Disclaimer: It all belongs to THE man, Kirkman and Mr. Darabont – I am wildly jealous.
A/N: Thank you to everyone who reviewed, you were all so kind and I am happy you all enjoyed it! Thank you for taking the time, my friends! To Reader's Muse: 1:0, touché – and thanks for your Canadian sage advice.
The Laws of Unnatural Selection:
A Lesson in Survival of the Fittest
"Shh." Daryl hissed as he looked to his right.
Glenn followed his gaze, eyes wide in terror as he spotted the four Walkers making their way steadily towards them.
Glenn nearly willed himself to sink into the ground, even as Daryl removed his hand and hovered over him, watching the movement of the Walkers.
"They can smell the deer." Daryl whispered as he glanced over at the tarp of meat lying where they had dropped it, a mere three feet from them. "'S what attracted 'em."
"Did they see us?" Glenn hissed, fighting to get control of his breathing.
Glenn watched Daryl carefully as he squinted, watching their movement carefully, his keen eyes looking for signs that they had been spotted. The Walkers were sniffing the air, their cloudy eyes scanning the forest as they stumbled loudly over fallen branches. They had been hunters, the fact made clear by their reflective vests and full camouflage gear.
"No, don't think so." Daryl backed up in a low crouch as Glenn rolled onto his stomach and then to his knees. They quietly moved backwards behind the cover of a thorny bush as the Geeks continued their confident forward march.
One was obscenely large, his gut still distended even after months of internal decay. His skull shone through the patches of the skin still remaining on his head, appearing as though it had simply slipped off as sinew and connective tissue festered. His jaw opened and closed as it took in the smell of freshly butchered meats; it's eyes darting around in a frenzied search.
The other three were of more manageable sizes but were no less threatening. The one closest to the largest Walker had been a lithe man, athletic, probably and moved quickly despite the clear decay in it's muscles. His eyes were red from blood vessels that had burst long ago. One, Daryl realized, was a woman – a blonde ponytail drooped from the top of her bloody head and one arm hung limply, nearly severed but held to the body by a single ligament. The last was the smallest, a kid, maybe sixteen; Daryl could just make out a small pistol attached to the belt on his rotting hip.
"What d'we do? Ditch the meat?" Glenn said in a low voice as he looked between the tarp and the Walkers. His fear had overridden any sense of hunger and it seemed a small price to pay to be ride of the bastards. "Maybe we can go around them?"
Glenn watched his hunting companion carefully. If he hadn't been so damn freaked he would've shaken the man for an answer. His heart was hammering in his chest, screaming at him to make a decision, to run until he got back to camp.
But Daryl, he looked as though he were weighing their options. Glenn didn't know how many they could have at this time …
"No, we need the meat." He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand and pulled the crossbow of his back and into his hands. "Not lettin' another one of them bastards get my deer."
"Are you crazy? They'll be distracted, we can sneak around …" Glenn watched Daryl as he placed an arrow in it's position on the crossbow.
"I can put down at least two before they get too close." Daryl ducks deeper down as the largest Walker stops to sniff the air, looking remarkably like an animal. It is clear they have pinpointed the source of the meat and they begin to make a fast stride forwards.
"What about me?" Glenn is a little concerned. The Walkers are uncomfortably close and Daryl is lining up the shot. Glenn hadn't even a pistol with him. He had been cramming the tarp into his pack when he put the pistol down on his sleeping bag – Lori had poked her head in to offer some well-meaning advice and he had abruptly stood, shouldered the pack and left the tent. He still wasn't used to carrying a firearm and he knew Rick would have a long lecture prepared for him.
Daryl looks at him like he's a complete idiot and maybe it's true because he had in fact forgotten to bring a weapon. He doesn't say anything, though. Just huffs and pulls his knife from his belt.
"Hold it like this," He holds the blade in his hand, the butt at his thumb and the blade tracing his wrist in a reverse grip with it's edge pointing away from his body, "keep it close, don't jab. Stabbin' 'em ain't gonna do nothin'. Try to sever if you can."
Glenn doesn't know when hunting training turned into combat training but he is grateful for the crash course. He had experience with baseball bats, shoguns and pistols but had yet to try a knife and frankly, he wasn't about to make his weapon of choice. Too close. Too messy. Too many opportunities to get bit.
