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The Ballad of Darth Angel

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As the screams grew louder, Daryl drove himself harder toward the sound, thrashing through the underbrush, branches grabbing and scratching at his face, his clothes, getting caught in his crossbow. His lungs felt near to bursting, his legs burning by the time he exploded out of the woods and into the meadow. Suddenly, he had a choice to make—a young girl clung to the lowest branches of a big tree, dangling there like a ripe fruit to be plucked by the dead; three others he assumed to be her parents and older brother had run to a group of pines, the mother trying to shove the boy to safety while the father was fighting off a small herd of walkers with a big branch… and losing.

Aaron staggered up beside him, gasping for breath. “Shit… oh shit…”

Things looked fucking dire, Daryl couldn’t deny. Dozens of walkers poured out of the woods, advancing on the trio by the pines, and at least two dozen more were growling and swiping at the skinny little girl who swung, kicking, from the branch like a human piñata. They continued to stagger out of the trees, pouring into the clearing, too many to count. Any sane person would have turned around and snuck back into the shadows.

“I got the girl!” Daryl blurted, and yanking his knife from its sheath, he charged into the fray. He heard Aaron hiss his name behind him, calling him back, but he wasn’t about to turn around. Something in him desperately, violently wanted to save this girl.

He flew like a madman into the crowd of corpses, slashing and shoving and stabbing his way toward the tree where the girl hung. He hardly knew what he was doing; time slowed down, and everything seemed to flow… his arms, hands, legs moving like a perfectly oiled machine. There was no thought, only instinct—pure survival. He had no idea how long it went on: The girl still alive, still kicking, still screaming, and he still whirling and leaping and lunging towards her through the herd in a bizarre, gory ballet.

Aaron’s voice close by snapped him out of his altered state. “I’ve got your back! Grab her NOW!”

A gap had opened in the herd, and Aaron was picking off those still straggling towards them as Daryl reached the spot where the girl dangled. He flung his blood-splattered arms into the air. “I gotcha!” he cried, breathless. “Let go!”

“No! Mama!” she shrieked.

“Leggo NOW darlin’! Gotta be now! C’mon I’ll take ya to mama!”

The girl looked down at him, eyes wide with terror, and let go, falling into Daryl’s arms. The moment her little arms encircled his neck he lit out running again, on pure adrenaline, back through the narrowing gap in the herd, darting right and left, the child clutched to his heaving chest… back into the forest.

“Mama,” she sobbed, “mama... daddy…”

He couldn’t tell her that there was no helping mama and daddy. He couldn’t speak at all. He ran and ran until his legs finally began to shake and give out, and he tumbled to the ground, dropping the softly weeping child and his crossbow gently in the leaves, gasping raggedly for breath as he knelt there.

It all came rushing back… the hunt for Sophia, the terrible morning when the barn door opened and she came out. Carol screaming and thrashing in his arms. The look on Rick’s face when he shot the girl. The look on that bitch’s face when she shot Beth… Beth… The long black Cadillac driving away with Beth. Carrying her out of the hospital… she was so light and yet so heavy…

Daryl couldn’t breathe… couldn’t breathe at all…

“Daryl… Daryl… you ok? Come on, look at me.” Aaron grabbed his chin and turned his face. “Breathe… come on… take a deep breath with me.”

Daryl looked into his eyes, obeying, and tried to draw deeply. His peripheral vision was darkening. Aaron drew close, pressed their foreheads together, both of them on their knees, panting in the leaves. “Breathe with me,” he commanded, and Daryl tried. Despite his shaking, he began to calm a bit as they breathed together for a long minute, and the world slowly came back into focus.

The girl was still crying in the leaves, curled like a dead armadillo.

“’M ok,” Daryl whispered, and gently pushed Aaron away. “Help her out.”

 

***

They’d planned to host six in the RV that night, besides themselves, but the girl was sadly the only survivor of the group they had been watching for almost four days—including the time it took to go back for the RV. Daryl figured her to be seven or eight. She was thin like Sophia had been, and her arms and legs seemed so fine and brittle that he couldn’t believe she’d held onto that branch as long as she did. Her hair was reddish, dirty, and her skin pink with sunburn and spattered with freckles. Daryl reached out and teased a strand gently out of her face as she slept on the bed they’d made up for her. It was early evening, just growing dark, but the girl had fallen asleep as soon as they’d arrived here, exhausted from the day’s terror, grief and exertion. She hadn’t said a word since leaving the meadow. He couldn’t bring himself to leave her side.

Aaron brought him a bowl of microwaved soup, and he waved it away, but the man urged it on him, insisting.

“You have to eat. Stay strong.”

He sighed and took it, eating slowly while Aaron leaned against the flimsy wall across from him.

“That was amazing, what you did,” Aaron murmured. “Crazy and dangerous, but amazing.”

He pondered that, and it dawned on him that he’d put Aaron in a bad position. He wasn’t sorry, but he was goddamn glad he didn’t have to be.

He could feel Aaron watching him, studying him.

“Maybe I ain’t cut out for this,” he said softly, still gazing at the girl.

Aaron took his empty bowl away and came back.

“What is it about her?” he asked pointedly. “Why did you risk both our lives to save her?”

Daryl’s shoulders hunched defensively.

“Did you lose a little girl?”

He squeezed his eyes shut, let the air slowly out of his lungs, trying not to plunge back into the past. Trying not to get angry. “Lost more than one,” he replied, his voice full of gravel.

Aaron knelt in front of him, at the side of the bed. “Your own?” he asked gently.

“No. Ain’t got no kids. Carol’s daughter. Maggie’s sister.”

“You were close to them.” Aaron put his hand softly on Daryl’s knee.

Daryl’s throat suddenly constricted with emotion, and he was glad for the darkness, glad for his curtain of hair. “You ask a lotta fuckin’ questions,” he growled.

Aaron snorted a little, smiled gently. “I know I do. I gotta work on that.” He pushed himself to his feet again. “It’s almost dark. We’d better be heading home.”

 

***

The second time he stumbled upon them dancing together after a trip, he didn’t try to sneak away and pretend he hadn’t seen. He just stood in the shadows and soaked it in, let it wash over him. Lost himself a little. Some old R&B song played softly… seems like a mighty long time… and Aaron held Eric in the middle of the dark living room, swaying gently to the music. A dim light in the kitchen threw a golden beam across the floor, their feet shuffling in and out of it. Eric’s head lay on Aaron’s shoulder, his thumbs tucked into Aaron’s back pockets, his hands hanging loosely.

I’m so glad you’re here again…

Daryl let his head come to rest on the doorframe, let out a slow breath.

The song was almost over when Eric lifted his head and saw Daryl standing there. He slowly straightened up, took one of Aaron’s hands.

“Hey,” Eric said softly. “All done with the shower? Need anything else?”

“Mmm. Naw, I’m good. Thanks,” Daryl replied, standing up straight. “Sorry t’ disturb you.”

“You’re not disturbing us. We should include you somehow, it seems,” Eric said.

Daryl stood there blinking, unsure.

Aaron chuckled. “We have this ritual,” he explained. “Before a recruiting trip, we take turns picking a song. Then, when we get back safe, we put it on and have a little victory dance. Kind of our little celebration.”

They both looked at him, and he realized they were waiting for him to say something. Chewing on his lip, he managed a nod.

“Thank you, Daryl,” Eric said, his voice kind. “Thank you for bringing Aaron back safe again.”

Daryl looked from one to the other of them, their eyes shining in the semi-darkness, and shoved his hands deep into his pockets.

“He brought me back, too,” he said gruffly.

 

***

Daryl knew they talked about him. Saw their sly glances at each other across the table, when they thought he was focused on his meal. Heard their soft conversations when he was out in the garage, still cleaning and sorting and storing away spare bike parts into labeled bins. It was stupid stuff: How he’d look in Aaron’s blue shirt; who he reminded them of; how Eric hoped he’d take awhile longer to finish organizing the garage. He ignored them and pretended not to notice.

Tonight, Eric was openly whispering in Aaron’s ear at the table in front of him, and it finally got to him. “The hell’s the matter with y’all?” he griped, dropping his fork loudly.

Aaron turned to his lover and gave him an exasperated look.

Eric grinned sheepishly at Daryl. “So the talk around town is that you’re quite the superhero, and I was suggesting superhero names for you to try on.” He took another bite of garlic mashed potato and waved his fork in the air while he chewed and swallowed. “Aaron’s earlier suggestion was ‘The Green Arrow.’ But I said seriously, that’s already taken… and besides, it has to be something about the wings on your vest. Like ‘The Avenging Angel.’ But the one I’m really kind of digging is ‘Darth Angel.’ You know, like Dark Angel, but more badass. And kind of Star Wars, ‘cause that’s how I roll.”

Daryl glanced over at Aaron, who was just hanging his head and shaking it slowly, a little smirk on his lips. He looked down at his mostly empty plate, then back up at Eric, who was smiling hopefully at him. A sickly sort of panic rose in his chest, and he stood up suddenly, the legs of his chair grinding loudly on the kitchen floor. He grabbed his plate and cup. “That’s fuckin’ ridiculous,” he muttered, and turned from the table, dropping his dishes into the sink on the way out the side door to the garage.

 

***

“Do you remember,” Carol asked him, “how you acted at Hershel’s farm? How you went off by yourself and sulked and camped all alone for weeks? Even though you’d been trying so hard to help find Sophia?”

Daryl bounced Judith up and down, jiggling his left leg under her diapered butt while she smiled and drooled on his arm. He looked over at Carol from his perch on a stool at the kitchen counter; she was carefully washing the dinner remains off a bright yellow plate. Soft voices rose from the adjoining family room—Morgan and Michonne deep in conversation.

“Yeah. Why?” he replied.

“What were you thinking?” she asked pointedly.

“Thinkin’ y’all didn’t really want me around. That maybe I’d split.”

“And why did you think that?”

He pondered a moment, chewed his mustache. “Shane was an asshole,” he concluded.

“Mm, yeah, Shane was an asshole. Were the rest of us so bad?”

“No… but…”

“But what?” Carol stopped what she was doing and looked at Daryl hard. “What is it really that drives you away from people?”

He held her gaze, but found himself shrugging, shaking his head.

“I’ll tell you,” Carol said, sounding a bit exasperated. “You’re rejecting people, before they can reject you. Because you’re convinced they will reject you, and it will hurt. So you don’t want to give them a chance. You did it at Hershel’s farm, and you did it with most of the Woodbury people at the prison, even though they thought you were Batman with a crossbow. Sound about right?” She wiped her hands on her apron, then reached out and took Judith off his lap, propped the sleepy baby on her hip. Looked at him again for a response.

Daryl scowled. “Why you bringin’ this up now?” he asked.

“Because I haven’t seen you talking to anyone from Alexandria, besides Aaron and Eric,” Carol replied. “You seem to think they all dislike you. And because Eric spilled his guts to me a couple days ago. He told me how much they like having you around, how content you seem working in their garage, how much Aaron likes working with you. But he can’t figure out how he’s offending you, and why you keep walking away.”

He had to get some air. Walking the darkened streets aimlessly, Daryl stopped on his third time past the pond and leaned against a sycamore tree. He fished in his pockets thoroughly, but fuck if he wasn’t out of smokes.

The whispering of feet in the grass suddenly startled him, and he spun around to see Carl stepping out from the shadows in between two houses. He approached wearing a dumbass grin, and Daryl had an idea of where he’d been. Screwin’ around with that girl no doubt—and Rick screwin’ around too, or he’d be out looking for his kid’s ass by now.

Carl nodded at him in passing, still smiling. “Whassup, Darth?” he drawled.

“Git on home,” Daryl growled.

 

***

“I’m sorry, Daryl,” Katrina told him, trying to break it to him gently, “but she’s just too traumatized to see you right now.”

Daryl didn’t know what to say. He shifted from one foot to the other on the porch, shoved his hands into the pockets of his favorite tattered jeans, found a hole. Damn, that’s where the last two cigs went…

“So when can I see her?” he finally managed.

