"So what's your count?"
Daryl doesn't stop walking, but glances at her sideways with his eyebrows furrowed, looking mildly annoyed. They're out in the woods again, hunting for food. The walk had been so quiet up to that point that he'd almost forgotten she was with him.
He remains quiet, but she reads his quizzical expression easily.
"How many do you think you've killed?" Andrea explains, and a faint smile appears on her face. "Walkers. How many? Bet you my count's higher."
His shoulders relax and he tries to hide a smile. "That so?"
She nods. "One thousand, two hundred and fifteen."
Daryl whistles. "T's a lot of walkers."
Her smile widens slightly and her posture straightens. He watches her out of the corner of his eye. Suddenly he doesn't really remember the last time he's seen shades of this Andrea. That person she was when they first met so long ago had been buried under scraps of loss, anger, resolution, vengeance and other affectations Daryl himself was no stranger to.
He assumes it's different now, after so many months fighting to their last breath just to live another day. He knew he was different, too. Everyone was. But in his shorter evolution he had allowed Old Daryl to follow suit, always there lurking in the back of his mind. Old Andrea had simply disappeared. After Shane's betrayal nearly took her life, after being so close to death so many times, after having to put a bullet in Dale's head to keep the old man from re-animating, after having to do the same to many others... He figures Old Andrea just wasn't cut out for this world. So New Andrea took her and buried her so deep inside her that as they walk through the woods now Daryl can't remember the last time he's seen her smile.
But she is smiling now, in that Old Andrea way, and it's almost comforting. But comforting in the way an old, forgotten heirloom can bring comfort. It's there, mainly gathering dust, and when you look at it it brings back old memories, some of them good and some of them bad - but it's also a reminder of everything you've lost, everything that's gone.
"So?" she prods, looks at him just long enough before her attention returns to their surroundings.
Daryl squints his eyes when he walks by a clearing and a sun ray illuminates his face. "Ain't keeping count."
"Oh, come on," she says, in that New Andrea no bullshit way. "Ballpark."
The smile he's trying to hide widens just a bit, but still remains just a shadow. His mind begins to go back to that very first walker he killed back in Georgia, ten months ago. He'd been running behind Merle, who took to shooting walkers in the same way he took to drugs and loose women - with the expertise and finesse of a maestro. It had been different for Daryl, though. Merle saw rabid animals with bulls-eyes on their foreheads. Daryl saw sick and illness, panic, confusion, and though he dared not admit it to himself, much less to Merle, fear.
It took him days to get over that first kill. He can still remember the walker - an old lady with long hair wearing perfectly clean slacks and a pink, silk blouse. He'd seen her several times at the supermarket in their small town; always with a smile on her face and nodding a courteous greeting. As she stumbled towards him that day, her torn fingers reaching for his flesh, with Merle yelling at him in the distance, all he could think about was that smile.
It got easier after that. Not altogether, but somewhat. It was the same for everyone, he supposed. If you can get over that first kill, your chances of survival increase. If you can't, you're just as good as dead.
A number finally pops into his head, but before he can get the words out they both hear a rumble several yards away. He stops, swinging his crossbow from his shoulder and into his hands. She stops as well, cocks her gun and points it in all directions.
Andrea spots the walkers first. There's about 15 or 20 of them, hobbling about in the woods. They are still in the clear, away from them and danger, and Daryl quickly turns to her. Between the two of them he knows they can take them, but in this new area neither of them know if the noise will attract even more of them. So without words he gives her several instructions that she understands easily – you go that way, I'll go this way – and she nods in agreement and walks off in the opposite direction.
The walkers merely hiss as they trod along. That sound... after so many months that sound still gets to him. The growling he can take, the smell, their appearance... but that hissing sound, that noise they make when it appears they are struggling to breathe, to live, to talk - he still can't get used to it. He puts it out of his mind and continues carefully, making sure he isn't about to step on a branch and alert them to his presence. He's about to pass them completely without being noticed, when suddenly one of them hisses and growls loudly. Daryl gets his crossbow ready, reaches for the back of his waistband to make sure his pistol is still there. He plants his feet firmly on the ground, but the hoard of walkers seem completely unaware of him still. He drops his defensive stance as another one growls, then another one, and then suddenly they all take off in the opposite direction.
