A 500 word self-imposed challenge. Daryl during "Pretty Much Dead Already". Spoilers abound.

He has this one memory that always sticks to him like a t-shirt on a hot, humid August day. He's seven years old. His brother comes to get him from school in the morning, already having been suspended earlier in the week. His teacher lets him go, and he can almost hear her think to herself he's just a Dixon, what did a Dixon ever do in his life?

They get on their bikes and speed the two miles down the country roads to their dilapidated farmhouse, where Merle grabs the guns and two apples before they head off into the woods. They spend the day hunting squirrels and shooting toads, laughing as they take down their prey. He remembers the joy he felt then, the elation in his veins in that moment as his finger held down the trigger and he took his shot.

This moment is different.

As he lines up shot after shot, he notices himself feeling very little. Sure, some part of him feels the satisfaction in the kill, the joy in a shot well taken, but it's dull this time, muted. Mostly all he can think about (and has been thinking about) are the freckles on that little girl's face, the sparkle in her young eyes. He wants nothing more than to eliminate this glorified freak show that Herschel's put together in his barn and to go back out there, back into the woods to find Sophia.

When the walkers stop emerging from the half-open barn doors, he clears the chamber in his firearm and slings it into place onto his back. He makes to turn to look at Dale, who's finally arrived, when he hears the soft moan of a straggler, one last walker who'd shown up late to the party.

So he turns back to look, and when he does, everything shatters around him.

His knees buckle slightly, but he keeps himself upright. Out of instinct, he looks back to Carol, who is running forward now towards the being that was once her daughter, but he grabs her as she catches up to him, and pulls her to the ground. She's fighting in his arms, and he lets her struggle, but doesn't let her go (if he lets her go, he'll lose her too, and he can't take that).

He sees Rick step up and slowly take the shot, but already his mind is a thousand miles away. And all he can think about is the smile on that girl's face, the life in her eyes, the hope she still somehow carried within her. Hope not only for life and humanity but also a hope he found for himself, in her, a hope for his own redemption.

But that hope faded when she walked out into the sun, and died when a bullet pierced her forehead, leaving him with an empty heart and a worthless Cherokee rose.