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A Twisted Tale

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The wind rushes over Rick’s head as Daryl presses his foot down hard on the accelerator. With a lurch, the open-topped jeep gained speed, its engine roaring and tyres screeching.
Daryl let out a whoop as they sped towards the walkers that block the road up ahead. It never ceased to amaze Rick how Daryl was able to find the silver lining in a circumstance. Having to waste precious fuel, making a lot of unwelcome noise and driving headfirst into a potentially deadly situation – all these things flashed through Rick’s mind as the jeep gained upon the cluster of walkers. But to Daryl, all he focused on was the thrill of the drive, the speed, the rush of the wind and the feeling of power.
Daryl was an optimist, Rick supposed, hell all he knew for sure was that it hadn’t been for red-neck he wouldn’t have made it this far. Not since the Governor, Judith’s death, Carl’s death...after everything and everyone. Each other was all the two men had and Rick planned on keeping it that way.
“Hold on!” Daryl shouted. Rick braced his arms against the dashboard.
The jeep ploughed into the walkers with an unlimitedly bang. Undead bodies bounced off the sides and splattered on the bonnet. Gore spurted up the windscreen and Rick swore. But Daryl only laughed, revving the engine harder and forcing the jeep through the snarling, groaning mass of the undead. Lucky there were that many of them and after a couple of seconds the jeep shot out from their midst. They left a mess of crushed bone and rotted flesh behind them.
“Now that’s what you call road kill!” Daryl yelled over the engine and the wind. Rick relaxed back in his seat and smiled wearily sideways at Daryl.
“You wanna check out the next town?” the red-neck asked as he slowed the jeep down a little to conserve fuel.
“Better do,” Rick said, glancing over his shoulder into the back to scan their small bundle of supplies, “we’re running low.”
They arrived at the town at midday. It was a nice town – or rather had been – with spacious houses with large front gardens. Rick could almost hear the ghosts of the children laughing as they played in the streets. A shiver ran down his spine and his hand unconscious moved to touch Daryl’s wrist.
The younger man glanced at him and saw the pain in his eyes. Concern instantly chased away any of the exhilaration from earlier and Daryl removed his hand from the steering wheel so he could thread his fingers with Rick’s.
“You ok?” He asked gently, squeezing his hand, “You want to move on?”
Rick shook his head, “No. I’m fine – it’s nothing.”
Pulling the jeep over in front of a house with wooden shutters, Daryl turned off the ignition. He twisted in his seat so he facing Rick.
“That’s bullshit,” he growled, trying to catch the older man’s eye, “Rick you don’t need to hide your feelings from me. Hell, I thought we had been through enough that you trusted me –“
“- I do trust you, Daryl,” Rick interrupted, mirroring the red-neck’s position, “I truth you with my life and my...”
He broke off. He couldn’t say it allowed – my heart. The thing between them was real and meaningful, yes. Rick couldn’t imagine living without Daryl’s touch. He just couldn’t say so aloud, for that would mean it would end. Every time he allowed himself to truly believe in something that made him happy it was taken away from him. And he couldn’t let that happen, not again, not with Daryl.
“The place just gave me the creeps for a moment, that’s all,” Rick muttered, reaching for the door handle, “let’s just find some food and get out of here.”
Getting out of the jeep, Rick checked his revolver was loaded and his knife was sheaved at his hip. Daryl pulled out his crossbow from the back and slung it over his shoulder. He moved around the jeep and pushed into Rick’s personal space. Rick sighed, meeting Daryl’s frustrated eyes.
“I’m fine, I promise,” he insisted; though he didn’t believe totally believe the words himself. There was something about this place, something that put him on edge.
“You’d better be,” Daryl said gruffly, then closed the distance between them and pressed his cracked, dry lips against Rick’s. At the kiss Rick felt some of his tension leave his body. He sank into Daryl’s warmth, kissing him back softly.
Daryl pulled back after a second and shoved a machete into Rick’s hands and growled, “Let’s go find us something to eat, I’m starving!”
Rick didn’t take the abrupt ending of the moment to heart, he knew Daryl meant to harm by it. The red-neck had always found sissy stuff (his words not Rick’s) difficult, embarrassing. He just wasn’t that type of person and Rick knew better than to try and change that.
The two of them made walking quietly up the path of the nearest house. On the leaf-strewn porch they stopped. Rick had lost count how many times they had scouted out a place, the routine was so embedded in them both that they didn’t speak. Daryl wiped the window and peered inside. He gave Rick the thumbs up. Reaching for the door handle Rick turned it and, unlocked, the door opened.
Slowly, he pushed it open, holding the machete at the ready. Inside the house looked relatively untouched, promising and inviting. Rick stepped inside, peering around the nearest corner into a dining room. Behind him, Daryl stepped inside, sweeping his crossbow in a circle.
Back to back, they moved through the house. It was silent and empty. Upstairs Rick paused in the doorway to the master bedroom. The sight of a proper bed called to him and suddenly he became aware of how exhausted he was. Daryl checked the last two rooms upstairs then returned to Rick’s side.
“I think we’re good,” he said, giving Rick a tight smile, “we should stay here for tonight. Hell, I know I could sure use a night sleep not cramped up in that bloody truck.” Rick agreed, “Let’s see if there’s anything in the kitchen.”
They were lucky, hidden on top of the cabinets Daryl found a can of peaches and an open box of cornflakes. Rick brought in their supplies from the jeep whilst Daryl secured the back door and windows. Together, they pushed a bookcase in the way of the front door before flopping down the sofa.
The cereal was extremely stall and tasted like cardboard, but it was edible washed down with some water. Rick had long since stopped caring about what food tasted like, as long as you could keep it down you ate it. The kept the can of peaches for another day.
“Damn, what I wouldn’t give for a burger and fries?” Daryl groaned, leaning back against the cushions of the sofa and stretching his arms over his head. Rick heard the pop of his shoulder.
“With extra fresh, crisp salad and coleslaw,” Rick grinned, moving to sit on the other end of the sofa, his back against the arm. Daryl didn’t complain as Rick stretched his legs out so his feet were in his lap.
“Always with the healthy leaves, hey, officer friendly,” Daryl chuckled, using Rick’s old nickname with fondness. Rick smiled and rested his head on the cushion and closed his eyes. His body felt as it was made of lead, every muscle ached and his mind felt cloudy.
Gently as he could, so not to disturb Rick, Daryl untied his boots and pulled them off. The smell of sweaty feet no longer registered in his mind, so he hardly cared having Rick’s in his lap. Daryl watched Rick’s face as he began to rub his feet, massaging them. The ex-sheriff’s face went slack and he let out a long sigh.
“Hmm,” he mumbled, “feels good.”
“Yeah?” Daryl replied, slipping his fingers higher up to wrap around the other man’s ankles.
Rick moaned softly and cracked open his eyes to peer at Daryl, “if you keep that up I’ll be asleep.”
“Well, we wouldn’t want that now, would we?” Daryl grinned wolfishly. Suddenly Rick found himself being tugged down so he lay flat on his back. Daryl’s weight pressed against his chest and the younger man lowered his face towards his. Smirking, Rick untangled his legs and opened them to allow Daryl to nestle between them. Resting his arms either side of Rick’s head, Daryl nuzzled their nose together before kissing him properly.
His body immediately woke up and Rick eagerly slipped his hands up Daryl’s arms and into his hair. Tugging slightly on the soft strands, Rick tilted his head so their mouths slid together at just the right angle.
Daryl’s rough-skinned hands cupped his face, his thumbs running across his cheekbones. Groaning, Rick opened his mouth and ran his tongue across the young man’s. Instantly Daryl allowed him access, sucking his tongue and scrapping his teeth across it.
Heat flashed through Rick and he ground his hips upwards, rubbing against Daryl. Impatiently, Rick slid his hands down the other’s back to the hem of his shirt. The skin beneath was warm the touch and Rick ran his nails down lightly Daryl’s sides in the way he knew drove him mad.
Hissing, Daryl broke the kiss, panting heavily as he stared into Rick’s wide lust-filled pupils.
“I think we should continue this upstairs in bed,” Rick suggested, winking at the red-neck. With a growl, Daryl was on his feet and tugging Rick towards the stairs. They fell onto the mattress, a tangle of limbs and wet kisses.
In the morning Rick would be ashamed about the level of noise the two of them had made. He would have thought the sound of the headboard banging against the wall would have been enough to attract at least a dozen walkers to their location. But if it had, the walkers had had the common decency to not disturb the two men. So Rick knew they must be none close by for walkers didn't have decency. In fact, decency had died the very first day the world had gone to hell.

Chapter Text

Bright morning sunshine streamed through the bedroom window. Daryl groaned, covering his face with his arm. Beside him, Rich steered and burrowed closer against his side, as unwilling as Daryl to face a new day. Blinking, Daryl lifted his head from the pillow and peered around the bedroom. For a moment he was confused then his memory of yesterday resurfaced.
With a sigh, he turned his head to look at Rick and snort at the sight. The sheriff’s face was buried in the gap between Daryl neck and the pillow. Daryl let his eyes run down the other’s man’s lean back to his arse, which was half covered by the bed sheet.
Carefully, he sat up and leant over Rick, pressing a necklace of kisses across his shoulders up to his ear.
“Rise and shine, sleeping beauty,” he whispered huskily, biting the shell of Rick’s ear playfully.
Rick’s reply was muffled against the pillow, “sleeping beauty only awakens with a kiss.”
“Well then...” said Daryl, slipping his arms around Rick’s slender waist, easily flipping the man over onto his back so they were face to face, “...we’d better see to that.”
Their lips met and Rick groaned against Daryl’s mouth, running his hands over the other man’s chest. He still marvelled at the muscles he felt fluttered beneath his fingertips. Due to the lack of food, mixed with sleep deprivation and the constant threat of the world, most of Rick’s muscle mass had diminished. His frame now was covered in lean, wiry muscle, the sort that is built for running and endurance. But Daryl’s, his body was broader, the muscles of his arms full and those on his chest powerful.
The rest of Rick’s thoughts were cut short by the bang coming from downstairs. Instantly, Daryl was off the bed and on his feet, eyes darting for his crossbow, but it was still below in the living room, along with all their weapons.
“Fuck it,” swore Daryl, snatching his trousers and shirt from the floor and yanking them on. Rick followed his lead, blaming himself for their lack of weapons. It had been foolish of them to sleep upstairs, they could easily be cornered, either by walkers or people – both held a similar threat of death.
They stepped out onto the landing and listened intently. The noise came again, the thud of a body hitting the front door. The action sounded slow and sluggish – a walker.
Downstairs the house was still secure but through the window Rick saw the walkers encircling the house. They had to move quickly. They shoved their supplies back into their rucksacks and threw them over their shoulders.
Weapons in hand, Daryl led the way through the kitchen to the backdoor. The garden seemed to be deserted for now.
Catching Rick’s eye, Daryl asked in a whisper, “We need to circle back around the front to get to the jeep. You ready?”
As an answer Rick leant forwards and kissed Daryl fiercely on the lips. He hadn’t meant to linger but Daryl caught hold of his chin and kept him there. Facing death everyday didn’t make facing it any easier, especially when you had someone you didn’t want to leave behind.
Rick broke the kiss, savouring the taste of his lover on his tongue briefly before he said, “Let’s get to the jeep.”
Opening the door, Daryl checked either side, his crossbow up, ready to fire. Quickly, the two men moved out of the house, creeping along one side.
Peering around the corner Rick saw more stray walkers joining the groaning, banging mob thumping against the front of the building. The jeep was where they had left it, parked on the sidewalk in front of the house. Rick tapped Daryl’s arm, signalling him to move. The younger man prowled forwards, his legs bent in a predator gate, reflexes sharp.
Rick tightened his grip on his machete and was just about to follow Daryl when he heard the shuffling of feet behind him.
Whirling around, Rich swung the blade at the walker’s dead. The sharp metal sliced through the rotting skull cleanly, spraying the side of the house with blood. The walker’s body crumbled to ground.
“Rick!” Daryl shouted from behind him. He turned, eyes going wide. The mass of walkers were surging towards them, Daryl took the nearest down with an arrow to the head.
“There’s too many!” Rick yelled.
Adrenaline rushed through his reins as panic rose up inside of him. Moving backwards, Daryl didn’t take his eyes off the oncoming walkers. Rick reached out to grab Daryl’s rucksack and pull him behind him, he couldn’t help but try and protect the younger man. However, right then it should have been himself he was more worried about.
The walker lurched around the side of the house. Snarling it broken growl, the undead figure grabbed at Rick. He yanked his arm away, slamming his fist into the side of its head. The force of his blow knocked the walker into the side of the house. Without thinking, Rick seized hold of the walker’s hair and slammed its head repeatedly against the brick till the skull broke. Gore covered his hand but he didn’t notice.
Another walker lunged at him, he took off its head with a slash of his machete but another instantly took its place.
“No!” Daryl appeared next to him and kicked the walker in the stomach, knocking it to the ground.
“Run!”
Rick obeyed and they sprinted back the way they had come. Catching hold of Rick’s arm, Daryl pulled him towards the end of the garden. A tall wall blocked their path.
Without care of what could lay on the other side, Daryl tore off his rucksack and tossed it over the wall. Rick mirrored him, looking all the time over his shoulder at the walkers as they staggered towards them.
Daryl jumping up at the wall, his hands catching hold of the top and he heaved. The muscles in his arms bulged as he pulled himself up onto the wall; he swung one leg over the other side for balance as he turned back to Rick.
He took his crossbow from across his back and shot at walked as it moved within a metre from Rick.
Bracing his legs, Rick jumped with everything he had. He hit the wall hard, knocking the breath out of himself. His arms burned with the struggle and he tried to pull himself up. His feet scrapped frantically on the hard surface. Daryl seized hold of his arms and pulled.
The walker wrapped its hands around Rick’s ankle, yanking him back hard.
Daryl shouted, pulling back with everything he had. Pain exploded up Rick’s leg, he screamed and kicked out. The walker let go, toppling over with Rick’s shoe in its grasp.
Suddenly Rick was on top of the wall; Daryl’s grip on his arms was vice-like. Daryl lost his balance and fell backwards, dragging Rick with him. Together they fell over the wall and into the safety of the deserted garden.
Panting, they laid still for a moment, Rick sprawled over Daryl’s chest. Icy shivers were wracking Rick’s body; his heart was beating so hard against his ribs he thought it would burst from his chest. Daryl was clutching at his back, holding him incredibly tightly with fear. Rick moved his throbbing leg and gasped in pain, it burned and stun.
“How bad is it?” He asked Daryl, not wanting to lift his head to see for himself, “I haven’t broken my ankle have I?”
Daryl lifted his head and looked down at Rick’s leg. All colour drained from his face and his eyes went wide. Rick had never seen that look on his face before.
“Shit, its broken isn’t it? Fuck, that’s just great –“
The rest of his words were cut off by Daryl’s lips crashing against his. The kiss was violent and desperate – as if Daryl feared it would be their last...
Rick tried to sit up but Daryl’s arms wrapped around his body and kept him pinned.
“Let me go, Daryl!” Rick demanded, pushing at the other man’s chest, “Let me see!”
“No, Rick!” Yelled Daryl, burying his face against Rick’s neck as his fingers dug painfully into the other man’s ribs. Rick knew it to be true then as he felt Daryl’s tears on his skin. It wasn’t a broken ankle, it was something much worse.
Twisting his neck around so far it hurt, Rick stared at his mauled ankle, at the bite oozing blood. It was as if a bottomless pit opened up beneath him and he was falling, falling forever into nothingness. No...no it couldn’t be – he couldn’t have been bitten...
“Rick,” sobbed Daryl, framing his face with his hands, forcing Rick to look away from his wound, “it – it’s not that bad. You’re fine, we’ll bandage it up, and everything will be alright...”
“I love you,” Rick whispered, kissing Daryl and wrapping his arms around his neck, “always...”
“No,” Daryl shook against him, hands clawing at his back and he sagged against his chest, “No, you can’t be – I can’t live without you – It can’t end like this, not after everything...”
Rick cut off his lover’s rambles, kissing every part of his face, his jaw, chine, cheeks, nose, eyelids, forehead and lips.
“I’m sorry,” the words slipped from Rick’s mouth without him knowing what he was apologising for, “This isn’t your fault, Daryl, you hear me? None of this is your fault.”
Daryl sobbed, reaching for the neckline of Rick’s top. With a sharp yank, he pulled open the shirt. Rick let Daryl force him down onto his back in the flowerbed, the damp earth cooling his hot skin. The smell of the earth and the grass and the flowers washed over Rick and he stared up at the blue sky stretching endlessly overhead.
Daryl laid himself on top of Rick, kissing him over and over. Rick could do nothing but return the kisses, running his hands beneath the other’s man’s shirt to stroke over the scars on his back – soothing the painful memories of his childhood one final time.
“I love you,” Daryl cried into Rick’s mouth, his tears falling on the sheriff’s cheeks. Rick wondered why he himself wasn’t crying.
“That’s the first time you’ve said that,” Rick whispered, splaying his hands over Daryl’s back, desperate to feel as much living skin as possible.
“You’ve always known though,” Daryl breathed, scooting down Rick’s body slightly so he could press his lips to his neck.
“I have,” Rick murmured, one hand slipping from Daryl’s back to thread itself into his hair, “It’s just nice to hear you say it...at least once.”
Daryl sobbed again, moving back to kissing Rick.
“I love you, I love you, I love you,” Daryl repeated over and over as he kissed the only person he had ever truly, unconditionally loved.
“Thank you,” Rick whispered, looking into Daryl’s eyes, “you saved me you know? After everything happened, after Carl’s death...if it hadn’t been for you I –“
“- Shh,” Daryl breathed, running a hand through Rick’s curling hair, “I know, it was the same for me. We saved one another, Rick, you saw the good in me when no one else did.”
“You have to do it, Daryl,” Rick told him as gently as he could, “Its coming, I can feel it, the darkness...and after that we both know what happens.”
“Rick, I...” Daryl bit his bottom lip to stop it from trembling, “I don’t think I can – I don’t want to go on without you.”
“You have to,” Rick said sternly, almost angrily, “if everyone gave up after losing a loved one the whole human race would be extinct by now, Daryl. You have to keep fighting; this will all end one day I know it! And when it does, you will be one of the survivors. Out of everyone it was always going to be you...”
Tears rolled down Daryl’s cheeks and he rested his forehead against Rick’s.
“Promise me you will do it, Daryl!” Rick demanded, “Please, I cannot stand the thought of becoming one of them – of hurting people – of killing you! Live for the both of us.”
Unable to speak, Daryl nodded, not knowing if he was telling the truth or not. Rick seemed to realise this and he reached for Daryl’s hand and brought it to his mouth.
He kissed each fingertip before speaking, “Remember this Daryl – remember us.”
He moved Daryl’s hand down between them to lay it against his bare chest, over his heart.
“This,” Rick said, “This is what matters – a beating heart – life.”
“I understand,” whispered Daryl. He kissed Rick one final time before he laid down beside him on the earth and rested his head on his shoulder.
“Good,” Rick murmured, pressing his lips against the top of the younger man’s head, “When my heart stops, do it.”
Daryl kept his hand over Rick’s heart, feeling its beats slowly grow fainter. Daryl raised himself on his elbow to kiss Rick again. When they pulled apart, Rick smiled up at Daryl with so much love in his blue eyes that it ripped the red-neck’s heart into pieces.
Eyelids suddenly feeling heavy, Rick closed his eyes and relaxed. He let the pain go and allowed the darkness to creep closer. Rick felt Daryl’s fingers over his heart tracing meaningless spirals. The sensation soothed him and an odd sense of peace washed over him like the wave of a warm ocean. Letting out his breath, Rick lifted his arm to curl it around the other man, holding him close. Dimly, as sleep began to pull him under, Rick felt Daryl’s lips brushing against his, as soft as a butterfly wing.
The last thing Rick did was kiss him back.
Time lost its meaning after that. The day slipped by and Rick fell into unconsciousness. Daryl somehow managed to get him inside the house and onto the sofa; looking back he wouldn’t remember really doing it.
The fever took hold of Rick, covering his skin in sweat and convulsing his body. Daryl was powerless; all he could do was watch.
It was dusk when Rick fell still and the burning heat from the fever Daryl could feel radiating off of him suddenly faded.
The sun was setting outside, turning the heavens a violent blood red. Rick’s breath became laboured and his pulse erratic.
The sky darkened to an inky black and the stars were revealed.
Daryl felt Rick’s heart stop beneath his palm and, on some level, so did his own.

Chapter Text

Daryl sat on halfway up the stairs, his crossbow across his lap. From his position he could see Rick lying motionless on the sofa, chest not moving.
A feeling of nothingness had entered Daryl’s heart, chilling him to the bone. The agony and grief was there, bubbling beneath the surface, the only thing keeping him together was his promise. He would not let Rick become what he hated, become one of the monsters that had taken his family and friends from him, that had destroyed everything.
Yet, a small selfish part of Daryl realised he owed everything to the apocalypse. If the world hadn’t ended then he would never have met Rick, he would still be the arsehole of a kid he had been before the chief had walked into his life. With Rick’s guidance, Daryl had become a man he was proud to be. Rick had shown him what he felt like to help people, to be part of a true family, to love someone truly and completely. Without the damn walkers none of that would have happened, so no, despite Rick now being taken from him, Daryl couldn’t bring himself to whole-heartedly loath reality. Looking down at his crossbow, Daryl pulled one of the sharp bolts free and stood up. Leaving the bow behind on the stairs, he crossed the small living room to stand next to the sofa.
Rick’s skin was white and his mouth was slightly open. Daryl was revealed his eyes were closed; he couldn’t bear to have seen those beautiful blue eyes he loved so much blank and staring.
Turning the bolt over in his hand, Daryl hesitated. He had to do it, it had promised, it was the right thing to do...why then couldn’t he? How many people, be it a friend, enemy or complete stranger had he stabbed in the head to stop them from turning? So many he had long lost count. Rick was gone...all that was left was an empty shell.
Daryl took hold of the bolt in both hands and raised it above his head. Tears sprang up in his eyes, blurring his vision. Biting his lip so hard it tasted blood, Daryl angrily wiped his face against his sleeve. He was being so stupid, so cowardly! He had promised Rick!
Blinking hard, pushing the tears back down, Daryl took a deep breath. The bolt shook in his hands.
One, Daryl counted down inside his head. Two...
Rick gasped and bolted upright. Daryl fell back with fright, tripping over his rucksack and fell hard onto his back.
For a moment Daryl didn’t react, he just gapped up at the ceiling, head swimming. Then he heard the rasping groans. No! He thought fiercely and pushed himself up.
Rick – no – the walker was standing a metre away with its back to him. Slowly, Daryl tightened his grip on the bolt and readied himself to jump at the walker. His eyes ran down its shaking body – why was it shaking?
He watched, confused, as the walker lifted its hands to its face. Was it studying its hands? What the hell was going on? The questions raced through Daryl’s mind. His heart was pounding in his chest and his palms were sweaty.
The walker lowered its arms back to its sides and turned around. Daryl stared into its face, at the face that had been Rick’s hours before. It took time for a walkers’ body to begin to rot so the features that looked back at Daryl were still recognisable human. The skin was colourless and appeared waxy in texture. A walkers’ eyes were clouded over, yellow stained and bloodshot...or at least they should be. Rick’s – NO – the walker’s eyes were still white but had a glassy haze, the previously crystal blue irises were dim but still somehow his...
”Rick?” Daryl breathed, too shocked and confused to move. A flicker of foolish hope flashed through him, making his pulse jump.
The walker seemed to hear that and suddenly moved. Lurching at Daryl with unusual swiftness, it seized hold of his shoulders and yanked him towards its mouth and poisoned teeth.
Daryl drove the bolt into the walker’s neck. It let go of him instantly, staggering back. One of the machetes lay close by and Daryl dived for it, snatching it up and turning back to the walker just in time to see it pull out the bolt. Walkers did bother doing such things. They didn’t feel pain or discomfort; they were focused wholly on biting and eating. So why then was this walker staring at the bolt in its hand with strange fascination?
“What the fuck?!” Daryl shouted his bewilderment, gapping at the walker. His outburst recaptured its attention and it dropped the bolt and moved towards him.
Daryl let out a roar and charged at it, machete lifting. The walker ducked – ducked! – under his arm and caught his foot with its own. Daryl went down yet again, crashing into the sofa with a thump. The machete had slipped from his grip and Daryl twisted around, reaching for it.
A clammy cold hand wrapped around his wrist and yanked his arm away from the weapon. The walker grabbed his own hand too and pinned them both back awkwardly against the sofa with incredible strength. Daryl bellowed and thrashed as the walker leaned over him.
“Just do it!” He yelled, “Fucking bite me so I can be with him!”
But the walker didn’t bite him; it cocked its head to one side, peering at him, furrowing its brow.
“What the hell are you?” Daryl hissed, the movement reminded him so much of Rick it made him sick.
The walker opened its mouth. Daryl closed his eyes, waiting for the searing pain of teeth ripping into his neck. He felt the brush of the walker’s head against his chin as it lowered its face towards his throat. But no teeth touched him; instead the soft brush of lips sent a shiver through his body. The walker sniffed and rubbed its nose up and down Daryl’s neck. Why the fuck was it scenting him?
“Please...” Daryl whispered, trembling, “I can’t bear it.”
The walker lifted its face and stared into Daryl’s eyes. It looked as lost as Daryl felt.
“I don’t understand,” Daryl spoke aloud, “why aren’t I dead? What the hell is going on?”
The walker’s grip on his wrists loosened then let do. It ghosted its fingers down his arms and Daryl shivered again.
“Rick...” he murmured, “It – your still in there aren’t you? Fighting it somehow?”
The walker made a strange noise in the back of its throat, somewhere between a groan and a whine. The noise was tormented – painful and sad – it drove a knife into Daryl’s gut and twisted.
Without thinking, acting purely on instinct, Daryl slowly reached a hand out. The walker followed his hand with its pale-blue misty eyes. Daryl hesitated before actually touching its face.
As if sensing his worry, the walker lifted its own hand and caught hold of Daryl’s wrist again. This time its hold was gentle, though Daryl could still feel the strength hovering just below the surface. He held his breath as he let the walker draw his hand to its face.
The lost expression from before passed across its face and Daryl almost pulled his hand back. Then, it nuzzled his fingertips with its mouth. It didn’t kiss them; there was no movement of the lips. It was just a light touch, like how a cat brushed its tail against a human’s leg as it slipped by.
“Rick!” Daryl gasped.
The walker – no Rick – locked eyes with Daryl and blinked slowly, making the whining noise again.
That told Daryl everything he needed to know.

***

It didn’t make any sense, it went against everything he knew, but hell Daryl wasn’t about to say he wished it had gone the other way.
Rick allowed Daryl to sit him down on the sofa, all the time never taking his eyes off him. Cautiously, Daryl perched next to him and held out his hand. All he got in return was a blank expression so he took hold of Rick’s wrist and turned it over. Heart lodged in his throat, he laid his fingers over Rick’s wrist. He felt no pulse.
“Ok,” he whispered, removing his fingers and swallowing awkwardly.
Rick let out a husky groan, leaning forwards and pressing his face into Daryl’s neck. Daryl jumped, still half expecting teeth.
“What the hell is going on, Rick?” He wondered aloud as he ran a hand through Rick’s hair, memorising the way the strands curled around his fingers. That and everything else he had believed he had lost, but now...
“You’re,” Daryl began, clearing his throat and pushing Rick off his shoulder, “you are...dead, Rick, do you understand?”
Rick whined at him, pawing at his leg like a young child.
“I don’t know what to do,” Daryl told the sort-of walker, “please try and speak.”
Lost eyes met his and Daryl sighed. He leant forwards and rested his forehead against Rick’s. This seemed to comfort him and he let out a half groan half purr. Despite everything, a small smile tugged at Daryl’s lips.
“Is that your happy noise?” He asked teasingly. Rick’s only answer was another deep, gravely hum.
Suddenly Daryl’s stomach gave a hungry growl and Rick stared down at his stomach with wide eyes. Daryl laughed, rubbing a reassuring hand over the back of Rick’s neck. He barely registered the cold, unpleasant texture of the skin.
Getting up from the sofa, Daryl went and searched through one of the bags till he found the tin of peaches. Rick propped his chin on Daryl’s shoulder as the red-neck settled back against the sofa, pulling his small knife from the inside of his boot. Digging his way into the top of the can, the rich sweet smell of the fruit rose to caress Daryl’s nose.
Stomach rumbling loudly, he speared one of the slices of peach and popped it into his mouth. He groaned at the taste. Rich hummed, nudging his cheek with his nose.
“Want some?” Daryl asked, getting another slice on the knife and holding it out.
Rick surveyed the piece of fruit for a second before taking it carefully off the knife with his mouth. If the circumstances had been different Daryl would have found that extremely hot. Rick chewed the fruit once before growling and spitting it out onto the floor.
“Nice manners there, officer friendly,” Daryl smirked, “I guess you don’t have to eat now...”
He trailed off, an unpleasant thought coming to his mind. What if Rick did need to eat? But the only thing a walker ate was flesh...
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Daryl said, turning his head to press a kiss to Rick’s head.
Eating the rest of the slices of peach, Daryl raised the can to his lips and drank the juice. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Rick’s eyes fixed on his throat as he swallowed. A prickle ran up Daryl’s spine.
Chucking the can away carelessly, Daryl was hit by a sudden wave of exhaustion. He yawned hugely, rubbing a hand over his face. He had forgotten how much emotion could drain you.
The comfy cushions of the sofa were too inviting for him to refuse and Daryl stretched out. Rick scooted down to the end and Daryl smiled as he laid down on his back and rested his head on Rick’s lap.
Whenever he had done this before Rick would always comb his fingers through his hair and rub his scalp and now Daryl saw the longing to do this pass across walker-Rick’s face.
“It’s alright,” Daryl told him gently. Rick blinked at him, confused and unsure. Groping for his right hand, Daryl lifted it to rest against his head.
“Go on,” he said, the tremor of a plea in his voice, “Please. I’m not afraid of you.”
Rick’s fingers clumsily began to stroke his head and Daryl sighed deeply, letting his eyes drift shut. He felt Rick’s over hand warily sneaked up and slip around under his shirt. It wasn’t a sexual touch; Daryl wondered if Rick still knew what they were, it was his way of comforting himself. Walker-Rick seemed to be fascinated with his scent and skin. The hand spread out wide on his stomach and Daryl felt his muscles there flutter. Rick clearly did too for he let out one of his happy humming purrs.
Gradually, Rick’s fingers became less clumsy and slipped through his hair more smoothly. Daryl slowly let his body relax, trusting in his belief that, undead or not, Rick would watch over him whilst he slept.

