Daryl tastes smoke at the back of his throat.
The world’s a blur of green and brown. The colours sway and the constant motion turns his stomach, but he can’t make himself look away. It’s like running on a ten second delay: he’s disconnected from his body. His hands, wherever they are, are the only warm part of him, the heat stretching up his forearms before disappearing. He blinks, and it turns into an endless wash of dark.
A jolt knocks him awake. Every muscle aches. The air carries with it the sweet, sharp smell of burning things, and though it hurts to breathe, Daryl fills his lungs. His vision swims when he opens his eyes this time; it takes a few tries but eventually he focuses. Shapes resolve: legs, boots, wild grass disappearing underfoot.
Someone’s carrying him.
Daryl groans and flails his arm out, only to feel it flop uselessly to his side. The rollercoaster he’s on stops with a jerk.
“Daryl? You ‘wake?”
He feels the words rumble through his chest more than he hears them. Daryl tries to say “’m fine, put me down,” but what comes out is a bunch of mangled syllables. Things start going fuzzy around the edges; closing his eyes for a few moments seems like a good idea. Daryl sighs, and lets his body slump into the grasp of whoever’s holding him.
His hands are shaking, his legs threatening to collapse beneath him. “What --” He looks up from his hands to his brother.
Merle’s jaw is hanging open. He smells like cigarettes and singed hair; Daryl can smell him from across the yard. Merle rushes forward in the span of a heartbeat, drops to his knees so they’re looking eye to eye. Daryl can't hold back his flinch.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to, I didn’t --”
“Daryl,” his brother says, clasping his shoulders, “Daryl, listen. Show me what you just did.”
Awareness returns slowly. His neck’s cramped to the point of agony, and when Daryl opens his eyes he learns why. He’s been propped up, back to a wall, his head left to hang for however long he’s been out. It’s too dark to see with any real clarity; he can’t tell if he’s alone. Whoever dumped him here will be getting a good punch to the face if they’re not lucky.
He moves slowly, gritting his teeth as he stretches out. “Fuck.”
The room is dark and bare, with only a few wooden chairs and a rug taking up space. The windows are all boarded over. Thin shards of light slip through the gaps in the wooden boards and illuminate slices of the room. There’s an open door to his left, and a dusty fireplace set into the wall opposite.
Daryl shifts his legs towards himself, but before he can stand there’s the sound of approaching footsteps. A figure fills the doorway, comes to a quick stop at the sight of him.
“I was hoping you’d be awake.”
In the low light Rick’s face is drawn tight. A rifle is clutched in his hands.
Daryl glares up at him. “The hell have you been?”
Rick moves to one of the windows. He peers out between the boards for a few moments, then takes one of the chairs and positions it by the window. “House is secure. Still a few out there, though.” Rick looks at him. “How are you holding up?”
“Stiff as a damn board. You couldn’t find a bed to leave me on?”
There’s a beat of silence, before Rick says, “Frankly, I was more concerned with making sure a walker couldn’t get inside. I’m sorry your comfort wasn’t higher on my list.”
Daryl rolls his eyes. “Whatever.”
Levering himself to his feet takes some effort; his muscles burn with every movement, but eventually he’s upright. Rick watches him from his chair all the while. The attention makes his skin crawl.
“You seen my crossbow?”
Rick nods his head towards the door. “It’s on a table in the hallway.”
This is not the first abandoned house he’s been in, and it likely won’t be the last; it doesn’t make the quiet any less unnerving. With no way of knowing where to go he wanders through the house. Picture frames are on the walls and broken on the floor, belongings forgotten or left behind. The wallpaper is peeling in places, and everything smells like wood and dusty air.
A living room with a big TV and plush sofas opens onto a kitchen, spacious, full of appliances. The luxury is ruined by the shattered plates and food left rotting on the table. From there he finds a staircase, a side door barricaded with furniture, and the hallway. Daryl takes up his crossbow with a sigh of relief.
The stairs ignite his desire to explore but his legs are going shaky, and he’s only been on his feet for a few minutes. Reluctantly, Daryl retraces his steps back to where Rick is. He leaves his crossbow by the door and slips inside the room.
Rick is crouching before the fireplace. He’s collected some loose material in Daryl’s absence – broken off bits of wood and what looks like paper – and is working to set them alight. From the way Rick’s swearing under his breath, Daryl guesses it’s not working.
“Think that’s a good idea?” he asks. “You could bring a whole bunch of ‘em down on us.”
Rick pauses to wipe at his brow. “Only a couple hours of darkness left. Someone might see the smoke, come looking.”
“Assuming anyone’s lookin’ at all.”
“The ones out there haven’t attacked yet.” Rick strikes harder at the kindling. “We can hold them off if need be.”
