Even from a young age he had always been a realist. It had always been about running the numbers and knowing the probabilities. It was about planning and playing out the scenarios again and again in his mind, just to be able see the exact moment where victory turned into defeat, or a sure loss became a stunning triumph.
But for the first time his life, all he could see were defeats in the place of victory, missed chances, and numbers that ran so deeply into the red that in the backdrop of his mind they came out crimson.
So far he’d been lucky, they’d been lucky. For the most part they had managed to stay even, stay neutral, riding the razor edge line that separates victory from defeat as if it were a luxury limousine from east Hollywood.
But as every con man, strategist, and mathematician knows, the numbers…the luck.. always runs out.
And after the CDC…after losing Jim and Jacqui.. From what he could see.. Well, lets just say that all initial analysis of their situation weren’t coming out so hot..
Sighing deeply, he squirmed around atop the lumpy old sleeping bag he had claimed as his own, trying in vain to clear his mind and banish his thoughts. He needed to sleep. God did he need to sleep. He hadn’t caught more then four or five hours at a time for weeks now.
Because if it wasn’t some sort of encroaching disaster in camp, the well meant noise of those on watch, or the hustle and bustle of the chronic early risers, it was the nightmares.
Frowning into the silence, he stretched in place, letting his fingers slide down the wall above his head, trying to work out the kinks that had knotted up in his back and along his shoulders blades after almost two straight days cooped up in T-Dog’s van, Dale’s motor home, and even Daryl’s old, yet somehow extremely comfortable blue pickup truck. Come to think if it, despite being a bit of a tight squeeze, together with the crossbow and Daryl’s lanky, muscular frame in the narrow cab, the drive, for all its fear, frustration, and uncertainties, had been the most enjoyable of the lot.
He had even fallen asleep for a whole three hour stretch, his head cushioned against the cool pane of the window and the balled up blanket that smelled suspiciously like a cattle farm that the man had thrown at him as they had drove on through the night when the sound of his teeth chattering reached a pitch that finally broke the surly hunters patience.
Perhaps what was more surprising was that Daryl had actually let him.
As the thick truck treads had eaten up the miles, a quickly identifiable rhythm of engine power and the well accustomed competency of the man behind the wheel caught his attention. The man knew the machine. You could see it in the comfortable way the man sat, one arm lax and leaning up against the window, his other hand firm and sure against the worn, leather grooves of the steering wheel, something that was only emphasized in the way Daryl seemed to shift gears effortlessly despite the occasional snarl of rust and age.
Privately he had mourned for the loss of the cannibalized Dodge Challenger he had sped out of Atlanta in. Now that has been an awesome ride. Smooth, fast, and streamlined. And he had had to abandon her back at the Quarry when they left. It still didn’t seem right, not after the way the stick had fit in his palm like a glove, or the smooth way she shifted gears when he tapped the clutch, blowing past geeks and walkers alike, until they hit the highway and he had been able to hit the throttle and see what she could really do.
Besides, it would have been nice to have a car again. He had left his own back in the business core of Atlanta, probably still wrapped around the same telephone pole he had crashed it into when he had gotten swarmed, with ninety dollars worth of cheese, ham and pineapple, and meat lovers pizza’s left to moulder and rot inside their cardboard boxes in the backseat, probably staining the upholstery by now to boot.
‘Best not think of that.’ He thought idly. Besides, he was pretty sure his insurance didn’t cover the zombie apocalypse anyway.
Though he supposed that in itself was something to consider. With no more normal, modern society, came the advent of no more bills, no more debt, or even the soul breaking student loans he had been facing at the time.
The echoing crack of a log shifting in the fire pit outside startled him, and he shivered reflexively, watching the shadows of the flames dance and flicker across the length of the thin canvas.
The sun had set hours ago, leaving the natural mountain clearing where they had made camp, as deep into Chattahoochee Bend State Park as the vehicles could manage, shrouded in discomforting darkness.
Listening closely he was able to identify the sound of someone shifting logs in the fire pit closeby, with whoever it was uttering a small grunt of exertion before the sounds ceased and only the light crackling of the fire reached his ears once more.