He knows, then, what is about to happen.
The gunshot comes first. Several birds take off into the atmosphere. Daryl's blood begins to rush – to his head, to his extremities – everywhere, leaving boiling rage in its wake. His legs begin to move before his mind decides they should. He rushes past the trees, bushes, crushing the fallen leaves in his path. He wants to call her name but knows that could be a deadly mistake. He both waits and hopes for another shot, followed by a third, a fourth – all of them. But the only sound is the labored breathing of his lungs and the cicadas calling wildly to each other in the early evening.
But he finds them finally. They're all gathered together, hunched on the ground and obviously feeding. His heart beats loudly, his fingers shake, and a sneer quickly appears on his face.
There's blood all over the ground and they all stumble and struggle against each other to get a taste of her. He can't see her – he's not sure he wants to see her. He's not sure of anything, suddenly, and it throws him off balance so strongly that he almost stumbles backwards. The tunnel hearing takes over and everything in his mind is convoluted, knotted up and twisted and it's impossible for him to focus on anything except the fact that it's been months now - months - since they lost more than half of their group. Months of just him and her, Rick, Glenn, Carl and Maggie. It's been hundreds of close calls, hundreds of fist fights, gun fights, not always against the walkers, but against people as well. Months. And they've struggled but they've always survived. He might be a fool, but he always knew they would make it to the end. Daryl, Rick and Andrea. Always going on suicidal missions, always covered in dirt and blood and grime - bruises, broken bones and cuts. They were three shattered souls barely hanging on, but they always come back.
They always come back.
She always comes back.
She's not coming back anymore. Andrea's gone. Andrea. Not just the new, tough, no-nonsense warrior of the last few months. But also the old, small, fearful girl crying for her baby sister.
Daryl sees her then.
He sees that dark night in the woods and in the periphery of his mind he sees those days as a child when he was lost without being missed.
He sees that small figure always trailing behind him, always sleeping near him with her gun tucked under her makeshift pillows.
He sees late nights on double watch time, sitting together in silence for hours. He sees her expression when she knows he needs to talk, and her expression when she knows it's best to leave him be.
He sees yellow hair that turns almost white when the light hits it right.
He sees the way she lets her head hang and swipes her eyebrow with her thumb when she feels she's about to fall apart and doesn't think anyone is looking.
He sees clear eyes that are sometimes green, sometimes blue; sometimes fiery and sometimes icy, but always strong and determined.
He is so taken out of his axis by everything he sees that he doesn't realize how quickly the rage takes over, yet he doesn't stop himself as he raises his crossbow and begins to walk towards them. He doesn't imagine he'll survive the assault - he only has two arrows and seven bullets, but he's not really thinking, either. He just wants to... needs to kill them. Needs to kill them because she's not coming back now, not ever, and it's because of them, because of this fucking shitty world that needs to just implode and go straight to hell with everyone in it.
He spots the one he wants to start with. The one with her blood smeared all over his mouth, face and hands. Daryl's got him in his scope and can already feel the sweet, albeit temporary, satisfaction of revenge.
But then, something grabs his shirt from behind. He quickly turns around, unaware of the thin layer of moisture that has formed in his eyes. He's about to fire an arrow, but then...
But then… she's there.
She's in front of him with a finger pressed to her mouth, and she grabs him and drags him behind a tree. A walker looks up at the sound, but doesn't see them and continues to feed.
They lean against the robust trunk, trying to slow down their breathing. Her hand is tightly clasping his and he squeezes it without realizing it, feeling her quick and steady pulse. She looks up at him, and an understanding passes between them. He nods his head once, twice, three times, and they take off running.
They run until they can't breathe anymore, until their legs give in and they collapse on the damp ground. Daryl quickly stands up and scouts the area until he makes sure they're safe. But even then his heart continues to pound, and a sort of strange energy takes over. He starts to pace back and forth.
