Actions

Work Header

The Ballad of Darth Angel

Chapter Text

Daryl looked around the small den, at the faces of Michonne, Morgan, Glenn, Maggie and Carol. Even in the shadows, in the dim light, he could see how ashen and drawn they looked; how exhausted and sad.

“Listen,” Carol told them quietly. “I want us all to do three-hour shifts with him. He’s not going to leave that room, and he’s probably not going to eat or drink or sleep unless we make him. We can’t leave him alone. We need to see him through this… no matter what happens.”

“It could be a long haul,” Glenn said flatly.

Michonne sighed sadly. “It could be one night…”

“We’ll be here for him,” Maggie stated. “We owe it to him.”

Morgan and Daryl nodded.

They all looked back to Carol. “Ok, then,” she said. “Michonne, you’re up next. The rest of you go get some dinner and some sleep. Daryl, you’ll do ten to one in the morning. You up for that?”

“I’ll be here at one,” Maggie volunteered. “Then Glenn.”

“I’ll be here at seven,” agreed Morgan.

They all filed slowly past the door to the sickroom where Daryl had been just a couple nights earlier, and Michonne ducked in to begin her vigil. Daryl hung back in the shadows outside the door, watching as she pulled a chair up next to the one where Rick sat, once again, his head hanging down, elbows on his knees. On the other side of Rick’s chair, Denise was just pulling a needle out of one of his arms, holding a vial of his blood—for Carl, no doubt. Beyond, in the bed, Carl lay with his face bandaged beyond recognition, blood soaking through the dressings. Michonne leaned forward and took Carl’s hand in her left one, lifted it to her lips and kissed it, held it tight. Then, with her other hand, she did the same to Rick, who didn’t stir.

Daryl wished he were still the one lying there.

It wasn’t fair. Not that he ever expected life to be fair… but for lightning to strike twice, well, the Good Lord just had to have Carl and Rick on His shit list. He knew that all of them—all but Michonne and Morgan—were thinking about the first time this had happened. About the first time that Rick had sat wringing his hands by his son’s bedside at Hershel’s farm, he and Lori hoping and praying for a miracle. What they got was Hershel, and that was enough to save the boy’s life. Rick had given blood until he couldn’t stand up, and Carl had fought like a tiger and pulled through. He’d been through so much since. He was a fighter, and at one time Daryl had no doubt he’d be the last man standing.

Nobody seemed to think anything could save him this time—real doctor or no. The discussion was less about Carl and more about Rick—and while they worried out loud that Rick would forget to eat or sleep, the bigger unspoken worry was that Rick would lose his damn mind again.

No one wanted to be the one to put Carl down, but each and every one of them had confirmed their willingness to do it, to spare Rick that nightmare. It was the least any of them could do. It was all any of them could do, really.

Daryl pushed away from the wall and slowly limped his way down the hall and into the kitchen. He looked up to see Maggie standing in front of him, leaning against the counter, arms folded across her chest. She looked at him hard.

“Where were you this morning?” she demanded.

He blinked at her. “Aaron’s house.”

“Maybe you could have talked him out of it…” She sighed and looked away, her jaw tense.

He squinted at her, confused. “Talked who outta what?”

“Talked Rick out of leaving the house with them, Daryl. I honestly don’t know what he was thinking. I can’t understand…”

Daryl had only a vague picture of what had happened: that Carl had been accidentally shot in the head out on the street – no one knew by whom; that Jessie and Sam were gone; that it had all gone down in front of Rick, in the midst of a horde of walkers.

Daryl stared at Maggie numbly, waiting for her to say more. Finally she looked back at him. “I saw the whole thing. It was horrible. And so senseless.” Maggie’s eyes, already red from crying, welled with fresh tears.

“I came to the house with Sarah early in the morning, before the wall collapsed – when Glenn left with the group trying to get to Sasha,” she began. “When… when the breach happened we were in the house with Jessie and Sam, Carol and Carl and Judi. Jessie was very upset, worried about her older son at the Petersons.’ The streets were filling with walkers and Rick came flying back in and… and then a couple walkers were at the door and the big front window. They broke the window and one came right through the boards. Carol and I took Sarah and Judi upstairs, and we tried to get the others to come up. Jessie was bawling and begging Rick to go to the Petersons for Ron and…” Maggie shook her head, disbelieving, pinching the bridge of her nose, “and he gave in and said ok. Thought they could get across two streets and then out the gate. Carl insisted on going with him, and Sam wouldn’t leave his mother. Carol couldn’t talk any sense into them. Next thing we knew they were covering themselves with walker guts and… and Carol and I just barricaded ourselves and the girls into an upstairs bedroom and got in the windows with the rifles. We thought we’d cover them…”

Maggie couldn’t speak anymore, her voice having dropped to a choked whisper, and Daryl reached out to touch her elbow, keeping his hand there. She gathered herself and tried to continue. “It happened so quickly. There were just too many walkers, but they might have made it if little Sam hadn’t panicked… He… he…”

“Naw… stop…” Daryl said. He knew it hurt her to tell it, and he didn’t want to hear it. He pulled Maggie close and just held her to his chest for a moment.

“I wish you had been there,” Maggie whimpered against his shoulder. And while he knew she didn’t say it with malice, didn’t mean to hurt him, it felt like she’d driven a knife into his gut.

He should have been there. He was supposed to be there. But he was off getting laid while his family was in jeopardy. How could he have been so selfish? He threw a childish fit lastnight, he walked out and abandoned them all, and look what happened.

It all whirled in his head like a tornado as he wandered the darkened streets, going nowhere in particular, stepping over bodies of walkers sprawled half frozen in the slush. His day had been surreal.

***

He’d watched Aaron strap on his rifle and machete and head out the door, while he stayed behind like a housewife minding their kid. He hustled a reluctant Eric up the stairs and stuck a .22 in his hand, grabbing the 30.06 and boxes of ammo he’d brought with him the night before.

“C’mon man,” he’d told his new friend, “take a position.”

They knelt before the front bedroom windows, opening the sashes just enough for the gun barrels, and proceeded to pick off walkers one by one as they staggered past. Now and then they’d pause to nod or wink at each other after a particularly good shot. There were no humans in sight, though they could hear shouting from time to time, and gunfire coming from various directions. It seemed like a game, and for a while he treated it that way; but after an hour that seemed like an eternity, the walkers were still coming, his knees ached, both shoulders felt sore, and Eric’s courage was failing.

Daryl grabbed a chair and pulled it up to the window so he could sit. He looked over at Eric, noticing the man looked pale and ill.

“What’sa matter?” he growled.

“I want to know what’s happening,” Eric complained. “I wish we could see Aaron. Where IS everybody?”

Daryl picked off a walker with dreadlocks, and a rotten old lady in a pantsuit, and turned back to Eric. “He’s fine,” he assured the other man. “He c’n take care of himself. We both know it.”

But as time crawled by, his patience and surety drained away like grains of sand in an hourglass… replaced by a powerful urge to hit the street and find Aaron, find Rick, find his family. There had to be people outside at the fence killing the walkers by hand—there was too little gunfire. It was hard, dangerous, exhausting work and Daryl knew his presence down there was sorely missed. Here he was sitting in an armchair in the window, and people could be dying…

When he could stand it no longer, he told a protesting Eric to stay put, shouldered his rifle, and slipped out the back door, limping carefully and furtively between the houses, heading down toward the breach in the wall. It wasn’t long before he arrived at the nexus of the action—but the action was more or less over. It was hard to tell the living from the dead, as bload-soaked people staggered like walkers away from the gruesome carnage in the street. Piles of rotten bodies were everywhere, and he spotted Abraham and a couple of the Alexandrians still taking out a few stragglers. Michonne was slumped on a porch nearby, her sword on the ground. Eugene appeared to be throwing up between a couple of houses.

