side of the road and told them that they're all infected. Threw that bombshell in their faces and then another and then another, left them all reeling with the shock of it all.

Daryl turns on his side, restless even though he knows T's on watch. The nights are turning colder, the wind snaking down through the cracks in the plaster, and he tells himself that's why he shivers, why he tugs his jacket tighter around his middle. Nothing to do with the increased presence of the walkers, with knowing that this is the last night that they dare spend in the run-down appliance store where they've been holed up for the past week. The thought of the geeks breaking through their barricaded windows has his entire body taut, his ears straining for the telltale sound of their moans, the rustle of shuffling feet through the long grass. But he hears only the wind, the creak of the roof as T-Dog paces back and forth.

Daryl forces his shoulders to relax, glances over at the window. By the thin slice of moonlight that penetrates through the boards, he figures that T has another hour to go. Then he'll be relieved by Maggie. Four hours tops until the rest of the group rises, gathers what meager possessions they've managed to salvage. Hits the road in search of some place easier to defend; more remote, with stronger walls and better sight lines. Some place that probably doesn't exist, except in Rick's imagination.

He should sleep.

But thinking of Maggie leads directly to thinking about Glenn. And once his mind goes there, he's never sure whether to shut it down completely or just let himself dream. He tells himself that thinking about the kid can't hurt; that in a world where he's got nothing and no one, indulging in a little late-night fantasy isn't so bad. But then he wakes up to a new day, to Glenn holding Maggie's hand, to Maggie leaning her head on Glenn's shoulder, and the loss punches through his gut, takes the wind out of him, even though he never really had Glenn to lose at all.

Daryl scowls, flops over onto his back and shields his eyes with his forearm. Four hours. He can get through four hours.

When the sun first shines through the cracks in the boarded windows, he's still awake. Still alone.

 

I – Storage Lockers

The office area was cramped and grungy before the end of the world, is now even more so with ten people crowded practically shoulder to shoulder into the space. The room reeks of unwashed bodies, of personal hygiene long neglected. It's been a while since they found a place with running water, and the bottled stuff is too precious to waste on scrubbing away the dirt and grime of weeks on the road. It's gotten to the point where most of them don't even notice the smell anymore, same way they don't notice the ever-present stench of the walking dead.

Daryl shifts at his place at the window, scans past the debris-strewn concrete to the fence surrounding the yard. They'd piled the detritus of the storage lockers against it, hoping for some added stability. Old sofas and mismatched particle board tables are crammed next to heirloom pieces that would've fetched thousands back before the world went to shit.

He edges a little closer to the glass, ducks his head to peer through the dirty window. Seeing past all the crap they've piled up can be a pain in the ass, but he's almost certain the crowd of walkers on the other side of the fence is getting larger. More aggressive, too – snarling and snapping at the frost wire, the weight of their combined bodies making the fence rattle and shake.

"I'm not even sure where it is," Carol says from behind him. "I don't even know if I could find it!"

Daryl lets the slats of the blinds fall back into place, turns at the fretful tones of Carol's voice.

"Go through it again, one more time," Rick says, crouching down in front of her, showing a lot more patience than Daryl would have been able to muster under the circumstances. "Start from the beginning."

Carol twists her hands together. Glances once at Lori, who rubs absently at her stomach and nods back encouragingly.

"It was one of those survival camps," she says. "Up in the hills. The kind where men go and pretend there's been a nuclear war or some kind of natural disaster and they're the last ones standing. Ed used to go there sometimes, on the weekends. I think all he really did there was drink beer and get into trouble with his… his cronies."

"And he was taking you there when you got caught in the traffic jam outside Atlanta," Rick prompts.

Carol shakes her head, looks down at her fingers twining over and over. "He wanted to. He said we'd be safe there. But I have… had… family in Atlanta. A cousin. We weren't close, but I convinced Ed that we should try to get to her. I really just didn't want to be alone with… with the kind of men that Ed associated with on those weekends. I didn't trust them. I wasn't sure I trusted them with my little girl."

When she raises her head to meet his eyes, Daryl swallows and looks away.

It's not like he doesn't know what it's like to get beaten down day after day, reminded that you're worthless even when you're doing your damn best. He respects the hell out of the woman for rising above her circumstances once the piece of shit she married got taken out. But he doesn't need reminders of Ed, reminders of just what kind of asshole that man was.

He saw the way Ed looked at Sophia. He knows it wasn't just the other men at the camp that Carol feared.

He pushes memories of the little girl aside, concentrates on the here and now. His gaze flits past T-Dog, leaning against the wall; past Carl and Beth, sitting on the counter and swinging their legs back and forth in unsuspected rhythm. Comes to rest on Glenn, perched on one of the rickety grey folding chairs, leaning forward with his hands clasped between his knees, his own gaze intent on Carol and Rick.

His eyes narrow, taking in the way Glenn's shirt hangs loosely on his thin frame, the dark circles under his eyes. Glenn's been looking haggard of late, more than to be expected from the stress of living life on the run. Hasn't been spending as much time with Maggie, either, but the two of them have been running hot and cold since they first met. Probably just in the midst of another one of their fights. They ought to be thankful that this time she doesn't have any eggs to waste by busting them on the kid's head.

He huffs out a breath, deliberately doesn't look at Maggie. Seeing her just serves to remind him of what he doesn't have, and that she's wasting a hell of a lot more than eggs, and all the things he'd do if Glenn was his. And that line of thinking only leads to more of them, images that aren't never gonna come true, until they're all swirling around in his brain and there's no way to turn them off.

"You passed the turn-off on the way, though?" Lori asks, and Daryl drags his eyes away from Glenn, turns his attention back to the discussion.

Carol's still watching him, but her eyes flick over to Lori when the other woman speaks.

"Yes," she answers. "Ed said that it led to an old logging road."

"Okay," Rick says. "That's good."

"But I'm not sure where!" Carol cries. She smoothes her palms on her trousers before her fingers return to twitching together in her lap. "I can't lead you there! I don't want that responsibility, Rick. What if I get us lost, what if I lead us right into another herd of walkers, what if—"

"Ain't no point in worrying about what ifs," T-Dog says. "Supplies are running low here. We gotta move somewhere else."

"But—"

"No one's expecting you to be superwoman," Lori says. "And if you can't find it, no one's going to hold you accountable, Carol. Just do your best."

"If there's even a shot of finding that camp, we've gotta take it," Maggie puts in.

When Hershel's arm comes to rest on her shoulder, Carol nods reluctantly.

"Something else we gotta think about, "T-Dog adds, straightening. "We even gonna consider what happens if we get there and they don't let us in?"

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Rick answers.

When the conversation devolves into chatter about timeframes and best routes, Daryl gestures toward the long narrow corridor that leads to the inner storage lockers, waits until Rick follows him into the dim stillness. "What do you think?" he asks.

Rick scrubs a hand over the greying stubble on his chin, and Daryl is struck anew at how much older the man has grown to look over the past few months, since the fall of the Greene farm. "I don't know," Rick answers. "She's hazy on the particulars. I don't know if she'll be able to lead us there."

"Whether she can or she can't, we got to shit or get off the pot," he says. "We got more geeks gatherin' at the gate every day, and them fences ain't gonna hold."

"You know this area pretty well. Do you know the logging road she's talking about?"

Daryl sniffs. He's not going to deny that it's nice knowing that his skills are valued – that he is valued -- but sometimes Rick gives him credit for knowing a lot more than he actually does. "Hell, there's dozens of old logging rods crisscrossing through the back country. Game trails and private drives, too. Could be any of 'em."

"Shit," Rick murmurs.

"Whatever happens, we gotta lay in more supplies before we get too far away from civilization. What we got ain't gonna last more than a couple of days at the outmost. Once we're out in the woods, we ain't gonna be able to just stroll out and hit a 7-Eleven."

"Not that there's any more stores to hit," Rick says.

Daryl leans against the dirty wall, his own hand travelling to his scrubby beard, considering. They'd had to venture further afield than ever before on the last supply run, and then only to find a Walgreens with an old Subaru crashed through the oversized plate glass. Most of the stock inside had been picked over, the rest destroyed when previous winds and rain had lashed through the shattered window. Daryl had cursed the driver of the damn car profusely before putting an arrow through his rotted skull.

They'd been subsisting mostly on vending machine food since then, augmented only by what little game – usually squirrels – he could find in the near vicinity. The lack of proper nutrition is getting to them all. Daryl knows that sometimes he loses his focus; is more quick to snap at someone instead of just biting his tongue and letting the irritation flow off his back. He doesn't even want to think about what it's like for Lori, trying to get by on stale Doritos and warm Snapple with a baby growing inside her.

When he meets Rick's eyes, he knows his friend's mind has also turned to Lori. Turned inward, unfocused.

Daryl figures he'll probably never know what really happened in that field with Shane. But he knows what Lori was doing with the man before Rick showed up at the quarry. And he might not have been all that great in arithmetic at school but he can sure as hell count back from the time Lori announced her pregnancy and figure out that the numbers sure as fuck don't add up in Rick's favour.