Chapter Text

“Carl!” Rick shouted after his son as the boy stormed off, one hand on his hip where his gun was holstered the other holding the burning branch as a torch.
Rick stared after, frustrated, “Damn it!”
Daryl sighed as he looked up from cleaning his crossbow.
“Just let him go, Rick, the kid just needs to blow off some steam,” Daryl called across the campfire.
For a moment Daryl thought Rick was going to run off after Carl, but then the man turned his back on the shrinking figure.
“Why is he so bloody stubborn?” Rick snapped, marching over to Daryl and sitting down next to the red-neck heavily.
“He’s a teenager,” Daryl shrugged his shoulders. He eyed Rick sideways and saw the older man was biting his lip so hard it had started to bleed.
“Hey,” Daryl tapped Rick’s shoulder with the tip of one of his arrows, “stop worrying, he’ll be fine.”
“But what if he runs into trouble?”
“Then he’ll holler and we’ll go save his arse. Rick, you need to start giving the kid a little bit of leash to play with. The more you continue to mother him the more he’ll just keep blowing up like that.”
“And when did you become father of the year?” Rick snapped, glowering angrily into the small fire.
Daryl didn’t take the sheriff’s words to heart; he knew Rick hadn’t meant the spite behind them. They sat in the silence for a minute. The only noise came from the crackling fire and the soft rustle of the leave of the trees off to one side.
Rick let out a long sigh and let his shoulders slouch. He grimaced in pain as his tight muscles gave a throb.
Daryl noticed and asked, “Your back still giving you strife?”
“Yeah,” Rick admitted grudgingly, he lifted a hand to rub at the back of his neck, “must have landed harder than I thought.”
Earlier that day they had been clearing out a house, looking for supplies. A walker had come crashing through a door and knocked Rick down the stairs. Daryl had taken the walker down with one shot but Rick had landed hard on his back.
“You wanna a hand?” The proposal slipped out of Daryl’s mouth before he knew what he was offering.
Rick shot him a sceptical look, “With what? My back?”
Daryl awkwardly looked down, trying to hold back the flush he could feel reddening his cheeks. Damn it, he thought, what the hell am I thinking?
“Y-yeah, I guess – if you want, I could try and unknot some of the muscle. It may take some of the pain away.”
“You,” Rick began, peering at Daryl with amusement, “Daryl Dixon, hardcore badass, are offering to give me a back rub?”
“Forget it,” Daryl said quickly, lifting his crossbow from his lap to stand, “If you gonna make fun then –“
“- No,” Rick blurted, his hand shot forwards and caught hold of Daryl’s wrist, “I’m not making fun of you. It’s just...you’ve never offered before.”
“Well, that was before, back when it wasn’t just us against the whole fucking crazy world,” Daryl tried to sound casual, but his voice shook slightly with nerves.
Rick nodded, “I get it, we need to stay as fit as possible, can’t rely on the group to watch our backs anymore.”
“Yeah...” Daryl blinked hard, the memories of their deaths, of Carol’s, stung his heart as fresh as ever.
“How do you want me then?” Rick asked, matter-of-factly.
Daryl scoffed, “What?”
Rick grinned at him, a playful glint in his clear blue eyes, “How do you want me to sit? For the back rub?”
“Oh, I – um,” Daryl tried to regain his composure, “I’ll sit behind you.”
Rick’s grin widened and Daryl realised he was enjoying watching him all flustered. He had always admired Rick, right from the start, though he never would have admitted it back then. But, as time went on and the world got crueller and the group got smaller, Daryl found himself looking to the man. Rick had been constant, an anchor in all the chaos. But, like everyone, Rick was just a man. Daryl had watched him fall about after Lori’s death, it had been the hardest thing in the world to not go to the man and comfort him. So, instead, he had done the only thing he could to help, he had stepped up with Little' arse-kicker.
After Rick found himself again, Daryl had made sure he was always there for the other man to turn to, to trust, to look to in times of confusion and fear. Slowly, Daryl had begun to realise what he felt for the ex-sheriff was more than just admiration and friendship, it was deeper, more intense and dangerous.
Daryl wasn’t gay, but there was just something about Rick... Try as hard as he might, Daryl could not prevent himself from gravitating towards him. He seemed to promise something Daryl has never had, had never been blessed with in his life. But what exactly that was Daryl was not sure, all he knew was that he couldn’t keep turning away from it.
So, he took a deep steadying breath and settled down behind Rick on the hard ground and laid his trembling hands on his shoulders. It would be easier to give him a massage if he removed his shirt, but Daryl wasn’t about to suggest that.
Gently at first, Daryl began to roll his fingertips around Rick’s shoulders. The muscles were as tight as cord and Rick hissed with pain.
“Sorry,” Daryl whispered, resisting the temptation to lean forwards and kiss the other man’s neck.
“It’s ok,” Rick said, leaning back into Daryl’s hands. Daryl’s cheeks were hot and he was glad Rick was facing away from him. He returned to his attempt to unravel some of the tension from the sheriff’s muscles.
Switching methods, he changed from using his fingertips to his whole hand, squeezing Rick’s shoulders and the strong muscles of his lower neck. Rick groaned and his head fell forwards.
The noise shocked Daryl and he almost stopped. He gapped at the back of the man’s head, licking his dry lips as he rolled the heel of one palm between Rick’s shoulder blades.
“Y-you’re really good at that,” Rick sighed, twisting his head around to glance at Daryl.
“Guess I missed my true calling,” Daryl flashed Rick a smile, trying to seem relaxed. It clearly failed.
Rick shifted slightly, turning his body sideways towards Daryl’s, his face a frown. Daryl was forced to drop his hands and he looked down at his lap, his fingers tingled.
“What’s wrong?” Rick asked, leaning forwards, trying to catch the red-neck’s eyes in that way of him.
“Nothing,” Daryl said quickly, avoiding Rick’s gaze, “do you want me to stop?”
Rick hesitated for a moment; his blue eyes reflected the firelight eerily, like a wolf’s. Cautiously, as if he was approaching a cornered animal, he reached out and cupped Daryl’s chin in his hand. Daryl jumped, his head snapping and he stared into Rick’s eyes – the eyes he had found himself more than once falling into.
“Only if you want,” Rick replied softly, his eyes flickered over the other man’s face. Daryl wondered if they were still talking about the massage. He swallowed and Rick’s hand moved up from his chin to rest against his cheek.
Closing his eyes, Daryl leant into the warm palm and let out a sigh. Suddenly there was another set of lips pressing against his and Daryl jerked away wildly, almost falling over onto his back. Rick’s confident hands caught hold of his arm, stopping him.
“I’m sorry!” They both said at the same time. They stared at each other for a moment then Rick laughed and Daryl smiled, red and embarrassed.
“I’d never have thought you a blusher,” Rick teased as he trailed his hand up Daryl’s arm, lingering for a moment over his bicep.
Daryl shifted so he was kneeling in front of Rick. His heart was hammering against his ribs and his mind was buzzing like he was a teenager who had just had their first kiss.
Rick mirrored Daryl’s stance, kneeling. They were so close their bodies brushed; they were the same height too.
Daryl couldn’t believe that Rick felt the same. He couldn’t believe the world could be that kind after so inflicting so much punishment and suffering.
Rick was too good for him, too good a man. He knew that he was no saint, they all had done dark things to survive, but somehow Rick still gave off an air of light. Daryl was suddenly terrified of tainting him, of corrupting his honest white heart.
“Stop thinking,” Rick told Daryl, breaking the silence and snapping Daryl out of his spiralling thoughts.
“I’m not good enough –“ Daryl began to say, sinking back onto his heels. Rick stopped him; his arms wrapped around his waist and jolted him flush up against his body. A flash of hot desire darted through Daryl’s body.
“Don’t say such things, Daryl,” Rick said, his voice rough, “you are perfect.”
Daryl snorted and tried to wiggle out of Rick’s grip but the other man didn’t budge.
“Rick...” he trailed off as the other man leant forward and brushed his lips across his forehead, then his cheeks.
A shudder ran down Daryl’s spine and he slid his hands over Rick’s shoulders and up into his curly, slicked back hair. Rick’s hand cupped his face again and he ran his thumb over Daryl’s bottom lip, eyes fixed on the plump skin.
“You are perfect, Daryl, to me,” Rick said, “I wouldn’t change a single thing about you. I want you– all of you – just as you are.”
“You’re a fool,” Daryl told the ex-sheriff, though his stomach was alive with butterflies. Rick smiled - a smile so open and loving that Daryl couldn’t stop staring.
“I may be a fool,” Rick murmured, tilting his head and brushing his nose against Daryl’s cheek affectionately, “but that doesn’t change the fact we still haven’t retried that kiss.”
Rick was insatiable when fixed his mind on something. It was one of the things – his determination – that Daryl loved about him. Wait, loved...
Daryl blinked as the truth hit him. He loved Rick, he had fucking fallen for the damn sheriff. Instead of terrifying him, the realisation calmed Daryl. It finally made sense what he felt; he just hadn’t known what to call it before.
Daryl threw aside all his concerns then and tightened his grip on Rick’s hair and growled, “We’d better fix that kiss thing then, hey, Officer Friendly?”

Chapter Text

When Daryl woke up Rick was still petting his head and playing with his hair. For a moment Daryl just laid still, letting reality sink in. Rick had been bitten, he had turned, but he remembered him – he wasn’t mindless or bloodthirsty like all the other walkers. Daryl was sure he would be wondering how in the world it had happened for the rest of his days. Did he even want to know the answer, really? Was he better off not knowing?
Rick’s hands paused, hovering over Daryl’s head. Feeling the change in the sort-of walker Daryl sat up.
“What’s wrong?” He asked, peering at Rick’s white, blank face.
Walker-Rick cocked his head to one side, eyes staring off past Daryl. It was as if he was listening to something. Daryl strained his ears but could hear nothing.
Rick pulled back his lips from his teeth and growled loudly.
Acting on instinct, Daryl rolled off the sofa and jumped to his feet, snatching up his crossbow from the floor. He brought the weapon up and pointed it at the walker - he knew things had been too good to be true.
Rick got unsteadily to his feet, his eyes fixed on something outside through the window. His growl grew louder and his eyes seemed to cloud over even more than they already were, obscuring the last hint of blue irises.
Chancing it, Daryl glanced sideways out of the window and froze. Through the glass he could see the lurching forms of walkers heading straight towards the house.
“Shit!” Daryl swore. He grabbed for the bags, slinging them over his back and shoulders. The weight would slow him down but there wasn’t time to see if walker-Rick would let him put any of them on him.
“Let’s go,” Daryl hissed to Rick who was still growling. Rick did not move so Daryl reached out and grabbed his hand.
“We have to leave, now!” He told the sort-of walker, squeezing Rick’s hand tight. Rick looked slowly from their hands up to Daryl’s face, eyes wide and face blank.
“Please,” Daryl begged, pulling at Rick’s hand, “follow me.”
His plea seemed to reach whatever level of understand Rick had left. Daryl half dragged, half led Rick through the house towards the door. He paused and looked through the spy hole; he couldn’t see any walkers outside the front of the house.
“Ok,” Daryl turned around to Rick, “we have to move quickly, can you do that? We need to get back around onto the other street to the jeep.”
Rick whined unhappily and crowded into Daryl’s personal space, nudging at his chin with his nose. He didn’t want to go outside, Daryl realised with a jolt. Daryl lifted his chin up so Rick could scent his neck, knowing it somehow helped ground him. Carefully, letting his crossbow fall from his hand, Daryl reached up and ran his fingers through Rick’s hair. At the touch, Rick lifted his head and nuzzled Daryl’s jaw affectionately, his icy cold mouth brushing against the red-neck’s stubble, rasping.
“Come on, Rick,” Daryl said softly, cupping his face, “just follow me, stay close.”
Outside, Daryl could hear the walkers around the side of the house, the ragged breath and growls switching every instinct he had onto high alert. The noise seemed to unnerve Rick as well. He whined and bumped into Daryl from behind, trying to nuzzle the nape of his neck.
“Stop it, Rick,” Daryl hissed sharply, “there isn’t time for that now!”
Quickly, Daryl led the way down the steps of the porch and down the garden path. Rick followed, he moved faster than a normal walker, though he limped heavily from his bitten ankle.
There were walkers dotted everywhere. Daryl kept low, using what he could for cover. They seemed to take no notice of Rick to his relief. At the end of the street, they turned left then left again so they were on the road where the jeep was parked.
Rick growled low in the back of his throat but Daryl ignored him, they just needed to reach the jeep. Suddenly, from behind a nearby van, three walkers lurched into Daryl’s path.
“Fuck!” He swore, lifting his crossbow in time to take one down. The other two snarled and reached for him with rotting, filthy hands.
Daryl kicked one back and dropped his crossbow, there was no time to reload. He yanked the machete from his belt just as one of the walkers reached him. He drove the blade down into its head, splitting it apart, gore splattered everywhere.
The last walker was almost upon Daryl and he yanked at the machete but it was stuck in the corpse’s skull. A gapping mouth filled Daryl’s vision and the walker’s hands closed over his arm.
Daryl yelled then suddenly Rick appeared, teeth bared and snarling. He seized hold of the walkers head and twisted its neck around so savagely that the weakened, rotting bone broke and the head came away in his hands.
Daryl stumbled back as the headless body fell towards him. It landed at his feet, still twitching sickeningly. He panted, adrenaline coursing through his reins. Swallowing hard, stepping around the convulsing body, Daryl watched Rick cautiously. Rick was still holding the head in his hands, looking at it with a confused but slightly sad expression. The head was still ‘alive’, growling and snapping its jaw.
“Hey,” Daryl said, drawing walker-Rick’s attention from the head, “just drop it.”
Rick obeyed. The skull broke as it hit the road and rotted brain gloop spattered the concrete. Daryl quickly looked around in case there were more but the street seemed deserted. Taking a deep breath, Daryl opened his arms and called to Rick shakily, “come here.”
Within a heartbeat Rick was pressed against him, head buried in the side of his neck, hands holding on to the front of his shirt. Tears rose up in Daryl’s eyes and clamped them shut, pressing his own face into Rick’s shoulder. Even as a walker Rick was still protecting him, saving him.
“Thank you,” Daryl whispered, wrapping his arms around Rick’s slender waist. Whining, Rick nuzzled up and down Daryl’s throat, chasing the man’s heartbeat through his main artery.
Shuddering, Daryl pressed a kiss into Rick’s hair then gently pushed him away. He couldn’t forget that this wasn’t his Rick – he wasn’t alive.
“Come on,” he said, jerking his head towards the jeep up the other end of the road, “that’s our ride.”
Rick blinked, looking lost again. Daryl held out his hand and waited. He didn’t move to take Rick hand but the walker continued to not move. He needed to know Rick was capable of doing such a thing for himself.
The walker stared down at his outstretched hand for a long moment, eyes slowly regaining some of their colour. Almost shyly, he reached out his own and brushed his fingertips against Daryl’s.
“That’s it,” Daryl murmured encouragingly. Rick slid his hand into Daryl’s, their fingers sliding between one another’s. Relief flooded Daryl and he smiled weakly.
“We’re going to be ok,” he told himself aloud. Rick lifted his head to look at him as if in agreement.
Daryl led the way up the road towards the jeep, not removing his hand from Rick’s. And as they walked, Daryl could have sworn he felt Rick squeeze his fingers, ever so gently.

Chapter Text

They drove for most of the day, passing nothing but endless fields and empty road. It was uncomfortable hot, sweat stuck Daryl’s shirt to his back and he kept mopping his brow with the back of his hand.
There was only one bottle of water left, the practical side of Daryl noted that it was a good job Rick no longer needed to drink. He did need to eat however, something told Daryl. What scale of problem that would cause though wouldn’t make itself clear till the first time they came across other survivors. Daryl had as little an idea of how Rick would react as he did the people themselves, he doubted anyone else would understand though. Rick needed to be kept hidden – safe.
Through the dirty windscreen Daryl could just make out what looked like a farm house up ahead off to one side. Behind him, the horizon was turning purple; it would be dark in a couple of hours. Who knew how long it would be till they came across any other type of shelter. A farm may mean food too and, if he was lucky, a well or a pump.
The memory of Hershel’s farm bobbed to the surface of Daryl’s mind. The time they had spent there had had its troubles, yes, but the days of quiet had done the group good.
Personally, Daryl had found the place unsettling, it just wasn’t him. He was a drifter, a fighter, there was no way he could settle down in some farm house and grow crops and herd cattle for the rest of his days.
But Rick could, he had tried to at the prison. Could Daryl have done it for Rick? Settled down and lived a normal, white picket fenced life? That is, if the apocalypse hadn’t destroyed any remnants of how things used to be, and that he had met Rick. Daryl snorted at the thought of Merle and his dad meeting law abiding sheriff Rick. He was being stupid.
Daryl glanced sideways at Rick and saw the sort-of walker was staring out of the window as the scenery rushed passed.
“Enjoying the view?” Daryl asked, distracting himself from his thoughts. Rick turned to look at him, face blank and eyes pale. Sadness squeezed Daryl’s heart and a feeling of loneliness washed over him.
“God, I miss your voice, man,” he sighed, looking back out at the road.
At the sound of his unhappy tone, Rick whined. Daryl was quickly beginning to understand that Rick couldn’t really understand his words. He was like a dog. He sensed emotions, heard them in his tone of voice. He recognised words because of their sound not their meanings and was had picked up what Daryl expected him to do when he heard some.
“Do you really recognise me?” Daryl asked Rick, needing to say his thoughts out loud, “Or, do you just remember on some level that I’m not food?”
Rick tugged unhappily at his seatbelt Daryl had insisted he wore. Reaching over, Daryl pressed the button and the belt shot back to hang on the side of the door. Rick purred and leaned over to Daryl, nuzzling his shoulder.
“Is that meant to answer my question?” Daryl growled, slowing the jeep down as they approached the dirt track that led off the road up to the distant farm house. Rick pulled back, not liking his tone. Daryl instantly felt guilty, as if he had just kicked a dog or something.
“I’m sorry,” he said gently, lifting his hand from the gear stick to slide it into Rick’s on his lap. Rick lifted his hand and drew it to his face, pressing his nose and mouth into Daryl’s palm. He inhaled deeply, drawing in his scent. Rick no longer breathed – he was dead after all – but he did smell.
“I need that hand back,” Daryl told him as he tugged it back to change gear. He swung the jeep off the road and onto the track. The path was bumpy and Rick growled.
“Nothing I can do about it,” Daryl muttered. He stopped the jeep a short distance from the house, turning off the engine.
The place was smaller than Hershel’s farm; Daryl could see a barn close by and a chicken coop. Now he had turned off the engine he could hear the birds clucking away. The thought of eggs made his mouth moist. But if the chickens were alive that must mean someone was looking after them.
Daryl got out of the jeep and looked around. In the distance he could make out tall fences encircling the property, he guessed that was how whoever lived he had managed to survive. But Daryl knew that no fence could withstand a large group of walkers.
Turning his attention to the house, Daryl saw just in time the front door opening and two men emerged. From this distance Daryl could see much about them, though he got the feeling one was younger, just a teenager. “Get back in your jeep and drive away!” The larger figure shouted out. Daryl hesitated, weighing up his options. He didn’t get to think long.
Rick had spotted the two men and something changed in his eyes. Snarling, he awkwardly stumbled out of the jeep, dragging his mangled foot. His mouth hung open and he sniffed the air hungrily.
“Fuck!” Daryl swore. He threw himself around the front of the jeep just as Rick began to lurch towards the house.
“Rick, no!” Daryl hissed, blocking the walker’s path but Rick simply ploughed right into him.
“Damn it!” Daryl dug his heels in and pushed Rick back with all his strength. Behind him, he could hear the two men yelling something. There was the snap of a shotgun being readied.
“Please, Rick, snap out of it!” Daryl begged. He caught hold of his face between his hands and yanked it hard towards him. Rick snapped at the air, his growls rumbling in his chest but he broke his manic stare at the men.
“Calm down,” Daryl ordered him, staring into his clouded eyes, “you mustn’t act like this, they will kill you! I can’t lose you, not again, not for real.”
Something of understand flickered across the walker’s face and he stopped growling.
“That’s it,” Daryl soothed, running a shaking hand through Rick’s hair, “nice and calm.”
Rick closed his mouth and blinked, a hint of blue returned to his eyes.
“Come back to me, Rick,” Daryl whispered, stroking his thumb over his cheek. Rick whined pitifully as if he was in pain then dropped his head down onto Daryl’s shoulder.
“There we go,” Daryl let out his breath, his heart lodged in his throat. He rubbed Rick’s back and let the walker bury his face into his neck. Rick pressed his mouth to Daryl’s throat, making a noise half a growl half a purr. It vibrated through Daryl and he shuddered.
“That’s impossible,” a voice blurted and Daryl suddenly remembered they were alone.
Rick snarled, his head snapping up towards the two stranger who had crept towards them whilst they had been distracted.
“Don’t come any closer!” Daryl warned, putting his hands on Rick’s chest to keep him back.
The two men were gaping at Rick. Daryl guessed they were father and son, the kid was about seventeen and the man was tall and broad. They both had the same ruff features, dark hair and eyes. The father kept a shotgun in his hands.
“You’d better start explaining yourself,” the man growled, lifting the gun and pointing it at Rick.
“Believe me,” Daryl said gruffly, “I wished I knew.”
Father and son exchanged looks.
“How had that thing not torn you to pieces?” the teen asked, eyes wide.
“He remembers me,” Daryl said, “We – we were close before. He got bit and I couldn’t kill him, so he turned.”
“He’s been like that since?” Daryl nodded, “Look, I have no idea how or why, but he isn’t like the rest.”
“I don’t know about that,” the man said gravelly, eyeing Rick, “the way he’s looking at me and my boy I think the only thing holding him back is you.”
Daryl glanced at Rick’s face and saw the guy was right. Pure hunger masked Rick’s face. Daryl reached up and cupped his cheek, “Rick, stay with me.”
The walker looked at Daryl and his face expression turned confused and pained. Daryl realised then how strong this thing between them was. Rick was fighting every new walker instinct he had for Daryl, and it was tearing him in two.
“What do you want?” the man asked, breaking the moment.
Daryl dropped his hand from Rick’s face to his neck, circling his fingers into the cold, stiff muscles to keep the sort-of walker calm.
“I need water, do you have a well or a pump or something?”
“Yeah, we have a pump,” the teen answered quickly.
“Be quiet, Jack!” Snapped his father, flexing his hold on the gun. “Look,” said Daryl, “let me just fill up some bottled and we’ll be on our way.”
The man shook his head, “No can do, mate, I’m not gonna let that thing take one more step towards me home and family.”
Rick growled and bared his teeth.
“That’s not helping,” Daryl hissed at him and Rick let his lips fall back over his teeth, the growl still rumbled in his chest though.
“What are your names?” the kid asked, clearly more intrigued then scared by Rick.
“Daryl,” he answered, “and he’s Rick.”
“It isn’t a ‘he’,” snapped the man, “it’s undead, mindless and soulless.”
“Shut the hell up!” Daryl retorted and Rick whined at the anger in his voice. The sort-of walker pressed his body up against Daryl’s side and hid his face back in his neck.
The guy and his son, Jack, gapped. Daryl felt a small flicker of pride in his gut and he reached up to run his fingers through Rick’s hair, just to take the point.
“As long as I’m next to him, he won’t attack you,” Daryl prayed he was right.
“We can give him some water, dad,” Jack began, “look at him – he really looks like he could do with a break.”
“Thanks,” Daryl muttered, though he knew the kid was right, he was filthy and half starved, he must stink too.
The guy held out for a brief moment but then sighed and lowered the gun, “Fine, but I’ll only take you round the back to the water pump, not inside. You fill up your bottles then you take your pet walker and leave.”
“Deal,” Daryl said. He kept a firm hand wrapped around Rick’s wrist as he fumbled around the back of the jeep for the empty bottles and stuffed them into a bag. He did not trust letting go of Rick for one second.
The two led them around the side of the house to the back. Vegetables grew everywhere Daryl looked and he hastily regretted not arriving at this place whilst its owners were out. This place was a goldmine.
“You keep a hold of it,” the guy ordered Daryl, holding his hand out for the bag of bottles, “I’ll fill them up.”
Daryl threw him the bag then glanced back to Rick. The sort-of walker was eyeing the kid hungrily again and Daryl put his free hand on his side, just in case.
“So, how many more of you live here?” Daryl asked the question to break the awkward silence.
“That’s none of your business,” the guy said, pumping the leaver three times before water began to flow. The sight of the clear, clean water made Daryl’s dirty skin itch.
“Where’s that pump connected to? Can’t be the mains.”
“There’s a lake,” Jack said before his father could, “about five miles from here.”
“Really?” Daryl instantly was interested, “in what direction?”
“South-west,” the kid told him, “we drive up there some days to fish, don’t catch much anymore mind.”
Rick was getting agitated. He growled loudly and took a step towards the teen. Daryl put himself in the way again and held Rick in place.
“That’s enough,” the man snapped, screwing the tops on the bottle he had been filling, “I want that thing off my property now!”
Daryl knew better than to push his luck. The guy had only filled two of his six bottles but it was better than nothing. They escorted him back to the jeep and the guy threw in the bag.
“Thanks,” Daryl said as he forcibly pushed Rick into the seat and buckled him in. The walker snarled and strained against the strap across his body but couldn’t get free.
“Just get out of here!” the man ordered, lifting his gun again. Daryl held up his hands and quickly moved to the other side of the jeep.
“Take care, kid,” he told Jack gruffly as he got in and started the ignition.
Rick did not calm down till they were off the bumpy track and back onto the smooth road. He stopped fighting his seatbelt and looked around, dazed.
“I guess that answers some things,” Daryl muttered, “If I was anyone else you would have eaten me by now.”
Rick didn’t seem to hear him. Daryl was hit by the feeling of loneliness again and he bit his lip. His vision blurred momentarily but he refused to let the tears fall.
Rick was a walker; he had the hunger in side of him just like all the rest. Daryl had been such an idiot to hope otherwise. There was no way this would work out well. This wasn’t a second chance of a happy ending. There was no such thing, not in this life.

Chapter Text

Just when Daryl and Rick had thought the world couldn’t be any more merciless, Carl became sick. It started with a cough which got gradually worse and a fever that left Carl sweaty and delusional. His skin had been burning to the touch and his cough so severe and rough that he coughed up blood. In his last few days Carl had struggled to breathe, slipping in and out of confused consciousness. Rick had never left his side, leaving Daryl to walker-proof the house they had come across.

From the moment it had become clear that Carl’s cough was more than just a common cold, Daryl had known that was it. They had no medicine and no antibiotics. If Hershel had still been alive Daryl guessed he would have been able to diagnose what was wrong with Carl. Rick suspected it was pneumonia but Daryl knew it was more than that. They had been on the road for months and were exhausted, sleep deprived and malnourished. No kid, no matter how strong and stubborn, could remain healthy enough to fight off sickness.
Daryl couldn’t decide if it was a blessing or not, Carl’s short life ending as it did. He stood in the doorway to the bedroom, watching Carl wheeze and tremble.
Rick sat in a chair next to the bed, holding his son’s hand, eyes fixed on his face. Carl was suffering, there was no doubt about that, but at least he hadn’t fallen to the walkers, right? Was it better for Rick that he was able to prepare him? Or was it crueler to watch your son grow weaker and weaker when there was absolutely nothing you could do about it?
Daryl shook his head; dwelling on such thoughts would not change anything. Remembering the bottle of water he had in his hand, Daryl stepped towards the bed and held it out.
“Thank you,” whispered Rick as he took the bottle from Daryl, “he needs to keep hydrated.”
Daryl nodded, biting his lip, knowing that that wasn’t the solution – there wasn’t one.
“You should drink some too,” Daryl told Rick, laying his hand onto the other man’s shoulder and squeezing, “keep your strength up.”
“I’m fine,” Rick replied, leaning over Carl and unscrewing the bottle cap, “it’s not me who needs looking after right now.”
Daryl sighed, watching as Rick gently lifted Carl’s head to help him drink, “When was the last time you ate something, Rick?”
Before Rick could answer, Carl broke into a fit of coughing, spilling water down himself as he body reject it. Daryl wasn’t a doctor but even he knew when your body refused to take water it was a sign of the end. It took weeks to die of starvation, but just days because of dehydration.
Rick mopped up the spilt water with the corner of the bed sheet. He smoothed Carl’s sweaty hair down, his fingers lingering across his son’s fever-hot cheek.
Daryl took the bottle from Rick’s unsteady hand and picked up the wash-cloth from the bedside table. He wet the cloth then handed it wordlessly to Rick. The ex-sheriff tried to smile in thanks but failed.
Dabbing at Carl’s sweaty neck, Rick began to hum a tune under his breath. To Daryl it sounded like some kind of lullaby and he wondered with a painful stab to the heart if Rick had used to sing it to Carl when he was a baby. He suddenly missed Little’ arse-kicker terribly.
Unable to bear being in the room for another second, Daryl turned and walked quickly towards the door.
“Daryl, wait,” Rick called out after him and the red-neck froze in the doorway, a flash of shame coursing through him. Rick laid the damp cloth across Carl’s forehead before getting up and crossing the room to stand in front of the younger man.
“Look, Rick I’m sorry –“ Daryl began but Rick cut off his apology, pressing his lips to Daryl’s.
It was the fire time since Carl had fallen seriously ill that they had kissed and Daryl realised how much he had missed this side of their relationship. Forgetting the situation for a moment, Daryl caught hold of Rick’s hips and pulled the older man against his body, kissing him hungrily, biting at his bottom lip. Rick held back, though he snaked his arms around Daryl’s neck and let himself be manhandled.
Slipping his hand beneath Rick’s worn, stained shirt Daryl ran his thumb up and down the jut of his hipbone. Rick hissed and broke the kiss, looking at Daryl with wide eyes.
“Shit,” Daryl growled, glancing over Rick’s shoulder at Carl, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what –“
“- It’s alright,” Rick interrupted, gently cupping Daryl’s jaw in his palm, “I get it, I’ve missed that too.”
Daryl relaxed with relief and nuzzled at Rick’s hand on his face. The older man smiled fondly but the haunted look didn’t leave his eyes.
“He’ll be alright, Rick,” Daryl couldn’t stop the lie from slipping from his mouth, “he’s a tough kid.”
“We both know that’s not true,” Rick whispered.
Daryl stared at his face, at the dark bags beneath his eyes and the rough stubble on his jaw. He could see this close up the lines on Rick’s face clearly and the scars on his lip from where he was always worrying it. Yet, to Daryl, he was the most gorgeous thing he had ever seen – though he would never say such girlish things aloud, he wasn’t a pussy.
“When...” Rick began, opening his eyes, “when Carl...I can’t...”
Daryl knew what Rick was trying to ask.
“I will deal with it,” he promised the older man, hugging him tight around the waist. Rick brief returned the hug and pressed a chaste kiss to Daryl’s lips before he stepped back and returned to his son’s bedside.

