“Hey, are you gonna get up and help me with your kid at all this morning? Rick and Billie will be here in like ten minutes for Judith’s birthday, I’d kinda like you to be dressed and smelling half-decent so they don’t think I’ve shacked up with a hobo.”
“M’tried,” Daryl grunted, rolling over in the bed and keeping his eyes closed. “Sleepin’,” he mumbled. Nicole frowned, looking at her seven month old son in her arms and sighing as he leaning forward, dumping him on her boyfriend’s stomach. “What the fuck, Nicole?”
“I told you I need your help,” she called over her shoulder as she walked out of the bedroom. “I’m getting breakfast ready and seeing as you did nothing at all while I was at work yesterday, the least you could do is watch him while I make brunch for everyone.”
“Fuckin’ women,” Daryl grumbled under his breath, as he shuffled upwards in the bed, grabbing hold of Noah to stop him slipping off. “Stay on your own, kid. Other people are too much hassle,” he huffed. Noah gurgled in response, his wide, toothless grin making Daryl smile. He slipped out of bed, quickly pulling yesterday’s jeans on before grabbing Noah and taking him downstairs to the kitchen, where Nicole was busy mixing something that looked like pancake. She looked up at him as he opened the fridge and sighed at his appearance.
“They’re outside, Daryl, their car just pulled up. I’d appreciate it if you put a shirt on or someth- why are you drinking beer?” she raised an eyebrow, eyeing Noah in his arms and watching as Daryl took a swig from the can. “You’re going to drop him,” she told him.
“I know how to hold my kid, Cole,” Daryl frowned, his grip tightening on Noah a little more. “And I feel like a beer. That okay with you?”
“It’s 11am, Daryl.”
“Exactly,” Daryl pointed a finger at her. “Too fuckin’ early for your buddies to be droppin’ by.”
“Our buddies,” Nicole corrected, pulling a face at her boyfriend. “And they’re not dropping by, we’ve had this planned for weeks, I told you. It’s Judith’s sixth birthday and I invited them round here. You know her birthday is important to them.”
“Course it is,” Daryl smirked. “’Coz she ain’t their kid and they make a fuss of it so Billie doesn’t feel like shit for gettin’ her killed.”
“Now you listen to me, Daryl Dixon!” Nicole snapped, whirling round to face him and pointing her mixing spoon at him, batter flying off the end of it and hitting Daryl’s bare chest. “I won’t have you speaking like that around them, got it? She Rick’s daughter and Billie loved her, they kept her safe and they literally killed for her. They loved her just as much as they love Maisie so keep your mouth shut or I will end you. Do you understand?” she narrowed her eyes at him and Daryl snickered, putting his beer down on the kitchen counter and strapping Noah into his highchair. “I’m serious, Daryl! You know they make a fuss of today for Carl, too. They want him to know it as the day his sister was born, not the day his mother died.”
“Yeah, I know, I got it,” Daryl grinned, wiping the pancake batter of him. “I love it when you throw food at me. Gets me all hot and bothered.”
“Don’t be such a creep,” Nicole smiled fondly as she turned her back him, sighing when Daryl’s arms wound round her waist and he kissed her cheek. “Hurry up though, I’m hungry,” he whispered, rolling his eyes when he heard the front door open. “You forgot to lock it again, Cole. One day we’re gonna get those damn walkers back and they’ll be able to come strollin’ right on in here.”
“Daryl, please. You know that’s not going to happen,” Nicole turned her back to him and carried on mixing the pancake batter. “So long as people keep going to their monthly check-ups, things will be fine. We have the cure, now. And besides,” she turned her head to smile at him and gestured for him to move closer to her, kissing his cheek when he did. “We’ve got you to protect us.”
“Yeah, yeah…” Daryl huffed at her and she giggled when she saw the familiar blush creep on to his cheeks. Even after five years of knowing she was in love with him, he still wasn’t used to it. He didn’t think he ever would be.
Daryl grunted as a pink blur with pigtails flung themselves at him and wrapped their arms around his legs.
