Warning: Spoilers for the Season 3 Episode 10, 'Home'
He felt his jaw drop slightly, his mouth opening in a surprised 'O'. When he realized exactly what he was doing he closed it again with a tight snap, his sharp blue eyes contemplating what the old man had just told him.
"I knew Rick wasn't quite right but... See'in things?" He mumbled, shooting quick glances to the ex-cop keeping watch down at the gates leading to the courtyard that was now infested with walkers, despite their best efforts. The mans fingers twitched over his pistol as he walked endlessly along the fence, his nervous pacing nearly wearing a hole in the ground as walkers hissed and snarled furiously just on the other side of the chain link. But Rick didn't pay them no mind, his sights set on the spot where the Governor had stood just yesterday, his mouth working furiously yet no sound coming out.
The hot sun beat down on all three of them, drying out the grotesque blood stains that marked the dying place of Axel.
Hard to believe it had just been yesterday.
They hadn't secured an area to bury the man yet, their little graveyard now overrun until they could find a way to barricade the gate that the van had slammed down. The body sat shoved off in the corner, wrapped in a grimy old bed sheet. Even now, red leaked through various places where the bullets had pierced his body, keeping Carol safe from that asshole in the guard tower. If it was any consolation, at least the poor bastard didn't even know what had hit him. It had been a clean shot to the head, quick and painless.
More than the Governor could hope for, that was for sure.
They had a score to settle. All of them. Daryl, Merle, Glenn, Maggie, Rick...
Somehow, he just didn't think Dale would approve of what he had in mind for this monster.
He turned his eyes back to Rick, the fury that had lit in the depths of his belly cooling once more. This couldn't possibly be the same man who had kept them alive for so long. The very man who worked so hard to inspire hope and humanity in them all. The thought of it made Daryl sick to his stomach.
He doubted the man had slept in the time he was gone. Even before then, Daryl couldn't remember the last time he had seen their leader close his eyes for more than a few minutes before he was back again, constantly surveying their surroundings. His eyes were bloodshot and had an overly alert look to them, contrasting with the heavy bags that looked like dark bruises beneath them. He thought back to the nights when he had gotten up to keep watch and had glanced into Rick's cell to find it empty. He'd commonly find him cleaning guns, checking inventory, assuring himself that the doors were locked or just staring out the window, waiting for something Daryl didn't try to understand. He had been desperate, grieving, caged and afraid.
He's seen that hunched, tense posture many times before in his life, the movements smoothed with aggression. From his Father, coming home in a drunk rage and standing in his doorway. From his Brother, walking down the sidewalk as he left his old home for good and not even looking back to see a horrified Daryl watching him from their grimy window. Even in the mirror on his own reflection, more times than he could count.
He saw uncontrollable fury.
He saw unpredictability.
He saw danger.
"He said he saw Lori." Hershel's voice brought Daryl back to reality, the veterinarians face far older than it had been when he had left just a week ago. "We had another group trying to join us. They were good people but they were more frightened of him then of the walkers. They left just the day before you came back."
Daryl held his tongue, itching to agree with Rick's decision on this despite the rift it had caused in the group. They couldn't afford more mouths to feed or people to protect, the burden of this lot was already weighing far too heavily on their leaders shoulders. It was wearing on everyone. But then, he hadn't met these folks. Maybe he would have agreed with Hershel if he had.
Still, the memories of Rick struggling under a walker, a satisfied smirk on that bastard Tomas' face burned and he felt the same fury as he did that day. They could not trust outsiders and Rick had finally, finally learned that.
Perhaps he'd learned that too well.
"He seemed alrigh' when we were in that town." Daryl mentioned, not wanting to believe what had transpired in his absence. He felt the hot creeping of shame moving up the back of his neck and he couldn't help but wonder if his abandonment had anything to do with this.
Somehow, he knew it did.
He reminded himself of his reason why, that Merle had needed him more than the group, but it didn't do anything to help the toiling of guilt in his stomach.
Blood's thicker then water. He had reminded himself of that over and over again, but somehow, it had done nothing to soothe the pain of it all.
Not that he'd ever admit it out loud.