He made himself relax, forcing his fingers to unclench from their grip around the handle of his bat, as he let out a long, calming breath, setting the bat aside, but keeping it close by for good measure.
Darkness meant a lot more these days then it used to. And none of it was good.
Finally admitting defeat he realized that he would have no more luck trying to sleep now then he would surviving unbitten in downtown Atlanta, stripped naked and bleeding like a stuck pig.
With a frustrated groan he retrieved his hat and he levered himself out of the stale smelling sleeping bag before jamming his feet into his sneakers and unzipping the tent door to see who was up so late.
After a long moment, when his eyes finally had a chance to adjust to the bright flame, they were able to confirm what he had already suspected. Daryl.
He was just sitting out there in the brisk midnight chill, wearing the same sweat soaked jeans and dirty, brown striped wife beater that he had been wearing the day they had all escaped from the CDC.
And for a moment he had to wonder if the man owned any shirts that still had sleeves? Because if he didn’t he might want to rethink that fashion choice come winter. It was already starting to get cold at night.
Not that he looked any better mind you. Other then his hat he didn’t think he was wearing one piece of his original clothing, with most of what he had managed to pack from his apartment at the beginning of this whole mess, having been sacrificed to cloth some of the others in the first few days, or trashed entirely, too encrusted with blood and filth to be deemed salvageable.
The lean hunter was the only one sitting at the main fire pit, everyone else either sleeping, pretending, or putting their insomnia to good use by trudging around the perimeter of the camp on watch. But despite the abundance of space, he sat down beside him, ignoring the raised eyebrow his action got him. And he was secretly gratified that despite the fact that Daryl gave him nothing more then a noncommittal grunt in welcome, the man himself made no act to move, apparently content for the moment to let him encroach upon his personal space.
The older man should have smelled rank. Hell, they probably all did by now, as it had been nearly three days since the glorious, heated running water at the CDC. But yet, even as he covertly breathed in the air around him, all he could smell was wood smoke, burnt squirrel, and that somewhat unique, musky masculine scent that alludes back to a more natural way of things.
Something normal, familiar, yet wild as well.
And he realized as he let his sneaker tip fiddle with a patch of moss in front of him, the acrid green color of it seeming almost surreal in comparison to the looming tower of campfire stones and kindling situated around it, that it wasn’t at all unpleasant either.
There was something about it, something genuine, real, and even honest.. Something that in spite of everything, everything they had gone through, everything they had seen and done, and were now facing, that set him at ease.
But even as he tried to identify it, to classify it and catalogue it away, he realized that perhaps what he was really doing, was trying to describe Daryl.
Shifting uncomfortably, he abandoned the moss and instead turned his attention back to the fire.
He hadn’t noticed before, too caught up in his own thoughts to pay much attention to anything else, but Daryl was actually frying strips of squirrel meat across a few of the flat stones that had been strategically placed in the embers.
The discovery immediately set his mouth watering.
“I thought we were out of squirrel?” He asked curiously, feeling that if they were both up together there was no sense in sitting around the campfire, muttering grunts and monosyllables like Neanderthals.
“We were.” He man replied, fingers nimbly plucking a small, sizzling chunk from off from the tip of his buck knife.
He couldn’t help himself as his eyes tracked the course of the morsel as it cooled momentarily in the man’s well calloused palm before going airborne, and passing neatly through his lips, the juices glistening momentarily there before his licked them clean. A low hum of approval thrumming from his throat as his wiped his mouth with the back of his hand before speaking.
“Stupid little fucker got too close when I went to take a piss.” He finished, gesturing clearly towards the crossbow sitting cocked and ready at his side, even as his fingers inched back towards the ember strewn pit, the pop and sizzle of cooking meat favouring the air with an aroma that somehow seemed more delicious then the smell of T-Dog’s powered egg surprise that morning in the CDC.
Then again, he had been pretty hung over..