Not that there's a goddamn thing they can do about that now. Lori's having a baby, and she needs proper food. Her and the rest of his people.

"We could send out a small crew," he starts.

Rick glances up, and Daryl swears he can actually see it when the man comes back to himself. Takes charge. Becomes their leader once again.

"Tomorrow," Rick says. "You, Glenn, and T. If you go over the back fence you should be able to make it through without attracting too many walkers, then circle around and grab the Hyundai. Hit the houses on the west side of town, we haven't gone through many of them yet."

Daryl nods. "All right."

"We'll leave for the mountain camp day after tomorrow."

 

II – Suburban Street

"What do you think?" Daryl asks.

Glenn hesitates with his hand resting lightly on the door handle, chews his lip as he considers the question. Daryl can feel the pressure of the day weighing on his shoulders, the need to move and move now making his leg twitch, but he stays quiet, lets Glenn think. Behind them in the back seat, T-Dog swivels to watch their six; in the rearview mirror Daryl can see the stiff line of his spine, shoulders tense. The feeling of being exposed and vulnerable never really goes away when they're out in the open, not for any of them.

Daryl keeps his own eyes fixed on the street in front of them. His gaze flits between the large houses with their overgrown lots and wildflowers run rampant to the broad avenue scattered with parked cars. It's one of the more affluent neighbourhoods they've come across; probably was the kind of place where investment bankers and attorneys lived, commuting back and forth twice a day to and from their high-powered jobs in Atlanta. In his pre-apocalypse life, the only time Daryl himself ever saw houses like these was when he got called out to get rid of a family of possums or raccoons that dared to take up residence in one of those manicured backyards.

He wonders if Glenn ever got called to deliver pizza out here.

"Got two coming in from the side street," T announces.

Daryl flicks his gaze to Glenn, who nods.

"Okay," Glenn says. "We leave the car here. Make our way on foot to that ranch house at the end of the block. We start there and make our way back. Drop off whatever we've found, then go down to the other end of the street and do the same. Quick and easy."

They exit the car in unison, T-Dog tossing two of the duffel bags to Glenn over the top of the vehicle. As they move warily down the street, Daryl swings the crossbow into position, keeps his finger on the edge of the trigger guard.

"It's quiet," T says.

"Thank God for small favours," Daryl replies. He edges out from behind the rear bumper of a pristine SUV; glances inside the driver's side window as he passes, on the off chance that the owner was in such a rush to get inside when the dead rose that he left his keys in the ignition.

Glenn meet his eyes from the other side of the car, inclines his head toward the vehicle. "Can we take it?"

"No keys."

"Damnit," Glenn mutters.

When Glenn glances over his shoulder, Daryl half-turns to follow his gaze. The two walkers that T spotted are still stumbling through the crosswalk half a block away, oblivious to their presence. He side-glances the kid, takes note of the way Glenn's eyes leave the walkers to flick nervously from house to house, the goosebumps on his skin despite the heat.

"What is it?"

Glenn lifts a shoulder. "What T said," he replies. "It's quiet. Where's all the geeks?"

"What the fuck are you two waiting for?" T-Dog hisses.

Daryl looks up to see that T's already crab-walked halfway to the next house. He's opening his mouth to reply when all hell breaks loose.

The first walker stumbles from behind the shoulder-high hedge that separates two properties, staggering into view only inches from T-Dog.

Daryl doesn't think. He raises the crossbow to his shoulder just as the geek is bending its head to T's arm. He has time to see T start to move, to see T's eyes go wide, to know that even if the other man ducks or dodges he's not going to be able to get out of the way fast enough. Then the arrow is flying, embedding itself into the walker's head seconds before the thing's teeth fasten on the meat of T-Dog's bicep. The walker sags against him, one arm reaching out seemingly to scrabble at his sleeve even in death, and T does an awkward shuffle-dance to push the thing away before looking up, eyes still wide with shock.

"How many times you gonna make me save your sorry ass?" Daryl calls out.

"As many as it takes, man," T replies, grinning. Then he blinks, smile dropping away as though it never existed in the first place. "Shit."

Daryl looks over his shoulder.

The walkers spill from the walkways between the houses, a mass of putrefying flesh, stumbling and staggering against each other in their haste to reach the street. Daryl swings his crossbow onto his back, slides his knife from the sheath at his belt. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Glenn pull his machete from his backpack; he spins in place, trying in vain to keep all the geeks in sight.

The first one to reach them used to be a man, still clad in a decaying business suit. Daryl buries the knife in his skull, yanks the weapon out before the thing has even stopped its forward motion and is already whirling toward the next, a woman with long stringy hair, one eye dangling on mangled tendons and flopping grotesquely on her sunken cheek. Daryl thrusts with his knife, the sharp blade sliding like butter through the empty socket; shoves her falling body back and into two more geeks who are trying to reach past her to get to him, knocking them down like pins in a bowling alley.

"There's too many," Glenn shouts.

Daryl risks a glance toward the others. There are dead walkers strewn on the sidewalk, testament to the skills they've all honed in the last month. But there are more coming, continuing to shuffle from the backyards on both sides of the street, their eager moans echoing up and down the block.

He meets Glenn's eyes, nods once.

"T! Move!" he yells as she sprints past the other man, sees T-Dog stab his fireplace poker through the skull of one of the geeks before skip-stepping away from the reaching claws of another. Daryl skids, spins to bury his knife into yet another rotting skull, hesitates only long enough to ensure that T-Dog has wrestled through the mass of moldering bodies and is hard at their heels.

They run.

 

III – House

Daryl flings a leg over the arm of the overstuffed chair, glances up from where he's been cleaning the grime out of his nails with the tip of his knife. "They still out there?"

Glenn lets the curtain fall back, leans his hip against the second-floor window sill. "They're starting to drift off. I signaled over to T. We should be able to make a run back to the car soon."

Daryl grunts noncommittally, slides his knife back into its sheath and glances around the room. Framed photos of a smiling couple on the dresser, the open door of the walk-in closet showing him suits and dresses hanging neatly pressed, shoes lined up on standing shelves. Thick russet duvet cover and a mound of pillows.

He can't even remember what it's like to sleep on a real bed.

"Where's all the geeks?" he mutters. "Jeeeeeeeeeesus, ain't you ever heard of jinxing people?"

He looks across the room when Glenn snorts out a laugh. "Yes, Daryl. This is clearly all my fault."

He feels his lips twitching, and for once doesn't exactly feel the need to hide it. He pulls himself into a sitting position on the chair, feels the smile devolve into a grimace when he sees the smear of dirt and grime his leg has left behind on the pristine cream-coloured material.

"Anyway," Glenn says into the silence, "I thought you didn't believe in God."

Daryl blinks. "The fuck you goin' on about?"

"All these jesus and good lord's that you come out with. It's just weird."

Daryl cocks his head. "'Cause I don't believe in God."

"Well," Glenn answers. "Yeah."

"Who said I don't?"

That seems to throw the kid for a loop. Glenn scratches behind his ear, leans back against the wall and crosses his arms at his chest. It's a thinner chest now, Daryl notes, but the kid's arms have gotten stronger, all lean muscle from hard work and continually fighting off the walkers. When Glenn moves to sweep a hand through his hair before leaning his head back against the wall, Daryl can't help but notice the way those firm muscles shift under his skin, the way his hair shines against the sunlight filtering through the window.

He looks away. Makes himself look away. Presses his lips together and reminds himself, not for the first time, that he's not going to go back to the way things were before, back at the quarry. Back when he found himself watching Glenn as he moved through the camp, keeping an eye on him as he bent over the old RV or sat with the kids as they muddled through the schoolwork their ma's still made them do. Back when he found himself listening to what Glenn had to say, doing what Glenn wanted him to do. Even though he didn't really know why.

He gives his head a mental shake. He's been lying so much all his life – lying to his old man, to Merle, to the men he worked with, to the guys at all the run-down bars where he spent too many nights drinking cheap hooch and pretending to be interested in some slag giving him the eye. Lying to himself is just second nature.

He knew why he paid attention to Glenn, listened to Glenn. Cared about Glenn. Knew it the moment he started to get to know the guy a little, back when they were still sitting around the campfire at night, believing that they were going to be able to ride out the end of the world in a mountain camp with a row of cans tied on strings for protection against the undead.

He didn't admit to himself what it meant, though, until Glenn got taken by the Vatos on that damn trip to Atlanta.

And then he knew that there was no going back. Didn't matter that sometimes just being around Glenn makes his hands twitch, makes him feel awkward and stupid. Didn't matter that somebody like Glenn would never be interested in somebody like him.

"I've been praying," Glenn says suddenly.

Daryl looks up from where he's been studying the bars of light on the carpet.

"I never even really thought about God before all this, you know? But now… everything's so messed up."

Daryl snorts.

"I don't mean just the walkers," Glenn clarifies. "I mean everything. Me." He throws up his hands. "I don't know."

"Real clear, kid," Daryl says.

"I'm messed up."

"Who ain't?"

