I can see it in your eyes like I taste your lips
And they both tell me that we're better than this
- Modest Mouse, "Little Motel"
He ventured into one of the smaller cellblocks, alone, crossbow strapped onto his back, knife in hand. There weren't many walkers and he handled them easily, dropping them to the ground faster than bottles at target practice. Between kills he saw Carol's face and the expression she'd have as he told her he'd cleared a cellblock. She'd be worried for a fleeting moment, imagining what could have happened to him while he was on his own. But then she'd be fine. She'd nod and ask him practical questions, tell him she was glad he was back safely, and move on.
As he moved down the block he plunged his knife deeper, ripped the blade out quicker. She'd understand. He hated that she'd understand.
For every corpse that hit the concrete Daryl saw her face even more clearly in his mind. As he moved along it changed and evolved until it wasn't the face he would return to, but the face he'd left. The one that was more disappointed in him than mad at him. He sank the cool metal into a particularly milky eye socket. And her eyes. Those eyes. The ones that spoke to him in the millisecond he'd looked at her, before he'd stormed away. Like they knew what he was actually feeling, rather than what he allowed to the surface. The ones that said, Yes, you get mad. It's not really for me.
He finally reached the end of the corridor and was confronted with a pair of wide doors, closed, but not locked. He released a heavy breath, held his knife up high, almost over his head. He didn't like that she knew him this well. Worse, he didn't like that he knew how well she knew him. His heart pounded, anticipation building inside of him as the great unknown threat pawed at the other side of the door. He could be greeted by dozens of them, devoured in an instant. Or he could handle them. Take them down methodically, rhythmically. It was the only way he knew how. Daryl blinked quickly, waited for the doors to swing open. His mind was starting to swim in circles.
He licked his lips in anticipation, fingers adjusting their grip on the hilt of his knife ever so slightly. He felt like he'd come across a buck or some other equally appetizing piece of meat and just needed to wait for the perfect opportunity to strike. Any moment now. He widened his stance, focused on the tarnished metal handles, waited for the doors to part. He needed the doors to part. Wanted a wave of walkers, a surge of adrenaline; anything to bring him focus, center his mind. Get her out of there for just a few moments so he could calm down and get on with his day.
It was a let-down when nothing came bursting out at him. He called out to the other side of the doors but nothing called back. Just pure, unhindered silence. With his free hand he reached out, yanked the door open, and stood back. The room on the other side was bathed in strips of brightness, alternating patterns of light and dark as daylight streamed through the barred windows, flecks of dust dancing in their midday spotlight.
Daryl squinted and advanced when, still, nothing jumped out at him. He lowered the knife and looked around at the abandoned room. Worn wooden tables – just a few – surrounded him, chairs scattered and toppled around their edges. He took a step towards one of the tables and noticed how softly and quietly his foot was received against the floor, in stark contrast to the usual dull echoes of rubber on concrete. He paused, looked down; a cheap, knock-off Persian rug, tangled at the fringe and worn through in uneven patches, had been spread across the floor, a large welcome mat meant to add warmth to what Daryl quickly realized was the prison library.
It wasn't a large room by any means, holding no more than ten shelves' worth of books. Daryl took a moment, lowered his knife. He inhaled deeply and felt the thick air fill his lungs, a years' worth of dust and mildew disturbed by his intrusion. It was obvious the library had made it through the initial outbreak relatively unscathed. The grime on the windowpanes was thick, and his feet made dust-free tracks on the rug like footprints in the snow.
He ran a finger along a tabletop, tracing a line through the dust that piled up on his finger before he brought his hand down and wiped his finger on his jeans. The quietness around him was eerie; he wasn't used to smelling simple mildew and dust when over the past year he'd grown accustomed to stenches that were far worse. And he didn't like how untouched the place was; didn't like how time seemed to have frozen for the room, not a single splatter of blood on the walls or the floor, no desperate messages scrawled onto the tables in ink, or worse.
He felt like he was in some pathetic museum exhibit. A Journey Back Through Time. He wasn't a huge fan of libraries. Oddly enough, that had always been Merle's thing. He'd leave his brother alone for a day to his booze and his pills, come back and find him sprawled out on the floor, head propped up against the sofa, the most serious of looks on his face. A yellowing hardcover open mid-way through. The stamp on the inside cover bearing the logo of the local library and the date when it was due back – weeks earlier. The name of the last member to check it out – not Merle, who preferred to slip in after-hours for fun, replacing National Geographic with porn just for shits, and nabbing fare that was far more literary than he'd ever admit.
"I can't go back, little bro," Merle slurred once, "M'card's expired. They won't let me in."
Daryl dragged the back of his hand across his forehead, remembered how Carol sat next to him on the step. He took a step towards one of the shelves, scanning the spines for something interesting. Cooking. Photography. Business. He wrinkled his nose as he moved along the row. Hell, he didn't even know what he was looking for, but he figured there had to be something good there, out of everything.