In the end, that was what did it. He was hungry goddamn it. Dinner had been so sparse it hadn’t even been worthy of the name. A micro snack maybe, but dinner? No way bucko. Food was a scarce as gas at the moment, and all Daryl and the others had been able to round up before night fall was handful edible greens, four squirrels, and a box of musty Ritz crackers that Carl had found wedged underneath a seat in T-Dogs van. So between eleven people, six of which were grown men, ‘dinner’ had barely been enough to take the edge off.
And unbidden, his stomach growled, insistent and embarrassingly loud in the stillness.
The older man’s hand paused halfway to his lips, fingers pinched firm around another generous chunk of the slightly stringy meat. And after a beat, Daryl turned to glance at him.
He stared back. Unable to help it when his stomach gave another, expectant rumble as the piece of meat hovered for a moment in mid air as the man glanced from him, to the frying meat still cooking in the fire in front of him.
“You want in on this?” He finally asked, voice pitched low, and rough, as a knowing look quickly overtook his stoic expression.
And as he dug in eagerly, burning his finger tips on the hot stones and sizzling meat, he could have sworn that a hint of a smile was playing along the corners of the man’s lightly chapped lips.
Between the two of them, they polished off the squirrel in record time, both silent save for the occasional burp, or soft sound of satisfaction.
“Too bad he didn’t have a friend.” He remarked after, happily licking his fingers with a flourish before mirroring Daryl as he wiped his mouth across the back of his hand again, feeling slightly more upbeat with some food in his stomach.
Reflexively the man beside him nodded, the motion so small, that he nearly thought he had imagined at. But he took it for agreement as he watched him flip the flat stones he had used to cook on so they were pointed directly into the flame, burning off any residue of the cooked meat that might attract geeks or animals later.
“If we end up stayin’ for a’while, I can get more of them easy. Big game even. If conditions are right, the hunting should be pretty good here. This place is a state wildlife reserve, so the game here hasn’t been thinned much by any hunters.” Daryl said, shocking him with the longest spell of words that he had heard from the man in one place in over a day, as he sorted through a mess of kindling on the other side of the fire.
Mouth threatening to water already at the mere thought of something as large as venison, he swallowed thickly before he made to reply.
“I don’t know if I even remember what being full feels like.” He remarked thoughtfully, his comment earning him a quick snort from the hunter, as he returned from the wood pile with a few choice sticks that he added to the blaze before retaking his seat beside him.
“I hear that.” The older man replied, leaning forward to adjust kindling in the fire, mindful about letting the blaze grow too high. There were no geeks up here yet, and everyone wanted to keep it that way.
And as the hunter shifted, his thin shirt riding up just the slightest of bits, showing off a lean, lightly tanned torso, and the hint of a few, half shadowed tattoos, his gaze was immediately drawn to his left jean pocket, as something reflected bright, and metallic in the banked fire light.
“What’s that?” He asked immediately, leaning in closer for a better look, disregarding common sense entirely as his curiosity got the better of him.
“One of those new music players.” Daryl grunted back, glaring a bit at the top of his head, looking slightly wary at the sudden encroachment of his personal space.
Easing back quickly, he flashed a small smile, hoping he hadn’t effectively put an end to the evening, before he pushed the conversation foreward.
“Where did you get that?” He asked curiously. He had a quick eye for details and could not remember having seen it on the man before.
“That CDC place.” Daryl returned, nodding slightly as he reached into his pocket and pulled the Ipoc out. “Whoever was living in the room before me left all their shit behind.” He said.
“‘Aint like anyone was left to use it anyway.” The older man continued, as if in answer to his unvoiced question, his eyes dark and challenging as he looked up from the screen.
For a long moment he didn’t know how to reply, and instead, his gaze got stuck on the way the man’s large fingers, a few of them slightly crooked around the second knuckles, as if they had been previously broken, looked almost ridiculously large in comparison to the small delicate touch pad.
“Anything good on it?” He asked tentatively, reaching out in silent question.