“You gotta stop calling me that,” he chuckled, ruffling Maisie’s hair as she looked up at him, her eyes wide and her cheeks rosy as she grinned.
“You’re not dressed. Daddy said you wouldn’t be dressed. Can we eat now?”
“Maisie,” Carl scolded his younger sister as he walked into the house. “Dad told you not to ask that, it’s rude. Just wait.”
“But I’m hungry! And Momma said if you don’t ask, you don’t get!” Maisie argued, putting her hands on her hips and sticking her tongue out at him.
“Yeah, well,” Daryl grinned, watching as Billie stepped inside, quickly followed by Rick. “Your Momma has a habit of takin’ stuff that don’t belong to her. Just ask your Daddy.”
“Daryl!” Nicole shrieked, her eyes narrowing as Carl stifled his laughter.
“Nice to see you too, Dixon,” Billie smiled at him, kissing his cheek. “No Andrea this year?”
“You hate Andrea,” Daryl commented, clapping Rick on the shoulder as he walked past him.
“I know,” Billie shrugged her shoulders. “But it’s polite to ask.”
“Last time we heard from Andrea,” Nicole started, blowing a piece of hair out of her eyes. “She was on a road trip with some guy named Earl. They’d just gotten matching tattoos,” she smirked. “The others were going to come but Beth got called into work at the hospital, Maggie and Glenn can’t make it because baby Joseph is a little poorly and Carol said Hershel doesn’t feel up to leaving the house just yet, he’s still getting over the flu. So, it’s just us this year. They send their apologies and said they’re thinking of you and they’ll raise a glass to Judith and Lori. Daryl will you please put a shirt on.”
“They don’t give a shit what I’m wearin’, Cole.”
“You said a bad word!” Maisie pointed an accusing finger at him and Nicole turned to raise her eyebrows at him.
“I’m goin’, I’m goin’…” Daryl trailed off, ruffling Maisie’s hair as he walked out of the room. “There’s beer in the fridge, man,” he told Rick. “Or are you drivin’ again?”
“Nah, I can have a beer,” Rick shrugged his shoulders and glanced at Billie, making Daryl laugh as he made his way upstairs. He pushed open the door to his and Nicole’s bedroom, grabbing a black t-shirt off the floor and sniffing it to see if it was clean.
He didn’t really care.
He wasn’t putting on any airs and graces for Rick and Billie – they’d seen him at his worst and he’d seen them at theirs. But now that things were better, now that some sort of order had been restored in the world, everyone had to dress and act all proper and act like they didn’t remember the shit they’d had to do to survive.
But Daryl remembered.
He remembered putting bullets in walkers’ brains. He remembered being more than willing to kill the Governor and his crew. He remember the dozens of times he’d been ready to turn his back on the groups and leave them behind.
…He remembered having to kill his big brother.
No one gave a shit about Merle, they never had, but here they were five years after the world had stopped ending and they were celebrating a dead kid’s birthday.
It was fucked up.
He didn’t mind, thought. Not really.
He’d loved Judith. Wanted to keep her safe just as much as everyone else did, he’d been just as heartbroken as the others when she’d died – but he had to take care of Nicole. She’d been a mess – Billie had been shot, Judith was dead and everyone thought Billie would die, too. He’d had to take care of her.
People had needed him, then.
The world had gone to shit and suddenly, people needed him. He was useful. They needed his help.
He’d never experienced that, before.
He was Daryl Dixon, Merle’s kid brother. No one gave a shit about him or what he could do. Sure, he didn’t have a proper education, he never held down a job. But he had skills – he could hunt, he could track. He’d been more than useful.
And then the cure happened, and he went from being needed – wanted – back to the bottom of the pile. People looked at him like he was shit. He stayed at home looking after his kid while his girlfriend went out to work and earned a living.
Rick, Billie, hell even Carl had a job.
No one needed him anymore.