"He said he saw Shane. In the town." Hershel sighed heavily. "He's not right, Daryl. We need him now more than ever, he's done more for us then I could ever possibly thank him for. Beth, Maggie and I wouldn't be alive now if it wasn't for him. He's proven time and time again to be a leader and a man of honor, but what I saw in him these past couple of days..." His shoulders sagged, his eyes turning sad as he regarded the pacing man. "He's breaking and he needs help. All of us tried, but he doesn't want us. He's waiting for something we just couldn't provide."
Daryl glanced at him from the corner of his eye, disbelieving of what the old man was insinuating. "If y'all couldn't do it, what the hell makes you think I can? I ain't no psychologist!"
"I know." Hershel admitted, moving with considerable ease as he turned on his crutches, something that he had gotten quite skilled with since losing his leg. "But I really think you might be the only one that can get through to him now. Even if you just tried, you'd be doing everyone in the group a favor. Especially Rick."
Daryl held his silence, listening faintly as Hershel limped away, knowing that he was being manipulated. The way the entire situation had been set up reminded him faintly of Dale, the subtle yet firm push in the direction the older man desired. Yet, he just couldn't seem to work up the ability to be annoyed by it all.
He observed Rick, wondering how seriously he should take Hershel's words.
On one hand, Rick was a capable man and had proven this time and time again. Of everyone in the group, he was the only one that Daryl truly trusted with his life, possibly more so than Merle. Not that he ever allowed the situation to arise where he needed his life to be saved by anyone other than himself. But still, for him to even think such a thing was a big deal.
How many times had he been the one to do what no one else could? Perhaps no one else truly noticed how much Rick stepped up when Sophia shuffled out of that barn, the way he steeled himself for doing something that he knew would kill a part of him to do. The way even Shane, for all his talk, had backed away, hesitant and afraid. Yet Rick, the only one besides himself, Carl and Carol who truly thought they would find that little girl alive, one of the few that really cared, had been the one that needed to pull that trigger. He had put aside his own emotion for the good of the group.
He was always doing things, large and small to increase the groups comfort. Yet, no one seemed to recognize or even notice them for what they were, let alone thank him for it. They wouldn't notice Rick skipping a meal to be sure that they all got just that little bit more. How he placed himself in harm's way in front of a Walker to protect someone else in the group, whether it be his blood or not. How he always offered to take the next watch, even though he already did one that night because he knew they had had a particularly exhausting day. No one ever saw all the little things Rick did.
No one but Daryl. He always saw.
It always amazed him how wrapped up people were in this group, living in their own little world. Sure, they had all gotten closer through the winter, but they still had their little groups whom they always stuck with when they were taking it easy. It made them so simple to observe. Rick and Carol were the ones that truly tried to include him, an effort he did appreciate although never really thanked them for.
Rick was strong and brave, a man that even someone like Daryl could look up to in secret. He'd taken hardship and tragedies before and managed to turn them into fuel for their survival. No matter what, he never gave up and Daryl knew that fire was still in there somewhere, just waiting to be kindled again.
On the other hand, Rick had lost so much in so little time. True, him and Lori had been having a rocky time of it since her cold behavior towards Shane biting the dust. They had never truly reconciled as far as he had seen, maintaining that hard wall between them even after Lori came to her senses. She had simply been too late and lost her husband and son in the process. This lack of closure was probably only making this all the worse, but apologies and I Love You's were a thing of the past, a luxury Rick would never get the chance at again.
Something he knew was eating the man alive inside.
Rick also took his leadership duties extremely seriously. He took it upon himself to keep each and every one of them safe. T-Dog's death weighed more heavily on him then anyone else, the mans sacrifice only highlighting Rick's recent downfalls. Despite not knowing him for long, none of them had anything against Oscar either and his loss had effected them all as well. To add to the pressure, they had nearly lost Carol, Hershel, Maggie, Glen and even himself, all within a short time span. The long winter months of them being kept safe were irrelevant in Rick's mind, the sudden onslaught of failure only wearing the man down, cruelly highlighting everything they had done wrong. That Rick had done wrong.
The group had been even more tense then usual, with Glen refusing to even look at any of them since Merle's return. Merle had been locked in a cell for all their safety, but Glen had refused to be satisfied and continually hounded Rick about his decision when he believed Daryl wasn't looking. Luckily, Merle had been oddly subdued since his return, although the occasional snide, inflammatory comment was heard from his cell.
Add in the stress of Little Asskicker...
Daryl shook his head, heaving a deep sigh. Too much, especially for one man.