***

Daryl was woken in the middle of the night by Rick’s grief-stricken cry. Bolting upright on the sofa, Daryl stared across the living room at the stairs, heart pounding. It had happened, Carl had finally stopped fighting.
Getting up, Daryl picked up his knife from the table as he passed and trudged up the stairs. He found Rick on the bed, rocking Carl’s lifeless body in his arms. Daryl hesitated in the doorway, wondering if he should give Rick a moment.
The floorboards beneath his feet creaked and Rick looked up. Daryl’s heart clenched painfully as he saw the tears streaking the man’s face.
Without noticing he was moving, Daryl strode to Rick’s side and wrapped his arms around him. Rick broke down truly then, sobbing and burying his face into Daryl’s shirt. Carl lay across his father’s lap, skin pale and eyes closed.
Gently, Daryl combed his fingers through Rick’s hair and kissed the man’s neck. He felt Rick’s warm tears seep into his shirt and a shudder ran down his spine.
Daryl didn’t speak, there was nothing to say, nothing new. Carl had been Rick’s last link to the past, to the hope that things could somehow go back to the way things had been. But, most importantly and simply, he had been his son. Daryl could not imagine the agony of a parent losing their child.
They remained like that till dawn. The early sunlight was hazy and weak as it filtered through the grime-covered window, grey clouds obscured the sky and the sound of rain roused Daryl. He blinked, realising he had been dozing, head resting on Rick’s shoulder.
Rick was still hunched over Carl’s body next to him, though his eyes were closed. It was time, Daryl knew. He leant towards Rick and kissed his forehead gently and whispered, “Rick.”
The ex-sheriff’s eyelids fluttered then opened, fixing instantly on his son’s lifeless face.
He left out his breath slowly then swallowed and said, “I-I had hoped it had been a dream.”
Daryl winced at Rick’s words but asked, “Do you still want me to do it?”
Rick nodded stiffly; he lifted Carl’s limp body up and hugged his son awkwardly one last time. Daryl got up and crossed to the window to give Rick a moment of privacy.
“Watch over your mum and Judith for me,” Rick whispered, kissing Carl’s forehead, “I’m sorry, Carl, for everything. I need you to know how proud I am of you. I never got the chance to say, but I am. This world made you grow up too fast, yet you became a better, stronger, man then me.”
Daryl heard Rick’s words and drew in a steadying breath. He hated how Rick could not see how vital he had been to the group; none of them would have made it as far as they did without him. Yet Rick blamed himself for everyone they had lost, and Daryl knew that wouldn’t change. It was who Rick once, it was the burden any good leader – good man – carried.
Rick got painfully to his feet, his back aching from its hunched position. Lovingly, he smoothed down Carl’s hair then gently wrapped his son in the bed sheet.
“I love you,” Rick murmured as he took one final look at Carl’s face before covering it with the white fabric.
Daryl returned to his side, sliding an arm around Rick’s slender waist. Shaking, Rick leant against Daryl’s side and breathed heavily, fighting against the tears. Daryl saw the body twist and he turned Rick around.
“Go,” he said, kissing Rick chastely, “You don’t need to watch this, it doesn’t make you weak.”
Rick rested his forehead against Daryl’s as he whispered, “thank you.”
Daryl watched Rick leave the room, waiting till he heard him descending the stairs before he turned back to Carl. He pulled his knife from his belt and sat on the edge of the bed.
The body began to struggle against the sheet it was wrapped it, groaning. Daryl raised the knife over his head and put his other hand onto the walker’s chest, keeping it still. The groans turned into snarls and Daryl brought the knife down, driving it into the walker’s head.
Blood bloomed across the white bed sheet as he yanked the blade free.
“I won’t let anything happen to your old man,” Daryl told the bloodstain, “rest easy knowing that, kid.”
Daryl knew he shouldn’t have made that promise but it had felt right at the time. Still, you shouldn’t make promises you couldn’t keep, especially to the dead.

Chapter Text

Daryl saw the sign for the camp site a couple of miles before they came across the fork in the road. There might be something they could use there, if they were lucky. The fields ended and forest took their place. The temperature was dropping, the air becoming fresher and the heat no longer stifling. The sun would begin to set in a couple of hours.
The camp site it turned out was at the lake Jack had mentioned. It was small, just a cluster of log cabins next to the water’s edge, a small jetty jutted out over the reflective surface with a plastic kayak tied to it.
There was something about the camp that both unnerved Daryl and appealed to him. Weeds and moss grew up the logs of the cabins and there was a smell in the air that Daryl couldn’t quite place. It was eerily quiet, the forest lay still and the lake reflected the sun as it sank towards the canopy of trees.
Daryl drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, weighing his options. Rick sat as quiet and still as their surroundings, eyes fixed forwards on the lake.
“Screw it,” Daryl muttered, turning off the engine and getting out of the jeep. As soon as his feet touched the earth a shiver ran up his spine. Rick wined, yanking at his seatbelt again.
“Don’t worry,” Daryl told him, moving around the jeep to open the door, “I’m not gonna leave you in the car.”
He pressed the button and stepped back. Rick clambered out, his close to useless foot hampering his movements. Daryl went to the back and pulled out his rucksack, slinging it over his back. He felt better as he picked up his crossbow, the familiar weight somehow helping to sooth some of his unease.
“Come on,” Daryl said to Rick, “let’s check the cabins.”
There were seven of them in total; four had nothing but cobweb-drabbed bunk beds in them and empty cupboards. Another seemed to be the office/reception where parents would drop their kids off at the start of summer. The final two were of more interest.
Daryl dug out his torch and held it over his head as he pushed open the door. The beam of light illuminated what would have been the medical room. Clearly someone else had found the camp before Daryl for the cabinet that would have held the medicine was hanging off its hinges. Quickly, Daryl searched the rest of the draws. He found a box of pain killers stuffed behind boxes of plasters and a couple of roles of bandages still sealed up in plastic. Stuffing everything of use in his bag, Daryl swept around his torch, checking every corner.
He came across a pin board that was covered in photos of the boys who had attended the camp. The photos were dated, ranging from 1996 to the year of the outbreak. The boys looked happy to be there, smiling out of the photos. Daryl wondered if any of them were still alive somewhere.
Moving on to the last cabin which was a lot larger than the others, Daryl discovered it to be the cafeteria. Wooden tables and chairs stood covered in dust, dark stains streaked the floor – blood. With a glance Daryl guessed the blood to be old, whoever it had belonged to was long gone.
Through a door he found the kitchen, clearly whatever had done down here. There were two rotted bodies, more bone than flesh now. Daryl heard the scurrying of tiny claws and saw a couple of rats diving for cover. Rick growled hungrily from behind him and Daryl glanced back at him.
“Fancy rat pie, do we?” He asked gruffly, stepping over one of the bodies to check out the kitchen. Whatever food had been stashed here had already been taken. Sighing, Daryl swallowed and his stomach clenched with hunger.
They went back outside. The lake was burning, the setting sun bleeding fire across the sky. It was beautiful, be it bold and ominous.
Daryl simply stood at the edge of the water for a moment as he watched the sun gradually sink behind the tree tops. The lake darkened, taking on the appearance of black ice. Daryl shuddered and Rick pressed against his side, rubbing his face into his neck. Slipping an arm around the sort-of walker’s waist, Daryl pressed his lips to the top of Rick’s head and tried to ignore the smell. It was inevitable, Rick was technically dead and dead things rotted...
Clearing his throat, Daryl drew away from Rick and squared his shoulders.
“I think we should risk a fire tonight,” he told the walker, looking around. He spotted a large rock nearby and moved over to it. The word ‘welcome’ was carved into the stone.
Daryl dumped his bag and crossbow onto the ground and Rick awkwardly squatted down next to him, watching intently as Daryl dug a hole into the soil. Finding some sticks from the nearby forest edge, Daryl quickly made a pile in the hole and pulled out the box of matches he had found a couple of weeks back. He struck the match and carefully lit the kindling.
“Sit down here,” Daryl manhandled Rick so he was sitting close to the large rock, “lean back.”
The sort-of walker blinked at him in confusion so Daryl gently pushed him so he was leaning stiffly against the stone. After a moment Rick settled back properly and gave a quiet purr.
Daryl jogged back to the kitchen and fetched a clean small saucepan. When he returned he was shocked to see Rick had closed his eyes and seemed to be enjoying the warmth of the small fire. Daryl guessed he would never know exactly how much Rick was still human.
He went to his bag and found one of the last cans he had – vegetable soup. Rick eyed the can as Daryl opened it.
“I’m not gonna offer any to you,” Daryl told him, “You won’t eat it.”
Soon the smell of the soup filled the air and Daryl hungrily ate it out of the saucepan, it was a luxury to taste hot food again.
Daryl sat next to Rick, taking a swig of water from a bottle. Purring, Rick leant into him and affectionately bumped his nose against Daryl’s cheek. The sort-of walker pawed at Daryl’s leg, as if he wanted something.
“What?” Daryl asked, eyeing him cautiously. Rick wined loudly, wrapping his cold hands around Daryl’s arm and tugging.
Suddenly it clicked. The memory resurfaced in his mind with startling clarity.
It had been the night after they had buried Carl; they had been camping out similar to how they were now. Since his son’s death, Rick had been distant and had hardly sort out Daryl’s touch, he had shied away from it in fact. The night had been cold and despite the fire Daryl had been shivering. So, to not get hypothermia, Daryl and stalked over to Rick and sat behind him. He had pulled Rick between his legs and wrapped his arms around his middle before the older man could object. Rick had struggled for a minute but Daryl had refused to let him go. Eventually, Rick had given up and collapsed back against Daryl, shaking. Daryl had soothed him, rubbing his chest and kissing him repeatedly but Rick had still broken down, sobbing into his shirt.
Daryl blinked and the memory vanished. Walker-Rick was staring at him, cloudy blue eyes pleading.
Swallowing, Daryl nodded and moved to sit between Rick’s legs. He leant back against his chest and sighed as Rick’s strong arms snaked their way around his waist. Daryl rested his head on Rick’s shoulder and closed his eyes.
Purring, Rick ran his mouth over Daryl’s forehead as his hands slipped beneath his shirt, tickling Daryl’s stomach. Twitching, Daryl turned his face into Rick’s neck and wrapped his arms around Rick’s legs where the bracketed his hips. He tried not to breathe through his nose and just savour the moment, to dwell only on the fact that Rick was still with him – in some form.
But it wasn’t the same. The body wrapped around him was cold, the skin unpleasant to the touch, the smell stomach-churning. But worst of all, the chest pressed to Daryl’s back was empty, there was no heartbeat. Rick had said that a beating heart was what mattered, it was life.
Daryl opened his eyed and stared up at the star strewn sky. Tears blurred his vision and the pinpricks of light merged and became misshapen. Walker-Rick wined, sensing Daryl’s distress, one of the hands on his stomach rose higher till it rested over his heart.
”Is this what you would have wanted?” Daryl whispered, still looking up at the heavens, “Rick, I’m sorry, I failed you. I swore I would do it but I just couldn’t. But now you’re this...I don’t know what you are anymore, who you are, how much you remember or understand...You are dead, you are a walker, but Rick...is this what you want? Or, would you rather I had killed you I like promised I would?”
Walker-Rick dug his nails into the skin over Daryl’s heart, not enough to break the skin but enough to hurt. Daryl hissed sharply and twisted around between Rick’s legs so he could look up the walker’s face clearly.
They stared at each other for a long moment. Neither of them moving or making a sound. Daryl reached out towards Rick, his hand trembled. He touched Rick’s cheek, tracing the familiar lines, mapping his handsome features.
Rick remained perfectly still, surprising Daryl; he had expected the sort-of walker to nuzzle into his palm. He trailed his fingertips up over Rick’s brow and swallowed nervously as Rick closed his eyes.
Carefully, Daryl leant towards him and kissed his forehead. Rick’s body quivered against his and the sort-of walker moved his hands. One slid around his side to rest on the small of his back but the other slipped out from his shirt. Rick cupped the back of Daryl’s neck, his fingers threading into the longish hair at his nape.
Daryl let out a shuddering breath, trailing his lips down Rick’s still-closed eyes and across his cheekbone. The hand on his neck tightened slightly and his heart lurched. Daryl knew he should stop, pull away, but he couldn’t. He felt so alone and utterly lost, without this – without Rick – there was nothing. But it wasn’t Rick, but then again it was. Daryl’s mind flickered between the two till his head hurt.
“I don’t know what to do anymore. Is this wrong? Would you have wanted this?” He whispered, squeezing his eyes tightly shut and praying for some kind of answer or sign.
Rick brushed his nose against his cheek, just like he had done the first night they had kissed.
That made up Daryl’s mind for him and he forgot every moral and sane thought he had ever possessed. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes and leant forwards, pressing his lips against Rick’s.

Chapter Text

Rick’s lips were cold, unresponsive...dead.
Daryl, hating himself, began to pull away but then Rick’s arms locked around him like iron. Freezing, Daryl’s eyes snapped open just as Rick crushed his lips back into his. Rick’s eyes were filled with hunger and he wildly tried to pry Daryl’s mouth open with his own.
Fear ripped Daryl and he tried to pull away but Rick was too strong. He growled dangerously, taking Daryl’s bottom lip between his teeth and tugging at it sharply. The pain was dull but the threat was there.
Rick let go of Daryl’s lip and moved down, biting at his jaw and chin. He was still growling low in the back of his throat; Daryl could feel the rumble of it beneath his hands which were now pressed to Rick’s chest.
The arms locked behind his back moved and Rick suddenly flipped Daryl onto the ground. Pinned, Daryl tried to think, tried to speak but Rick gave him no time to do either.
The walker crouched over him, growling and mouthing at his jaw. Hands gripped Daryl’s hips and yanked them up off the ground. Daryl gasped in shocked; he twisted his face away from Rick and his foul breath. This only caused him to turn his attention to his neck.
“Rick, stop!” Daryl cried as the walker ran his teeth down his throat then soothed the stinging skin with his tongue.
What had he done? He had been so stupid. Daryl’s mind raced as he lay there, pinned and distraught. He had hoped kissing Rick would bring him back somehow, not entirely, but enough to make Daryl feel like he wasn’t alone. But all he had done had awoken his hunger. A walker thirsted for flesh - that was all.
Rick stopped his biting for a moment, his face pressed into Daryl’s collarbone. Daryl panted; his heart was beating so hard it felt like it was going to explode. He couldn’t believe
Rick hadn’t bitten him properly yet, he hadn’t broken the skin. The hunger was there, burning just below the surface, but Rick – the human part of him – was fighting.
“Rick,” Daryl whispered, cautiously pulling his hand from where it was trapped to touch his shoulder, “I-I know you don’t want to hurt me...please, just stop.”
Rick snarled, his face coming up to stare down at Daryl’s.
“That’s it,” Daryl breathed, gently sliding his hand up Rick’s neck to his hair, “gently...push down the hunger.”
Rick was trembling; he leant down and ran his mouth across Daryl’s forehead and cheeks.
“Shh,” Daryl soothed, stroking his hair, “I’m sorry, it was bloody stupid of me to kiss you. I won’t do it again.”
Rick whined loudly, nuzzling his jaw in his familiar way.
“That’s good,” Daryl let out his breath, turning his face towards Rick’s and returning the gesture, “you’re doing great.”
Rick’s hands let go of Daryl’s hips and he winced, knowing tomorrow he would find finger-shaped bruises. He lifted his other hand and pressed it against Rick’s chest.
“Can you sit up?” He asked gently, pushing ever so lightly.
Rick obeyed, sitting up straight and Daryl shakily got to his feet. His head spun and he stumbled slightly. Rick was immediately at his side, strong arm around him middle.
Holding perfectly still, Daryl caught his breath and closed his eyes for a moment. Rick whined with worry and melded his front to Daryl’s back, arms wrapping around his waist.
“What are we going to do, Rick?” Daryl said, covering the sort-of walker’s hands with his own and tilting his head back so it rested on Rick’s shoulder.
Purring, Rick pressed his lips to the corner of Daryl’s lips as in apology for losing control. The gesture rekindled enough of Daryl’s hope to allow him to give Rick a tiny smile.
A twig snapped under foot.
Daryl yelled out as suddenly he was flat on his front on the ground again. Rick crouched over him protectively, hands digging into the earth either side of Daryl’s head. The snarl that came from his mouth sent a spike of fear through Daryl heart and every hair on his body stood on end.
He warily lifted his face from the ground and looked around. Standing directly in front of him across the other side of the camp fire were three men. Though they were mostly hidden in shadow and distorted by the flames of the fire, Daryl could see all three were large and dangerous looking. Each had a gun aimed at Rick.
How long had they been lurking, watching? Dread slid down Daryl’s spine like ice. How much had they seen?
Rick was still snarling, caging Daryl beneath him. His eyes were fixed on the men, though he made no move to attack.
Why not? The answer dawned on Daryl. Rick cared more about protecting him then giving in to his hunger. Somehow, Rick had chosen his human side over his walker instinct. The moment would have been one to celebrate if the situation hadn’t been so dire.
The largest of the men took a step to one side so he was no longer obscured by the dancing flames. His face was heavily lined and his nose was misshapen, obviously having been broken more than once. His was built like a bear with muscular arms and broad shoulders; his hair was shaved so short Daryl could not tell what colour it was. There was a shotgun in his hands and he wore green camouflage trousers and a sleeveless grey top.
The guy took a step forwards and Rick moved.
“Stop, Rick!” Daryl cried, jumping to his feet. Miraculously, Rick listened to him and halted. Daryl quickly stepped to his side and wrapped his hand around his wrist, just in case.
“What the fuck is he?” the guy spoke, his voice was deep and gravely.
“It’s none of your damn business!” Daryl retorted, unable to keep his blood from boiling. There was something about the man...
“Well I say it is my fucking business, kid!” the guy snarled, lifting his shotgun and pointing it at Daryl.
Rick snarled and lurched forwards but was stopped by Daryl’s hand around his wrist.
“That there’s a walker,” spoke one of the other men as he moved to stand beside his friend, “but it ain’t acting like it should.”
“Doc would be mighty pleased if we brought him back a walker like that,” the third guy sneered. His face was thin with a long nose and small eyes, like a rat.
“You’re not taking him anywhere,” Daryl growled, wishing he had his crossbow in his hands but the weapon laid a good ten strides away. The three men laughed, Rick pulled his lips back and bared his teeth.
“I don’t think you’re in a position to stop us!”
The men moved closer, spread out to encircle Daryl and Rick. Daryl considered letting Rick go and making a dive for his crossbow, but he quickly dismissed the idea, it would be suicide for them both.
“Look, just take what you want and leave,” Daryl said, “We don’t want any trouble.”
“I want that walker,” the bear-guy grinned, “and I will take it.”
“Fucking lay a hand on him and I’ll break your nose,” Daryl snarled, taking a step towards the man. He suddenly knew what it was about the man that he loathed, he reminded him of his father.
Snorting with laughter, the guy stepped close enough that Daryl could see he was blind in his right eye and the other was the colour of cold steel.
“I’d like to see you try, little man.”
Daryl let go of Rick’s wrist and threw everything he had behind his fist. The large man however had seen the punch coming and he stepped to one side. Daryl tried to catch his balance and swing around but he was too slow.
The butt of the shotgun collided with the back of his skull and white stars burst before Daryl’s eyes. Pain exploded through his head and he felt himself falling.
The darkness swallowed him before he hit the ground.

Chapter Text

It was going to snow Rick observed as he looked up at the night sky. Thick grey clouds hung low and heavy, obscuring every star and there was a biting chill to the air. The forest surrounding Rick was quiet and dark, the only noise was the leaves in the wind and the occasional hoot of an owl.

Daryl lay next to Rick, wrapped up tight in their only blanket. He slept silently; the only sign that he was still alive was the steady rise and fall of his chest.

As the night drew on the temperature began to fall and the wind picked up. Rick shivered, zipping his jacket all the way up to his chin and hunching his shoulders against the cold. They needed to find proper shelter soon or at least some warmer clothes if they planned on seeing the spring. It was almost time for Daryl’s watch but Rick found himself unwilling to wake the younger man. Daryl would never admit it, but Rick knew how exhausted he was. They were both running on empty. He needed a good night’s sleep – a full one.

The wind clawed at Rick’s face and ghosted through his clothes to gnaw at his bones. Trembling, Rick rubbed his bare hands together, trying to warm them. There were too many walkers in the area to risk lighting a fire. But Rick needed to do something or he was gonna get sick...like Carl. At the thought of his son grief came crashing down and he closed his eyes, forcing the pain back down.

Daryl twisted in his sleep and grumbled, dreaming. Rick was grateful for the distraction. He watched Daryl as the red-neck continued to twist and huff, his brow creased with worry and his eyes rolled wildly beneath their lids. Rick reached out a hand and stroked Daryl’s forehead, smoothing away the frown.

“It’s alright, Daryl,” he whispered as the younger man let out a shuddering breath, “it’s just a dream.”

“No,” Daryl moaned, tossing his head to the side and rolling over, curling up away from Rick, “No, please don’t.”

Sympathy stung Rick’s heart as he realised what Daryl must be dreaming about. He had seen the scars on his back many times and heard him cry out before in his sleep.

Rick was amazed Daryl had grown up with the sense of honour and compassion he had – though he hid both behind a wall of hotheadedness and disinterest. Or rather, he used to hide. Over the months, the years since Rick had first met Daryl he had watched the young man gradually lower his walls to let a select few beyond to see his true self. Rick was incredible proud and honoured to have been the only one Daryl trusted enough to see him with his guard completely down.

Gently, so not to snap him awake, Rick lay down behind Daryl and wrapped an arm around his middle.

“Shh,” he soothed, kissing the red-neck’s hair and shoulder, “it’s alright, Daryl, I’m here. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”

Daryl whimpered and jumped at Rick’s touch, trying to get away but Rick only held on to him tighter. Daryl awoke with a gasp. He rolled over and buried his face into Rick’s chest, his body shaking.

“I’m here, don’t worry,” Rick whispered, wrapping both arms around Daryl and rocking him ever so gently, like he used to rock Carl after a nightmare when he had been a young boy.

“You were dreaming about him again, weren’t you?” Rick asked tenderly, running a hand up Daryl’s back to thread into his hair. Daryl sniffed loudly, lifting his face from the other man’s chest to meet his eyes.

“I hate him, Rick, I hate him so much,” Daryl muttered, wiping at his eyes, “what he did to me...”

“I know,” Rick replied, letting Daryl pull out of his arms and sit up. He watched the man carefully for a moment before he too sat up and reached out to tug at the hem of Daryl’s dirty shirt.

“Take it off.”

Daryl shot him an incredulous look as fear and rage danced across his face, making him look much younger.

“Why the hell would I do that?” he snapped, his southern accent growing thicker as it always did when he was upset.

“Trust me, Daryl,” Rick said, staring hard into his eyes. Daryl hesitated, biting his bottom lip then he sighed gruffly and dropped his arms limply to his sides. Rick moved close to his back, pressing a kiss to Daryl’s neck as he reached around him and unbuttoned his shirt.

The second he pulled off the fabric Daryl hissed, “Damn its cold.”

“Here,” Rick pushed the discarded blanket at him. Daryl brought his knees up to his chest and draped the blanket over his legs and huddled in on himself.

In the gloom Rick examined Daryl’s back, his eyes briefly taking in the tattoo on his right shoulder blade. Like the rest of the man his back was lean with muscles and hard to the touch. Shuddering, Daryl clamped his eyes shut and tried to forget what Rick was seeing. But instead all he accomplished was reliving violent flashbacks to his childhood when his father had given him his scars.

Rick traced each lash with his fingertips, feeling the difference in texture compared to the rest of Daryl’s skin. When he was sure he had committed that to memory, he leant forwards and kissed each scar. Daryl gasped and sat up straight, staring over his shoulder at Rick.

“You’re beautiful, Daryl,” Rick told him.

“Don’t talk like that,” the red-neck muttered, self-hatred clear in his voice.

“The scars don’t make you weak,” Rick insisted, kissing the largest one, “they make you strong, you survived and grew up a good man.”

“I’m not,” Daryl growled, looking away from Rick and staring off into the dark trees, “I’m not a good man.”

Rick ran one hand up the length of Daryl’s spine whilst he awkwardly unzipped his jacket and undid the buttons of his own shirt with his other hand. Pushing the sides of his clothes aside, Rick scooted in behind Daryl so the younger man was sitting behind his legs. Rick pressed his bare torso against Daryl’s back and snaked his arms around his front.

“You are the strongest, bravest, best man I have ever met,” Rick murmured into Daryl’s ear, “and I can’t believe you are mine.”

Daryl twisted around between Rick’s legs and slammed his lips into the ex-sheriff’s. Caught off guard, Rick slumped back and landed on the ground. Daryl followed him, never breaking the kiss.

Lying on top of the older man, Daryl licked into Rick’s mouth and growled hungrily. The noise sent a bolt of pure desire straight to Rick’s groin and he arched up against the heavy body pinning him. Daryl wound his fingers into Rick’s hair and pulled his head back with a tug. Rick groaned loudly as Daryl bit and kissed his neck. He lifted his hands and ran them up Daryl’s back then drew his nails back down. Daryl gasped and ground his hips down into Rick’s causing the other man to grow impossible hard.

Slipping his lips up Rick’s jaw, Daryl breathed huskily against Rick’s lips, “you are just as much mine as I am yours.”

Rick tried to kiss Daryl but the red-neck leant back just out of reaching.

“Prove it,” Rick growled hungrily, looking up at Daryl with wide, lustful eyes.

Daryl tugged at his hair again and lowered his lips to Rick’s ear, “with pleasure.”

Their teeth clacked together with the force of their kiss and Rick groaned deep in the back of his throat as Daryl’s tongue ran along his. The red-neck’s hands moved from his hair to his chest, one stroked his side sending electric shivers through his body, making ever hair stand on end. Daryl broke the kiss and Rick whined in protest but was held still by a hand at his neck. Grinning wolfishly at Rick, Daryl began to kiss his way down the older man’s chest. He kept one hand on Rick, his thumb pressing into the small hollow where his collarbones met at the base of his throat. The strength and skill he could feel in that hand made Rick buck his hips upwards, desperate for some kind of friction.

Daryl ran his tongue over Rick’s left nipple and smirked as the man groaned loudly. He tugged at it with his teeth, loving the way he could feel the vibration of Rick’s groan beneath his hand on his throat. He was so alive.

Following the trail of dark hair, Daryl nuzzled Rick’s flat stomach, running his tongue along the outline of his muscles.

“Daryl,” Rick moaned his name, impatient and yearning.

Grinning, Daryl moved back up to kissed Rick deeply. He removed his hand from Rick’s neck and slipped it down between them to undo the man’s jeans. Rick eagerly kicked off his boots and lifted his hips so Daryl could pull off his trousers. He was now naked from the waist down, his shirt and jacket still clung to his arms yet he felt completely bare and vulnerable beneath Daryl – he loved it.

They had only had full sex two other times and during both Rick had topped because Daryl had sensed he needed to be in control, but now, Daryl was the one who needed to lead. Daryl got up quickly and shook off his own shoes and pushed down his jeans and underwear. For a second he stood above Rick, completely naked, in the middle of a forest at night where at any moment a walker could come stumbling in – yet the threat somehow only encouraged them both.

Rick sat up and reached for Daryl, pulling the younger man down onto his lap. Daryl straddled his thighs and both men groaned as their dicks brushed together. Wrapping his arms around Rick’s shoulder, Daryl kissed him hungrily, running his tongue along the man’s bottom lip. Rick traced the scars on his back again but this time no flashbacks disturbed Daryl’s mind, all he felt was pleasure at the touch.

This time it was Rick who broke the kiss. He nudged back Daryl’s head with a nip to his chin and kissed the red-neck’s throat, sucking a bruise into the skin. Daryl moaned, grinding himself down into Rick’s lap, rubbing himself against the hairs on his stomach. Rick hissed, licking the mark he had just made on Daryl’s neck.

Remembering he was meant to be proving a point to the sheriff, Daryl gasped out, “lay back.”

Obeyed, Rick let Daryl kneel between his legs. Daryl kissed the inside of Rick’s knee then his thigh, loving the way it caused Rick to throw back his head and moan.

“God, you’re so hot,” Daryl growled, biting at the tender flesh of Rick’s thigh.

Rick jumped at the nip and shot Daryl a teasing look, “are you gonna get on with it or not?”

Growling hungrily, Daryl leant over Rick, splaying his hands over his hips. Rick lifted his legs and wrapped them around the small of Daryl’s back. They kissed for a long minute, their bodies flush and rocking against one another.

Daryl lifted a hand to Rick’s face. Understanding what he want him to do, Rick took two of Daryl’s fingers into his mouth. The sight and feel made Daryl almost lose it right there and then. He pulled out his fingers and reached down and found Rick’s entrance. Kissing the other man to try and distract him from the discomfort, Daryl slid a finger inside. Rick hissed into his mouth and he stopped.

“You alright?” he asked against Rick’s lips. As an answer Rick pushed himself down onto Daryl’s finger. By the time he was satisfied he wasn’t going to hurt the other man, Rick was a writhing mess beneath him.

“Just do it, Daryl, for Christ sack!” Rick gasped, his face flushed and skin glistening with sweat.

Holding Rick’s hips, Daryl lined himself up and slowly pushed inside. The feeling was incredible and he had to pause to catch his breath. Rick moaned and stroked his hands down Daryl’s chest, worshiping the muscles he found there.

Once he was fully inside, Daryl slump forwards over Rick, resting on his elbows either side of the other man’s head. Rick’s hips were tilted up off the ground at his angle and his legs were still wrapped tightly around Daryl’s waist.

“Move!” Rick growled, digging his nails into Daryl’s back, “please, Daryl.”

Daryl growled, catching Rick’s lips in a kiss as he started up a steady pass. Once only pleasure twisted Rick’s face, he sat up and wrapped his arms around Rick’s thighs. The tension and stress of the past came crashing down on him then and he pounded into Rick, every muscle tight and quivering. Rick moaned and cursed beneath him, eyes closed and back arching up from the ground.

Overhead, the dark clouds began to weep, their frozen tears drifting towards the earth. The two men no longer felt the cold; they no longer cared where they were or the dangerous that surrounded them. Nothing mattered, nothing other than the sound of skin against skin and sensation building and building.

Rick chanted Daryl’s name, throwing out his hand blinding, reaching for him. Daryl felt Rick tighten around him and he knew he was close. Daryl reaching down and lifting Rick up so they were pressed chest to chest. Their skin slid together perfectly and Rick panted into Daryl’s mouth as he rushed towards his climax. Daryl continued to pound up into Rick, his legs burned with the position and his muscles throbbed but he didn’t care. His hands were on Rick arse, holding him tight. At that moment he felt complete – Rick made him whole.

They both tumbled over the edge at the same time, Rick cried out Daryl’s name as the younger man came inside of him and he spilled his own release between their sweaty bodies. Exhausted, Daryl fell backwards onto the ground and Rick collapse onto his chest. They both lay there, gasping for breath and bodies shaking with exertion. Rick lifted his heavy head and pressed a deep, lingering kiss to Daryl’s lips.

“I am yours,” he whispered, pulling back.

Daryl smiled lopsidedly, trailing his hand up Rick’s back to touch his handsome face, “thank you.”

Rick returned the smile, pressing his cheek into Daryl’s rough palm, his crystal blue eyes so alive that Daryl swore a cure must lie in them somewhere. Rick shivered, reality finally sneaking back up with them. Daryl groped for the blanket and pulled it up over them both. Rick hummed, shifting slightly so his head lay on Daryl’s shoulder. Wrapping his arms around Rick, Daryl held him close and allowed his eyes to slide shut. He felt Rick press a light kiss to his neck and he rubbed his thumb over the man’s protruding hipbone.

“Daryl,” Rick spoke gently, laying a hand over his heart, “look.”

Sleepily, Daryl opened his eyes and glanced around. It was snowing and the wind had died away to a mere breath. Thick, white flakes drifted down all around them - so pure and untainted by the world.

“Beautiful,” Rick whispered, gazing around with a look of awe on his face as if he were a child seeing snow for the very first time.

“Yeah,” Daryl agreed, though he wasn’t talking about the snow. His eyes were fixed firmly on Rick.

Chapter Text

Daryl regained consciousness with a groan of pain. The back of his head throbbed and he had to blink hard four times before his vision returned to normal.

Looking around he saw he was in the back of a van, his bags and crossbow lay in one corner. Rick was tied up opposite him, hands behind his back and ankles strapped together. Relief flooded through Daryl at the sight of him alive.

The van lurched over a pothole and the world jolted upwards. Daryl was thrown onto his side hard, the breath knocked out of him.

“Son of a bitch!” Daryl swore, twisting around onto his front, his own hands were tied so tight the cord was cutting in, drawing blood.

Rick’s head snapped up and Daryl saw his nostrils flare. The blue of his eyes clouded over and the emotion on his face faded to nothing. Heart hammering, Daryl yanked at the cord around his wrists, trying desperately to get free, but only made it cut deeper.

Rick’s hungry growls seemed to bounce off the metal walls, filling the back of the van with a rumble like thunder. Shit. Unable to stand, Rick began to drag himself across to Daryl, jaw snapping with ravines hunger.

“Rick, no, stop!” Daryl implored, shuffling back on his arse, “remember who you are! Who I am!”