He groaned when he heard Maisie call upstairs to him. Dixie. If Merle was still around, he’d never hear the end of that nickname. Then again, Maisie would probably have called Merle ‘Dixie’, too. Providing Billie had even let him around Maisie – which she probably wouldn’t have done. He wasn’t even 100% sure Nicole would have let him around Noah.
Merle would be ashamed of his little brother if he could see how he’d ended up – his woman going out to work while he took care of the baby.
That’s not what a man did.
“Comin’, kid,” he grumbled, pulling the t-shirt over his head and making his way back downstairs, frowning when he saw everyone sat round the table.
Nicole was plating up pancakes and bacon, Billie had lifted Noah out of his high chair and was pulling funny faces at him, Carl was already helping himself to the food and Maisie, ever the Daddy’s girl, was sat in Rick’s lap as she picked at the strawberries in front of her. He leant against the door frame, a small, sad smile on his face and his arms crossed over his chest as he watched them all laughing, talking, smiling.
They looked so… together. Nicole and Noah fit in so perfectly with them. They looked like a family.
Daryl could be lifted right out of the scene and it wouldn’t matter.
In fact, it would probably look better without him. He was the odd one out. No one would miss him if he wasn’t around, they didn’t need him. Not like they used to.
“We’re waiting for you before we start,” Nicole smiled at him as she took a seat between Rick and Billie, eyeing Carl in amusement. “Well, we were supposed to be butt apparently Carl was hungry.”
“I’m not even sorry,” Carl mumbled, his mouth full of food.
“Don’t speak with your mouth full, it’s rude,” Billie raised an eyebrow at him.
“He’s 19, Bill, let the kid do what he wants,” Daryl mumbled, pulling out the seat next to her and reaching over to grab a handful of bacon. “You ain’t his mother.”
“Yes I’m well aware of that fact thank you Daryl,” Billie told him, her lips pursed as she broke a piece of her pancake off and handed it to Noah. “But I tell you not to eat with your mouth full too, don’t I?”
“She’s a point, she does do that a lot,” Rick chuckled, his lips turning up in a smile as he looked at his wife.
“So,” Carl coughed, swallowing the food in his mouth. “This time six years ago we thought the world had ended. And it had, I guess. You guys were my family back then and you’re still my family now, I’m so thankful we’ve all made it and I’m so happy to have Maisie here, too. But we lost a lot of people along the way and… Six years ago today, my Mom died and my baby sister was born. Wherever they are right now, I know they’re together. So…” he paused, holding his glass of water. “To Mom, and to Judith. Wherever you are, we’ll see you again one day.”
“Hey,” Nicole shuffled up on the sofa, nudging Daryl in the side. “You okay? Do you want anything else to eat? Billie and Rick offered to clean up for me, that was nice of them, right?”
“Huh,” Daryl huffed, tipping his bottle of beer back and draining the last few drops from it. He’d had enough, he knew he’d had enough. But he wanted more. It stopped his mind from spinning, stopped him from feeling. “Get me another one.”
“Daryl…” Nicole sighed. “I think you’ve had enough, okay? It’s 2 in the afternoon, it’s a nice day. I was thinking maybe we could take Noah out to the park and spend the rest of the day together?”
“We spend every damn day together, Nicole,” he rolled his eyes at her. “I don’t wanna go anywhere. I wanna sit on my ass and drink my beer, okay?” he told her, standing up and trying to keep his balance as he walked into the kitchen, Nicole following close behind.
“I just want a damn beer!” he growled, pulling the fridge open and popping the lid of his bottle. “Get off my back, woman!”
“Daryl, we have company,” Nicole whispered, her cheeks turning pink as Carl, Rick and Billie went silent.
“You know what, Cole?” Daryl narrowed his eyes. “I don’t give a flyin’ fuck who we got here, I didn’t ask them to come, they’re only here to stop Billie thinkin’ about how she got the baby shot!”
“Hey, now, that’s enough,” Rick frowned, putting the dish towel down on the counter and taking a step forward. “I think you’ve had enough, Daryl. I know you don’t mean that.”