“Mostly chick music. Some damn instrumental shit or somemat’.” Daryl muttered, as if by way of warning, as he handed it over,
“Then why did you keep it?” He asked, taking in the way the hunter shifted an infinitesimal inch closer, eyes locked on the brightly lit screen, intently watching the movement of his thumb as he clicked the wheel around and around, skimming through the photo section that it had been stuck on, trying not to look too hard at the flashes of wide smiles, and happy grins as the faces of a couple skipped across the screen like micro film until he reached the main menu.
“Not like I had a lot of time to debate the matter. Did I?” Daryl replied distractedly, eyes squinting into the darkness ahead, looking up over the top of both Rick and Carol’s tents and down into the long grass behind them, the muscles in his cheeks pulling taunt for a brief moment as he listened intently.
Mirroring his look, he stared out the same direction, feeling slightly foolish when he realized that he couldn’t hear a damn thing over the low roar of the fire. But apparently Daryl could. So he waited until the man turned back to the fire before returning back to his original train of thought.
‘Well you certainly had enough time to see it was a chicks.’ He thought with a grin, experimentally palming the player as he unwrapped the cord from around the base. That fact was a bit all too obvious in the fake rhinestone pattern that had been painstakingly glued on around the edges.
He smelled a rat there but decided that this time, the man deserved an out. He had shared his squirrel after all. In fact, it had been solely to Daryl’s credit that they had meat for dinner at all that evening. He was the one that had caught them after all.
Come to think if it, as much as he secretly hated to admit it, for all his foraging skills in the cities, it was Daryl, hell, even Merle that had kept them from flat out starving, especially in the beginning, and even more so now.
And not for the first time, he let himself wonder, just what Daryl was still doing here. It wasn’t like he needed them, if anything; they were the ones that needed Daryl.
The ‘glass half full’ part of him wonder optimistically if the man stayed for the companionship, not that he was making any massive inroads to extreme popularity mind you, but maybe for the time being, he simply content to be in the company of…well, people that were not dead. Meanwhile, the pessimist side in him couldn’t help but wonder if the man was only sticking around to help deal out some sort of Gotham City like vengeance on them once he found Merle.
Though that being said, more and more now, he was beginning to think that in spite of everything, the first option was probably the more likely one. As for or all his faults, and rather shady views regarding issues of morality, Daryl had never once, since he had known him, be anything other then honest, whether that was in word or deed. He was a fierce, loyal, and independent fighter that lived life exactly the way he chose to. And he wanted to survive; he wanted it in a way that seemed to surpass everyone and everything around him. With everyone else’s day to day drive just to…live seeming to burn out in comparison.
Daryl was the kind of man that would fight, kick, claw, scratch, and bite his way out of hell if he felt he had been unjustly put there.
Shaking his head inwardly, he turned his cap around so that the brim was skimming the back of his neck, giving him a less obstructed view of his current interest.
After a few exploratory whirls through the main playlist, he was inclined to agree with the man, it was made up of mostly chick music. Despite a small sampling of R&B and some soft rock thrown in here and there, the Ipod seemed to be depressingly comprised of mostly Josh Groban, Sarah Mclachlan, a bunch of Boy bands he had never heard of, and practically every song Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift had ever warbled out of a microphone throughout the span of both their short, but rather prolific careers.
Pausing on the country genre he snuck a sideways look at his companion, unable to help himself as he smiled snarkly.
“And here I thought you’d like the country.” He quipped, chuffing a laugh as Daryl shot him a withering ‘eat shit and die’ expression, before shoving his hands in his dirty jean pockets, taking the well meant barb with surprising levity and suppressed humour.
They sat in companionable silence for a time, with Daryl’s gaze returning to watching the fire and the distance perimeter as he continued to play around with the Ipod, both pausing to look when a soft little peep of a cry echoed suddenly from Carol’s tent.
‘Sophia.. Must be another bad dream..’ He thought sadly, as he heard Carol’s comforting whispers quickly follow the noise, gently shushing her daughter back to sleep as she softly began to sing, trying to sooth Sophia’s frightened whimpers with soft lullaby.