Katrina gave him a quick up and down glance and sighed. “She’s only been here a few days. She’s barely spoken a word. Give her another week, maybe.”

Same look, different town, Daryl thought. He narrowed his eyes, nodded, and turned to go, making it to the bottom of the steps before Katrina called to him.

“Hey, wait…”

He stopped and stood still, but didn’t turn around.

“I’m sorry, I know you brought her in. Maybe… maybe just try wearing something a little less scary when you come back. You know, comb your hair. She’s only a little girl.”

 

***

“So maybe third time’s the charm,” Aaron said as they shouldered their packs and weapons and walked away from the car and the motorcycle once again. Daryl eyed their surroundings—the outskirts of a small town, a few miles east of where they’d found the girl. The kind of place they’d passed through many times outside of Atlanta. Not too terribly many walkers, a few dozen forgotten houses and stores to ransack. People managed to hide out and lay low in such places for a while.

“We’ve never come back empty,” Daryl noted.

“True. But I’d prefer no elaborate booby traps and no heart-stopping rescues this time. And I’d like to bring back more than one person.”

“I hear ya.”

“We’re lucky they let us out at all, you know. Rick was pretty worried about these characters that assaulted Morgan. Maybe the same ones that set up the trap at the factory.”

“I still got a feeling, though,” Daryl replied. “Those two people who were with the little girl an’ her family may have split off. Could still be out here. They seemed to be traveling this direction. An’ if that woman was really a doctor…”

About the time the sun was high and warm, and Daryl’s stomach began to clench with hunger, he looked up from the railroad tracks and spied the perfect place to eat lunch. “Hey,” he said, nudging Aaron’s elbow. He pointed at the big oak tree behind the closest house. “Let’s climb up there an’ eat.”

The wooden boards nailed to the tree were thankfully still sturdy, and the two men were able to scramble up into the treehouse easily. Three-sided, open to the west, with a metal roof and solid construction, the structure was an excellent blind for watching the tracks and the houses below. They settled themselves, their packs and weapons on the pine floor and broke out their lunches: tins of tuna and stale crackers, Vienna sausages, apples, some sort of no-bake cookies that Carol had made them.

Leaning back on the walls, they both chewed thoughtfully and silently for awhile, until Aaron spoke.

“You ever have a treehouse?”

“Mmhmm,” Daryl replied with his mouth full. “Had a few. Not so nice as this. No kid built this one.”

“Probably not. I always wanted a treehouse. But we lived in the suburbs, and the trees were all too small.”

There was definitely something about a treehouse that made you feel like a kid again, Daryl thought. Memories came to him as he ate and stared off into the distance. Memories of a time when he still felt like a kid, when his mother was still alive, when he had friends that came by to fetch him and he felt free to run loose. A time when Merle was still at home, and bearing the brunt of the old man’s rage.

“Tell me about someone special to you when you were a kid,” Aaron said, out of the blue.

Daryl closed his eyes, answered without hardly thinking. “Mamaw called me Daryl Bob. She made the best cheese sanwiches ‘n pecan pie. Died when I was pretty young.”

“Daryl Bob,” Aaron repeated, and Daryl could hear a smile in his voice. “Your middle name Robert?”

“Jus’ Bob.” He fished in his pocket and pulled out a cig, just barely lit it up, flung the now-empty lighter down into the long grass.

“I had… have… a little sister,” Aaron told him quietly. “We were close growing up. She was in graduate school when this whole mess started. Out in California. Last I heard, she and her boyfriend were heading for the mountains to find a place to hole up.”

“Think she’s still alive?” Daryl asked, looking over at him.

“Don’t know. I like to think so…” Aaron met Daryl’s gaze, and held it for several moments. Daryl felt he could hear everything not spoken—how Aaron thought about the girl every day, wished he could be there for her, wished there were things he had or hadn’t said to her. Unfinished business. How the not-knowing was the worst thing of all. At least Daryl had been able to look for Sophia, to go after Beth…

“I’m sorry, man,” Daryl said, and reached out to touch his arm gently.

Aaron nodded and looked away quickly, but not before Daryl saw the tears that welled in his eyes.

Daryl laid back on the wooden floor, stubbed the butt of his smoke out on the wall. “You know what it’s like to lose people. Tell me somethin’. How can you love Eric, knowin’ you could lose him tomorrow? What would you do?”

Aaron sighed sadly. “I think about that a lot out here. That’s why I didn’t want him coming out anymore.  I guess I’m selfish—I’d rather die first, so I don’t have to deal with that kind of pain. But on the other hand, I do believe that old saying, ‘it’s better to have loved and lost, than never loved at all.’”

Fuck that old saying, Daryl wanted to say. Instead he just grunted. But when he let it sink in for a few moments, let Aaron’s words wash over him, he couldn’t deny that his time with Beth had left a lingering tenderness, even as it left a scar. Letting her in had broken his heart, but those cracks seemed to let his heart expand and grow somehow. Sorta like a crawdad or a snake splitting and shedding its old skin, he thought. Now that he was letting himself feel it, the new heart felt raw and soft and vulnerable, like he wanted to hide it from hurt… shove it under a rock for awhile… but it also felt very much alive.

They both sat quietly for a time, watching buzzards circling in the near distance. So many buzzards anymore.

“Tell me something,” Aaron said softly. “When we were trapped in that car at DelArno’s, why did you offer to get out and draw the roamers away so I could escape? Why were you willing to die for me?”

Daryl pulled his knife out, slowly began carving his initials in the wall next to him. “Wasn’t tryin’ to be no martyr. We had to try somethin,’ right? I guess…”

“You guess what?”

Daryl didn’t want to tell Aaron that he just thought he was the tougher one. And the one with nothing to lose. Couldn’t begin to tell him how he’d been both afraid that Aaron would die trying to follow him, and pleasantly surprised that Aaron was really that brave.

What came out was, “Guess I didn’t wanna lose you.”

 

***

He began to notice little things about Aaron as they walked together that afternoon, crouching in cover to listen now and then. Things like the way Aaron’s brow knit together and his lower lip pushed out into a little pout when he was concentrating. How fine and clean his fingers were, and how dexterous when manipulating the equipment. Aaron turned to look at him, caught him staring, and Daryl could only think about how the man’s big, soft eyes reminded him of a doe… lovely and warm, innocent yet knowing.

Aaron’s mouth quirked up into a bemused smile. “What?” he demanded.

Daryl kept his face blank, blinked back at Aaron just as innocently. “Nuthin,” he replied. “You remind me of somebody.”

Which wasn’t entirely true. Aaron was unlike anybody he’d ever known. But these feelings he’d begun having… these feelings put him in mind of somebody he’d known long ago, who he swore he’d never bring to mind again.

 

***

Cam O’Reilly was a friend of Merle’s, but not one of the lowlife deadbeats he’d run with since middle school. Merle met Cam working at a local gas station after he got out of the joint, and took to inviting him over for Saturday card games or just to hang out on Friday nights with the rest of the posse, drink cheap beer and smoke a few joints, maybe cruise around and pick up a local floozy or two. The first time Cam came over to the upper flat Merle was renting, Daryl had just moved his pathetic little pile of belongings in, finally breaking ties with the drunken old man, his hammer fists and slashing belt. He was 16, flunking out of school, circling around Merle and his friends for scraps of food and attention like a dog slinking around under the table at supper. While most of Merle’s friends would just as soon slug him as talk to him, Cam seemed to take a real interest in him.

“Hey pretty boy,” Cam grinned—he was always grinning—“what’s your name? You Merle’s brother? Hell, I see who got the looks in the family, Merle. Sure as shit wasn’t you!”

Cam had an infectious smile and was quick with a joke or a smoke. It was hard not to love him, not to want to be around him always. When Cam showed up, the party was on. Daryl never wanted to leave that party.

“Pretty Boy” stuck, and became his nickname around Merle’s crew. From Merle’s snarling lips, it was entirely derisive. “C’mon Pretty Boy, get lost, I’m tryin’ to get laid here!” he growled one sultry night from the broken sofa, some skanky tramp in his lap. Daryl slouched out of the living room, where the TV glowed day and night, and onto the porch, where Cam’s cigarette glowed in the darkness, smoke curling around his face. He turned to Daryl and smiled, winked, gave his blonde hair a ruffle. Katydids sawed away in the trees.

“Bum a smoke?” Daryl asked.

“C’mon downstairs,” Cam said. “Got a whole pack fer you in the car.”

Daryl followed him and they both slid into the front seat of Cam’s jacked-up Chevy Nova, parked in the shadows of the trees beside the house. Cam reached down between his legs and pulled the lever to slide the bench seat back. Then he reached up and pulled a pack of smokes down from their hiding place above the visor, and set them on the dashboard just out of Daryl’s reach.

Cam drew on his cigarette, blew a casual smoke ring or two at the windshield. Damn, Daryl wished he could learn to do that. As if reading his mind, Cam laughed and said “You wanna learn, dontcha?”

Daryl laughed too. “Pretty cool,” he said.

Cam stubbed the cigarette out in the ashtray, and carefully pushed the tray back in. He looked at Daryl appraisingly. “I could teach you a lotta things,” he said. He laid his arm across the back of the seat, a hand coming to rest on Daryl’s shoulder, rubbing gently. “You like girls, Pretty Boy?”

Daryl shrugged. “Had a couple girlfriends… nothin’ special.”

Cam’s face lit up in a sideways grin. “I got somethin’ special.”

Cam did indeed have something special—Daryl had never laid eyes on such an enormous cock, except in Merle’s pornos. And when Cam suggested what Daryl could do to it, he didn’t flinch. He wanted to make Cam happy. Hell, he wanted that pack of smokes. And truth be told, he enjoyed doing it, even though afterwards he laid awake on his mattress on the floor for a long time, long after Cam had roared away and Merle had passed out, wondering what his brother would do if he found out, wondering if this made him a faggot, wondering if faggots really burned in hell. Wondering if Cam would let him do it again and finally jerking off into his undershorts, imagining he would.

Of course, he did. Cam took to coming around evenings when Merle was on shift at the gas station. He always brought gifts—cigarettes, joints, chewin’ tobacco, Coke, beer, maybe a couple pieces of cold, rubbery gas station pizza. Sometimes it was the only food Daryl got all day. Daryl would eat, or drink, or smoke, listening to Cam joke and gossip, and eventually Cam’s hands would be on him, gliding under his shirt, down his shorts. “C’mon,” Cam would grin, “Who d’ya love?” And Daryl would slide to his knees on the filthy carpet to show him.

One sticky August night, they were slumped on the brokeback sofa together, Cam wearing nothing but athletic shorts. Daryl liked the shape of his bare chest, admired the little trail of hair that ran down to Cam’s belly button and disappeared into his drawers. Daryl swallowed his last bite of greasy burrito, licked his fingers clean one by one. An old Three’s Company rerun flickered on the TV.

“Stand up,” Cam said lazily. Daryl dropped his paper plate and silently got to his feet, and Cam said, “Take them shorts off.”

Daryl obeyed, unsnapping and unzipping and dropping the cutoff shorts to his ankles.

Cam grinned, the sweat on his upper lip shining in the glow from the TV set. “Commando… I like that.”

Daryl snorted, flushing hot, uncomfortable being on display. He was glad to keep his t-shirt on, hiding the nasty scars on his back that had finally healed over during the summer. He didn’t want to explain them tonight.

“Turn around.”

He spun slowly to face the front window, looking out into the darkness, hoping that no one passing on the street could see him standing there illuminated and half naked. The sofa groaned as Cam stood up, and Daryl suddenly felt the man’s erection pressing against his ass, separated only by the thin nylon of Cam’s shorts. “Yer ass is almost as pretty as your face,” Cam murmured in his ear.

