Daryl paused behind a tree and waited, forcing himself to be patient. Another gust of wind rattled the dry leaves still clinging to the limbs of the trees. Quickly, he moved a few steps forward.
He let out a long breath and willed his heart to slow down. This part, the stalking, the chase, it got his heart pumping so loud in his ears it nearly deafened him. The hard part was staying calm when he was so close, but he couldn't give himself away. Not when he'd gotten this far.
Daryl closed his eyes and focused on listening. The wind picked up and rattled the leaves again. A small brook rushed nearby. And finally, the telling snap of a twig, much closer than he'd expected. Daryl's eyes snapped open and he turned to run, only to smack right into his brother's broad chest.
"Caught ya." Merle grinned and ruffled Daryl's hair. Daryl tried to get out from under Merle, his pride hurt, but his brother caught him in his strong arms.
"Where you trying to get to so fast?" Merle asked. Daryl used his legs to try and kick his way out.
"Let go!" He shouted.
"Man, you're scrappy." Merle laughed. "Relax, I ain't gonna hurt you. If you wanted to tag along, you could have just said."
Daryl pulled his arms free, pushing his brother, who was unmovable.
"No need to pout." Merle smirked.
Sometimes, if Merle had a mind to, he'd let Daryl follow him into the woods. Just this once, Daryl had wanted to show off all he'd learned. He'd wanted to get the drop on his brother. He should have known Merle had been playing with him. Merle would always be stronger, faster, smarter. At nine years old, Daryl barely came up past Merle's elbow. Of course Merle thought they were playing hide-and-seek. Only Daryl imagined himself a hunter.
"You coming?" Merle asked, turning back to the path he'd been following. "I know a sweet spot for berry picking."
Daryl scowled. Kid stuff again.
"I ain't got all day." Merle said, losing patience. "You know what, little brother? You think too much. By the time you're done thinking on this, your chance is gonna be gone."
Daryl shifted on his feet, torn between his own temper and Merle's. Finally he shrugged and nodded. He would follow. The math worked out the same every time.
"How did you know I was there?" Daryl asked as he fell in step beside his brother.
"You mean besides the fact that I could smell you a mile away?" Merle laughed at his own joke. "You didn't start creeping until you got to the trees. I heard you running from the house to catch up."
"Hey, don't take it so bad. I was listening for you. Daddy sleeping?"
"Guess so." Daryl started chewing on his thumb nail.
"Come on. I got a spot I can show you."
Merle was unusually quiet as they walked deeper into the woods. Daryl had to move at a quick pace to keep up with his brother's long stride. There were 9 years between them. Merle was double his age. A man, really. As big as one, anyway. Bigger than their Daddy, finally.
"You hear that brook?" Merle asked. "Keep the brook to your right."
Eventually they came to a small clearing. Merle picked some berries and popped them in his mouth.
"This your spot?" Daryl asked.
"I'll share it with you." Merle said, leaning against a tree. "Good for climbing." He said, giving the trunk a little pat as he glanced upward.
Daryl felt disappointed. This clearing didn't look like anything special. He suspected Merle was making it up as he went.
Merle rolled his eyes. "I got some snares we can check." He offered. Daryl brightened at that.
Merle held his arm out to him and Daryl hesitated for a brief moment, worried about being trapped in a head lock. But Merle simply hung his arm loosely over Daryl's shoulder, leading him toward his little trap line.
It hadn't been too long after that day that Merle was gone for good.
"You'll do alright." Merle had said. "Stay tough." He had been out the door before Daryl had had the courage to summon his own words.
"Don't go." He'd wanted to say. "Don't leave me." Nothing more worthless than unspoken words.
And he hadn't really believed it, that Merle had left for good. Merle always came back. He'd always been the most constant force in his life, in spite of the absences.
Daryl hadn't been running away, that time he'd been lost. He'd gone looking for Merle. It had struck him that the reason Merle had showed him his special place had been so Daryl would know where to go find him. He still felt the heat of embarrassment at how foolish he'd been, imagining that Merle had been out in the woods waiting for him. That they could both run off together. So Daryl hadn't wasted another moment. With just the clothes on his back he'd run to the woods, trying to remember how to locate the clearing Merle had showed him. By the time he'd remembered about the brook, he'd been completely turned around. He'd shouted himself hoarse, calling for Merle, but Merle hadn't been there. And no one else was coming.
It was the loneliest feeling in the world, being out there on your own and knowing no one was looking for you.
It was that thought that forced his eyes open once more. Beth lay next to him, her gasping breaths sounding like sobbing. But she wasn't crying. They hadn't stopped since leaving the prison. They had no protection in this clearing. They had to keep going. His body protested each breath he took.
"Where are we going?" Beth asked.
"I don't know where we are." Daryl admitted. But he wouldn't panic about that. He wasn't a little kid anymore. He knew how to figure it out. He had to stay calm and look for clues. He looked at the sky. Sunset would be helpful. Stars, even better. Beth was looking to him to keep her safe, and more then that, she needed to find her sister.
Realizing Beth was still waiting for some sort of plan, Daryl forced himself into a sitting position. She watched his movements, but remained in the grass.
"I didn't do my job." She whispered, her voice shaky. "Those kids. I should have stayed. I should have kept looking."
"Are you sure they didn't make it to the bus?" Daryl asked.
"I don't know. Maybe. It's possible." Beth shook her head.
"We'll find the rail tracks and then we'll find whoever is left." Daryl said.
Beth nodded. Seeming to find some strength, she sat up at last.
"I'm sorry about your Dad." Daryl felt awkward bringing it up, but didn't want to leave it unsaid. He'd liked Hershel.
"Thanks." Beth said. Daryl couldn't decide if he was more disturbed by her lack of emotion or relieved by it. The sooner he was able to reunite her with her sister, the better. Anyone would be better equipped than him at comforting young girls.
"Daryl, I didn't see Carol on the bus."
"I know." Daryl said. "I'll find her." It didn't matter who else he found along the way. There was only one person he was looking for.