Daryl is a little late to breakfast the next day, a byproduct of his thoughts and the sudden insomnia that has overtaken him. Something new is troubling him, but he doesn't know what it is just yet.
But he's not too late, and he still catches on to the atmosphere that surrounds the breakfast table.
For some reason, dinners are always filled with laughter, tales, smiles, and good camaraderie. But somehow, between the late hours and early mornings, everything always changes. This morning is no different. T-Dog, Rick, Shane, and Andrea sit at the table, absentmindedly nibbling on their breakfast. Each of them lost in their own thoughts. Carol hands him a plate of sad scrambled eggs, and he starts to walk out the door, but he remembers his resolution from the night before and sits by his friends on the table.
The minute he does, he wishes he hadn't.
They don't say anything. And when he looks at them he knows why. Rick is too overwhelmed by Lori and Carl; by the child that grows inside Lori that everyone knows belongs to Shane. Shane is barely keeping his shit together, his love for both Lori and Rick ripping his mind apart. T-Dog is too overcome by a sense of separation, and Andrea is shaken by a new revelation.
The mornings are always like this. Like they open their eyes to a new day and wonder why. Like they question the new days, their continuous heartbeats, their mere existence. Like they think they're gonna die some time during the night and are shocked when they don't. And when they don't it takes them half a day to process the information. To gear themselves into living this new life.
He understands, really. These people... they were normal people in the before. They were cops, lawyers, bank tellers... normal people. Nine to five people. Paycheck people. Bills and mail and that dreaded phone call to their parents on Sundays people.
Daryl was never like that. So he gives them some leeway. Fuck, he can't even remember the last time he saw a paycheck.
He wonders if he should just cancel the hunting lessons but figures she could probably benefit from the distraction. Hours later she follows him into the woods, looking at the ground the whole time knowing she shouldn't do that. He gives her disapproving glances that she misses each time because her eyes are practically glued to her shoes. Daryl tells himself he should use this, use this moment, her disposition, to write her off and move on. It's like the universe is giving him a chance now, a small window, to walk away and just forget she ever existed.
But the truth is (he needs to be honest with himself just once) he's had many opportunities to do that, lately. The more time he spends with her the more he realizes she's just a person. She has cracks and faults just like him, just like Rick and Shane and Lori.
Hell, perhaps more.
She's not like Lori and Carol. She's not a doted wife and mother. She's not domestic. She doesn't clean. She doesn't wash. She doesn't perform any type of domestic duties. The very few times he's peeked into her room, it's a mess. Her clothes are everywhere. She's not organized. Her room is a mess and it fits her just right.
Just random shit everywhere. That seems to describe Andrea and these strange feelings he has for her just right. Just random shit everywhere. It's how it feels in his stomach when he looks at her. It's what's in his mind when he thinks about her. No logic, no sense, nothing tangible, a mess. Just random shit everywhere.
Lori and Carol expect things from her that she can't give them. They expect her to cook and clean but even if this was the 18th century, back when gender roles were strictly defined, he thinks Andrea still wouldn't conform to the norm. She's a mess and she's lazy and there's something about that, something about it that makes Daryl feel the pull of her even more. She does what she wants and doesn't do what she doesn't want to do and something about that attitude intrigues him.
He wonders how it would've been if she'd grown up with Merle instead. Daryl thinks Merle might've met his match.
She has faults, just like everyone.
There was the sandwich incident but, well, that wasn't a fault, really. That was more... an Andrea thing than anything else.
He frowns at the thought, troubled by the fact that some random things are slowly starting to become Andrea things. Nose scrunching: Andrea. Stubbornness and sarcasm: Andrea. Eye-rolling: Andrea. Ponytails and bullets: Andrea.
He doesn't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing. He supposes there are several things that remind the group of him. Squirrels, that's for sure. He knows they can't hear the word squirrel without thinking 'Daryl'. Crossbows and arrows. That's Daryl. They see it, too.
As he snaps out of his thoughts he has to remind himself once more to stop breaking his own hunting rules. He's not looking at the ground, but keeps looking at her, missing all kinds of trails as he does. When he decides to focus and look around him he sees, far on a distant tree, a definitive mark and he approaches it. She follows complacently.