“Don’t tell me what I mean,” Daryl snapped. “You come round here actin’ all high an’ mighty like you’re better than me and you’re not. Least I’m faithful to my girl. You were bangin’ Billie before Lori’s body was even cold in the ground, you were screwin’ her before your wife was even dead. I bet her dyin’ was the best thing that happened to you!”
“Now you wait a minute Dixon, you don’t know anything about-”
“Just once, Daryl, just once,” Nicole interrupted Rick, tears in her eyes and she lifted Noah out of his highchair. “I’d like to have people round without you getting drunk and ruining everything! Billie, can Noah and I stay with you tonight?”
“I- of course you can, yes,” Billie nodded her head, glancing at Daryl out of the corner of her eye.
“Thank you, I’ll go get some of our things and we’ll be right down,” she looked away, her voice hoarse as she left the room. Daryl grunted in reply and took a sip of his beer as he sat at the tablee. Billie frowned, clasping her hands in front of her and letting her gaze drift over to her stepson.
“Carl, can you take your sister into the sitting room, please?” she smiled. “We’ll be in in a few minutes. Rick, do you mind going to check on Nicole?”
“Uh,” Rick paused as Carl ushered Maisie out of the kitchen. “Do you mind if I ask why you’re staying down here and I have to go check on your friend who’s more than likely crying? I don’t deal well with crying women, you know that.”
“Dude you’re so fuckin’ whipped it’s unreal,” Daryl scoffed and Rick narrowed his eyes at him.
“There’s a difference between being ‘whipped’ and treating the woman I love with a bit of respect, Daryl,” he commented. “It’s something you’d do well to remember, maybe that way no one would need to go and check on the mother of your son.”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Daryl slammed his bottle down on the table and pointed a finger in Rick’s face. “Don’t tell me how to treat my woman.”
“Rick, please. Please just go get Noah, tell Nicole we’ll have him for the night to give them some time alone,” Billie put a hand on his shoulder and he sighed, rolling his eyes and nodding before he followed Nicole upstairs. “Daryl, put the bottle down. We need to have a chat.”
“I don’t need a chat with you, Billie. I need you all to leave me the fuck alone,” he grumbled. Billie sighed, reaching in front of him and lifting his beer away from him before she poured it down the sink. “What the fuck, Billie?!” he snapped, turning round and freezing when he saw the scar on her left shoulders. He sighed, rubbing his eyes and walking over to her, his finger running over the scar lightly. “M’sorry,” he mumbled.
He could remember the second it happened.
He’d told Nicole to run, to get Carl and Billie and to go. Billie wouldn’t leave without Judith and she’d picked her up, holding her close to her.
It was one shot, one stray bullet fired by one of the dicks from Woodbury. It hadn’t even been meant to Billie – but it had hit the back of her shoulder and gone right through to Judith’s head, killing her.
Billie was distraught but Daryl didn’t have time to think – Nicole wasn’t leaving without her friend and Rick was a mess, he was killing everyone who stood between him and his family.
They hadn’t known if Billie would make it but, thanks to Carol, she had.
But Judith’s death had hit them all hard, and he felt bad for bringing it up.
“It’s okay,” Billie whispered. “Sometimes I still blame myself, too. It’s comforting to know it’s not just me.”
“No one blames you, Billie. You gotta stop thinkin’ like that.”
“Do you love Nicole, Daryl?” Billie asked curiously, turning to look at him.
“I-” he stuttered. “Course I do, she’s the mother of my kid. Course I love her.”
“So you don’t want to lose her?” Billie asked, and he shook his head. “So why don’t you treat her better, Daryl? Why don’t you talk to her every once in a while about what’s going on in that empty shell you like to call a head? Because she’s not gonna take much more of this, D. She’s gonna take Noah and she’s gonna leave. She loves you, so much. You saved her and you’re the love of her life but there’s only so much a woman can take, so here’s what we’re gonna do. Tonight, Rick and I are going to take Noah back to our place, he can stay with us and we’ll bring him back tomorrow night. You guys need to talk.”
“She’s mad at you, I know,” Billie nodded. “But she’ll listen if you talk. Carl! We’re leaving!”
