He wakes with the dawn just as the last of their fires start to fizzle out. Their group had camped out last night in a clearing where they had found two walkers dangling from a tree. He could hear his brother's snores from where he was propped up against a nearby stump and snorts. It isn't exactly the first time Merle had fallen asleep on his watch and it sure as hell wouldn't be the last. Joe could be quite particular about that sort of thing though, so Daryl, being the dutiful brother that he is, walks over and kicks him in the ribs.
Merle startles awake, brandishing a knife and a choice of swear words. Daryl jumps back just in time to avoid a swipe at his shins.
"God damn it, baby brother. What the fuck were you thinking?"
Daryl resists the urge to roll his eyes. "Shut the fuck up, Merle. You know I just saved your sorry ass from Joe's 'discipline'."
Merle pales a bit at that and Daryl couldn't help but smirk. Merle could be one stubborn son of a bitch at times but he still had enough common sense and survival instinct to know that Joe was not someone he wants to cross.
He and his brother stumbled upon Joe's group in an old suburban house a little ways off the road leading out of Atlanta. There appeared to be only three or four of them at the time and Merle was either drunk or brave (or stupid) enough to charge headlong into what turned out to be three arrows and almost a dozen gun points trained at them. Daryl had cursed as they slowly approached, crossbow at the ready, just in time to hear Merle mouthing off about how everyone these days seemed to be hiding behind their weapons like fucking pussies.
"Did you hear that, Boss?" the one with the short bow had quipped. "Dumbass just volunteered himself for target practice."
"I'm Claiming his head," another had called out.
The men had laughed loudly at that, except for the one the first guy addressed as 'Boss'. He cut a rather strange picture against the backdrop of the house with a white vest, white-streaked hair and a leather jacket embroidered with roses and a skull. He held a rifle at his side and appeared to be in his late forties to early fifties but Daryl knew it would be a mistake to underestimate the guy's strength if he indeed were the leader of this ragtag group. He adjusted his grip on his crossbow, shifted him aim and snarled, "Do it and your 'Boss' gets to be my target practice."
Joe looked at him then with interest and something that he would later on learn was amusement in eyes.
"A bowman? I respect that."
Daryl glared at him, trying to appear as though those dark eyes trained at him weren't making him the most nervous he'd ever felt since the dead began to walk.
"You see a man with a rifle, he could have been some kind of photographer or soccer coach back in the day," Joe continued, "but a bowman's a bowman through and through."
Joe had smiled eerily at that.
"The name's Joe," he said. "I'm assuming this is your brother?"
Daryl refused to answer.
"You know, my men could always use themselves a new practice post. But then, you two interest me, so why don't you be a good little redneck and put that bow of yours away. We wouldn't want any accidents, would we?" And then, almost as an afterthought, "Besides, why hurt yourself when you could hurt other people?"
Daryl hesitated for a second before lowering his crossbow.
"Daryl. That's Merle."
"Well, Daryl, Merle. Would you care to join us for some beer?"
That had been a couple of years ago and the group hadn't changed much since then. They had learned that the group that had started out as a biker gang with Joe as its leader respected no laws but the rules of Claiming and Joe's own brand of justice. The way their world worked was that if you wanted something or someone, you just Claimed it – no ifs, no buts, no consequences. In the span of time since they'd joined, the group had moved from the outskirts of Atlanta to the area around Fort Benning, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Daryl had unwillingly participated in all the killing and torturing and the pillaging just to stay in Joe's good graces and to keep his brother out of trouble, but rape – well, that was just where he drew the line. In the twenty odd months he'd spent with their group, he'd never actively participated in Claiming, much less the Claiming of people. Some wise ass made a crack at his masculinity once and something about him and his brother being suspiciously close, only to be met with an arrow to the gut. Daryl was lucky that Joe was on a rare good mood that day and he'd managed to escape with as little as night watch duty for the next two months.
Merle seemed to fit right in with the rest of them, though, and Daryl begrudged him for it. After all, it was his fault they were in this predicament in the first place and he had half a mind to say screw you to his DNA and just walk the fuck away. But that was just it - he'd promised himself that he'd never allow himself to be like Merle, would never walk away from family, and god damn it if he was letting the only piece of his family left get stuck with arrows to a tree and be left for walker fodder.
"Try to at least pretend you've been awake for half the night," he sighs. "I'm going to go hunt us some breakfast before that bastard Len steals our meal."
Daryl seems to be in luck that day and Len, the guy with the short bow, is passed out drunk in his sleeping bag when he makes his way out of their camp. By the time the sun had risen, he'd gotten himself a decent haul of two rabbits and a snake. He starts to make his way back to their camp when he hears footsteps crashing heavily against the forest bed - too fast to be a walker's but too light to be one of theirs. He holds his breath, presses himself up against the nearest tree and waits.
A figure rushes past him in a blur, heading straight in the direction of their camp, and he reacts on instinct and throws himself bodily against it, tackling and pinning the person to the ground.
"Who are you?" he demands, easily keeping the person in place despite their struggling. "What are you doing here?"
He is shocked to find startling blue eyes staring up at him and it is only then that he realizes that he'd just tackled a teen-aged girl. She is frightfully thin, unbelievably dirty, and her thick blonde hair had fallen out of its ponytail.
The girl just continues to look at him for seconds, the panic slightly fading from her eyes to be replaced with something Daryl is surprised to recognize as defiance.
"Get off of me, please," she says in a soft voice. "I promise I mean you no harm."
Daryl blinks at her then and almost laughs, wonders just how this tiny slip of a girl thinks she could do him any "harm."
"I'd say, scrawny little thing like you. Aren't you a bit lost, blondie?"
The girl glares at him then and he swears she would've given him a scathing reply if they weren't interrupted.
"Well, well, what do we have here?"
Daryl feels the beginning of a headache burn at the back of his head.
"Fuck off, Len. This ain't got nothing to do with you."
"Been wondering what's been taking you so long. Figured if you wanted to lose your breakfast, I'd be pretty much obliged. Never thought..." He lets out a low whistle. "Actually, when you're done with her, I don't think you'd mind me taking a turn or two."
Daryl glares at him, pushes himself up and off of the girl and growls before his brain could register what he was doing. "Shut your hole, dumbass. Can't you see she's been Claimed?"
Len raises both eyebrows at that. Daryl Dixon had never Claimed anybody for anything.
"You must've been a good one, girlie," he says, his eyes raking lecherously over the girl's body. "For you to make Dixon Jr. here crack."
Daryl hauls the seemingly shaken girl up, pushes her behind him, and trains his cross bow at the other man. "Piss off, Len. You know better than to Challenge what has been Claimed."
Len frowns at that, gives him a long look, snorts before turning his back on them.
"Whatever you say, brother," he mutters. "Totally not worth it. Joe's fucking pet!"
Daryl watches the other man go, tries to calm down the unexpected rage that was rising within him. What the hell possessed him to declare a Claim like that out of the blue? It is bound to bring more trouble than what it's worth, staking a Claim like he had. But then, the thought of delivering another innocent into those people's hands...
So distracted is he that it takes a moment to register the point of an arrow against his throat.