Authors Note: Thank you for all the reviews, fuel for the fanfiction fire. If you've not done so already, I hope you drop a line to let me know what you think of it. Please enjoy this last little bit.
When Rick met Merle again on that rooftop, he didn't recognise him at first. The man had aged a lot in ten years, some of that hard muscle he'd had had softened and spread, and in all truthfulness those first few days had been a blur of fear and bewilderment and barely holding it together. The others had mentioned Daryl on the ride back, and it had triggered something in his memory but then they'd got back to camp and he'd been reunited with Carl and Lori and Shane, and everything else was forgotten about until the younger Dixon had stalked back into camp all coiled muscles and simmering fury.
After that, things had become relentless, the hunt for Merle, the attack on the camp, the CDC and everything after. It felt like they were in a constant fight for their lives, and in those moments that they weren't, Daryl would stalk off alone and shut down any attempt at a conversation with a snarl. He'd known the man for a single, horrible day, yet Daryl seemed to have become harder than before, angrier. If he didn't want to talk about it, then that was down to him, and Rick was prepared to respect that, until another little girl went missing and the weight of what happened ten years ago could no longer be avoided.
Rick knocked on the bedroom door before he entered. Daryl was laid on his side with his back to the door, but twisted sharply to see who had disturbed him.
"Cain't people let a man sleep in peace around here?" he muttered and turned back to stare out the window. As he twisted, the sheet slipped off his shoulder, he pulled it tightly around him to cover himself back up, but it was too late, Rick had seen more than he'd meant to.
"I'm worried about you. We're all worried about you." He walked round to the far side of the room and sat in the chair there.
"Doubt that," Daryl scoffed. "Anyways it's that little girl you should be worried about."
"Yeah," Rick sighed. "I'm worried about her too."
"Funny way a showin' it."
"I am. It's just…" he looked for his word carefully, "it's not like before. I have to be responsible for the whole group, I have to protect the whole group, and…"
"And you think she's already gone," Daryl accused.
"I don't know if she's gone, but I know you nearly died today. And I know you, I know you'll put yourself in harms way again to look for her. I can't have that."
"Shut up man, you don't know shit about me," Daryl snarled. He was trying to look dangerous, and Rick had seen enough to know that he was, but with his head swathed in bandages and clutching the sheet around him he just looked small and vulnerable.
Rick thought about what he'd glimpsed before the sheet had been pulled up. There had been the faded bullet wound to his shoulder, and the long neat scar from his surgery, but there had been other's too, older but not so well healed. He wished it had come as a surprise, but it hadn't, because even if Rick hadn't known for sure, he had known.
"What happened after that day?"
"What do you mean?" he growled.
"Shane and I, we came by the house to check in on you but it was empty."
Daryl gave him a one-shouldered shrug, "Guess that guy's buddies weren't too happy at him being caught. Tried to burn the house down, strung up my cat, killed her." He spoke with a coldness which was the opposite of what Rick had come to know from him, like all the anger and upset had already been burned out of him, long ago. "We lived in the woods fer a bit, so's they couldn't find us. The debt company took the house fer ma hospital bills anyways. The donations helped but they weren't enough. So we prob'ly woulda ended up in the woods either way. I built a cabin once I's healed up enough, it weren't so bad. Merle hated it," he laughed bitterly. "He left eventually, would crawl right back when he broke up with a girl or couldn't find anywhere else to crash."
"I'm sorry," Rick said, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I should never have put you in that position."
"Nah," Daryl said. "that ain't on you. I wanted to help. But shit, I need t' find Sophia, man. I jus' have'ta."
"Daryl, you know that…"
"She's alive goddamn it!" he barked. He sat up painfully, still holding the sheet tightly around him while he searched for his clothes. They weren't there, Carol had taken them to be washed. "I'm gonna find her. Where are my fucking clothes?"
"Daryl," Rick said in his most soothing voice, "Daryl, it's almost dark now, you need to rest or you'll be no good to anyone." He winced as he said it, the words stopping Daryl short. "Daryl, that's not what I meant."
"Nah, it's what you think. I can bring you a few squirrels but I know the limits of my usefulness. 'S alright." He climbed out of bed with a wince, dragging the sheet like a cape, and started routing through the dresser for clothes.
"Whoever told you that was talking bullshit," Rick said, angry at a man who he'd never met, at Merle too for reinforcing it. "Hell, you might be the most useful person left in this world. But if you think that's the only reason we keep you around, well that's bullshit too."
Daryl froze and looked at him, lip trembling. Rick watched as the emotions played over his face before settling on the only one he deemed acceptable, anger. "I ain't failing another little girl Rick."
"You didn't fail Ciara."
"I ain't havin' her mama go through that. She has to be out there, I found her doll, I know she is!"
He looked like a lost child himself, hair sticking up out of that bandage, clutching at the sheet like a security blanket. How could anyone hurt a child so badly, Rick would never understand, but he felt the need to repair the damage done. Rick felt a lump grow in his throat, he resisted the urge to hug the man, knowing he wouldn't accept it, so he gave the one thing he had been taught never to give, false hope. "I believe you Daryl. We'll find her. I promise we will."