"See how deep that mark is?" he says, pointing to a sharp streak that tattoos the bark. She finally looks up. "Buck antlers. Remember the shit we saw yesterday? There's one of them 'round here. Ya gotta be smarter than them. Pick up on all the clues. This one's coming and going. Not too far off, I think."
Andrea runs her fingers through the mark, imagining the buck, wondering if she could even bring herself to shoot it. She can't imagine doing so, just can't imagine. Rick could, Shane could, hell, maybe even Lori could. But as she traces with her hand the proof of this creature's existence, imagines how beautiful it is, she wonders if this is something she can do.
It's after that thought that she turns to him, her brows bent. "Why are you doing this?"
He stops in his tracks and thunder in his head reaches down to his gut. "What?"
"Bringing me out here," she says, taking a few steps forward to face him. Instinctively, he takes the same amount of steps back. "You can track this buck, you could. But you're not, because you've got me here. Why?"
He frowns at the question, but mostly frowns at how much it catches him off guard. He tries to play cool, but her eyes are knowing and wild like too much information has been thrown at her in the last day and it's made a mess in her head.
"Thought ya wanted to learn."
"I did," she says, turning her head to the mark on the tree and recalling a distant memory. "A while ago. You told me to fuck off."
He frowns at the revelation. What? "No I didn't?"
"You did," she says, smiling despite the graveness of the conversation. "Back in Georgia. You shouted at me and told me to fuck off. You don't remember?"
Daryl's eyes drift to the ground and he tries to visualize the scene. It's so far gone and so hazy he can't even imagine the look on her face or his. It's not there in his memory. He truly can't remember when this happened, but he's not surprised. So much took place while he was in the haze, and he imagines so much of the conflict was created by his inability to stay in the moment, to keep social.
He's not really sure what he must've said, done, to Carol, either, but this stings him deeper. Leaves him feeling ashamed and shocked that he could've ever said such a thing to her. No, it's not the meanest thing he's ever said. Not by a long shot. Glenn and T-Dog could attest to that. But he tries to imagine the look on her face after his supposed outburst and it makes him feel like the most giant piece of shit on the planet.
Now he's the one looking at the ground. "M' sorry."
"It's okay," she says and there's a tone of understanding in her voice that makes him hate himself even more.
"I didn't mean—"
"I know," she says quickly.
"I guess," he starts, and doesn't know how to continue because this is not scripted. This is not a moment he's ever thought about. He never expected her to question his motives, never thought she'd be smart enough to pick up on this.
But he looks at her and realizes she hasn't. She's curious, that's for sure. But she hasn't found the trail yet. He's not sure what's gonna happen if she does, now that she knows not to keep her eyes on the ground, to look around, to see everything. He taught her that. And now it might backfire on him.
He says what's on his mind and he the minute he does he regrets the words because they don't mean anything. They're just words, a stupid excuse that he hopes she won't buy. "I ain't gonna be around forever."
But she does buy them, and the shit hits the fan. "Don't say that."
"Someone's gotta take care of the group."
"Don't say that."
He looks at her and there's a glisten in her eyes but they're also on fire, blue flames burning. He flinches, like she's about to hit him. If she does, though, he probably deserves it, he tells himself. "You're leaving us?"
He shakes his head, trying to backpedal but fuck, the haze takes over again and he's at a loss. He's never been good at talking, nor explaining himself. And he's sure as hell never been good at expressing himself. And her eyes are still on fire. "S'not what I said."
"But you would," she retorts, confidently. "You would, wouldn't you?"
He feels like she's pinning him down to the ground and he stumbles to find new words but words have never been his thing.
"Yeah, you would," she adds. "If Merle came back tomorrow, you'd leave with him, wouldn't you? You wouldn't even care about us. That's why you're bringing me out here. You want me to fill your shoes when you leave, don't you?"
"I ain't leaving you," he finally says when the anger takes over and he just wants to shake her to make her understand what he's saying and trying not to say. Wants her to read his mind and to hell with what she might find there. Because this feels so much worse, so wrong, that the taste of bile is already there on the back of his throat
"If you had the chance," she starts but doesn't end. She just sighs and shakes her head self-hatred takes over again as she begins to walk away.