Glenn's lips upturn in a sad smile. "True. God, so true. And I know we're all just trying to muddle by as good as we can; I get that. We're all just doing our best. But Rick's, like, supercop. You're Rambo. I'm just a fucking pizza delivery boy. I just feel like I don't even know what I'm supposed to be doing, never mind how to be the best at it."

Daryl's thoughts flick to Rick, the way the man wanders through the corridors of the building at night. Daryl himself is a light sleeper; always has been, ever since he was a kid, when being aware of what was going on around him was required even in the darkest hours of night. Rick moves quietly, but Daryl still hears him stalking through the halls. Has crept out into the office more than once only to find Rick standing motionless at the window, his forehead pressed to the glass.

Daryl's spent his own share of nights lying up on the roof of the one-story building, staring at the stars, unable to sleep for the thoughts chasing around in his head. Has heard Lori crying softly in the bathroom when he sneaks past on his way outside. Knows that Carol is often bent over the few medical books they've managed to scrounge up long after the sun goes down, squinting in the wan light of a candle.

"You ain't no different from anybody else," he says.

Glenn sighs. "And then there's Maggie."

Daryl shifts uncomfortably in his chair. The last damn thing he wants to talk about is Glenn's sex life. He leans down to the quiver resting against the side of the chair, plucks out one of his homemade arrows and smoothes his fingers through the feathers just to have something to do with his hands. Looks anywhere but at the damn kid.

"I'm sure you'll make up," he finally mumbles when the silence has stretched out and out, and he looks up to see Glenn watching him expectantly.

"No, it's not—" Glenn starts. He crosses the room, flops down on the bed and sends dust motes flying. "It's like… let's say, before. Say you had a chance to sleep with some amazing supermodel like, I don't know… Miranda Kerr. You would do it, right? Because she's Miranda Kerr. Your friends would think you're an idiot to pass that up."

Daryl doesn't mention that he never had friends, says only, "Not the best example, kid."

Glenn huffs out a laugh. "What, she's not your type? She's smokin', dude."

This whole conversation is unnerving. He shoves the arrow aside, pins Glenn with his best glare. "And now she's probably staggerin' through Hollywood with half her damn face missin'. You got a goddamn point?"

"Jeez, chill," Glenn says. "My point is… I think Maggie was my Miranda Kerr."

Daryl blinks.

"She's pretty and she's nice and she wanted me, and it's the end of the world, and I'd be a complete moron to pass that up, right?"

Daryl can't sit still any longer. He flings himself up from the chair, stalks to the window to flick aside the curtain, gazes blankly down at the street. It takes a few moments for it to register in his overworked brain that the area around the house is relatively deserted, only a few stragglers still shuffling down the middle of the wide boulevard.

"We don't work out because we're not… she's not what I want," Glenn continues behind him. "And then everything else is so confusing. I'm trying to do what's right and keep people safe and I'm just saying, I have no idea what to do here. I'm so fucked up, dude."

"Yeah, welcome to the fucking club," Daryl mutters. He lets the curtain drop, turns back to the room. "We through with the sharing circle, now? We gonna braid each other's hair next? Maybe have a pillow fight?"

"Geez, fine," Glenn says, rolling over onto his back to stare at the ceiling. "Sue me for trying to open up for a change."

"For a change?" Daryl mocks.

Glenn props himself onto one arm, points a finger. "Fuck off. You could take a lesson from me, Daryl. Take a break from this taciturn, growly thing you're working. None of us are buying it anymore, you know."

Glenn's tone is light, but Daryl finds himself considering the words seriously as he turns back to gaze again out into the front yard. It's not like he particularly tries to be blunt. He just appreciates honesty and plain speaking. And if he holds himself aloof from the others, tries to shelter himself as best he can… well, he has his reasons. He's got a dozen of them criss-crossing on his back, a couple more striped in fine white lines on his chest. And it's not anybody's business what he holds inside, what he keeps close to his heart.

For a man who appreciates honesty, he realizes, he sure does a piss-poor job of practicing it sometimes.

Daryl takes a breath. Forces himself to face the room.

Decides that maybe it's time for the lying to stop.

"Ain't into Miranda Kerr," he finally says.

Glenn shakes his head, grinning. "Not exactly the kind of sharing I was talking about. But hey, fine. I don't know how you could find anything wrong with her, though. I mean, she's got great tits, she's got legs for days—"

"Maybe her husband," Daryl says quietly.

His heart is thumping double-time. He resists the urge to wipe his sweaty palms on his pants, bites the inside of his cheeks. Can't decide if he wants to rush from the room or turn and smash his fist into the wall. Settles for staring at the plush carpet, one hand swiping repeatedly over the scruff on his chin in an attempt to still its trembling.

He realizes suddenly that this is the first time he's admitted out loud just who he is. His stomach roils. He thinks he might puke.

The blood is roaring through his system so fast that he barely hears Glenn's murmured, "What?"

"Street's clear," he says gruffly, pushing away from the window, avoiding Glenn's eyes. "Signal over to T, let him know we're moving out."

 

IV – Survivalists Camp

They circle the compound cautiously. The camp is bigger than Daryl expected; one main building, probably some sort of community centre – and if they're real lucky, it'll have a kitchen, but Daryl's learned by now not to hold his fucking breath – surrounded by eight or ten cabins strung out in ramshackle fashion. Two watchtowers, north and south. All of it surrounded by an eight or ten foot tall wooden fence.

There are two breaches in the fence that they can see.

Daryl crouches next to Rick, continues to scan the grounds. Despite the gaps in the defensive walls, the area seems remarkably deserted. From his vantage point on the slope on the west side of the compound, he can see a lot of dead bodies, but only a few scattered walkers shuffling aimlessly through the yard, sending up puffs of dry dirt with every dragging step. Of course, that doesn't mean they won't open up a door to find one of those buildings filled to the rafters with geeks. Daryl still occasionally wakes up in a cold sweat from memories of his encounter with a dozen ravenous walkers locked up in the storage room of a craft store in Senoia.

There's not a single living human being in sight.

He could sit here all day, watching, making sure it's safe. Has, in the past, waiting by a game trail for a nice doe to amble by. But the others aren't so patient, and behind them Daryl hears the shuffle of anxious feet, the low murmur of voices, once the sharp crack of a breaking twig. He side-glances Rick, but the other man just continues to stare at the camp.

When another fifteen minutes of reconnoiter reveals no change, Rick finally stands. Gestures toward the gate.

The walkers in the yard raise their heads, snarl and snap and stagger in their direction as soon as they enter the compound. Daryl manages to take out two with his bow before they manage more than a dozen steps in their direction. He pulls his knife as Glenn, Maggie and Rick fan out into the yard, gets his back to T and Lori as they take the rear.

It's over in less than five minutes.

Daryl scrubs a hand over his face, crouches next to one of the bodies, its chest shredded by bullet holes. He stands, nudges at it with a booted foot. “Guess they never got the memo that ya had to aim for the head.”

"That's Sal," Carol says, coming up beside him, her arms wrapped around her middle despite the midday heat. "He used to come to the house every once in a while for dinner." Her lips twist in a sad smile. "He brought me flowers once. More than Ed ever did."

Daryl squints across at her. He never figured on Carol actually knowing some of the people they might find here. " 'm sorry," he says.

"Oh, he wasn't a good man. He beat his dog. Broke my heart."

Daryl has no idea what to say to that – a man that beats his dog is only one step above a man who beats his woman, and frankly his first instinct is to spit on the dead asshole – so he simply looks away. His eyes automatically seek out Glenn; find him standing with his head bent close to Maggie, foreheads nearly touching. The sight makes his gut lurch even as he calls himself ten times a fool.

He's done his best to stay away from the kid since that last supply run. Has done his best to avoid even thinking about that day, first throwing himself into the preparation for the run to the mountains, then taking point on the long slow slog through the back country roads. As soon as the group was situated at the end of each day he headed out into the woods to hunt, not resting until he came back with at least a little meat for the communal pot. He did his share of night watch, took extras when he could, and didn't sleep much even when he finally turned in for the evening. Spent countless hours staring at the low, sloping roof of his tent, running that last conversation with Glenn over and over again in his mind, feeling his heart clench every time he remembered the words coming out of his mouth.

And he spent his days glancing surreptitiously at the kid, trying to see if Glenn was looking at him any differently, both fearful and hopeful in equal measure.

When Glenn started chatting to Maggie again on their third day out, sitting next to her on the pine log they dragged up to the fire each night, he told himself that it didn't matter. Glenn might know his secret, but that was as far as it went. As far as it was ever going to go.

It's not like anything changed as far as Glenn himself is concerned. Glenn's still the same guy. Still smart, still quick on his feet and with his mouth. And okay, it sure seemed to Daryl like Glenn used to look at him… well… speculatively. Back at the quarry. Back when Daryl was watching him, listening to him. Coming to the rather startling conclusion that he'd kill anyone who hurt him, do whatever he could to protect him. That he'd rather die himself than live without him.

