Part I : Evolution
Maybe this chapter of his life's story could've started a different way.
It could've been more poetic, or, at least at the very least, a little less shameful. He might've been able to say that it didn't all just begin with an unexpected want, and that he knew from the very start that this was exactly what he'd always been looking for, not just on a physical level but an emotional one, too. For the first time in his life he'd finally had everything he needed right in front of him, but he'd been too blinded to see it. To be fair, he wasn't the only one perfecting the the meaning of naivety.
If he wanted to think too hard on it, because that was always his way – overthink, or don't think at all; everythin' or nothin' and all that jazz – he could've drawn the lines back at Daryl's quick actions saving him from his demons. Lori was dead, he had killed every walker in the immediate vicinity, and there was this rippling fear amongst the others that he was finally lost to them all. He'd wondered if they were better off without him. He'd wondered if they thought they were better off without him, too.
He didn't have the courage to stay away, and that was when he saw them. Carol and Carl, playing with a bundle wrapped in a fleecy blanket, and he remembered that he had people out there waiting for him.
After finding out what Daryl had done for his baby girl, he'd cornered the other man to thank him. Daryl had at first brushed it off saying it was what they do, but Rick, in a moment of doubt, had asked why. He was answered with a hasty "you're family," and Rick was left watching the redneck-turned-antihero back away out the door with eyes shied to the ground, too nervous to wait for a response. It was the sign of a man used to rejection, and while the brother in Rick couldn't fathom why, the cop in him knew all too well.
In the weeks before that, when Lori was still alive, Daryl's worth became more obvious than even Rick himself had realised until they took the prison. For those few weeks of peace, he had been trying to tell Daryl just how much they needed him without saying the words that swelled his tongue to the roof of his mouth, trying to avoid crossing some invisible boundary the other man had plotted between himself and the group. Yet here it had been said in the simplest, most truthful way possible. Daryl, the man with the fewest words of them all.
Proud they both were, so much so that the syllables stuck to their teeth, never a goodbye as they stared at one another through the trees before a hunt or a scavenge, each one feeling as though they should be saying or doing something but they had no idea what.
If he really wanted to get to the roots of it, he could've blamed it on Lori's death. Really, he could've blamed it on Lori altogether, because in the months he could barely look at her or her swelling belly, Daryl was there with his intense stare and his loyalty and his nods of acknowledgement. One small tip of the other man's chin meant an entire world more than Lori's fingers snaking in vain over his wrist for comfort.
In the end, it all came down to chemistry.
Some people just click. Between Rick and Daryl, it wasn't an instant connection, not even in the slightest, but it might as well have been.
For Rick, scrap pipe in hand and ready to kill, seeing a hard-cut man with a crossbow falling out of the tree line and into their sight was all at once relieving and dreadful. The introduction of Daryl Dixon into his life, seeing a living being as opposed to the dead ripped from the arms of their reapers, was timed near perfectly enough for Rick to steam forward and greet the stranger himself, but the moment he heard that drawl, that Southern twang that sent odd sensations crawling almost unpleasantly up his spine, there was distrust. Recalling the racist, vile redneck they'd abandoned in Atlanta, it registered that this was the man they were praying the delayed return of.
Hair ambiguously dark blonde in the sunlight, an assortment of squirrel carcasses slung over his shoulder, Daryl Dixon's eyes narrowed sharply at the newcomer, flickering between familiar and unfamiliar faces, with anything more than one glance enough to reveal his curiosity. From what he could see, this stranger wasn't aloof as such, but he was definitely impassive toward human companionship, or else he'd have had some friends aside from his cracker brother. From someone who was so reserved, being an item of piqued interest felt like something he should be either proud or wary of. Besides, Daryl may have glanced several times more than necessary to assess for a threat, but Rick knew he'd been the one that stared blatantly the whole time.
He wasn't going to be completely cliché and say there was 'just something about him'. He knew what it was about Daryl that interested him, apart from the family tree of course. Daryl was one of the rare few people who made Rick over-think, during not just the first but even up to the umpteenth impression, and a lot of that had to do with the fact their obvious intrigue was mirrored in one another. To Daryl, Rick might've been a stranger, but Rick already felt he knew everything about this man and he was ashamed to admit he saw nothing more than a tamer version of his brother. There was only ever one alpha male, after all, and if the Dixon brothers stuck together he could see right away which one was which.