Next thing he knew, Cam had brought him to his knees on the sofa, the avocado-green upholstery like burlap against his bare skin. “Hold still, darlin’—this might hurt a little at first,” Cam told him. And it did hurt—a lot—especially with Cam only using spit for lube and not bothering to prepare Daryl first. If there was one thing Daryl was good at, though, it was gritting his teeth and bearing up under punishment, and that’s what he did, even though it felt godawful wrong and he thought Cam might tear him wide open. He kept his mouth shut, bit his lip bloody and held still. Soon enough it was over and Cam groaned loudly and pulled out, staggered back cursing. Daryl flopped over, stunned and trembling, stray tears running down his face from the smarting pain.

“Aw, honey, it wasn’t that bad was it?” Cam soothed, pulling his shorts on. He perched next to Daryl, reached out and put a hand on his bare hip. “You cryin’?”

Daryl wiped angrily at his face, tried to sit up but found that his ass was not going to cooperate. “Fuck no, I ain’t cryin,’” he snapped. “I’m good. It’s all good.”

“Good,” Cam said with a smile. “’Cause it sure was good for me.” He leaned forward and gathered his sweatsocks off the floor, shoved his feet into his sneakers, not bothering to tie them. He turned and winked at Daryl. “Yer a pretty hot little piece, Pretty Boy.”

Daryl watched him get up and head for the door, and suddenly felt a horrible aching need to make him stay. He jumped up, still half naked, and went after him, grabbing his arm just as he got to the door.

“Hey,” he pled, “Don’t go.”

Cam turned around and Daryl reached up and took the man’s stubbly face in his hands, pulled him close and kissed him. Cam looked surprised, and when Daryl went in for a second kiss, the man pulled back, then grabbed Daryl firmly by the shoulders and held him away.

“Uh-uh, now, Daryl, don’t be doin’ that,” Cam said gently but firmly. “Kissin’ is for lovers.”

 

***

It only took a few minutes to jimmy the lock open on the camper trailer, and the two men were inside, shaking the rain off. The interior smelled a bit musty, a bit mousy, but it sure beat smelling like walkers, Daryl thought. Rain splattered loudly on the windows, the wind blowing in gusts, shaking the whole vehicle. It was just starting to get dark outside. He really didn’t like sleeping inside these things, even if this one had been parked in this driveway a long time and the neighborhood had obviously not been disturbed. He still felt like a bug in a jar. Trapped. But the last three houses they’d tried had been full of living corpses and smelled like the bowels of hell, and they were just too tired to deal with any more of that shit.

He propped his crossbow against the wall and walked to the rear of the camper, opened a few storage bins, while Aaron checked the cupboards in the front. “Not much here,” Aaron reported. “Little salt and pepper, sugar, cooking oil… couple cans of tomatoes.”

“Breakfast o’ champions.”

Aaron sighed, hung his jacket up and sat down on the bench at the little table. He opened the box of cards sitting there and began to carefully shuffle. “Might be enough light for one game. Play Hearts?”

Daryl grunted affirmatively and joined him, and Aaron began to deal.

“Ya know, they wouldn’t let me see her yesterday.”

“Hmm? Who?” Aaron answered idly.

“Who ya think? The little redhead girl. Wouldn’t let me see her.”

Aaron stopped and looked at him. “Why not?”

Daryl hadn’t planned on talking about the incident, which had left him so frustrated and angry that he’d felt sick to his stomach. But there it was.

He shrugged. “Lady said she was too traumatized, and pretty much told me to change my clothes and comb my hair or don’t come back.”

Aaron was still gazing at him with those big bedroom eyes, but his brow furrowed. “That’s not right.”

“D’ya think she would really be scared of me?”

Aaron looked thoughtful. “I’ve wondered if she might think we somehow stole her from her parents. Last she saw them, they were alive, you know?”

“Mmm. Never thought of that.”

“We’ll find a way to talk to her,” Aaron assured him. He smiled gently then and put down his cards, studied Daryl a minute before reaching across the table and pushing a lock of hair carefully out of his eyes, his fingers brushing Daryl’s cheek. The touch tickled, and Daryl shivered all the way to his toes. “If you let her see your eyes, she’ll know you for who you are,” he murmured.

Aaron’s smile turned a little sexier, his gaze more intense. “And you know I like you in black leather, but you’re always welcome to raid my closet for something more kid-friendly.”

Daryl could hardly breathe, and suddenly his jeans were feeling a bit too tight in the crotch. The panicky butterflies fluttered to life in his gut, and he tore his eyes from Aaron’s, fixing them on the table, trying to get himself back under control. All he could do was nod.

“Well,” Aaron said after a moment, “it’s really too dark to play cards, I guess. You tired enough to sleep? Want me to take first watch?”

Daryl gladly slid off the bench and stood up, thankful his shirt-tail was untucked. “Naw, you sleep. I can do it.”

Aaron stood up too, and stretched. “What’s the bed situation back there?”

They walked to the back of the camper, and Daryl reached down and pulled out the sofa bed, shook out the quilt lying at the head and spread it on the cushions. Then, reaching up, he held the top bunk mattress up with one hand, while wrestling the pole down to lower it with the other. In a moment, it was ready for occupancy, too.

“Wow,” Aaron marveled. “It always took two of us to do that.”

Daryl snorted. “You like the top, or the bottom?” He looked back at Aaron, who met his gaze steadily, his eyes shining, eyebrows raised ever so slightly. Daryl suddenly became aware of what he’d said, and what Aaron might be thinking. A hot flush rose up his neck, and he was glad of the dim light, hoping the color wasn’t visible on his face. Hoping the bulge in his jeans wasn’t the size of the fuckin’ Empire State Building. Hoping the fear in his belly wouldn’t get the best of him.

“I always get the top,” Aaron said slowly and carefully. “But what I really like is the bottom.”

It was a test, Daryl knew, and he had an out. He could pretend he had no idea what Aaron was referring to, toss his coat on the top bunk, and prepare to take watch. Or…

“Ain’t never been on top,” Daryl murmured softly.

He was showing Aaron all his cards, his soft underbelly, but he was surprised to find he didn’t care. He trusted Aaron, beyond all reason. And he was shocked to find he wanted Aaron, beyond all doubt. He lifted his chin, squared his shoulders, set his hands on his hips—ready for anything. “Maybe I’ll try.”

Aaron’s eyebrows lifted higher, and he bit back a smile and gave Daryl a nod and a quick up and down glance. Daryl felt his cock twitch as he realized he’d read the man correctly.

“Go ahead then,” Aaron urged gently. “Take the top.” He turned his back on Daryl and walked two more steps to the bed, and Daryl watched in the growing darkness as Aaron slowly unbuttoned his navy blue shirt, pulling it from his pants and peeling it off his shoulders, revealing his lithe, muscular back. A moment later his pants were pooling around the floor at his ankles, leaving little black briefs that hugged his tight, round ass. Aaron bent over casually and began to untie and remove his boots and socks.

Daryl couldn’t think of anything in his life he had ever wanted more than he now wanted that ass. It hurt how much.

Chewing on his bottom lip, he stepped forward quietly until he was right behind Aaron, who glanced at him over his shoulder, a tiny smile on his lips. Aaron kicked his pants and boots aside and then leaned forward over the bed to fuss with the covers. Daryl stepped up between his spread legs, and gently took hold of the man’s hips. His heart pounded in his chest, his ears, making him feel a little lightheaded—but the warm, solid feel of Aaron’s body was grounding.

“What about Eric?” he asked.

“Mmm,” Aaron purred, “Thoughtful of you to ask. We have a pretty open relationship. In fact, if he were here, I’m sure he’d like to watch what you’re going to do.”

“What’m I gonna do?”

“That’s up to you, isn’t it? But I’m hoping you’re gonna fuck the hell out of me.”

Daryl couldn’t possibly tell him that he’d never fucked the hell out of anyone, though he’d had the hell fucked out of him more times than he cared to count over the years—and while most of those times were consensual, most of them had involved cash or trade. It wasn’t that he hadn’t had offers to be on top… it was that he couldn’t see himself bothering, with some fat, hairy, truck-stop faggot he didn’t give a shit about and would never see again. He just didn’t want to work that hard. He wanted to be able to look the other way, watch TV, smoke a joint and pretend it was happening to someone else, if necessary. He didn’t even have to get hard.

But that was then…

He hooked his thumbs around the waistband of Aaron’s briefs and tugged them down his thighs, revealing two perfect globes of flesh. Aaron stepped out of the briefs, but otherwise remained still, his hands on the mattress, waiting on Daryl.

He’d never fucked the hell out of anyone, but the times he’d enjoyed being fucked (and remembered it) were vivid, and he knew what he liked, what made him wild, what made him come good and hard. He could do that to Aaron, couldn’t he?

“You ready?”

“Yeah…”

Daryl grabbed Aaron by the thighs and lifted him off the ground, driving him forward onto the bed, spreading him open, hearing him cry out softly as he scrambled for purchase on the quilt. Daryl crawled up between his legs and kissed those two perfect globes, so white they seemed to glow in the darkness, so soft and clean and smooth, like Judith’s little baby ass, and then he bit down, hard, eliciting another cry. He kissed the bite, lapped at it, soothed it, then chose another tender spot and bit again.

“OhGod…” Aaron whimpered. “OhGodOhGod…”

Daryl nibbled and licked and sucked hickeys all over Aaron’s perfect buttocks until he felt he’d properly claimed them. Pulled the man’s ass higher into the air and spread his legs wider. Aaron buried his face in the bedcovers to stifle his loud groan as Daryl licked and probed at him, quickly following his tongue with one wet finger, then two, then three, pushing deep. Aaron quivered and moaned and pushed back against him wantonly, making Daryl wonder how long either of them could hold out when he actually got inside the man.

“Hey man, you need coolin’… yer tyin’ me up in knots,” Daryl muttered.

Aaron turned his head to look at Daryl behind him. “What I need is your cock inside me,” he said, eyes big and soft and come hither. “But first go grab some of that cooking oil and a condom out of my pants pocket.”

Daryl pushed himself up and back and hustled to fetch the items, then came back and stood next to the bed. Aaron lay on his stomach, watching over his shoulder as Daryl popped open his button, unzipped his fly and pulled his dick out. He snatched up the condom, tore open the foil, and rolled the rubber on carefully. It had been a damn long time. High school as a matter-of-fact. What the hell was that girl’s name...? A quarter-sized pool of oil in his palm slicked him up right.

He held his glistening, sheathed cock up for Aaron to see. “This what you want?” he teased.

“Do I need to beg? Yes, please… Oh God…”

Daryl reached out for him, grabbing the man again by the hipbones and dragging him backwards on his knees until their bodies clashed. “I got you, baby, I got you,” Daryl soothed. A few moments’ panting and fumbling, and then there was nothing but heat and pressure and deep, intense pleasure.

“Yeah, that’s it, fuck me,” Aaron was moaning, “Fuck me,” and Daryl remembered to pull out almost all the way before thrusting back in again, because he knew that would drive Aaron crazy, and he was holding Aaron’s hips, controlling him and dominating him completely, but pleasing him mightily, and that was exciting and terrifying all at once.

Aaron turned away to groan into the blankets again, and watching his curly head, the textured plane of his pale back sloping up to the perfect moons of his ass, muscles flexing as he fisted the sheets, Daryl suddenly imagined it was Rick kneeling beneath him. Rick moaning and pleading for his cock, tight little ass in the air while he held it open and pounded it. “Oh fuck, I’m gonna…” he blurted, and he doubled over Aaron’s body and came in a ferocious explosion that rocked him to his core, in more ways than one.

When he came back to his senses, Aaron was crawling out from beneath him, turning to caress Daryl’s face, slide a hand through his hair. “That was hot,” he was murmuring, “really hot… I was almost there…”

Aaron held his gaze as he spread for him again, lying on his back this time, and Daryl knelt on the bed, knowing what to do. Sliding fingers back into the man’s quivering asshole to milk his prostate, taking hold of his dripping cock in the other hand, he watched Aaron’s head fall back, his mouth open, his face light with bliss.

“That’s it, darlin,’” Daryl heard himself say as he fondled the man, “That’s good, huh? Come on now. Who d’you love?”