Sometimes, back in those early days, he thought that interest was reciprocated. Sitting around the campfire at night, when Glenn's leg would brush against his even though there was plenty of room on the damn log. On watch on top of the RV when Glenn would climb up and join him, tell him some long, outrageous, ridiculous pizza delivery story that made him choke and spit out his water and then knock the kid's stupid cap off his head in retaliation for his soaked shirt. Or at the CDC, long after everyone else went to bed, sitting alone in the dark, empty cafeteria with a bottle between them and not saying anything at all.

Clearly he was wrong. Glenn likes girls. Glenn likes Maggie, despite his protests to the contrary.

It didn't matter. Not one bit.

"—together again."

Daryl blinks, bites back a curse. Woolgathering in the middle of a mission is the best way to get himself killed, get somebody else killed. Anything could come spilling out of those buildings, could still be dozens of geeks around. He pulls himself back to the present with a wince. "Sorry, what?"

Carol smiles softly again. "I said it's nice. Seeing Glenn and Maggie together again. Good to see them working things out." She lays a hand on his arm, her fingertips cool on his sun-warmed skin. "Everyone deserves a little happiness, don't you think?"

Daryl squints down at her, trying to decipher the look in her eyes. He saved from replying at all when Rick calls them over to the join the rest of the group in front of the large communal building.

But he feels Carol's eyes on him the whole time they walk together through the yard.

* * *

"Everybody did great today," Rick says.

Daryl places his crossbow next to him on one of the rustic tables set up in the common room, leans against the back wall and eyes the room. The structure is crude, but solid. Better by half than the ramshackle shack that Merle put up on his own property back in '92, but Daryl's also pretty sure that whoever constructed this main room and the cabins wasn't stopping every half hour to shove another line up his nose. The fireplace that takes up one half of the west wall should provide ample heat for the cold winter nights to come. From his quick perusal of the rough-hewn bookshelf most of the books and magazines are of either the field-and-stream or tits-and-ass variety, but they might find something more suitable when they dig further. And the kitchen pantry was stocked to practically the ceiling with more food than they've seen in months. He expected MRE's and beer. And when he poked his head inside the room on his check for walkers, he did see those – as well as dried fruits, canned vegetables of every kind imaginable, bags of rice, stack upon stack of bottled water. Even home-made preserves lined up neatly in a row, all labeled with a woman's flowing hand. God only knows what else they'll find.

The men who fought and died here weren't good men, at least according to Carol. But his respect for them goes up a notch just the same. They must have been overrun fairly early in the game. If they'd known that head shots were necessary to take down the walkers, he has no doubt that Ed's band of survivalist cronies would still be hunkered down here now, probably firing warning shots at his own people from those guard towers and sending them off with their tails between their legs.

It occurs to him suddenly that if Ed had had his way, his body would have been one of those they found today. His, and Carol's. Sophia's.

He wouldn't have known them at all.

There would have been no child to get spooked by a walker on a crowded interstate, no child that ran away into the woods and got lost. No search that ended in failure and heartbreak. There would have been no little girl that smart-mouthed him when her ma wasn't around to catch her, that snuck into his campsite with bugs clutched in a dirty hand for him to identify; no little girl that confided in a whisper that she wanted him to teach her how to shoot the crossbow when she was old enough, so she could protect her mama.

Daryl licks his lips, swallows around a throat suddenly gone dry. Blinks, presses his lips together as his gaze flicks around the room. He finds Carol talking quietly with Beth and Hershel, thin sweater tied around her waist. Her eyes are still anxious and delicate worry lines sketch her skin, but she also looks happy. Proud. It was touch and go for a while – Daryl thinks the walker herd that came upon them unawares on the back road near the old mill will likely haunt his dreams for a good time to come – but in the end, Carol led them to the right place. The safety they have now is because of her.

And yes, everyone does deserve a little happiness.

He allows himself a quick, furtive glance at Glenn before he turns his attention back to Rick.

"Daryl, T and I have checked the grounds and the buildings twice," Rick says, his voice cutting through the side conversations that have started up in the room. "We're certain that the entire camp is clear of walkers. We'll be safe here."

If he expected a chorus of hurrahs, he was sadly mistaken. Daryl sees tentative smiles on Carl and Beth's faces; nothing but uncertainty and skepticism on the others.

"We all hope it's safe, Rick," Lori finally says hesitantly. "We really do. But do you think that maybe you're jumping to conclusions?"

"No, Lori, I don't," Rick snaps. "We have shelter here. Food. Everything we need."

Daryl watches Lori's eyes drop quickly away from his, caught again by the sharp contrast between her present incarnation and the fire and brimstone woman of the past. That Lori is gone now, and the woman that's left behind is all brittle shell. It angers him, he realizes – not only because he's watching two good people, people he now calls his friends, rip themselves apart, but because every rift leaves the rest of the group vulnerable.

"That's all well and good," Maggie says. "There's a couple dozen dead bodies outside that thought the same damn thing."

"We're not them."

One thing about Maggie, the girl doesn't back down. "The fences are down, Rick."

"So we repair the fences," Rick answers immediately.

"So the walkers can just tear them down again, rip us apart like they did these people?" Maggie argues. "It's not safe."

Hershel puts an arm around his daughter's shoulders. "She's got a point, Rick."

Rick takes a breath, and Daryl can see the man forcibly hold back his temper. Perhaps it's the sight of Hershel's protective arm; perhaps it's seeing Maggie's doubts reflected in the eyes of the rest of the group. He swipes a hand over his beard, catches Daryl's eye as he prepares to make his case. Daryl's not sure what he can offer, but he inclines his head in wordless support.

"These people didn't know what they were up against," Rick starts. "Yeah, they got overrun. But you all saw the bodies out there. They were shooting for the heart, the vital organs. As a result, they got bit, they turned, and they started attacking their friends. They didn't know you had to take out the brain. We do."

Daryl leans against the back wall, folds his arms at his chest and resumes watching the room. Sees Glenn nod his head in agreement, T-Dog bite his bottom lip but stay silent.

"There's plenty of wood piled up in the back, enough to repair the places where the walkers got through and reinforce any other weak spots," Rick continues. "We got two guard towers and enough manpower to keep them manned twenty-four seven, and enough food to last us a few months as long as we augment it with whatever Daryl and I can hunt down. We've got a place to lay our heads that's out of the cold and the damp."

Daryl knows Rick's mind is already set. Whatever happens, he and Lori and Carl will be setting up camp here. Daryl also knows that he'll almost certainly be joining them; it's the safest course of action. But he respects Rick for laying out the case, meeting everyone squarely in the eyes.

"We'll be safe here," Rick finishes, "at least through the worst of the winter."

The room is silent for a moment, until T clears his throat. "Hell, it's not like we've got a better option."

Daryl can tell that Maggie's not convinced, but when Hershel gently squeezes her shoulder she keeps her mouth shut. And though he doesn't want to admit it, his own "almost certainty" hinged on a particular Asian agreeing to continue to hitch his wagon to Rick's train – and he's more likely to do that if Maggie continues to bite her lip. Daryl'd be tempted to track Hershel down tonight to buy him a cold one if the old coot still drank.

"I can work out a watch schedule," Glenn suggests.

"Fine," Rick agrees, "you get on that. We need the first two men out there within the hour, we gotta be extra-vigilant until those gaps in the fences are fixed. Lori, Carol," he continues, "you two are in charge of the food stores. We need to know exactly what we've got so we can figure on how long everything's going to last us."

"On it," Carol says.

"Beth, work out some cabin assignments. If any of the rooms need blankets, there were some in the storeroom out back. Carl, give her a hand," Rick says as Carl hops lightly down from where he's perched cross-legged on one of the tables. "And make sure everyone's got toiletries, too. The water in those communal showers might be ice cold, but at least we got some soap and shampoo."

The young girl smiles at that, and Daryl sees the grin picked up by several people in the room, enthusiasm and hope ricocheting rapidly from one person to the next. Despite the risks, despite the still-gaping holes in the fence line and the ever-present threat of a walker herd, they will have four walls and a roof over their heads tonight. Ample food in their stomachs and clean fresh-smelling bodies. Soft mattresses to lie on instead of the cold, hard ground. Carol has a bounce in her step as she heads through the door to the kitchen area, and even Maggie looks somewhat mollified.

Daryl never had much use for cops, but he had to admit that whatever else Rick may be going through, the man is a born leader.

Once Hershel's assigned to sort through the medical supplies the survivalists had laid in, Daryl pushes away from the wall.

"We still got a few hours of daylight left," Rick says, taking in the remainder of the group. "The rest of us will make a start on those fence repairs."

"What about the bodies out there?" T-Dog asks. "Shouldn't we take care of those?"

Rick shakes his head. "We'll burn them, but not until the fences are fixed. That's our number one priority." He turns to Glenn, whose head is already bent over a scrap of paper torn from the back of an old fishing guide. "Glenn, you come fetch us as soon as you got the watch schedule made up. Remember, both the south and north towers have to be manned. We need to get people in those guard towers as soon as possible. We can't risk any stragglers getting through while we're vulnerable here."

