He'd known loneliness.
He'd known what it was like to suffer quietly with no help or guidance from anyone. He had spent most of his life hiding between the real world and the safe haven he had created in his own mind; a wall that was built to prevent people from getting too close and giving him the chance to feel anything that might be used against him.
At one point, his brother had been his only ally, the only link he had to the world. When Merle disappeared, Daryl suddenly found himself thrown into a group that didn't care about his past, they didn't care that he was an angry man who didn't know how to show his true feelings. They accepted him and everything he thought he knew about the world had been challenged. He had been forced to care and despite trying not to, he found himself enjoying the company he shared.
He hadn't known how hard it would be to leave that behind.
He struggled daily. Where he once had someone he could vent to, someone who understood how difficult it was for him to share what went on his mind, he now found he had nothing. His brother was a minor relief. Having him back wasn't what Daryl thought it would be and he figured it was because he had adapted to a real group of people who didn't act the way Merle always told him they would.
Daryl felt a lump in his throat every time he thought about her, which ended up being nearly every minute of every day. He wondered how she reacted when Rick had told her what happened, if she was upset. If she was happy. It often became overwhelming for him so he would shake the thoughts from his head and attempt to think of something else.
Merle hadn't said anything of value. It was mostly ramblings about the things going on around the woods they walked through. Occasionally he would bring up an incident that happened many years before and Daryl would be forced to listen to the stories that seemed to embarrass him more often than not. He got to the point where he was tune out what he was saying, keeping the sound quiet enough to become background noise.
They'd been on their own for around ten days when Merle finally mentioned her. Daryl had been skinning a squirrel on a rock, trying to ignore his brother's out of tune singing.
"Who's Heather?" he asked, pausing in his song.
Daryl stopped moving, trying to keep the flinch hidden. The background noise faded and he was suddenly listening to everything that Merle was saying.
He heard Merle's smile, swallowing the lump in his throat and continuing to move his knife. His breathing felt labored and he had to stop again, blowing out a breath.
"Said her name in you're sleep." Merle told him, "Don't play dumb, boy."
"No one." he muttered, shaking his head.
No one. Daryl felt the lie turn his mouth sour.
"Mmhm. Maybe that's why you been mopin' around since you left Officer Friendly." Merle was grinning now and Daryl rolled his eyes in frustration.
"Name's Rick." Daryl growled, clenching the knife in his hand.
"I know his name." Merle bit back, "Now quit changin' the subject."
Daryl ignored him, attempting to go back to skinning his squirrel, but Merle wouldn't let up. He asked again and this time, frustrated by his older brother, Daryl threw the squirrel away from him and rose to his feet. He knew better than to start a fight with Merle, so he grabbed his pack off the ground and began walking deeper into the woods. Merle's laughter behind him was the only sign to know he was being followed.
Days went by with Merle questioning him, the same ones over and over again. Who is she? She your girl? You fuck her? What's she like in bed? Daryl knew it was only because he was clearly upset about the mention of her name. He wanted to forget everything; her, Rick, the group. Everything. But Merle's insistence on figuring out just exactly what happened while he was MIA made it nearly impossible. When Daryl finally blew up at him, his reaction was hardly expected.
"Makes no difference anyhow," he stated calmly, "They're all dead."
Daryl sucked in a breath and clenched his fist.
"Governor was plannin' on shootin' up the prison first chance he got." Merle told him, "Was only a matter of time before he went straight to you."
"Plan on killin' me too?" Daryl wondered, biting back his fear.
Merle only shook his head, "Deal was you got out."
"They got a baby." Daryl growled, his thoughts immediately flashed to Judith, "He plannin' on killin' a defenseless child?"
"He would kill whoever got in his way." Merle replied, "It's just a baby. When'd the hell you get so soft? Why do you care what happens to a baby? Why would you care about what happens to those people? They ain't your blood. They don't care about what happens to you."
"You're wrong!" Daryl yelled, shaking his head.