Aaron moaned, shuddering and thrusting himself into Daryl’s hand as he shot hot streaks across his bare belly. “You,” he gasped. “It’s you.”

***

Cam came around for nearly two years, a couple times a week, and Daryl never denied him. He lived for those brief hours. Even when Daryl was in a dark place, all Cam had to do was smile, call him “Pretty Boy” in that throaty voice, touch him tenderly, and Daryl melted. And even though Cam called the shots, Daryl felt his own power in the way he could make Cam happy. He always wanted to make Cam happy, and Cam always brought him a little gift, and told him how much he wanted him. Cam made Daryl feel like somebody. And wasn’t that love? Cam never kissed him, but that was ok. “Lovers,” Daryl decided, was what men and women were.

The evening Lenny and Ray darkened the doorway of the flat, Daryl knew something was up. He’d been hanging around in the kitchen, trying to keep busy by fiddling with a new toy Merle had recently stolen from his old man’s house, but really waiting breathlessly for Cam to come bounding up the stairs as he usually did on Wednesday night when Merle was at work.

“Heard the news?” Lenny practically yelled, his mouth twisted in a smirk. Ray was grinning like a shark.

“What news?” Daryl growled, shoving his chair back and standing up.

“Merle caught Cam out back by the dumpster at the Quik Stop this afternoon, gettin’ a blow job from Billy Jack’s little brother!”

“How old is that kid? Fifteen?” Ray laughed.

“Yeah, Jesus, I wish I’da been there to see the look on Merle’s face,” Lenny drawled. “I reckon it weren’t pretty! The little fag got away but Merle busted Cam up good. Prob’ly would’a killed him if the cops hadn’t a showed up.”

Daryl took a deep breath, kept his face a carefully expressionless mask. It couldn’t be true. It couldn’t.

“Anyway, Merle said ta come tell ya… he prob’ly won’t be comin’ back fer awhile. Y’know, probation and all. Gonna get more than a year this time, I reckon.”

“Yeah, and who’da thought Cam was a goddamn queer? Disgusting, man. I’d a beat his ass, too.”

“He spent an awful lotta time over here. He ever ask you ta’ suck his dick?”

Daryl looked from one of their leering faces to the other, and it was all he could do not to pick up the kitchen chair and bash their teeth out, and keep bashing until their faces ceased to be recognizable.

“Get the fuck outta here, you piece o’ shit,” Daryl snarled at Lenny. Lenny’s eyebrow quirked, and his smile faded. “You too—yer the biggest faggot that ever lived,” he told Ray.

“Wow,” Lenny said, looking over at Ray, “I think maybe we hit a nerve. Ya know, I heard Cam had boy toys all over the county. Wouldn’t it be fuckin’ hilarious if Merle’s own brother was one of ‘em?”

“And Merle not here ta straighten his ass out?”

“I think we’d have ta do it for ‘im!”

Lenny’s face turned dark and ugly. “We know what you been up to, Pretty Boy,” he spat. “I think you’d get in less trouble if maybe you wasn’t so pretty anymore.”

Lenny strode into the room, hell bent on an ass whoopin,’ Ray right behind, and Daryl reached down beneath the table for his new toy—his father’s crossbow—and in one swift move he loaded a bolt and swung the weapon up to point it at Lenny’s face. Both men stopped dead in their tracks.

“You gonna shoot me?” Lenny snorted.

“Try me.”

Lenny looked over at Ray, then back and Daryl, nodded. “You win this time, Pretty Boy,” he said menacingly. “Better watch your ass. You got more than Cam after it now.”

The men left, roaring away in Ray’s Ford pickup. Daryl knew they’d be back, with reinforcements—and he had no one, nothing, and nowhere to go. He WAS no one and nothing, after all. His hands shook as he laid the crossbow on the table, and he wanted to go to his room, curl up on his mattress and sob. He didn’t know which hurt worse—his stomach or his heart. But he could hear Merle’s voice telling him to quit being such a pansy, to stand up and fight, to be a man.

Did being a man mean making a stand in the apartment and shooting as many of Merle’s friends as he could when they returned to beat the shit out of him? He only had three arrows… and if he survived until the Sheriff showed up, he’d end up no better off than Merle.

Daryl decided quickly on the middle road. He knew of an old, abandoned hunting camp back in the woods a few miles away—a place he’d found on his own during a squirrel hunting trip, and returned to a few times. He would pack the crossbow and whatever necessities and valuables he could carry on his motorbike, raid the dumpster at the Piggly Wiggly, and head off in the dark. He would make it on his own—or not. He had no choice.

 

***

Daryl stumbled out of the bunk, shoving his feet into his boots, cursing at the dawn that had snuck up on him so early. He’d had way too much time to think while on watch, and slept fitfully when it was his turn, his mind still grinding away at the grist of his memories and flinging the occasional kernels into fragments of dreams.

Aaron stood outside in the gray light, wrapped in his coat and a blanket, eating a small can of stewed tomatoes with a plastic fork. He gave Daryl a sideways glance and smiled. “Good morning, sunshine.”

“Ain’t nothing good about it yet,” Daryl grumped. He shoved his hands in his jacket pocket and felt around, surprised to locate one last cigarette he didn’t realize he had. “Hold on, I take that back.”

He stuck the cig between his teeth and turned to go back inside and look for some matches, but Aaron grabbed his arm.

“Hold on,” he said, “before you light that thing…”

Daryl let the man spin him back around and gently pluck the cigarette from his mouth; next thing he knew, Aaron’s lips were pressed against his, a hand palming his cheek, fingertips in his hair.

The voice of his tender, new heart was no match for his inner Merle.

You hold on, Romeo,” Daryl growled, pushing him away. He wiped his mouth roughly with the back of his hand. “Enuffa that shit. Kissin’ is for lovers.”

The sincerely sad look that came over Aaron’s face made Daryl immediately regret his words and look away in shame and anger. Anger at himself for being an asshole; anger at Aaron for making him feel it.

“How can I be your lover?” Aaron asked gently, his body still close. He asked like it was a real question.

Daryl rolled his eyes to the sky, slumped back against the camper. “Pfft. That ain’t nothin’ you wanna be.”

“Why are you so sure?”

“You don’t know me, man.”

“I know enough…”

“You don’t know me. You wouldn’t even have talked to me a coupla years ago. You wouldn’t have looked at me. You wouldn’t have set foot in the places I slept in and you don’t even wanna know who I slept with…”

Aaron scowled at him. “That’s not fair…”

“I’ll tell ya what ain’t fair…” Daryl began, but suddenly they both fell silent. Low voices carried on the cold breeze, and a soft whirring sound filled the air.

They looked at each other, eyes wide, then Daryl darted quickly back into the trailer for his weapon, while Aaron threw off the blanket and jogged to the corner of the house, peering through the shrubbery out into the street.

Out the window of the camper Daryl watched, heart thumping, as Aaron stepped into the street bravely, arms in the air, and waved down two people on bicycles. They braked quickly, both their hands going to holsters on their right sides. But they did not draw, and as Daryl watched tensely, he realized they were the ones… the doctor and her friend… that he and Aaron had been looking for.

Chapter Text

Daryl couldn’t enjoy the wind in his hair, the blue sky or the changing colors on the trees on the ride back to Alexandria, since it took every ounce of his concentration to remain upright on the motorcycle. Wet leaves and downed branches covered the roads after the previous night’s storm, and even taking corners slowly sometimes threw him into a skid. He had to stop and get off the bike several times to help remove branches and debris from the road so the car behind him could get through.

He managed to hold it together for the first 30 miles or so, but as their little convoy approached within ten miles of Alexandria, the problem compounded as more than the occasional walker began to appear—lurching across the pavement in ones and twos at first, then in small groups. Avoiding a handful of roamers should have been easy on the bike, but the condition of the road made it increasingly nerve-wracking. If he should skid and fall and get pinned or injured or—God forbid—knock himself out, they’d be on him before Aaron and their two new recruits could jump out of the car and try to save his ass. He cringed and swore at the sound of the car behind him hitting a rotten sack of flesh, after he’d narrowly avoided a group of five or six corpses staggering down the centerline. He didn’t dare to turn and look, but he could still see the car moving in the rear view mirror, so he kept driving.

Aaron’s admonition on the morning they left played over and over again in his head… “Please take the damn helmet, Daryl—I don’t want to be the one scraping your brains off the road. You know it’s not safe.”

Jesus, he was never going to hear the end of it now…

Something was attracting the walkers in the direction of Alexandria, that much was clear, and Daryl began to grow concerned. What were they riding into? The noise of the bike could only make things worse. He wiped the sweat off his palms onto his jeans carefully, one hand at a time, eyeing the woods ahead for obstacles emerging from the trees. He felt a huge relief as they turned at last onto Myrtle Avenue, the final approach to the safe-zone.

It was late afternoon, but the sky hung low and dark, cold wind turning the leaves over and a few raindrops again wetting Daryl’s face as the bell tower came into view, then the big gate and long corrugated steel fence. Something wasn’t right. Daryl could make out figures in front of the gate, frantic movements, people running. Flashes came from the tower and he realized it was gunfire.

Shit, what the hell??

He suddenly realized he had to make an immediate choice—spin around and lead the carful of people away from the danger, or hit the throttle and plunge into the fray. About fifty yards from the gate, his choice ended. It felt like someone punched him hard in the left shoulder, and the next thing he knew, he was going down, the bike swerving and toppling and sliding, Daryl pinned underneath on his left side. He could hear metal grinding on pavement and brakes squealing behind him as he slid; could feel the heat of friction as the pavement tore his pants and then the skin on his left leg.

Mercifully, his slide was short, but now Daryl was trapped under the heavy bike, his left leg crushed and bleeding. The motor silenced, he could hear the pop-pop-pop of gunfire nearby, his own panting and groaning, voices yelling, car doors opening. He struggled to push himself up and reach into his waistband for his pistol, then suddenly Aaron and Heath were beside him; he could hear what must have been Denise behind them, laying down cover fire.

“Lie down,” Aaron commanded. “We’ll lift the bike off,” and next he knew, they were dragging him to shelter behind the Buick, just as a scattering of bullets from an automatic weapon rattled into the front fender.

“God, who are these people?” Aaron muttered breathlessly as they hunkered down on the wet pavement. “What the hell do they want?”

“They wanna take what we’ve got,” Daryl growled, grimacing, “an’ carve us up like punkins while they’re at it.” He lifted his bleeding hand and marked a red W on his forehead.

Denise and Heath looked at each other, then the woman nodded her head at Daryl’s leg. “You’re bleeding pretty good,” she observed. “Let me see.” Before he could protest, she’d cut his ragged pantleg with her knife and was using it to wrap his calf and thigh to slow the bleeding. Aaron pulled a kerchief out of his coat pocket and she took it and used it to tie the makeshift dressing. “There, that’ll hold it for a few minutes.” Daryl bent his knee and moved his leg a bit, hugely relieved that his worst problem seemed to be road rash. But what was that pain in his shoulder?

Yelling erupted from behind the gate, and the sound of the metal wheels on asphalt told them that someone was opening it. Daryl heaved himself to his knees and they all crouched behind the car, peering through the increasingly heavy rain at what was transpiring. Eight people slipped out of the gate as Sasha’s sniper fire continued from the tower; four headed east along the wall and four west, splitting up to chase down the Wolves, who were now apparently on the run. Daryl recognized the first man out as Rick.

“Fuck, I gotta go! Aaron, you gotta get these guys inside…”

What?  Daryl, you’re hurt, wait!” Aaron protested.

“Gotta go man, be careful!” Daryl was already halfway to the bike, moving at a rapid limp, intent on grabbing his crossbow, but then realizing it might have been damaged in the accident. No matter, he decided—he had his knife and a pistol with a full clip, and a spare in his jacket pocket. In the pouring rain, he headed straight for the wall, disappearing along the path taken by Rick, Michonne, Abraham and Tobin.