"Got it," Glenn says.

When Glenn's eyes meet his, Daryl quickly looks away.

Everyone deserves a little happiness in the end times. And he knows that ultimately, Glenn's happiness lies with Maggie.

 

V – Daryl's Room

Daryl thought he knew sore, working on the road crew that first year after high school, slinging asphalt onto Georgia highways and byways under a blazing one hundred and twenty degree sun. He thought he knew sore working at the meat plant years later, flinging hundred pound slabs of frozen beef onto the table for the cutting saw. He thought he knew sore on the construction sites, lugging wood planks up and down ladders, bending and lifting all day and into the night.

He realizes now that he didn't truly know what sore was. Back then, he could head home to his tiny apartment, heat up something in the microwave and throw the heating pad on his back after chasing down a few muscle relaxants and painkillers with a cold Bud. He could run the water in the tub as hot as he could stand it, so hot that it turned his skin beet-red and made every scar stand out like brands on his flesh; prop the old black and white TV onto the counter by the sink, ease down into the water with another beer and relax for an hour until all the pain melted away and he could finally flop into a soft bed, the fan on the nightstand whirring softly and cooling his fevered skin as he drifted off to sleep.

This? This is unrelenting.

For six days now he's been at a breakneck pace. Up at dawn to work on the fence line, hauling wood, hammering nails. Afternoons in the surrounding woods – sometimes tracking, often putting in miles before he manages to snag something for the supper pot; sometimes just sitting off the nearest game trail, still but vigilant, every muscle standing at attention. Then his evening shifts on the watch towers, eyes straining to see beyond the gloom, ears alert for the sound of dragging footsteps shuffling through the fallen leaves.

They have to save their meds for emergencies, so there are no pills to take away the aches that have settled into the line of his shoulders and the small of his back. Hell, he won't even risk a shot or two of the Wild Turkey still stashed away on his bike, not until the fences are completely fixed. Not until his people are protected.

He's tired, his eyes are grainy and his right shoulder protests angrily when he pushes open the door to his cabin.

To find Glenn sitting on his bed.

He blinks, actually glances back at the door like he's in some kind of rundown motel room and there'll be a number on it to indicate he's in the right place. When his confused gaze meets only the rough wood planking, he furrows his brow and looks past Glenn. There's his quiver propped up against the wall, his backpack with its dirty clothes spilling out into the corner of the room.

His room.

"The hell you doin' here?"

The tentative smile on Glenn's face fades. The kid jumps up from the bed like he's been goosed when Daryl strides into the room, and Daryl pushes down the quick pang of regret that flashes through his head at the thought that the kid might actually be scared of him. It ain't his damn fault that Glenn made himself at home here while he was out slugging through the tick-infested woods, maybe helping himself to Daryl's things while he's not around to put a stop to it. Kid should be scared.

"Heyyyy," Glenn says. "I just thought I'd… you know… stop by. Haven't seen you in a while. Thought we could chat."

Daryl grimaces. "Chat?"

"Yeah. Chat. You may have heard of it. You open your mouth, words fall out. It's this thing friends do."

"We friends now?"

Glenn's lips quirk in a quick smile. "There's that gruff thing again. I told you, dude, nobody buys that anymore. That ship sailed, like, back when you nearly got yourself killed looking for Sophia."

Daryl doesn't want to think about what it does to him when the kid smiles like that. But the mention of Sophia drives a spike through the lightness in his chest, and his lip curls as he turns away from Glenn, tosses his crossbow carefully on the bed. "Go ahead and say what you got to say."

"Geez. It's not like I came to say anything in particular, it's just… I've been thinking about you. A lot, actually. And I've been thinking about… that thing. That you told me?"

Daryl freezes. Should have just kept his damn mouth shut. Where he does or does not want to stick his dick is no business of anybody's, least of all some scrawny little Asian kid with an attitude. Now it's gonna become some thing, like it's a damn quirk that defines him, changes him into someone different somehow. It's always gonna be there, whenever Glenn looks at him, pictures him… and he hates that. He no longer thinks of it as a perversion, no matter what his old man said when he found those magazines in his room, no matter what the old man screamed when the lash came down that final time, when his pa followed after him as he scrambled away on all fours, trying to cover his head, trying to get away. Escape.

He believes in God, even if he thinks that God's often a pretty sick fucker. And God made him this way. But being… wanting… liking men isn't who he IS. And now that's all Glenn's gonna see when he looks at him, like he's some freak, and the thought makes his stomach roil, makes him want to curl his hands into fists, go back out into the woods and just be alone, just…

"Daryl?"

Daryl realizes he's been standing motionless, staring at the damn bow. He straightens, meets the kid's eyes. "What about it?"

"Is it a secret?"

Daryl bristles. "Ain't gonna be puttin' a notice up on the bulletin board, if that's what you mean."

"Okay," Glenn says.

Daryl waits for more, waits for the questions to start, for the look on the kid's face to change from anything but mild interest. But Glenn merely looks at him, presses his lip together and nods. Smiles slightly. After a moment it starts to feel like a staring contest that isn't going to have any damn winner.

Daryl shakes his head, turns away to remove his vest. He can't help the wince that crosses his face, and the "Anything else?" that he barks out at the kid loses a lot of its bite when it's muffled in a gasp of pain. Not that Glenn's ever paid much attention to his bark, anyhow.

"You know, I could help with that. I give a great massage."

Daryl glances over his shoulder, eyes the kid warily. "That some ancient Chinese thing?"

Glenn rolls his eyes. "Dude, I'm Korean. You know I'm Korean."

"Whatever, Ho Chi Minh."

"Getting old, man," Glenn laughs. "And it's an ancient Korean thing. Do you want my help or not?"

Glenn apparently takes his hesitation as assent, grabs the rickety wooden chair from the corner of the room and set it up near the bed. Daryl flops down reluctantly, tells himself that he's letting this happen because he's in pain. And because Glenn's right – they are friends. One friend offering to help another isn't a bad thing. It's no different than if Carol made the offer. Or Lori. He'd do the same for them. And at its core it's really a sign of acceptance. Glenn isn't going to look at him any differently, or judge him as some kind of freak.

The thought should ease his stress. But when Glenn touches him, he tenses.

It's not like no one's ever touched him before. Not like no man's ever touched him before. There have been… encounters, desperate groping in seedy back rooms and dimly lit bathrooms. But there has never been this – this gentle caress, the heat of Glenn's chest against his back, the slow careful attention to his needs.

Daryl holds himself still, tries not to shiver at the touch. Glenn's fingers are warm, strong, his fingers kneading expertly into the rigid muscle, leeching more of the pain away with every skillful press of his fingers. He closes his eyes, loses himself a little in the sensation.

"Better?"

Glenn's breath ghosts across his skin, stirs the long hair at the back of his neck.

Daryl realizes suddenly that he's rock hard, his dick straining against his zipper. And Glenn's lips are mere inches away, his chin practically balanced on Daryl's shoulder. All he'd have to do is turn his head…

"Daryl?" Carol's voice calls out.

Daryl is out of the chair before he has time to think, his erection wilting as if it had never been. The hand that comes up to swipe at his chin shakes just slightly, and he takes a deep breath before he turns to the open door. Deliberately doesn't look at the kid. And curses himself for ten times a fool.

"I brought you something to eat. Lord knows you don't eat enough to keep a mouse going, never mind a man," Carol continues. Her gaze flits between the two men, her brow furrowing when it rests on Glenn's face, but Daryl still doesn't look. Can't look. "Am I interrupting something?"

"No," Daryl says quickly. He nods toward the cloth-covered plate, rushes forward to take it from her hands if only to give his own something to do to stop their jittering. "Thanks for this."

"Anytime," Carol says.

"Well," Glenn says, "I guess I'll…"

He makes a vague gesture toward the door that Daryl catches from the corner of his eye, and Daryl nods. Stares at the floorboards until the sound of Glenn's footsteps fades into the distance, until the only sound is his own breathing, too harsh and loud in the small room.

He looks up to see Carol leaning her hip on the doorjamb, arms crossed at her breasts. She raises an eyebrow. "Everything okay here?"

Daryl tosses the napkin toward the bed, slumps back down onto the chair and buries his fork into the mound of canned potatoes on the plate. "Ain't no reason why it wouldn't be."

"Okay," Carol says again. He lifts his eyes from the food in time to see her push off from the doorway. "If you ever need to talk…"

"I look like the chattin' type?"

Carol smiles. "First time for everything."

VI – The Woods

"Told ya, I don't need no damn help!"

"And I told you, you're not goin' alone," Rick says evenly.

Daryl paces toward the tree line, his heavy treads stirring up a cloud of dust at his heels. At his back, the gates to the compound are still open, and though he doesn't look he has no doubt that T and Hershel are taking in every damn word that's being flung between him and Grimes. No doubt this little dust-up'll be all the talk at lunch.

"Listen, Rick--" he starts.

"No, you listen," Rick interrupts. "Maggie saw smoke coming from the south. Now it could be a random fire, some piece of glass sparking from the sun; with the heat we've been having these days, no rain, that's a good possibility. Or it could be other survivors. And we don't know if they'd be friendlies."