There were things about Daryl that made you look, whether or not you realised it, and Rick was prone to succumbing to the temptation even a year on and knowing that, if he closed his eyes, he could recall that face as intricately as he could his wife's.
Daryl's face was, for lack of a better complimentary masculine word, odd. Really, it wasn't a bad, or even an average appearance, because there was no doubt in Rick's mind that the redneck scrubbed up pretty nice, but there were little things that threw him for a loop and he just couldn't figure out why. Not at first at least.
In the first day Rick met Daryl, he'd seen the otherwise pensively hostile man express grief and rage. It took him a while to understand that Daryl would, for the most part, uphold a pinched nonchalant expression, and that he wouldn't be swinging like an emotional pendulum every damn day. It was just that day, the one they met, that happened to be an outlying factor in the equation of the younger Dixon brother.
It also took a while for Rick to realise what was so strange about the other man's face, but he soon put it down to something as simple as asymmetry. Biologically, many terms of attractiveness come from how well one side of the face matched the other, which was why lazy eyes or crooked teeth or bent noses all seemed to work against people. That was why it was so hard to figure out, while it was still from an objective perspective, whether or not Daryl was an attractive man or not – he had all the features of a damn model, really, but something just didn't seem to sit right. He looked more intimidating than his brother though his shoulders weren't as broad or his height as imposing. Unlike his brother, Daryl actually looked dangerous, but after getting to know him the look in his eyes translated closer to mean than to homicidal, which at the very least was a more accurate idea.
Daryl had small eyes. Perhaps they only looked smaller because they seemed to be in a perpetual angry squint, thin eyebrows bent sharply in a natural frown, but something about those eyes seemed almost hidden, tight. It took three weeks for Rick to realise the other man's irises were the same blue as his own, because it took that long to get a good look at them. Most men like Daryl weren't fond of meeting people's gaze, but despite being no exception to this he never had that problem with Rick. At first it was to challenge him, but eventually that look became beseeching. It was a short while before Rick realised that it must've been the same way he looked at Merle, needing to be lead despite knowing full well he was strong enough to be his own man.
No matter how much sleep Daryl did or didn't get, there was always a looseness below those sharp, snakelike eyes, but by the time Rick met him it could've been put down to age or simply malnourishment. By the time they crossed paths, everyone had skin hanging off their bones; even the children.
Just like his eyes, everything else about Daryl seemed to be small-of-feature. His mouth was a straight cut line, unlike Rick whose mouth turned up or Shane's whose bowed down, thin lips pale of colour that formed a scowl or less commonly a smirk. Daryl wasn't used to smiling, or laughing neither. Whenever he reluctantly cracked a small grin, he seemed almost unsure of how to do it, like he was self-conscious of his teeth though they were perfectly straight, surprisingly so for a redneck – but perhaps that's stereotyping again. Generally, when he was amused by something, he'd scoff and look away, eyes pinching to thin slits in a smile that rarely pulled at his sharp mouth.
He had a beauty-spot, which felt awkward and strange to be referring to as belonging to a man – let alone Daryl Dixon – but it was there, beneath the scruff of hair on his face above one corner of his mouth, right in the dimple of his non-existent smile. It was such an unexpected feature, really, that at first when Rick had glimpsed it he'd thought it was just a smudge from running around in the woods for days by himself. It was something incredibly unique and only added to the unusual handsomeness.
The odd features took Rick straight back to those bewitchingly strange eyes. They were uneven, but not in size or colour - something more subtle. One eye looked more tired, less defined. After some uncomfortable amount of time covertly staring at his fellow survivor, Rick finally understood what was so uneven, but only after glimpsing the faintest of surgical scars. They bracketed one of Daryl's eyes along the bridge of his nose and at the edge of his temporal lobe. He didn't get the courage to ask what had happened to Daryl's eye for a long time, but it was a cold winter night made for sharing when it slipped out.
Rick couldn't sleep; Lori had been trying to insist he felt the baby kick, and he'd given in against his better judgement. After impatiently waiting for her to fall asleep, he'd crawled off the thin yoga mat they'd substituted for a mattress and sought out the man on watch. Daryl didn't look at him until he realised Rick had only come to keep him company, not to tell him something pertaining to security, and for the first time, Rick allowed himself to believe there was real concern there in this silent man's glance.
The light from the lone, tired candle caught just faintly on the silver line along the bridge of Daryl's nose, and the question tumbled out without pre-thought.
"What happened to your eye?"
