Author's Notes: Thank you for all your reads and reviews on A Heavy Cross. You people are the dog's bollocks. (That's a good thing!) I'll miss it, even when it was a total pain in my arse.
This one-shot is technically AU I guess, but I like to think it could slot into cannon reasonably well.
The left side of his face ached and he was pretty sure that his eye was black already. Fuck Merle Dixon. His big brother could do the rest of his sentence in Georgia State without Daryl visiting him once a month.
He couldn't remember how many times Merle had wound up in jail. But he was stuck a quarter of the way through a four year term for a bar fight that ended up with some fucker losing an eye. Then he had the fucking audacity to pick a fight with his brother? Fuck Merle. He wasn't driving all the way down to Tatnall county from Monroe again. Taking time off from work that he couldn't afford, having to give up his trailer so that he could keep that shitheap of a house that was his childhood home in the Dixon family.
It was close to midnight and he'd been on the road for far longer than he needed to have been. He'd been driving round Monroe for hours, not wanting to head back to that place. Full of bad memories. Rain was coming down something awful and it was difficult to see even a few feet of the road ahead.
And then he saw it, just a half mile away from the turning to the house. Just as he pulled around the curve in the road, something darted across the road, just a few feet up ahead and then all too soon he saw the car that was parked up haphazardly around the bend, hood pulled up but with no lights on. Daryl slammed the breaks on and swerved to avoid the Cherokee, stopping just on the other side of the otherwise empty road.
He wrenched the handbrake up, storming out of the cab of his truck to give the dickhead who thought it clever to park on a corner with no lights a fucking asswhooping. He was in the mood to give someone a black eye that would match his own that was blooming nicely.
So when he stormed through the pouring rain, hurling obscenities that carried in the wind, he took a step backwards in surprise when hiding behind the hood was a woman, a young girl clutching her neck, legs wrapped tight around her waist.
"It had t'be a fuckin' woman." He mumbled to himself. "Are you fuckin' crazy!" He yelled at her. She recoiled instantly at his words, drawing the child closer, taking a step backwards, almost slipping on the muddy bank at the side of the road.
"I said, are ya fuckin' crazy? Ya can't just leave ya car on a bend! Ya could've gotten killed!" The woman said nothing once again and he quickly realised that she was pretty much terrified of him. Probably justified, when he thought about it. His face was pretty busted up and he had blood all over his shirt. He wasn't even sure if it was Merle's or his own. It was the dead of the night, the road was deserted and his zombie-ass looking self was screaming in the woman's face.
He turned away, yanking her driver's side door open to switch the lights on and he heard her yelp, rushing over to the side to see what he was doing.
"It just cut out, I don't know what happened." She murmured beside him in a small voice, hardly able to be heard over the howling wind. Her little girl had her head buried in her mother's neck, dark blonde hair sticking the back of her neck.
Fuck. He should've just driven past. Now he had to help, lest he be a complete and utter shithead. He sat on the edge of the seat, turning the key in the ignition experimentally. The engine groaned pathetically before dying again.
He turned around to look at her, jumping when he realised how close she was to him. "You got a cell? Someone to call?" He yelled out over the hammering rain. She shook her head quickly, but a look of guilt spread over her face, that she quickly tried to rearrange.
"There's no signal on it. I-I don't have anyone." She muttered, turning away. Fuck. He was definitely stuck helping now. He just wanted to go home and drink himself stupid. Maybe chuck all Merle's shit in a fire or something. Trash his precious bike.
He pushed past her to get to the hood, taking a quick glance at the parts underneath. "It's probably ya battery. You ain't gonna get a garage to sort this 'fore Monday." He told her slamming the hood down.
The woman looked at though she could cry. He allowed himself a good look at her and realised that she was sporting a nasty bruise not unlike his own and past experience of his own told him that her swollen nose was definitely broken. Her chin length brown hair curled in the wet, sticking to her scalp and cheeks. "Is there are a bus station anywhere close?" She asked. "We've only gone from...I need to get to Camden county."
"Are you fuckin' crazy? It's after midnight on the weekend in Bumfuck, Nowheresville, ain't nothin' ridin' outta here!" He raked a hand over his bristly scalp, shorn only that morning, as the little girl pulled away from her mother's neck to look at him with wide eyes. It was dark and maybe just his eyes playing tricks but he swore he caught a red mark across her little cheek, like she'd been slapped. She was seven, maybe younger. Memories of his own shitty childhood flooded his mind.