But that was all he had and he'd have to do his best with it.
Daryl was watching him and Glenn realized he was waiting for him to give some sort of signal that he was ready. Glenn nodded, licking his lips and mopping the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand.
Daryl gave his own short nod and realigned his shot.
A millisecond later there was that twang, the one Glenn had come to associate with their resident redneck, and then the sound of crunching bones and that sickly, squishing sound of blood and flesh.
The Walker fell a foot from the deer; it's hand outstretched, desperate, even in second death.
The remaining three Walkers groaned and grumbled as their whitened, rotting eyes scanned the area, searching for the source of the arrow and the now very noticeable scent of fresh, living meat.
Daryl had his bow on the ground and was pulling up the thick string until it clicked in place.
Glenn peered around the tree and felt his breath catch as he made eye contact with one of them, the dark face setting into a deep and dangerous snarl as it stumbled forward with uncomfortable speed.
The others followed suite and Glenn pushed himself back behind the cover of the slim tree.
"Umm, they spotted us." He says; knife held tight in his hand. Daryl is reloading the bow and brings it back up into his arms.
"Ready, kid?" Daryl says and Glenn can only give a small, nervous smile as the hunter releases the last bolt. It lodges deeply into the female Walker's forehead.
The other two are too close for Daryl to reload and the man jumps forward, holding the crossbow like a bat. The things heavy, Glenn thinks, it should do the job.
Glenn turns the opposite way as Daryl, rounding the tree and nearly falls backwards. The damn thing was upon him, having moved out of line of sight behind the trees, and was close enough to grab at his shirt.
His senses are flooded as the smell of decay and pus hits him like a brick wall. He takes a moment to glance over at Daryl who is mid swing, his crossbow catching the Walker's face but not immediately sending him to the ground.
Glenn stumbles backwards as the Walker continues to grope the air, trying to catch him and missing by margins small enough to make Glenn a little more than concerned over how he was going to pull this off.
He fights the urge to readjust the blade. It feels awkward this way and he wants to make quick, stabbing motions, exactly what Daryl told him not to do.
He whips the blade out, in the same manner Daryl told him to, and the motion feels swift and steady. Reliable.
He is more than surprised when a torrent of blood splashes onto his shirt and he realizes he has caught the Walkers hand, slicing off all the fingers save the thumb.
This isn't a regular opponent, however, and Glenn can't waste anytime feeling pride. The Walker doesn't so much as flinch and continues his steady strut forward.
"Shit, shit, shit …" He mutters as he continues his back tracking, slashing out again but missing this time.
He can hear the sound of metal against flesh and he imagines Daryl is beating that other Walker's brain in with great prejudice.
If only he were having such an easy time of it.
Another slash and intestines split onto the ground and he is reminded of that time in Atlanta with Rick – he had been amongst hundreds, unarmed that time, why was this so uncomfortably horrifying then?
"Hold your ground, kid!" Daryl shouts over his shoulder as he finishes up and Glenn manages a disbelieving 'wha-?' because there is no way the other man had just non-chalantly delivered battle advice as he struggled to not get killed.
As much as he wants to follow the hunter's advice his body won't obey. Standing still sounds very much like a death wish and he continues backtracking, slashing as he goes before eventually tripping over his feet.
The Walker leans over him and Glenn kicks out, his foot effectively keeping the Walker from finding purchase but does not deter the mess of blood and guts from leaning over, mouth agape and hungry.
"Daryl!" He tries, hoping to see the business end of the arrow sticking out of the Geek's forehead. Any second now …
With a growl, something guttural and real and completely unexpected, he decides he's had enough – has had enough of not being able to sleep because of these bastards, tired of fearing for everyone on the camp, tired of things, former people, trying to eat him – and his arm comes across in a right hook, blade meeting flesh and bone and sinew, digging deep into the neck of the Walker.
More blood splashes his shirt and his gag reflex is abnormally quiet as the Walker's head tilts backward, held on by a single strand of flesh and a millimeter of spinal column.
Glenn is panting, his breath coming out in short gasps as he kicks the thing away, stumbling once before standing. The Walker is twitching, it's teeth gnashing, and completely unaware of it's near decapitation. The body spasms for a moment more and then is silent, the last of the neural commands having been spent. The mouth continues to open and close, desperate for flesh.