Aaron stumbled up to him, machete still clutched in his bloody hand. His eyes looked hollow and exhausted. “Eric?” he asked.

“He’s fine,” Daryl assured him, squinting at the man. “Where’s Rick?”

Aaron lifted one gory, trembling hand and wiped it across his brow, leaving a dark red streak. He shook his head slowly, and Daryl felt his heart plummet into the pit of his stomach…

***

He snapped out of his reverie when he stepped into an ominously dark puddle in the slush; whipping out his penlight, he shone it on the ground and realized he was standing in a pool of bright red blood.

***

“Hey,” he said softly, stepping into the sickroom.

Michonne looked up from where she slouched in a chair beside Rick, then turned to the man and touched his arm. “Daryl’s here,” she told him. “I’m gonna go for a bit.” Daryl watched as she stood up slowly, then moved to the head of the bed and bent to kiss Carl’s mop of brown hair carefully, whisper something in his ear. She turned then, and walked toward Daryl, grabbed him by the sleeve and pulled him back out into the hall.

“Rick hasn’t said a word for three hours,” she whispered gravely to him, her dark eyes shining in the dim light. “He won’t talk to me. I don’t know where he’s gone. And Carl…” she looked away, sniffling, wiped the back of her hand across her nose. “I’m afraid he won’t last the night. Are you gonna be able to…”

“I’ll do what I gotta do,” he assured her.

She sighed and wiped a tear from the corner of her eye. “Be careful.” And she nodded toward Rick. “Be careful of him.”

What the hell did that mean? He pondered her words a moment as she left him standing in the dark hallway. Then he slowly entered the room and approached Carl’s bedside. He looked at Rick, reached to touch his shoulder, but his friend simply sighed and continued staring—at what, Daryl couldn’t tell. He turned to Carl, leaning down on the bed to peer at the few inches of skin he could see on the boy’s face. Rick’s son seemed peaceful, at least, his chest rising and falling slowly.

“Hey, little brother,” Daryl said softly, perching gingerly on the edge of the bed. “Man, I’d… I’d take your place if I could. I’m sorry this happened. But you’re a tough shit, I know you are…” Daryl’s voice broke as emotion came flooding in. “C’mon, I know it sucks, but you can do this. You gotta do it. We need you. Your old man needs you…”

***

Daryl had been sitting quietly in the chair for more than an hour, when Rick’s voice startled him out of a daydream.

“Wanna ask you somethin,’” Rick said hoarsely.

Daryl turned toward him, but Rick was still staring at the bedspread with a far-away look in his eyes.

“I’m listenin,’” Daryl encouraged, even though dread began to ball in the pit of his stomach.

“When he dies… will you be here?”

The question hurt, and Daryl wondered if indeed Rick blamed him for not being there that morning. “IF he dies,” Daryl said carefully, “I’ll do my damndest. I’m here for ya. For Carl, too.”

Rick sighed. “So when he dies… I want you here. I want you to stay with me. If they take my Colt, I want you to get it back,” he said in very low tones.

Daryl squinted at him, shuffling his feet. “So you… you want me to put him down for you?” he said as gently as he could.

Rick turned and looked him hard in the eye, and Daryl had no doubt at that moment that Rick was anything but completely present and lucid.

“No. He’s my son and I’ll take care of that. What I’m sayin’ is, a few days ago, I made sure you had your peace and quiet and privacy here, and when Carl’s gone, I’m trustin’ you to do the same for me,” Rick said slowly and clearly. “All I need’s a moment alone with my gun. Gotta be safe—nobody in the next room. Then you gotta make sure it’s over and done. In case I flinched and missed the spot.”

Daryl’s mouth dropped open.

Was Rick really asking him what it sounded like he was asking him?

Rick stared at him, his blue eyes blazing, waiting for Daryl’s assent.

NO! Daryl’s mind screamed. But all he could do was slowly shake his head, his knuckles whitening as he clamped his fingers around the edges of the chair in which he sat. A vice suddenly began to tighten inside his chest.

“You understandin’ me?”

Why?”

Rick turned back toward Carl, his jaw clenching and face tightening into a scowl. “’Cause he’s what’s kept me going all this time, and when he’s gone, I’ve got nothing left. And ‘cause I can’t live with the fact that it’s my fucking fault,” he said tightly. “That’s why.”

“What about Judith? She needs you…”

Rick snorted. “She doesn’t need me. She’s got all o’ you. She’s so young, she won’t remember all this. It’ll be for the best. Besides, if Carl can’t survive, how can she? I’ll be holdin’ her again soon enough,” he said darkly. “Lori was right—this ain’t no world for kids.”

“The poor kid is here, and she’s already motherless,” Daryl exclaimed, his voice rising, “now you wanna orphan her!”

“Shutup!” Rick hissed. “Someone’ll hear you!”

“Rick, we all need you! This whole goddamn place needs you!”

“I said shuddup!” Rick grabbed Daryl by the arm, but Daryl yanked away, jumping to his feet.

Do you know what I did today?” Rick asked, on the edge of his seat. “Do you know what happened? People died! Again. My own son is dying, because of another stupid decision I made. I can’t do this anymore. Don’t you get it?”

“Rick, I can’t…”

Rick stood slowly, tilted his head and fixed Daryl with a contemptuous glare. “I thought we were friends,” he growled. “Seem to remember you beggin’ me just two days ago to stay by your side, to help you die with some dignity, to be there for you in your hour of need. You gonna deny me that, now?”

“I got bit,” Daryl whispered. “Yer talkin’ suicide…”

“Dyin’ is dyin’ and we all gotta do it sometime soon.”

“Rick, c’mon…”

“You fucking coward! You think I wanted to sit there alone with you and watch you die? You think it was some kinda Sunday picnic? I did it ‘cause that’s what we do for each other! I coulda let you crawl off and kill yourself in the woods like you wanted to!”

“I got bit and there wasn’t nuthin’ I could do about it. But you… you’re checkin’ out. You’re bein’ the coward!”

Rick lunged forward and grabbed Daryl by the shirt collar, slamming him against the wall, pinning him there with an arm across his throat and threatening to crush his windpipe. Daryl’s hands came up to Rick’s chest, his pupils blown open in surprise. In Rick’s eyes, he found nothing of the tenderness and compassion he’d received two days ago.

“Stop,” Daryl croaked. “Ain’t gonna fight you…”

Rick responded by pressing him even harder, and Daryl began to see stars, then to panic as he ran out of air—and shoved Rick away as hard as he could, bouncing him off the side of Carl’s bed. Rick came back with a right hook and caught Daryl in the eye, knocking him to the ground.

They both stilled, then, panting, Daryl on his knees tensely waiting for another blow—perhaps a kick. When it wasn’t forthcoming after a moment, he raised his eyes again to Rick, who glared down at him with what appeared to be utter loathing.

“Motherfucker,” Rick finally spat. “Just get out.”

Daryl grabbed the chair and dragged himself to his feet, his ears ringing and blood pounding in his head, pulsing in his eye socket. “Rick… c’mon… please. I’ll do anything but what you’re askin.’”

“Just leave, Daryl—leave like you did lastnight.”