"Hey, where ya going?"
"I'm tired, Daryl."
He feels like throwing up the minute she disappears back towards the house. Some fucking day this turned out to be.
Andrea feels like throwing up, too, struggles with the feeling as she places a hand over her stomach and thinks of everyone they've lost and everyone that now they might lose. Her headache begins to pound and to hell with the low medical supplies they have, she's going to drown a bottle of aspirin the minute she gets home. It's been a fucking emotional 24 hours and she feels like leaving now. Knows she won't, but... hell, she needs a nap.
She feels like shit when she exits the treeline and Carl, upon seeing her, runs over, his father at his hells. She smiles at the boy but it's a forced smile that maybe Carl picks upon, because he stops dead in his tracks and his expression goes from happy to uncertain. But then she smiles again because really, it's not his fault.
Rick is much more perceptive, though, and tells the child to go back inside to his mother. Carl obeys him reluctantly and seeing the child walk away makes her feel better.
Lucky for her, Rick is not the pushing type and instead tries to make light of whatever it is he thinks might be troubling her.
"I think Carl might have a crush on you," he chuckles.
He surprises her with that one and she chuckles and feels much lighter, thank God. It's been a really emotional 24 hours. "He's adorable," Andrea tells him. "You're lucky."
"I know," Rick says. "Just... let him down gently, okay?"
"I wish I didn't have to let him down at all."
"He'll be fine," Rick says with a shrug. "Part of being a boy."
She looks at him and smiles. "Speaking from experience?"
Rick chuckles. Andrea thinks happiness suits Rick. It makes his eyes bright and takes off about 20 years off his face.
"Third grade social studies teacher."
Andrea can't help laughing, and it makes the nausea worse, makes her feel worse for allowing herself a moment of joy. She doesn't deserve it. But she grimaces at his confession. "Social studies? Really, Rick."
A blush appears on his cheeks but the memories come back to him and he smiles at the path ahead. "She used to sit on top of her desk and cross her legs. Let's just say I still can't identify the equator and prime meridian."
They start to laugh but don't really get a chance to. The minute she sees Lori stepping out of the house with that look on her face, Andrea knows it's gonna be a bad day for everyone. Especially Rick.
He feels it, too, and doesn't acknowledge her when she excuses herself. Before Lori even reaches her husband she's already going crazy, yelling at him about stuff that Andrea doesn't understand and probably never will. Lori doesn't know how good she has it, not really. Most of the time she's alright, but then other times her spoiled and selfish nature takes over. But Andrea shakes her head and keeps walking. Whatever's going on between those two it's going on between them and she's not gonna get involved.
She's on her way into the house when she notices Carl sitting on a log just off to the side. The minute she does she feels something heavy sinking in her stomach. She approaches him as Rick and Lori continue to yell at each other, and she smiles as she sits next to him. "Hey."
He doesn't reply, just sort of looks around, his eyes quickly looking up at the couple on the other side of the field and his mind telling him he doesn't care, shouldn't care, won't care. It's useless to care. He should be used to it by now, anyway. It's always been like this. And it'll always be like this.
"You okay, sweetie?" Andrea asks and sees the conflict in his eyes. She wants to do so much for this kid who is being forced to grow up too fast, pressured to grow up just right, when the circumstances around him are just so wrong.
"Yeah," Carl says without emotion or maybe so much emotion it leaves him cold inside. She strokes his back as Lori's voice raises and she thinks she should probably take him inside and spare him of being witness to his parents relationship falling apart.
But Carl strains to hear them. Like this is something he should take a part of. Like this is something he should know. He looks at them and hears them, studies them and takes in their disaster.
It's like he needs it to be over. It's almost like he's looking forward to it. It's like he knew their truth way before they did. Their marriage is dead. They don't love each other, anymore. They don't belong together.
Everyone knows it. But the fact that Carl knows, too, makes it much worse for Andrea.
"I heard... my mom," he says, unsure of himself. He's never talked about this, not to anyone. The thoughts are always there in his mind but he's never let them out. He's always been scared to. Scared that if they get out, they'll become real. Scared of them like the invisible monsters who used to hide in his closet when he was much younger. The thought of them, hidden in there, was always much worse than their possible existence. So he's always kept them trapped in his mind. In there, they're just thoughts. They're just prisoners. They're monsters trapped in a closet. They're not real. They can't hurt him.