"Not bad." Daryl says from his place a few feet away. His crossbow has been reloaded and he was in the perfect position to take the Walker out with an easy bolt to the head. Had he just been watching?
"Why didn't," He takes a deep breath, trying to calm his racing heart down and to release the death grip he had on the bloody knife, "Why didn't you help?"
"Can't fight all your battles for you, can I?" Glenn can't believe it. Just when he starts to think that maybe this guy isn't as big of a dick as everyone thinks he goes and watches, just fucking watches, as he is nearly eaten alive.
"You've got to be kidding me," his voice cracks a bit as the adrenaline wears off, "I could've been killed, man!"
The Walker's head is still gnashing it's teeth, rolling slightly on the floor but he doesn't give a damn, he's far to pissed to think about finishing the thing off.
"If I thought y' couldn't handle yourself then I would've put the bastard down myself." Glenn bends over, his hands on his knees. He'd never been in such close, 'personal' combat with a Walker before – it had always been from a distance or from the far end of a bat, a weapon that felt large and confident in your hand.
"Y' did good with the knife." Daryl turns his back to him and walks over to collect the arrows lodged deep in heads of the two Walkers. Everything is covered in blood; his clothing, arrows, crossbow, arms, shirt, there's even smatterings of blood on his face.
"But I'm startin' to really wonder whether you really are deaf or stupid, maybe both" he repeats the words he had said the day before – Glenn never got tired of being called stupid, after all, "I told you to stand your ground. It wouldn't have gotten the upperhand if y' had jus' gone for the neck right away. Stupid mistake."
Daryl grunts as if slaying Walkers is the most natural, ingrained thing in the world.
Glenn shakes his head trying to process things. First he doesn't help him, then he kind of compliments him and then he's back to admonishing him.
Then it clicks.
Daryl was training him.
The thought felt weird as it bounced around his mind. He had, after all, been standing ready to shoot the Walker and had pretty much admitted he intended to do so if things had gotten out of control, but still …
It was a hell of a learning curve, if Glenn were concerned. But then again, this was a do or die world.
And it made sense, too.
There was a reason Daryl was still alive, why taking on three Walkers alone was like a walk through the freaking park. The man knew what he was doing, knew how to take them down in the most efficient way possible – it was Daryl, after all, that had informed everyone that, to kill a Walker, it had to be the brain.
He watches as the man returns the bloody arrows to the frontload quiver and wipes what grime he can from his face with his bandana. He sniffs and pulls the crossbow up – Glenn had almost forgotten about the head on the forest floor, despite it's noisy protests.
"Wait," He says, hand held out. He is quick to explain because Daryl looks as though he's about to call him stupid again, "can I – let me do it."
He wants to finish the job. Claim his kill. He mentally laughs at himself for the primal, stupid thought but he can't help it. He feels like he just passed some crazy fucking test and that this was the final task.
Daryl squints at him, a thoughtful thing, before handing the heavy weapon over.
Like the knife, the crossbow feels extremely out of place and he can't help but notice that the handholds are warm, almost as though the damn thing were part of Daryl.
It's a heavy and awkward weapon, but he figures that's probably because he's never used one before. He lifts it up, mimicking what he has seen Daryl do so many times, and aims for the head – it's a huge target and he can't imagine missing, that would be emasculating on so many levels.
He pulls the trigger – it takes more pressure than he expected – and with a twang and a whoosh the arrow is propelled into the Dead's forehead. It's teething stops immediately.
For some reason Glenn can't stop staring. He had never put one down this way before. It had always been in passing, while on the run or as a group effort and with little more intention than to disable long enough to get away. He usually just swung away until bat met flesh or aimed for the general vicinity of the Walker's face and shot, not even bothering to watch as bits of brain and skull showered the landscape.
"That meat ain't gonna hold much longer." Glenn's head snaps up and hell he almost forgot he wasn't alone. Glenn nods and he can't help but take notice of how dry his mouth feels.
Daryl reaches over and retrieves the arrow and then the crossbow, stealing it from Glenn's grasp.
Glenn remembers the buck knife, still in his hand. He had kept a hold on it even when using the crossbow, and a part of him didn't want to give it up; nothing had ever felt so reassuring. Not even the wallet he kept in his pocket or the weight of a shotgun.
With some hesitation he held the knife out, hilt facing its original owner.