"The hell was that?" He's all anger, and relief, and several other emotions that are confusing and clouded. He looks at her and she's just... there. She's there. She's trying to catch her breath, seemingly completely unaware of the fact that she was dead. She was dead to him for two minutes and she doesn't seem aware of how paralyzing those two minutes were.
Not that it makes any more sense to him, either.
"There was a deer," Andrea gasps with a hand on her stomach, trying to even her breathing. "I figured, better the deer than me, so I shot it."
"Jesus," he whispers, but what he means to say is something akin to fuck this fucking shit fuck fuck fuck FUCK!
The anger doesn't dissipate and he continues muttering obscenities, most of them directed at her, and there's a thick cloud in his mind that won't let him think or see. He just wants to be away and suddenly he's walking, his long legs separating him from her but he needs that distance. He needs to be away, to not see her. He needs to stop his mind from going back to those days after he lost Sophia, to stop that darkness and misery from taking over his life again.
It's been so easy. So easy to get up in the morning and do what needs to be done to survive and then go to bed not knowing if you'll wake up in the morning. He's gotten so used to the routine, to the rhythm of this new life, that he's forgotten how quickly everything can change and end. After losing Sophia he spiraled into a place so dark he can't even remember now how many times he came close to losing his life. He became a maniac, out of control, unable to think, just do, go after hoards of walkers all by himself, not caring if they killed him or not. Everything seemed endless and hopeless and it wasn't until he shut everything down, pushed everyone away and obliterated every feeling that threatened to overcome him, that the fog began to clear up.
He can't let that happen again. Won't let it happen. Will never let it happen.
But now he's realizing that she can. She can take him there. He was just there minutes ago as he stood in front of those walkers and watched as they ate her alive.
Then the anger turns into self-loathing as he continues to walk, chewing on his nails until he draws blood. Self-loathing because it's his go-to place. Self-loathing because after Carol decided to end her life, he swore he would never again give a shit about these stupid people with their petty suburban problems. Self-loathing because it has always been an effective emulsifier, bonding together what he feels and what he's ashamed of feeling, and canceling everything out.
He needs to leave. He needs to go. He decides then and there that as soon as he gets to camp, he is going to pack his bags and slip away. He doesn't belong with them anymore. They are not his family and she is nothing to him. Old Daryl stops lurking, starts talking, and between him and echoes of Merle's assertions of him, as well as the anger he still feels, his mind is made up.
He feels her fingers grip his wrist and he's not surprised. He doesn't stop walking, but with all her strength she yanks him back and forces him to stop. He looks at the ground, at the trees, everywhere except her eyes, and a voice inside his head tells him to shove her aside and keep walking. But he doesn't, and he doesn't know why.
"You thought I was dead," she says, and it's more a statement than a question, and it's almost apologetic and sympathetic.
He doesn't wanna answer her. What he wants to do is walk away, run far away, go shoot or kill something. But he doesn't move.
The silence that precedes is unlike any silence they've ever shared. It's tight with tension and loud with unspoken questions and answers that pass between them in in a smooth flow. Her grip on his wrist loosens, but she doesn't let go of him and her touch makes him skittish and nervous. That, in turn, makes him angrier.
"I'm sorry," Andrea says, breaking the silence.
He looks at her finally, and the expression on her face is so raw and full of every emotion he's trying to bury deep down, that he sneers at her and pushes her hand away.
She gives him a minute of distance before she follows him back to camp.
Andrea finds him several nights later.
He's sitting on a log by the fire, poking at the flames with a stick. They haven't talked since that day, but he's felt her eyes on him on several different occasions. Though the anger is now gone, the uncertainty remains. He still wants to leave, but every time he starts to pack something inside of him stops him.
He doesn't want to leave, but he needs to leave, and that internal struggle has him mentally exhausted.
She sits on the ground, tucking her knees under her chin. The fire is hypnotizing and warm. She doesn't say anything and neither does he, and it's calming in that old familiar way that was created by countless nights keeping watch together, sitting quietly next to each other.
But something has changed, for all those nights they sat together in silence, the comfort came from the fact that they were each lost in their own selfish thoughts. Now, the thoughts didn't stray further from the person sitting next to them.