"Aw, fuck." He groaned. "Get in my truck. I can get a fuckin' battery." He jerked his thumb over to the truck and she just looked at him fearfully, following the direction of his hand to the beat up vehicle. "Ya can't stay here, can ya? You're on a shitty stretch of road, in shitty weather. Someone might plough into the car. I'll get the parts, I got a tow truck at work. I live up the road."
The woman only looked up at him with hesitation, clearly no-one had ever done her a good deed before.
"I ain't gonna fuckin' hurt ya. Jeez. I am standin' here freezin' my balls off, can we get movin'?" He tried to keep his voice even, not to lose it. He knew shitty families, clearly these two were running from their own.
The woman looked at her daughter once more and moved to the car to grab her handbag. "Ok." She murmured, or at least he thought she did, she was so quiet. She ran through the went to the truck, sliding in at the passenger side. Daryl pulled the keys from her ignition and jogged after her, shaking himself like a dog when he got into the warmth of the cab.
He turned the ignition and instantly rock music blared out from the speakers, causing them all to jump. Maybe Number of the Beast wasn't the best way to convince them he wasn't an axe murderer. He turned it off quickly, jacking up the heaters instead.
"Iron Maiden were my first ever concert." The woman said after a moment, wrapping her hands around her daughter, rubbing her arms to warm the child somewhat.
Daryl turned and raised one eyebrow at her, surprised. This woman had hardly said two words to him, but he already had her pegged. Middle class, probably a teacher or some shit. Rich husband probably, but one who liked to slap her about evidently, probably making her way to their vacation home whilst preparing the divorce papers.
"I know, I don't look the type." There was a smile in her voice and she turned her head back to face the road ahead. Well, what could be seen in the storm. He turned into the dirt path up towards the house and he saw her freeze. Lightning flashed through the sky and he caught a better glimpse at her face. Whoever he was, the bastard had fun on her face. A cut on her cheek, maybe caught on a ring or something, her eye was blood shot, lip split. Her nose was definitely broken. The bridge was a funny angle, almost black and in normal circumstances it probably would've been considered petite. Everything about this woman screamed small. Fragile. Weak.
"Your husband?" He asked her, as the truck pulled into the drive. He put the car into neutral and turned for her response. She gave him a glance, eyes lingering at his own bruises and nodded once. A nod so small he almost missed it.
"You?" She asked timidly, as he turned off the engine.
"Brother." He grunted, opening the door and gesturing for her to follow suit. She clutched her daughter close as they ran for the porch and he pushed the swing door open for her.
"But I'm done with him. Been done for a while." He regretted saying that as soon as the words left his mouth. He didn't need to explain himself to a perfect stranger.
They stood clinging to each other in the hallway, waiting for him to switch on the lights. He fumbled for the switch and they all winced when faced with sharp brightness from the bulb above them.
"I'm gonna go to work, get the tow, find a battery there, bring your car back here, I can work on it in my garage." He picked up the garage keys from the sideboard and she opened her mouth ready to protest.
"You know shit 'bout towin' cars?" He asked. She shook her head. "Then there ain't no point in us both gettin' wet. Let ya kid get some sleep. Towels in the bathroom, kitchen's through there if ya want coffee, I ain't got much else though, sorry."
"Wait!" She finally found her voice as he opened the door to run back into the storm, her arm reaching out for him, fingertips just grazing the cuff of his jacket as he jerked his arm away. "Thank you." She murmured and he nodded before turning back into the darkness.
He was quick in the garage. His boss, George was on vacation anyway, but he didn't want to get caught snooping after hours. It took months to finally get a steady job that paid worth a damn. Especially seeing as he wasn't even a qualified mechanic. Like most things in his life, it just sort of happened. A bit of sunshine on a pretty bleak streak of luck. George didn't give a shit that he was related to Merle Dixon, the scariest motherfucker in Monroe and he hoped this wouldn't fuck that up.
He was back at the house within an hour, more chilled than he'd ever been in his life, his teeth were chattering and he was pretty sure that he couldn't feel his own fingertips. The lights were on in both the kitchen and the sitting room and he heard the clink of silverware. He pushed the swing door open and she turned from her position at the kitchen sink, giving him a small smile.
"Why you doin' my dishes?" He asked warily. She looked perfectly at ease in his kitchen, which was unnerving.
"Needed a mug for coffee." She held the offending item up. "And keeps me busy. I don't like having too much time to think."
He nodded. He could understand that. "I'm just gonna get changed." He turned back out of the kitchen.