"Thanks." Was all he could manage. Before Glenn can process what is happening Daryl is unclipping the belt sheath and handing it over.
"Hold onto it. Y' ain't worth a damn to me dead and that deer ain't getting' back to camp itself." He says gruffly before turning away. "Let's go."
Glenn knows he looks like an idiot, standing there with a mile-wide grin, holding the sheath and knife in his hands, but he can't help it.
Rick Grimes has always been the type to worry. He had always been worse than Lori, even. He had worried about how Carl was getting along in school, if he was making friends, if he was being bullied. He had worried about his failing relationship with his wife, whether he could ever please her again, whether they'd be together the next week or month or year.
He knew it was pointless to worry, that nothing ever came of it, but it was in his nature. He often worried about others, far too much, when he should be worried about his family. Now especially was not the time for it – if there was a time to be present and not worry it was during times like these because getting preoccupied with mindless worrying would get you killed.
Still, that didn't stop him from wondering if Carl would ever get to sleep without nightmares again, or if tomorrow they'd have food and water and about what would happen when they ran out of gas and ammo.
It was no wonder, then, that when his 'hunting party' had failed to return by the afternoon of the second day, he was understandably concerned.
He knew from experience that Daryl disappeared, came and went, as he pleased. The longest stint had been for three days and he'd thought nothing of it.
Now was different, however. Now he had Glenn with him. He didn't know how that changed things – actually that was a lie he told himself, he knew exactly how that changed things. He just didn't like admitting it.
He tried to convince himself that Daryl, for all his faults, wouldn't purposely put any member of their group in harms way. He tried but with each passing hour he grew more concerned.
"Anything, Dale?" He finished his quick sentry of the camp and headed towards the camper, calling out the man sitting on top it's roof. It was dusk with maybe half an hour of day left and the temperature was dropping.
"No sign yet, Rick. Don't worry, though, I'll keep an eye out and let you know." The older man gave him a smile and continued to look through his binoculars, allowing his rifle to rest across his lap.
Rick could only smile back and nod.
He rounded the fire and took a seat next to Lori, her brow furrowed in concentration as her hands deftly stitched up a hole in a pair of jeans. She looked up as he approached and gave him a short smile.
"Good evening, Officer." She said in a low, coy voice.
"Good evening." He answered, distracted. "Where's Carl?"
She gave him a warm look, one she reserved for when she knew he needed someone to calm his worried mind.
"Sleeping. He had a stomach ache." Rick nodded, his eyes shifting from her hands to their shared tent.
"Yeah, hasn't had anything to eat besides those crackers Dale dug out from his pantry." To say they were low on food was an understatement.
That morning Dale had discovered a single sleeve of half crushed Saltine crackers and they had all treated it like a feast, savoring each cracker and crumb, making them last the entire morning. All it had really done was fuel their hunger and the camp drudged on slowly after that. No one had the energy to do much more than basic chores.
"It's getting late." Rick said looking over at Lori, his eyes searching.
"They'll be back." She said simply, as though it was that simple and maybe it was.
"If they're not back tomorrow, Shane and I – " Lori looked up at him, her eyes sharp with a hint of warning.
"Rick," She paused. She knew her husband very well and knew that once and idea came to him, once that need for action took him he was very hard to stop. She also knew how to handle him and when she herself should actually start to worry, "Give them another day, then you can go do what you need to do."
Rick swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing as he nodded, looking back towards the fire. He exhaled and scraped a hand over his face.
He was just so exhausted.
They were running. The sun was nearly gone from the sky and Daryl knew the meat wouldn't hold much longer. They couldn't hold off any longer, couldn't wait another night and though he knew he'd be paying for it later, they couldn't risk any more breaks.
His back and shoulders ached something fierce and his arm was nearly numb as he clasped the tarp so tightly his hand was turning white.
He reckoned Glenn felt about the same as he had taken up a noticeable limp and was muttering under his breath; what it was he couldn't tell and frankly, didn't care.
He knew they were close, very close. He managed to say so at some point and Glenn had choked out a small 'oh thank God.'
He could smell the smoke from the campfires and just before the sun disappeared behind the tree line, sending them into twilight, he could hear voices and the shuffling of feet. It wasn't until then that he allowed them to slow to a walk – charging into camp like madmen would probably get them killed.