“Hey, Billie,” Daryl grabbed her arm, quickly letting go and rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly. “You’re always savin’ me and shit, stoppin’ me from doing stupid stuff. Thanks.”
“Well,” Billie smiled at him, leaning up and kissing his cheek. “It’s my duty as your best friend to make sure you don’t screw your life up,” she whispered to him, looking past him at Rick who walked downstairs with Noah in his arms, Nicole trailing behind him, her eyes red and puffy. Daryl watched, standing off to the side and Rick and Billie ushered their little family out of the door, silence descending on the small house once they’d laughed.
He stuffed his hands in his pockets awkwardly and he watched as Nicole busied herself with putting dishes away.
“Billie said I should talk to you,” he coughed.
“Cole,” Daryl sighed. “I’ll talk, okay? I’ll talk, if it means I don’t lose you. I’ll tell you what’s goin’ on.”
“…You will?” she asked in a whisper, looking at him uncertainly. “Because I can’t keep going on like this, Daryl. I love you, but whatever’s going on in your head… I need to know.”
“You know I’m bad with stuff like this…”
“Feelings?” Nicole raised an eyebrow. “Yes, I know you are. Just blurt it all out in one go if you have to, like ripping off a Band-Aid. Less painful. …Is it about Merle? Because I know it was six years ago, babe, but you never talk about it… Ever.”
“It’s not,” Daryl mumbled. “Not just that, no. I’m… I feel useless, Cole. I don’t have a point here anymore, no one needs me like they used to. I used to be somebody. People needed me, you needed me. I had to take care of you, keep you alive. Now you’re doin’ that for me and it’s not right. I’m a man, I’m the one who should be goin’ out and findin’ work but instead I’m sat here with the kid.”
“Oh, Daryl…” Nicole sighed, wrapping her arms around his neck and pulling him closer to her. “I will always need you, do you hear me? You didn’t just keep me alive, you kept all of us alive. I know I’m safe with you. If it ever happens again, I know that Noah and I have you to protect us and make sure nothing happens to us. I don’t want you to feel like that anymore because I love you and I need you, alright? We need you. You’re a Daddy now, Daryl. Noah relies on you for absolutely everything, he adores you. I mean, don’t you think that’s pretty important? You’re still keeping him alive.”
“I don’t need you to patronise me, Cole,” Daryl mumbled.
“I’m not,” she shook her head. “I’m not, I promise. I’m being honest with you, because I don’t want you to feel that way. There are people out there whose lives you’ve saved, Daryl. That means something to them; they won’t forget what you did for them. You’re a hero. You’re my hero,” Nicole told him quietly, her lips brushing against his as he fought back a smile. “Come on,” she took his hand in hers, biting her bottom lip. “We’re baby free for over 24 hours, we best make the most of it, hmmm?” she raised an eyebrow. “…Is 2 in the afternoon too early to go to bed?”
“Not at all,” Daryl grinned, shaking his head. “Lead the way, hot stuff.”
Daryl jumped, the ringing of the phone next to the bed waking him from his sleep. He fumbled for the frown, his eyes squinted as he saw the alarm clock flashing 4am.
Who the fuck was ringing him at four in the goddamn morning?!
He paused, feeling Nicole stir beside him and he clumsily reached for the phone, huffing as he pressed it to his ear.
“This better be life or fuckin’ death I swear to God,” he grumbled.
“Daryl, is that you? It’s me, Beth…”
“Beth,” he frowned, recognising the younger girls voice. “It’s 4 in the morning, are you okay?”
“Daryl… I’m doing the rounds, making the calls,” she whimpered. “I was at work, at the hospital and there was this guy who came in, he was- he died but he- he didn’t and- Daryl, get Nicole, get Noah and get to the farm. Now.”
“Beth,” Daryl’s breathing intensified and his knuckles went white as he realised what she was saying. “Are you tellin’ me that-”
“I’m telling you to get here as fast as you can,” Beth told him urgently. “Because it’s happening again.”