He had at least reached the correct aisle, if the signs on the ends of the shelves were to be trusted. He may not have been a frequent library visitor but he knew the alphabet. It wasn't tough. Turning the corner, he stopped dead in his tracks. It was a sight so common he shouldn't have been surprised, but in the library it seemed oddly out of place. He didn't even need to cover his nose anymore, the stench was so familiar.
At first glance he felt nothing more than his usual disdain. Such soulless things. Why waste a thought for them when they can't even think for themselves? Dumbass was curled up against the wall, between two shelves at the end of a row. Balled up in a fetal position, some pathetic, childlike thing that went off by itself to die after getting bit. From the opposite end of the row he raised his crossbow, watching it through the crosshairs. It wasn't sleeping, exactly. He figured sleep didn't really exist for those that were never truly awake. But it was some form of hibernation, like he'd seen before.
He approached it slowly, lowered his weapon to get a better look at the thing. Clad in a prison jumpsuit, just like all the others. He cocked his head, looked at its withered arms which, even in death and reanimation, were wrapped tightly around its knees. He raised a foot off the floor and wound it back, figuring it was only worth putting the walker down if it was given a chance to have at him. He took one more look at the prisoner's gaunt face, skin stretched over cheekbones, and lowered his foot back down.
The floor surrounding the creature was clean. Not a drop of blood, no rotting entrails. He leaned in as close as he could without coming within arms' reach of the thing and looked it up and down. It was clean, so to speak. No evidence of physical struggle, no open wounds, not much rot. Daryl straightened back up, bringing his crossbow to his side. Damn thing hadn't even been bit.
He'd been disgusted at first, by the walker, thinking that this thing – person, really, in the beginning – had been bit, gone off by itself to wait, weakly and miserably, for reanimation. His upper lip curled up just thinking about it. He prayed he'd always have the balls to do himself in, if that's what it came down to, in the end. It was really the only way to go once the deal was sealed.
But to see that it hadn't been bit... He didn't feel sorry for it, not by a long shot. But he leaned his weapon against the shelf and unsheathed his knife, holding it heavily in his hand. For the first time ever, he considered it. Not its life or some sentimental crap like that, but he considered how a single prisoner may have come to be there, alone in the library, hopeful he'd be able to wait out the end of normal civilization. Maybe he'd been planning to wait until the executions were over. Maybe he was somebody who'd wanted to come out, but never did. Didn't know that he carried it, too. Turned.
Daryl spat at its feet and gave it a good kick in the shin. Slowly, the prisoner began moving its limbs, turned its face upwards to blindly set its eyes upon Daryl's own face. It took a whiff of its surroundings and bared its teeth, lips curling away into a macabre grimace that caused Daryl to take a step back, out of the walker's arm's reach. Bitten or not, it was still pathetic. Hiding alone to wait out the storm; quietly fading away from the reality of life. Daryl adjusted his grip on the knife and raised it above his head as the walker raised itself onto its hands and knees, lashing out in Daryl's direction as it. Or maybe it had simply gone away, too afraid to face the things that threatened the status quo.
With one fierce kick in the knees Daryl sent the walker tumbling before him, arms flailing as it tried to grab at his untied bootlaces. Ain't nothin' left of the status quo, amigo. Daryl reached down and pulled the undead prisoner up by its hair, one last bout of anger boiling up in him as he crashed its skull against the wall. He felt an untamed release of energy, wild, but final. Hide all you want, the storm finds you.
He pulled on the front of the walker's shirt, pressed his forearm against its collarbone as it snapped at him futilely. He narrowed his eyes, winning the one-sided staring contest, and saw the remains of what the man used to be, when he'd played tough on the outside. A coward. One final, definite swell of rage coursed through him as he plunged the knife so deeply into its eyesocket that the blade completely disappeared from view. He ripped it out violently, his own chest heaving as he took a step back, still seeing red. One last pulse that rippled through to the body on the rug, lifeless at last.
And then, it was gone.
He grabbed the book from the shelf, wiped his knife clean, and headed back.
She surprised him while he was sitting on the stoop, absent-mindedly fiddling with some bolts. He heard the door behind him grind to a close, felt her footsteps against the metal as she stepped out behind him, held his breath as he waited for her to take a seat beside him, as she so often did, uninvited. But then, a few seconds of silence, and nothing more. He kept his fingers working but turned his head ever so slightly, a movement he hoped even she wouldn't notice.
From behind Daryl, Carol looked out onto the yard. She couldn't help but smile, watching Glenn, Maggie, Tyreese, Karen and Sasha move in formation through the yard – the real yard, the one with grass – towards the gate. From between the outer fences Carl and Beth banged sticks and metal objects against the chain link in an attempt to draw walkers away from the central group. The sight was different, but oddly the same.