Friendlies. Daryl snorts, glances back to where Glenn is hovering at the periphery of the conversation, Dale's old rifle slung over his shoulder. He must've found his old baseball cap buried in the bottom of his pack because now it's perched on his head, offering a little protection from the sun. At this distance, with the combination of the sneakers and the cap, the kid looks about fifteen years old, shuffling his feet in the dirt.

Daryl forgot about how much he liked that grimy old cap.

Jesus. He turns his attention back to the matter at hand, juts a chin at the kid. "And just what is he supposed to do about it?"

"He'll have your back." Rick looks toward the tree line, squints into the sunlight before turning his attention back to Daryl. "Now I'd prefer that you didn't go at all, but the only way we can stretch out the food we found in the compound long enough to last us through the winter is by bringin' in as much game as we can before the cold weather hits. You know that as well as I do. Goin' out is a chance we have to take, but I'm not sending you out there alone. You need backup, Daryl."

Daryl swipes a hand across his chin. He can come up with about five reasons why this is a stupid idea, but as soon as he opens his mouth Rick holds up a hand.

"My decision is final," Rick says firmly.

Fine, then. Daryl leans forward, spits on the dusty ground. He sends a glower at Rick, but directs his best glare toward Glenn. "Well, come on then," he shouts, turning his back on Grimes and the kid and heading toward the encroaching woods. "Ain't got all damn day."

* * *

Daryl keeps up a fast pace, moving quickly through the overgrown brush, sliding through the openings that he's come to know like the back of his hand in the weeks since they took over the compound. He needs to get at least a couple of miles from camp before there's any chance of snagging anything bigger than a squirrel, and the quicker he moves, the better. He can hear Glenn huffing and puffing behind him, and it's not until they reach the game trail that the kid has enough breath to speak.

"Dude, why are you so pissed?"

"Ain't pissed."

He doesn't have to be looking at the kid to know that Glenn is rolling his eyes. "If this is you not being pissed, I would hate to see you when you're really angry."

"That's right," Daryl snaps, "you would."

"And here we go again. Seriously Daryl, take a pill."

Daryl stops abruptly on the trail, whirls quickly enough that Glenn takes a sudden step backwards, eyes wide. "Just don't need no city slicker followin' on my heels when I'm tryin' to hunt, gettin' in my way and slowin' me the hell down!"

"I'm not!"

Daryl ignores him, turns back to the game trail, keeps his eyes on the ground. Behind him, he can hear Glenn shuffling through the fallen leaves, the snap of a twig beneath his sneakered heel. Goddamn kid's making more noise than a herd of fucking buffalo, and yet Grimes thinks he's gonna be able to bag them a buck with Glenn along to "help". Ain't no damn way.

"If this has anything to do with what happened the other night—"

"It don't!" Daryl snaps. "Now keep your trap shut and stay outta my damn light."

The kid does what he's told, dropping back a couple of paces and keeping his mouth closed. Within a few minutes Daryl's able to find the tracks he's seeking; another mile and he comes to a little stand in the trees, the thin trickle of water at its center barely big enough to be called a brook. He gestures toward the watering hole and waits for Glenn's answering nod of comprehension before loosely loading his crossbow and settling back on his haunches to wait.

Hell, maybe he'll be able to grab a buck today after all.

He's been watching the grove for about fifteen minutes when he hears the rustle of leaves. Then the cough, muffled by a fist. A couple of sniffles. A few moments later, the slow drag of the zipper on Glenn's backpack, then the crinkle of a wrapper.

He glares over his shoulder.

"Oh," Glenn says, his mouth full of granola bar, "do you want some?"

"Jesus Christ," Daryl hisses. "You're makin' so much noise the animals can hear you from a hundred yards."

Glenn slumps against a tree, lets the remainder of the granola dangle from his hand. "I get it, okay? You don't want me here. I'm useless."

Daryl slides a hand over his chin. "Hunt better on my own, is all."

"This is what I was talking about," Glenn continues. "You DO hunt better on your own. Rick knows just what to say to get people motivated, and Maggie, she's a better shot than anyone! I'm just… here, fumbling around like the village idiot."

"Fuck," Daryl mutters. He gets carefully to his feet, scans the area around the watering hole before turning his back to the grove. "Ain't got time to deal with your existential crisis right—"

The rifle blast goes off right next to his ear.

One moment he's talking, half ticked off that Rick saddled him with this goddamn dead weight and half hating that sad, defeated look in Glenn's eyes and trying to figure out how to make the kid feel better. The next moment he's deafened, slumping to the left and crashing to the ground as the body of a walker slams into him full force. The crossbow is jolted from his grip at the impact, and he watches it skitter across a bed of leaves to come to rest against a tree.

Out of reach.

He's aware of the rifle discharging, again at close range; of the rank, thick stench of the dead. He shakes his head to clear it and the world around him only doubles, trebles; tries to rise only to find his legs pinned beneath the body of the walker, the hole Glenn punched in its chest leaking brackish fluid but the thing still alive, scrabbling with decaying fingers to right itself, to reach him, to feed.

He blinks, sees three sets of rotting teeth snap together inches from his thigh. The proximity of the walker galvanizes him into action and he hikes himself backward, wonders that he can hear his breath whistling through his teeth, high and frantic even over the noise of the geek's snarls, over the grunts coming from behind him, over another blast from the rifle. He slams a foot forward to hold the walker off, grimaces as the fetid, overwhelming stink of decay intensifies when his boot sinks into the thing's chest, all the while scrambling for the knife at his belt. He squints in an attempt to make the wavering figure coalesce into some kind of whole in his vision; knows that if he misses the walker will lunge and bite and that will be it. He'll be dead. Or worse than dead.

And there's no telling whether the walker will be satisfied with feeding on his flesh alone. No telling whether the thing will go for Glenn next.

His head spins and the ground lurches beneath him as he dives forward.

The brittle crunch of bone cracking open as his knife sinks into the walker's skull is the most satisfying sound he's heard in days.

Daryl slumps onto his back, breathing heavy. He survived. Defied the odds again. He squints up at the blurred canopy of leaves above him. Follows the track of a starling as it takes off from one of the lower branches, soars into the sky. Hears the rustle of the undergrowth and realizes his fingers have gone limp, the knife lost in amongst the leaves littering the forest floor and there could be more of them, more walkers, more of the dead, because they never stop…

He's managed to pull himself up against a tree and is reaching for his crossbow when Glenn appears, still looking behind him. He's lost his cap somewhere in the melee, his hair sweat-soaked and tangled, one side of his face smudged with dirt. But he's alive, whole.

Daryl allows himself a sigh of relief.

The kid is alive. Unharmed.

"I think I got them all," Glenn says before turning distractedly to face him. Daryl would laugh at the way his eyes go comically wide at the sight of him, if he didn't think the action would make him puke. He lifts his head, darts a quick glance down at his ripped and bloody clothes. And instead of laughing he just waves a gore-stained hand, blinks when Glenn drops to his knees beside him, one hand – three hands, from Daryl's point of view – hesitating over his chest, over his face, before fluttering back to his side.

The concern – the absolute mindfucking horror – on Glenn's pale face puts all thought of laughter out of his mind.

"Are you bit? Oh fuck Daryl, are you bit?"

Daryl raises his left hand to his temple, winces when his fingers come away stained with fresh blood. "Rock, I guess," he mumbles. He tries for a smile, but isn't sure how successful he is when Glenn seems to blanch even more. "Merle always said I was hard headed. Guess the fucker was right."

Glenn's head snaps up at the noise of shuffling in the distance. It's only when Daryl lifts his head to follow his gaze that he sees the wrath of destruction Glenn had wrought while he'd been fighting his own singular battle with a dead guy in a suit.

Half a dozen walkers lay strewn on the trail. He counts several point-blank bullets to the head; a skull crushed by a fallen log, the grey matter sinking into the forest floor; a couple more that might have been taken out by knife or that old fireplace poker Glenn and T share. Beyond the trail he can see two more bodies, faces so obliterated that it's not even possible to hazard a guess at what format their deaths took.

"We've gotta get you back to the compound," Glenn says, looking back at him worriedly. "Can you walk?"

"Ain't no invalid," Daryl grouses. But when he tries to get his feet under him they only slide on the leaves, would have sent him tumbling back to the ground if Glenn hadn't made a grab for him.

The kid curses under his breath.

Glenn never curses. Not like that.

It occurs to Daryl that maybe he didn't survive this attack after all.

When Glenn swings an arm around his shoulder to take his weight, jostles him into place, Daryl's stomach lurches, bile souring his throat. He swallows; blinks rapidly when black dots swirl into his field of vision. Only when he's sure that he's not going to pass out does he try to turn, to look Glenn in the eye.

"You ain't useless," he gets out. "Don't never think you are."

His ears are ringing, his stomach churning; his tongue feels too big for his mouth, too thick to form words. But he grabs onto Glenn's shirt, twists his fingers in the fabric and hope's he making sense, hopes he's saying what needs to be said. "You, you're better'n me. Smart… kind. Kind of man I always wanted."