Moving between the burnt-out houses, through the weedy yards, he could see human silhouettes running, darting and staggering here and there; one he identified off to his right as Abraham knocking down a walker and dispatching it with a rifle butt to the skull. Another was obviously Michonne, skirting around a garage ahead of him. Where was Rick? He tried to pick up the pace, ignore the pain in his leg that made his gait uneven; getting shot at for impersonating a walker was not something he wanted to repeat.

After several long minutes he caught up to the four, bunched up at the corner of the big wall. Rick was holding his hand up for quiet, and they all stood panting in a huddle, rain running in rivulets down their faces, dripping off hair and plastering clothing to their bodies. Rick’s eyes widened when he saw Daryl.

“You OK?” he murmured, looking Daryl up and down with concern. “We saw the bike…”

Daryl nodded, held his pistol at the ready.

***

Rick’s plan would have worked better if the Wolves were on the ground; but with the number of walkers on the north side of the wall, and knowing that the Alexandrians were in pursuit, the attackers had taken to the trees and rooftops. When Rick’s crew burst out from the corner, taking up positions and laying down fire, the answering volleys came from up above, and their hiding places proved useless. Daryl could see Tobin, Abraham and Michonne all scattering in his peripheral vision, but he kept eyes on Rick—who darted ahead, dropped to his knees and took two Wolves off a shed roof in rapid succession with two well-placed shots. One fell dead, but the closer one hit the ground feet first with a loud grunt, and Rick moved in for the kill.

The man did not want to die. While gunfire rang out all around them and walkers lurched toward them through the overgrown yards, Daryl saw the young blond man with a “W” scar on his forehead launch himself at Rick, swinging a short-handled scythe—just as a walker staggered between them, blocking Daryl’s view.

Son of a BITCH,” Daryl yelled, stabbing the walker through the head and flinging it aside. Rick and the young wolf grappled on the ground, the sharp scythe inches from Rick’s face; Daryl dropped to his good knee in the grass and took aim, willing his hands to stop trembling, and shot the man cleanly through the temple. Rick dodged the falling scythe as the young man’s body fell half on top of him.

“Shit,” he panted, looking over at Daryl gratefully. “Thanks.”

Daryl exhaled, nodded.

Rick’s face suddenly changed, eyes blowing wide, “Hey, whoa, look out!” he cried, struggling to roll out from under the dead weight on top of him, reaching for a knife.

Daryl felt the walker before he heard it—the wet grass and rain having masked the sound of its approach. It was on him like an attack dog, clamping its jaws down on his left shoulder, growling in his ear—bony fingers in his hair, on his arm, driving him down face-first into the weeds. The pressure of its jaws was surprising, pain suddenly shooting throughout his body like white-hot lightning. He gasped for breath, scrambling and kicking under the weight of what must have been a large man, reaching to grab the head and coming away with a handful of hair and rotten scalp.

He could hear Rick yelling, then the sickening sound of a knife through the softening skull right next to his ear, over and over, until the jaws released him and he was free. He tried to get up on his hands and knees, but found himself falling to the sodden ground at Rick’s feet. More gunfire erupted, then Rick was lifting him up, crouching in front of him, pulling frantically at his clothes.

Daryl felt the rain falling on his bare shoulder, soothing the pain. He didn’t try to look at himself, focusing instead on Rick’s face, on the bright blue eyes that shone through wet lashes and ringlets of dripping hair pasted to his forehead. As Rick examined him, those eyes blinked hard, the brow furrowing deeper.

“SHIT!” Rick hollered, lurching to his feet. He staggered a few feet away, then came back again, then away, orbiting uselessly. He finally stopped and lifted his face to the sky and just stood there a minute, panting, hands on his hips, the rain threatening to drown him. Daryl managed to stumble to his feet as well, looking around, seeing more walkers headed their way.

“Hey… hey Rick… I’m ok… c’mon we gotta go. We gotta catch up to the others. We can’t stay here…”

***

The journey back to the gate became a blur. Daryl just knew that Rick’s arm was around him, that he was trying to move his stiffening leg to keep up, but that he was leaning hard on his friend’s warm body.

“Rick, am I bit? Rick?”

Rick wouldn’t answer, his face grim, his eyes cold.

Daryl felt as though he’d failed. Rick was abandoning the fight because of him. “Leave me here,” he croaked. “Leave me n’ go back n’ finish. I ain’t goin’ anywhere.”

“Shut up now, I ain’t leavin’ you,” Rick growled.

Daryl wasn’t afraid to die, he knew that. Wasn’t scared of the old Grim Reaper. It occurred to him, though, as Rick was dragging him back to safety, that he was afraid to leave Rick. Afraid of what would happen if he wasn’t there to watch his back. Afraid to disappoint him. I must have disappointed him. Afraid of seeing him broken up again, because he couldn’t stand that—couldn’t stand to see pain in his friend’s eyes that he could do nothing about.

Daryl couldn’t stand being the center of attention, either, and dying sure as hell made you that. With every fiber of his being, he didn’t want that. If he was going to die, dammit, he’d rather do it alone in the woods by his own hand than in one of these big fancy houses surrounded by people fussing over him. If they dragged him into the house and put him in bed he’d sneak away as soon as night fell, he thought—and if he couldn’t get back to the woods he’d wedge himself into a crawlspace or back shed, like an old cat, if he had to.

By the time Rick pulled him through the gate he was close to panic.

“Rick, wait,” he begged, seeing people running toward them in the rain. “You gotta let me out. Lemme go.” He pulled away, planting his feet firmly, making Rick halt.

“Go where?” Rick demanded.

“Out there. I just… I’ll take care of it.”

Rick cocked his head, stared at him, comprehension dawning slowly. “I ain’t gonna let you crawl off out there alone,” he finally said, incredulous. “You got people here to take care of you. People who love you.”

“I don’t want all them people around. I can’t do it, Rick. Don’t want ‘em all lookin’ at me and feelin’ sorry… not even our own people…” He began to shake, his throat closing against the emotion rising up from his belly. He glanced nervously at the people approaching, looked back at Rick, pleading with his eyes for his friend to understand.

Rick stepped forward and put his arms around Daryl, drawing him close in a bear hug. Daryl saw Rick lift a hand up and stop the three advancing figures, turn them away. Rick held him there, in the rain, and spoke to him gently but firmly. “You’re my best friend, my brother, and I’m not going to send you out there alone. You’re gonna come in here and get some help, get some pain relief, get your leg fixed up, get something warm to eat. If I have to put you in a dark room by yourself and close the door and stand guard, I will keep people away from you if that’s what you want. Is that what you want?”

Rick pulled back and looked at his face, and Daryl nodded, losing himself in those eyes again. “I’m sorry, Rick. I’m sorry.”

“You got nothing to be sorry about. You saved my ass again.”

“Stay with me,” Daryl blurted, and Rick nodded.

“I will.”

And though Daryl felt ashamed for being such a pussy, felt he didn’t deserve it, Rick stayed by his side.

Daryl focused on Rick, made him his still point, found in him the calm eye of the hurricane whirling around them both. His eyes locked on Rick’s and stayed there as Rosita and Denise undressed him, pulling off his leather jacket and his bloody shirt, lying him down on the bed and cutting his wet and filthy pants away piece by tattered piece until he was naked as the day he was born, and they tucked a blanket around his waist to cover him, placed a heating pad on his belly to warm him.

He felt their warm hands on his clammy skin, barely heard their words… “Teeth marks in the jacket… didn’t go through… not so consistent with a bite… I saw him go down… Were you shot? Daryl… Daryl?

“Daryl…” Rick said gently. “They’re talking to you.”

“Hmm… what?” Daryl forced himself to look at Denise—this morning his recruit and now his doctor—and try to listen.

“I saw you go down on your bike. Were you shot in this shoulder before you were bitten?”

He closed his eyes—something had hit him in the shoulder before he went down, but his adrenaline and the focus on his battered leg had kept him from paying much attention to it. “Yeah,” he said softly, “yeah, maybe I was. Something hit me there.”

His eyes returned to Rick’s, but Rick was staring at the doctor, eyebrows raised. “So you’re saying this might not be a bite?”

“Well, it does seem that a bullet tore open his jacket and took a chunk out of his shoulder. That would explain a lot. But the fact that his jacket was torn and the walker bit him there... The walker was attracted by the blood and its mouth could have made contact with the open wound…” She sighed, looking from Rick to Daryl. “We’ll know in 24 hours.”

Nothing to do but wait, he knew. He would die or he wouldn’t.

Daryl accepted the painkillers and water they offered him, then laid there quietly clenching his teeth while they cleaned his wounds, irrigating, disinfecting and dressing his shoulder and leg, carefully picking the gravel and grit and debris out of the flesh of his calf and thigh. “Focus on me,” Rick reminded him, clasping his hand, gently touching his good shoulder. He didn’t need to be told.

***

In the wee hours, Daryl woke in the dark room at the back of the infirmary house, disoriented. He hurt all over. His eyes wandered the room, taking in the shafts of moonlight through the blinds—how they fell in long glowing stripes across someone’s back, someone slumped over half on top of the bed where he lay. He reached a hand down beside him to slide fingers through curly hair, cupping a warm scalp.

“Hey,” he croaked.

Rick sat bolt upright in the armchair that he’d pulled up next to the bed. Looking away, he wiped shakily at his eyes, hiding his face. “Daryl, I’m sorry, did I wake you? You… you need something?”

Daryl’s mouth was dry and his wounds throbbed, but the last thing he wanted was for Rick to leave the room. “No,” he said. “I’m ok. You ok?”

Rick nodded, finally lifting his head to look out the window, his eyes shining.

“Everybody good...? Michonne n’ Abraham an’ all? What happened out there?”

“Everybody’s back,” Rick replied softly. “Except Sasha—she’s still in the tower for now. Everyone’s ok. A couple minor injuries. None of our people—except you. I think we got all the bastards. Twelve that we could find… walkers got some of ‘em.”

Daryl sighed. “No thanks to me.”

“Cut it out,” Rick growled, turning to him. “If it wasn’t for you, I’d prob’ly have died with a “W” in my forehead and been dinner for that same walker that bit you…” his voice broke and he dropped his head, pinching the bridge of his nose between his finger and thumb.

“C’mere,” Daryl said, and slowly, painfully slid over in the bed to make room, patting the mattress next to him.

Rick rolled onto the bed, atop the blankets, heaved a big sigh and laid there staring at the ceiling.

Daryl gingerly put a hand on his shoulder. “You remember,” he murmured, “that time we were all on the road, before the prison… that Indian summer night was so warm, n’ we were all so hungry, an’ we found that little pond? And me an’ you went around giggin’ frogs for ever’body…”

Rick snorted and cracked half a smile. “That was some frog feed…”

“… then we all shucked our clothes off and went skinny dippin’ in the dark…”

“And Carl started that mud fight…”

“Lori told him to cut it out, but you just covered him in mud and the two of us flung him halfway across the pond.”

Rick actually chuckled.

“It wasn’t all bad, was it?” Daryl asked. “I mean, people were dyin’, and yeah, we were hungry and exhausted and scared shitless… but we were together. We had each other. And sometimes that was good… wasn’t it?”

Rick sighed, his face growing grim again. “Yeah...” he whispered.

“I know I’m fucked up… but you gotta know…”

“Know what?”

Daryl thought of all the things he’d wanted to tell Rick, all the things he had no words for. He’d never been able to sort his feelings for Rick. A big part of him was like a faithful dog that only craved one master. He’d tried and failed to make his father happy, then devoted himself just as disastrously to Cam, then to Merle, and finally to Rick. He’d never known anyone quite like Rick. He loved Rick for treating him with respect, and he respected the man for everything he was. Around Rick, he just wanted to help, to be needed, to have Rick’s back, to be thrown an occasional bone. Rick brought out the best in him, and showed him that what he did made a difference. If he could curl every night at Rick’s feet for the rest of his life, he’d be happy.

If one part of him was like a faithful dog, the other part was a mangy tomcat.