Daryl held it together as long as he possibly could. Tail between his legs, he slunk away quietly, but not before waking Denise and asking her to check on Carl. Leaving the house, he shuffled down the street to find Maggie and ask her to start her shift with Rick early. She and Glenn, bleary-eyed, stared with concern at his swelling face, but asked no questions. By the time he stepped off their porch and back into the icy slush, he felt like a beer that had been shaken one too many times—bulging with an explosive, bubbling mixture of barely-contained rage, grief, horror and helplessness. The pressure continued to build as he headed back to the house he shared with his family. He climbed the porch stairs but stopped outside the door. One small light burned inside the front living room. Though it was damp and cold and merciless outside, he knew he couldn’t go in there—to pace pent up and seething all night, wearing a dirty track in the plush wall-to-wall carpeting. Or maybe to lie staring at the ceiling as it seemed to lower on him until he couldn’t breathe. God forbid Carol should wake up and try to get him to talk… it would only take a small opening to release a sky-high geyser of pain.

He wasn’t afraid to cry again—there were no more tears left inside him. What was left was going to be something much darker and more violent. He couldn’t unleash that on anyone here.

Daryl knew he had to clear his head, exorcise some demons, figure out what to do next—and it had to be done elsewhere. He would take Rick’s suggestion and leave—really leave—and as he turned from Rick’s front door, he realized that he wasn’t entirely certain he’d be back.

***

The side door to Aaron and Eric’s garage was locked. He rattled the knob, yanked and pulled, threw his shoulder into it, to no avail. He wanted the motorcycle, wanted his spare shirt, and this fucking door was in his way. Rage beginning to spill over the dam, he hefted a rock from the landscaping and broke the window, reaching through to unlock the door. He went straight to the bike in the near-darkness and groped the ignition for the key, but it wasn’t there.

Spewing expletives, he flicked his penlight on and walked to the back wall, looking on the workbench, in the keyholder—nothing. He made a circuit of the garage, checking every surface and every nail it might hang on. He tried the back door but it was locked, too, so he fetched that key from its hiding place behind a toolbox and opened it. The motorcycle key was not on the kitchen cupboard or the table or hanging on the wall. He rummaged through drawers, looked in cupboards, his blood pressure pounding in his ears, throbbing in his swelling eye. He could stomp down the hall and wake his friends up… but then he’d have to explain a goddamn black eye and just what the hell he was doing riding off through the gate into the icy night at one o’clock in the morning. He retreated back to the garage, just managing not to slam the door, and stood there in the middle of the floor holding his head.

He felt his fingers slipping off the end of the proverbial rope, clutching at threads, then he began to fall…

“FUCK!” he bellowed, and grabbing the closest thing to him—a plastic box of drawers containing nails, nuts, bolts and screws—he heaved it against the wall, where it exploded with a satisfying crash. With a roar, he went next after a bin of motorcycle parts, then a headlight, then flung a hammer through a window, showering himself with broken glass and sending an electric jolt of pain through his injured shoulder.

“Hey!” came a loud voice from the doorway. He whirled around, suddenly blinded by a flashlight beam. “Daryl? What the hell is going on?” Aaron called.

“WHERE THE FUCK IS THE BIKE KEY?!” Daryl bellowed.

Aaron lowered the flashlight and his pistol and came down the two steps to the garage floor, looking around in dismay. “I thought you were a walker… what the hell are you doing?”

Daryl grabbed Aaron by the shirt, whirled him around and bashed him into a metal cabinet, knocking the wind out of him and the pistol and flashlight out of his hands. The items clattered to the floor and the light rolled away, still shining a beam onto the opposite wall. “I SAID, where are the KEYS?” Daryl growled loudly into Aaron’s face.

Aaron blinked hard a couple of times, caught his breath, his brow furrowing. “Daryl,” he managed to say calmly and evenly, “why are you doing this? Where are you trying to go?”

Aaron’s cool demeanor only made Daryl’s vision redder. He gave Aaron a shake, bouncing his head off the metal door and making him wince. “Don’t ask a buncha goddamn questions!” he hollered. “Just gimme the key!”

“You’re hurting me,” Aaron protested quietly. “And you’re gonna hurt yourself too. You can’t ride that bike in this weather.” The man brought his hands up against Daryl’s chest, but Daryl tightened his fists in Aaron’s shirt, and with all his might, flung his friend to the floor—where he landed, crying out, in a pile of broken glass and bike parts.

Daryl snatched up a wrench and brandished it menacingly, looming over Aaron and panting with rage and exertion. “Yer gonna tell me where the fuckin’ keys are right now,” he growled, “and I ain’t gonna kill ya.”

Groaning, Aaron lifted his arm and hand slowly off the floor, and Daryl could see jagged glass jutting out of it, blood dripping onto the cement. Cradling the arm against his belly, Aaron looked up at Daryl wide-eyed now. “Stop,” he begged. “Look, just take the car. The keys are under the front right wheel well. OK?”

Daryl lowered his arm, tossed the wrench back on the workbench. “Yeah. OK.” He whirled around and made for the door, but Aaron called out to him.

“Daryl?”

“What?” he barked, his hand on the doorknob.

“Are you coming back?”

“No!” he flung back, and made his way out into the night.

***

When the car finally ran out of gas, Daryl opened the door and stepped out onto the slushy pavement. The country road was dark and lonely, but lined with long driveways boasting fancy pillared gates, that he reckoned led deep into forested lots sporting big ol’ McMansions. He’d driven aimlessly, thinking he was finally heading back to the woods, but the suburbs of DC were nearly as sprawling as those around Atlanta, and for all he knew he’d been going in circles anyway. He pulled the emergency backpack out of the trunk, checked that his knife and pistol were still on him, and began to walk up the nearest driveway.

The night felt about as black as the inside of his mind. He didn’t dare think anymore— about Carl fighting for his life, about Rick’s terrible words, about what he’d done to Aaron, about Carol and the others missing him in the morning—it was all too frighteningly painful and overwhelming. And if thinking was bad, feeling was entirely out of the question. All he could feel besides his throbbing left eye was the curtain of numbness descending, the shell beginning to harden once again around his heart.

The house was the largest log cabin he’d ever been in—pretty ostentatious to even be called a cabin, he reckoned. He walked in the unlocked front entry, closed the door behind him and bolted it, flicked his flashlight around the cavernous entry and living room with a high cathedral ceiling. The house was cold as a tomb, but had a real fireplace and a pile of wood. He walked across the room, picked up a pair of decorative deer antlers, and rattled them together as loudly as he could.

“Anybody home? C’mon out!” he shouted. He was greeted with deep silence. No walkers clawing on doors or shuffling down unseen hallways. Nothing, living or dead.

He remembered the night when he walked into that dark little cabin back in the woods, at the tender age of 16, and felt exactly the same way. So terribly, irreversibly alone. Reliant only on his own wits for survival. And survive he did—but only in body, it seemed. The numbness had been a friend then, fueled by stolen liquor that he consumed every night. And every morning, it was up and back at the business of survival. There were flashes of light and beauty—moments of peace found hunting in the forest or swimming in a creek—but for days at a time, he’d felt utterly lost in the dark. Was he walking dead even then?

In the corner of the big cabin’s living room rose an impressive bar, with an enormous liquor cabinet that once was full. Glasses and coasters and swizzle sticks and other drinking accoutrements lay scattered on the plush carpet, the cabinet doors open. So… someone had already scavenged here, and taken what booze and other goods they could carry. Maybe more than once. But they hadn’t cleaned it out entirely.

Daryl opened a bottle of gin left behind and took a long swig, feeling the liquid burn all the way down. “Fuck yeah,” he muttered. He squatted down and rifled around some more, finding crème de menthe and raspberry vodka, and way in the back, a small bottle of tequila. If the gin didn’t knock him on his ass, Jose Cuervo could take a swing at him next, he decided.