But that didn't change the fact that he didn't know a damn thing to say!
Rick stopped his pacing, bringing Daryl's attention back to him.
Rick fingered his gun idly, his gaze locked on something beyond the Walkers, where just yesterday the Governor had stood, unleashing bullets, fear and blood onto the only family he had left. He ran his free hand roughly through his hair, tugging at it slightly in agitation as if he were trying to will him back into existence just so he could shoot the bastard dead. His eyes were lit with a fierce hatred that seemed so out of place in Rick's eyes that Daryl wondered idly just how much it took to truly break a man. If Rick was even able to be put back together.
He gave himself a firm mental shake. He couldn't be thinking like the people back in their cell block. Someone had to have faith in the man before him, a man who had defeated all odds before and Daryl knew he would do so again.
Daryl was ashamed that he nearly jumped in surprise when Rick turned and looked him right in the eye, falling back into a more calm look as he observed the hunter. He heaved a deep breath before walking forward.
"You need to rest, Daryl." He said flatly, "You were out there for a week and I doubt you got much of a chance to sleep. You were on watch last night too, head on back to the cells. I can handle this."
Daryl raised an eyebrow, an amused quirk wanting to rise on his lips but he fought it down. "I don't think I'm the one that needs sleep here. How long has it been for you? You look like shit."
"I'm going up in the watch tower." Rick evaded simply, not acknowledging the question. "We need to be more careful, especially until we get that fence fortified again. We can't be out in the open, it's only drawing more of them in."
Daryl hesitated before internally sighing. If it would truly help him, Daryl owed it to the man to give it a try, no matter how uncomfortable it was. "I'll go with you."
Rick leveled him with a look that seemed almost suspicious before turning without a word towards the staircase leading up, Daryl following at his heels. Not a word was said as they climbed, the snarling of the walkers below the only conversation that was had.
They couldn't reach the top soon enough as far as Daryl was concerned.
This was going to be awkward as hell.
They both settled themselves in the chairs they had brought up, their view of the prison unhindered by fences and corpses. Sweat trickled slowly down Daryl's back and he cursed the abnormally hot temperatures, wishing more then anything for there to be a cloud or something to break the heat. He wrinkled his nose at the strong scents that filled the air, the warmth bringing a faster rate of decomposition and therefore increasing the stench. With so many geeks gathered below, the smell was nothing short of a mix of shit and rotting flesh.
"Hershel spoke with you."
It wasn't a question, but a statement. Daryl resisted the urge to fiddle with his crossbow, refusing to approach this like a pussy. "Yeah, he did."
Rick sighed, his back ramrod straight and muscles tense, as if a second of relaxation would only lead to their dooms. How long had it been since he had dared even lie down? "He shouldn't have done that and put pressure on you. You just got back, you don't need this."
"It's you I'm more worried about." Daryl replied smoothly, "How've you been?"
The younger man leaned back in his seat, forcing himself to relax to coax the other man into doing the same. Not an easy task with all those walkers moaning down below, even with a sturdy fence between them. "You're still pissed at me."
Rick shook his head. "I never was."
Daryl raised a disbelieving eyebrow. "Bullshit. Not even once did you want to just knock my lights out for leaving? You were never once angry at me?"
"No." Rick replied without hesitation. "I was upset, sure. Honestly, I was more hurt than anything. You're family Daryl, you mean a lot to everyone, myself included. I know you don't think so, but you do. We've lost more than enough people and you... Decided to go."
A small lick of anger rose to smother the humiliation and shame Rick's words brought, all thoughts of relaxing gone at the emotion. "I explained to you why! Merle's blood and I'm all he's got, I had too!"
"I never said anything against that." Rick bit back sharply, the first show of emotion in his voice. "I understand. Really, I do. But it doesn't mean that it didn't hurt." Rick glanced at him, his eyes icy before shaking his head and looking back out over the prison yard. "Either way, you're back now and that's what matters."
Daryl forced himself to calm down, his muscles jumping in anxiety and frustration. Why did he always get so wound up? But he knew why. Anger was always a safe bet, it hid the more painful emotions well beneath, where no one could see them. "I always planned on coming back, I was never gonna leave. I just needed for the situation to calm down is all. You can even ask Merle, he'll be more than happy to tell ya that I kept leading him back to the prison. Spent most of the time cursing you out, matter of fact."