That tomcat had been stalking through the woods one morning outside the prison, hunting, when a movement caught his eye and he froze in the underbrush. Peering through a tangle of kudzu, he saw Rick crouching on the ground, checking one of the snares. The day was young but the cicadas had already begun to whine as the temperature rose quickly; sweat dripped into Daryl’s eyes as he stood there blinking, watching Rick’s bent, curly head as he carefully removed a rabbit from the trap, and tucked it into his pack. Rick lifted his head and looked all around, as if sensing Daryl but not seeing him; he squinted up at the sky—trying to tell the hour?—then he tossed his pack a few feet away to the base of a big oak and crawled over to sit beneath the sheltering tree. He pulled a water bottle out of the pack and took a long draw.

Daryl wasn’t sure why he stayed put… what was he waiting for? A moment later, he knew. Rick settled back against the tree trunk, stretched his legs out and unfastened his belt, then his button and fly. Daryl chewed his lip as Rick reached a dirty hand into his jeans and pulled out his stiff cock. He took one more moment to glance around, then began to stroke himself roughly, with hard flicks of his wrist. Daryl suppressed a groan, but let his own hand wander down to his crotch and palm the shape of his hard-on through his pants.

It didn’t seem right, that Rick should have to jerk himself off alone in the woods. Never mind that Daryl did it all the time; at least he knew enough to carry around some form of lube. Old habits die hard. Rick was rubbing himself raw with his calloused hand, his face screwed up in a grimace. Daryl might be alone, but Rick seemed truly lonely, and that thought made Daryl hurt.

What if?  Daryl thought, his pulse quickening, his cock throbbing. What if I step out of the bushes, what if I go to him, what if I kneel down and offer to touch him, to suck him off, to let him take me? To let him use me? Would he? The thought of giving Rick such pleasure nearly made him cream himself. It wasn’t the first time he’d had that thought—but it was the first time it had seemed like even a remote possibility.

But he didn’t have the balls to move. Instead, he pulled his own dick out and masturbated while he watched Rick—watched him stroke himself harder and faster, heard his soft grunts, saw his head fall back against the tree and his bootheels dig into the dirt as he came, covering his hand in pearly white jism. Daryl came along with him, shaking in his shoes, dripping on the forest floor, and feeling like a pussy for hiding.

He seemed to develop a knack after that for catching Rick rubbing one out, and it began to feel like a cruel joke. The more he prowled and stared and lusted, the stronger his conviction grew that this could never be his. Sometime back at Hershel’s farm, his thoughts about Rick had become increasingly sinful, despite the fact that he knew Rick couldn’t possibly want him the same way. He wasn’t and would never be in Rick’s league, and he was thankful every day that Rick never pried about his past. He really didn’t deserve to be Rick’s friend and brother, and lover was out of the question. To make that move would be to risk everything, and he couldn’t risk losing Rick. And when he DID lose Rick… when he walked off with Merle, then when the prison fell… all he could think of was finding him again. The night that he found him that second time—the night that Rick chewed a man’s throat out to save them all—well, later that morning he swore that if Rick could do that, then he, Daryl, could kill the tomcat. He would never again stoop to lusting after his best friend, his brother.

The night before with Aaron, though, had awakened something inside him… that tomcat had more lives left, he feared. And lying here with Rick, now… if he was gonna die, shouldn’t he come clean? Reveal his true self?

Daryl wrestled with himself mightily for a moment, with the urge to lift his hand from Rick’s shoulder and palm his stubbly cheek, brush a thumb across his perfect pink mouth, turn that handsome face towards him and say… what?  He closed his eyes and cursed the erection that was tenting his borrowed boxer briefs, glad he was lying on his side. No, he couldn’t do this to himself, or to Rick. Couldn’t bear now to offer his vulnerable, soft-shelled heart to someone who would just be burdened by it. It felt too much like suicide. And besides… he had hope now—a light at the end of the tunnel. An inkling that—if he lived—there might be others left in the world who might want to take in a scruffy ol’ tomcat with a couple of lives left. A tomcat who was a bit of a pussy inside.

So he finished his sentence the way he originally intended to, and meant it no less. “… you gotta know,” Daryl repeated, “that yer the best thing that ever happened to me—the best friend I ever had—and I’d do it all again. And this ain’t on you, it’s on me. So don’t go blamin’ yerself, ‘cause I know that’s what you do.”

***

Soft clinking noises and good smells awoke him, and he opened his eyes groggily to a world of bright light and dull, throbbing pain. Daryl shifted, squinted into the light, and then someone sat lightly on the side of his bed and threw a shadow across his face. Carol smiled down at him, reached to palm his forehead. She smiled wider. “Cool as a cucumber,” she said. “And only two more hours left in quarantine. Looks like you’re gonna make it, Pookie.” Leaning down, she kissed his cheek, and he snorted a little.

“What the hell time is it?”

“Almost four o’clock. You must be starving and I’ll bet your painkillers have worn off.”

“You some kinda psychic, woman?”

“Wise ass,” she grinned. “Here, can you sit up?”

He slowly pushed himself up, and she propped some big pillows behind him and helped him settle.

“Feel like a goddamn old man,” he complained.

She placed a tray of food, medicine and tea in his lap, and then waved some clothes at him and set them on the end of the bed. “Eat up, take these pills and then get dressed,” she said. “You’ve got to face your adoring public.”

“What? Rick said he wasn’t letting anyone in here. So how’d you get in and where’d he go?”

“I have ways with Rick. And he had to leave—he’s got things to attend to.” Something like concern flickered across her face, then vanished again. Daryl scowled. Carol smiled brightly again. “Eat now—they’re lining up outside the door and there’ll be a riot if I don’t let them in.”

***

It felt like a riot anyway—a parade of grinning people passed through the room for nearly an hour, kissing and hugging him and clapping him carefully on his good shoulder, asking him too many questions and offering him snacks and smokes and other little gifts. He tried his best to be civil and appreciative, but had Carol not been practically sitting on him in the bed, he would have headed for the bathroom and tried to crawl out the window after 15 minutes.

Finally, the room emptied out. Daryl turned to fix Carol with an angry glare, when Maggie’s soft voice spoke from just outside the door.

“Daryl, I’ve got somebody else who’d like to see you…”

For one earth-tilting moment he thought -Beth?- but then Maggie walked into the room holding the hand of a small, thin, red-headed girl.

“Sarah has something for you,” Maggie said. She gently drew the girl by the hand to Daryl’s bedside, and Daryl could suddenly feel the corners of his mouth pulling up nearly to his ears.

“Sarah,” he repeated. “So that’s yer name...” He reached up and pushed the hair out of his face, sat a little straighter. “I’m Daryl. Do you ‘member me?”

The girl nodded, staring at him hard for a moment, then slowly pulled her left hand from behind her back, where she was holding a sheet of paper. She extended it to Daryl, and he took it from her and studied it. It was a picture drawn in crayon—a picture of a forest filled with monsters, and an angel in black with big, white wings plucking a little girl in a pink dress from a tree.

The picture suddenly blurred as his eyes filled with tears, which wouldn’t blink away. “This for me?” he murmured.

“She made it for you,” Maggie answered. “All by herself. When she heard you were hurt.”

“Sarah… I… I sure do love it…”

The girl’s voice, when she spoke, was barely audible. “Why are you crying?”

Daryl laughed, set the picture carefully aside, and wiped his eyes on the bedsheet. “Just ‘cause I’m happy, darlin’,” he answered. “Happy ‘cause you’re here to see me, and ‘cause I’m feelin’ better. An’  happy ‘cause now I can see how brave you really are. Yer not afraid of me, are you?”

Still gazing at him, the girl tilted her head and shook it slowly.

***

Carol departed, and Rosita and Denise had just finished changing the dressings on his shoulder and leg and pronounced him ready to go home, when his final visitors showed up. Aaron knocked softly on the doorframe and stepped in, followed by Eric.

“Hey,” Daryl quipped, turning carefully to sit on the edge of the bed, “you missed the party.”

Aaron laughed. “Well, you know how we love parties.”

“’Bout as much as I do…”

They perched on either side of him, and Aaron put an arm around him, while Eric softly touched his knee. “I’m so glad you’re ok,” Aaron told him. Daryl looked into those soft eyes and could only nod; he patted Eric’s hand on his knee awkwardly.

Aaron then reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon. “We waited till they all left, ‘cause we didn’t want to have to split this more than three ways.”

Eric produced some paper cups, and held them up while Aaron poured, then they each took one.

“So we couldn’t have our little celebration dance lastnight,” Aaron said, “because nobody felt much like celebrating—even though we kicked the Wolves’ asses.”

“Well, the collective ‘we’…” Eric added.

“So we saved our celebration until now.”

“I ain’t gonna be doin’ no dancin,’” Daryl said.

“That’s why we’re just going to have a toast,” Aaron assured him.

“And maybe a group hug,” said Eric.

Daryl looked at Eric, and suddenly a tidal wave of guilt rolled over him. Any strength he’d had earlier to pretend was gone, and Eric’s kindness felt like a knife in his chest.

“I fucked Aaron,” he blurted, his face flushing hot with shame. He looked down at his lap, into his cup of beer, and waited for the fallout, his heart pounding.

He felt Aaron’s warm hand on his thigh, and Eric heaved a dramatic sigh. “Really, is now the time to rub it in?”

“I’m sorry,” Daryl said softly.

Why?”  Eric asked. “Was it not as fabulous as he said it was?”

Daryl looked from one to the other of them. “You told him?”

“I told you he wouldn’t mind,” Aaron replied.

“Well I was jealous,” Eric admitted. “But I’m hoping that next time I get to play too.”

“Next time, huh?” Daryl murmured, a little bit astounded.

“Yeah—to next time,” Aaron offered, smiling, holding up his cup in a toast.

“Uh, wait a minute, hold on,” Daryl said, suddenly remembering something important. “Eric, gimme that CD player there.”

Eric looked in the direction of his gesture, and picked up the small CD player lying on the end of the bed—something that Carl had brought an hour earlier. He handed it to Daryl.

“So I asked Carl to find this for me,” Daryl said. “Figured I’d pick a song for us this time.” He pushed a couple of buttons, and familiar guitar chords began to fill the room. Slow smiles spread over his friends’ faces.

 

I’ll never be your beast of burden

My back is broad, but it’s a hurtin’

All I want is for you to make love to me

 

They both put an arm around him and raised their cups again, and Daryl joined them.

“Next time?” Aaron suggested again.

“Okay, next time,” Daryl agreed softly, and they toasted and drank.

 

Am I hard enough?

Am I rough enough?

Am I rich enough?

I’m not too blind to see….

 

***

Daryl felt like the odd man out, and was entirely sure that he was being kept in the dark like a damn mushroom. When he woke in the morning on the couch, for starters, it seemed the house was abandoned. He laid there feeling miserably sore for a while, then limped to the kitchen for a glass of water and a look in the cupboards; a moment later, Carol slipped in the front door, holding Judith. She seemed on edge, but gave him a strained smile and said everything was fine and would he like lunch? So he said ok and perched on a stool at the breakfast bar and ate what she fixed him. When Michonne came in with Carl, they had snow in their hair. The kid was actually careful to close the front door quietly and not to slam it, and suddenly Daryl realized what was happening.

He beckoned Michonne over. “Walls are surrounded by walkers, ain’t they?” he said.

Michonne sighed and sat down next to him. “Yeah. It’s bad. A couple teams went out this morning and tried to knock them back, but they barely made a dent… and they lost Bruce.”

“Where’s Rick?”

He just got finished giving everybody a little pep talk. He’s got a plan. Right now he’s down at the armory, handing out guns. He’ll come home in a while with ours. And probably your bow—though you’re not in any condition to shoot it.”

“Gotta be somethin’ I can do,” Daryl said hopefully.

“You can take care of yourself and heal up,” Michonne said pointedly.