Bottle dangling from his fingers, he limped around the house, taking the time to clear the kitchen, bedrooms and bathrooms, the den and what appeared to be a home movie theater on a lower level. In the upstairs hallway, he finally arrived at the last doorway, and rapped with his knuckles. Nothing. Turning the knob, he found the door locked. He paused for another draught of gin, examining the door in his dying flashlight beam. Standing on tiptoe, he ran his fingers over the molding above the doorframe, and was surprised to actually find the key.

Stepping inside, he shined the light around, and at first thought he’d entered some sort of dog kennel. A cage stood in the far corner, and he caught sight of leather leashes and glinting metal on the wall. But why no dog smell? On closer inspection… there were other metal constructions in the room besides the cage. Weight machines? He stopped in front of something hanging from the ceiling which turned out to be a complicated leather swing, and it struck him—this was a sex room, and these were the tools of a high-society, Washington, DC dominatrix. “Well, shit,” he muttered, and damned his dying flashlight. The room was windowless, but he suddenly noticed what appeared to be an oil lamp mounted on a wall sconce, and fishing in his pockets, he produced a match and carefully lit it. The lamp threw just enough light for him to see that there were four more lamps around the room—so he walked around and lit them all, then stood back and gazed about. The effect of the lamplight on the deep red walls and black curtains and torture-chamber style implements and contraptions was positively medieval. He took another slow circuit, sipping on his gin, this time examining and fingering the whips and leashes and paddles, the hanging costumes, the cabinet of dildos and straps, the swing, the stocks, the unnerving human cage and the two large, complicated looking metal devices (with rubber accessories) that could torture and tickle you six ways from Sunday. Then he looked up and saw the photo gallery.

His breath caught in his throat at the sight of the large, framed photos arranged on the back wall. They featured a beautiful young man, his face only partly visible in any of them, naked and bound in a variety of fascinating ways. Daryl stepped closer, staring slackjawed through his one good eye, as the visions unfolded before him.

The man knelt before the photographer, his head bowed to the ground, chest on his thighs, hands tied behind his back. The red cord binding his chest, back and thighs, his hands and arms, was intricately and exquisitely knotted in dozens of places, and he was trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey, Daryl thought, but there was something so moving, so intriguing about him. The man had to have submitted to kneeling for hours while someone lovingly tied beautiful knot after knot against his pale skin all over his body. Who would do such a thing?

In the next photo, the man knelt upright, blindfolded, his head pulled back by the collar around his throat, back arched like a bow, chest muscles and biceps straining against the bindings holding his arms behind him. Between his legs, a cock ring encircled his engorged and shining penis, which stood against his belly; a leather strap wrapped his balls, and Daryl felt a sudden sympathetic twinge in his crotch, then a swelling fullness pressing against his jeans.

Holy fuck…

The third photo portrayed the man bound facedown on a bed, pale skin and dark hair beautiful against the crimson coverlet. His arms were spread and tied to the bedposts, his knees bent and legs folded but spread beneath him and secured with knots around his waist. What appeared to be a huge dildo was sunk halfway inside his body. Daryl gasped, clutching his bottle tighter, feeling his ass clench deep inside.

Who would do such a thing? He would. He tossed back several more gulps of gin, staring at the photos, and in his half-drunken haze, his mind began to swirl with burning fantasies. He imagined himself as that lovely young man, imagined the knots against his skin, the helplessness, the burning muscles, the blue balls, the pain and pleasure of being completely at someone else’s mercy. No more decisions to make, no thought of how to please the other—his only job to submit. He could do that. Only for Rick.

But Rick would never ask him to do that. Rick told him to leave, and looked at him like he might have looked at shit on his shoe. If Rick tied him up and tortured him sexually, it would only be to punish him. And he would submit to that too.

He stepped to his left, lifted a cat o’ nine tails off the wall, and gave himself an experimental swat.

He needed to be punished. Punishment was good. It was what he deserved. Punishment was the thing that could combat the darkness nipping at his heels, seeping into his head, filling in the corners of his vision. He knew how to do punishment.

Kneeling on the red cushion in the center of the room, the alcohol keeping his naked body warm, he snapped the leather straps around his cock and balls, picked up the short, multi-stranded whip again, and flicked it over his shoulder. Again, harder. And again, feeling the sting of each silver-beaded tail on his bare skin. It especially stung the raw skin beneath the bandage on his shoulder, so he struck himself there again. The hurt was good. He grabbed his straining cock, squeezing and stroking, his breath ragged, then whipped himself again, this time hitting himself as hard as he could and making himself gasp. Over and over.

Had Rick felt better after hitting him? Had he failed Rick by leaving again? He imagined himself on the floor again in the sickroom, allowing Rick to beat him, to flog him with his belt, until Rick’s grief and rage were spent. Then would he take Daryl in his arms and hold him? Take him to bed and strip him naked, kiss his wounds and comfort him with his body?

Daryl groaned in an agony of frustration, tilted the bottle and guzzled down the rest of the gin.

The room swam before his eyes, his vision flickering with the lamps. The metal cage surrounding the big black ball with the huge dildo rose from the floor in front of him. His dick was drooling onto the expensive Persian rug. Dropping the cat-o’-nine-tails and the empty bottle, he began to crawl across the room.

What happened next, whether due to the alcohol or to the choke collar he’d placed around his neck, was a dreamy, incoherent blur of straining muscles against leather straps, fullness in his ass, burning lungs and rip-roaring orgasms that kept building up to near crescendo only to slip away, one after another, until at some point, he must have removed the ball strap and let fly. He did not remember finally coming all over himself. He did not remember stumbling to the four-poster bed and collapsing.

But what he did remember, quite vividly, was this: He awoke to feel a gentle pressure on the center of his chest, and when he opened his eyes, he was back in the bedroom of Hershel’s farmhouse, gazing up from the bed into the gentle, watery blue eyes of the old man himself. Hershel smiled down at him, and Daryl realized the pressure was the man’s big hand on his sternum, spreading a wonderful warmth throughout his body that seemed to radiate from his heart.

“You’re going to be ok, you know,” Hershel said to him kindly. Daryl stared up at him, astounded, feeling like there were so many questions to ask—but none that he could verbalize.

“Come on, now. I want to show you something.” Hershel stood up on two legs, still smiling, and beckoned to Daryl, who got up and followed him from the small bedroom he’d once briefly occupied and into the larger room where Carl lay in the big feather bed, suffering from a bullet wound. But he wasn’t the smaller boy he’d been when he first lay in that bed—he had grown, and the wound was not to his belly, but to his head.

Rick was there, too, sitting beside the bed like before, bloody and bleary-eyed and half-paralyzed with fear for his son. Daryl wasn’t surprised to see Lori standing over her husband, kissing his head and rubbing his shoulders, trying to comfort him. Rick acted like Daryl wasn’t there, but Lori glanced at him and smiled softly.

“Carl’s going to be quite alright,” Hershel said. “You’ll see. And Rick—he’ll be just fine too.” Hershel turned to face Daryl fully. “Now you… you need to go back, son. They need you. And you need them.”

Daryl felt some hesitation and thought to argue, to explain, but Hershel looked at him sternly and cut him short.

“Go on now.”

Daryl’s eyes opened into semi-darkness, Hershel’s words still echoing in his ears, as if he’d really heard them. Still feeling, for another moment, the warmth in his chest and a comforting presence.

