It’d been three weeks since the war had ended. Negan had been captured, was wastin’ away in a cell in Alexandria, the Sanctuary was now a viable trade partner, no coercion or protection racket needed, and it seemed like everyone was taking the time to breathe a big ol’ sigh of relief, enjoying a much deserved period of rest.
It felt a little too much like gettin’ complacent to Daryl, well aware of what could happen the second things seemed to be falling into place. There was an itch in his bones, something that wouldn’t let him rest no matter how hard he tried.
The sun had just barely made its way over the horizon, bathing Hilltop in weak swatches of gold, when Daryl clomped down the steps of the trailer he’d been staying in, crossbow in hand and canteen threaded through his belt loop. His breath fogged the air in front of him and not for the first time he wished the condensation was smoke. A war wasn’t exactly the time t’be haring off after cigarettes and lately any scouting missions had come up suspiciously empty. Was like the whole damn area’d been wiped out when it came to tobacco.
He headed toward the gates, head down, scruffy fringe obscuring his face from the few people even awake at this hour.
“Going out again?”
Daryl squinted up at the guard post. It was Kal on duty – Daryl’d bounced around a bit during the war, leading groups from Hilltop and Alexandria and he’d gotten to know the people here pretty well. In a way, it made him think of the time back in the prison, when they’d gotten a buncha the Governor’s refugees – and the thought made him twitch. Gettin’ close to people wasn’t worth it anymore. He had his family – though they were spread out these days, a fact which made him anxious even though he knew everyone was where they were needed – and anyone else wasn’t exactly needed.
He gave a jerk of a nod, shifting his grip on his crossbow. “Gonna bag some squirrel, maybe a deer if ‘m lucky,” he said. It was his fifth run in as many days and the meat shed was full up with game, but with the way things were goin’, people trickling in from other communities, he figured it couldn’t hurt to have as much as it could hold. He’d help salt ‘em, later, to keep over winter if anything.
“Be back before sundown,” Kal said, the gates opening with a creak of wood.
Daryl grunted, which was as good as acknowledgement as he was gonna get, and headed out.
Seven hours later, Daryl was back at the gates, a doe slung over his shoulders, a brace of squirrels threaded through his belt. He was covered from head to toe in dirt – courtesy of a bastard walker that’d had the indecency to be decomposin’ in a pile of leaves near a mud puddle – and all he wanted to do was get the doe strung up so he could gut it. Maybe he’d save some back to make some jerky.
Hilltop was a lot more alive than when he’d left, people bustlin’ around left and right. He could see Maggie goin’ over plans for the garden, Hershel Jr. on her hip, a few people tendin’ to the livestock, and the rest just milling about like they had some place t’be.
There was a lightness to the air that almost made him uncomfortable, like he was seein’ somethin’ nobody else could. How long would they get to enjoy this before it all went to shit again?
“Any deer left in the forest?”
Daryl started, a barely repressed flinch as he half-turned toward the sound of the voice. He took in the ridiculous beanie, the leather coat, everythin’ whole and undamaged, and refused to acknowledge the little kernel of relief deep in the pit of his stomach.
“When d’ya get back?” Daryl asked, voice slightly strained. It’d been a long damn walk and the doe wasn’t exactly no petite thing.
“About a half hour ago,” Jesus replied, doing absolutely nothing to offer Daryl any help at all.
“Did ya get any - ”
“Not this time,” Jesus replied before he could finish, and Daryl coulda swore the prick looked amused.
He huffed, adjusting his sliding grip on the legs of the doe, turning back toward where he was headed and moving on.
“See you at dinner?” Jesus called and Daryl grunted, hoisting the doe a little higher on his shoulders. He didn’t look back.
When Daryl finally arrived back at the trailer, it was nearly dusk. It was the smallest by far, barely big enough to fit a bed, small kitchenette and a little washroom, stationed out near the wall. Daryl didn’t mind it, preferred it actually. Wasn’t nobody around to bother him, and he could do his own thing without worryin’ about somebody pokin’ their nose into his business.
He closed the door behind him, letting out a ragged sigh. The war hadn’t exactly been kind to him and he felt every injury as a bone deep ache, like he was some damn old man. Most of the time he was able to ignore it, but now, in the quiet, they all had a way of cropping up when his mind didn’t have nothing to distract it.
He lit the small lantern by the door. There wasn’t much to look at – a small couch, a bed on the other side, a rickety table with a leg propped up by an encyclopedia. He’d never had much and after the war he had even less. He took a granola bar from the little counter, having only grabbed a small plate before he’d gone off to eat alone. Much like at the prison, everyone seemed t’wanna talk to him. Thank him for the meat, ask him about his crossbow, that kinda shit.
Then there’d been Jesus, sittin’ on a bench with a seat open next to him, watchin’ Daryl like he expected him t’take it. Daryl couldn’t deny that since the war he’d gotten to know the scout a little better – occasionally, they’d end up together on runs or missions – but that didn’t make ‘em buddies or nothing.
He lowered himself onto sofa, muscles unwinding like there’d been a string cut. He sat there for a few beats, exhaustion heavy through his bones, knowin’ he’d be lucky if he could catch an hour or two of sleep that night. There was a tension simmering through him that no amount a’lyin’ in bed was gonna fix. It was a deep down itch, something he’d only barely been able to scratch with nicotine. Maybe he’d restring his crossbow, or come up with a plan to get one of those vans they’d scavenged up and running. Had to be an autoparts place ain’t anybody got to within fifty miles.
He let the thoughts trickle through his mind, nothing catching, when something caught his attention from the corner of his eye.
His brow furrowed, hand reaching out to take it before he knew what he was doin’. He sure as hell knew it hadn’t been there this morning when he’d left. He held it up, squintin’ at in the dim light of the lantern, turning it to and fro like it might be some sorta trick. Looked normal enough, not even beat up like some of the ones they’d found and he got to his feet, moving to the window.
He twitched the curtain aside but there was nothin’ out in the dimness.
“The hell…” he muttered, back to staring at it. Well. He might as well, so long as he had it. He shook his head, pulling his lighter from his pocket as he opened the door to sit on the steps. The night air was chilly but he hardly felt it as he lit up, putting the smoke to his mouth and inhaling deeply.
Somethin’ settled inside him as he exhaled, smoke drifting lazily past his face. The burn was welcome, something to focus on, while he let his gaze wander. Most everyone was tucked up inside, settling down for the night.
Daryl took another drag and tried to remember how that felt.