Daryl had reached the end of the van, the double back doors against his back. He searched with his eyes for a handle but there wasn’t one, it only opened from the outside. Swearing, Daryl turned his attention back to the walker. He saw that Rick’s wrists were handcuffed not tied like his.

“Stop, Rick!” Daryl shouted, “For God sack! Not like this – it can’t end like this!”

Rick paused, staring at Daryl, his nostrils flexing as he erratically drew in the smell of Daryl’s blood. Snarling, he yanked his wrists apart. There was a loud ping as the small loops of metal snapped and ricocheted off the steel floor. Rick reached down and ripped off the rope securing his ankles. Daryl stared in disbelief; he didn’t understand how Rick could be so strong. The walker straightened up, his head grazed the roof.

“Rick...” Daryl whispered, shaking his head, “Please, remember -”

Snarling, Rick lunged at Daryl, flipping him round and pinning him flat to the cold, metal floor on his front.

“No!” Daryl yelled, twisting beneath Rick’s weight violently.

Rick hardly seemed to notice; he seized hold of Daryl’s forearms and yanked his wrists up. Daryl screamed as both his shoulders dislocated with the angle, the pain was so intense he almost blacked out. Tears were in his eyes now, though not because of the pain, because of the cruelly of the world.

Rick’s eyes were locked onto the shallow lacerations encircling Daryl’s wrists, mouth opening and closing. He was still growling, but he was holding back. His face twisted, instinct and mind battling.

Daryl panted, his shoulders felt like they were on fire and his head was swimming on the edge of consciousness. He thought he imagined the first touch of Rick’s tongue. Looking over his misshapen shoulder, he watched in horror was Rick licked at the blood around his wrists. There was no grazing of teeth and his tongue was gently, testing. A look of what could only be described as pleasure passed over Rick’s face and he closed his eyes.

Daryl wanted to be sick. Rick purred, his fingers flexed around Daryl’s arm as he followed the short trails of scarlet down his forearms. A wave of light-headedness moved through Daryl and he begged himself not to pass out.

Rick stopped licking and began to pick at the cord around Daryl’s wrists, undoing it. The moment Daryl felt the pressure around his wrists loosen he tried to pull away from Rick, but his dislocated shoulders only allowed him to move a couple of inches before agony convulsed his body.

Rick put his hands on Daryl’s left arm and without warning, snapped Daryl’s shoulder back into place. Yelling, Daryl gasped and pressed his face into the cool metal floor. Rick quickly did the same to his other arm then leant back and watched Daryl weakly sit up.

Later, Daryl would realise how important that had been, that Rick had known how to fix his shoulders. But right then all he could focus on was the blood – his blood – that was smeared on Rick’s lips.

“Fuck,” Daryl breathed, his eyes hot with tears and misery.

Rick blinked at him, his eyes regaining some of their colour. He looked confused and licked his lips curiously. Sensing Daryl’s distress, Rick whined and tried to press himself against the younger man. Daryl kicked him back, his foot connecting with Rick’s hip. It should of hurt – bad – but of course Rick no longer felt pain.

Whimpering, Rick tried again to get close to Daryl and this time Daryl just gave up. He closed his eyes, his body going ridged as Rick nuzzled his neck.

Daryl was sickened but most of all he was anger, not at Rick, but at himself for getting his hopes up that Rick would never give in to his instincts, that somehow Daryl’s presence would always be enough to control him. But now...now Rick had tasted blood – his blood no less. Where did that leave them? What did it make them both?

Daryl was snapped from his thoughts by Rick’s lips touching his. He jerked back, pain flashed but he hardly noticed that time. Rick was quivering and whining, Daryl had never seen him so distressed.

Good, a harsh voice inside Daryl’s head spat but he instantly felt ashamed. Rick’s wide, blue eyes were pleading and his pathetic noises were desperate. A lump rose up in Daryl’s throat and his hands twisted in his lap, yearning to reach out and comfort Rick. But it wasn’t Rick; Daryl told himself furiously, it was a monster who wore Rick’s face. Yet Rick was still in there, fighting, he had stopped tasting Daryl’s blood, he hadn’t bitten him...

Torn in two, Daryl buried his head in his hands and moaned in frustration. He pressed his palms against his eyes and willed time to turn backwards, to take him back before Rick had turned.

Shyly, Rick inched towards Daryl. He moved around to his side and pressed his body against Daryl’s shaking one. The contact sent a shudder through Daryl and he dropped his hands when Rick began to nuzzle his hair and cheek.

Slowly, holding his breath, he turned his head and brushed his lips against Rick’s. He tasted his blood and shuddered but Rick only purred and ran his mouth along Daryl’s jaw. Daryl reached out and cupped Rick’s face in between his hands and looked at him. He blinked, stunned. Rick’s skin had been beginning to show the first signs of decay and then there had been the smell... But now the smell had gone and his skin looked as close to life as undead skin could.

Trembling, Daryl ran his thumb over Rick’s cheekbone. The skin was still cold to the touch but it no longer sagged or felt like it was going to tear beneath Daryl’s touch. It was as if Rick had been bitten only that day, but that was impossible. Unless...

The van shuddered beneath them as it ground to an abrupt halt. Daryl heard the slamming of doors as the men got out of the front. Without even thinking, Daryl rushed across to where his crossbow rested and snatched it up. It hurt to hold the weapon up and steady but Daryl gritted his teeth and forced the pain down.

The double doors were suddenly pulled open and a powerful beam of light shone into the back of van. Blinded, Daryl ducked his head and Rick snarled, moving protectively towards Daryl.

“Drop the crossbow!” A loud voice boomed and Daryl heard the clicking of guns getting ready to open fire. Blinking hard, he narrowed his eyes and saw a figure silhouetted in front of the piercing light.

“Do it now!” the man ordered, raising his gun and pointing it at Rick, “Or I shoot him in the head!”

Daryl slowly lowered his crossbow and dropped it to the floor, his shoulders throbbed.

“Good decision,” said the man, he gestured with his gun, “Now, get out of the van. If you try anything I will shoot you both.”

Daryl obeyed, what other choice did he have?

Chapter Text

The place they had been brought to was like Woodbury, Daryl observed and an unpleasant prickle crawled down his spine. The memory of the Governor rose up in his mind and he glanced at Rick who was standing so close their shoulders were brushing. Daryl felt Rick’s fingers touch the back of his hand but he didn’t take Rick’s hand like the walker wanted – the image of Rick licking his bleeding wrists was still burning fresh.

It was evening and the people of the town were all tucked away in their beds, only the guards were left on the street. There was about fifteen of them, all armed and every weapon was trained on Rick and Daryl.

“Behave yourself now,” drawled a voice close to Daryl’s ear. It was the big, bear-like guy, the one who Daryl had tried to hit. His hand itched to try again.

“Where are we?” Daryl demanded, “Who are you?”

“The names Victor,” the guy sneered, fingering his gun, “And this here is Salvation.”

“You named the town Salvation?” Daryl snorted, “Are you fucking serious?”

“No,” a new voice rang out, loud and confident, “He didn’t call it Salvation, I did.”

Daryl turned around so see a tall man marching down the street towards them. The man had a good-looking, charismatic face with a strong jaw and intelligent green eyes; his hair was short and brown but beginning to go grey. An air of leadership and strength radiated from him, similar to the presence Rick used to give off. The man stopped a couple of feet from Daryl and Rick, his eyes taking them in with one calculating sweep – he appeared unfazed by Rick.

Daryl swallowed, the man’s calmness unsettling him. Rick seemed to agree; he was growling quietly and stepped sideways so his side was pressed against Daryl’s. The man noticed and smiled as he said, “Now that is a sight I thought I’d never see.”

Daryl glowered at him, “Are you in charge here?”

The man nodded, putting his hands on his hips, “Call me Michael. How long ago was it that your friend was bitten?”

The man’s directness irritated Daryl; he folded his arms across his chest defensively before answering, “A couple of days and before you ask, no, I don’t know why he’s different to all the rest.”

Michael took a step closer and Rick snarled. Instinctively, Daryl’s hand shot out and he grabbed hold of Rick’s arm.

“Remarkable,” Michael murmured, head tilting to one side slightly as he stared at Rick, “does he speak?”

“No,” Daryl muttered, tugging Rick behind him, “What do you plan on doing with us?”

“That remains to be seen,” Michael said, stroking his jaw thoughtfully, “On how much use your friend is.”

Daryl’s heart sank with dread, he didn’t like where this was going, “What do you mean?”

“I mean,” Michael said coolly, “finding a cure for this nightmare.”

“There’s no such thing,” Daryl growled, “just let us go!”

“I was beginning to lose hope as well,” Michael admitted, looking around at his people, “but now you are here, and more importantly, he is.”

Rick snarled again, disliking the many pairs of eyes fixed on him.

“I won’t let you experiment on him like some lab rat!” Daryl shouted.

“And how do you propose to stop me?”

Daryl saw red and he lunged at Michael, tackling the man around the waist. They went down hard in a mess of tangled limbs. Daryl managed to land a few punches before his arms were seized from behind and he yanked off the other man. Rick snarled and moved towards the men holding Daryl but Michael blocked his path. He pulled a sleek pistol from his belt and pointed it at Daryl’s head.

“Stop!” He yelled, “Or I shot him now!”

Rick halted, baring his teeth and clenching his hands. Michael smirked and said again, “Truly remarkable.”

Daryl struggled against the hands holding him, his shoulders throbbing with fresh pain.

“Let him go,” Michael ordered. The man did and Daryl stumbled towards Rick. The walker whined anxiously, his hands coming up to fist in the front of Daryl’s shirt. Daryl let Rick pull him close and bury his face into his neck so he could scent him, reassure himself that Daryl hadn’t been hurt.

Daryl shot a look at Michael and growled, “You can’t kill him, he’s too valuable alive.”

“Oh, I know that,” Michael said dismissively, “But what would happen if I killed you?”

Rick stiffened, his growl rumbled against Daryl’s neck.

“Honestly,” Daryl muttered, putting a hand on Rick’s head, “I think I am the only thing that’s keeping his human side alive.”

Rick lifted his face and stared into Daryl’s eyes. Suddenly what had happened earlier no longer felt important and Daryl stroked Rick’s cheek with his knuckles gently.

“I think you might just be right about that,” Michael admitted, holstering his gun at his hip, “How about we make a deal?”

Daryl looked at the man, his hand dropping to Rick’s shoulder, “I’m listening.”

“We will study him under your supervision,” Michael proposed, “and as long as you keep him...calm, no harm will come to either of you as long as neither of you pose a threat to my people.”

“And when you have learnt everything you can,” Daryl added roughly, “you will let us go.”

Michael stared at Daryl for a moment, not blinking. Rick shifted uneasily and Daryl rubbed his thumb against his neck to sooth him.

“Very well,” Michael said and held out his hand.

Daryl reluctantly shook it.

***

Michael led Daryl into what had been the local police station before the outbreak, though now it was only used for its holding cells.

“So, my friend, what are your names?” Michael asked as they walked through the building to the back.

Daryl had to bite the inside of his cheek to stop from correcting the man about their ‘friendship’ statue, “Mine’s Daryl, and he’s Rick.”

“Was,” muttered Victor from behind Daryl, his gun aimed at Rick, “he’s gone - dead.”

“Shut up!” Daryl hissed, wheeling around and glowering at the hulking man behind him. Rick growled, reacting to Daryl’s anger and took a step forwards. Daryl reached out and fisted his hand into the fabric of Rick’s shirt, stopping him.

“Leave us, Victor,” Michael ordered bluntly, his eyes dangerous.

Victor shook his head, “Don’t think that’s a good idea, boss.”

“I don’t care what you think,” Michael said, his tone like ice, “leave or I will make you.”

Unease crept into Daryl’s heart. Michael wasn’t the sort of man you should cross, that was for sure. Victor glowered at Daryl and Rick for a moment then he spat on the ground at their feet. Turning on his heel he left muttered furiously under his breath.

“Sorry about him. Victor may be a hot-head but he’s a good soldier,” Michael said, his collective calmness returning, “Please, follow me.”

He led them through a door and along the row of cells, there were five of them and they were all empty. That surprised Daryl and he made a mental note.

“I hope you understand that I can’t risk the safety of my people whilst you are here,” Michael said as he stopped before the furthest cell from the door. Daryl eyed the single bunk, sink and urinal inside.

“We used to live in a prison,” he muttered, eyes on Rick as he spoke, “a cell is a cell at the end of the day.”

“A prison? That’s smart thinking,” Michael said, his palm resting on the gun at his hip, “But you misunderstand me, you won’t be staying in the cell, your room is being prepared as we speak.”

Rick nudged Daryl’s shoulder with his nose and the red-neck reach over his shoulder to run his fingers through Rick’s hair.

“I’m not leaving him alone,” Daryl told Michael, fixing the tall man with his hardest, most defiant look.

“And I’m not giving you a choice.”

“I thought we had a deal?” Daryl growled.

Michael surveyed Daryl with an amused look, “Look, Daryl, I will stick to my word – Rick will be studied under your watch – no harm will come to either of you. But I cannot allow Rick to be out in the street.”

“I can control him,” Daryl began, though his words sounded like an lie to his ears. Michael pulled out a set of keys from his coat pocket and unlocked the cell door. The metal groaned as it swung open.

“If you were in my position,” Michael said, looking at Daryl seriously, “what would you do?”

Daryl did not answer; he knew it made sense to keep Rick away from other people. Michael was right and if their positions had been reversed Daryl would never let a threat like Rick walk around free.

“I want to stay with him.”

Michael sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose, “Give it one night, Daryl, if you still feel the same in the morning then I will get another mattress brought into the cell for you.”

“Alright,” Daryl knew when to stop pushing.

Daryl stepped inside the cell, ushering Rick after him. The walker followed without hesitation, totally trusting. Pushing Rick down onto the bunk, Daryl paused and looked back at Michael, “Can I have a minute - just to get him settled?”

Michael nodded and moved away down the line of cells to stand by the door.

Daryl let out his breath through his nose slowly. Whining in confusion, Rick touched Daryl’s arm and the younger man stepped close to him. Standing in between the walker’s legs, Daryl ran his fingers through Rick’s hair then cupped his face, tilting it up.

“You have to stay here, Rick,” he told him, not knowing how much he would understand. Rick blinked up at him, blue eyes soft.

Daryl felt his heart contract and he stroked Rick’s cheek with his thumb as he murmured gently, “I’ll come back in the morning, promise.”

He drew back to leave but Rick stood up to follow.

“No,” Daryl blurted, pushing him back onto the bunk, “stay here.”

Rick caught hold of his wrists, his grip careful of the cuts. He got back up and pressed his body against Daryl’s, whining as he nuzzled up and down the man’s throat. Shivering, a painful lump in his throat, Daryl wrapped his arms around Rick in a tight hug.

“Don’t worry,” he murmured into Rick’s shoulder, “it’ll be alright.”

Rick lifted his face and locked eyes with Daryl. ‘How do you know?’ Rick’s look seemed to say and Daryl swallowed.

“Trust me, Rick. Stay here, you will be safe. I will come back.”

Slowly, Rick leaned his face towards Daryl’s, his eyes never leaving the other man’s. Daryl held his breath, not moving a muscle as Rick brushed his nose across his cheek, making his questioning humming noise. Closing his eyes, Daryl didn’t pull away as Rick’s mouth touched his. He knew Rick didn’t understand what kissing was anymore, all he knew was that the action meant coming significant. Rick held his cold lips against Daryl’s, waiting silently for the red-neck to do something. Daryl just kept still, letting the memories of Rick’s warm, living lips bath him in pain and love.

He drew his head back and reached out and brushed his fingers down Rick’s face, closing the walker’s eyes. He put a hand on his chest and stepped back. Rick did not move, did not open his eyes – Daryl’s hand on his chest keeping him grounded. Taking a shuddering breath, Daryl took another step back towards the door – his hand slipping from Rick’s chest. The walker opened his eyes and blinked in confusion.

“I’m sorry,” Daryl said, he pulled the cell door shut with a bang and locked it, pulling out the keys.

Rick threw himself at the bars, his arms reaching through the gaps towards Daryl. He whined and growled, his hands clawing at the air desperately. It took every ounce of willpower Daryl had to not step up to the bars and let Rick’s arms wrap around him.

“I’ll see you later,” he promised Rick then turned away from the walker and marched up the room to where Michael was waiting in the doorway. Rick’s distraught cries echoed after him, pleading – begging him not to leave. Daryl clenched his jaw hard, hating himself.

“He’ll be fine,” Michael reassured Daryl as they stepped outside into the street. He took the keys from Daryl’s shaking hand.

“Yeah,” Daryl muttered darkly, fixing the man with a threatening stare, “he’d better be, for your sake.”

Chapter Text

The room Michael had had prepared for Daryl was comfortable enough, especially with the luxury of a large bed and an adjacent bathroom with running hot water, but none of that registered in his mind.

Daryl showered, letting the water wash away the grime and blood. He had stood beneath the hot spray for some time, watching the swirling water around the plug hole run from brown to clear.

All he could think of was Rick, alone and locked up in the dark. What Daryl wouldn’t give for him – his human Rick – to be with him under the cascading water.

Daryl got out of the shower and dried himself off. He found a first aid kit beneath the sink and bandaged his wrists – the wounds had long since stopped bleeding and they weren’t deep, but Daryl didn’t want to tempt fate next time he saw Rick.

When he emerged from the steam-filled bathroom, he found a pile of fresh clothes had been placed on the bed. Next to the wardrobe his and Rick’s bags had been returned, along with his crossbow. Daryl felt relief at the sight of the weapon. He pulled on a pair of black jeans that were slightly too long and a plain grey t-shirt.

Every bone in his body ached and his limbs felt like they were weighed down by stones. Daryl lay down on the bed and closed his eyes, willing himself to fall asleep. But it was impossible; his body may have been exhausted but his mind very much awake.

Michael was a hard guy to get a read on and Daryl didn’t know if he should trust his word or not. The possibility of a cure lying somewhere within Rick had not occurred to him before, but now the idea would not leave his mind. If there was something about Rick – maybe something in his blood or DNA – that could be used to turn the tide then who was Daryl to stop Michael from trying? Everything had just become a whole lot bigger than Daryl and Rick’s relationship. A cure would save the human race, build the start of the road towards getting back everything they had lost. How could Daryl stand in the way of such a possibility? But he knew, if it came down to Rick or a cure, he would always pick Rick. He would never let anything happened to him, not again, he had already failed him once.

Daryl rolled over onto his side, punching his pillow in frustration as he tried to get comfortable. He closed his eyes and imagined Rick was there, wrapped around him and pressing teasing kisses to his neck. A shivered ran down his spine but the pain in his chest only grew larger.

Now he was alone, Daryl couldn’t hold off the tears which had been threatening for days. The empty feeling in his chest which Rick used to fill expanded like a balloon and despair began to creep through him.

Letting out a shuddering breath, Daryl sat up and rubbed his face, getting rid of the tears. Guilt over leaving Rick coiled tightly in his gut and he bit his lip, torn. It was either stay here and dwell on his misery or do something to distract himself from his growing fears. For Daryl was afraid, afraid that by leaving Rick he would turn fully in a walker. Daryl knew that he was the only thing grounded Rick, keeping his mindless instincts suppressed. He believed what he had told Michael and he knew in his heart that Rick needed him now more than ever before.

“God damn it,” Daryl muttered, forcing his weary, heavy body off the bed. He shoved his feet into his boots then crossed the room to his bags and pulled out a torch. He had expected his room to be guarded, but when he cracked open the door and peered outside the corridor was deserted.

Moving quickly and quietly, Daryl headed to the police station. The streets were empty, the only other people around were those on the wall and their attention was on what lay outside not within.

Daryl reached the police station without difficulty and tried the door, it was locked. He jogged round the back of the building, trying the windows as he went. The last one opened when he pushed it up and he hurriedly climbed through. It was dark inside the station and Daryl clicked on the torch.

Moving through the building, Daryl strained his ears for any sound but there was nothing. The silence unnerved him and it took him a second to realise why – he had expected Rick to still be crying after him.

The door to the cells was unlocked and Daryl pushed it open, heart in his throat. The beam from his torch cut through the dark and his footsteps echoed loudly as he walked swiftly down the row, resisting the urge to run.

Reaching the final cell where Rick was, Daryl sucked in his breath as he shone the torchlight into the cell. Standing with his back to the bars, Rick’s shoulders were slumped and his hands loose by his sides.

Heart hammering, Daryl stepped right up to the bars. He was shaking slightly, the beam of light from the torch quivering against the opposite wall.

“Rick?” He breathed, a bead of nervous sweat slipped down his back.

Daryl blinked and Rick moved. The walker’s hands shot between the bars and seized hold of Daryl, yanking him hard against the metal. Daryl cried out in shocked, the torch slipped from his hand and clattered to the floor.

Snarling, Rick buried his face into Daryl’s neck and grazed the man’s Adam’s apple with his teeth. Daryl was so shocked that he was frozen in place, held fast by Rick’s grip, the bars dug painfully into his chest and the side of his head. The teeth nipped his neck hard enough to bruise and Daryl squirmed frantically. Rick’s snarled loudly, his mouth moved higher, forcing Daryl’s head up so the vulnerable underside of his jaw was exposed.

Blood was rushing through Daryl’s veins, pulsing with adrenaline. He knew Rick could smell it, hear his heartbeat. But yet the walker did not break the skin. Rick was scenting him, tasting his skin and breathing in his smell – recalling who he was.

Daryl held still as Rick’s arms moved to loop around his middle and he let out his breath. Hands trembling, he awkwardly wrapped his arms around Rick through the bars. Rick’s snarl soothed to a soft growl, rumbling against Daryl.

“I’m sorry,” Daryl whispered, his voice shaking as much as his body, “I knew I shouldn’t of left but I –“

Rick lifted his head and locked eyes with Daryl, stopping him mid-sentence. There was anger in his blue irises, true wounded anger. Daryl stared, completely taken aback by the sheer level of human emotion that was written as clear as day across Rick’s face.

“Rick, I swear,” he said, moving one hand to cup that back of Rick’s neck, “I won’t leave again.”

The anger faded from his eyes and Rick whined pitifully, pressing his body flush against the bars. He slipped his cold hands up beneath the hem of Daryl’s t-shirt, causing the red-neck to hiss at the surprise touch. Rick’s skin was cold as the metal bars but Daryl found himself enjoying the contact.

Daryl wasn’t sure how long they stayed like that - hugging awkwardly through the bars of the cell - but eventually his exhausted body dragged him down. Daryl sat heavily on the concrete floor, leaning against the bars.

Copying him, Rick sat down as well and nuzzled Daryl’s head. He ran his lips across Daryl’s cheek and ran his fingers through his hair. The loving touch soothed Daryl and he relaxed, trusting Rick fully once again.

Rick continued to stroke his hair whilst he reached through the bars with his other hand and laid it on top of Daryl’s. Peering sideways at Rick, Daryl gave him a small smile. Rick purred back, pressing his face between the bars. Before he could lose his nerve, Daryl leant forwards and brushed his lips against Rick’s. The walker stayed still and Daryl sighed against his unresponsive mouth.

“Maybe it’s a good thing you don’t understand kissing anymore,” Daryl murmured, “God knows what a can of worms that would open up.”

Clearly not understanding Daryl’s words, Rick simply nuzzled his cheek lovingly. Daryl became aware that Rick was tracing the back of his hand with his fingertips. He looked down and smiled again, turning over his hand. Rick’s followed the lines on his palm with interest, the touch of his nails tickling Daryl. The walker played with Daryl’s fingers for a moment, stroking the soft skin between each. Slowly – still slightly unsure about the motion - Rick slid his fingers in between Daryl’s so their palms were pressed together.

Closing his eyes, Daryl let his focus slip away until he felt like he was floating on the edge of consciousness. Almost unaware he was doing it he was so overcome by fatigue; Daryl lay down on the floor. Rick followed, lying down on his side facing Daryl. He slipped his arm through the bars and curled it around the red-neck’s waist, holding him as close as possible.

Daryl laid his hand back on top of Rick’s and threaded their fingers together. He fell asleep in seconds.

Chapter Text

Daryl was drawn out of his foggy dreams by warm lips kissing across his back up to his neck. He groaned, burying his face into the pillow and arching his back. A chuckle rumbled against the nape of his neck and large hands stroked up his sides.

“Time to get up,” Rick murmured, pressing a lingering kiss to Daryl’s hair.

Grumbling, Daryl rolled over onto his back and blinked away his drowsiness. The curtains were wide open and bright sunlight was streaming into the bedroom. “What time is it?” He asked, voice rough with sleep.

“Nearly half past eight,” Rick replied, straightening up and fiddling with his uniform. Daryl ran his eyes over the sheriff, licking his lips.

“Would of woken up earlier if I knew you were dressed like that,” the red-neck said huskily. Rick shot him an amused smile.

Daryl sat up in bed as Rick leant down and kissed him. A shiver ran through Daryl and he lifted a hand and slipped in into Rick’s dark curls. Rick was smiling into the kiss, tilting his head slightly as he ran his tongue across Daryl’s bottom lip.

Groaning, Daryl opened his mouth and tugged on Rick’s hair. Rick allowed himself to be pulled down onto the bed and Daryl was just working on unbuttoning his shirt when Judith began to cry. Sighing heavily, Rick broke the kiss and stood up.

“You want me to get her?” Daryl asked, noticing the dark bags beneath Rick’s eyes.

“Please,” Rick said, “I have to leave for work in ten minutes.”

Daryl got out of bed and pulled on a pair of comfortable sweat pants. He didn’t bother with a t-shirt; he knew Judith preferred skin-to-skin contact anyway. Judith’s cries were growing desperate as Daryl opened the door to the nursery adjacent to his and Rick’s room. The baby was red-faced and howling, kicking her legs up into the air.

“Hey, sweetheart,” Daryl cooed, reaching into the crib and lifting the little girl up, “what’s the matter?”

Judith stopped crying, hiccupping and wrinkling her face in distress. Daryl heard the creak of the stairs as Rick descended them and he knew the older man was going to fix Judith a bottle.

Holding the baby against his chest, Daryl headed downstairs as well. Sure enough, Rick was heating up a bottle of milk in the kitchen. Carl sat at the small table in his school uniform, eating a bowl of cereal whilst reading a comic.

“Morning, Daryl,” Carl said. He didn’t looking up from the page he was on, spooning cereal into his mouth. Daryl ruffled the kid’s hair as he passed, hitching Judith up against his shoulder.

“How many times did she have you up during the night?” Daryl asked Rick as he leant against the worktop next to the other man. The sheriff shrugged, checking the temperature of the milk before handing it to Daryl.

“I’ve told you to wake me up,” Daryl grumbled, repositioning Judith against his arm to feed her, “we should take turns.”

“It’s not my fault if you sleep like the dead,” Rick muttered, reaching for his gun belt on the table and looping it around his hips.

“Rick,” Daryl said sternly, feeling his old quick temper beginning to resurface, “Stop.”

Sensing it was time for a grown-up talk; Carl picked up his bowl and comic and retreated to the living room. Sighing, Rick kept his back to Daryl as he rubbed his face and ran his fingers through his hair.

“I’m sorry,” he said, turning around, “you’re right. I’m just tired – I didn’t mean...”

Daryl crossed the couple of steps between them and kissed Rick tenderly.

“You don’t need to apologise,” Daryl murmured against Rick’s jaw as he placed a kiss there. Rick’s hands stroked down Daryl’s bare back, his thumb rubbing over one of the scars. Judith shrugged in his arms, reaching for the bottle just held out of reach. Rick rested his forehead against Daryl’s, looking down at his baby daughter with hazy eyes.

“May I?”

“Of course,” Daryl said, handing Judith over carefully, “She’s your daughter, Rick.”

“No,” the sheriff said, looking at Daryl seriously, “She is ours.”

Warmth spread through Daryl and he leaned forward to kiss Rick again. Not for the first time, the red-neck found himself wondering how in the hell he had gotten so lucky.

The doorbell rang and they broke apart.

“I’ll get it,” Daryl said, giving the bottle to Rick so he could finish off giving Judith her breakfast.

As he moved through the house to answer the door, Daryl heard Rick call out to Carl in the other room, “You want a lift to school in the cruiser, buddy?”

“Only if I get to flash the lights!”

Daryl chuckled to himself, feeling light-hearted and happy, something he had never known before Rick. He reached the front door and pulled it open, expecting to see one of Carl’s friends or a neighbour on the doorstep.

Instead he saw...Rick. Only it wasn’t his Rick, this one was haggard-looking, bearded and half starved. His clothes were worn and filthy – stained with dirt and blood – and his hair was plastered to his head with sweat. He was panting heavily, eyes frantic and body trembling.

At the sight of Daryl, fake-Rick jumped forwards and seized hold of his shoulders.

“What the fuck!” Daryl exclaimed as he was yanked outside, the door slamming shut after him.

“Daryl, stop!” Fake-Rick demanded, trying to grab hold of him again but Daryl knocked his hands away.

“Who the fuck are you? Why do you look like my boyfriend?”

“There isn’t much time, Daryl, you have to believe me. You are dreaming, none of this is real.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Daryl yelled, trying to push passed the crazy man to reach the door, “my boyfriend’s a cop, so I’d suggest you leave now!”

Fake-Rick shook his head desperately, “You’re in danger, Daryl, it isn’t safe. They aren’t human anymore.”

“Fuck you!” Daryl snarled, grabbing hold of the man’s filthy shirt and shoving him down the porch steps, “Get the hell out of here, you crazy bastard!”

Before fake-Rick could say anything else, Daryl had turned his back on him and hurried back inside the house. He locked the door behind him and leant back against it. His head was spinning, what was going on? How did that guy look like Rick? What did he mean it wasn’t real? This was his life, his family, of course it was real.

Daryl peered through the peep-hole and saw the guy had vanished. Heart beating loudly in his ears, Daryl walked quickly back to the kitchen, needing Rick to reassuring him he wasn’t going mad.

Rick had his back to Daryl when he stepped into the room, the baby bottle lay on the floor and milk was slowly spreading across the tiles. Daryl stopped dead, his eyes on the milk. Something was wrong.

“Rick?” Daryl whispered, his voice shaking, “babe, please turn around.”

Slowly, Rick did and Daryl’s world shuddered to a halt. He saw, but did not understand, the tiny broken body in Rick’s arms. He saw the blood surrounding his mouth and the gore spilt down his front.

The world tilted and the ground rushed up to meet Daryl. The walker dropped the infant’s body and lunged. Daryl’s yell was cut short by teeth – Rick’s teeth – tearing into his throat and suddenly he was drowning in his own blood. There was no pain, only blinding shock and confusion. It was a relief when the darkness spread across his vision.

Daryl snapped awake back in reality, his body cold and stiff from lying on a concrete floor. Rick was whining loudly on the other side of the bars, frantic with worry.

Someone was walking up the row of cells towards Daryl. The red-neck pushed up into a sitting position, shaking and skin covered in sweat.

Michael stopped a couple of feet away. The man looked at Daryl with understanding in his green eyes. Daryl did not need to ask if he had been crying out in his sleep – if Michael had heard.

“I can help you with the nightmares, Daryl, with everything,” Michael said, his voice sincere and steady, “all you have to do is let me.”

Chapter Text

“All you have to do is let me.”

Trust had never come easily to Daryl, all his life he had been afraid to let people close to him. Merle had been the only person he had trusted when he had been young, and his older brother had broken that trust the day he had moved out and left Daryl alone to face the drunken rages of their father. If you let people in than they could hurt you - that had been what Daryl had believed. Or, at least that had been what he believed, until the world had ended, until he had found a family in a group of total strangers, until he had met Rick Grimes. People say there’s always an exception to the rule, well for Daryl, Rick had been that exception. And now Michael was asking Daryl to let him in - to put his faith in him, a man he knew nothing about. Should he believe him? Could there be two exceptions to the rule?