He struggled to sit up, then looked around blinking and confused at his surroundings. Only one lamp still burned, casting an eerie flickering light around the cold room, glittering off the buckles and chains and bars. Reality elbowed its way into his consciousness, bringing a vicious headache, nausea and some painfully stiff muscles in strange places. He groaned, threw aside the thin coverlet and tried to climb out of the big bed, but had to grab the bed-post to keep his legs from buckling under him as he stood.

“Holy Christ...” Did I fuck a football team lastnight?

He glanced at the menacing contraption across the room, then down at his crotch, and was glad to see that at least he’d had the presence of mind (or perhaps just dumb luck) to remove the cock ring before passing out. Grabbing the edge of the blanket, he tried to clean himself off a bit, though an itchy crust had already dried in his belly hair.

“What the fuck, Dixon…” he grumbled to himself, staggering around the room, trying to find his clothes and accidentally kicking the empty gin bottle across the floor. He winced at the noise it made clanging off the metal cage.

“The fuck were ya thinking? Ya weren’t…”

As he left the room and shuffled bowlegged down the hallway, dragging his clothes behind him, sunlight streamed from the master bedroom door; he realized he had no idea what time it was. Stepping into the bedroom, he was captured by the view from the floor-to-ceiling windows—a stunning panorama sweeping across woods and what was probably once a golf course, down to the sparkling Potomac River, all the landscape glittering with snow. Standing in front of the windows, he sighed and thought about how far he’d come from any place that felt like home. How he’d so rashly left the only home and family he had. How he now had to face going back.

It didn’t occur to him to cast aside his vision as “just a dream.” He knew better. He was raised to believe in signs, dreams, omens and spirits, and he could still remember being knee-high and watching his mama and Aunt Bets table-tippin’ at Mamaw’s house across town. Table-tippin’, séances, Tarot cards. Kids said his mamaw was a Gypsy, or an Indian. He never did find out the truth. But he knew that when Mamaw said she’d had a dream, everybody listened.

So he would return. He clung to the comfort that Hershel’s words gave him—he would be alright. Carl would survive and recover, and that meant Rick would, too. He refused to entertain any other alternative.

He reckoned it was mid-morning, by the sun—which felt wonderfully warming pouring in the window. He stood there naked and basked in it for a few more moments, slowly realizing that he desperately needed to feel better before he could even begin to embark on the journey home.

The emergency backpack he’d left by the sex room door yielded a water bottle, a package of crackers and some Tylenol, which he gratefully downed. He then started to put his shirt on, but stopped with one arm in the sleeve. The skin on his back stung, and turning around, he beheld in the dresser mirror the myriad tiny cuts he’d made across his shoulders and upper back with the cat-o-nine-tails. Blood had run down his back in thin streams and dried in brown streaks. He sighed and dug into the backpack again for an alcohol pad, and dabbed at himself. Trying once again to don the shirt, he realized he must have used it to clean cum off himself lastnight—half of it was wadded into a stiff, sticky mess. Growling, he pulled it off and dropped it on the floor. Thinking to put on his leather jacket, he lifted it and nearly retched at the smell, his queasy stomach turning a flip. Eric had been right. The stench might actually camouflage him from walkers, but it wasn’t going to help his hangover. A glance around the room revealed a big, walk-in closet…

***

The cars in the front garage had been siphoned of gas long ago, but when Daryl opened another door at the back of the garage and began to explore, he soon stumbled on a find that he thought might pay off. There was a rear garage—and when he shone his light around the dark space, it appeared as if looters had never discovered it. He strolled over to the black sedan with his old gas can, crouched down—and realized that the gas door and the car itself were locked. No problem; he shoved his hands into his pockets and pulled out the keys he’d snatched from the rack in the pantry for just such an occasion, quickly finding the right one. Moments later, he was in business, and a few sucks on the hose got the gas flowing into his can. He sat back on his haunches while the liquid filled the container, letting his mind wander.

It didn’t occur to him until he was standing in the street about to fill the tank on the ugly old Buick that he had a battery charger.

***

Abraham liked to tell the story over and over again about how Daryl pulled up to the gate in the new Mercedes Benz, parked, and got out dressed in an Italian leather jacket over new clothes and shiny new boots, dark sunglasses shading his eyes. As Abraham lowered his rifle, staring, Daryl nodded at him, then opened the back door to remove two huge wild turkeys and his rifle from the back seat, slung them over his shoulders, and sauntered back into Alexandria.

***

Daryl slunk into the infirmary house in the late afternoon with some trepidation, sneaking up on Rosita in the kitchen and tapping her gently on the shoulder. She started and whirled around, her eyes growing large at the sight of him.

“Daryl! They said you left!”

Daryl put his finger to his lips. “’S ok, I’m back,” he murmured. “How’s Carl?”

She smiled tiredly. “Better, actually. Can’t believe it, but he may pull through…”

Daryl turned and tiptoed down the hall, stopping short in the doorway to the sickroom. Michonne sat with Rick again, talking to him softly. Carl still lay unmoving. Daryl stood in the shadows for a moment, holding his breath, taking in the scene—both nothing and everything seemed to have changed. His heart rose up into his throat and he couldn’t bring himself to just walk in, to face Michonne and Rick; instead he slipped away, heading back outside, whispering to Rosita that he’d be back. With things safely in hand there, he had other pressing business.

***

The glass pane in the side door to Aaron’s garage was still missing, but the broken glass had been cleaned up, along with the slush on the walkway. He reached in through the pane and opened the door again, stepping in quietly and flipping the light on. At first glance the room appeared clean; but as he looked around he saw that there were still broken glass and screws and bolts scattered under the cabinet and the workbench. And bloodstains on the floor. Sighing, he fetched a broom from the corner and began sweeping the debris out from where it was hidden, making small piles here and there to return to with the dustpan. It felt good to sweep; it helped him to feel like he was making things right, helped to focus on something else besides his anxiety—his fear that somehow he’d fucked up beyond reconciliation. He crouched painfully on the floor, picking the nuts and bolts out of the dustpan with his fingers, when he heard the door to the kitchen open. He froze and glanced up to see Aaron scowling down at him.

“You leave the dead bird on my porch?” Aaron asked coldly.

Daryl blinked up at him. “It’s a turkey,” he replied in a small voice.

Aaron snorted. “I got that, thanks,” he replied sardonically.

Daryl realized, as his stomach wrapped itself into a knot, that he had no idea how to apologize for what he’d done. ‘Sorry’ didn’t seem to cut it. He stood up slowly and shakily, his eyes dropping to Aaron’s hand, which was wrapped tightly in gauze and bandages.

“Yer hand ok?” he asked in a murmur.

“Fine,” Aaron said tightly.

Daryl took a deep breath. “That ain’t… that ain’t me no more,” he tried to explain, nodding toward Aaron’s injured hand. “I didn’t…” he stopped and sighed. “Rick was blamin’ me for bein’ gone that morning, an’ I just… I blamed you. That ain’t right. You were just bein’ good to me.”

Aaron looked hard at Daryl’s black and swollen eye, crooked an eyebrow. “Rick do that to you?”

Daryl looked down at his new boots, gave a little shrug, which apparently was enough of an answer for Aaron.

“You’re in love with him,” Aaron said flatly, and Daryl winced. He said nothing, and Aaron snorted again. “That’s too bad, isn’t it?”

Daryl couldn’t look at him. He deserved this, he knew, but he was still a bit surprised at Aaron’s cruelty, after the other night.

Aaron sighed after a moment, though, and seemed to relent. “Look,” he said, a tad more gently, “I’m really sorry about Carl. And Jessie, and Sam. It was horrible and we’re all just sick. I’m sorry for Rick, and I’m sorry if he’s taking it out on you. But I won’t be your punching bag.”