Saying the words, though, out loud... they hurt him. But he knows Andrea won't let him get hurt. Andrea protects them all. She can shoot the monsters. "Before my dad got shot."
"Yeah?" she goads him.
"On the phone," he struggles, and the words make no sense and they're out of order but it's the only way they'll come out. "And then I saw the papers. It said divorce."
Andrea nods understandingly. Her hand strokes his back again, wanting to protect him but not knowing how. She's never been good with kids, after all. "That was before, Carl."
"I know," he says. Something inside of her breaks. He sounds so grown up, so adult, so old. But he's still just a kid. Just a baby. It was different when Sophia was around. He could be a kid with her. He could talk to her in their kid language and lean on her in the way little brothers depend on their big sisters. After all, Sophia, too, came from a broken marriage. They used to rely on and protect each other.
But Sophia isn't here anymore. Now it's just him. A little boy growing in the apocalypse, the weight of the world on his shoulders, his parents estranged relationship weighing him down even more. Carl has the odds stacked against him, and when she glances at Rick and Lori, still yelling at each other, she can't help the feeling of resentment.
What she wouldn't do for this kid. What she wouldn't risk. She'd die a thousand times over just to end Carl's mental suffering. She'd die a thousand times over just to protect him. How come Lori can't see it?
But Carl surprises her, nonetheless. He's only a little boy, but he's still strong. He's resilient. People used to say, all the time, that kids adapt easier to new situations. Maybe the hope they're looking for lies in Carl. Maybe the fact that he's a kid will work out for their future. Maybe it's Carl who is the strongest
He sighs and looks at his mom and then looks up to Andrea. "I'll take care of the baby."
She smiles at him, kissing the top of his head. "I know you will."
He smiles and leans into her embrace. Feeling lighter. Stronger. "I hope it's a girl. Do you think it's a girl?"
"I don't know, buddy," she tells him, poking at his ribs and making him laugh. His baby white teeth showing make her feel lighter, too. "Might be a boy, too."
"No, I bet it's a girl," he nods confidently. "I'll take care of her. I won't let her die like Sophia."
"I know you will," she tells him. "But you know, Sophia's death wasn't your fault."
"I know," he tells her with a tone that says duh! and Andrea smiles.
"Yeah, it might be a girl," she says. "You know what?"
"I wanted Amy to be a boy?"
Carl chuckles. "Ew! I don't want a brother!"
"I did," Andrea tells him, chuckling. "But I think it's because I wanted to be the only girl. I wanted to be unique."
"I don't want a brother."
She smiles. "But then Amy was born and I loved her so much. Right off the bat. I don't think it matters, Carl. I don't think it matters if it's a boy or a girl. You'll be the big sibling. Being the big sibling is so special. You'll get to protect him. Or her. It won't matter. You'll love that baby just as much if it's a boy."
He smiles as he imagines her. Her because Andrea is wrong. It's a girl. He knows it. Feels it. His sister. A person to talk to. A person to love and take care of who is new and impressionable. His mom and dad: they're not his anymore. They don't belong to each other, either. They're not glued together. Not like they used to be. Hell, they probably never were. But this baby... this baby is all his. This baby is going to be just fine. He'll love her in a special way, just like he loves Andrea, and he'll protect her from the walkers and he'll protect her from his mom and dad.
He leans onto Andrea a bit heavier and he doesn't care about his parents yelling at each other, anymore. His dad is broken and his mother is not all there. And it's always been like that. He's used to it. It's normal.
Other thoughts enter his mind and when he feels Andrea's lips pressed to his temple again he looks up at her. "Do you think Harry's gonna be okay?"
She chuckles and her eyes become bluer. They're icy, but somehow warm. "I think he'll be just fine."
"Yeah," Carl says confidently. "I think so, too."
"What do you say, huh?" Andrea nudges at him. "One more chapter before lunch?"
She never does manage to get that nap but feels much better by afternoon.
She doesn't know what prompts her to wait outside the house.
She doesn't know if it's her conversation with Carl, her witnessing Rick and Lori's marriage falling apart at the seams. She doesn't know what it is. She doesn't know why.