“Trust me, Daryl,” Michael said, holding out his hand to the red-neck.

Daryl’s heartbeat had returned to normal now and the sweat was going cold on his skin – the nightmare fading. He looked from Michael’s extended hand to Rick crouched in the cell. Rick had always seemed to know who to trust and who was a threat. The walker looked straight at Daryl, his blue eyes the clearest the younger man had seen them since he had turned. Daryl took that as a sign.

Reaching up, he clapped his hand around Michael’s forearm and the tall man easily pulled him to his feet. Though he wasn’t broad with muscle, he was stronger than he looked.

“Did you sleep on the floor all night?” Michael asked, running a sharp eye over Daryl’s stiff posture.

“Yeah,” said Daryl, wincing slightly as he rolled his shoulders and stretched, “is that mattress you mentioned still available to be brought in here?”

Michael nodding, a small smile on his face as if he was sharing a private joke with himself.

“What?” Daryl muttered, he hated being mocked, even if it wasn’t harshly.

“Oh nothing,” said Michael dismissively, “it’s just Victor owes me a drink, we made a bet on whether you would come here during the night or not.”

Daryl felt a small amount of satisfaction that Victor had lost.

“How did you know I wouldn’t stay in my room?”

Michael’s face turned grim as he replied, “I know that look in your eyes, Daryl, the way you look at Rick...I too loved someone that much.”

Daryl tensed. He had always been defensive and guarded about his and Rick’s relationship - he knew how some people might react. Even after the end of the world, some still held on to their ridiculous prejudices.

“There’s no need to worry,” Michael said quickly, noticing Daryl’s reaction, “I’m not judging you or anything. There is too much pain and darkness in our lives as it is.”

Daryl nodded in thanks, beginning to warm slightly towards the man. Maybe he had made the right choice after all...

“There’s someone you and Rick have to meet,” Michael said, bringing out the key for the cell.

Daryl stepped aside and watched as Michael unlocked the door and pulled it open. Rick immediately pushed his way out and Michael stumbled back, his hand instinctively going to his gun at his hip. Daryl jumped forwards and caught hold of Rick’s arm. At his touch, Rick forgot about Michael. He wrapped his arms around Daryl’s waist and yanked him close, pressing his face into the side of his neck.

Warmth spread through Daryl’s chest as he hugged Rick tightly, stroking the hair at the nape of his neck. Michael watched patiently, taking it all in, though there was pain in his green eyes. Daryl had to wiggle out of Rick’s grip and even then the walker followed and nuzzled his cheek. Chuckling, Daryl pecked him on the lips out of habit more than anything.

“Has he ever showed affection to anyone other than you?” Michael asked.

Daryl looped his arm around Rick’s hips as he replied, “No. Before he turned it was just us.”

“Were you two part of a larger group at some point?”

“Yeah, back at the prison and before that,” Daryl said with a nod, “But eventually we...lost everyone else.”

“I’m sorry,” Michael said honestly, “that must have been hard.”

Daryl glanced at Rick, “We had each other.”

Michael nodded then took a step towards Rick, eyes careful. He cautiously lifted a hand and reached out. Daryl held his breath, watching Rick intensely. The walker was staring at the approaching hand.

“It’s alright, Rick,” Daryl murmured, rubbing his hip and pressing a quick kiss to his neck.

Michael’s hand stopped a couple of inches from Rick, hovering in the air. Slowly, Rick lifted his own hand and wrapped his fingers around Michael wrist. The man glanced at Daryl, questioning. The red-neck nodded reassuringly at him. Rick scented Michael’s palm but didn’t nuzzle into it like he did Daryl’s – much to the red-neck's relief. After a moment, Rick let go and Michael drew back his hand.

“I guess he decided I’m not a threat,” Michael said, trying to seem relaxed but failing. His hand shook as it ran it through his hair.

“And that you aren’t food,” Daryl muttered, smiling at Rick as the walker turned his attention back to him. Rick purred at the sight of Daryl’s grin, leaning forwards and running his mouth across the man’s jaw.

“We should go,” Michael said, checking his watch, “she’ll be waiting for us.”

***

Dr Juliet Griffin was a small woman, both thin and short. She looked like a powerful gust of wind would blow her over. Her light brown hair was streaked with grey and pulled back in a tight bun to keep it out of her eyes. Her face was lined and her skin pale, making her appear older than she was. That was one sure thing about the apocalypse, it aged you harshly. Michael had let Daryl and Rick across the street to a building and down into its cellar. Dr Griffin had turned the cellar into a mini lab and she was even wearing a long white doctor’s coat.

She caught Daryl’s amused glance at the coat and struggled her bony shoulders and said, “We have to keep up appearances, it helps me remain professional.”

Daryl guessed she meant it helped her to cling on to the past.

“Rick is in good hands,” Michael assured Daryl, putting a hand on his shoulder. Daryl nodded, glancing over his shoulder at Rick who was hovering uneasily by cellar stairs. Their eyes met and Rick whimpered, coming over to press himself against Daryl. Michael smiled, the fondness in his green eyes helping sooth some of Daryl’s scepticisms.

Dr Griffin stared at Rick, face blank with amazement.

“I have to admit, Michael,” she said as he picked up a pain of rubber gloves, “when you came to me last night and told me about our guest are didn’t believe you.”

Michael chuckled, putting his hands on his lips, “I know you didn’t, I wouldn’t have believed me either.”

“It’s...” Dr Griffin began, stepping forwards, her gaze never leaving Rick, “it’s a miracle. I’m not a religious woman – never have been – but I can’t think of another way to describe it.”

Rick growled softly, his blue eyes slightly clouded once more. Daryl felt his unease and ran a hand over his back to calm him.

“Do you think he could hold the answers to the outbreak - to a cure?” Michael asked, glancing from Dr Griffin to Rick.

Juliet snapped on her rubber gloves and said, “You’d better pray he does, for all of our sakes.”

Chapter Text

“Can you get Rick to sit down on the bed please?” Dr Griffin asked, gesturing to it in the far corner.

Nodding, Daryl took Rick’s hand and gently tugged him across the room. The walker huffed into Daryl’s hair as he nuzzled the back of his neck. A shiver ran through Daryl and he pushed on Rick’s shoulders, making the walker sit down on the mattress.

Dr Griffin picked up a DNA swab stick from the table and stepped cautiously towards the bed. Michael had his hand on his gun, just in case. Daryl knew the man would use it, but only if he couldn’t control Rick.

“I’m gonna take a cheek swab,” Juliet told Daryl, “Can you get him to open his mouth.”

Daryl sat next to Rick on the bed and reached out to cup his jaw.

“Open your mouth, Rick,” Daryl said, rubbing his thumb over his chin. Rick blinked at him in confusion. Following his instincts, Daryl ran his thumb over Rick’s bottom lip, tugging it down slightly. As he had hoped, Rick opened his mouth to taste his thumb, his tongue darting out. Daryl felt his cheeks go warm and he reached with his other hand to hold Rick’s jaw open. The walker growled unhappily but not aggressively.

“Alright,” Daryl said to the doctor, “be quick.”

Juliet stepped forwards, the swab stick shook slightly in her hand. Daryl couldn’t imagine how her mind and body must be screaming at her to move back. Dr Griffin wiped the small cotton bud over the inside of Rick’s cheek then drew it back and put it inside a plastic tube.

“You alright here, Juliet?” Michael asked.

"Yes,” she replied, give him a nervous smile.

“Good,” Michael said, turning his attention to Daryl, “I have to go see to some things, I’ll be back in a little while.”

Daryl nodded as he let his hand drop from Rick’s jaw to rest on the nape of his neck.

“Remember our deal, Daryl,” Michael called over his shoulder as he walked up the cellar stairs and disappeared.

The next hour passed in a blur for Daryl. Dr Griffin checked Rick’s reflexes, his eyesight and hearing, took his blood pressure, listened to his chest through a stethoscope, examined him physically and finally took a blood sample. Juliet confirmed what Daryl already knew, that Rick was indeed dead.

“His body appears no different to any other walker,” Juliet told Daryl as she sat down at her desk and jotted down something on a notepad.

Daryl picked up Rick’s shirt and slipped the walker’s arms back into the stained sleeves – he made a mental note to find some clean clothes for Rick. Humming, Rick nuzzled Daryl’s neck, making the red-neck chuckle and affectionately returned the gesture.

Holding the sides of the shirt, Daryl looked down at Rick’s bare torso. The outline of muscle appeared even fainter now, his skin so pale and delicate looking. Sadness pricked at Daryl’s consciousness and he couldn’t help but lay his hands on Rick’s chest. He felt nothing, no rise and fall of breath, no heartbeat...nothing. A feeling of hopelessness washed over Daryl and he moved his hands down Rick’s chest to his stomach. Rick clenched up, the movement of muscle under his skin rippled beneath Daryl's fingertips. Daryl leaned forwards and pressed a kiss to Rick’s collarbone.

“I swear,” he whispered, “I will find a way to cure you.”

Rick whimpered, wrapping his lean arms around Daryl and pulling him flush against his body. Forgetting they weren’t alone, Daryl snaked his arms around Rick’s neck.

"I love you,” Daryl breathed, staring into Rick’s pale blue eyes.

Rick’s hands sneaked beneath the hem of Daryl’s t-shirt so the walker could feel the man’s body heat. The red-neck rested his forehead against Rick’s. Fingertips gently ran up his spine and Rick traced Daryl’s features with his lips. Clamping his eyes tight, Daryl tried to shut off his brain and just allow the sensation of touch to calm him but it was like trying to keep water in your cupped hands. He dropped his hands from Rick's shoulders and stroked them down his sides, feeling each rip until he stopped on Rick's hips.

Dr Griffin cleared her throat loudly and Daryl quickly took a step back from Rick, face going red. Their touching hadn't been sexual, it had been sad, heavy with the not so distant memories of the time when Rick would have responded to Daryl's lips upon his. Daryl needed to feel Rick to remind himself that he was still in there - somewhere - and that he wasn't completely alone.

“I’m sorry,” Juliet said, sounding honestly apologetic, “how long were the two of you together before he was bitten?”

Daryl looked back at Rick as he answered, “We’ve known each other since the outbreak, but we’ve only been together for a few months – it was never right before.”

Juliet heard the regret in Daryl’s voice and said sympathetically, “You will have more time with him, Daryl, we will find a way to turn him back.”

Daryl was taken aback by her words, they were total strangers really yet here she was promising such a thing as if she knew him, cared for him.

“Is it alright if I ask you some more questions?” Dr Griffin asked, breaking the

“Go ahead,” sighed Daryl, relieved that the subject had been changed.

“How long ago did Rick turn?”

"About four – five days,” Daryl said, thinking with a frown, he hadn’t exactly been keeping track. The doctor tapped her pen on the pad and turned around in her seat.

“That’s strange. Rick is only showing signs of decomposition expected after one to two days.”

Daryl hesitated, he knew he should tell her about what had happened but he felt uneasy.

“If you are keeping something from me, Daryl,” Juliet told him firmly but not unkindly, brown eyes narrowed, “tell me now. It could prove vital.”

Daryl glanced at Rick next to him and the walker leant forwards and nuzzled his cheek – as if encouraging him.

“Alright,” Daryl whispered to Rick, taking his hand and entwining their fingers, “when Victor and his buddies jumped us, they tied us up and locked us in the back of a van. The cord around my wrists was tight and it cut into me. Rick smelt the blood and...lost himself for a moment.”

“He tasted your blood?”

Daryl nodded, “Yeah, somehow it...healed him I guess.”

"Fascinating,” Juliet murmured, scribbling eagerly on her notepad, “Would you be willing to let me test that further? It could be extremely important in finding a cure.”

Every fibre of Daryl’s body was shouting at him to say no, to refuse, but the doctor was right. Though he hated the idea, feared that Rick may not be able to remember himself, it was key and could prove to be the miracle they all needed so badly.

“Alright,” Daryl said gruffly, rubbing his thumb over the veins on the back of Rick’s hand, “Though we have to go slow – careful.”

“You’re worried Rick may become like all the other walkers?” Dr Griffin said gently, “I understand. We will do what you feel comfortable doing, Daryl, you set the pace.”

Feeling a little better, Daryl forced himself to smile and dip his head in thanks.

“Ok,” Juliet said, pushing back her chair, “I think we should leave it there today. Michael should be back any moment.”

Right on cue the cellar door opened and shoes clomped down the stairs.

"Everything go alright?” Michael asked, eyes darting between Daryl and Juliet.

"Yes, Daryl’s presence kept Rick calm and cooperative.”

“Excellent,” Michael smiled and rubbed his hands together, “Come on up, Daryl, there’s someone I want you to meet.”

Chapter Text

Once they were back out on the street, Michael turned to Daryl and said awkwardly, “I’m sorry, Daryl, but I’m gonna have to insist Rick returns to his cell now.”

“I get it,” Daryl muttered, holding Rick’s arm tightly as the walker began to grow agitated by his surroundings. A couple walking passed jumped in fright and hurried away. Growling, Rick tried to lurch after then but Daryl yanked him back.

Michael escorted them back to the station and Daryl led Rick back into his cell. The walker sat down on the bed without needing to be manhandled. Daryl saw Michael had stuck to his word and a mattress had been dragged inside, plus his bags and crossbow.

“I won’t be gone long,” Daryl promised Rick, kissing the top of his head. Rick hugged him tightly around the middle, nuzzling his face into the red-neck’s stomach then letting him go.

“See, I told you he would be alright here,” Michael said with a smile as Daryl stepped out of the cell, “he’s settling in quickly.”

Rick watched them leave silently, his eyes sad but accepting. Daryl was relieved.

“Can I get some clean clothes for Rick?” he asked as he walked next to Michael up the busy street.

“Sure, no problem,” said Michael casually, “I’ll have some brought to the cell later. Are you sure you’re going to be comfortable sleeping in there?”

“I’ve had worse,” Daryl shrugged.

“Is it...safe though?”

Daryl glanced sideways at Michael, “Yeah, Rick won’t hurt me.”

“But still,” Michael said, rummaging in his pocket, “take the key to the cell. Knowing you have it will help me sleep easier.”

Daryl took the key, shocked, “You trust me with this? You hardly know me.”

“Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith, Daryl,” Michael replied matter-of-factly.

“Seems more like a gamble to me.”

“Are you planning on letting Rick out in the middle of the night to attack me people whilst they sleep?”

“Well...no I’m not, but –“

“- Then I think we’re good, please keep the key.”

Daryl slipped it into his pocket, wondering how many more times Michael was going to surprise him. When he had first met the man he had feared he would turn out to be another Governor. But now Daryl was forced to admit how wrong he had been. Michael was a decent human being, one in an increasingly dwindling pool.

They reached a pretty house with a well kept garden and a pink painted front door. Walking up the garden path up the couple of steps of the wooden porch, Michael knocked once on the door before reaching for the handle and opening it.

“Come on in,” he said over his shoulder to Daryl as he stepped inside. The smell of cooking hit Daryl like a brick wall and he breathed in the rich smell hungrily. He stomach gave a huge rumble and it dawned on him he hadn’t eaten properly for days.

“Lucy,” called out Michael, his voice turning light-hearted and cheerful, “we’re here.”

There came the shuffling of feet then a young woman appeared, dressed in blue jeans, a white blouse and a flowery apron.

“Don’t shout, Michael,” she scolded, though not entirely seriously.

Chuckling, Michael shrugged off his jacket and hung it on a peg by the door, “Daryl, meet my little sister Lucy.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Daryl,” Lucy beamed, walking forwards and pulling him into a warm hug, “you’re very welcome here.”

Daryl was too surprised to return the hug and ended up standing stiff and awkward, looking at Michael with a lost expression.

“Where’s my hug, hey?” Michael laughed, saving Daryl and tugging his sister into his arms.

Lucy was the exact opposition to her brother, her eyes were blue and her hair was blonde, she was average height with a curvy figure and a pretty, heart-shaped face. The only thing that was the same physically was their smile.

“I hope you’re hungry,” Lucy declared when she pulled out of Michael’s long arms and turned to face Daryl.

“Yes, ma’am,” Daryl said, trying to relax, “It smells great.”

“Excellent,” Lucy smiled hugely, “come in to the kitchen.”

Following her, Daryl had to pinch himself in disbelief. The kitchen was spotless, sunlight was coming through the window and a kettle was boiling on the gas stove. Next to the kettle was a large saucepan of bubbling stew.

“Sit please,” Lucy said, waving her arm at the small round table in the corner. Michael and Daryl did and Lucy quickly placed a large loaf of bread on the tabletop.

“Help yourself,” she said, handing a knife to Daryl, “the bread’s freshly baked this morning by yours truly.”

Daryl was so overwhelmed that Michael had to take the knife from his trembling hand. It was unbelievable, too good to be true. There had to be something wrong, a dark side to it all. Daryl’s mind boggled. Michael startled him by putting a hand on his arm.

“What is it, Daryl?” he whispered so Lucy couldn’t hear him.

“How can this place exist?” Daryl asked, looking out of the window at the street.

“Good things do happen, sweetheart,” Lucy said gently, putting three bowls and spoons down on the table.

“Not in my experience,” Daryl muttered, looking down at his hands.

Michael opened his mouth to speak but he never got the words out. Suddenly, from upstairs there came the ear-splitting cries of a baby. Daryl flinched, his heart giving an agonising throb. The memories of Judith crashed down upon him and he clamped his eyes shot.

“Oh dear, I’m so sorry, I expected her to be asleep for the rest of the afternoon,” Lucy blurted, hurrying out of the room.

The room spun and Daryl gripped the edge of the table so hard his knuckles turned white.

Michael watched him worriedly, “Are you alright?”

Daryl was saved from answering by Lucy reappearing in the kitchen. She held the baby in her arms, cooing and rocking it.

“Someone heard her Uncle Michael was here,” she sang, holding the sniffling baby out to her brother. Michael took the little bundle in his arms and leant back in his chair. Daryl wanted to jump to his feet and run from the room. Grief lodged itself in his throat and hot tears burned behind his eyes.

“Daryl,” Lucy said slowly, her large blue eyes filled with concern, “what’s wrong?”

“I – I’m sorry,” Daryl muttered, pushing back his chair and standing, “I need some air.”

Before either of the siblings could say anything, he fled from the kitchen and lunged for the front door. Outside, the sunshine was bright and the street picturesque.

Daryl slumped back against the door, doubling over and putting his hands on his knees. He gulped in huge breaths of air as his shoulders shook violently and wracking sobs clawed their way up out of his throat.

“Rick...” his name slipped, broken and sad, from Daryl’s lips.

If only they had found this place sooner than Rick would never have turned. Maybe Judith would still be alive, along with Carl and Carol and Michonne and Glenn and everyone else.

There was life here, true life with security and hope. Surviving wasn’t living, it was draining and never-ending. A home – that was what matter. Rick had tried to make the prison into a home; he may have succeeded too if it hadn’t been for the Governor.

Daryl had never known a true, safe, loving home. He used to dream of him and Rick finding such a place, a real place, not some front to a hideous truth. He was tired – so tired – of running and fighting. He couldn’t just survive anymore, he needed to live.

And now, now he had found the place where he could do just that. But he had lost Rick, his loving, courageous, gorgeous Rick... Fate had give one but taken away the other. A home meant nothing if he did not have Rick to share it with. Living meant nothing without the man he loved.

If only they had found Salvation earlier...they might have been save. They could have been happy. They could of lived.

Chapter Text

Daryl wasn’t sure how long he was lost in his pain. It could have been two minutes or two hours, he wasn’t sure. The same thing kept repeating itself over and over in his head – that he had failed Carl. He had told the kid he wouldn’t let anything happen to his father. He had known in his gut he should have never made such an impossible promise, but he had and he had failed.

The door opened up behind him and he jumped, feeling embarrassed. Lucy stepped outside, closing the door behind her. Her bubbly happiness from before was gone, her lips were pursed with worry and she looked Daryl up and down like a mother would her child.

She sat down on the porch, crossing her legs and patting the space next to her, “Will you sit with me?”

Not trusting himself to speak, Daryl just sat down stiffly beside her.

“I’m sorry, Daryl,” Lucy said sadly, looking straight ahead, “I should of asked if you had lost any children before bringing my daughter downstairs.”

Yet again Daryl was struck by the sheer selfless compassion and consideration of a total stranger – Lucy was just like Michael in that way too.

"Don’t be stupid,” Daryl croaked, his throat still tight with emotion, “it’s your home, you do what you want.”

“I was right though,” Lucy murmured, looking at him out of the corner of her eye, “you’ve lost your children?”

Daryl looked down, his shoulders slouching, “they were never actually mine. But the group I was with...we became close, you know? Like family.”

Lucy nodded, her blue eyes filled with sympathy, “Will you tell me about them? I’ve always found talking about sad things helps ease the pain.”

For a moment Daryl was going to refuse, to make some excuse, but he didn’t do either. Instead, he decided to take a chance and open up.

“The first was Sophia, she was the sweetest thing I have ever met, but that was the problem, she was too fragile for this world,” Daryl spoke slowly.

The memory of Sophia coming out of Hershel’s barn rose up before his eyes. He had held Carol back, his arms around her skinny frame as she had crumbled to the ground, but his eyes had been on Rick. The man would never have admitted it back then but Daryl had seen how pulling the trigger had taken a chunk out of his soul. It had been the reason he had done the deed when Dale had been bitten, he hadn’t wanted Rick to go through that again so soon.

“Rick...” Daryl faltered, tears stinging his eyes, “h-he had two kids. Carl was just a scared little boy when I met him not long after the world began to go to shit. But as the months passed, I watched him grow up into a son any father would be proud of. Rick tried to stop him from growing up too fast. He wanted him to have a childhood, but the world isn’t like that anymore. Carl’s mother, Lori, died giving birth to Rick’s daughter...Carl was the one who stopped her from turning...”

Lucy put her hand on his back, rubbing in small circles to try and console him. She asked carefully, “how did Carl die?”

“He got sick,” Daryl muttered bitterly, “there was nothing we could do.”

“I’m sorry,” Lucy whispered, “That must have been horrible to watch.”

There was a pause and Daryl hoped she wouldn’t ask about Judith but then she did, “And Rick’s daughter, what happened to her?”

"What do you think?” growled Daryl, clenching his hands into angry fists in his lap, “I loved Judith like my own. After Lori’s death, Rick...lost himself for a while. I stepped up.”

"You and Rick have been through a lot together,” Lucy murmured, sounding unsure of what else to say, “I’m sorry for pushing you, Daryl.”

"No,” Daryl said quickly, looking at her sharply, “Don’t be, someone else should know...so they aren’t forgotten.”

They sat in silence again for a moment. A tension hung in the air between them. Daryl could sense Lucy wasn’t done with her questions.

“Memories of your lost ones aren’t the only thing haunting you, is it?”

Daryl shook his head, “No, it’s Rick and you and your brother and this place...it’s more than we ever hoped for, but...”

"But you found us too late.”

“Yes,” Daryl’s voice broke and he drew in a shuddering breath, “It’s my fault, I wasn’t strong enough, I should have protected him! If we had found this place sooner everything would be different – better. We could have been happy!”

“You can still be happy, Daryl, you and Rick. It isn’t too late –“

“- He’s dead, Lucy! He’s a walker! Yes he’s different from the rest but he still isn’t Rick, he’s still a walking, rotting corpse!”

"Dr Griffin will find a way to help him,” Lucy insisted in the way people did in face of grief – she put faith in an unlikely hope.

“You’re lying to yourself if you think such a cure exists,” Daryl growled, standing up.

"You’ve been through so much, fighting to survive in a dark, cruel world with no hint of anything changing,” the words tumbled desperately out of Lucy’s mouth, “but you mustn’t give up, Daryl, do not lose hope. Not now, not at the final corner. There is still light and good out there – this place is proof of that, isn’t it?”

Daryl shrugged his shoulders weakly, feeling defeated and hollow, “I didn’t believe a place like this could still exist.”

“But it does. So believe in Rick,” Lucy implored, stepping close and lay a soft hand on Daryl’s cheek, “believe he can be cured!”

Daryl stared at Lucy, torn in two. What should he do? Hope - trust in her words and Dr Griffin’s ability - that was the only option he had in which there was a chance of life. But if he did allow himself to believe in a happy ending, and it went wrong, if Dr Griffin failed, then it would break him. He wouldn’t have Rick to put him back together; he would have nothing to go on for.

One last stand, one final hope... It was either that or give in to the despair, the agony, the bottomless pit of depression he had been teetering on the edge of since Rick had turned.

“A leapt of faith,” he whispered.

Lucy nodded, “Have faith, Daryl, that good things do still happen - that happy endings do still exist.”

“And if it doesn’t work? I won’t have Rick kept like an animal in a cage to be poked and prodded. I will want to take him from here, find somewhere and...end it.”

“Then I will know what happened, I will remember you,” Lucy told him, “and I will tell your tale to others so you and Rick will never be forgotten.”

Daryl snorted darkly, “That will be a very dark and twisted tale to tell.”

"But it will be true.”

“Take the leapt,” Rick’s voice gently whispered in his ear and Daryl swallowed hard. The ghost of Rick’s hand slipped into his and squeezed.

“Alright, I’ll trust in Dr Griffin, I’ll hope for a cure. But I won’t believe in happy endings till I have experienced one for myself.”

Lucy smiled, taking his hand and squeezing it tightly, Rick’s presence evaporating, “please come back inside, Daryl. Seat – eat with us.”

And he did, leaving some of his mistrust and doubts behind him.

Chapter Text

He was gone again, the man who beneath the dirt and sweat smelt like fresh grass and tree bark. The man was called Daryl, but words no longer meant anything to Rick so that did not matter in his cloudy mind. He knew on some level that the man kept the conscious part of his brain alive - prevented the nothingness from overwhelming him. As if from a dream he was aware he had been like him not longer ago, alive and whole, but now he was different, cold and instinctual.

When he was close to the man he had flashes of memory. He didn't relive the memories or see them before his eyes, it was more of an instinct - an impulse - to do something he used to do, like to hold his hand. The man had meant everything to him when he had been alive and that determination to protect him was the only concrete thing he now knew.

Rick did not know how long Daryl had been gone for – he no longer had any concept of time either - but what he did know was that he missed him. There was a hollow ache in his chest, as if something important was missing.

He was afraid. When the man wasn’t with him the hunger returned - followed by the nothingness. The hunger burned in the pit of his stomach, roaring higher until it was scorching his throat. If he opened his mouth a hideous moaning, snarl would echo around the cell. The hunger made his vision go foggy, the colours bleeding out until he saw only shades of grey. It made his skin itch unbearably as if a thousand tiny insects were trying to burrow into his flesh. The itching would become a constant throbbing ache. His skin would feel tight, like it would rip if he moved too quickly.

The physical discomfort turned to pain and the loneliness and fear faded and was replaced with rage. It was then - when he wanted to rip something apart with his bare hands and sink his teeth into anything that moved - that the nothingness began to spread.

The nothingness was in his head. It dulled the pain of his body and calmed the rage of his mind. The last emotion he would feel was panic, desperate and confusing, to not leave the man alone in this world.

Hunger was all he knew, but even that was detached. When the nothingness consumed him he was no longer aware of what he was doing, it was like he fell asleep.

The nothingness had taken him quickly the first time the man had felt him in the cell. He had awoken from it to find the man’s throat beneath his teeth. The hunger had been an inferno, he could smell the blood, almost taste it on his tongue. Every part of him had been screaming to bite down, to tear the man apart and feast. But then he would be totally alone and the man would be died. And he did not want that. So he had resisted and beaten the hunger.

Now, the loneliness was almost upon him again and it was stronger than ever.

Getting up, Rick began to pace back and forth. He needed the man, needed to bury his head in his neck, to surround himself with his scent and warm. His presence grounded him and pushed back the hunger.

A door opened down the corridor and Rick froze in mid-pace. Footsteps marched towards his cell and hope raced through him. He drew in the air and the hope dissipated instantly. The scent was wrong. It belonged to the large man who smelt like dirt and motor oil, the man who had brought them to his town, the one who had hurt Daryl.

Rick snarled as Victor stepped into view, his unpleasant scent making his nose tingle irritatingly. The pain of the hunger was quickly become rage and the man’s presence was only hurrying the nothingness’s approach.

Victor was speaking to him, though Rick couldn’t understand what he was saying, it was all just white-noise to him. But he could hear his tone, mocking and cruel.

The man drew a knife from his belt and sliced a shallow cut across his forearm. He held up his bleeding arm so Rick could clearly see it, a wicked smirk on his face.

The hunger launched itself forward inside of Rick, making him lurch towards the bars. He had lost control of his body, panic flooded his semi-aware mind. The hunger pinned him against the metal bars as he clawed at the air savagely. Victor was grinning wickedly, standing just out of reach.

Rick did not see the man moved. The blade sank into his side, between his ribs and into his no-longer-functioning lung. There was no pain – of course – but there was rage, blinding and vengeful.

Before he could react, the knife was pulled from his side as Victor was shoved back against the opposite wall. Daryl had appeared, along with the tall man who Rick knew they could trust.

Furious shouting drummed against Rick’s ear drums as Daryl’s familiar scent washed over him, soothing the violent hunger. Daryl drove a hard punch into Victor’s gut and the larger man doubled over, wheezing for breath. Michael caught hold of Daryl and pulled him away from Victor.

Hands balled into fists and face a livid mask, Daryl hurried to the bars. Pulling out the key, he unlocked the cell and pulled open the door. Unable to stop himself, so overcome with relief that the man was back, Rick threw himself at Daryl before he stepped inside.

He crowded Daryl backwards against the wall, whining loudly. He rubbed his cheek and nose over the man’s face, nuzzling roughly. He felt Daryl’s hands come up his back, his fingers digging in to his shoulder blades. The relief ebbed away and happiness doused the hungry fire in Rick’s gut.

Purring, his whole chest rumbling with it, he ran his hands over the man, feeling his warmth through the thin layer of clothing. His nostrils were filled with his wonderful scent, it made him feel secure and in control, he couldn’t get enough. Like a cat with catnip, he rubbed his face over Daryl’s, mouthing at his jaw and neck. The man’s pulse was beating heavily and quickly under his affection and he paused at his throat, savouring it. He distantly missed the blood rushing through his veins - his chest feeling empty without his own beating heart.

Daryl was chuckling, the noise surrounding Rick and he hummed his own joy, pressing his mouth to the man’s collarbone. The man’s skin tasted as sweet as honey and he couldn’t help but lick a strip up the side of his neck.

Daryl hugged him tight and ran his fingers through his hair, tugging slightly. Knowing what he wanted, Rick lifted his head and welcomed the man’s lips on his. The action still felt alien to him, it was confusing and he wasn’t sure what to do in response so he simply held still. He could smell both relief and disappointment on Daryl as he drew back which confused him even more.

The man cupped his face and stroked his cheek with his thumb. The soothing touch made him purr and he pushed closer again, rubbing his nose against the man’s.

As long as he had the man who smelt like fresh grass and tree bark, Rick knew the hunger couldn't control him and the nothingness wouldn't consume him.

***

Victor was standing just down the street talking with two of his cronies when Michael emerged from the station.

Michael took a deep, steadying breath, controlling his anger. Not only had Victor gone against his orders, he had put in jeopardy Daryl’s trust. If Daryl didn’t feel like he could trust Michael’s word that no harm would come to Rick then he would not cooperate. That was a risk that none of them could take. The possibility of a cure was something that Michael would not let slip through his fingers.

Squaring his shoulder, Michael marched down the street towards the three men. One of them saw him coming and nudged Victor.