"Civilization." Glenn sighed as they broke through the tree line bordering the campgrounds.
Daryl could feel the backend of their precious cargo faltering and he hitched it higher. The kid was dead on his feet, there was no doubt about that, but he wasn't going to let him drop the damn thing, it was only a hundred more feet.
"Ah, the hunters return!" Dale was approaching them, that usual quirky smile on his face. He must have spotted them from the camper and alerted the others because everyone was popping there heads out to see, the question of whether it had been a successful hunt on all of their minds.
Rick, as usual, wasn't far behind and was the second to welcome them back to camp. He got one look at them and frowned. They must've looked particularly bad because even Dale quirked an eyebrow as they got closer.
"What – What happened?" He said as they continued towards the fire. Daryl snorted thinking it was terribly obvious.
"Ran into some trouble." He huffed from exertion, he was fit and all but damn, that run had done a number on him.
He made it to the fire, not even noticing the gathering crowd, every member salivating as he unfurled the tarp, the meat looking absolutely succulent in the light of the fire.
Rick turned to Glenn, confident that if he was going to get the full story it wouldn't be coming from Daryl.
"Walkers. Four of them." He panted. He wanted nothing more than to just collapse and never get up again. He looked up and winced. "I forgot my gun."
"Yeah, I noticed." Rick said in a manner that was neither forgiving nor admonishing.
"Well never mind that," Dale said as he rounded the deer meat, "Look what they brought back. Just how much is this, Daryl?"
Daryl had been ignoring the others, mainly out of pure fatigue and the fact that he needed to get this meat strung up, and it was the first thing he heard that was worth responding too.
He stood, his back cracking painfully, and rubbed at his eyes, regarding the meat.
"A hundred pounds, maybe." The others murmured in excitement – if they could smoke most of it they would have enough for weeks to come …
"It was huge," Glenn offered from his place at the fire. He had taken a place next to Lori who looked as excited about the prospect of the meal as the rest of them, "and really heavy."
Daryl had taken to putting stones over the embers, preparing to cook some of the meat and he felt the eyes of the camp on him, boring into him as he tried to work.
Their excitement was tangible and they all moved to prepare themselves for dinner, gathering more wood and retrieving their almost forgotten eating utensils. Carol brought over a large basin of water, setting it down next to Daryl who gave her a quiet nod of thanks. Rick put some wood down next to the fire before retreating to the camper to wake Carl.
Daryl looked around, searching for suitable rocks to add to the fire.
The Morales family had had a portable stove grate, something that had proved extremely useful but with their departure went the treasured cooking item. Daryl would have to settle for an impromptu stone grill.
"Dale, do you have any salt, or rubs? Anything like that?" Glenn asked hopefully from the fireside. Venison sounded great but salted venison, with a hint of a BBQ-sauce sounded like absolute food porn at this stage. Glenn's mouth was watering copiously, so much so that his salivary glands actually hurt.
"I should have something." Dale huffed in excitement as he turned to head to the camper, a spring in his step, "Let me take a –"
"Sorry, everyone." A familiar but previously absent voice sounded from behind Daryl's turned back and he immediately recognized the dour tone. Shane. "We can't cook that now."
The man pulled at the brim of his hat and had a shotgun slung over a shoulder.
"Not tonight, we don't want a repeat of last time." The camp went silent, they certainly didn't need a reminder of what had happened; no one could forget that night.
Lori stared icily at him from over the campfire. You could nearly hear everyone's hopes for one good meal shattering.
"Well that ain't happening." Daryl snorted with purpose from his place above the deer. "We'll just have to keep a better watch this time."
The tension rose immediately. Glenn swallowed from his place at the log and Lori's eyes met Rick's.
"Go back inside." Rick whispered to Carl as he stepped down from the steps and approached the fire.
Shane had become more and more volatile as the days went on and with his increasingly bad temper came an increasingly shorter fuse.
Rick held a hand out as Shane took a step forward, towering, for a moment, over the hunter as he continued to build a more suitable cooking pit.
"A better watch?" Daryl recognized that tone and stood to Shane's level not about to allow the man literally talk down at him. "What happened last time happened because you took three of our men with you on a suicide mission to Atlanta to get someone who well deserved what was comin' to him."
Shane's voice was low and dangerous, daring the man in front of him to challenge him, the rifle still held stiffly on his shoulder.