Rick released a chuckle containing no humor. "I'm sure he did."
Daryl tilted his head, watching as another walker wandered through the gate and into their front yard. "He seems more pissed at you then anyone else. Kept going on about that ol' sheriff, it was always about you. You really got under his skin."
"Couldn't help it Daryl. You know my hands were tied on that roof." Rick replied, his voice tight as if he were afraid of offending the younger brother. Daryl felt himself tighten in response, not sure what to make of it. Rick was always honest and open with him, never afraid of judgement and now he was pussyfooting around what he really wanted to say.
No matter what Rick told him, he knew his leaving had seriously hurt the older man's trust. He could still hear the underlying desperation in Rick's voice as he struggled to convince him to stay, the disbelief at the sudden betrayal and stress at the inevitability of Daryl leaving. He'd been so tense and strained, watching Daryl leave through the forest with Merle at his side, never turning away until Daryl disappeared through the foliage.
Daryl picked at some dirt under his nail, his discomfort making his stomach turn. This was why he hated talking about feelings and shit. Only got you in trouble.
"I told him that, you know." Daryl mentioned suddenly, wanting to find a way to remedy the awkward situation and get back to the silence he and Rick usually enjoyed. "That he was askin' for it on that roof. I ain't never talked back to him like that but he needed to hear it."
He saw Rick watching him from the corner of his eye, a look he couldn't quite read on his face. "You didn't have to defend me Daryl."
Daryl grunted. "I can handle Merle. Sure, he got pretty pissed, but... He needed to hear it. He's a danger to everyone and I needed to fix that before coming here. I've had enough of all this shit. I told him that if he didn't smarten up, I was leavin' 'im."
"Would you have?"
"Yeah." Daryl admitted, shifting in his seat. "I woulda'. I was, actually, till the fool came stumblin' after me. He don't want to admit it but he's terrified of being alone. Probably more so after... What happened."
Rick nodded, exhaling a breath. "I wish I had done something different, that's a fate I can't imagine facing. I've thought about it a lot and regret it but I could not risk a danger to the group, Daryl. He ws already stirring things up and Glen was... I think he would've tried to kill him. I couldn't just... Even..."
"I understan'." Daryl replied, not wanting to watch the man struggle more with words. He was so uncertain, so different from the man that just a few months ago had threatened that their group was no longer a democracy. "I do, Rick."
Rick sighed and for the first time, it sounded just a little bit shaky. "I've made a lot of mistakes."
"We all have." Was Daryl's gruff reply.
"But not like I have." Rick answered, regret and worry seeping into his tone. "I'm the one that let Andrew go, I'm the reason that T-Dog and L... Lori are gone. I nearly lost so many people, it was pure dumb luck that I saved anyone. Hell, you saved Carol, we all thought she was gone. Maggie and Glen nearly went through a public execution. You nearly went through a public execution."
"We didn't." Daryl reminded him, his words giving no trace of doubt. "I'd be dead now if it wasn't for you."
"You wouldn't have been there if it weren't for me." Rick snapped.
"Like hell I wouldn't have." Daryl snarled back, "I chose to go, Rick. Whether you were there or not was irrelevant, I would'a gone to get Glen and Maggie with or without you! Merle is the one that caused it all if you wanna get into that. I made the decision to leave and find him, against your wishes. I'm the one responsible and you still saved my ass. You can't control everything that happens, we all have a mind of our own too."
"I shoulda been with the group when we were attacked yesterday." Countered Rick, his hand once again stroking his Python as his eyes moved again to the spot where the Governor had stood. "I shoulda been on their side of the fence, protecting them."
"So you coulda gotten shot instead of Axel?" Daryl answered easily. "That psychopath saw a boy, two women and a man. He took the shot at what he presumed to be the biggest threat and Axel wasn't exactly a commanding presence. If you had been there, it'd be you we were mournin' and not him."
"But I could have done somethin' an-"
"Yeah, you coulda taken a bullet to the brain!" Growled Daryl, his anger getting the best of him. "Leaving Carl and Little Asskicker without a Father! Us without a leader! Rick, you are doin' the best you can and yet you seem to be the only one who thinks its never enough!"
"Well, Glen disagrees." Rick's hands clenched tightly, his face contorting with anger. The young mans words hit a raw nerve, leading straight to the heart of the problem. "He's saying I should throw Merle to the Walkers, that's what he did to him. He says that you ain't seeing things for the good of the group."