Daryl could have sworn that they started out on the hunt just after sunrise, but the attack must've come later in the day than he thought, because Glenn's eyes look wide and too bright in the deepening gloom of the woods.

"The kind of man you always wanted to be, right?" Glenn asks. "That's what you mean. The kind of man you always wanted to be."

Daryl realizes he's dropped his head, forces himself to raise his eyes. "Kind of man I always wanted," he says again. "Wish things were… I wish… you…" He tries to lick his lips, tries to put his scattered thoughts in order, but his head is pounding now, his brainpan like water sloshing around in a bucket, and he remembers the way Glenn used to make him laugh, sitting up on top of that RV at watch; how he'd try to cover his mouth to hide his smile, like maybe there was something wrong with being happy. Remembers the press of Glenn's leg against his around the fire pit, worrying that Merle would notice and then deciding that a couple of touching legs looked innocent enough. Remembers watching Glenn, always watching him, and sometimes seeing that Glenn watched him back. He remembers wanting more, dreaming of more, wanting to reach out, to touch, and…

He reaches out blindly through the dark, smiles when Glenn's fingers wrap around his hand. "Everyone deserves… happy," he says. "Maggie… Maggie's a lucky girl."

Then he doesn't remember anything at all.

 

VII - Guard Tower

The sun is setting when Daryl hears the creak of the wood, feels the subtle shift of the watchtower as someone climbs up to reach him.

He shifts on the bench, side-glances the opening, and is not surprised when it's Glenn's head that appears at the top of the ladder. The kid's been hovering around him ever since they almost got overrun two weeks ago. It had been Carol that brought him soup to eat, then stew and vegetables when he started feeling better; Rick that helped him hobble his way to the outhouse when he decided he wasn't using no damn chamber pot. But it was Glenn who almost always seemed to be sitting on the wooden chair at the end of the bed whenever he woke up, day or night – sometimes slumped uncomfortably, legs splayed out, mouth hanging open in sleep; sometimes biting at his nail; sometimes just watching him silently. Most times Daryl'd just close his eyes, drift off again, try to ignore the way he always felt a little lighter knowing that Glenn was there. Try to ignore, too, that when he awoke and Glenn wasn't there everything felt off somehow; and he'd picture Glenn sitting with Maggie, their heads close together like they were that day they took the compound, and then his chest would feel tight, and he'd blink his eyes rapidly and try not to think at all. Mostly he tried to ignore the fact that he couldn't remember what happened between them in the woods.

His memory stops right around the time when he sunk his knife into the walker's skull. He remembers the way the geek's skull gave under the blade, caving in like an eggshell, and he remembers the gush of reeking fluid erupting from the wound, coating his hand in blood and slime. He's been told that Glenn dragged him back to the compound after he hit his head on that rock, half a dozen walkers on their tails. He only remembers the hallucinations in the days that followed, Merle and sometimes his ma standing at the end of the bed. Merle taunting him for being a pussy, sneering at him, making his heart race.

Daryl pushes it all aside, adjusts the crossbow on his lap, stares out into the dusk as Glenn clambers over the rail and drops onto the bench seat beside him.

"Brought you this," Glenn says.

Daryl looks up to see Glenn holding out one of the blankets they'd found in the storeroom. The thing is faded to a washed out green, threadbare in places, but the nights are getting colder and he's not exactly picky. He plucks it from Glenn's outstretched hand, shakes it out before tossing it lightly over his shoulders.

He's not exactly stupid, either. "They send you up here to check on me?"

"No," Glenn answers quickly. Too quickly. When Daryl shoots him a look, he caves… just like Daryl knew he would. "It's your first shift on watch since you got hurt," the kid continues. "We just want to make sure—"

"Ain't had a damn dizzy spell in days!"

"I know," Glenn says. He leans forward, clasps his hands together. "We just worry about you."

It's been bad enough, having everybody staring at him for the past week, following him with their eyes whenever he ventured out into the yard. "Been takin' care of myself since I was nine years old," Daryl protests. "Don't need no babysitter."

"I know!" Glenn repeats. "But it doesn't matter, I would have come up anyway. I worry. We all worry, whether you like it or not." His thin shoulders lift in a shrug. "That's what families do. We hover around and wring our hands and try to help but mostly just get in the way. God, remember when I sprained my ankle on that supply run to Newnan? The swelling went down in about twelve hours, but Beth didn't leave me alone for days."

Daryl remembers that time only too well. Glenn's face twisted in pain, his leg propped up on one of the coolers; the nearest creek half a day away, so no cold towel to put on the purpling bruise or to ease the swelling. Daryl remembers pacing back and forth at the edge of the clearing where they'd set up camp, feeling like a caged animal; trying to keep an eye on the perimeter for walkers and keep track of how Glenn was doing at the same time, wanting to go and check on him but being held back by his own insecurity. Probably snapped at everybody too, because he felt so damn useless.

"I remember," is all he says.

"Anyway, Carol wanted to send up some soup, but I told her if you had anymore you'd probably float away."

Daryl snorts. Even though he'd moved on to solid food a week ago, once the head-spins stopped and he could keep it all down, had been eating all the same food as the others in the common room for the last four days, Carol's got some kind of fixation on feeding him soup. "Thanks," he says. "I keep eatin' all the soup she gives me, I'll never stop pissin'. Must be the mother in her. Thinks chicken soup makes everythin' better."

"Well," Glenn answers after a long moment. "She likes you, you know."

Daryl shrugs uncomfortably. "I kept lookin' for Sophia. She's grateful."

"No," Glenn says softly. "She likes you."

It isn't like he didn't know it. Isn't even like he didn't consider it, once upon a time, 'til he decided that it wouldn't be fair to either of them. "Ain't like I don't like girls."

"Sure. Me too. They're soft. Curvy in all the right places."

Daryl stares out into the deepening gloom. His shoulders feel stretched to breaking, the old aches from the long hours working on fence repairs reawakening when he tenses. He glares down at the cleared areas around the compound, almost hopes for a damn walker to shuffle into view just so this whole conversation can come to an end.

"Ain't like it's none of your business, neither," he snaps out when no geek appears to put him out of his misery. "Just happen to like boys better, is all."

"Yup, me too," Glenn says quietly from beside him. "Sometimes even just one particular boy."

Daryl's head snaps up, all thoughts of keeping an eye out for walkers gone from his head in an instant. "This some kind of game to you?" he snarls. His hands curl into fists in his lap, his body straining against the desire to get up, to bury his fist into the nearest hard surface. "You like playin' with the fag, is that it? Go on, get out of here! Go find Maggie and tell her how you got a rise outta the faggot, she'll have a good laugh at tha—"

"Whoa!" Glenn holds up a hand. "I'm not… where is this even coming from? You keep bringing up Maggie—"

"She's your girlfriend, ain't she? So go on—"

"Okay, dude, she hasn't been—" Glenn pauses, takes a breath. "I told you, back on the last run. Maggie and I, it didn't work out. For a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is that I prefer men." He leans back against the wood planking, shakes his head. "God, Daryl. I used to see you watching me, you know. Back at the quarry. And I thought… maybe. But then you were so brusque all the time, and I thought I had to be imagining things, seeing things the way I wanted them to be instead of the way they actually are." He huffs out a laugh. "That's a failing of mine, I'm a glass half full kind of guy. Not exactly the most practical way to be in the middle of a damn apocalypse.

"And then Maggie came along, and I like girls too, and I couldn't keep mooning over you forever. But it didn't work. And then you came right out and told me… Jesus, Daryl, ever since you told me, I've been trying to give you signals – hell, I volunteered to go out on that hunt with you, just so maybe we could talk, get some alone time. Rick was going to send T-Dog!"

Daryl slumps back against the seat, scrubs a hand over his chin. "I seen you," he says haltingly. "Seen you and Maggie together."

"Sure. I like Maggie. She's a good friend. Hell, Daryl, all of us? We're family. We're going to spend the rest of our lives together. There's no time for hurt feelings and there's no room for bullshit. Maggie's a good person and I like her a lot. But I don't like her the same way I like you."

Daryl blinks.

"I like you," Glenn reiterates as he pushes himself up from the bench. "But if this is freaking you out too much or you're not ready or something, I'll just—"

Daryl reaches out a hand without thinking, wraps his fingers around Glenn's wrist. He can feel the pulse beating rapidly beneath his thumb; even in the gloom, he can see the way Glenn's eyes go round and wide at the touch.

"Wouldn’t mind some company," he finally says.

"Okay," Glenn says after a moment. "Okay."

For a long time, more time than he can count with all the rapidly spinning thoughts going around in his head, there is only the sounds of the forest – small nocturnal animals coming out after the heat of the day is done, searching for prey. An owl making itself known in one of the trees. A cold breeze from the north catching the edge of the blanket, causing it to brush lightly against his thigh.

Glenn's breathing, slow and easy beside him.