Daryl nodded his head.

“And if you come over here and knock me around again, you’d best knock me out—because I will come back at you next time.”

Daryl nodded again, finally looking him in the eye. “Fair ‘nuff.”

The two men regarded each other warily for a moment. Aaron’s angry scowl seemed to have softened a bit, and Daryl thought he saw something more like sadness in his eyes—more like regret.

Daryl carried the dustpan full of glass over to the trash can and dumped it, then reached into his jacket pocket and drew out the Benz keyring. He stepped forward to hand the keys to Aaron, averting his gaze. “I left yer car behind, but I brought you a different one. Them heated seats are pretty nice.”

***

When he returned to the infirmary, Glenn was just pulling up a chair to sit down with Rick, but Daryl stepped forward and grabbed his shoulder, tugging him back gently.

“Gimme a few minutes,” he pled.

Glenn’s face brightened at the sight of him. “You’re back!” he exclaimed softly, and Rick turned in his chair, standing up.

Daryl reached out and squeezed Glenn’s shoulder, nodding at him. “Can I?” he asked.

“Oh. Yeah. Sure.” Glenn beamed at Daryl, nodded at Rick, and scurried out.

Rick looked at Daryl intently. “They said you’d left,” he murmured. “That you weren’t coming back.”

Daryl shrugged. “Took a little huntin’ trip.”

Rick sighed, nodded, and they watched each other in silence for a moment, both struggling for the words to help them span the gulf that had widened between them.

Rick finally gestured at Daryl’s face. “I do that?” he asked, grimacing.

Daryl shrugged. “’S’ ok.”

Rick shook his head. “No… no, it isn’t.”

Daryl nodded toward Carl in the bed, eager to take the attention off himself. “How is he? Rosita said he’s better.”

“Mmm.” Rick looked toward Carl, gazing at his son. “Yeah. He’s stabilized. He’s hanging in there.”

Daryl noticed just how dark the circles were beneath Rick’s eyes, how shaky he seemed on his feet. “Y’know, I realized somethin,’ Daryl,” Rick said with quiet earnestness. “I realized I’ve gotta have hope, if I expect him to have any. I’ve gotta believe in him… in this place… in everybody here. I can’t be thinkin’ about dying, or leaving. I’ve got to keep being strong for him. And for Judi. You know?”

Daryl felt Rick’s flicker of hope begin to unfurl something again in his chest. He nodded.

“You were right and I was wrong, man,” Rick admitted, turning back to Daryl, his voice breaking a little. “I’m sorry, Daryl. It wasn’t right, what I said… what I did.”

“It wasn’t right that I left,” Daryl said, clasping Rick’s arm, worrying about the way he was swaying just a bit. “But I’m here now. I’m here if you want me.”

Rick nodded, his eyes filling up as he held onto Daryl’s elbow.

“Listen, I gotta tell you somethin’,” Daryl said. “Hershel… he came to me lastnight in a dream. He told me that Carl is going to be alright. It was like… we was back in his house, only Carl was older, like now. You were there… and Lori. Lori was takin’ care of you—she didn’t even seem worried about Carl. She… she smiled at me, and she was kissin’ and huggin’ you. And I just got that feelin’—that Hershel was really right and everything is ok. Carl’s gonna be fine—I know it now. Hershel told me I had to come back and tell you.”

Rick blinked against the tears that filled his eyes and began to spill down his cheeks. “No shit… really?” he breathed.

Daryl nodded solemnly, squeezing Rick’s forearm. “Really.”

Rick raised the back of his hand to his mouth to try to stop a choking sob, but it escaped nonetheless, followed by another, and Daryl gently pulled his friend close as Rick dissolved into tears.

“Aw man, I know,” Daryl tried to soothe. “It fuckin’ sucks, but it’s gonna get better. It can only get better, right? He pulled Rick’s shaking body down to perch beside him on the edge of Carl’s bed, and put his arms around him, pressing their foreheads together. Rick sobbed like a child, with loud, hiccupping gasps, and Daryl stroked his back, his arms.

“It’s ok, man, it’s ok. It’s good to get it out.”

“I’m tired,” Rick sobbed. “So goddamn tired...”

“I know… c’mon then, let’s sleep.”

Rick protested weakly, but Daryl got him to his feet and led him, still weeping, around the bed and over to the mattress on the floor against the opposite wall. Rick flopped onto his back, and Daryl bent to the task of removing his friend’s blood-encrusted boots.

“I can’t sleep,” Rick blubbered. “I can’t… Carl…”

“Carl needs you to be rested and thinkin’ straight,” Daryl said firmly, setting the worn-out boots down against the wall. “Right now Carl’s ok, and you’re gonna be ok, too, if you get some sleep. We’ll watch Carl. You’ll be right here.”

Rick threw an arm over his face and attempted unsuccessfully to compose himself, drawing in shallow, ragged breaths, and Daryl pulled a blanket up to his chest to cover him, then lay down next to his friend. He just wanted to fix everything—to help Rick feel better—but he knew that, as usual, there was no fixing grief and terror. There was only moving through it, making room for it. Fighting it was a losing battle.

He heard a soft sound behind him, and glanced back to see Rosita checking quietly on Carl. Glenn stood in the doorway. Rosita smiled down at Daryl and gave him a quick thumbs up, then reached to dim the light. Apparently they’d been trying to get Rick to sleep for two days.

Glenn moved into the room and settled himself in the big chair. “I’m here—I’ll stay with Carl,” he announced quietly.

Daryl turned back to Rick. “Ok, now,” he told the man. “Glenn is here with Carl, and I’m here with you, if you want me to stay.” He reached out for the hand resting on Rick’s belly and clasped it in his own, and Rick rolled to face him.

“Fuck, Daryl… I really fucked up…” he whispered, sniffling and trembling.

“Shh, now,” Daryl said, and folded Rick to him like a child, fingers entwined in his curls and pressing down, encouraging the constable to relax against him, bury his face in Daryl’s shoulder and cry himself quietly to sleep.

***

It was still an hour or two before dawn when he reached out his hand to help a tired Carol up the last step onto the porch, and held the door to their home open so she could enter. She turned and smiled at him as she stepped across the threshold. “Chivalry ain’t dead,” she quipped.

He grunted and closed the door quietly, so as not to wake the other inhabitants, set down his rifle against the wall. When he turned, he nearly ran into the woman.

“Sorry,” she laughed softly, then took him into her arms, and after a moment of initial surprise, he sighed and softened into the embrace, hugging her back.

“Daryl, it’s been a tough week,” she murmured against his shoulder. “And I was really afraid for a minute or two you weren’t coming back lastnight.”

“Fer a minute or two I wasn’t,” he admitted. “But here I am.” He pulled away and looked down at her face. In the light from the single, tiny lamp glowing by the sofa, her skin glowed and her eyes looked bright and penetrating, despite the tired circles beneath. “Couldn’t leave y’all if I tried, y’know.”

She smiled the smile that always warmed his heart, and he kissed her cheek, then pressed his face against hers, content to hold her awhile longer. He was tired, but probably too wired to fall asleep again, the body memory of Rick’s limbs tangled with his still lingering, and his shirt still damp with the man’s tears.

“Stay with me tonight,” Carol pled softly in his ear.

Daryl pulled back again and blinked down at her, surprised. It had been a long time since she’d last come onto him, and he thought their fragile, unspoken truce was holding.

She saw the look in his eyes, and seemed to deflate somewhat. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but… I just… I just need somebody. I’m feeling so…” her hands came up and fluttered helplessly in front of her face for a moment, like moths beating against a screen. “So sort of overwhelmed…” she finished, and a tear leaked from the corner of her left eye. “It’s all too much, you know?”