She felt Daryl's eyes on her as she leaned against the wall behind him, still casting her own gaze out into the distance. She wasn't ready for eye contact. Not yet, at least. She wanted to test the waters first, feel out her position. One look at him and it would all be brought about too fast.
He watched her feet from where he sat, over his shoulder, out of the corner of his eye. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other as she leaned against the wall. Daryl turned back to the bolt in his hand and rolled it between his palms.
"I cleared out A Block."
Carol squinted into the sunlight, brought a hand up to shield her eyes. He was choosing to speak first. A change, for once. She took it to be a good thing.
"Didn't take very long," she noted.
He shrugged at his feet.
"Weren't many of 'em in there."
She nodded, even though he couldn't see her, and dug her hands deep into the pockets of her sweater. She'd made a mistake, mentioning Merle. That much was obvious. And the night before, when she'd finally taken that step forward, and realized it had been one step too far.
When she responded only with silence, Daryl spoke once more, his olive branch for all the things he'd never said.
"I found a library too; maybe they got scared away by all the books."
He winced at his own words, so forced and unnatural. He didn't do humour very well. At least, not intentionally. Carol pressed her lips together to hold down the tightness building in her throat. She'd come outside fearing he wouldn't want to say anything to her, afraid she'd find herself speaking to the back of his head. But the way he seemed to be glossing over what had happened between the two of them was worse, and she couldn't explain why. They thrived on letting the petty things go, filtering out the moments that would only bog them down in pointless struggles. Carol cleared her throat and took a breath. She was stronger than this, whatever this was.
Maybe. Maybe they were scared by all the things that were different, all the things they hadn't yet learned. Or maybe they were scared because they weren't alone anymore.
Daryl could feel the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end as a chill swept through the prison gates. Even without a face he knew how to read into a single word.
"Least now we have more space, right?" He turned his head completely to the side now, looked up at her face. Her grey-blue eyes cast a long glance above and away from him. He was trying. He really was. Trying to tell her he had moved on from before. He was fine.
Carol nodded, almost imperceptibly. She was tired of his small-talk, like he was forcing himself along conversation. They thrived on silence because that's what they understood the best. Silence brought out the truth while words always held the potential to mask it. And she was sure, almost completely, that he was masking something.
"There's too many of us all holed up in C anyway, figured this way we wouldn't be so close to each other all the time."
He shifted uncomfortably on the step. Her silence was agonizing.
"Is that what you want?" The words escaped without a thought for their consequence. She didn't even know what she wanted from him, exactly.
"What're you sayin'?" He looked back up at her, felt the continued chill in the air.
Carol bit her lip, dared herself to speak what she'd been thinking all day; what she'd been afraid to accept. He was bothered, and all the signs were there to indicate that he was bothered by her actions. She was afraid of what it would mean for the group. Yes, she thought to herself, for the group. That's all.
"I'm saying you're running away again."
He gripped the bolt in his hand so tightly he thought it might break under his palms. Was that what she thought? He drew his eyebrows close together, her face a puzzle he was trying to piece together.
"Daryl, if that's what you want it's what you want and nobody can stop you. You're a grown man. You make your own choices, you run your own life."
He looked away from her, then, as her eyes narrowed on the action in the field and her voice gained a strength and an edge that had been missing just seconds before. He needed to tell her. Screw Rick, screw their little agreement. He'd tell her. He would. He'd share it, and he wouldn't be alone.
"But you're also with us, Daryl. You're with us like Merle never was." She paused, wondered if she should have brought up Merle again.
No, he would take it. He needed to, for both of their sakes.
"And when you're with people you owe it to them to handle what they throw at you. It's how people work. It's how we survive."
He instinctively brought a hand to his knee, tried picking at the frayed edges that had formed so long ago, only to find himself running his fingers along a bumpy seam, instead.
"Even if you don't like it, you tell them so. You don't run."
She uncrossed her arms and took one last look out onto the field, where the group of five had begun to rig up old metal and wire across the outside gate. She was always so careful. It was all she could afford to be.
"And if you do you're no better than the ones who ran from their books."
Daryl became engrossed in her stitches, so careful and even. He didn't like it, but he'd expected it. A tiny part of him realized he'd gone outside hoping she'd meet him there, too.
"At least the books never cared for their people."
When he turned to speak to her feet once more they'd already retreated, back inside.
A/N: Please, allow me to use a sports analogy here... Sometimes you have games that go horribly. Just one-sided blowouts where nothing goes right. There isn't even anything to be learned from the defeat, you just need to file and forget it. This chapter is a file and forget chapter for me... Didn't really turn out how I wanted and there's a bunch more stuff I wanted to include but in the end I just needed to post it. Get it out of my system. It was hanging around in my computer for way too long.
Anyway, now that I've told you how terrible I think this chapter was, please leave a review and let me know if you agree!