Daryl stares at him. Desperation is nothing new; the CDC still sits firmly at the front of his mind, the way they all revealed something about themselves during their time there. The search for Sophia, and its inescapable conclusion, too, taught him something. When it comes to recklessness, there’s almost always a reason for it. Daryl looks the man over. Once he spots it it’s all he sees; Rick’s every move undercut by shivers.
Rick stops and turns to stare at him. “Aren’t you?”
Daryl shifts where he stands, rubs at his arms and finds nothing but smooth flesh. His skin seems cool to the touch, though the temperature barely registers for him. He frowns, and Rick’s expression shifts in kind.
“Are we gonna talk about what happened?” Rick asks.
“Don’t know what you mean,” Daryl says, staring at the fireplace.
Rick shakes his head and looks away.
Merle leads him through the woods that surround their house. His brother stalks ahead, fists clenched at his sides. Daryl kicks at loose stones and twigs as he walks and tries to pretend he’s not anxious. It’s not long before they come to a clearing, where Merle stops and turns to face him.
“The hell’s wrong with you?”
Daryl shrugs a shoulder. “Nothin’. Just thought it might be fun --”
“That’s what you thought, huh?”
“I didn’t tell her,” he says. “She thought it was some magic trick.”
Merle makes a sweeping gesture with his arms. “Did she, now? Maybe we oughta enlighten her. You want me to get the news crews up here? Maybe the circus, I’m sure they’d be glad to have you.”
“Christ, Merle --”
Merle grabs the front of his shirt. “No, you listen, little brother. This ain’t something you go sharing with the world. They’ll treat you like a freak. You want that?”
“No,” Daryl shakes his head.
“I’m looking out for you, baby bro.” Merle grabs his chin and forces him to look up. “This stays between us. Got that?”
Daryl chews on his lip and nods.
Rick gives up after a short while. He stands, stretches out, and rubs at his arms. “I’ll try to find some blankets,” he says.
Daryl listens as his footsteps grow distant. Then he crosses the room, quietly moves a chair aside, and sits on the rug. This close, he sees that the fireplace is made from blackened stone; there’s still some wood left on the hearth, swimming in ashes and dust. They’re probably not the first to have taken refuge here. His hands burn with the memory of fire and the heat is enough to make him shudder.
Rick clears his throat, and Daryl jerks. He takes the blanket on offer and watches Rick sink to the floor, wrapping himself up in a blanket of his own. His shaking is getting worse, and he’s staring at the fireplace like his sheer damn will alone will get a fire going.
Rick’s not the one with that skill.
It’s barely a thought: he just leans over, picks a stick up, and watches it ignite in his hand. The flames hold him for a moment, licking at his fingers. The heat of it doubles back on itself, under his skin, filling him, and he throws it back onto the hearth before too long. With a twitch of his fingers the rest of the material ignites, and the room comes alive with the light of the fire.
Rick’s staring at him when Daryl finally looks his way. Daryl feels his face flush, and drops his gaze.
“Couldn’t stand you moping like that,” he says, picking at the rug.
He hears Rick move, watches him shuffle closer from the corner of his eye. “Your hands,” he says. His voice is raw.
Daryl holds them out so Rick can see. Save for the usual dirt and grime, his hands are untouched.
Rick reaches out, as if to make sure, but Daryl flinches and Rick pulls himself back. “I don’t understand,” he says after a time.
Daryl snorts. “You think I do?”
“How long have you been able to --”
“I don’t wanna talk about it.”
“You’re saying that now?” Rick stares at him. “After you just …” He gestures at the fire in place of words.
The heat flickers under Daryl’s skin. He digs his fingers into his palms and stares at the flames. “Not supposed to talk about it.”
He should get up, leave the room, put as much space as he can between them. He knows Rick’s still watching him, can feel it like he feels the heat under his skin, and the longer he stays the more likely it is he’ll do something stupid. The silence grows, and he doesn’t move.
“Guess it explains the sleeveless shirts.”
That catches his attention. “Excuse me?”
“You didn’t seem to feel the cold before, either,” Rick continues, as though speaking to himself.
“You tryin’ to bait me or something?”
Rick ducks his head, bringing his fist to his mouth, but Daryl can see the smirk he tries to hide. Though the blanket is still wrapped around him, Rick’s shivering has at least stopped; it leeches a little of the anger from him.
“Christ,” Daryl says, hunching down with a glare, and moments later the fire emits a particularly vicious snap. The look Rick gives him after that is unbelievably satisfying.