"Daryl." He stopped in the doorway. He hadn't told her his name, he was sure of it. Just like he didn't know hers, or her kids. There was nothing here that should've told her, even if she went snooping for the bills, most of them were still in Merle's name. She smiled apologetically, as if she could read his mind. "There was a phonecall, the machine got it." Ah. That would explain it. "Um, a Marie? I think? She sounded drunk, to be honest."
"Sounds about right." He muttered, turning out into the hallway. Marie was Merle's last piece of ass, the evening waitress at the diner in town. A piece of work that still believed Merle was actually going to marry her, before he got carted off to the slammer. Merle could be a dumbass, but even he wasn't that stupid.
He had to walk through the sitting room to get to his bedroom. The little girl was curled up into a tight ball in the corner of the sofa, her mother's sweater draped over her legs. She was fast asleep, her shoes neatly set on the floor. Here was another person looking strangely comfortable in his house.
He changed quickly, stripping the bed of it's blankets and as he passed through, he draped them over the sleeping child and pulling the sweater off her, careful not to get too close to her. He didn't know why he gave a shit, about either of them. But this night was already all kinds of weird, so why stop now?
She was sitting at the table when he got back to the kitchen, mug of coffee in hand and there was one waiting for him on the kitchen counter. He handed her the sweater and she took it, confusion on her face.
"Is Sophia awake?" She asked. So that was the child's name. Unusual, for around this area. He wondered idly where it came from.
"Naw. Got her a blanket. Got no workin' heat in this house, not since Merle put his foot in the boiler." He told her, picking up the coffee and walking through to the garage where he'd towed her car. He felt her follow behind him and tried not to feel self conscious as he switched everything on.
"What's your brother in jail for?" She asked softly. His face snapped to hers. He was pretty sure he didn't tell her about that either. "The woman on the machine..." She explained.
"Took some guy's eye out. Bar fight." He thought that might shock her, but if it did, she didn't show it. "Not the first time he's done somethin' fuckin' stupid."
"And why did he do that to you?" She nodded at his face.
"Because he's fuckin' Merle and that's what he does best." There really was no point in explaining that one any further, not unless she wanted to sit there until she grew old.
She followed him around the car, watching him as he pulled the hood up, fiddling with bits and pieces. The car was not well maintained and he made a note to sort the oil and water once he'd finished with the battery.
She stopped at the bike in the corner of the room. Merle's bike. His brother's most precious possession. The reason they'd started their argument in the prison. Daryl wanted to sell the old Triumph, pay some of the overdue bills on the house. He thought he'd be decent about it by talking it over with Merle, but apparantly Merle preferred his fists. Her hands ghosted over the body of the bike.
"You ride this?" She asked.
"No. It's my brother's." She nodded, brushing past him to sit on the bench across the way. "What's in Camden county?"
"My parents. It's probably a bad idea." She sighed, elbows resting on her knees, chin resting on her hands. "I know how it'll be when we get there. 'You made your bed, now you have to lie in it'" She mimicked softly, voicing reaching a reedy pitch. "My father is a preacher. Divorce is not the done thing." She explained, although he hadn't asked for it.
"He been like before?" Daryl meant the marks on her face.
"A while. Never gone for somewhere that I couldn't hide before though." She said reflectively.
"And your girl? He hit her before?"
"That was an accident." She told him firmly. He looked at her with a face of disbelief as he pulled out the old car battery. "It was." She stressed to him. "She's never known what goes on. When she heard what he was doing, she came running and he caught her by accident."
"Ya fuckin' kiddin' yourself if you think she don't know what goes on." He told her and she looked at him, hurt on her features. "All kids know what goes on." He could tell she wanted to say something about that, but clearly the edge in his voice told her that arguing with him on that point was futile. Instead she took another sip from her mug.
"I don't know who I think I'm kidding, thinking I can do this without him. I've never done anything for myself." Thunder clapped outside and they both looked up to the ceiling as the light flickered.
"Well you got no choice. You get by 'cause you gotta. For Sophia." He jutted his head toward to the door, in the direction in which the child slept.
"Maybe, maybe things would be different. I've never left him before. And he had a real scare when he clipped her. If he promised to get help."
"People don't change." He told her, pushing the new battery into place.
"You don't think your brother is capable of redemption?" She asked.
"No. Told you, I'm done with Merle." His voice was terse, because he knew, no matter how he said it, it wasn't true. Not really. He said he was done the last time they fought and the time before that. And every other time since he was old enough to realise people don't change. Just like he wouldn't change. He'd still pick Merle up when he fell, no matter what.