Daryl bit his tongue, knowing that getting aggressive with Rick over this issue would only make things worse. "You're doin' the best ya can."
"I'm losin' it."
Daryl felt his stomach jump in uncertainty, knowing that they were finally reaching to core of the issue. The very center of it all.
"You're doin' just fine." Daryl rasped, suddenly uncertain with how to approach this. Like he said, he was a man of action, not for all this talking and... Stuff. He didn't know how to make people feel better, just how to keep them alive.
"I'm not." Rick answered, his voice broken and lost. "I'm seeing things. Lori and Shane... Hearing them talking on the phone. I'm not... Sound, Daryl. I can't even look Carl in the eye anymore, I don't wanna hold my own baby. I'm afraid of what they might see in me. I'm afraid I'll be no good to anyone, but I can't make it stop. I try and I try, I know they aren't there, but... I just can't stop."
"Well then, you ain't crazy."
Rick looked over, confused. "Wha'?"
"I said," Repeated Daryl, saying the words very slowly. "You ain't crazy. Crazy people don't think they're crazy. They don't know they're seeing things. Trust me, I've seen crazy Rick."
Rick looked down at his hands, his fingers twitching slightly. "I... Guess."
"If you know you're crazy, well... That's halfway to bein' sane."
Rick looked up, a slight look of hope in his eye before a slight chuckle broke through his lips, his Adam's apple bobbing though his thin throat. Daryl felt his ears turn red slightly with embarrassment, resenting the laugh. He was being serious here dammit! "What!?"
"You sell yourself short." Rick shook his head in wonderment, a slow tension leaving his shoulders. "You're smart and a good man. I know how much you were dreading coming up here. But you do know just the right things to say and I know you're being honest about it."
"Well, it's true." Daryl mumbled, fiddling with his crossbow. "Instead of trying to bottle it all up, how 'bout you just come and talk to us once in a while, yeah?"
Rick smiled, the first genuine one that had graced his face in a long time. "I know that you don't want to. Just talking to me now is a lot for ya, you don't have to force yourself."
"That's exactly the thinking that got you into this mess." Daryl responded. "You do things that make you uncertain and uncomfortable, things that go against the kind of person you are, but you never ask anything of us. Just talkin' once in a while isn't gonna kill me Rick. I can handle it."
"I suppose so." Rick chuckled, running his hand through his hair again, this time in more of a relieved gesture then a nervous one. "I can try. If I see her... I'll come talk to you."
Daryl nodded, relaxing now and he was relieved to see the other man doing the same. They sat in companionable silence, the moaning from the walkers the only sound carried on the breeze, yet everything had changed.
"Daryl... Are you okay to keep watch?"
Daryl glanced over the older man, his eyelids finally beginning to droop.
"Yeah, I'm fine."
Rick gave a small smile of appreciation, leaning back in his chair and allowing his eyes to close.
"Wake me in an hour, you need sleep too." Rick reminded him.
It wasn't long before the man's breath slowly evened out, his head lolling to the side and his eyes fluttering beneath his lids as he dreamed. Time passed slowly and it was four hours later before Daryl stirred the older man when Beth came up, letting them know that dinner was prepared. Rick didn't say a word, merely gave him a look of appreciation as he headed down to join the group.
Daryl moved to his respective cell, marching up the stairs and passing Merle who snidely mentioned the fact that he's spent the day alone but Daryl ignored it. He looked down at the group below, all but Glen surrounding Rick as the young Korean man took over their post in the guard tower, as Little Asskicker cooed in his arms. Rick's expression was one of genuine joy as he cradled his baby girl, talking in a hushed voice and rocking her gently.
Daryl turned to his cell and flopped on the hard mattress, ignoring the cold temperatures that came from living behind concrete walls. He closed his eyes, a satisfied smile coming to his face.
Even with the oncoming war, unresolved problems and the threat of Walkers at the gate, he couldn't help but feel that everything was going to be okay.
Just a simple Rick/Daryl friendship fic, my favorite kind. I am so glad Daryl is back with the group, I literally cheered when that crossbow bolt came through that Walkers skull and saved Rick. Daryl had a ton of awesome moments this past episode and we learned more about him, I'm glad he's gradually getting more and more of a spotlight since Daryl truly is a fantastic and well developing character.