Wordlessly, he took her delicate hands in his and held them, understanding.

“I won’t beg… but I have a nice, comfy bed back there and we could just… just hold each other.”

She looked into his eyes, waiting for his answer, and after he let her words settle into his head for a moment, he realized that he really had no reason to say no. He wanted to give her comfort, and perhaps her body beside him would temporarily fill the Rick-size hole he was feeling acutely right now.

Daryl nodded at her, and moments later, they were standing in the darkness of Carol’s bedroom, and he could hear her undressing, removing what he’d come to think of as her disguise—the matronly sweater, corduroy pants, button-down sensible shirt. He felt her fingers on the lapels of his leather jacket, and then she carefully pulled it off his shoulders and down his arms from behind.

“I like your new duds,” she told him, as she set to unbuttoning the black dress shirt he’d worn underneath. He helped with the cuffs, and soon he was half naked, and she was unfastening his belt and unzipping his fly and his pants were pooling around his ankles.

“Forgot my boots,” he observed, and he braced himself against the end of the bed as she knelt to pull them off one by one.

Her fingers were cool as she gently touched the skin around the bandage on his shoulder. “How are you healing?” she asked. In answer, he scooped her up and carried her, staggering a little bit, around to the side of the bed, and carefully lowered her down onto the mattress. She laughed like a young girl.

He climbed in behind her and pulled her close to spoon against him, an arm around her waist, her back up against his chest. He kissed her shoulder. “How’s ‘at?” he murmured.

“Mmm. Nice.” She sighed, stroking his arm across her belly, smoothing the fine hairs so they all lay in one direction; and just as he was drifting off, taking his hand and placing it under the soft curve of her breast. His eyes flew open again, but he didn’t move, and then she was arching her back, pressing her backside into him, seeking him out.

“Hey, darlin’” he said, with all the gentleness he could muster, “C’mon. I ain’t what you want.”

Carol stilled, exhaled a long breath. “What I want,” she said with barely concealed frustration, “is to get laid tonight. By a kind man who gives a shit and has a working dick. That’s all.”

He moved his hand to her shoulder, rubbed gently but absently at her tense muscles. Suddenly his mind had gone blank, and he couldn’t form a single thought, or a word of reply.

“Maybe,” she said after a moment, “maybe it’s that I’m not what you want.” She rolled to her back and looked up at him. “Is that what’s really going on here?”

He chewed his lip and studied her beloved face in the moonlight, gazing up at him with such openness and vulnerability, and he reached out impulsively and palmed her cheek, rubbed his thumb gently across her mouth, then leaned in and kissed her.

“If what I got is what you want, and it’s gonna make you happy, then that’s what I want,” he said honestly.

She grinned, touched his face in return. “You sure, Pookie?”

“Jus’ quit callin’ me Pookie, dammit,” he growled, and bent to capture her mouth again.

He kissed her thoroughly, told her she was pretty, touched her gently, and she roused him with her hands and mouth, then rolled him to his back.

“Shit,” he panted, “I got no rubbers…”

She knelt over him, her hand soft but firm around his erection, and smiled. “No worries,” she told him. “Assuming you’re clean, I don’t think you need one. I haven’t had a period for nearly a year. Perks of getting older…”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

So she took him inside of her, giving him her softness and warmth, her absolute comfort, and in return, he gave her absolutely everything he had to give.

***

 

EPILOGUE

Jude and I left the farm on a late spring morning, during a stretch of weather that looked promising for a ride into Alexandria. We kissed Tommy and Levi goodbye, hugged each of the kids, and swung into the saddles, our bags full of gifts like jelly, sweet cakes and early veggies for the family there. I’d been itching to go for weeks, ever since Papa had called to tell me mysteriously that he had something to show me, and wasn’t it time for a visit? But at that time, there were goats giving birth and fields to plant, and I had to be patient.

Now, finally, we were off, promising to be careful and return in a week. The men had loaded our rifles and strapped them to the saddles, just in case, but it had been a long time since anyone had needed to use one on this route—except maybe for hunting, should we flush a deer or a hog or a flock of turkeys.

I was feeling a tad melancholy, as this would be the first time in a long time that I’d made this trip without mama. But as soon as we’d lost sight of the farm, Jude looked back at me and grinned.

“Thank God—I thought we’d never get away,” she laughed. Her youngest, Lori, was only three and had clung to her pantleg all morning. This trip would mean her weaning—poor Tommy was in for a rough week as a single dad.

I watched Jude pull her wild, curly blonde mane up into a messy bun as we rode, then she turned to me again and winked. “Race ya to the river!”

***

Late that afternoon we rode through the gates of the walled city, and after tying the horses up behind Carl’s house, and promising to meet again at sundown, Jude and I parted ways—she off to visit old friends and I to Aaron’s home.

Aaron still occupied the same house that I’d spent so much time in growing up, though he was no longer rattling around alone in it—he’d finally rented some rooms upstairs to a quiet young couple. I smiled, seeing him waiting for me on the porch, and he stood up to throw his arms around me as I mounted the steps.

“Oh, Papa, you look as good as ever,” I told him, squeezing him tight.

He hugged me long and hard, then drew back to look at me. “So good to see you, Sunny. You look almost as good as I do.” He winked and I giggled, taking in the smile that crinkled the corners of his big shining eyes and lit up his handsome face. He was well-dressed as always, his graying beard closely cropped and hair well-groomed. It was hard to believe he would be 60 this year.

“Come on in,” he said. “Did you bring some of that good lemon balm tea?”

I had, indeed, and after lugging in and dropping my bags in the corner of the familiar kitchen, I set about making him some.

Finally seated at the table with our steaming mugs, he asked me about the kids, about Levi and the goats, about the crops and the weather and the mumps that went around in March.

“Papa,” I asked him after at least an hour of this, “What is it you really asked me here for?”

He smiled and sighed, then his face grew a bit more serious. He placed his hand on a stack of papers on the table beside him. “Well,” he began, “now that your mother and Rick are gone… there is something I think I’d like you to have.” He slid an old manila folder off the pile and placed it in front of him, laying his fingertips on it lightly.

“You know about the books I’ve written about the Turn, about the Tidewater Wars, and about the beginnings of Chesapeake…”

“Of course,” I answered. I had read them all with fascination.

“There’s a lot of unpublished material here, too, that I’ve been wondering what to do with. Essays, interviews, biographies—pieces I wrote about the people who survived the turn, their experiences… how the world changed, and changed them. My own story, too—which isn’t done yet,” he chuckled.

“I’d love to read them all, Papa.”

“Someday,” he smiled. “Someday you will.” He lifted the folder in front of him and held it out to me. “But it feels to me like it’s about time you read this one. It’s about your father.”

Intrigued, I took the folder from him slowly and set it down in front of me, opened it carefully to look at the yellowing, handwritten pages, my heart in my throat.

“The Ballad of Darth Angel,” I read out loud. “It looks like you wrote this a long time ago…”

“I did,” Aaron confirmed. “When we were both young and you were very small. I wrote it as a gift for him.” He chuckled, remembering. “He really didn’t know what the hell to make of it. I think he was mortified at first. I gave him the first draft and he read it and told me I’d gotten it all wrong. So I got him to set me straight.

Aaron tapped his temple, grinning. “Bit of a trick, see? Your dad wasn’t much of a talker, and that was my way of getting the details out of him. He liked the second draft much better.”

I laughed, and his smile turned wistful. He reached across the table and touched me under my chin. “You look like your mom, but you do have his smile,” Aaron said. “I guess that’s fitting, since you were the person who saw it most.”