"Then that's an even scarier prospect for me if I kept going." She told him sadly. "He'd find me. Somehow, he'd find us. And then what would happen? There would be punishments. There are always are with Ed."
"Fuck, you call the cops, or your friends, or Women's Aid, or whatever the fuck you gotta do." He spat out, irritated.
"Tell me, Daryl." She stood up, standing next to him at the bumper of the car. "How long is your brother's sentence?"
He didn't want to tell her. He could tell by the sound of her voice, sharp and tense, that she would use his answer against him somehow. "Four years."
"And this is not his first violent crime?"
He shook his head.
"So how long would Ed get, if I reported this? He's never been arrested before. Two years? Three? Maybe four? But then he'd get out. And then he would find us. Unless he got a life sentence, we'd never be free of him, not really."
He didn't answer that, instead finishing up on the battery and moving to change the oil and water. After what seemed like a million years, he cleared his throat.
"He don't know you're here, does he? Don't go to your parents."
They both stopped what they were doing at that. He kicked himself mentally for saying something so idiotic, even if only subtly. Was he suggesting she stay here? He didn't even know this woman's name. She caught the meaning behind his words and she just blinked at him.
"Why are you helping me?" She asked him, setting the mug down, hand going to her hip.
"'Cause you needed it. Truth is, what else I got to do?" He told her, pulling the hood down with a small slam. He didn't know the fuck why he was helping her. "Don't go back. He ain't worth it."
"Like your brother, huh?" It was low blow.
"Like I said, I'm done with him, a long time ago." He walked to the driver's side, twisting the key in the ignition. The engine purred for a moment before he turned it off again.
"Then why do you still have his bike?" She demanded to know.
"Why the fuck you gotta ask so many stupid questions? Maybe I just like the bike. Fuck." He brushed past her to get back into the kitchen.
"Maybe you're just as big a fool as I am then. Too scared to do it by ourselves."
"Shut up." He told her harshly, his voice sounding fiercer than he intended. She flinched at his words and he instantly felt guilt, even though, in his mind, she deserved a telling off. "You don't know shit about me and him." He tried to make his voice softer. He didn't want her to be scared of him.
There was a shrill beeping noise then, causing them both to jump. "My phone..." She muttered and she was off into the sitting room, rifling through her handbag. He heard her mutter something to Sophia, coming back into the kitchen, looking at the cell phone screen. "My mother." She told him.
He nodded and she went through to the garage and he heard her answer it, but he decided he didn't want to hear the conversation and walked through to the sitting room, where the little girl was sitting on the couch, rubbing her eyes sleepily.
She didn't look half as frightened of him as she should've. He looked a mess and he was a stranger. He sat on the arm of the couch.
"Go back to sleep, kid." He told her and she pulled the blanket closer, still gazing at him with those wide eyes.
"Where's Momma?" She asked in a small voice.
"Only on the phone out there." He jerked his head towards the door. "Your pa, he do that?" He pointed to the red mark on the girl's cheek. She looked towards the door and back to him again before nodding.
"Don't ever think you deserved it. Whatever ya Momma does, he's a piece of crap. You ain't never deserve somethin' like that. You hear?" The little girl nodded again. "Good."
He heard the girl's mother finish the call and he went back out into the kitchen.
"She thinks I should go back. He's been ringing her all night." She told him, twisting the phone in her hands.
"You tell her where you are?" He asked.
"No. I haven't decided what to do." She shook herself from whatever train of thought she was having. "Look, we've taken enough of your time. How much do I owe you?"
"Nothin'. I don't want nothin'. You don't gotta go. It's almost mornin'. You can't drive in this weather and you ain't slept." He gestured towards the sitting room. "You two can stay in my room. Ain't no rush to go nowhere."
"We couldn't. You've done too much for us already." She made to say more but the phone rang in her palm and she gasped when she saw the name flashing on the screen.
"Don't." His oily fingers covered hers, shielding the cell phone screen. "I'll tell him where to go if ya want. Just sleep on it." The phone cut off and she fumbled with the buttons to turn the thing off entirely. Finally she nodded.
He took her through to his bedroom, the little girl trailing behind them.
"Thank you, Daryl." She whispered as a sleepy Sophia climbed onto the bed. She reached out and touched his arm, a thumb trailing over the inside of his wrist.
He nodded. "People don't change." He told her once more, by way of goodnight as he pulled his arm away and shut the door softly.
