By their third trip out, Alexandria's new recruiting team was finally starting to gel. They hadn't quite figured out each other's little tells but it was coming easier all the time.
Aaron liked to talk, covering any and every topic that came to mind. He ran the gamut of gossipy little jabs about certain residents of the Zone to anecdotes about his life from before. One night, it was how he and Eric met; the next, an amusing tale about how he ended up naked and alone beside the Niger River with no memory of how he'd gotten there. There was mention of sampling a local brew but the details surrounding it were understandably vague. Daryl snorted at the second and said the other sounded like a damned romance novel. He huffed out a laugh when Aaron said he'd considered writing a book.
It was on their third trip that Aaron finally felt alright asking his friend a few questions. He eased into it, knowing that a misstep would be fatal to their fledgling partnership. He kept it simple,innocuous, just idle chatter; the whole time watching from the corner of his eye to make sure he didn't overstep his bounds.
"You had a brother before?" A narrowed gaze and a tight jaw preceded the gruff yeah he got by way of reply. "Older or younger?"
It was like pulling teeth. "And he taught you how to hunt and track?"
Well that was certainly illuminating. "You were close to your brother?"
For that, he got an aggravated huff and an abrupt end to the conversation as Daryl rose and walked away from the fire to make a leisurely circle around camp. He didn't return until Aaron bedded down, only waking him when it was time for his watch.
Another night and another camp site twenty miles from the first, Aaron decided to give it another try.
"I was an only child," he volunteered. "Always wondered what it would be like to have a sibling though. Maybe it wouldn't have been so lonely."
Daryl stared into the flames, using a stray branch to poke at a smoldering log at the edge of the fire. It hissed as it finally caught, a harsh pop exploding the silence as the fresh wood blazed to life. "Merle wouldn't around much. He had shit to do. That's just how it was." He ran out of words after that, and then bounded to his feet for his usual nightly patrol.
Aaron watched him go, wondering to himself what it was going to take to earn the man's trust. That was a necessity if they were to continue on because without it, one or both of them could die. Alexandria needed Daryl as a recruiter so it was up to Aaron to figure out how to make it work.
It wasn't meant to be a loaded question but the minute the words left his mouth, Aaron wished he could call them back. Stormy blue eyes burned behind the unruly fringe that had them partially hidden. His face was pale except for two crimson patches riding high on Daryl's cheeks. He white knuckled the bow stock until tendons stood out on the backs of his hands.
"I'm sorry," Aaron hurriedly interjected. "You talk sometimes in your sleep and that name….well, you've said it more than once. I'm sorry, Daryl, I didn't mean to pry."
It was several drawn out minutes before Daryl looked him in the eye, his expression taut with some unknown emotion that Aaron couldn't begin to decipher. "It's alright," he muttered. "She…uh…we lost her on the road just before we got to Maggie's farm. There was a herd and she lit out, ran into the woods with two of em right on her heels. I…I didn't get there in time." He stared off into the dark, his eyes glazed and lost in whatever memory those words conjured. "She was just gone."
"She was family then…yours?" Aaron's voice was full of sympathy and regret.
You ain't my problem. Sophia wasn't mine. All you had to do was keep an eye on her!
Those words cut through him like a knife. The memory and the sense of loss that came with it was as fresh today as it had been the day that little girl wandered out of the barn. His hands tightened to fists; his stomach knotting as he tried to make room for the pain instead of getting buried by it. Daryl knew he couldn't let himself go back to that dark poisonous place again. Not now.
He closed his eyes and breathed deeply; gave himself permission to feel, to grieve, and to wonder what might have been had things gone another way.
"Yeah," he heard himself say softly. "She was."