"I ain't wrong, little brother," Merle answered angrily, his voice lowered to a threatening hiss, "You know just as well as I do they don't give a shit about you. They never did. They needed you because you kept them alive. They're good as dead without you there."
Daryl drew in a breath, trying to control his heart rate. While he tried desperately to disprove what Merle said, Daryl couldn't seem to think he was right. He knew Rick could take care of himself. He knew Heather could take care of herself. But when it came to the whole group...he felt guilty having those doubts.
"Gettin' yourself worked up over some damn tail. She sure as shit didn't care 'bout you neither."
"Don't talk 'bout her, Merle." Daryl warned him, pointing in his direction, "Ya don't know her."
Merle smirked, shaking his head as he leaned against a tree. He remained quiet, the smile never fading as his words sunk in and Daryl felt like he was suffocating. He had no doubts Merle cared about him, however tough his love was, Daryl knew it was there. It wasn't, however, the same kind of love and caring he received from either Rick or Heather and that scared him. He had abandoned the only true friends he'd ever had for a brother who, despite being blood, could only converse through insults and abuse.
Daryl moved ahead of Merle, his head suddenly foggy as his breathing became rapid.
They're all dead.
He held his hand against a tree, steadying his wavering body.
They're all dead.
His ears rang and his eyes watered. He saw them covered in blood. Spread out on the concrete. Rick. Carol. Glenn. Heather.
They're all dead.
The surge of panic coursed through his body and before he could register what was happening, he was bent over, emptying his stomach onto the wooded ground. His hand scratched at the bark on the tree, trying to grasp as he puked, hot tears falling from his eyes.
He didn't care that Merle was behind him, staring bitterly at him as he collapsed to his knees and sobbed, wiping the vomit from his lips. He remembered saying good bye to her, thinking how final it had felt. It stabbed at his heart, causing more tears to fall carelessly down his cheeks.
When he finally stood, he didn't turn around. He adjusted his bag and cleared his throat, holding his bow up with shaky arms. Merle exhaled behind him, annoyed and frustrated. Daryl shook his head, letting out his own breath, then began walking.
"Where are you goin'?" Merle questioned but Daryl ignored him.
He didn't stop until Merle yelled his name and he heard the desperation.
"I'm goin' back." he answered, his voice trembling.
Merle's face dropped.
"You're just gonna leave me?"
Daryl paused, his lips parting. He had never thought of leaving Merle behind before. It was never even an option.
"You're right," Daryl nodded, "Those people will most likely die without me there but I can't live with myself knowin' that I failed them."
He could sense Merle wanted to respond with something sarcastically so he continued, not giving him a chance to make him feel bad.
"They care about me and I know...I know there's one person there that loves me." Daryl sighed, "I can't let them die."
"What am I supposed to do?" Merle asked, "I can't go back there. I nearly killed that Chinese kid."
"He's Korean." Daryl corrected him but Merle only shook it off.
"Ya can follow me," he told him, turning back around, "Or ya can do whatever ya need to, but I'm goin'."
Daryl began walking, feeling his chest tighten when he didn't hear footsteps following him. He'd been away from the prison for two weeks and he figured it would take him just as long to get back. Without Merle, he guessed it would take him even longer. The fact was disheartening. If the Governor had attacked the prison as soon as they left Woodbury, he might just be going back the remains. That thought wasn't anymore comforting but at Daryl would know.
He'd been walking for a few minutes when he heard leafs crunch behind him. They weren't staggered and the tightness in his chest faded.
I apologize for the horrible delay. These past couple months have been very intense for me. I just recently started a new job and because of the schedule change, I no longer have any free time to myself. I realize this chapter isn't very long but it's taken me this long to write it. I'm hoping I'll be able to get the next chapter out soon though I can't promise anything.
I'm going to have the Gov. show up in either the next chapter or the one after that along with Andrea, who will be coming to the prison. Two people will dying. I bet you'll never guess who.
Until next time!