“Come to send me to bed without my supper?” Victor sneered, turning around. His cronies sniggered on either side of him.

Michael resisted rising to the bait. He folded his arms across his chest and said as calmly as he could, “Leave us.”

The two men glanced at Victor but when he gave them no sign to disobey, they did what they had been told.

Waiting until the two men had slunk off out of earshot, Michael growled, “What the fuck were you thinking, Victor?”

“I was doing my job – keeping this town safe from walkers,” the man snapped back, glowering at the taller man.

“Rick is not a threat!”

“Of course he is!” Victor snarled, stepping into Michael’s personal space, “as is that homo red-neck.”

“Shut your mouth!” ordered Michael, eyes flashing dangerously, “Daryl and Rick are our guests, Victor. They are under my protection. I told you not to touch either of them unless completely necessary-“

“- You would have me waiting until that walker kills some kid before you give me the order to take it down!”

“Because he could hold the cure to all this mess!” Michael all but yelled in frustration, “Open your eyes, Victor, there’s a bigger picture here!”

"It’s you who’s blind, Michael,” growled Victor, eyes narrowed, “there is no such thing as a friendly walker!”

“You’ve seen him, how he acts with Daryl –“

“- Exactly. If you took Daryl out of the picture, it would become just another walker!”

Michael shook his head incredulously, “You’re a fool, Victor. We have the chance to save the world and you want to kill it.”

"Why are you so sure we can trust that red-neck?” Victor demanded.

“He’s a good person, I can see that,” Michael replied.

“There is no such thing anymore,” Victor growled, “There are only people and walkers. I will not let one stay within my town!”

Michael struck Victor across the face. The large man staggered back, clutching his nose as blood began to flow.

“You bastard!” Victor bellowed, reaching for his gun.

Michael moved quickly, grabbing hold of Victor’s arm and twisting it behind his back. The man roared in pain, thrashing in rage. Michael only tightened his grip, kicked him in the back of the knees. His legs giving way, Victor fell to his knees. Giving the man’s arm one final painful yank, Michael shoved him forwards and let go. Victor just managed to put his other arm out in time to stop from falling face first into the ground.

"This is my town,” Michael said in a low, dangerous voice, “and you will obey my orders, or you will leave. Do you understand me, Victor?”

Spitting blood out onto the pavement, Victor glowered up at Michael.

“Have you forgotten who saved your sorry arse in the first place? If it wasn’t for me, you would be dead and this place wouldn’t even exist. It is my men who keep it safe!” Victor snarled, blood from his nose staining his teeth.

“You may have saved my life, Victor,” Michael muttered, “but I gave you yours. You were nothing before the outbreak - before this town. I made you. I gave you purpose and power.”

Michael paused, crouching down in front of Victor, staring into his eyes as he continued, “And I can – and will - take all that away if I have to. Now, I will ask you again, do you understand me?”

Unable to hold the other man’s gaze any longer, Victor looked down as he growled bitterly, “Yes, I understand.”

Chapter Text

Dark blood was oozing from the deep stab wound between Rick’s ribs, rapidly staining his filthy shirt. The horror Daryl felt was unfounded and foolish, he knew that, but he couldn’t help but feel it. If Rick had been alive, the wound would be fatal, but to a walker it mattered as much as the weather.

Rage towards Victor burned through Daryl’s veins and he disentangled himself from Rick and walked to where he had dropped the bag of clothes Michael had given him. Shouldering the bag, he headed inside the cell with Rick hot on his heels.

Tiredness weighed down Daryl’s limbs at the sight of the mattress, he wanted to flop down onto it and let sleep roll over him, but his concern for Rick wasn’t going away anytime soon. He pulled the cell door shot and locked it – not to keep Rick in but to keep those like Victor out.

“Got some clean clothes for you,” he told Rick as he unzipped the bag and shook out the content onto the cell floor. The walker moved to his side and watched as Daryl sort out the pile of clothing. He lifted up a pink sweater and Rick huffed at his ear.

“Yeah,” Daryl laughed, dropping the sweater, “I don’t think that’s your colour.”

He found a simple black shirt that looked about Rick’s size and a pair of jeans – he put them aside for later.

“Come here,” Daryl said, reaching out and unbuttoning Rick’s ruined shirt. Pulling it off, Daryl ran his hands over Rick’s torso. His skin was so cold it was actually chilling to the touch. Dark blood covered Rick’s side, seeping into the top of his jeans over his hip.

Quickly to not allow himself to become embarrassed, Daryl popped the button on Rick’s jeans and pulled down the zipper. It took a minute to awkwardly get the jeans off Rick’s long legs and Daryl flushed as he saw Rick wasn’t wearing any underwear.

Clearly unfazed by his nakedness, Rick purred as Daryl straightened up and caught hold of him. Daryl tried to pull back but Rick easy overpowered him, tugging him up against his naked body. How had this become his life? Daryl wondered as he squirmed in Rick’s arms.

The walker was fascinated by the blush spreading down Daryl’s neck, following its spread with his mouth. Groaning, Daryl gave up and went limp in Rick’s arms and let the walker study him. Eventually Rick grew used to the blush and let Daryl take a step back.

To distract himself, Daryl searched through their bags for a bottle of water. He found it and pulled it out then picked up the pink sweater again. He ripped a sleeve off to use as a rag and wetted it.

Rick returned to scenting his neck as Daryl stepped close and began to clean off the blood from his side. The bleeding was slowing now and by the time Daryl had clean Rick up it had stopped altogether.

Helping Rick into a clean pair of jeans, Daryl reached up and ran his fingers through Rick’s unruly curls.

“I met Michael’s sister Lucy,” he told the walker, needing a sense of normality, “she’s nice, you would like her.”

Rick purred, leaning into Daryl’s hands as he stroked his bearded jaw.

“She has a baby daughter,” he continued, the lump rising yet against in his throat, “she’s beautiful...like Judith.”

At the sound of the name Rick froze, his whole body stiffening and eyes going wide. Daryl held his breath, staring at the walker disbelievingly.

“Do you remember her?” he whispered.

The walker whined in distress, shaking his head and pulling away from Daryl. The red-neck followed after him, catching hold of his arm.

“Rick?” He insisted, pulling him around and cupping his face, “do you know who I’m talking about? Do you remember Judith?”

Leaning forwards, Rick rested his forehead against Daryl’s and reached to touch his face with trembling fingers. He traced Daryl’s cheek and jaw lightly, his blue eyes filled with sadness.

“It’s alright,” Daryl whispered, wrapping his arms around the walker and pulling him close, “I miss her too.”

Evening arrived and the shadows in the cell grew darker and spread across the cold concrete floor.

Daryl lay down on the mattress on his side and Rick snuggled in close behind him. The walker wrapped an arm around his waist and tucked the other beneath Daryl’s head, so the red-neck was using his bicep as a makeshift pillow. It was a familiar position and Daryl closed his eyes and let out his breath in a heavy sigh.

Lucy’s stew and freshly-made bread had been the most delicious thing he had eaten since the end of the world. He had forgotten what it felt like to fall asleep with a full stomach. He shiver ran through him as Rick stroked a hand over his side to rest on his stomach. Turning his head, Daryl pressed his lips to Rick’s chin before snuggling back down. Humming contently, Rick pressed his odd-walker kisses to the nape of Daryl’s neck and shoulder.

They used to lie like this all the time. Daryl had loved the way it allowed him to be so physically close to Rick, his back pressed to the other man’s torso and their legs tangled. A smile crept across Daryl’s lips, the real true one in days. In the semi-darkness it was almost possibly to delude himself into thinking Rick was still alive.

He laid his hands over Rick’s and entwined their fingers as he pressed a hard kiss to the man’s arm beneath his head. Lips skimmed his ear and he closed his eyes, imagining he could hear Rick’s voice whispering that he loved him. Rick’s grip around his waist tightened ever so slightly as he kissed him behind the ear and nuzzled his hair.

“Everything will be ok,” he murmured, more to himself than to Rick, “Dr Griffin will find a way to turn you back, she has to.”

Rick replied by squeezing his hand and Daryl fell asleep feeling hopeful for the first time since Rick had turned.

Chapter Text

“Are you comfortable doing this, Daryl?” Michael asked for what felt like the tenth time.

“Yes,” Daryl muttered, taking the handcuffs from him.

It was the next day and they were back in the makeshift cellar-laboratory. Rick was beginning to show the sign of decomposing again, the smell clung to him and his skin felt dry and fragile to the touch. It was time for them to test the ability of Rick’s regeneration and that meant taking precautions.

Daryl stepped close to Rick and locked the handcuff around his wrist. The walker tensed and whined loudly in confusion.

“It’s alright,” Daryl told him, stroking his cheek as he moved slowly behind him. Pulling Rick’s arm around behind his back, he reached for the other but the walker snarled dangerously and jerked his arm away.

Michael lifted his gun but Daryl quickly wrapped his arms around Rick’s waist and held on to him tightly.

“Rick, calm down,” he soothed, rubbing his hands in small circles on his stomach and pressing a kiss to the nape of his neck, “trust me.”

The walker growled softly but relaxed enough to let Daryl draw his other arm behind his back and cuff it. Daryl recalled how Rick had so easily broken the handcuffs Victor had put on him back in the van. He decided quickly not to mention it - he trusted Rick not to hurt him.

“Ok,” said Dr Griffin, sounding nervous, “sit him down on the chair please.”

Daryl manhandled a still growling Rick onto the metal chair which had been brought down to the cellar. He made sure Rick’s cuffed hands went over the back of the chair before taking the coil of rope from Michael’s offering hand.

Crouching down, he hesitated, biting his lip. Was this the right thing to be doing - tying Rick up like an animal to perform tests on him? It didn’t have to be the right thing, Daryl told himself fiercely, it was necessary - there wasn’t any other option - he couldn’t allow Rick to remain a walker.

As quickly as he could, Daryl tied Rick’s ankles to the front legs of the chair then looped the rope around his arms and laced them to the back too. Distressed and confused, Rick snarled and struggled against the rope.

“Shh,” Daryl whispered, moving around to stand in behind his legs, “I’m here, Rick, it’s ok. No one is going to hurt you.”

Cupping Rick’s face in his hands, Daryl tilted his head up so he was staring down into his blue eyes. A shudder ran down his spine. His eyes were almost white. Leaning down, Daryl kissed Rick’s cold lips then rested their foreheads together. Stroking the walker’s cheekbones, Daryl closed his eyes and willed Rick to regain his senses.

“Come back to me,” he breathed. Rick’s body twisted against his and Daryl opened his eyes. The white had grown fainter and flecks of the familiar crystal blue blinked blurrily up at him. Letting out his breath in relief, he pressed another chaste kiss to Rick’s slack mouth before straightening up and taking a couple of steps back.

“What now?” he asked gruffly, running a hand through his too-long hair. When this was over he would get a haircut, he swore to himself.

“We’ll see what happens when we just give him a drop of blood,” Dr Griffin replied. Daryl nodded. He had already refused for anyone else but him to be the one whose blood Rick would taste.

Dr Griffin stepped over to him, holding a thin but sharp needle in between her fingers. Daryl held out his hand and she took it. Aiming the needle over the pad of his left index finger, she stabbed the needle into it with one lightning-fast jab.

A small jolt of pain flashed down Daryl’s finger. Dr Griffin squeezed his finger tightly and a bead of blood welled up out of the tiny pinprick. Pulling a plastic pipette from her pocket, she sucked up the ruby bead of blood and let go of Daryl’s finger.

“I think you’d better do it,” Dr Griffin said to Daryl, eyeing Rick uneasily.

Taking the pipette, Daryl turned back to Rick and saw he was frozen stiff. Eyes fixed on the tiny amount of blood inside the plastic tool, the walker drew in huge breathes of air through his nostrils. Hunger rose in his features and it took every ounce of faith Daryl had in Rick to move towards him.

The walker yanked savagely against the ropes tying him to the chair but they held. Daryl held the pipette slightly above Rick’s head. Guilt and sadness clawed at his consciousness at the sight of Rick like this. Suddenly frantic to get it over and done with, he squeezed the end of the pipette and the blood squirted out into Rick’s open, hungry mouth.

Back in the van he had been too overwhelmed to notice the healing whilst it happened, but this time all his attention was on Rick. The effect was instant. The clammy sheen to Rick’s slightly rotting skin faded till his complexion was pale but no longer degrading. The smell vanished too, though its leftover odour hung unpleasantly in the air. Daryl reached out and touched Rick’s cheek, feeling the difference in the texture of his skin.

It was miracle - there was no other word to describe it.

“That’s...” Dr Griffin whispered.

“...Outstanding,” finished Michael, taking a step closer to see better, “utterly remarkable. How can he heal like that?”

“It’s like when you water a wilting plant,” Dr Griffin murmured, talking more to herself than to Daryl or Michael, “the water regenerates it, makes it healthy again. I wonder...” She trailed off, eyes going wide as the idea hit her.

“What?” demanded Daryl. The older woman hesitated, biting her lip worriedly.

“You won’t like the idea,” she told him sheepishly.

“That doesn’t matter,” Daryl growled, “tell me.”

“Well,” Dr Griffin began, rubbing her hands together distractedly, “if just a drop of blood reverses a few days of the decomposition process than maybe...maybe if Rick consumes enough it could –“

“- Turn him back?” Daryl whispered, gapping at the doctor, “You think that that could be Rick’s cure?”

Juliet shrugged her thin shoulders, looking weary all of a sudden, “it’s just a theory. Rick is the first walker to not only retain some of his humanity, but now this too.”

“What you are saying is then,” Daryl muttered, “You have absolutely no idea what you are doing.”

“Daryl,” Michael said his name warningly.

“No, it’s alright,” Juliet said quickly, glancing at Michael, “You’re right, Daryl, I don’t know what I’m doing. Rick, as far as we knew, is a one of a kind. My theory may prove to be completely wrong, but it’s a starting point.”

Daryl looked at Rick as he spoke, “But what about the consequences.”

“Like what?” Michael asked, frowning.

“Say if you are right, Doc, and Rick could turn back if he eats enough...” Daryl trailed off, unable to say it. He took a deep, steadying breath before continuing, “How much will he have to eat before his heart restarts – if it works at all? What if he has to kill and eat someone?”

There was silence. Daryl’s questions hovered in the air like dark clouds.

Sensing the tension, Rick whined unhappily, earning to wrap Daryl up in his arms and comfort him.

“Could you handle such a thing if that was the case?” Dr Griffin asked. Glancing at Rick, Daryl knew his answer before he even said it.

“I could, but I’m not sure if Rick would be able to live with himself.”

“But he might not remember anything from his time as a walker?” Michael suggested weakly.

“I guess the real question is then,” Daryl whispered, “if I am willing to take that chance.”

Chapter Text

“The first time I met Rick I threw a load of squirrels at him,” Daryl told Michael, snorting at the memory.

“Its memorable I suppose,” Michael chuckled, leading Daryl deeper into the trees.

With Rick back safely in his cell, Michael had asked Daryl to accompany him outside to check the traps and snares. The small forest that surrounded Salvation was alive with the sound of birdsong and the rustle of squirrels in the branches overhead. Daryl felt good being outside the walls, his crossbow back in his hands. His only regret was that Rick wasn’t by his side.

“Here we go,” Michael said happily as he came across a trap with a rabbit caught in it. Daryl kept watch as Michael crouched down and untangled the stiff rabbit from the string. “Know much about hunting, Daryl?”

“Yeah actually,” Daryl replied, watching a squirrel run up a nearby tree, “don’t think I’d be here now if I didn’t.”

“Believe it or not but it was Lucy who taught me how to track and set up traps,” Michael said with a smile, straightening up and putting the dead rabbit in his backpack.

“Yeah?” Daryl asked, raising an eyebrow, “she doesn’t seem the type to hunt.”

Michael laughed, “I guess she doesn’t. Our father used to hunt when we were kids; I used to hate the sight of blood even from an animal.”

“What did you do before the outbreak?”

“I was a teacher at a high school,” Michael told him as they started off again through the trees.

“Never spent much time at school,” Daryl muttered.

The trees thinned out and they came to a small clearing. Michael caught hold of Daryl’s elbow, stopping him in his tracks.

“What is it?”

As an answer, Michael took three steps into the clearing then crouched down and pulled up the edge of a large bed sheet covered by leaves. Daryl moved forwards and looked down into the pit.

“Nasty,” he snorted, eyeing the sharpened sticks at the bottom of the pit, “Is that for walkers or people?”

Michael put the sheet back and stood up.

“We should get moving,” he said, “It will be getting dark soon.”

Daryl did not miss how he avoided answering the question.

By the time they had checked all the snares and traps dusk was beginning to creep through the trees. The sky was the colour of fire and the trees cast long, dark shadows across the leaf-littered earth.

The walkers came out of nowhere, shattering the peace.

“Michael!” Daryl shouted in warning as he saw the walker lurching up behind the man. He raised his crossbow and loosed the arrow just in time. The arrow hit the walker in the head and it went down. Spinning around, Michael drew his knife and faced the next walker.

Daryl swore as he fumbled with his crossbow, trying to reload it. A walker snarled behind him and undead hands wrapped around his arm. Yelling, Daryl swung round and cracked open the walker’s head with his crossbow.

Two more launched at him out of the shadows and he was forced to drop his crossbow to catch hold of them. Teeth snapped at him, their foul stench filling his nose.

Daryl tried to dig his heels in but the walkers forced him backwards. His back hit a tree trunk and he drove his knee up into one of the walker’s, shoving it back. Freeing one of his arms, he grabbed for his knife and drove it into the other walker’s forehead. He had barely shoved the dead body away before the other was back on top of him.

Losing his footing, Daryl tripped and fell. The walker followed him, hands clawing and snapping its teeth inched from his face. Summoning all his strength, Daryl rolled the walker off him and plunged the knife through its eye into its brain.

Gasping, he stumbled upright, looking for Michael. The other man was pinned against a tree, walkers lurching towards him from all sides. Tightening his hold on his knife, Daryl stepped towards him to help but Michael’s eyes went wide as he saw him.

“Stop, Daryl!”

Michael’s shout filled Daryl’s ears just as the ground suddenly gave way beneath his foot. Daryl’s stomach flipped as the sensation of falling caught hold of him. He clawed wildly, searching for anything to catch onto. His nails scrapped the side of the pit but the earth was soft and there was nothing to grab hold of.

Landing on his back, the breath whooshed out of him and searing pain glanced up the left side of his ribs and thigh. Leaves and dirt rained down upon him, peppering his face and getting in his mouth.

Groaning, Daryl shook his head and spat out the soil. He blurrily looked around and saw just how close he had come to being speared on the wooden sticks. The closed two had just caught him as he had fallen, cutting into his skin but not deep enough to cause serious injury.

Daryl sat up gingerly, leaning back against the side of the pit. Touching his side, pain flashed through his body and he clenched his teeth together hard. Blood was quickly spreading down his leg and side, sticking his shirt to his skin unpleasantly.

Looking up, he tried to search for a tree root or anything that would help him climb up out of the pit.

There was a large snarl and suddenly a walker tumbling over the edge above his head. The walker fell onto the sticks with a sickening crunch. The sharpened ends pierced its body in multiple places but not its head.

Dark blood and gore spattered across Daryl’s face and he recoiled in disgust. Still snarling, the walker writhed on the spears but couldn’t get free. Daryl stood up and stamped down on its head, putting it out of its misery.

“Michael!” He called up, “are you there?”

Please don’t be dead, he thought desperately.

At first there was no reply and Daryl instantly feared the worst but then Michael’s head appeared over the edge looking down at him.

“You’re alive!” Michael gasped in disbelief.

“I could say the same about you,” Daryl replied, feeling a relieved smile tug at his lips, “have you got anything to help me get out of here?”

“Hold on, I think there’s some robe in the bottom of my bag,” Michael said, disappearing from view.

Daryl waited, gripping his bleeding thigh and grimacing. A length of robe appeared over the edge and Michael’s voice called down, “climb up!”

It hurt, the torn skin over his ribs tugged painfully and more blood seeped out. The damp earth of the side of the pit was little help, every time Daryl tried to put his foot on it it gave way and he slipped, jarring his wounded leg.

After what left like an age, Daryl reached the top. He hooked his elbows over the edge and heaved himself up and over. He collapsed onto his back, gasping for breath, the gash on his side was throbbing with pain and his leg twisted involuntarily.

Michael dropped the robe and knelt down beside him. He looked almost as bad as Daryl felt, covered with blood and tore, his shirt torn and skin white beneath the grime.

“Are you alright?” Michael asked, out of breath. He reached out a shaking hand to Daryl. The red-neck caught hold of his wrist.

“Michael!” He hissed, eyes fixed on his forearm.

The man followed Daryl’s wide eyes and he stiffened.

He had been bit.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t his fault, Daryl knew that, why then did he feel so guilty?

He was sitting cross-legged on the mattress in their cell, elbows resting on his knees with his head in his hands. Rick was leaning against his side, resting his chin on his shoulder, whining softly every few seconds.

Michael hadn’t wanted to return to the town, he wanted to end it out there in the woods, but Daryl had managed to talk him into coming back with him. Why? He wasn’t sure exactly, all he could think of was Lucy and how she deserved to say goodbye to her brother. Despite all their differences, Daryl wished he had had the chance to say goodbye to Merle.

He had taken Michael to Dr Griffin and told her quickly what had happened. She had ushered Michael down onto the bed to study the bite. Daryl had slipped away then, the guilty becoming too much for him to bear.

Rick slipped his cold hands around his waist beneath his shirt and Daryl jumped. Lifting his head from his hands, he met the walker’s wide, pleading eyes. Whimpering, Rick leaned in close and brushed their noses together.

Twisting around slightly, Daryl wrapped his arms around Rick and buried his face into his neck. For a moment Rick did respond, clearly taken aback, but then memory guided him and he hugged Daryl close.

Sniffing loudly, Rick clamped his eyes shut and willed his brain to shut up. He’d hardly known Michael really, he kept telling himself over and over again, the grief he was feeling was stupid – weak. But Daryl knew in his heart that he was lying to himself. If it hadn’t been for the town, Michael and the hope Dr Griffin gave him, Daryl felt like he wouldn’t have made it till now. The torture of having Rick with him but not alive would have destroyed him.

But it was more than that too. He hadn’t been able to protect Rick, stop him from being bitten, and now the same thing was happening all over again to Michael. He had failed at watching his back. He couldn’t save him.

Rick stiffened against him and growled dangerously though Daryl barely noticed. The cell door suddenly banged open and he jerked out of Rick’s arms.

Victor stood there, his face white and eyes bulging with rage. He was breathing heavily and there was a smear of blood on his cheek.

“Y-you!” He hissed, pointing a shaking finger at Daryl, “come with me n-now!”

Rick snarled, standing up and taking a menacing step towards the furious man. Daryl jumped up and grabbed hold of his arm, stopping him.

“It wasn’t my fault,” he told Victor automatically even though he didn’t believe it.

“H-he’s...” Victor’s large shoulders shook violently and he sagged against the bars, “he’s fading fast. But Doc thinks he can save him.”

The man’s red-rimmed eyes darted to Rick.

“What?” Daryl gapped, “how can Rick save Michael?”

“Do I look like a fucking doctor?” Victor shouted, rage snapping him straight again.

Rick growled and Daryl slipped his hand down his arm to entwine their fingers and squeezed reassuringly.

“Come on!” demanded Victor, stepping out of the way, frustration and anger radiating from him. But there was something else too, something more. Victor hated Rick, trusted him as far as he could throw him, so why was he here now? The answer was simply.

“You care for Michael, don’t you,” Daryl said carefully as he led Rick out of the cell, “a lot.”

Victor glowered at him, “from the start it was just me and him. I kept him alive, opened his eyes to the things he had to do to survive.”

“He was your responsibility,” Daryl murmured, glancing at Rick, his heart giving a painful throb.

“Michael being bit is not on me!” Victor snapped, shoving passed Daryl and marching towards the door. Daryl tugged Rick along behind him as he hurried to catch up.

“I didn’t say it was,” he said quickly as they stepped outside, “I’m sorry.”

“I don’t want your sympathy or apology!” hissed Victor, shooting a withering look at Daryl over his shoulder, “I want Michael to live.”

“So do I,” muttered Daryl honestly.

They reached Dr Griffin’s lab, Victor took the stairs down into the cellar two at a time. Rick grumbled unhappily about being back.

Michael looked like death. His skin was sickly pale and covered by a thick sheen of sweat. He was twisting in his semi-conscious state, grimacing in pain and balling his hands into the bed sheet.

Lucy was there, leaning over her brother and dabbing at his feverish forehead and neck with a damp cloth. Dr Griffin was washing the bite wound over a bowl of water. Michael’s blood dripped down into the bowl, swirling like red mist through the water to the bottom.

“I got him,” Victor declared, hurrying over to stand on the other side of the bed. Looking down at his old friend the hulking man asked, “How is he doing?”

“I’ve never seen anyone succumb to the bite so fast,” Juliet said anxiously, pressing the wet cloth over the seeping wound, “we don’t have much time.”

The last ounce of colour drained from Victor’s face and he groped for Michael’s hand, holding it tightly as he leant over him.

“Hang in there, mate,” he whispered, eyes locked on the sweaty face of his friend, “you’re gonna be alright.”

“Doc,” said Daryl, stepping closer, surprised by the different side of Victor he was seeing, “what can me and Rick do to help?”

Juliet leaned around to face him, her eyes wide and hair all over the place.

“I – it’s just another theory,” she babbled, running a frantic hand through her messy hair, “but there’s something in Rick’s DNA or his blood or something, that stopped him from losing his humanity when he turned. I want to try and transfer that...gift to Michael.”

“How?” Daryl asked, not believing such a thing was possible.

“By injecting Michael with some of Rick’s blood,” Dr Griffin said, glancing at Victor, “I don’t know what will happen, but –“

“- If we do nothing than there is no hope,” Lucy interrupted, turning tear-filled eyes on Daryl, “please, you have to let Juliet try.”

“We don’t need his permission,” snarled Victor, taking a step back around the bed towards Daryl.

“Stop, Victor!” Lucy ordered, her voice cracking like a whip and for a moment Daryl saw her brother standing there in her place, “Michael wouldn’t allow that.”

“Fuck that!” shouted Victor, face going red with rage, “I will not let Michael die!”

He moved towards Rick and Daryl braced himself for a fight.

“Enough!” Yelled Dr Griffin. She yanked the gun out from the back of her trousers and pointed it at Victor. “One more step and I swear to God I will shoot you, Victor!”

“You wouldn’t dare,” snarled Victor, eyes narrowing dangerously.

Michael lurched up from the bed, coughing violently and spraying blood across the bed sheet.

“Juliet!” Lucy cried in panic, grabbing at her brother and trying to force him back down but he was thrashing wildly. He began to cry out loudly, his words jumbled and impossible to understand. Dispute forgotten, Victor leapt back to the bed. He avoided Michael’s flailing arms and seized hold of his shoulders and pinned him down to the mattress.

“There’s no time!” He bellowed over Michael’s delirious screams and shouts.

“Daryl, please!” begged Lucy.

“If it works than Michael will be like Rick,” Daryl spoke quickly, determined Lucy would understand what she was asking before he considered agreeing to it, “he will be dead but alive, do you want that for your brother?”

“Yes,” cried Lucy, tears streaming down her face.

“Would Michael want that?”

It was the question he himself had been asking of Rick since it had happened. He never had been able to convince himself of the answer either way. Lucy, however, seemed certain.

“Yes, he would – he swore he would never leave me.”

Daryl found he believed her and he swallowed his apprehension. He turned to Rick and saw the sight of Michael have spooked the walker. He had to physically turn his head away from the thrashing man so he would meet his eyes.

Rick whimpered and Daryl pressed their lips together. He needed to feel Rick at that moment, needed to remember how kissing him used to sooth all his fears and make the world clearer. It did not matter that Rick didn’t return the kiss; the shadow of it was enough for now.

He had to agree to let them try, he owed Michael that much.

Pulling away from Rick, Daryl turned back to Lucy and Dr Griffin. He nodded grimly. That was all the permission they needed to spring into action.

Chapter Text

After extracting a syringe full of Rick’s blood, Dr Griffin had carefully inserted the needle into Michael’s arm and injected the dark liquid. At first nothing had happened, Michael continued to thrash and moan in agony. Then, slowly, his movements grew less violent and his cried quietened. After a few minutes, his body went limp with exhaustion and he had closed his eyes, letting out a shuddering breath as he fell into unconsciousness.

Daryl had asked if it had worked but Dr Griffin didn’t know, she said they would just have to wait and see.

Rick had let Dr Griffin take his blood with little resistance but the moment Michael had fallen quiet he had grown anxious. Whining loudly, he had tugged at Daryl and rubbed his face over his neck. Unnerved by his behaviour, Daryl had excused them and taken Rick back to their cell. Lucy had promised they would send word the moment anything changed with Michael.

Now, back in the cell, Rick was still panicked.

“Rick,” Daryl tried to sound calm, “it’s alright, you’re safe, I’m safe.”

The walker pushed Daryl backwards until his heels hit the mattress on the floor and he flopped down onto it. Whining and whimpering, Rick laid himself over Daryl and pressed his face into the man’s neck.

Slightly scared now, Daryl lifted his arms and wrapped them around Rick’s back. He tilted his head back to give him more room and stroked one hand up his spine.

Threading his fingers into Rick’s hair, Daryl closed his eyes and tried not to flinch. Teeth grazed his Adam’s apple, quickly followed by cold lips running up the underside of his jaw. Bloodless hands pawed at the front of his shirt, pulling awkwardly at the buttons. Fingers trembling, Daryl batted Rick’s out of the way and undid his shirt. He hissed through his teeth as the walker’s cold hands ran up his ticklish sides.

Rick hovered above Daryl, leaning on his elbow. His eyes were crystal blue. Why Rick was acting like this suddenly hit Daryl. His breath hitched in his throat and he lifted his hand and cupped the walker’s jaw.

“Don’t worry,” he told him earnestly, “it wasn’t me. I wasn’t bit. I’m not going anywhere.”

Something danced across Rick’s blue eyes and he lowered his face to Daryl’s and brushed their lips together. Shocked flashed through Daryl and he tensed. Cold hands ran over his chest and stomach and Daryl couldn’t stop his body was arching up into the touch.

“It’s alright,” he whispered, his heart hammering in his chest, “it’s alright, Rick, I’m here, I’m here. You’re not going to lose me.”

Rick gave a soft purr, tracing Daryl’s cheek and jaw with his lips. Following his instincts, Daryl wriggled a hand between them and unbutton Rick’s own shirt. The walker looked at him oddly but let him pushed the shirt off his shoulders.

Pulling Rick down on top of him, Daryl yanked off the shirt completely so their bare chest rubbed together. Daryl ghosted his fingers up the length of Rick’s back, feeling the muscles beneath the thin layer of clammy skin.

Resting his elbows either side of the red-neck’s head, Rick nuzzled at his brow, mouthing at his hairline. The feeling of the man’s warm, living hands touching his cold, undead body made his every nerve spark and dance.

Daryl tilted his head back and kissed Rick’s chin, catching the walker’s attention.

“I will never leave you,” he promised, looking up into the face that haunted both his worst nightmares and happiest dreams, “you will never lose me.”

Rick whimpered, unconvinced, so Daryl lifted his head slightly off the mattress and kissed his lips hard. The walker circled his fingers over the man’s chest, his palm hesitating over his beating heart.

Daryl shivered and closed his eyes. A smile turned up the corner of his mouth as Rick shifted down slightly and laid his ear against his chest.

Weariness washed over him all of a sudden as he relaxed. Rick continued to listen to Daryl’s heartbeat long after the man had dozed off.

 

***

“Daryl, wake up.”