"Shane – "Rick said carefully not liking where this was going. Mentioning Merle was a camp taboo and best left alone.
The whole camp shifted nervously; Carol stood at the door of her tent, Sophia held protectively beside her, two plates dangling forgotten in her hand. Andrea, who had been watching Carl in the camper, was stationed in the vehicle's doorway, her eyes meeting Dale's as they both anticipated the worst.
Daryl felt the familiar rush of anger as he glared at Shane, shifting his weight as he stepped forward. He took a deep breath, fully intending to remind him of why they had to go back in the first place when there was a loud 'pop', the sound of the crackling fire reminding him of why this had started in the first place.
He exhaled and shook his head.
"It won't hold 'till tomorrow. We either cook it tonight or throw it to the Geeks – then you can get your own damn dinner." Daryl huffed. If the meat went bad because they refused to increase the sentry duty he figured they could get their own damn food from there on.
"Survive or don't survive. It's your choice."
Shane was fuming but Daryl didn't so much as blink. Covered in blood and grime he looked an intimidating sight.
"Maybe he's right, Shane." Daryl's head whipped around and Shane looked over, his eyes flint like, as Lori calmly regarded the two men. Daryl couldn't believe it. Him and Lori weren't exactly cordial with one another so her backing was somewhat unexpected.
"No. No, it's already night and we can't risk any Walkers catching the scent – "
"Yes, but you heard so yourself, we can't let good meat go to waste. We'll keep to one fire and put two people on watch – I'll take the first one." Dale smiled carefully.
Back in the beginning, when they had all just met and they still tiptoed around each other as strangers, Dale worried most about the Dixon brothers. They were volatile and loud, disturbingly cavalier and unconcerned. On the opposite side was Shane. Dale saw him to be a strong leader, capable of making the necessary decisions. He never thought he would worry about this man, of all people. But here he was, his stomach knotting as he watched another crack appear in the man's constitution.
They needed to walk away from this civilly; the man's sanity was depending on it.
"Me too." Said Andrea, her voice steady and understanding of the moment. If Andrea, the woman who had lost everything in the last attack, was up for it than that should be enough to convince Shane. "It will be fine."
"We need to eat, Shane. We need the food. We'll just have to be careful." Rick said gently. All hopes of Shane accepting the fact that he was being outvoted vanished as the other man shook his head with a short laugh.
"You're serious?" He huffed another laugh and his eyes darted between the members of the camp; he looked wild. He looked, in Daryl's opinion, dangerously unhinged.
"You weren't there, Rick. You don't know what it was like." Rick frowned, his eyes darting to Carl was blearily rubbing his eyes as he watched from the window of the camper.
"You don't know anything about protecting these people." Rick had a bad feeling that this was escalating above a simple debate concerning the game Daryl had brought back.
Shane turned away from Rick and Daryl fought the urge to break the bastards finger as he pointed it as his chest.
"Get rid of it." Daryl fixed him with his own intense gaze before turning back to the fire, giving him a short 'like hell', making it clear that Shane could go fuck himself as he continued to make preparations.
"What? No – " Daryl heard Glenn moan from the log, the younger man's eyes alight with anxiety; fear that the meat they had just worked so hard for was going to be tossed away.
"Shane, you're not thinking clearly. We haven't had anything to eat in days, you just need –" Rick tried, reaching out. Before he could fathom what was happening, Shane pushed him back with a hard shove to the chest.
"Don't tell me what I need." He said fiercely as he took another threatening step forward.
"Rick – " Lori stood, her eyes wide, darting between the armed man and her husband. Shane had a terrible look in his eyes; he looked unfurled, uncontained, as though he could do just about anything …
And Shane knew it. Lori could see the realization on his face as Rick held both hands up in submission and T-Dog and Dale stepped forward, on their guard. Daryl had even taken up his crossbow and was pointing it threateningly at Shane's chest. She could see the anger and fear in his eyes as he realized he had suddenly made himself a threat.
Shane scratched at the back of his head as he took a step back looking almost like a cornered animal.
"Ya'll can protect yourselves tonight." He said sharply before casting a final look past Daryl - it didn't take much of an imagination to figure out just who Shane was really talking to as Lori stood and marched over to Rick and her son.