He sat back and got a faraway look in his eye. “Your dad fascinated me. He’d had such a rough life before the Turn, that the ‘end of the world’ was an improvement for him. The Turn either brought out the best or the worst in people, and your father was one of those diamonds in the rough that just got polished until he shone.”

He turned back to me, and reached over to lay his hand gently on top of his manuscript. “Anyway…” was it my imagination, or was he now blushing a little? “…this story comes with a warning that it’s a bit racy, and there are parts you may not find easy to read. I considered waiting till I was dead, too… but you’re a grown woman, and I think you’ll understand.” He smiled gently. “I just hope it will help you get to know your dad a bit better. What kind of person he was. What he had to overcome. Why things were the way they were.”

“You loved him,” I said quietly, acknowledging what I’d always known.

“Was a little crazy about him,” Aaron said with a sad smile. “When he was killed in the second Tidewater War, we were all devastated. He died by Rick’s side, and it was especially hard on Rick. And you, of course—you were only four…”

“And you, Papa…”

He nodded. “And me...”

I’d heard the story many times already, but the older I got, the less I minded. I knew some stories needed to be told, to be kept alive.

“I know mama missed him right up until the end,” I told him. “Even after she took up with Rick at our farmhouse. She told me so.”

“Mmm.” Aaron smiled and got that distant look again. “The thing was… Daryl and Eric and I… and even Carol, your mama… all had one thing in common. We all knew what it was like to love somebody fiercely, who was fiercely in love with someone else. But yet we all did right by each other. We were there for each other. There was love to go around. I guess that’s all that matters.”

I took his hand and squeezed it, and we talked on quietly for another hour, until the teapot was dry and the day had grown late.

“Papa,” I asked for the umpteenth time, “you know we have room at the farmhouse. Why don’t you come out and live with us? The kids would love it.”

Aaron got the same look in his eye he always did, letting his gaze wander around the room. “I’m sure I would love it too, Sunny. But I’m comfortable here with my books, my music, my papers... Got a couple ghosts to take care of, too.”

***

I met Jude and Carl walking arm in arm down the street as the sun was slanting low in the sky. While I appreciate the peace of the forest and the farm, it was nice to hear the sounds of the city again: kids playing, parents calling to them to come in, dogs barking. Carl grinned his lopsided grin at me and reached to ruffle my hair. “Hey, Sunny Bunny,” he teased. Dressed in a white shirt and dark jeans, tie loosened, Carl looked as though he’d just come from a casual business meeting. His dark hair and goatee shone with silver streaks, and his smile caused laugh lines to form around his good eye—the other side of his face covered with the ever-present eye-patch. Though his face was generally open and kind, the eye patch had always lent him a slightly mysterious (and when he was angry, sinister) air, I felt. Whether it was the eye-patch, his no-nonsense way, or the legacy his father had left behind, no one in government ever seemed to want to tangle with him.

“You’re looking mayorly tonight,” I teased back, grabbing his hand and giving it a squeeze.

“Town Council meeting,” he said with a sigh. “Lucky I got out before the sun set.”

I knew where they were heading, and fell in line to stroll along with them. Soon we arrived at the cemetery, next to the new chapel. The three graves we were looking for were once close to the wall; now that it had been moved out, the cemetery had expanded to take up several acres, with trees and flowers and benches. But unlike the fancy old burial grounds before the turn, with their carved granite and their statues, the markers here in the young grass were wooden slabs; occasionally a small boulder. Families like ours visited and re-painted the names each year. Some planted small gardens, or left items for remembrance. Other graves went untended and the markers were already unreadable. The graves spoke of who left loved ones, rather than who left earthly riches.

Jude put down the basket she was carrying and pulled out and uncorked three bottles of hard cider, handing one to each of us. Then we repeated a ritual we’d invented years ago, now stepping to each of the three graves and taking a drink, then pouring a draught of cider onto the ground. Jude finished by pouring some into her hand, and flinging it to the sky—to their mother, whom only Carl remembered. Then she plopped herself down onto the grass over Rick’s grave.

“I miss the cantankerous old fuck,” she sighed.

“For Chrissake, Jude,” Carl chided, shaking his head. Then he gave her a wistful yet mischievous smile. “He wasn’t really so old…” They both snickered a little. Jude and Mama had been the only ones I knew who could ever get away with teasing Rick. I never dared. Jude was spoiled and irreverent, but that was part of her charm. She seemed to get away with everything.

She kissed her fingers and leaned forward to touch the marker that read simply “Rick Grimes” with his date of birth and death. “You know we love you, Dad.”

Rick had passed about 18 months ago, in the dead of winter, from a bout of pneumonia. Because of the snow, Carl hadn’t been able to be there and administer the second death, so Jude had bravely done it, though Tommy had offered. Mama had passed away just six months ago from some sort of fever, but she’d never been quite the same since Rick had gone. It seemed like some part of her left with him. And it felt like some part of me left with her. The grass over her grave had barely started to grow.

Sarah wandered up to find us, a bouquet of wildflowers tucked in the crook of her arm and tangled in her long, red hair, and Carl turned and kissed her lips. “Here you are,” she said. “You couldn’t wait for me?”

Carl handed her a bottle from the basket, and she repeated the ritual while we watched, but she always ended by spitting a mouthful to the wind, voodoo-priestess style, to honor her own lost family. Then we all took a few flowers from her and laid them on the graves. Jude and I made a daisy chain for Mama’s marker. Sarah liked to take her time and arrange the heads and petals in patterns, and eventually we all lounged in the grass and watched.

I noticed she made a pattern like wings over my father’s grave, where the old marker—repainted many times—read “Daryl Dixon” with only a date of death. A date nearly twenty-five years ago. Above the name were small, black wings against the white-painted background.

“Why the wings?” I said suddenly. “Who painted them on the marker?”

“Mmm,” Sarah hummed, and smiled. “I did. Long time ago.”

“Daryl had a black leather vest with big white wings on it,” Carl explained. “He wore that thing until it just about fell off him.”

“He was wearing it when he saved my life, I remember,” Sarah added softly. “And he wore it into the ground.” She let a few petals fall to the grassy spot beneath her.

“So, who was Darth Angel?”

That made Carl laugh out loud. “Oh, wow—that was a long time ago.” He shook his head. “Eric made it up—said it was his superhero name. It stuck for a while and really irritated the hell out of him for some reason. God, I’d almost forgotten about that.”

I thought about my own memories of my father, which were sparse, but precious. Riding high on his shoulders around town, feeling his big, warm hands around my calves, and twining my little fingers in his shaggy hair. Or waking up in my bed, the time I had a bad fever, and seeing him sitting there over me, singing “You are my Sunshine.” I remember a terrible tension in the room, and people laughing when I opened my eyes and said “Daddy, that song is about me!”

“We forgot the toast,” Jude observed.

“What’ll we toast tonight?” Carl asked.

“To those who remember,” I offered, lifting my bottle.

“To those who remember,” everyone repeated, and clinked our bottles of cider together.

With dusk coming on, and the robins singing their evening songs, everyone stood up and prepared to head for Carl and Sarah’s to eat—but I wanted to linger. “Y’all go on, I said. I’ll be along soon.”

Jude kissed my cheek goodbye, then I watched them meander away, chatting, into the gathering twilight, and reached into my backpack to pull out the manila folder. I figured there was just enough light to read a few pages. Sitting down on Daryl Dixon’s grave, I opened the story again to the first page.

“The Ballad of Darth Angel. Ok, here goes… sing to me, Daddy.”