Blinking blearily, his head feeling foggy, Daryl groaned and rubbed his eyes. Rick sat up beside him, growling softly at Dr Griffin who stood on the other side of the cell door. At the sight of her, Daryl sat up quickly, his heart leaping, immediately fearing the worst.

“How’s Michael?” He asked urgently.

Juliet’s face was half hidden in shadow so he couldn’t see her expression and her tone gave nothing away either as she replied, “come and see for yourself.”

Daryl decided quickly to leave Rick behind and turned to the walker.

“I won’t be long,” he told him, leaning forwards and kissing him. Rick gave one small whimper but didn’t move to follow him as he stood.

Dr Griffin led him quickly out of the station, across the street, into her house and down the cellar stairs.

Michael was still lying on the bed, though someone had changed the bloody sheet for a clean one and had removed his torn and filth shirt. Lucy was sitting on a chair next to the bed; she looked up as Daryl entered.

“Did it work?” Daryl demanded, crossing the room towards the bed.

At the sound of his voice, Michael’s brow furrowed and he turned his head towards Daryl on the pillow. Clear green eyes opened slowly and Michael smiled weakly.

“Hey, Daryl,” he whispered, his voice rough.

Disbelief almost knocked Daryl off his feet. He gapped at Michael, taking the final unsteady step to his bedside. Sinking to his knees next to the bed, Daryl reached out and took Michael’s hand. The man squeezed his hand slightly, proving he was real.

“T-that’s impossible,” Daryl whispered, his fingers finding Michael’s pulse in his wrist.

“It’s a miracle,” Lucy agreed, leaning across her brother to unwrap the bandage on his arm. The bite was completely gone, there wasn’t a scar or even the hint of bruised skin where it had been just hours ago.

Michael relaxed back against his pillow. He was still pale but all signs of the fever had gone. He was physically weak, drained, but he was alive. He had been bit but hadn’t turned, he had been cured!

“D-did you know Rick’s blood would cure him?” Daryl asked Dr Griffin.

Juliet shook her head, “I – if it worked at all, I had expected Michael to become like Rick. I never imagined it would stop him from turning.”

“A cure,” Michael croaked, “Rick is the cure.”

“You didn’t turn, Michael,” Dr Griffin said warily, “your heart never stopped beating. It might not work on someone who is a walker.”

“But if it stops someone from turning then surely...” Michael trailed off.

They were silence. Daryl still didn’t dare believe it.

“I’ll go find Victor,” Lucy said, breaking the silence, “he’ll be relieved to hear you are awake.”

“He doesn’t know yet?” Michael mumbled, frowning.

“We thought Daryl should be the first,” Juliet explained.

Feeling humbled and a little embarrassed, Daryl looked down at his shoes. Lucy stood up, pausing to kiss her brother on the forehead before leaving to find Victor. Dr Griffin checked Michael’s blood pressure and listened to his heart.

“You vitals are all promising,” Juliet informed him, “you should be back to your old strength in a couple of days, as long as you take it easy.”

“I’ll try,” Michael said, flashing Juliet his trademark grin, “Would you give me and Daryl a moment alone?”

“Of course,” Juliet said, coiling the stethoscope up and putting it into one of the draws of her desk before leaving. Daryl took the chair Lucy had been using and settled down next to the bed.

“I wanted to thank you, Daryl,” Michael said.

“For what?”

Michael snorted, shaking his head incredulously, “are you kidding? You saved my life.”

“Well it was Rick –“

“- No, I mean,” Interrupted Michael, “back in the woods...I wanted to take my gun and blow my brains out. I couldn’t bear the idea of turning. But you stopped me, you made me return home. You saved my life.”

“It was nothing,” said Daryl gruffly, feeling uncomfortable.

“You don’t take gratitude easily do you,” Michael observed fondly.

Daryl shrugged his shoulders, “that’s coz I’m not used to getting it I guess.”

“I find that hard to believe,” Michael mumbled, laying his head back against his pillow.

“I...thanks,” Daryl said sheepishly.

“Anytime,” Michael yawned.

“I’ll let you rest.”

As he got up to leave, Michael said, “Thank Rick for me, will ya?”

Daryl glanced at the man’s face and saw his eyes were closed and his breath was already evening out as he drifted off to sleep.

“I will,” he promised, though his smile was sad as he realised Rick wouldn’t understand his words.

Chapter Text

The ground beneath his feet opened up and suddenly he was falling in oblivion – or, at least, that was what it felt like as he stared at the open cell door. Someone had opened it, Rick was gone. Daryl’s whole body shook and he had to lean against the wall for support. His vision blurred and his head buzzed as if it was filled with live bees; his ears rung with it.

He hadn’t been gone long, not even an hour. He had seen Michael then come straight back here to find the door wide open and the cell empty. Daryl knew he had locked the door when he had felt; he had made sure of it. His hand flew to his trouser pocket, the key was still there. Someone must have a copy of it. But who? Who would let Rick out of the cell and why? Those questions were quickly dwarfed by true panic as Daryl realised Rick could be, or would be soon, in grave danger.

Daryl dived inside the cell and grabbed his crossbow. He scanned the floor for any blood but there was nothing, no signs of a struggle at all. Rick had left the cell of his own freewill.

Quickly searching the adjacent rooms, Daryl tried to keep calm and not let the panic clawing at his gut to overwhelm him – he needed to keep a level head. He wondered if he should tell someone, Michael or Dr Griffin. But he quickly dismissed the idea, he didn’t want them to announce that Rick was missing to the whole town, he didn’t want to cause a mass panic. But what if Rick lost control? That was Daryl’s real concern. If Rick attacked someone then he knew not even Michael would be able to protect him.

Hurrying outside, the sunlight momentarily blinded him. He paused and lifted a hand to block to rays from his eyes. Squinting up and down the street, Daryl listened intently for any screams or the raising of an alarm. There was nothing, nothing out of the ordinary at least. That unnerved Daryl more than if there had been chaos. Two armed men walked passed him, eyeing him suspiciously. Daryl ignored them but took a deep breath, forcing the rising panic back down. Rick couldn’t have gone far, he told himself furiously. He couldn’t have down left towards the wall and the armed lookouts, Daryl would be able to hear the disruption. So he must have gone right, further into the town.

The sun beat down on Daryl’s back as he walked quickly down the street – though not too quickly that he would raise concern. Straining all his senses, he resisted the urge to call Rick’s name.

Daryl was reaching the end of the street; the makeshift wall that encircled the town was just in sight. There was still no sign of Rick or anything amiss. There was the slim chance he had found a way over the wall, maybe whoever had let him out had led him out of the town? None of it made any sense, why would someone put at risk the safety of everyone in Salvation? Who would have a copy of the key to the cell? More importantly, who would betray Michael?

The wall loomed over Daryl and he stopped in the shade it cast. He turned around in a circle, heart pounding and ears still buzzing. Where was he? Where was Rick? He couldn’t lose him, not like this.

“Please,” he whispered aloud, a lump lodging itself in his throat painfully, “please, Rick. Where are you?”

Daryl was about to jog back up the street when he saw something out of the corner of his eye. Blood – there was a small smear of it on the ground a few feet away. Daryl stepped over to it and crouched down. He reached out and touched it lightly. His fingertip came away stained red – the blood was fresh. He looked up and saw for the first time that In-between the last building and the wall was a sort of alleyway.

A flash of hope shot through Daryl and he straightened up quickly, raising his crossbow ready just in case. The alleyway was narrow, just a little wider than the width of his shoulder. He took four steps into it before he hesitated, blinking hard. His eyes needed a moment to adjust from the bright sunshine of the street to the shadowy alleyway.

A noise reached his ears and he stiffened, dread trickling into his heart. It was a noise he had heard far too many times, the crunching and lip-smacking of a walker feeding.

Eyes adjusted to the gloom of the alleyway, Daryl could now see that the far end was fenced off with chicken wire. Just in front of the wire fence was a hunched over figure gorging on something.

“No, please God no,” Daryl breathed. His crossbow shook in his hands as he forced himself to get closer.

The walker didn’t hear or smell him approach, it was far too busy feasting on the heap of bloody flesh in was crouched over.

The buzzing in Daryl’s ears suddenly stopped and was replaced with a rushing like wind. He stopped a couple of feet from the walker, his legs feeling unsteady. The smell of blood and entrails strung his nose and he gagged.

The walker froze, its hands buried in the chest cavity of its victim. It cocked its head to one side, scenting the air like a cat, open-mouthed.

“Rick...” Daryl’s knees buckled and he slid ungracefully to the ground, “No, no, what have you done?”

He wanted to breakdown, to bury his head in his hands and cry and scream.

“They’ll kill you,” he whispered, eyes staring straight ahead at the walker, “they’ll kill you for this.”

The walker pulled its hands out with a sickening squelch and turned towards Daryl. Unable to look away, Daryl stared at the blood covering Rick’s front and his mouth.

The walker began to snarl and growl, hunger once again filling its pale eyes. Trembling, Daryl lifted his crossbow and pointed it at Rick.

“Don’t,” he said, though his voice sounded so pathetic he didn’t expect the walker to obey, “stay where you are.”

The walker snapped its blood-stained teeth at him and lurched forwards. Daryl’s finger squeezed the trigger but the bolt did not fly, he hadn’t squeezed hard enough, he couldn’t bring himself to do it, not even now.

“Rick...” he cried out, letting the crossbow fall to one side, “I can’t, I can’t do this again!”

The desperation and misery in his cry made the walker pause. It eyed him, confused but still dangerous.

“You saved Michael’s life,” Daryl told Rick, not knowing why he was telling him that now, “your blood stopped him from turning. Dr Griffin was right – there is a cure in you somewhere. You aren’t like all the others.”

Daryl kept his eyes firmly fixed on Rick, not on the bloody remains behind him.

“Please, Rick,” he whispered tears burning his eyes, “please.”

The walker’s shoulders slumped and it knelt down in front of Daryl. The smell of blood filled Daryl’s nostrils and he trembled. He closed his eyes, willing it all to end.

The lump in his throat was agony now, it had blocked off his airway and his lungs burned for oxygen. His head felt heavy and his neck too weak to hold it up. Sagging backwards, Daryl would have fallen but Rick’s strong arms shot out and caught him just in time.

The walker whined frantically, running its stained hands over Daryl’s chest and neck, smearing his skin and clothes with blood.

Daryl forced his eyes open and stared into Rick’s now crystal blue orbs, so wide with fear and confusion. The lump in his throat popped and he let out a ragged gasp then a wracking sob.

Whimpering and whining, Rick tugged Daryl close, pulling the man bodily into his lap. Daryl buried his head into the side of Rick’s neck, not caring about the blood any longer. The walker held him tight, nuzzling his hair and stroking his back.

“They’ll kill you, they’ll kill you,” Daryl sobbed the words over and over again, shaking and crying. After everything he was going to lose Rick after all, there was no way out of it, Rick had killed someone.

Daryl leaned back slightly out of Rick’s arm so he could rip a strip of cloth from his shirt. The walker immediately touched his revealed skin, stroking it tenderly. A shiver ran through Daryl’s body. He raised the torn piece of shirt to the walker’s mouth and wiped the worst of the blood away before it dried.

Rick gave an unhappy purr that sounded relieved and Daryl pulled his head towards his. Resting their foreheads together, he rubbed his thumbs over Rick’s cheekbones, gazing into his eyes.

“We’ll go together,” he told him, “if they want to kill you than they will have to kill me to. I’m not leaving you. We’ll go together.”

Rick tilted his face slightly to one side as he kissed Daryl, like he used to when he had been alive. Daryl shuddered at the taste of blood that still clung to Rick’s mouth but he didn’t flinch away.

Rick pulled back after a short moment, removing one arm from around Daryl’s waist to touch his face gently. ‘Together’, the action seemed to agree and Daryl nodded. He leaned forwards and kissed Rick again, wondering if it would be the last time.

Behind him, at the mouth of the alleyway, armed figures appeared and Daryl accepted his and Rick’s fate.

Chapter Text

They were taken back to their cell after Daryl had been searched and his copy of the key and his crossbow taken from him. The door to the cell had barely been closed and locked before Lucy arrived, out of breath and red-faced – clearly having run there.

“Daryl,” she gasped, pressing herself against the bars, “What is going on?”

Feeling bitter and defeated, Daryl merely shrugged his shoulders and jerked his head at Rick. Lucy’s eyes went wide at the sight of the blood covering Rick’s shirt and the stain of it on his skin around his mouth.

“W-who?” She stammered, the colour draining from her face.

“I don’t know,” muttered Daryl, staring passed Lucy blankly, “someone let Rick out, who else has a key?”

Lucy ran a shaking hand through her hair, “I-I don’t know. Daryl...I don’t know what will happen now.”

“We will die,” Daryl murmured, turning his back on Lucy to look at Rick who had moved to hide in the far corner of the cell like a wounded dog.

“I won’t let anyone punish you,” Lucy said quickly, “and neither will Michael. I’ll go to him now, tell him what happened, he will know –“

“- He won’t be able to stop it from happening,” Daryl interrupted, looking over his shoulder at Lucy sharply, “Rick killed someone, Lucy. To everyone else he is now no different to all the other walkers.”

Lucy opened her mouth to reply but the sound of footsteps made her pause. An armed man appeared and whispered something in her ear. Her eyes clouded over and Daryl looked at the floor, biting the inside of his cheek.

The man left and Lucy said weakly, “It was Victor.”

“What?” Daryl breathed, his palms going sweaty.

“It was Victor w-who...” Lucy trailed off, swallowing hard, “they’ve identified the body...it’s Victor -” She broke off.

A strange blankness came over Daryl and he looked back at Rick with a dumbfounded expression on his face. As if sensing his gaze, the walker moved towards Daryl, whining miserably. Lifting his hand, Daryl touched Rick’s cheek gently. The walker titled his head and kissed his palm, looking at him shyly.

“It’s alright,” Daryl whispered, though he wasn’t sure if he was speaking to Rick or trying to convince himself.

“Did you hear what I said, Daryl?” Lucy asked, her voice thick with tears.

Nodding, Daryl said, “Victor meant a lot to you and Michael – he meant a lot to this town and its people – they will want justice for his death.”

“Michael will do something,” Lucy whispered.

Daryl snorted, shaking his head, “he can’t do anything.”

“Well someone has to!” Lucy cried, gripping the bars of the cell, “I can’t just stand by and watch as they kill Rick – kill humanity’s last possible hope of survival!”

“It won’t just be Rick’s death you will have to watch,” Daryl said flatly, his eyes dim and shoulders sagging. Understand what he meant, Lucy’s face went red with anger.

“I may have only known you for a few days,” she growled defiantly, “but I know the sort of person you are – you’re a survivor, a fighter. You can’t just give up!”

Rick whimpered and pressed himself against Daryl, hiding his face against his neck and wrapping his arms around his waist. Feeling hollow, Daryl absentmindedly lifted a hand and ran it through Rick’s curls.

“I can’t fight a whole town,” Daryl murmured, “And I’ve only survived up till now because of Rick. I’m tired, Lucy, so tired of all the death and hardship. I just want it all to end.”

“But we were so close,” Lucy cried, kicking the cell door so hard it must have hurt, “Michael was bit but Rick’s blood stopped him from turning. Dr Griffin believes she can make a cure from Rick. There’s a chance now – a chance to turn things back to how they were before!”

“But you see,” said Daryl, still stroking Rick’s hair, “I was nothing before the outbreak. What would I do if the world went back to how it used to be? Nothing, that’s what, because that’s all I’d be.”

Lucy shook her head, not believing him, “You’re wrong and if Rick was able to he would agree with me.”

Rick lifted his head and stared at Daryl. A sad smile tugged at Daryl’s lips as he locked eyes with the shadow of the man he loved.

“Yeah,” he whispered, “You’re probably right, he would say that.”

“You can’t just give up hope, Daryl!”

“Why not? I almost did before, after I arrived here,” he said, looking back at Lucy, “but you – outside your home on your porch – you made me hope that things would turn out alright for once. That good things do still happen in this shitty, messed up world. But you’re wrong. Good things can’t happen when there are bad people making the decisions.”

“You think Victor let Rick out of the cell?” Lucy asked, reading between the lines of what Daryl had said.

“Who else?” Daryl growled, leaning forwards and pressing a chaste kiss to Rick’s forehead, “he believed Rick was a threat that needed to be gotten rid of. It turns out he was right.”

“But Rick saved Michael,” Lucy persisted, “Victor wouldn’t have just forgotten about that.”

“I knew men like him,” Daryl muttered darkly, “I grew up surrounded by them – hell, I almost became one. He did it, I know he did. And now he’s dead, but he will still get what he wanted, me and Rick gone.”

“I will not let that happen,” Lucy said again, taking a step back from the cell, “me and Michael will calm things down. It will be alright.”

Daryl did not say anything.

“Who are you suddenly so ready to roll over and die?” Lucy demanded.

Rick whimpered and Daryl sighed, leaning into Rick’s solid form.

“Because Dr Griffin was wrong, Lucy,” he whispered as he rested his head on Rick’s shoulder and loosely laid his hands on Rick’s hips.

Lucy frowned, “wrong about what?”

“About Rick needing to eat someone to turn back – he did just that, but nothing happened. Rick’s blood may be a cure for a walker bite but there is no cure for him. I do not want to live in a world rid of all walkers if that means living without my Rick – alive. I would rather we both die now for what happened to Victor.”

There was silence. Lucy gapped at him with a mixture of disbelief and outrage, though no amount of hatred from her could equal that Daryl felt towards his own cowardice at that moment.

“You selfish, spineless bastard...” Lucy breathed, shaking with rage. If it wasn’t for the locked cell door between them Daryl knew she would have slapped him by now.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured, not looking at her, “there is no cure for Rick and therefore we have no future. He wouldn’t want this – to be a walker forever. You’re right, Lucy, I am selfish and spineless, I should have done what I promised I would the moment he died then put the gun in my own mouth and pulled the trigger. None of this should ever have happened. I’m sorry.”

“I don’t want your apology!” Lucy spat, “Rick is the cure, you – I - can’t allow him to be killed!”

Daryl spun around and shouted, “He’s already dead!”

His voice bounced off the concrete walls and floor. Rick flinched beside him and skulked back to his dark corner. Lucy stared at him for a second, her face a mask.

“Rick would be ashamed of you,” she muttered then turned on her heel and walked away. The sound of the door banging shut behind her echoed through the cell block.

Daryl did not move. He stared blankly ahead as the shadows began to length around him, wishing they would rise up and swallow him whole.

Chapter Text

They lay together in the bed on their sides, facing one another. Their legs were tangled beneath the bed sheet and late morning sunshine was streaming through the open curtains into the bedroom.

Daryl was floating on the edge of sleep, feeling safe and content surrounded by the smell and warmth of Rick. Dozing, he tried to wiggle closer to the body next to him but a hand on his shoulder stopped him.

Blinking open his eyes, Daryl peered suspiciously at Rick. The sheriff smiled a sad smile and gently ran a hand down the side of Daryl’s face and neck.

“Did you really believe everything you just said to Lucy?” Rick asked, his voice sounding as if it was coming from far away.

Groaning, Daryl rolled onto his back to try and escape Rick’s question but the other man merely followed him.

“Is that what you really think?” He prompted, pushing himself up by his elbow and looking down at Daryl with sparkling blue eyes.

“I don’t know what to think or believe anymore,” Daryl muttered gruffly. He lifted a weak hand and wrapped it around the nape of Rick’s neck.

“But what I am sure of is that we shouldn’t waste this dream.”

Rick allowed Daryl to draw his head down for a deep, hungry kiss. The taste of earth and blood filled Daryl’s mouth and he spluttered. Rick pulled back, expression even sadder than before.

“Why are you so ready for it all to end?” Rick asked.

Daryl wiped his mouth on the back of his head, feeling suddenly sick.

“You know why, Rick,” he growled, flopping back on the bed.

“You think there is nothing for you without me.”

“That’s because there isn’t,” Daryl muttered, laying his hand on the other man’s bare chest, letting his fingers run over the lean muscles, “I was nothing before you and I’m nothing without you.”

“You ain’t nothing, Daryl,” whispered Rick, leaning down and kissing his forehead.

Daryl sighed, wrapping his arms around Rick and hold him close.

“Was Lucy right?” He asked cautiously, stroking a hand up Rick’s back, “are you ashamed of me – do you hate me?”

Rick pushed himself up on his elbows either side of Daryl and fixed the red-neck with a serious stare.

“I could never hate you, Daryl,” he said sternly.

“You’re not angry at me?”

Rick snorted, “Being angry at someone is different to hating them.”

“So you are angry,” Daryl muttered, scowling.

Rick opened his mouth, hesitating before replying, “More... disappointed.”

“That’s worse!” Daryl cried, trying to push Rick off him so he could sit up but Rick wouldn’t budge.

“This is a dream, Daryl,” Rick told him, pinning him to the bed with one hand to his chest, “sometimes dreams show us what we really believe.”

“Show me something then!” Daryl demanded, anger rising like a snake in his gut. Rick caught hold of his jaw in a strong hand and yanked his head back to expose his throat. Daryl struggled but Rick was impossible strong and heavy against him.

“Let me go!” He yelled, fear flashing through his veins. Rick ignored him, lowering his face to his exposed throat.

“You want it all to end,” he hissed, his breath hot against Daryl’s skin, “You’re tired of fighting, of being alone. You have lost hope and a man without hope is not a man anymore.”

“I don’t understand!” Daryl cried, the angle Rick was holding his neck bared was beginning to grow painful.

“I love you, Daryl,” Rick growled against his throat, teeth ghosting across the delicate skin, “I fell in love with your determination, your defiance and your strength. You were my rock, my go-to, my anchor. I was nothing before you – you were always that person, that wild red-neck – it was me who needed you!”

“Rick,” Daryl sobbed, tears leaking out of the corner of his eyes, “Please...I can’t –“

“- Yes, you can,” Rick snarled, pulling his chin down and crushing their mouths together. It wasn’t a kiss - it was far too violent and fierce for that, too much teeth and pent-up frustration. The previous taste of earth and blood was gone. When Rick broke away, Daryl was gasping for air and his lips let raw and bruised.

“W-what do you want me to do?” Daryl stammered, his heart hammering against his ribs.

Rick lowered his face back down to his, their noses brushing as he replied, “I want you to fight – to not give in – to be the man I fell in love with!”

Daryl stared into Rick’s eyes for a long moment, his mind and pulse racing uncontrollably. Eventually, the question his mind rested up found its way out of his mouth, “Why does only my blood heal you? Why didn’t you turn like all the other walkers?”

Rick kissed him, more gently this time though still with some anger.

“I told you,” Rick murmured, running his thumb over the red-neck’s swollen and red bottom lip, “you’re my anchor.”

“Don’t leave,” Daryl whispered, threading his fingers into Rick’s curly hair, gripping a little too tight out of desperation, “w-when I’m awake and you’re...it’s not the same.”

“It will be,” Rick promised, “if you have hope.”

“I love you,” Daryl breathed, his heart aching.

Rick smiled and said, “Than prove it.”

***

Daryl awoke from the dream breathing heavy and trembling. He was lying on his side on the mattress in the cell; Rick was curled up behind him, his nose pressed to the nape of his neck.

Taking deep calming breaths, Daryl laid still as he listened to his own heartbeat pounding against his ear drums. He could still feel the ghost of Rick’s lips and the heat of his body, but as the second ticked bye they faded. What had he been thinking, to simply give up and let Rick and himself be killed? That wasn’t who he was, Lucy was right, he was a survivor, he was Daryl Dixon for crying out loud. What had he been thinking? He couldn’t give up, he had to fight, to find a way out of the mess they were in.

Sitting up, Daryl ran a hand through his hair. Rick rose too, looking at him with uncertain eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Daryl murmured, reaching out and cupping the walker’s face, “I was being an idiot. You’re right, as normal. I will prove it to you.”

Rick blinked at him, confused. Daryl knew it had just been a dream but he couldn’t help but imagine it had really been Rick.

“We’ll find a way out of here,” he insisted, leaning forwards and pressing his lips to Rick’s cold ones. The walker, clearing sensing the change in him, hummed and nosed at Daryl’s cheek fondly.

“Daryl?”

He jumped at the sound of his name and Rick growled in surprise too. Neither of them had heard footsteps approaching. Michael was standing on the other side of the cell door looking worried and exhausted.

“What are you doing here?” Daryl blurted, getting to his feet and walking over.

“What do you think, dumbass?” Michael muttered with gritted teeth, clearly in pain, “I had to talk to you, I’ve heard what happened.”

“You look like shit,” Daryl growled, eyeing Michael’s pale, sweaty skin and the gaunt hollowness of his cheeks, “You should be resting.”

“Now you sound just like Juliet,” Michael weaved, leaning against the bars for support, “I’m alright. This is more important.”

Rick whimpered, coming over to stand next to Rick. Michael’s dim eyes lit up slightly at the sight of him.

“Hey, Rick,” he murmured, reaching a hand out through the bars, “you saved my life, buddy, thank you.”

The walker eyed the extent hand for a second before leaning forwards and nuzzling the fingers. Michael chuckled and stroked Rick’s hair once before pulling his arm back.

“How’s it looking out there?” Daryl asked, wrapping an arm around Rick’s waist and laying his hand on his hip.

Michael licked his cracked lips and muttered, “It’s getting bad, people are demanding to know what’s going on – all they know was that a walker killed Victor. At the moment things are under control but...the guards were always Victor’s men, not mine, when they find out the truth...”

“I’m sorry, Michael,” Daryl said, shaking his head, “I never wanted to put you in this situation. I know Victor was your friend.”

Michael’s eyes clouded with grief for a moment and he spoke weakly, “He helped me build this town, saved my life more times than I cared to count...I still don’t believe he’s gone, I can’t bring myself to see his body yet.”

Daryl decided to bite the bullet and just ask the question that was burning in his gut, “Are you angry? Do you blame Rick for his death?”

“You mean do I want revenge?” Michael said bluntly.

Daryl swallowed uneasily, “Yeah.”

Michael’s green eyes darted to Rick as he answered honestly in a gruff tone, “Victor let Rick out of the cell...one of them was always going to be found dead.”

Nodding, Daryl reached through the bars and patted the man’s shoulder.

“Thank you, anyone else wouldn’t see it that way,” he muttered.

“If he was still alive I would ask him why but I know the answer really,” Michael spoke as if he hadn’t heard Daryl’s words, “He would simply say because Rick is a walker – a threat that needed to be taken care of. Even after he witnessed his blood curing me...his instincts still wouldn’t let him believe Rick could be different, could be the answer we all have been searching for.”

Rick nuzzled Daryl’s hair and the red-neck turned his head to press a reassuring kiss to the walker’s forehead.

“So, what now?” Daryl asked.

“Now,” said Michael, reaching inside his coat and pulling out Daryl’s key which he had confiscated off the man who had taken it from Daryl, “we get you and Rick the hell out of here.”

Chapter Text

Michael led Daryl and Rick around the perimeter of the town, sticking close to the shadows and keeping their heads down. They paused by a length of the wall that was a patchwork of wood and sheets of metal. Adrenaline was coursing through Daryl’s veins and he could feel the anticipation radiating off Rick who was pressed close to his side.

Michael crouched down and dug his fingers in between the paving slabs on the ground. He heaved one up and out of the way to reveal a deep hidden hole. Reaching inside, he pulled out a gun and handed it to Daryl.

“I hope you’re as good of a shot with a gun as you are with a crossbow,” he said under his breath as he pulled out a rifle and tucked it underneath his arm.

"We can’t fight our way out,” Daryl hissed, aware of the guards patrolling the wall not far away, “we’re too outnumbered.”

At the mention of his crossbow a pang of loss stung his heart, the weapon had been with him since the very beginning, without it he would be dead. He didn’t want to leave it behind but there was no choice.

"They are still my people,” Michael muttered, checking his rifle was fully loaded, “don’t shoot to kill and only fire if you are shot at first.”

Daryl nodded, deciding not to say that if it came down to him or Rick against one of Michael’s people he wasn’t going to take any chances. He looked down into the hole and spotted a flashlight. Dusk was fast approaching now; overhead the sky was dark at one end and a fiery gold at the other as the sun began to set.

"No,” said Michael quickly as Daryl reached for the flashlight, “it’ll give us away. I know the woods-I’ll lead you somewhere safe.”

“And what then?” asked Daryl slightly defensively.

Michael hesitated, straightening up, “That depends on you really. You can wait this out in the woods till I’ve smoothed things over or you can just move on.”

Daryl was shocked, “but what about finding the cure?”

"Knowing there is hope is enough for now,” Michael replied, fixing Daryl with a powerful look, “if our paths are meant to cross again then I have no doubt that they will.”

Daryl glanced at Rick, “I don’t want Rick to remain a walker any longer. If we come back it will be so Dr Griffin can find a cure for him – not humanity.”

He was being selfish again, he knew that, but he didn’t care. He needed Rick back for real, who knew when fate may grow tired of him, he didn’t want to die leaving Rick alone as a walker. Just because there was a bigger picture didn't mean he had to fulfil it. Michael seemed to understand this and he nodded, agreeing to Daryl’s terms.

“Come on,” said the tall man. He grabbed hold of a rusty sheet of metal, curving it back enough for them to squeeze through. Tightening his grip on the gun, Daryl ducked carefully through the gap. He reached back through to guide Rick. The walker looked around with interest as he straightened up on the other side of the wall. Daryl hadn’t stopped to wonder if Rick had felt imprisoned in the town and felt guilty.

“Hey,” he whispered, stepping close to Rick and slipping his free hand up into his hair, “We don’t have to come back if you don’t want to.”

The walker leaned towards him, brushing their lips together. Daryl took that as Rick telling him it was his choice.

Michael squirmed through the gap, pulling back the metal sheet when he was through. You couldn’t see it was loose from this side of the wall. Evening was already shrouded the woods in gloom, the shadows of the trees stretching long and dark across the leaf-littered earth.

They had only made it a few steps when from behind them up on the wall there came a shout.

“Shit,” Michael hissed, looking over his shoulder, “Run!”

Bullets spattered the ground behind them, sending leaves and mud flying up into the air. Rick snarled, wanting to stand and fight but Daryl seized hold of his wrist and pulled him out of the way. Michael sprinted into the trees, Daryl followed, dragging Rick after him.

Shouts echoed from the wall as the gate was pulled open and armed men rushed out.

A bullet hit a tree close to Daryl’s left. Chunks of bark peppered his face and he shook his head to dislodge the wood from his hair.

Michael spun around and dropped down onto one knee, brining his rifle up in the same smooth movement. He fired and Daryl heard someone cry out behind him as the bullet pierced his leg.

“Come on!” Michael yelled, leaping to his feet again. All previous signs of fatigue and pain were gone from the man now; he was alive with adrenaline and determination. In that moment Daryl saw a lot of Rick in the man - he would miss him.

Their pursuers were gaining upon them and Daryl had to bodily push Rick in the opposite direction. The walker was snarling, eyes pale with anger and the thirst to attack.

"Rick, move!” Daryl ordered, shoving him hard in the chest. This seemed to get his attention and Rick turned to follow after Michael. Lifting up his gun, Daryl fired off three shots before diving after the other two without waiting to see if any of the bullets found their mark.

The three of them ran hard, Michael leading them deeper into the tree line. Daryl saw the odd stray walker in the distance but paid little attention to them, the guns going off behind them were of a much more immediate threat.

Rick suddenly snarled and went down, his wrist slipping from Daryl’s grip. Stumbling to a halt, Daryl twisted around and saw Rick had been shot through the thigh, severing muscles and tendrils.

“Michael!” He yelled over his shoulder as he went to his knees beside Rick. The walker growled and thrashed in rage. Heart pumping and hands shaking, Daryl tried to calm Rick enough to help him to his feet.