Daryl gave a cursory glance towards Glenn who was dragging his hand through his hair, something he seemingly did when he was nervous.
They hadn't quite expected to return to this and he was fairly sure Glenn had been expecting praise and excitement. This was probably extremely disappointing for him and Daryl could nearly see him beginning to fold in on himself as the social tension within the group wore on him. The kid was too sentimental for his own good.
He might as well put the kid to work to take his mind off it.
"Let's cook us some venison."
Glenn was in a state of bliss. His stomach was full for the first time in – he couldn't even remember. He popped another piece of venison into his mouth and groaned as it nearly melted on his tongue, the light taste of salt and oil making his taste buds go into overdrive.
The sound of laughter and light conversation filled the camp as the fire crackled sending the pleasant smell of smoke and meat into the air. The mood had improved significantly and it seemed as though the earlier tension had all but melted away.
Glenn can't believe how much good the meal was doing and despite his aching shoulders and the fatigue still settled in his bones he laughs with everyone else when Carl claims it's better than McDonalds.
Rick and Lori are sitting on either side of their son and Rick pats the top of Carl's head as he rips the venison with his teeth, his eyes bright and excited. Andrea is laughing at something Carol is saying, the sound a welcome departure from her more recent solemn mood. T-Dog is moaning from the top of the RV, the sounds almost pornographic, as he savors the meat, chewing slowly and with serious purpose.
Glenn's attention is pulled back to Carl who is addressing him with his arms held far apart.
"Was it bigger than this?" Glenn grinned and nodded, standing and putting his hand at the height of the former buck.
"Yep. This big." Carl and Sophia both mutter a long, child-like 'wow' and smile, clearly trying to imagine such a beast. "Bigger than me almost."
"So," Dale says with a smile as he picks at the bits of venison on his plate, "why don't you two regale us with the story of your hunt."
Everyone is looking at him curiously from over the fire and he suddenly feels shy. He couldn't imagine it sounding too great when he really thought about it. Should he mention how they would have been back hours earlier had he not scared the deer away? How cold and rainy it was? Maybe he should talk about Daryl's impromptu Walker combat lesson …
It turned out he didn't need to worry too much about it because, much to his surprise, Daryl spoke up.
"Kid only threw up once." Glenn shakes his head as everyone laughs. Daryl is sitting at a smaller fire pit a few feet away, stoking the kindling under his tarp covered wood smoker whilst watching the forest for any signs of Walkers.
His participation is completely unexpected and a few heads turn in surprise.
"Yeah, well we can't all be Bear Grylls." The camp exploded with laughter and the only one not in on the joke is Daryl but he manages a grin anyways. "It was a lot like boot camp."
"What about those Walkers you ran into?" Rick says from above his tin cup of water. The weariness from before seems to have faded but his forehead is knit tightly, no doubt from concern over Shane's earlier behavior.
The man had posted himself on the edge of the camp by his Jeep and no one had spoken to him since.
"They smelled the deer. Fresh kill." Daryl offered as he checked the smoking deer meat – he had at least fifty strips up on the teepee formation and an additional 50 pounds smoking in the pit. It was a job that required a lot of attention and care.
"How'd you deal with them?" Rick asked – he knew Daryl was good but four against two, one unarmed, could prove a bit much to handle. He still had to talk to Glenn about keeping a pistol on him at all times …
"Took down two from a distance." Glenn said, not really sure what to say about the other two, namely the one he had the 'pleasure' of dispatching.
"And the other two? Did they just give up and surrender perchance?" Dale chuckled as he leaned back, a hand on his full stomach.
"The kid ain't too bad with a knife," Glenn was slightly relieved he didn't have to mention that himself; Rick wouldn't have exactly approved of Daryl's methods and had Rick been in that position he probably would have had them avoid the Walkers all together. "Isn't that right, Rambo?"
Glenn blushed as the others eyed the sheath still hanging from his belt; it's presence now making more sense. Daryl had needed the knife to cut the meat but had failed to take the sheath back and now Glenn felt silly seeing it empty and dangling from his pant loop.
"Not as efficient as bludgeoning by crossbow – " He trailed off as he took a sip of water. More laughter. He was trying to savor the moment as much as he could and he could feel the fatigue taking over, the combination of a full stomach, the warmth of the fire and a jubilant atmosphere making him more than a little sleepy.