His own heart's beating fast and his throat feels parched. He can't help side-glancing the kid, but Glenn just keeps staring out at the tree line, his hands clasped loosely in his lap and his expression serene. Daryl opens his mouth a couple of times, but whatever he could say just seems pointless.

It's better to just be.

And when the next gust of wind flutters his hair and sneaks icy fingers down into his open collar, he nudges the kid. Spreads the blanket open far enough that Glenn can snuggle inside, and wraps it around the two of them.

And when Glenn's hand finds his under the blanket, he hesitates only a moment before he takes it. Holds on tight.

 

VIII – The Compound Yard

The noise of the construction is bound to draw walkers, but it can't be helped. Daryl glances warily up at the watch tower, squints against the bright autumn sunlight until he sees Beth's silhouette against the afternoon sky. The young girl paces back and forth steadily, the rifle slung easily on her back. No matter how long he looks, she doesn't turn her face away from scanning the encroaching woods.

The girl's done well in her training. They've all done well, coming together like… well, like a family. Like he always imagined a family did, anyway.

He's pulled from his contemplation when Lori touches his elbow; she smiles as she hands him a cup of water from the tray balanced precariously in her arms. He nods his thanks, follows her with his eyes as she makes her way over to Hershel. She's showing even more now, her stomach leading the way as she walks. Not quite at the waddling stage yet, but soon.

The more protection they can provide for her and the baby – for all of them – the better.

That thought leads him to Carol, and he scans the yard until he spots her over by the pile of wood they'd salvaged from the lumber yard, bent over and pulling twisted nails from the used scraps. New muscles flex in her arms as she works, the sheen of sweat glistening on her skin.

He's been avoiding her the last few weeks, everything he wants to say to her getting tied up on his tongue. He takes a swallow of water and grimaces, wishes it was whiskey before squaring his shoulders and crossing to her.

He juts his chin toward the fence line. "Good idea," he says.

Carol stops what she's doing and beams, looking over at the secondary fence going up in front of the first. "I figured we had all that extra wood, plus whatever you boys could chop down. Second line of defense just made sense."

He nods. With two sets of barriers, any walkers that do manage to breach the fence line will be trapped behind the second. And though the second fence will be much weaker, it'll still give them plenty of time to pick the geeks off before they can do any damage. It's a simple yet brilliant plan. Leave it to Carol to think of it.

Carol smiles, starts to bend her back to her task. "Back to work," she says brightly.

There's nothing more he'd like to do. Giving himself another back ache by lugging timber all day is infinitely preferable to talking, especially when 'feelings' are concerned. Especially when he's got a boy that knows how to give special Korean backrubs. But he makes himself stand firm.

"Wanted to talk to ya," he forces himself to say. "About Glenn."

Carol shrugs, looking up at him. "There's nothing to talk about."

Daryl wishes he could just take what the woman is saying at face value, walk away. But Glenn keeps nattering on about how his whole "gruff thing" just doesn't work anymore, especially now, so Daryl plants his feet in the dust, swallows around a throat that feels dry no matter how much water he chugs. "Thing is," he says, "me and him… you and me…" He coughs, clutches at the mug until his knuckles turn white. "Thing is—"

"Oh Daryl," Carol says, straightening. She reaches out to touch his arm. "There was no you and me. There was just me, looking for someone to hold on to when I lost Sophia. And the thing is," she says with a grin, "sometimes when a person is stuck on one thing, even if that thing doesn't make sense, she can be blinded to the real thing that's right in front of her face."

She glances across the yard. Daryl follows her gaze, raises an eyebrow. "You and T?"

"Well, it isn't like we're going to be sneaking off behind the water tower," she teases.

Daryl feels the blush blaze across his neck, creep into his cheeks in the space of a heartbeat. He glances involuntarily across to the kid, but Glenn is concentrating on nailing in a crossbeam, oblivious to the conversation around him. He glares at the kid anyway. Goddamnit, he knew someone would notice. Without TV and magazines, all these damn people got for entertainment is gossiping about everyone else.

He swipes a hand over his hot neck, squints back at Carol. "Hell, it ain't like we were doin' nothin'—"

"Ohhhh yes, you were," Carol laughs. She drops her hand to her hip, lets her own gaze drift back toward T-Dog. The other man must feel the heat of her gaze on him, because after a moment he looks up, grins his gapped-toothed smile. "We're taking it slow, but… he's a good man. I like him."

Daryl straightens his shoulders, eyes T-Dog when the man bends down to his work before turning his attention back to Carol. "He doesn't treat you right, you tell me, y'hear?"

"Don't worry about me, Daryl. I'll be fine." She slaps at his arm playfully. "Now get back to work. We've got to get this done long before Lori's ready to deliver."

Daryl glances around the yard, finds Lori standing next to Rick. The man isn't speaking, one hand wrapped around a mug of water, but he's looking at her in a way he hasn't in a long time. Speculative. Like maybe he's seeing his wife anew.

Maybe everybody just needs to take a step back sometimes.

"Everyone deserves a little happiness," he murmurs.

"Pardon?"

Daryl shakes his head. "Nothin'," he says.

"Hey! Slacker!" Glenn calls out. "Get your ass back to work!"

"Fuck you!" Daryl yells back, but he grins and tosses his mug aside and heads toward the woodpile. Glenn laughs, shooting him a quick finger before returning to his job. Behind him, he hears the squelch of another nail being pulled from the wood as Carol bends back to her task. Hershel claps him on the shoulder when he reaches the haphazard pile of planks, and ten minutes later he's blinking the sweat out of his eyes as he steadies the board for Maggie to hammer it into place.

Daryl's not usually one for optimism – been disappointed before, had the rug pulled out from under him too many times to count. But it seems like their little family is going to be just fine.

 

Epilogue

After five days in the bush, sleeping rough when he was able to sleep at all, the lumpy cot in his cabin feels like a little slice of nirvana. Daryl rolls on to his stomach, shoves his arms under the pillow. He knows that he should get up, splash some water on his face, at least shuck off his boots before he lets himself doze for an hour or so before he goes to help with skinning the buck. The thought makes him grimace, his muscles protesting at the thought of being put back to work so soon.

He lets his eyes drift closed. Just for a minute.

"You're back!"

Daryl groans, opens one eye at the exuberant voice, and squints blurrily at the kid. "Ain't," he says. "Just a figment of your imagination."

"Don't even joke, I already thought I saw you last night. I nearly broke an ankle running over. Note for the future, if you're going to let someone work on your bike while you're gone, tell me about it."

Daryl frowns. There'd been a lot of commotion prior to him and Grimes taking off on the hunt, between Carl pouting about not being able to go along, Lori and Rick bending their heads together to talk (and he's pretty sure he saw Rick sneak a kiss, definitely sure that Lori blushed like a schoolgirl), and Beth flying around like a worker bee, checking their packs and making sure they had enough dried meat and canned goods to last them on the trip. He barely had time to say goodbye to Glenn, never mind give someone permission to tool around on his wheels. Not that he'd ever give anyone permission. Mostly because if they damaged the bike he'd have to kill them, and he likes these people.

"Anyway, you missed all the excitement," Glenn continues, flopping down cross-legged onto the cot. He reaches behind him to fiddle with the laces on Daryl's boots, tugging on his foot before looking up. "Carl found a pig!"

Daryl blinks.

"A sow, actually. Hershel says the babies are due any day now. Do you have any idea what this means?" he asks. The grin splits his face as he answers his own question. "Bacon!"

"Everybody likes bacon," Daryl mumbles.

"And pork chops," Glenn continues. "Not that we don't appreciate what you and Rick bring in, but dude? I am seriously sick of squirrel."

Daryl only realizes his eyes have drifted closed again when he hears the thump of his boot hitting the wooden floor. He forces his eyes open, though it takes a few seconds for them to focus.

"T's talking about organizing a search party for tomorrow, looking for the boar. If we can find it, we'd be able to breed them a lot faster—"

"Kid."

"—instead of waiting for the piglets to get old enough. Maggie cleared out the storeroom for now—"

"Glenn."

"—and T's all gung-ho about this search party. Probably the best person to go out and backtrack the pig's trail would be you, but we know you're probably exhausted from—"

"Glenn!" Daryl snaps.

When Glenn pauses in the act of tossing the second boot to the floor, Daryl twists onto his side and pulls an arm from beneath the pillow to wave a hand wearily. "You ever gonna stop talkin'?"

Glenn just grins. "Missed you."

"Mmm," Daryl mumbles. His eyes have already closed again by the time the cot dips with the weight of Glenn's body as Glenn settles down beside him. When he drapes an arm over the kid's body Glenn takes his hand, slides their fingers together.

The lumpy cot has never felt so soft and comfortable, the early afternoon sunlight falling through the single window and bathing the room in heat. Glenn's back is warm against his chest, and he snuggles closer, buries his nose in the kid's silky hair. Glenn's breathing is slow and steady, and it only takes a moment for Daryl's breathing to match it, for his grip on Glenn to go lax.

He doesn't lay awake dreaming of impossibilities. He's got everything he needs.

The End