Out of the corner of his eye, he noted without surprise the moment that Daryl’s fingers slowly began to ease off the frame of his crossbow, eyes focused, and body tensed, as if he had been making ready to defend camp and go to their aid if necessary.
Again, he wasn’t really surprised. As despite looking out primarily for his own skin, like virtually everyone else, he never hesitated to enter into a fight or situation where he was needed. Take the fight with the geeks back at the Quarry campsite for instance.
A few moments after the sounds from Carol’s tent ceased, he was suddenly struck by an idea.
“Unless…” He trailed off, unconsciously speaking aloud as he bent back over the Ipod and began searching in earnest. Fingers busy on the buttons and touch wheel as he put his theory to the test.
“What?” Daryl replied, looking back from his staring contest with the tent, and giving him an appraising eye.
“Hold on, let me check something, there might be a…” He trailed off again, distracted as his eyes tried to keep with the speed of the text as it whirled down the screen.
“Might be a what kid?” Making no effort to hide the clearly unamused frustration that was steadily entering his tone,
And just in time, he found exactly what he was looking for.
“Ah-ha! Thought so.” He exclaimed triumphantly. “Take a look.” He continued, shoving the Ipod almost underneath the older mans nose in his excitement.
Grabbing the device back the man skimmed through the music that was rotating cheerily on the screen, cocking his head back at him and giving him a look after a moment, clearly demanding an explanation.
Feeling bold, he plucked the Ipod easily from the mans larger grip, and positioned it between them so they could both see as his fingers skimmed the wheel and brought them back to the opening screen.
“Well I just realized that we were only looking at the main playlist.” He clarified. Suddenly uncertain of just how accustom Daryl was with the technology.
“‘Yah, and?” Daryl prompted, arching an eyebrow at him speculatively.
“Well, a lot of times people have multiple playlists. You know like, a playlist for Christmas music, or books on tape or something. Anyway, it can be music that doesn’t show up on the main playlist.” He replied, pushing a few buttons to take them back to the newly discovered list, auspiciously dubbed: “Kevin’s mix” on the screen.
“I’d bet you dollars to donuts that she put that playlist on for her boyfriend or something. Couples do that all the time.” He said with a reflexive gesture at the screen, swallowing thickly at the sudden lump in his throat, as he feigned thirst and took a swig of water from one of the jugs at their feet.
He was sure the man had noticed. But to his credit Daryl said nothing, letting him take another sip to recollect his thoughts before motioning him to continue.
Coughing a little, as he swallowed too quickly, he bent down over the device again, wishing he could somehow, unsuspicious pull his cap back around to cover his embarrassed flush. What a pipe dream that was..
Quickly working the wheel he directed Daryl’s gaze back to the device.
“See, look at this: “The Ramones,” “ACDC,” “Johnny Cash,” “Coldplay,” “The Clash,” “Bon Jovi,” “Breaking Benjamin..” He began, letting his thumb whirl around and around so the hunter could see just how many different artists were on there.
“Now that’s more like it.” The hunter returned, reclaiming the player and sticking in one of the ear buds as the signature sound of Johnny Cash strumming the guitar twanged out audibly from the close distance. It was ‘When the man comes around.’
‘How morbidly appropriate.’ He thought with a shiver, and apparently after a few long moments, Daryl seemed to think so too, because he clicked back to the new menu halfway through the first chorus, flipping idly through the albums until he stopped on The Ramones hit, “The Poison heart” and pressed play.
He was only half paying attention to the barely audible strains of the beginning drum solo, more engrossed in watching the play of the shadows from the fire as they flickered and flared across the hunters face.
He found himself fascinated for reasons beyond him, at the sight of the man doing something so…normal. Something other then catching squirrels, cross bowing walkers, or even swinging two axes at a time and decapitating geeks left right and center.
Actually he was so engrossed in his perusal that for a long, awkward moment he didn’t even realize that the man was holding up the other ear bud, clearly offering it to him so they could share. And, despite the fact that he absolutely loathed everything The Ramones had ever put out, he found himself eagerly accepting, feeling strangely pleased with the approving nod his acceptance gained him.