"Well, you outdid yourselves. Truly." Dale lifted his mug in cheers. "To our resident hunters."
"Glenn," he lifted the cup in his direction with a warm smile, "Daryl."
Daryl nodded, lifting his water filled flask slightly, his expression mysteriously unreadable.
The others raised their cups in agreement and the camp settled into a comfortable silence.
The night drew on and the moon had already passed from the highest point in the sky when people began their slow retreats to their sleeping areas. Carol and Sophia were the first to return to their tent; Sophia, by her mother's request, had thanked both Daryl and Glenn sleepily before retiring for the night.
Andrea and Dale offered to take the first watch. Dale clapped Glenn firmly on the back, offering a friendly goodnight before retreating and nodding respectfully to Daryl as he passed the man who was still stubbornly hunched over the smoking pit.
Carl had fallen asleep shortly after the toast, his head on his father's lap and his body still and relaxed. Lori gingerly gathered him up and carried him to the camper, whispering her thanks as Carl's head lolled on her shoulder. Rick stood and stretched, intent on putting an end to this day and catching a few hours of sleep before his turn for watch.
"Thank you, both of you, for what you did." Rick said and damn, Glenn knew it was the most earnest thing he's heard because the man sounds beat and he looks at them as though this is the most serious matter imaginable.
"We needed this, we really did and I can't thank you enough for it." He gives them a sad, tired smile. "We'll cover your watch tonight, get some rest."
Daryl doesn't bother telling him that he'll be up anyway, tending to the smoking meat – he had been able to put most of it up and only lost about 10 pounds to the beginnings of rot. Not too bad at all.
"Oh my God," Glenn sighs from the log he is now leaning back on, stretched comfortably in front of the fire, "that was so worth it."
Daryl nodded in agreement as he poked at a strip of meat, checking to see if it was cooking through and taking to the smoke, as it should.
"Should keep us for a while." Their numbers had decreased significantly; before they were twenty plus strong and now they were down to eleven. From a safety in numbers perspective they were becoming weaker but from a food standpoint they were at a serious advantage.
"Yeah." Glenn murmured as he felt his eyes starting to droop. His body was fast calling it quits.
It had been a long and unusual few days for the both of them. The constant adrenaline had officially faded and their bodies were begging for at least seven straight hours of uninterrupted sleep. If Glenn had it his way it would be twenty hours, but beggars couldn't be choosers.
He wondered briefly if Daryl intended to sleep at all. He cracked an eye open, unaware he had even closed them, and saw him still nursing that damn smoker.
A thought struck him as he eyed the older man.
"Uh, Daryl?" Daryl turned to him, an eyebrow quirked in curiosity, "Thanks for letting me come, and for not- he paused not sure how to word it – not treating me like a kid."
Despite the horrifying encounter with the Walker and the fact that the whole thing had been physically exhausting it had felt good to not be treated like an adult. He knew the others didn't mean it, probably didn't even know they were doing it, but they sometimes treated him like a child, especially Lori.
The whole mind blowing hangover thing at the CDC probably hadn't helped things.
Daryl gave the slightest of nods as he rubbed at his eyes, the smoke and fatigue irritating them.
"Don't thank me yet. Next time I'm really gonna make you work." Daryl said in a 'and-I'm not-kidding' voice.
It could have been in afterthought but Glenn couldn't help but feel the slightest amount of surprise and excitement over the fact that there would be a 'next time.' He felt like he had just received a passing grade in 'Hunting 101' and was told he was graduating to 'Hunting 201 Honors'.
The fire cracked and the smell of smoke wafted towards him in comforting waves. He was vaguely aware of the knife holster weighing at his side, poking him as he shifted into a more comfortable position.
Glenn fell asleep grinning.
Ok, so this chapter was a bit long but there just wasn't a place I felt was suitable for a cut, so there you have it, a 20-page chapter. I hope I didn't lose any of you to computer induced blindness or sleep.
I intended this to be a bromance (because we need a serious Glenn/Daryl bromance in the show), and I think it still works that way, but it might have gotten a little slashy (thanks a lot Reader's Muse, way to Incept me). I actually originally had a more slashy ending and I am considering it as an epilogue … thoughts? I also inadvertently slipped a Boondock Saints quote in there, whoops.
Thanks again for reading, your support and constructive criticism is very much appreciated!