He looks into the distance. Rick is getting Carl ready for bed, and Glenn and Maggie are already cuddled in a giant sleeping bag. And maybe that's what it is, he thinks. Maybe Rick has Carl and Glenn has Maggie. And what does Daryl have? An old crossbow that barely works anymore and mostly slows him down. Old memories that are best left forgotten. Maybe he's lonely and she's lonely and that's all it is. Maybe tomorrow they'll run into some guy who will join their group and she'll forget about him completely. Maybe it's just fake, artificial, some circumstantial need that will wane just as quickly as it sneaked up on him.
He tries to take comfort in that thought, and it works for a second, but when the wind blows her hair and it streams into the air white under the moonlight, the only question left to ask is when exactly this started to happened.
He takes a deep breath.
"Sorry I called you a bitch," he mutters.
Her eyes lighten as she looks at him. "You call me a bitch 50 times a week. At least."
Daryl looks at her. It's the first time he's actually looked at her since he thought she was dead. And to him, she looks different now. Different in a way he can't explain. Just different.
"Yeah, but this is the first time I meant it."
She looks at the flames and almost smiles. At some point, Rick comes over to say goodnight. They still don't move. It's Daryl's night to keep watch and he knows she's tired, but she stays there, and another wave of uncertainty takes over and he starts to think, maybe she pities him. Maybe she feels sorry for him. Maybe she sees him as some broken vase that needs to be glued back together. A fun project she'll grow tired of when someone more exciting shows up. He doesn't know why the thought leaves a taste of bile in his mouth but it makes sense. She's probably used to being with powerful men, learned men who know all the works of Shakespeare, drive fancy cars and own expensive houses by the beach. She's probably used to fancy dinners and nights out dancing, foreign movies and old books.
Daryl's none of that. He's guns, tattoos, and bikes. He's hunting and fixing things. She's Shakespeare, he's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Not even that. He never even finished the damn thing.
He's so entangled in his thoughts that when she speaks, he nearly jumps in place.
"I don't know what I would do," Andrea says so quietly he can barely hear her. She swallows hard, "if we lost you."
His eyes are on her cheek and he doesn't realize he's stopped breathing. When she speaks again, it's quiet, uncertain, her voice almost wavering.
"If I... lost you."
He breathes hard and there's a loud thump in his chest. She looks so small and frail and breakable, so much like the old Andrea, that he's overcome by an overwhelming need to reach for her. But he doesn't, and she doesn't move, and as the silence envelops them again he starts to wonder if she realizes she's said those words out loud. He starts to wonder what those words mean. He wants to ask, but he can't bring himself to say anything. He wants to touch her, but he's scared she's going to burn him. He can tell she's just as uncertain as he is, just as scared. It's too much all at once, for either of them.
So they just sit there, two people stripped of life, yet somehow, between them, a new life is suddenly forming.
The fire begins to die but neither of them moves. There is so much to think about, to process, to deal with and come to terms with, that his body is suddenly desensitized to the cool air. Andrea hugs her legs and takes a deep breath. Suddenly he's hyper-aware of every little one of her movements, as if he's now the wild animal and she's the one with the rifle.
"So," she breaks the silence. "You never answered my question."
Daryl looks at her eyes and he feels light, relieved, and somehow grateful that she's not pushing him. She's not prodding. He's not ready to talk about it and she understands. She's not ready, either, and he understands as well. It's the first time he's been able to breathe since that day, and it's the first time he's felt some kind of glimmer of hope. It's way in the distance and he can barely see it. But he feels it there.
He looks back at the flames with the ghost of a smile on his face. By his estimate, he's killed at least 3,000 walkers by now. Probably more. Definitely more. But he'll keep that number a secret.
When he looks at her again she's smiling, for the second time in months. And to Daryl it's like an old heirloom - an old thing that's been battered and broken by time. A reminder of everything that's gone to shit. Dusty, worn out, not as functional as it used to be - but still precious.
He shakes his head and looks at the dying flames again. He finally lets the smile come out. "Yeah, you win."
You guys make writing look so easy but it's not. IT'S NOT!