He nearly brained himself as he shoved the earphone in. Smooth. But by then Daryl was ignoring him again, fiddling with the volume on the dial before he unclipped his boot knife and began sharpening it on a small block of flint.
And as the music played on, he watched in fascination as the man painstakingly, and quite meticulously inspected each, and every one of his knives and arrow tips. Entering into something of stupor as the minutes passed, unconsciously soothed by the unique growl of flint rasping against steel, and the sound of music that he hadn’t heard since the world had ended echoing loudly in his ear.
It was only when he began to slump sideways, and into the older man that Daryl stirred, and spoke again.
“Get some sleep kid. You look like you need it.” He said simply, voice again taking on that same gravely, rough quality as before, with the hints of a southern drawl skirting the edges of his tone, as he rubbed at one eye tiredly, stopping the music and clicking the lock in place to save power.
“And you don’t” He shot back quickly, gratified once again to see a slight smile threatening to curl in the corners of his companions lips. Though he ended up ruining his comeback anyway as a jaw cracking yawn took him by surprise.
“It’s about five hours from dawn. I got time.” Daryl replied simply, before shifting in place and eying him down. “Go on, git.” The man urged, flicking a few fingers in his general direction before breaking their gaze and looking back at the fire.
Inwardly he had to agree with the man, as despite his initial protesting, he really was exhausted. Before this whole…thing..he had been streamlining and happy, living off ten plus hours of sleep per day, and raking in minimum wage, plus tips at the pizzeria after taking a semester long breather off university just for the head space. Now he was lucky if he got more then three hours at a time, and wasn’t hungry enough to eat a whole deer by himself.
Still, he hesitated, looking from the tent over his shoulder, to the fire, and then back again, shrugging noncommittally at Daryl as he tugged off his cap, tiredly running a dirty hand through his messy, jet black hair.
Sleep hadn’t come when he had been lying alone in his tent hours before. In fact the already small space had grown tight and claustrophobic with the weight of his fears and shattered hopes. With the only thing surrounding him that was familiar was the knapsack he had managed to stuff full to bursting with clothes, food, and toiletries from his apartment after somehow escaping from the wreckage car. He hadn’t even taken a moment to lock the door properly before he left his flat behind, hightailing it in a panic back out the door and atop of his sixteen speed, taking a series of detours he knew down the back alleys that would take him out of the downtown core.
That packsack should have been piled with memories, keepsakes, and photos, like the others had. He supposed he couldn’t be blamed for it, after all, he doubted if anyone had realized the full scope of the situation at that time either. Not to mention that as he was throwing the merger contents of his cupboards into the backpack, he had been forced to listen to the growing chorus of horrified screams and pained cries, as the growling, shuffle of the undead crowd grew, and those screams and moans started to echo down his own hallway.
He hadn’t had anymore time. He had had to run.
But still, it burned him to be reminded that all he had left of his family was the worn, outdated photo of his mother, father, and older brother that resided in the left flap of his wallet.
He didn’t really know what he wanted..what he needed. But he knew he wouldn’t find it back in his tent.
But apparently Daryl did. Because after a long moment, wherein the man caught his gaze and stared him down like a matador does an uncertain bull, the older man let loose a small, half annoyed sigh and moved to reach behind him.
After a few long beats, from the mound of gear at his back, he pulled out the same pungently smelling blanket he had thrown at him almost a day earlier while driving together in the hunter’s truck.
And as his eyes fluttered shut, the last sight he remembered seeing before sleep claimed him was of Daryl, still sitting close beside him as he leaned back against a mouldering tree stump, the smelly blanket tucked up to his chin, as the profile of the hunter at his side comforted him in a way he hadn’t felt since the walkers had first torn their brutal, bloody way into his life.
And for the first time in over a month, his sleep was wholesome and nightmare free. And he dreamt instead, of the soothing roar of flames, a full stomach, and the rough, pleasantly masculine laugh of a man wreathed in shadows.