He settled down on the couch, finally allowing himself to yawn. He wondered if he really would like her to stay. Just until she got on her feet. She was pretty, in an unusual sort of way, even through the bruises and cuts. She was soft and sweet. They both went through the same crap and it had only made him bitter and angry but she, she was kind and gentle still.
When he woke up, light streamed through the house and instantly, everything felt wrong. The bedroom door was ajar and closer inspection showed it was empty, the bed neatly made. He rushed out to the garage, there was an empty space where her car should've been. Her kicked the door frame violently, letting out a stream of obscenities into the air.
Then he spotted the note on the table. A scrap of paper, folded twice, his name in neat cursive on the front.
People don't change. That includes me. I'm sorry.
The paper dropped to the floor as he swore once more, knocking the table over violently.
He never really forgot about her. Sure, his memory got a little fuzzy over time and sometimes he wondered if she ever really was that pretty or her voice that soft. He wondered if the way she touched his wrist ever was as heart-stopping as he thought it once was.
The reports of the people eating other people started getting out of hand and it was his idea, not Merle's, to get to Atlanta. A safe zone. Merle only agreed when they had a close call with his latest, Susie, who almost ate his hand, until Daryl took her out with his crossbow.
He wondered if she was alright. If Sophia was alright.
They couldn't even get close to Atlanta. From the distance, his heart sank when he saw the bombs falling. They were on their own.
It was Merle's idea to join the other survivors at the quarry. Daryl would've preferred it to have been just the two of them, but Merle seemed hopped up on the idea and it was just easier to go along with him.
He avoided most of them, only getting involved when Merle pissed someone off. He was handing off his game to one of the others to cook, the only time he entered the camp centre, when the slip of a girl with dark blonde hair whipped past him.
"Sophia, baby, will you take these to Lori?" He turned to look for the brown curly hair he remembered, for the small woman who spoke to the girl, but he couldn't find her. Maybe it was just coincidence. His eyes scanned the area once again, and he caught sight of the little girl. Or not so little. She stood next to the woman with the mousy hair, greying in spots, shorn so short it was almost a man's hair cut. The girl took the bundle and darted off again.
She came to a halt as she caught his eye and he knew instantly that it is was Sophia. Wide blue eyes and skinny, she met his gaze with confusion, like she knew him but wasn't quite sure how she knew him.
It had been six years. Half her life probably. Just one night of her life and she slept through most of it. He didn't blame for her not being sure. He nodded once and she kept walking and he turned his gaze to the woman in front of him.
It was her. The hair was different and she hadn't turned around yet, so he didn't see her face, but the posture, the walk, it was all her. Of all the places in the world she could be, she was in the same place as him. She was alright. Sophia was alright. He wondered if fate truly existed.
"Hey, what's your problem?" He was broken from his thoughts by the angry man striding towards him from her direction and instantly he grimaced. Ed. It was Ed. "You lookin' at my wife?"
"Fuck off." He spat out, striding sideways, out of the way.
"No, fuck you." Ed spat out. "You don't get to look at her, that's my wife." Daryl looked past the pig of a man to her and she looked up at the commotion her husband was causing. Ed went to lunge at him but before Daryl could throw a punch, the cop, Shane, was in between them, pushing Ed back.
"Get back Ed, I mean it." He shoved Ed backwards. "You're scaring Carol." The woman's ears pricked up at the mention of the name and she came closer, to help Shane with her husband. As she laid her hand on the man's arm, she looked up at Daryl for the first time. They locked eyes for the smallest of moments before she turned away, Ed taking her arm firmly. Her name was Carol.
She gave no indication that she recognised him. He felt like a fool. Sure, his hair had grown in some and his face had healed up but he had recognised her. She had been on his mind for six years, yet she couldn't even remember him. He had meant that little. Well fuck Ed. And fuck Carol.
The blonde sisters and black woman were in change of dinner that night, handing the plates of squirrel and canned beans out. He took his begrudgingly, sitting as far away from them all, even Merle, as possible.
Someone came round clearing the plates and he didn't look up as the footsteps came closer to him, merely holding his plate out. Instead of reaching out for the plate, the hand went to his wrist and he instantly went to pull it away, until the thumb rubbed over the inside of his wrist. He looked up and his eyes met hers and she looked at him like she was gazing at a rainbow. She knew exactly who he was. He was right. She was pretty. And her nose was small, now that it wasn't swollen.
Before he could swallow the lump in his throat, she let go of his wrist, taking the plate and walking away.
He spent the rest of the night gazing up at the stars, contemplating if people really could change.