The silence threatens to seep back in. Daryl looks to the windows, thinking of the walkers. He imagines them standing right outside, drawn by the smoke and the sounds of their conversation, just about ready to break down the doors and tear them apart. The flames have risen higher when he looks back, and Rick’s got that determined expression on his face.
“Nothing leaves this room unless you want it to, Daryl. You can trust me.”
They’ve been scavenging for food for about an hour when the herd appears. A swarming mass of death and decay and they’ve stumbled right into the walkers’ path. Daryl glances at the woods around them. The trees won’t be enough to hide them now; bastards have their scent.
The geeks really start to move, all but clambering over each other in their haste. Rick picks off a few of the faster ones with his rifle but the walkers keep coming. Daryl starts digging through his bag.
“We gotta move,” Rick says. Daryl barely hears him over the sounds of the geeks.
His hand closes over a bottle – finally – and Daryl yanks it out, rips off the top, and pulls out a piece of cloth almost entirely soaked in alcohol. The dry tip ignites with the barest glance and Rick grabs Daryl’s shoulder.
Daryl throws the Molotov.
The bottle shatters over the front of the herd. The walkers howl as the flames engulf them; they flail and scream and fall over each other, and as they do the fire spreads through their ranks.
The smell of burning flesh fills the air.
“C’mon,” Rick says, tugging on his arm, “while they’re distracted.”
Daryl doesn’t move. The bastards are burning but there’s so many of them and they just keep coming. There’s nothing but the roar of the fire and the heat under his skin, and when Daryl reaches out a hand he’s not sure what to expect.
The flames explode out and up, so hot he can’t breathe, before falling back and blasting through the herd. There's no finesse, no accuracy like he has with his crossbow. This is point-and-shoot destruction, and it tears through the walkers in seconds. Daryl feels it as flesh roasts and organs boil, as the husks that were walkers drop to the ground. The laughter bubbling up his chest catches in his throat.
The fire sings out for more, but there’s no heat left in him. His legs must go out from under him, because Daryl feels himself dropping to the ground. There’s the vaguest sensation of pressure under his arms and around his chest, slowing his fall, and it’s the last thing he comprehends before the darkness swallows him.
“We needed a way out.”
“Yeah,” Rick says. Daryl doesn’t think he’s wrong to assume that Rick’s thinking of the inferno. “Have you done anything like that before?”
Daryl shakes his head. “Parlour tricks, y’know? Get the girls into bed.” He gets a smirk at that, something small that Rick reins in quickly. It’s not enough to distract him. “Why bother burning ’em when an arrow does the job?”
“How old were you, when you realised …?”
“Eight, maybe. Nearly blew Merle’s face off first time it happened.” He thinks of that moment in the backyard of his childhood home, the surge of anger that had caused Merle’s cigarette to flare up and singe his face. As soon as he says it he knows he’s messed up; sure enough, Rick’s looking at him with that assessing gaze, knowing exactly how to read him.
“He the reason you kept quiet?”
He can hear Merle’s voice, as clearly as he did all those years ago. They’ll treat him like a freak. He should never have opened his mouth. Rick’s still watching him, though, and Daryl can’t help himself.
“Wouldn’t have to leave if no one knew.”
Rick touches his shoulder, gently at first. When Daryl doesn’t shy away his grip becomes firm. He waits until Daryl looks him in the eyes, and then says, “No one would make you leave, Daryl.”
“You know that for sure?”
Rick doesn’t respond. Daryl shrugs his hand off.
He turns back to the fire and tries to convince himself that Rick’s not still watching him.
Daryl wakes with a start. His head swims with disorientation, mind still half-asleep and urging him to dip back under, to rest while he can. Daryl frowns against the desire and scrubs at his eyes, looking around blearily. He doesn’t remember falling asleep, but the light seeping through the gaps in the boarded windows seems a little brighter. He hasn’t been out for long, then.
A shudder rolls up his back, and he gasps at the feeling. It’s the same sensation that brought him awake, a spark of heat radiating out from his core. He shifts, trying to dislodge the feeling, but it only intensifies. Daryl lets his head connect with the floor with a loud thump.
“Daryl? You okay?”
He looks up. Rick’s lost the blanket and has been adding to the fire during his nap. As he pokes at the flames another shiver runs through him, and Daryl squeezes his eyes shut.
“Fuck,” he groans.
Rick’s hovering above him; he knows it without even having to look. A moment later Daryl feels a hand on his forehead, checking his temperature – a goddamn do-gooder, even now.
“You’re like a furnace.”
He feels Rick’s fingers brush along his cheek, the line of his jaw, before caressing the long thin scar by his temple; a reminder of the closest of calls. It’s the contact that makes Daryl finally open his eyes. He grabs the front of Rick’s shirt, shoves him back so he can push himself upright: he can’t breathe from the heat. Daryl doesn’t let go, though, instead pulls Rick closer, until their foreheads are pressed together, their breath mingling.