She just doesn't want it to be like this. What that 'it' is, she doesn't know. She's still not aware of it. But she thinks of everything that happened that morning, thinks of Rick and Lori, and knows she never wants to be like that.
Especially these days, when it can be over so soon.
So she waits for him right outside the house, her eyes darting from one corner of the forest to another whenever she feels movement or hears something. He might not even come back today. She's known him to stay out hunting for days. She might be waiting just in vain but she waits nonetheless. She wills to see him emerge from the treeline. She needs to see him again. She doesn't know why.
It's dawn when she finally sees him. He's stumbling towards the camp, dragging several dead animals behind him. She smiles and feels nervous, ashamed about all the things she said to him. She jogs towards him, and when she's two step in front of him she stops. He stops, too.
Suddenly she wants to fucking run away. This sucks. She was a bitch to him and she needs to make things right. She needs to apologize. But Andrea's never apologized. She's never apologized to anybody. She was born in early May, after all. She's a Taurus. She's strong and stubborn. She's a bull.
But hell, she also knows when she's wrong. "Hey."
"Ey." He stands there looking nervous, not knowing where this is coming from, if she's gonna start talking to him again like she did that morning. He stands there waiting for the blow because he messed things up and he deserves her scorn.
"Hey. Look, I'm sorry," she tells him instead, her eyes softening. "I'm really sorry. Can you forgive me?"
His mind goes blank at the shock and he frowns at her like she's speaking in a completely different language. "What?"
"I'm..." She struggles and sighs, decides to just put on her big girl panties and admit to fault. "I was being a bitch. I'm really sorry, I'm just having a bad day. Can you forgive me?"
He blinks and thinks she's gone mad. Or maybe he's gone mad. What the hell is this now?
When he doesn't react, just stands there frowning with a look she mistakes as anger, she shakes her head. It's okay. She deserves this. She treated a friend badly and these are the consequences. "Fine," she says, starts to walk back to the house. "It's okay, just... I'm sorry."
He doesn't know what to do. Nobody's ever apologized to him before, not ever. But she seemed genuinely concerned and though he's still confused he finally reacts, understands finally when her head lowers and she wraps her arms around her to stay warm.
"You gone crazy?" he calls after her.
She stops, turns around and looks at him. "What?"
He shakes his head. Jesus. "I ain't mad at ya."
Andrea's expression goes from defeated to hopeful. "You're not?"
"Jesus," he mutters, thinking, 'women. Fucking women.'
She asks again, like he might be pulling her chain or something. "You're not mad?"
"The hell would I be mad?" he tells her in his old cantankerous way.
"I just... I don't know." When she thinks about it, it does sound kind of ridiculous. Well, not really, but... hell. "What I said to you, I mean... Ugh, sorry. I'm just having a weird day."
He nods at her. "S' okay."
"You should be mad, though. I took it out on you, and I shouldn't have," she says with a final sigh. "So I'm sorry and I'll stop talking now."
He sort of smiles, nods at her. Jesus, this is a weird one. He's only ever known two types of women in his life: the Carols and the dirty sluts who used to hang out at the local bar back home (sometimes he sort of wonders where Lori fits in there be he decides he likes Rick too much to reach a conclusion). Andrea is neither of those. She's some sort of weird new specimen.
He downplays his thoughts with a shrug. "Just thought you were PMIsing or something."
She chuckles lightly and nods like she deserves the jab. "You could say that."
"Kay," he says, practically sees the tension in both their shoulders dissolve. "So I ain't mad and I ain't leaving, okay?"
She nods and smiles. "Okay."
He nods back, not knowing what to make of this moment, how it's going to affect... well, the whatever. He's always felt sort of intimidated, weak, and weary around her, but as he forgives her for something he feels she shouldn't apologize for he feels stronger. A little bit more confident. And weird.
Unaware that they're both each sitting on different plates of a balance scale and his is raising and hers is falling, like something wants to make sure its contents are equal.
"Come on," he says, showing her a dead squirrel. "Ya get to learn to skin them now."
"Ugh," Andrea grimaces, but the expression turns into a smile as she follows him out back and says goodbye to these horrible 24 hours.
to be continued