People came and went, everybody tense and grouchy, and Daryl eventually gathered all the knives he could find and a whetstone and went out to sit on the porch. Wrapped in a blanket, he perched carefully on the top step and gazed around. Big flakes of snow slowly floated out of the sky, and the street was hushed—he could see only a handful of people in the distance, walking purposefully here and there, hurrying to get out of the cold. It seemed peaceful—at first. He became aware of a constant low rushing sound in the background, like the ocean or a creek… rather pleasant until he realized it was the sound of hundreds of walkers along the wall, hissing and scraping their fingers on the metal. A soft breeze shifted the flakes in the air, and brought the rank smell of rot with it.

Daryl wrinkled his nose and slowly dragged a blade across the stone, over and over.

***

When Aaron walked up to the porch, he looked grim. Daryl nodded at him and he nodded back.

“I wanted to let you know that your bike is safe in the garage,” Aaron said. “I guess someone actually brought it in right after we got back, and it showed up kind of mysteriously lastnight. Rick said he found your crossbow in the armory, and he’ll bring it to you later.”

Daryl nodded again, peering at Aaron through his disheveled bangs.

“I brought you some clothes that I thought might be easier to get on and more comfortable,” Aaron told him, holding up a bulging plastic bag. “How are you feeling?”

Daryl sighed. “Fuckin’ useless.”

Aaron settled next to him, and Daryl could feel the man’s eyes on him. “I think we’re all feeling a little helpless right now,” he said. “But, you know, I’m sure the walls will hold.”

Daryl thought about the prison fence, and decided against mentioning it.

“Daryl, I wanted to ask you…” Aaron sounded a little nervous… “Eric and I wanted to ask… if you’d like to come stay with us.”

Daryl squinted, pulled the blanket tighter around his shoulders. “Why?”

“Well, it seems a bit crowded here. I understand you’re sleeping on the couch. We have plenty of room and more than one empty bed. You could have your own room. Heck, you could have two.”

“I’m sleepin’ on the couch so I can guard the door,” Daryl said roughly. “Not ‘cause they’re makin’ me.”

Aaron sat there blinking at him for a few moments, but Daryl had nothing more to say.

“Alright,” Aaron finally said. “Well, I’d better get back. Rick set a 4:30 curfew. Here…” he tried to hand Daryl the bag of clothes, but Daryl just looked at it, then at him.

“I’m ok,” Daryl said flatly.

“I know you’re ok,” Aaron murmured. “You’re always ok. But I’d like you to have them. Consider it a loan if it makes you feel better.”

Daryl sighed again and took the bag, setting it on the porch beside him. “Thanks,” he mumbled.

Aaron gave him a soft smile. “Don’t mention it. And look, our offer stands, if you ever change your mind. Even if it’s just for a night.”

***

Daryl leaned back against the porch railing, watching him go, and pondered which he hated worse—feeling useless, or feeling used. He had little experience with the former, but plenty of knowledge about the latter, and he wondered when it was that he’d stopped accepting it, and started reacting to it.

When his self-esteem was lower than a snake’s belly, over and over again he fell in with the kind of people who took advantage of him. It felt familiar. For a time, he gave up on trying to have anything real, since it was easier just not to deal with emotions or expectations.

He had Merle to thank for some of that. He believed Merle cared about him, in his way, but Merle never hesitated to use him when it suited Merle’s purposes. Merle, just like his old man, often liked to say he was teaching Daryl a life lesson, when really he was just being a mean, selfish asshole.

Daryl could remember that bar vividly. The Coors Light lamp over the pool table, the bartender with a gold tooth, the two girls in the corner wearing halter tops and drinking Budweiser from bottles who kept trying to catch his eye. Daryl didn’t want to catch anything but a buzz. He slouched at a dirty table against the wall, legs splayed out in front of him, nursing a Lone Star and observing the room with an air of careless indifference. He kept one eye on Merle, who was standing at the far end of the bar, wheeling and dealing furtively with a big, hairy biker who had recently come in and given Daryl the once-over and a nod. Daryl wondered what sort of hustle Merle was concocting. They both glanced at him from time to time, Merle throwing in a gesture or two, and it was beginning to make him twitchy.

“Whats’a matter, little bro?” Merle kept asking him with a grin since he’d been out of prison again. “Yer nervous as a cat in a room fulla rockin’ chairs!”

Truth was, Daryl was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Waiting for the conversation about Cam. For the questions and the accusations. For the beating of his life—the “Lesson.” But days passed and Merle never said a word. It was eating Daryl alive.

Next thing he knew, that biker was striding over to him. Daryl stayed slouched in his seat, took another swig from his bottle and squinted up at the man. Behind his thick, bushy beard, the stranger smiled a toothy smile that didn’t reach his eyes. He leaned down, one hand on the table, his splayed fingers seeming to cover half the tabletop.

“Just paid two hundred dollars for you,” the man informed him. He gave a nod toward the bar. “Guy over there said I could either fuck you, or kick the shit out of you and then fuck you… your choice.”

Daryl felt the blood drain from his face. Merle was still standing at the bar, and met Daryl’s desperate glance with a smile and a wink and a lifted glass of whiskey.

Daryl chose the first option. And he decided later that night that the best way to get even with Merle for getting even with him was to do it again and to get good at it and to make more money in one night (if he got lucky and chose the right place) than Merle could make in a week of pouring cement or pounding nails or painting barns, or even knocking over a Qwik Stop or two.

He got really good at getting used. If he was being paid, he reasoned, then he really wasn’t anyone’s bitch. And when he was the one buying the drinks, Merle wasn’t bitching.

Rick didn’t operate like Merle. With him there were no games, no looking out solely for number one. He was honest, and expected honesty. He gave respect, and wanted it in turn. He sought out Daryl’s strengths—and yes, he used them, but in a way that required Daryl to be his best self. To be useful. To give of himself willingly, like everyone else gave to him. Slowly but surely, Rick and the rest of them were giving Daryl back to himself, and Daryl swore he’d never settle for being used again.

So what was it about Aaron and Eric that set off his alarm? The fact that he was ready to trust them so blindly made him question his own judgment. They seemed so kind and open with him—so loving and accepting with each other—that he just couldn’t believe it was real. He knew they weren’t stupid, or weak. Why would they want him to stay with them? Why would Eric want to share his lover? Why did Aaron let him do what he did? His biggest fear, he realized, was that they just wanted someone to play Daddy. Someone to use. And as much fun as that might be for a while…

Daryl knew he wanted more.

***

They passed the long evening by candle and lamplight, most all his people hunkered in chairs and sprawled on the floor in the front room of Rick’s house, the way they were on the first night, when they were skittish as wildcats. This time there wasn’t the same sort of giddy expectation and high anxiety—it was more like grim determination and dread. The boarded-up front windows added to the gloom. Daryl listened as plans were made that only peripherally included him. He had one good arm and a limp, and that made him a liability, he knew. If shit went down they all expected him to man the upstairs window with a rifle, which made him want to eat nails, but he kept his mouth shut and sulked in the corner instead.

As the hour grew late, Glenn and Abraham, Rosita and Eugene headed back to their houses. Carol went to her downstairs bedroom, Carl headed upstairs, and Morgan and Michonne snuggled up on the couch, talking in low voices. Daryl watched Rick stand and stretch, then startle as a knock sounded at the door. Rick went to investigate, then opened the door to admit Jessie and her youngest son. They carried bedrolls and small bags.

“Rick,” Jessie said nervously, “With everything going on, we just… would it be okay if we slept here tonight?”

“Sure,” Rick replied. “Come on in.”

Jessie gave a small wave and nodded politely at Daryl in his corner, and Daryl managed a feeble nod in return, unsmiling.

What the hell is she doing here? Just a few nights ago, he’d watched Rick gun down her husband without hesitation. Something didn’t feel right.

He pretended to be reading by the light of a small oil lamp, but from under his curtain of hair, he watched Rick call Carl downstairs, then send the little boy back up with him. Rick and Jessie then slid over to the breakfast bar and began a murmured conversation, and Rick’s body language was as easy to read as a book—opening his legs, leaning in, touching his hair, his face, her arm, her back. He wanted her. She wanted him, or she would not be here. How long has this been going on? What the hell have I missed?

Daryl felt cold.

Morgan and Michonne soon meandered up the stairs—together—and Daryl carefully blew out the oil lamp and lay down on his couch, but kept his eyes on the couple at the bar. A few moments later, Rick blew out the remaining candle, then footsteps ghosted through the room and creaked on the staircase as Jessie and Rick headed upstairs too.

***

Daryl couldn’t sleep. The wakeful noises in the house slowly subsided; people stopped walking around and dropping things and talking, water stopped running, pipes stopped gurgling. Daryl had to piss; was Carol really still in the bathroom? He heaved himself up and ambled across the room; yes, the light still shone from under the door. He considered stepping out to piss off the porch, but it was cold outside, and opening the door would probably have everyone in the house instantly on full alert. So he went to the stairs and slowly, carefully began to climb, knowing and avoiding the squeaky spot in each riser. He silently cursed his sore leg at the top of the landing, and began to move down the hall to the bathroom—but stopped at the first door. Michonne’s soft laugh from inside sounded downright musical, and he couldn’t help but lean in closer to listen. He could hear Morgan’s low voice, then Michonne’s sexy purr, followed by an oh yeah… then the bedsqueaks began.

He slid back and hobbled away as fast as he could while remaining silent. He didn’t like that he suddenly had a woody—it was like getting hard for your sister, dammit.

Then he was standing in front of Rick’s door.

And he could hear sounds coming from inside Rick’s room as well. Shit, were they even trying to be quiet? Jessie was begging Rick not to stop whatever he was doing, which she was clearly enjoying, and there was a lot of oh yes and oh Rick and Daryl stepped closer, unable not to. It went on, and on, and Daryl wanted to leave, but his feet felt glued to the floor. He wanted to leave, but he leaned his forehead against the door instead, splaying his hands on the plywood veneer, and Rick suddenly groaned deeply and there was a fuck yeah, and then the bed began to rock and thump and squeak—slow at first but quickly picking up speed—and Daryl could picture their naked bodies thrusting and sweating, could hear them panting and moaning and cursing through the door. Daryl began to shake, his throat constricting, his erection going limp, his heart suddenly falling into his belly like a cold stone. He couldn’t leave this door, but if he didn’t, he would do something terrible—he would holler out, kick the door open, drag him off of her, and… and what?

He jerked away from the door as if shocked and lurched away, no longer caring if he was quiet; he staggered down the dark hall as fast as he could, bouncing off a wall and nearly falling down the stairs in his haste to descend. When he reached the bottom, he heard Carol call softly to him, but he didn’t want to talk to her, or to anybody in this house of fucking horrors, he just wanted out, fucking OUT. He went straight to the couch where he’d left his leather jacket and wrestled his arms into the sleeves, ignoring the shooting pain in his injured shoulder.

Carol came out of the darkness and grabbed his good arm. “Daryl—Daryl, what’s the matter? What are you doing?”

Leavin,’” he said, and it came out nearly a sob, and Carol tightened her grip.

“No, you’re not leaving… now talk to me. What’s going on?”

“I can’t,” he whispered around the lump in his throat, “I can’t. I just have to go. I… I’m goin’ to Aaron’s for the night. They invited me.”

“Daryl, it’s late—and it’s dangerous…” her eyes pled with him to stay, but he could hear doors opening upstairs, and realized he’d rather face a walker in a dark alley than Rick right now.

He pulled away from her. “I got a gun. I’m goin’,” he said firmly. “Now lock the door behind me.”

***

Aaron opened the front door to find Daryl standing there shaking, barely able to stand and beside himself with emotion.

“God, it’s late, what are you doing out?” Aaron exclaimed, ushering him in quickly. “Is everything ok? What’s the matter?”

Daryl shook his head, let Aaron lead him to an armchair and sit him down, wrap a blanket around his shoulders. “It’s all good,” he managed to whisper. “’S ok.”

Aaron knelt in front of him and laid his small flashlight on the floor. “It doesn’t seem ok,” he said gently.

Daryl realized he didn’t really want to break down in front of Aaron, but he wasn’t sure he’d have a choice much longer. He pinched the bridge of his nose and sniffled loudly, tears leaking from his tightly closed eyes.