Daryl flinches, instantly lifting a hand to the left side of his face, tracing it gently, and doesn't reply. Rick leaves the question hanging between them, and instead pulls a foot up onto the thick-set sill they're both perched on, resting a hand atop his knee.
"Felt the baby move," he says quietly. The way Daryl seems to perk up the words is a little concerning, considering nothing else seemed to get him out of his shell so quickly. Talking about the children brought out a weird side in the other man, a protective side, and Rick wasn't quite sure where it stemmed from, because he was at least ninety-percent certain Daryl didn't have any kids of his own.
That alone was a strange concept; that the hunter was only a few scant years younger than himself, yet he had no partner and no children. Rick was married at twenty-two, to his first and only serious girlfriend. Maybe Daryl had the right idea all along.
"Got a strong drop-kick manoeuvre going, that's for sure."
"Li'l asskicker," Daryl says with a breathy brand of amusement. "Bet it's a girl."
Rick smiles but it's with caution. "You a baby-whisperer or somethin' else I don't know about?" Daryl shrugs. "What makes you so sure?"
"It can only go one of two ways," he remarks, like Rick missed the point completely. "I 'unno, guess I believe in tha balance an' all that shit," he says, waving his hand absently. "Adam and Eve, ya know? There's a li'l boy, but no li'l girl."
Rick speaks before he thinks. "And if Sophia was still alive?"
Daryl's expression darkens, his mouth tightening, and he turns to glare harshly out the window. "Then it'd be anyone's guess what the brat's gonna be."
Rick reminds himself to never speak of Sophia to Daryl ever again. The silence between them lingers until it no longer feels tense, and Rick mutters aloud to himself. "Adam and Eve...you religious, Daryl?"
Daryl scoffs, but it sounds more like a violent snort, like he truly could barely keep himself from laughing. "If 'e's real, what right does he 'ave to demand respect from me, after all tha shit he's put me through?"
Rick's about to ask, but this time Daryl's looking at him, and he stays quiet.
"Born into it, grew up with it, but never believed a goddamned word of it. Merle tried once, when I was a kid, ta really hammer the fear ah god home, but I just wasn't havin' none of it. He stopped wearin' 'is cross when he was twen'y somethin'. Guess he gave up believin', too."
That brought him to another question. "Speaking of – how come you and Merle don't look like each other?"
Daryl frowns for a moment, then sniffs, staring out the window again. "Sometimes I forget you met Merle before ya met me," he says in contemplation, then, "ya parents are the ones that raise ya, not the ones that fuck to make ya."
It takes a moment for it to sink in what Daryl had just said. "You and Merle aren't brothers?"
"We aint got the same dad. Ma 'n pa split up a few times 'fore I was born, and accordin' ta Merle, my pa took one look at me in tha hospital and said I wasn' 'is. Never bothered me brother, though. Even when I grew up lookin' nothin' like 'im, and 'e looks a spittin' image of our old man, 'e still didn' care. Ma died 'fore I found out who mah real dad is. Not that I care or nothin'."
He races a hand through his hair, now long enough to be brushed from his face, and he realises not for the first time how much darker it is now than when they'd first met. He reads Rick's mind, which is just as amazing as it is creepy, though he probably just glanced the way Rick was staring at the dark wisps curling about his ears.
"Used ta live on a property, jus' Merle an' me. Me brother was fucken' useless, so I had ta do most'a the work. I was outside alot and it just got lighter by itself, guess the sun used ta bleach it. Hair was blonde for so long I didn't even know it was supposed ta be brown. Always preferred it longer, too, but Merle'd just get me drunk an' shave it while I was passed out."
He laughs, like these are fond memories, and perhaps Rick doesn't understand it because his happy memories are actually noteworthy happy. For someone as easy to please as Daryl, maybe it isn't so surprising that he'd look back and laugh at these things. Maybe this is grief; mourning the old world and how simple things used to be, lamenting the loss of his 'dearest' brother.
It occurs to him at that moment that this is the most Daryl has ever spoken about himself in one go, and it's to Rick of all people. He's told a few of the group about his adventure getting lost in the forest when he was a kid, and how it bore into him a great love of nature and the things that kept you alive when you didn't have electricity or a warm bed. Never before has he spoken so openly about his family, though; not even about Merle. There were two sure things Daryl refused to talk about - one of those things was his childhood, and Rick along with everybody else had their hunches as to why. The other thing was Merle; the few times the other man's name was brought up in reckless conversation, Daryl would get this look like he still blamed them.