Rick’s hands go to the back of his neck, the side of his face. “Daryl.”
He knows he shouldn’t be doing this, he knows, but Rick feels like shade on a hot day and he can’t even think straight. “Please.”
Rick sways like he’s been hit, squeezes his eyes shut and takes in an unsteady breath.
Daryl’s restraint snaps and he yanks at Rick’s shirt, almost tearing it in his efforts to remove it. His need to get hands on Rick is held up momentarily when Rick pulls at his shirt in return, almost trapping Daryl’s arms, but then they’re free and Rick’s tugging him forward until Daryl is all but straddling his lap.
Daryl grinds their hips together, relishing the sound that Rick makes at the contact. Rick’s hands trace across his back, down his sides; mapping his scars, the part of his brain not completely shut down notes. Daryl leans into the touch, mouthing at the line of Rick’s jaw, the spot where neck becomes shoulder.
Rick’s skin is so cool, Daryl wants to wrap himself around the other man and never let go. Running his hands over the smooth planes of his back, Daryl finds a scar of his own. Gunshot wound. He rakes his nails over the scar tissue and Rick arches up against him, breathing hard.
“Fuck,” he gasps, “Rick,” and he buries a hand in Rick’s sweat-slick hair. Rick angles his hips up and Daryl bites back a groan, tugging hard.
The response is almost immediate. Rick’s hands slide round to Daryl’s front and begin working at his pants. Getting them open is a minor challenge; every brush of Rick’s cool fingers against his skin makes him jerk, and Daryl has to fight to hold himself still. But then Rick’s hand is on him, and the heat under his skin is replaced by another kind entirely.
His head drops back to Rick’s shoulder as Rick begins to stroke. His touch is tentative at first, little assessing motions to see what makes Daryl moan, what makes him grasp at Rick’s shoulders and thrust up into his hand. He finds a rhythm quickly enough, though, and all thought outside of more and yes goes right out of Daryl’s head.
Briefly Rick’s free hand trails up Daryl’s chest, coming to a stop over the long scar that runs across the top of his torso. It stays there for a few moments, possessive, before returning to palm at his hip.
Rick presses a fleeting kiss to the corner of Daryl’s mouth and then moves to his earlobe, nipping at it before salving the mark with his tongue. His beard scratches, tiny points of contact leaving Daryl’s face tingling. The sound of Rick breathing hard against his ear is one he tries to sear into his memory.
“C’mon, Daryl,” Rick says, his voice and his hand all that’s left of the world, “c’mon.”
A few desperate thrusts and Daryl comes hard, over Rick’s hand and both their stomachs. He slumps into Rick’s embrace, panting. The racing of his heart is so loud he’s convinced it must be audible. A moment passes before he thinks of Rick, still pressing hard against him; it only takes a few strokes once Daryl’s got his pants undone, and Rick comes with a sigh.
Daryl eventually pulls himself free of Rick’s grasp. He uses his discarded shirt to wipe them both clean, and then he lets himself slump against the floor. He can still feel the fire beneath his skin, feel the heat echoing from the fireplace across the room, but Rick’s hands have helped bring it under control.
He closes his eyes and allows himself to bask.
In the dim morning light he watches Rick get to his feet. With languid movements he buttons his pants, then leans down to grab his shirt, pulling it over his head as he moves towards the windows.
“We should get moving,” he says. Daryl doesn’t miss the way Rick’s eyes linger on his body when he looks back at him.
Daryl nods. He collects his shirt from where he deposited it on the floor, ignoring the stains as he yanks it on. When his pants are in order he looks up to find Rick’s offering him a hand. Daryl stares at him only for a moment before he lets Rick help him to his feet.
There are no walkers visible when he peers through the window; he knows better than to trust to luck, and holds his crossbow ready. He looks about the room one last time, and with a twist of his fingers extinguishes the fire. Rick’s watching him when he turns around.
Daryl nods. Rick follows him outside.
The sky is clear, though the wind brings with it the smell of smoke. The sun is bright. He can’t feel it against his skin, but it’s apparently cool enough to justify Rick keeping close.
“So,” Daryl asks, a little while into their trek, “are we good?”
Out of the corner of his eye he sees Rick glance at him. Daryl keeps his gaze straight ahead. If he doesn’t look he can pretend he never said anything.
Rick rests his hand on his lower back in response. While it’s light enough to be friendly, Daryl leans into the touch without second thought. Judging by the way Rick presses a little more firmly, it’s the reaction he's been hoping for.
“Yeah, we’re good.”
And Daryl finds he believes him.