Aaron placed a hand on his knee, squeezing gently. “Did something happen? Is there anything I can do?”

“I’m jus’… just bein’ a dumbass,” Daryl mumbled. “That’s all.”

Eric’s voice came from the dark hallway, and Daryl could hear him shuffling down the hall on his homemade crutch. “Aaron, everything ok?”

The shuffling stopped in front of his chair, and Daryl felt hot with shame, but he couldn’t stop the tsunami of sadness that was building up inside him as he sat there trembling and wiping his eyes.

It was quiet for a moment, then Eric sighed. “I think I know what you need, honey,” he said, then shuffled away again. Daryl heard the spigot turn on in the bathtub down the hall.

When Aaron led him to the bathroom twenty minutes later, he looked around through bleary eyes in surprise. Two candles burned at the front of the tub filled with steamy water, and there was a rolled up towel placed in the back for his head, and another folded lengthwise atop the side, to cradle his injured leg. A washcloth and soap had also been set on the edge for him to reach, along with an iPod in a speaker dock.

“So,” Eric said, “You can stay in here as long as you need to, and turn the music up as loud as you want. There are clean clothes on the back of the door for you, and we’ll wash what you’ve got on later, so leave those on the floor. When you’re done, you can sleep on the couch, or take an upstairs room, but the best bed is down the hall where we’re sleeping, and it’s a king, so you’re more than welcome to crawl in with us and keep warm. We’re all skinny and nobody bites. Aaron will leave a couple of blankets out for you in any case.”

Daryl nodded, speechless.

“Gonna need help in or out?” Aaron asked.

He shook his head, sniffling, and hoped he was right.

“Now take that jacket off and give it to me,” Eric demanded, holding his hand out. “It smells like a zombie smoking a Pall Mall.”

Once Daryl had lowered himself into the steaming water and poked the iPod until Lynyrd Skynyrd blared out, he understood Eric’s logic. He laid his head back and finally relaxed and let go, the painful knots in his throat and head loosening as he began to keen and sob along to Free Bird. No one could see or hear him blubbering, or ask him why, or tell him to stop being such a goddamn baby. It amazed him how hard he could cry and for how long, but he cried until there were no more tears left, until the serpent of grief that had been constricting his tender new heart released its grip for now, until he felt that maybe he could forgive, and maybe he could trust, and that maybe everything would be ok after all.

Finally feeling purged inside, he decided to scrub his outside, taking the washcloth and fruity-smelling soap to every inch of himself that wasn’t bandaged, and scrubbing his hair with the coconut shampoo until it squeaked.

It occurred to him that this bath was possibly the most thoughtful thing anybody had ever done for him. Not the bravest or the most selfless, certainly, but maybe the most thoughtful. And he got to thinking about all the kindnesses that people had shown him in the last couple years, and he felt warm and grateful.

Daryl toweled himself off and pulled down the clothes hanging on the door, and suddenly he was looking at his naked body in a full length mirror. Despite the flaws that candlelight hid, he was surprised at what he looked like. It had been a long time since he’d cared to look, even when he’d had an opportunity. Before the turn, he’d been working on a little beer belly. Now, he was taut and muscular from the lack of beer (and food) and from living like a footsoldier. He turned himself around, looking over his shoulder, then back to the front. He might be buff, but he wasn’t Pretty Boy anymore. Scarred, tattooed, bandaged and bewhiskered, his hair too long, his face lined and eyes swollen from crying, he didn’t see much that looked young or appealing.

He went through the drawers quietly, removing a comb and some small scissors, and went to work taking knots out of his hair, and trimming his moustache and graying goatee until he at least looked less like a homeless man. Brushed his teeth with somebody’s toothbrush.

He couldn’t remember the last time he’d preened for another man… it had to be Cam. That thought held no anxiety for him tonight. It seemed long ago and far away, like it possibly happened to somebody else. Daryl thought about Aaron and Eric in their bed—did he dare join them? It would be easy to slip out to the sofa. Did they really want him, scars, tattoos and all? Would they cringe away from the stories his body told? He’d hidden so much, even from Rick and Carol and Glenn and Maggie, and it occurred to him how much he wanted someone to really, truly know him. Aaron and Eric already knew more about him than anyone else. He suspected they could handle his whole ugly truth—and maybe in time he’d tell it all.

He carefully pulled on the soft pajama pants, and decided to go without the shirt. This would be a start.

Daryl gently pushed open Aaron and Eric’s bedroom door, and Aaron rolled over and sat up. “Daryl, you coming to join us?” he asked sleepily.

“I ain’t pretty, but I’m clean and I smell like a damn piña colada,” he announced. “So yeah—slide on over.”

***

Daryl swam up slowly from sleep, opening one eye to let in the gray morning light. He lay on his stomach, his face pressed into the down pillow. Peering out through his hair, he looked straight into Aaron’s face, just inches away. Aaron’s eyes crinkled in a smile.

“Mornin,’ Daryl. Sleep well?”

“Mmm,” he grunted. “This bed is like a damn cloud.” He rolled to his side and reached over to poke Aaron in the belly. “Must be why yer so soft,” he teased.

“Must be why you fell asleep the minute you laid down lastnight,” Aaron replied.  “And just so you know…” he added, “parts of me aren’t so soft…”

“That so?”

“Mmmhmm.”

The two men regarded each other for a moment or two, then Aaron reached over and pushed Daryl’s hair gently out of his face. “You’re in my bed now,” he murmured. “You do know that makes you my lover…”

“Yeah?”

“And lovers get to do this,” Aaron whispered. Laying his hand on Daryl’s cheek, he leaned in and pressed his mouth against Daryl’s in a lush, slow kiss, his lips soft and warm and seductive, and Daryl lost all pretense of resistance. Instead, he melted open, his teeth parting and mouth opening to accept Aaron’s tongue, his throat releasing a groan, his cock swelling against his thigh as his heart began to pound. Aaron slid his fingers into Daryl’s hair, kissing him deeper and harder, until Daryl forced himself to break away.

“Listen,” he murmured, his fingers worrying the edge of the blanket until Aaron caught his hand and held it. “Jus’ tell me what it is you want from me. ‘Cause I can’t play games no more. I ain’t no superhero. And I ain’t here to be your Daddy.”

Aaron frowned at him. “Why is it so hard to believe I just want you to be Daryl?”

Daryl stared at him, chewed his lip, finally shrugged his bad shoulder, which made him wince. “Wanna believe it,” he said softly. “Dunno if I can.”

“What do I have to do to make you believe?”

Daryl thought about that for a minute, while Aaron waited patiently. “Tell me, man. Tell my why the hell you want Daryl Dixon in your bed,” he finally said.

Aaron propped his head on his elbow and gazed down at Daryl, his lower lip pouting in that way that made Daryl a little crazy. “Because since the moment I first started watching you, I learned that you’re selfless and brave and loyal and smart, but you’re also caring and feeling and sensitive. You have a knack for observation—you’re a good judge of character. But for some reason, you still push people away… Maybe that’s because you’ve gotten a bum rap most of your life and people can be jerks—am I right?”

Daryl squinted up at him. “Maybe. But you still ain’t answered my question.”

“He loves an underdog,” came a muffled voice from behind him. “And there’s another lousy superhero name…”

Aaron snorted, rolled his eyes. “I can’t explain everything. I just… I like you, Daryl. I’ve never met anybody like you. I’ve got a thing for you, I guess.” Aaron was actually blushing. “Eric thinks you’re pretty hot, too.”

“I do,” came Eric’s voice again.

“And it’s nice to be with someone else who gets us. We like being with you. We like you. I’m sorry if I’ve been a little pushy, but life just keeps looking shorter, and I don’t want to wait. So right now, dammit, I’d like to make love to you both before my boner disappears.”

Daryl couldn’t help it—the corner of his mouth quirked into a tiny smile. “You best be gettin’ naked, then,” he purred.

Aaron grinned at him, and wasted no time shucking his t-shirt and briefs off and tossing them to the floor. “How about you—can I help?” he asked.

Daryl pushed the pajama bottoms off his hips, and let Aaron strip them the rest of the way off, being careful of his bandaged leg. He was suddenly, painfully aware of eyes on his naked body, for the second time in three days—only this time, he wasn’t the only one naked.

Aaron slid close and wrapped an arm around him, pressed against him, and drew him into another luscious kiss. Daryl soon realized he was feeling more than two hands on him, and a moment later, he felt bare skin against his back as well as his front, the two men holding him between them. Aaron continued to kiss him slowly and sensuously, and when Daryl shifted and their cocks rubbed together, Aaron grabbed his hips and rocked and rolled against him, sliding their members deliciously together and pushing him back against Eric. Daryl shivered with delight, groaning deeply.

“Oh hell, you two,” Eric complained from behind him. “Aaron, stop bogarting the new guy.” He grabbed Daryl’s arm and gently pulled him down to lie on his back between them. Daryl turned toward him lazily, and Eric took hold of his face. “So are we kissing now, too?”

“Hell yeah,” he mumbled, and Eric kissed him too—harder, shorter kisses, hands on his face, while Aaron wrapped a hand around his rigid cock and began to fondle him.

Daryl sighed happily and Eric broke away to look down at him, beaming. “Look at you smiling,” he teased gently. “Look at him, Aaron. Lying there like some ravished virgin. You’re not going to tell me Darth Angel’s never had a threesome before, are you?”

“Eric…” Aaron chided.

“’S ok,” Daryl murmured, flushing but feeling high on honesty. “I never have. Never been kissed like that neither. Never been naked with no one…”

“Really?” Eric exclaimed. “Oh, this is fun…”

“Ever had your prostate fucked while someone sucks your cock?” Aaron whispered in his ear…

Daryl had never felt so completely undone, wracked with pleasure, turned inside out. Aaron lay behind him, half underneath and buried inside him, carefully holding up his left leg and spreading him open, slowly and thoroughly fucking him. With each pull and push, bumping the head of his cock against Daryl’s sweet spot. With each pull and push, sliding Daryl’s cock in and out of Eric’s hot, sucking mouth.

“You like that?” Aaron murmured. “Is it ok? I’m not hurting your leg?”

Daryl could hardly answer, his eyes rolling back in his head as Aaron banged his prostate again and Eric sucked hard. He let out a long, low moan instead.

“Do you have any idea how fucking hot you are?” Aaron murmured in his ear. “So damn hot. Oh God, I could fuck you all day. It could only be better if you could fuck me at the same time.”

“Ohhhh, yeah,” Daryl groaned, reveling in the dirty talk. “I love yer sweet little ass.” He turned his head and thrust his tongue into Aaron’s mouth, wanting to be kissed as deeply as he was being fucked, wanting to be completely consumed. Aaron didn’t disappoint.

And Eric… Daryl fisted his hands in the man’s hair, fighting the urge to force Eric’s face down to his balls. Eric lapped and sucked and deep-throated him, and he felt as if he might die then and there. He couldn’t control the sounds he was making, nearly sobbing with the exquisite pleasure of it all.

Just when he thought he couldn’t bear it any longer, he felt himself tipping over the edge. “Fuck… oh fuck… oh fuck,” he whimpered, trembling. “I’m gonna come like a fuckin’ fire hydrant.”

“Mmmm, yes,” Aaron moaned, “come on, baby, I’m right there with you. Come on… who do you love?”

They spooned afterwards in the big bed, languorous and warm and spent, and dozed together for a while, Daryl hugging Eric to him and dreaming—until his dream was invaded by a gunshot.

They all startled awake; Aaron was suddenly up and out of the bed and grabbing somebody’s pants. “Stay, you two,” he commanded, and disappeared down the hall. Daryl and Eric looked at each other a moment, then began to crawl out of the bed to hunt for their own clothes. Daryl peered out of the back blinds, his heart in his throat, but couldn’t see anything beyond the neighboring house. Then came another gunshot, and voices yelling.

“Shit,” came Aaron’s voice from down the hall. “Shit, shit, oh SHIT! Oh, God… the wall is breached.”

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.”