He still doesn't find out what happened to Daryl's eye, and he doesn't deign to hope he ever will, but something changed that night. There was a revelation they'd both been previously avoiding, and it was all about the chemistry.
Ever since that first day, they'd been scarily in sync. From Rick reading Daryl's attacks better than he'd ever managed to read someone's before, to Daryl's surprising co-operation, to the way the two of them took out their first walker together with a simple gesture telling one another where to be.
They hadn't even known one another existed five hours before re-entering the department store, and Rick had spotted the walker wandering about by herself. He didn't even stop to think that Daryl might purposely ignore him, or even that he wouldn't understand what Rick was asking of him with the silence, but as soon as he'd directed Daryl where to go, the volatile man was all stealth, slinking past with his crossbow poised, taking it down with one shot.
It was a mutual understanding that they were good together, that for some reason their chances of survival were dramatically increased so long as they stuck together. Maybe this was why Daryl never stabbed him in his sleep those first two months. The more unstable Shane became, the more Rick prayed for Daryl's proximity. He'd never not had a wingman of sorts, always attached at the hip to Shane with plenty of breathing space and leaning support. It was only natural that Rick would defer to Daryl eventually, even while Shane was still alive, much to the frustration of his former partner, and much to the hunter's not-so-secret pleasure.
Daryl wasn't used to being treated like an equal, or genuinely relied on, or probably even wanted in the first place.
That he was looking for Rick's friendship at all had been a surprise, and a part of Rick felt guilty for overlooking the other man's value for so long. He felt more comfortable with this brash redneck than he had with Shane for years.
In their past life, because that was exactly what it was now, Daryl may have been the kind of man Rick would find himself in the position of apprehending, or searching for in the woods, or following through a supermarket because he looked suspicious. He liked to think this survivalist chemistry would've been present back then, and that Daryl might've co-operated with him or helped find a suspect or called with an anonymous tip once the station was out of sight, but chances were he'd have been called a 'Pig' and spat at.
The Dixon brothers were just those kind of men. Most rednecks he'd ever met were.
Either way, this new world, their 'reality', was what he needed to focus on, and in this reality there were no plotted lines of the law, no margins within which the likes of all 'Dixon' types resided, and there was no time to write clean cursives of all the petty little paths their insignificant lives could've gone on. Bills and taxes and fees and insurances - work to pay to live and so on – that was the way of life once, but not anymore. Now, it was food and water and ammunition – run and hide and maybe survive.
In this world, there were no cops and criminals, there were no rednecks and city-folk, there was no religion or race or the boundaries their species had set in stone over the centuries, and moral high-ground would sooner see you dead than groomed with praise. There were no rules.
There was nothing left of his old life. Even his own son was a stranger. Even Lori was gone.
There was only Rick and his people. His son, Carl, was grown beyond his years. The doctor, Hershel, who made sure they wouldn't be taken out by something as humiliating as a road rash. Glen and Maggie, the scavenger lovebirds, deft at getting in and out unnoticed with a good fuck in the middle just for spite. The nurturer, Beth, who made sure to take care of whomever she could, with her eyes dauntingly opened to this life they lived in. Carol, the widower, who cooked and cleaned and did all the things that a mother would do, filling in the hole that had been left by Sophia by taking care of them. His daughter, Judith – or 'Li'l Asskicker, as Daryl called her, because he'd been right the whole time, and he wasn't kidding when he named her – who was their bright star of hope, the infant who felt more like she was the daughter of everyone in their mix-matched family than she did his own kin. He didn't like to think why exactly that was.
Then there was his right hand, Daryl himself, the man who filled in all the spaces Rick wasn't large enough to cover, and who held the group together when Rick wasn't able, and who saved their lives over and over and never asked for thanks.
Rick can only count three times he'd saved Daryl's life in the past year, but he's lost track of just how many times Daryl's pulled his ass out of the firing line, slapped him on the back after checking him over, and continued right on like he hadn't just done something so monumental people used to get medals for it in the old world.
He'd be dead without Daryl. They all would.
That still doesn't help Rick overcome his selfishness, because there's still one more thing he wants to ask of Daryl, and really he has no right asking for anything from him, the man who smiled so rarely that he only did it for the people in this new 'family'.
Sometimes he wishes things had happened a little differently, so it might've saved them both the frustration.