There was movement close by and bullets tore at the ground a mere foot away. Daryl ducked instinctively and Rick covered his head with his arm. Fumbling for his gun, Daryl raised it and fired at the figure running towards them. The bullet hit him in the chest and the man crumbled, dead.

Michael appeared behind Daryl, seizing hold of his shoulder.

“Get him up!” the man ordered. Daryl reached again for Rick and with Michael’s help heaved the snarling walker to his feet. Rick’s leg dragged out behind him and Daryl staggered under his weight as the walker leaned heavily against him for support.

A female walker lurched out from behind a tree into their path. Michael took it down without even blinking, driving the butt of his rifle into its head, cracking the skull open.

A gun cracked loudly and pain flashed through Daryl and he yelled out. The bullet had skimmed his left hip, slicing through denim and skin like paper.

“Stop!” he gasped, “this isn’t going to work!”

Michael doubled back to him and helped haul Rick behind a thick tree trunk. Slipping out from under Rick’s arm, Daryl touched his burning hip, wincing. His hand came away red and sticky.

Michael peered around the tree, panting, a sheen of sweat glistening across his brow. He bit his lip and said, “You and Rick have to get out of here. I can hold them off, give you time to slip away.”

“No,” Daryl said sharply, shaking his head and grabbing a fist full of the man’s jacket, “those men aren’t loyal to you anymore. They’ll cut you down.”

“Then I’ll die protecting a friend,” Michael growled, laying his hand over Daryl’s fist, “please, Daryl, you and Rick need to get out of here.”

Daryl opened his mouth, but was lost at what to say. Frustration clawed at his gut and his mind raced for an alternative, but he couldn’t think of one. He unclenched his fist and turned his wrist around so he and Michael were clapping hands like brothers.

“Thank you,” he said, squeezing the man’s hand, a lump in his throat.

Michael smiled, his green eyes glinting as he looked at Rick, “I think it’s me who should be thanking you.”

Sadness mixed and gratitude twisted Daryl’s insides painfully and he was about to say something else when a fresh rain of bullets tore at the tree they were sheltering behind.

“No time,” Michael yelled over the onslaught, “go, Daryl!”

With one final look at the man, Daryl reached for Rick’s arm and the two of them lurched away. Michael aimed his rifle around the tree and fired, covering his fleeing friends. The plan worked – their pursuers were halted in their tracks. The sound of gunfire still echoed around the woods but the noise was growing fainter as Daryl and Rick staggered through the semi-darkness.

The walkers appeared out of nowhere, stumbling out from the shadows. Rick snarled, trying to wiggle out of Daryl’s grip to protect the man. Daryl held on to his arm tightly though and pulled him in the opposite direction. Another walker lurched out of the gloom into their path and Daryl yelled out, forced to let go of Rick so he could protect himself. He hit the walker in the head with the gun and stamped down on its head when it fell down.

He spun around just in time to see Rick throw himself at the gang of walkers. They paid no attention whatsoever to him, even as he started to tear and bite at them, all their focus was on Daryl.

Transfixed for a second by the shocking, brutal spectacle of Rick attacking the other walkers, Daryl did not hear the person coming up behind him. Something hard collided with the back of his skull and his vision momentarily went black. When he blinked he found himself flat on his back on the ground, a heavy body pinning him down.

Wildly, Daryl lashed out at whoever it was on top of him. His fist collided with a jaw and he heard the satisfying grunt of pain.

His gun lay close by and he grabbed for it. There was a flash of silver then a knife came down. Daryl screamed as the blade was driven through his hand, pinning it to the ground. His whole arm burst with waves of agony as the blade was twisted and he cried out again. He thrashed and bucked, trying to throw his attacker off but to no avail.

His attacker struck him across the face, hard. Daryl’s head snapped to one side and he tasted blood. He dimly saw Rick still locked in the gory throng of walkers.

The knife was yanked from his hand and Daryl gasped, his arm jerking. The bloody blade was held to his throat and his attacker leaned down over him, revealing his face from the gloom.

It was Victor.

Daryl stared and Victor grinned wickedly.

“Y-you’re dead,” Daryl croaked.Victor’s grin turned into a sneer and he pressed the blade harder into Daryl’s neck.

“Amazing isn’t it,” the man drawled, “How easy it is to disguise any disfigured body. All I had to do was put my coat among the remains and everyone thought it was me.”

“Why?” Daryl gasped, the blade cutting into his skin slightly.

“To kill you and your walker, obviously,” Victor snorted, shaking his head, “by making everyone think Rick killed me I could finally undermine Michael.”

“You’re betraying him, why? He’s your friend!”

“I’m his shadow!” snarled Victor, jamming his forearm into Daryl’s chest, “I made him who he is now – the wonderful leader! But it is me who had to do all the dirty work to get us here! I deserve to be in command, not him!”

"You bastard!” Daryl spat, his chest hurting under the man’s crushing weight, “you’re no leader – you’re a liar and a brute!”

Victor smirked, moving the blade slightly so a bead of blood slipped down Daryl’s neck, “that’s the only type of man who’s fit to lead in this kind of world.”

“You’re pathetic,” Daryl snarled, refusing to show fear or pain, “you won’t get away with it –“

“- Oh, I think I already have,” Victor sneered, fixing Daryl with a hatful look as he drew back, “Any last words?”

Daryl sensed more than saw Rick’s approach.

“Yeah,” he said, a grin curling the corners of his mouth, “You should have killed me already.”

Rick seized hold of the back of Victor’s coat, lifting him off Daryl and throwing him to the ground. Daryl gasped for breath, weaving as he sat up, cradling his stabbed hand to his chest.

Victor yelled and swore, kicking out at Rick as the walker prowled towards him. Rick was covered almost completely from head to foot in walker blood and gore, hair mattered and his face a feral mask.

"No, stay back, stay the fuck back!” Victor yelled.

Rick snarled, catching hold of Victor’s flailing ankle and twisting it savagely to one side. Daryl heard the cracking bone and Victor’s screams filled the air. He made no move to stop Rick, not that he believed the walker would even obey him right then anyway. Pinning Victor’s one remaining leg down, Rick knelt over him, mouth open and bloody.

"No!” Victor screamed, stabbing the knife he had somehow managed to cling onto into Rick’s chest. The walker looked down at the hilt with disinterest, reaching up slowly and pulling it out. Victor’s face went white and his eyes bulged.

Growling, Rick brought the knife down into Victor’s gut. The man convulsed, his arms giving way and collapsing flat onto his back.

"Rick...” Daryl breathed, seeing what was about to happen, “that’s enough.”

But Rick ignored him; at that moment all that remained was the walker.

Seizing hold of Victor’s hair, Rick yanked his head back mercilessly, revealing his throat to the heavens. Daryl wanted to look away but he found he couldn’t. Victor screamed.

Rick descended upon his neck like a wild animal, biting deep then ripping upward. Blood ejected across the forest floor and Victor’s body convulsed. Rick growled hungrily, burying his face into the man’s throat as thick, hot blood pulsated out as the heart gave its final few beats.

Daryl sat in the leaves, holding the wrist of his ruined hand, watching the walker drinking, feast. He felt numb, his body shook. He stared forwards, both seeing and not seeing, both believing and not believing.

In some part of his exhausted, shocked mind he registered that the distant sound of gunfire had ceased. Did that mean Michael had fallen? Or that he had taken down all their pursuers?

Rick lifted his head briefly from his kill. His back was to Daryl but the red-neck knew what he would look like, his face painted red and eyes blank.

A sob burst from Daryl’s mouth and his head fell forwards, his chin hitting his chest. Trembling, he brought his legs up and curled in on himself and broke down.

Chapter Text

He was dreaming again or at least he thought he was, it was difficult to tell. Everything felt wrong, the ground beneath him too soft, the breeze ruffling his hair too cold, the smell of dirt and blood too strong. It felt wrong but real, painfully real, only it couldn’t be.

Daryl felt detached from his body, like he was floating on a cloud. In his dream he was back in the woods, kneeling in the leaves, the dampness of the soil chilling his skin through his jeans. It was dark and the night sky stretched endlessly above his head; the stars shone bright and glinting.

Beautiful, Daryl thought wistfully as he let his heavy head fall back and he stared up at the heavens.

Even in the dream he was aware of the pulsing pain from his hand. He didn’t need to look to know the knife had gone all the way through, that there was a jagged hole across the middle his palm. His hand was covered in blood as if he had stuck it into a bucket of red paint.

The stars were dancing now, wavering and shimmering as if the sky was made of water. Then Daryl realised it was his vision but the sky, his eyes were filling with tears. He blinked and the stars stopped dancing. The tears ran down his face and the wet trails they felt behind on his skin cooled.

His hand twisted involuntarily and his jaw ached from where Victor had struck him across the face. He ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth and found a loose tooth. The taste of blood clung unpleasantly to his tongue, salty and metallic. He wished he had a drink of water to wash the horrible taste away – as if it would be that easy to forget, to forget him, Rick...

At the thought of Rick, Daryl flinched. It was as if someone had punched him in the stomach. He doubled over again, wrapping his arms protectively around his middle. Clamping his eyes shut tight, he groaned. The sight of Rick tearing into Victor’s throat flashed through his mind. Daryl shook his head, trying to dislodge the image.

Through his pain and grief, Daryl heard the rustling of leaves as someone crept towards him. He wasn’t alone in his dream then – or should he call it a nightmare? The person wasn’t trying to sneak up on him, Daryl sensed, they were creeping because they didn’t want to scare him. Or are they scared of me? He thought, still not lifting his head or opening his eyes. Am I the unstable monster now with nothing to lose?

“You always have something to lose,” a voice inside his head murmured sadly. Rick, for so long he had been the single thing he had to lose, and he had lost him – again, twice now – twice he had lost him. The first time when he had been bitten and died, the second now he had been overcome by his bloodthirsty instincts. The way he had ripped out Victor’s throat...there wasn’t any coming back from that. That living, human part of Rick that had been clinging on had finally let go. Perhaps Daryl should be thankful - perhaps now Rick was at peace - perhaps he could find the same...he could finally end it.

The person in his dream was close now. Daryl could feel their presence standing over him. He should look up, see who it was, but he didn’t. What would be the point? What did it matter? This was just a dream – a nightmare.

Leaves cracked loudly in front of him as whoever it was knelt down. Daryl drew in a shuddering breath; half hoping the person was here to end it.

Their touch was hesitant, afraid, so light that Daryl almost thought he hadn’t felt it at all. Trembling fingertips brushed weakly through his hair and a thumb ran over the shell of his ear.

Daryl shivered; he opened his eyes but kept his head down. He stared at the ground, noticing how the leaves littering it weren’t made up of just a single colour. Every leaf was a different shade, yellows, oranges, reds, even a few green ones which had fallen too early. But together, all lying mixed up on the ground, their uniqueness and colour was lost – becoming just an expanse of murky brown. Such a shame, Daryl mused, not really sure why he was thinking that and studying the leaves. Maybe he had finally lost his mind. No one could blame him after what he had seen, what he had suffered.

The person kneeling before him was still stroking his head as if he too was lost in thought. Daryl concentrated on breathing, in – out, in – out. A sense of panic was suddenly rising in his chest, his stomach alive with a thousand butterflies. The fingers slipped from his hair down his cheek, wiping away the remnants of his tears – Daryl hadn’t noticed they had stopped.

The hand cupped his jaw gently, the index finger curving under his chin. The tiniest amount of pressure was put upon his jaw as the person begged him to lift his head. Daryl resisted for a moment but he couldn’t deny he was curious. His skin beneath the man’s hand was tingling and Daryl became aware for the first time that he was cold.

The hand cupping his jaw tugged with slightly more urgency than before and Daryl sighed. Slowly, he lifted his head. The hand moved with him, fingers sliding across the side of his neck to rest on his nape. The movement felt nature like it had been done countless times before, as if the hand knew it belonged there.

The detached feeling Daryl had been experiences throughout the dream evaporated as the hand rested against his skin. Suddenly he was all too aware of the pain from his hand and the chill seeping through his body. He was only conscious of those things for a second, for his eyes came to rest on a face, a face that was stained with blood but familiar.

Lifting his good hand, Daryl tugged down the sleeve of his jacket and raised it to the man’s face. He wiped the blood off the man’s face the best he could, holding his breath the entire time. When he was down, he sat back and gazed at him. The man’s blue eyes were clear and striking and dark wavy hair was matted with gore.

Those eyes... Daryl blinked, a lump rising in his throat. He recognised those eyes, the man’s face, though he had only just condemned himself to the fact that he was lost. It couldn’t be...

Daryl leaned forwards slightly, squinting into the blue eyes and the man looked back – really looked, looked and processed and understood – not just saw. The man moved his lips, speaking for the first time. It took a couple of seconds for Daryl to register what he had said.

“Daryl?” The man’s tone was questioning and worried. Daryl watched as panic and fear began to swirl in his ocean blue eyes. There was no mistaking the real emotion that came from a human conscience and mind. And Daryl was looking right at it.

Then it all came to an end. Everything suddenly went blank and darkness wrapped itself around Daryl’s mind, yanking him under into unconsciousness.

***

One of the springs in the mattress Daryl was laying on was out of placing and digging painfully into the small of his back. He mumbled irritably, rolling onto his side. He squirmed about for a moment, untangling his legs from the blanket so he could tug it up over his shoulders.

Keeping his eyes shut, he let out this breath and tried to fall back asleep. He still felt tired, so very tired. Every muscle ached and every bone felt unnaturally heavy as if they were made of stone. There was pain coming from his hand but he ignored it, he just needed to rest.

But try as he might he couldn’t return to the pleasant, empty darkness. There was a nagging feeling in the back of his skull, warning him he was forgetting something. He was missing something, something important, what was it?

Huffing, Daryl flipped back over and opened his eyes, staring up at the concrete ceiling of Dr Griffin’s lab. He frowned, how did he get here? He thought he wasn’t coming back to Salvation, he couldn’t, something had happened...what had happened?

Stiffly, he sat up and winced as sharp pain shot up his arm. He looked down at his hand to find it thickly bandaged. Gingerly, he attempted to wiggle his fingers. The same stabbing, electric pain coursed up his arm and he stopped – his fingers hadn’t moved.

Feeling slightly anxious, Daryl turned his attention from his hand and looked around the room. He wasn’t alone. Michael was slouched low in a chair at the foot of the bed. The book he must have been reading before he dozed off lay open on the floor.

The man looked like shit. His right cheek was badly scrapped; there were dark purple bags underneath his eyes and a couple of stitched high up on his forehead. His left arm was held across his chest in a sling and he was holding one of his legs at a funny angle, as if beneath his trousers his knee was strapped up good and tight.

Daryl was relieved to see him alive.

“Michael?” he said, his voice coming out hoarse. He coughed and swallowed, moistening his parched mouth. Mumbled, Michael woke up blearily and glanced at the bed.

“Daryl!” He gasped, his green eyes going wide.

“Hey,” Daryl said sheepishly, trying to smile but he ended up just grimacing.

“Thank God you’re finally awake,” Michael blurted, getting up unsteadily, his leg clearly giving him difficulty.

“H-how long was I out for?” Daryl asked, frowning.

“Three days,” Michael told him, limping close and leaning his hip against the mattress, “I was beginning to get worried.”

“You haven’t been sleeping in that chair for three whole days have you?” Daryl gapped, shocked.

Michael smiled wearily at him and put a heavy hand on his shoulder, “No, we’ve been taking turns.”

Daryl nodded, feeling less guilty at hearing that. He ran an eye over Michael and muttered, “So, what’s broken?”

Michael chuckled and gestured down with his chin, “my arm’s not broken. The sling is for my shoulder – got shot – bullet went straight through luckily. Doc says I’ve got a couple of broken rips and a slightly concussion.” Michael tapped the stitches on his forehead then looked down at his leg and continued, “I severely dislocated my knee, messed up all the ligaments and nerves and stuff. Juliet says it may never heal probably – that I’m probably gonna walk with a limp from now on.”

“I’m sorry,” Daryl said, meaning it, “I never wanted you to get hurt for me.”

Michael shook off the apology, waving his hand dismissively, “I’ll live – sounds and looks worse than it actually is. I’m just happy you’re finally back to the land of the living.”

Daryl smiled weakly before asking carefully, “What about Victor?”

Michael’s eyes darkened slightly, “Victor’s dead, we cremated him yesterday. Everyone was horrified when they found out he faked his death like that. Things are all back to normal now I guess you could say – no more demanding your head on a pike or anything.”

They fell silent for a moment. There was still something Daryl was missing. He furrowed his brow, thinking hard, his head began to ache.

Michael suddenly straightened up and blurted, “God, I’m such an idiot. What am I doing just sitting here talking to you? I need to go and get him.”

Daryl stared, lost. “What?”

“I’m sorry,” Michael said quickly, limping over towards the stairs leading up out of the cellar, “I’ll go find him now.”

“Bring who? Michael?” Daryl called out after the man but he was already gone. For a man with a ruined knee he could still shift, Daryl observed with a snort.

Confused and feeling a little deflated; Daryl pushed back the blanket and got out of bed. He looked down at himself and saw someone had washed him and dressed him in a pair of comfy loose trousers and a plain white t-shirt.

He swayed unsteady on his feet for a moment as his body remembered how to stand upright after lying down for three whole days. When he felt confident enough, he walked over to Doctor Griffin’s desk and searched through the draws. He found what he was looking for, a bottom of water. Returning to the bed, he sat down on it and drank deeply. The water tasted stale and was too warm to be described as pleasant but to Daryl’s parched mouth and throat it was amazing. The empty plastic bottle slipped from his weak grasp and bounce as it hit the tiled floor. Watching it roll away, Daryl was so lost in his thoughts that he did not hear the footsteps coming down the stairs.

Seeing movement out of the corner of his eye, Daryl looked up and froze.

It was the man from his dream, only now he wasn’t so sure it had been a dream. He was no longer covered in blood and gore, his handsome face was clean-shaven and his hair washed. Dressed in a pair of slim-fitting jeans and a dark coloured shirt, Daryl couldn’t help but notice that the man was attractive. There was a large handgun holstered at his hip and he carried himself with confidence, but not in an arrogant way. He looked out of breath, his cheeks were flushed and he was breathing heavily. Daryl wondered if he had just sprinted here.

The man took a couple of cautious steps towards Daryl. The way his hand twisted towards the gun at his hip seemed familiar to Daryl. The guy reminded him of a cop; he bet he had been one before the outbreak.

“Daryl?” the man’s voice was familiar too and something inside of Daryl twisted, “Daryl, it’s me...Rick. Do you know who I am?”

“I...” Daryl opened his mouth but trailed off, unsure.

“You know me, Daryl,” the guy – Rick – breathed, sounding close to tears, “You have to, you can’t – not after everything.”

“You’re Rick Grimes,” Daryl said suddenly, the memory bobbing to the surface of his mind like an apple in water, “I – when we first met - I threw a bunch of squirrels at you.”

The man made an odd noise, halfway between a shaky laugh and a painful gasp, but it was a sound of pure relief.

“Rick...” Daryl whispered, staring at him, the past slowly coming back to him. The farm, the prison, the Governor, all the friends they had lost, Judith and Carl, the walker biting Rick, Rick turning but remembering him, Salvation and Lucy, then finally Victor in the woods.

“Oh, Rick! I’m sorry, I’m so sorry! I let you turn when I promised I wouldn’t. I was weak and scared. But then you were different and I couldn’t – I just couldn’t do it, couldn’t be without you!” Daryl cried, the agony of the memories breaking down his mental walls, “you died – and I let you turn! Oh God, Rick, I’m so sorry!”

Rick moved across the room towards Daryl, his long strides eating up the short distance in a second. Daryl still sat on the bed and Rick pressed in close between his legs. Wrapping his arms around Daryl, Rick pressed a fierce kiss onto the top of the red-neck’s head and closed his eyes. They both shook and cried, Daryl’s injured hand awkwardly pawing at the back of Rick’s shirt.

“I’m sorry,” Daryl sobbed over and over again into Rick’s chest, his tears staining the shirt. Guilt and shame and grief were all crushing down on top of him. He hated himself then at that moment, hated his weakness and selfishness. How could Rick ever forgive him for letting him turn?

“Rick...” Daryl wheezed, “Please...say something.”

Rick cradled Daryl’s head against his chest as he breathed in the smell of his hair and tried to compose himself.

“I – it’s alright, Daryl,” the ex-sheriff whispered, “I’m here.”

“How are you here?” Daryl breathed, leaning back slightly so he could look up into Rick’s face.

“I’m not sure,” Rick said honestly, shaking his head, “I just remember feeling such rage and hunger at seeing that man pinning you down...I remember tasting blood...”

“Do you not remember anything else from being a –“

“- A walker?” Rick interrupted and Daryl saw the first flicker of anger in the man’s eyes, “I recall bits and pieces, but its more just feelings and smells. But I remember killing that man, ripping out his throat and drinking his blood and eating his flesh –“ he broke off and took a step back.

“Rick,” Daryl groaned as the man turned his back on him, “Please...I’m sorry, I just couldn’t –“

“- Couldn’t kill me,” Rick finished, his hands balling into fists, “you let me become a monster, Daryl, after we swore to one another that would never happen!”

“I know!” Daryl cried, standing up and moving to stand behind Rick, “I’m weak, Rick, I was scared and selfish. I will hate myself forever for letting you turn but –“

“- Don’t do that,” Rick interrupted, shoulders shaking, “don’t hate yourself. I...if you had done what you’d promised I wouldn’t be here now.”

Daryl blinked, shocked. Rick slowly turned back around to face him, blue eyes shining with tears.

“You’re not weak, Daryl,” Rick whispered, lifting a hand and touching the red-neck’s cheek, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have gotten angry –“

“- Yes, you should be,” Daryl retorted, frustrated suddenly, he didn’t know how to deal with this situation if Rick was furious at him.

“No,” Rick shook his head and stepped close to Daryl, his other hand finding the man’s hip, “we’ve all done bad things to survive in this world – I’ve killed more people alive then I did whilst I was dead. But now, you and me, we’ve been given a second chance.”

Daryl stared at Rick, totally taken aback and lost at what to say. He never had expected Rick to forgive him just like that, to see the silver lining of the awful twisted tale that was their lives.

Rick smiled softly at the blank look on Daryl’s face, leaning in close and murmured, “I missed you.”

Daryl’s heart broke and he crushed his lips against Rick’s. The ex-sheriff groaned into the kiss, his arms looping around Daryl’s waist and pulling the man flush up against his body. Fire coursing through his veins, Daryl clumsily cupped the back of Rick’s head with his bandaged hand. Rick tilted his head slightly to one side and opened his mouth when Daryl’s tongue asked for entrance. The kiss was slightly messy and uncoordinated. They were both out of practice, but it still made Daryl’s knees feel like they were going to give way. Breaking the kiss, Daryl gasped for air. Rick laughed huskily, running his lips along the red-neck’s jaw and nipping playfully.

“I love you,” Daryl said, pushing his unmoving fingers into Rick’s thick hair, “so damn much it fucking hurts.”

“So romantic,” Rick teased, pressing another hungry kiss to the other man’s lips. Daryl slid his uninjured hand around from Rick’s back to his chest, seeking out what he needed to feel.

Rick broke the kiss and rested his forehead against Daryl’s. They both looked down as Daryl’s searching hand came to rest over Rick’s beating heart. A shuddery breath escaped Daryl as he sagged against Rick with relief.

“I’m here,” Rick reassured him, kissing Daryl’s forehead and nudging their noses together, “look at me, Daryl.”

Daryl lifted his head, a lump in his throat.

“I love you,” Rick told him, staring into his eyes intensely in that manner of his, “Do you hear me? I love you, Daryl Dixon, and I will never leave you again.”

Daryl felt all his fears and doubts lift off his shoulders and at the same time his heart expanded with warmth and hope.

“I’ll hold you to that, Officer Friendly,” he whispered, smiling.

Rick grinned and asked, “Wanna try that kiss again?”

Daryl was all too happy to oblige.

Chapter Text

Daryl still woke up each morning with dread weighing down his heart like a stone. He would roll over in bed and see Rick sprawled out beside him, curls in disarray and mouth slightly open. With trembling fingers, Daryl would carefully seek out Rick’s pulse in his neck or wrist – whichever was easier to reach on that particular morning. He would hold his breath, hoping, praying, and he would find a pulse. And he would breathe a sigh of relief.

Dr Griffin hadn’t been able to explain it, or course, Rick returning to life. She had examined Rick and found nothing amiss - he was just back, alive and healthy. Daryl knew it was because he had killed Victor and eaten enough of him to regenerate his body somehow. They didn’t understand it, it made no sense and went against everything they knew about the world and walkers. They had come to the conclusion they would simply never know, it was a mystery, an anomaly. To be honest, deep down, Daryl couldn’t care less. All he cared about was that he had Rick back.

It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, however, Rick suffered flashbacks, or ‘relapse’ as Dr Griffin called them. They happened most often during the night. Daryl would be woken by Rick screaming and thrashing, babbling incoherently, his body covered in a cold sweat. It was more than him just suffering an intense nightmare, Rick would forget how to speak, and resort back to acting like he had when he had been a walker. During his relapses his heart never stopped beating and he eventually always calmed down and regained control of himself. Dr Griffin suspected it was a form of post traumatic stress and said, with time, they should stop.

Rick didn’t like to talk about his relapses, or anything to do with his time as being a walker. Daryl had asked how him how it had felt, along with other questions, but Rick just refused to answer so Daryl stopped asking, respecting Rick’s wish to just forget it ever happened. It was difficult and complicated, but it was for the best – for them both.

No matter what Rick said or did, though, Daryl knew there was still a tiny part of the man that blamed him for letting him turn. He felt it in the way Rick would kiss him sometimes, just a little too hard, and see it in his eyes when he didn’t look away quick enough when it got frustrated. Daryl tried not to dwell upon it and he wasn’t angry at Rick for lying to him about it; he was ashamed of himself too. It became just another thing they didn’t talk about.

Since the Governor and Woodberry, Rick had always found it tough to trust new people and it turned out Michael and Salvation was no different. Rick liked Michael well enough, he just didn’t trust him. Michael had told Daryl not to worry about it, that he understood, and hoped it would chance in the future. Daryl felt a little guilty over the whole matter and hoped Michael would turn out to be right.

Lucy had shown Rick around the town’s gardens where they grew vegetables and fruit and kept chickens and pigs. The ex-sheriff’s eyes had lit up at the sight and he had quickly got stuck in, spending long hours of each day in the gardens. Daryl often watched him fondly, remembering how Hershel had taught him about farming back at the prison. He didn’t understand the passion Rick had for it but he was relieved the man had found something to keep his mind occupied.

Gradually, they had fallen into a routine and Rick had relaxed and Daryl’s hand had recovered. For the first time in a long while, they had a roof over their heads, a bed to sleep in and food in their bellies. They were safe and, though Rick still had bad days and Daryl often thought of the open-road, they were content.

***

Daryl’s scream of agony split through the air and something deep inside of Rick snapped. He launched himself towards the man who was hurting Daryl, seizing hold of him and flinging him to the ground.

White hot rage like he had never experienced before was coursing through his veins, setting every nerve on fire and driving the hunger up in his throat. He could smell the blood pumping through the man’s body; hear it pounding in his ears.

Yanking the man’s head back to reveal his throat had felt like the most natural thing in the world. Sinking his teeth into skin and muscle had sent an electric thrill through his body. Thick, hot, salty blood burst into his mouth as he tore into the major artery. It ran deliciously down his throat and he gulped more down. He suddenly began to feel warm for the first time since he had turned and something inside his foggy mind awoke.

The hunger was ringing in his ears, deafening him to everything else. Though his eyes were open he didn’t see anything around him for nothing but the taste and the feeling mattered.

More, he had to have more. Clenching his jaw, he yanked his head up, ripping the throat open - wide, gapping and spurting blood. Suddenly ravenous, he began to feast. With every mouthful the warmth grew within his body from his stomach. Like wildfire it spread and spread until it was consuming him.

Something in his chest fluttered at that moment and Rick paused. The fluttering came again and he swallowed his mouthful. Suddenly he gasped, falling forwards over the body, holding himself up with shaking arms. Something inside of his ribcage was pulsating and his skin started to tingle.

His stomach contracted painfully and he wretched. A war was waging inside of him as his awakening body tried to throw-up the human flesh he had devoured and his undead instincts fought to keep it down. Groaning, Rick crumbled forwards, grinding his throbbing head into the blood soaked ground. His body shook violently and he wretched again. That time he did throw-up.

The pounding in his chest was growing stronger, beating against his eardrums and humming through his veins. His stomach was heaving still and blood and flesh spilled from his open mouth.

The blood no longer tasted wonderful, the salty tang no longer as sweet as honey, and the chunks of flesh his reason for existing. It had turned foul and repulsive on his tongue, so bitter and horrific. His body did not stop until ever scrap and drop had been ejected from his stomach.

When it was over, Rick collapsed sideways onto his back, exhausted. He lay there, gasping for breath, his hand lying limply over his chest. The stars glinted down at him and he became aware of the beating heart beneath his palm. He blinked and the hunger and rage vanished as if by magic, his instincts stopped screaming at him and he could suddenly think clearly and logically.

Alive, he was alive.

Emotions overwhelmed him and he let out a shaking, manic laugh - the stars shining down at him. But then reality of what he had just done had hit him and the laughter died in his throat. Burning tears filled his eyes, blinding him, and huge, horrified sobs wracked his body.

Even now, when Rick thought back to that moment, he couldn’t make sense of how long he had laid there, sobbing and spiralling into despair – it could have been five minutes or five hours. But what he was sure of was that it had been Daryl’s presence that had dragged him out of that pit.

Daryl had cursed him but saved him. The man was his Achilles heel but also his reason for living. He was his everything – good and bad – simple and complex.

Rick opened his eyes and looked up at the dark ceiling of the bedroom. He listened to Daryl’s steady breathing close to his side and memorised the way he could feel warmth coming off the other man even though they weren’t touching.

Slowly, Rick turning his head on the pillow and looked sideways at Daryl. The red-neck looked so much younger when he slept, face smooth of worry lines. He looked...vulnerable. Rick rolled onto his side, away from Daryl. Their lives were so fragile, their happiness so easily distinguished. Rick felt a lump rise in his throat and he bit his bottom lip. He used to think he knew what true fear was, but now he realised it was this, the hollow ache in his gut – the knowledge that at any moment he could lose Daryl.

Cautiously, not wanting to wake the other man, Rick pulled back the bed covers and slipped out of bed. He slid his bare feet into his boots as he passed and picked up the soft brown leather jacket he had been given.

Quieting, he left the bedroom and moved through the house to the front door. He needed fresh air to clear his head. Pulling on the jacket over his naked torso – he was wearing loose sweat pants on his bottom half – he slid back the chain and opened the door.

Cool night air ghosted over his skin as he stepped outside and closed the door softly behind him. He shivered, zipping up the jacket and bury his hands into his armpits. There was a small open porch attached to the front of the house and Rick stepped to its edge, leaning against the metal railings. He closed his eyes and let his body temperature gradually drop. As it did, an odd sense of calm came over him and he let out his breath slowly.

“Can’t sleep?”

Rick jumped, opening his eyes to see Michael standing in front of the house. The man was fully dressed and held a rifle loosely in his hands.

“What are you doing here?” Rick asked, slightly unnerved.

Michael took a step closer and answered simply, “I’m on patrol. You didn’t answer my question.”

Rick awkwardly shuffled his feet, eyeing the man. Daryl trusted him, liked him even – which was praise indeed coming from the frosty red-neck – but Rick was still unsure.

Michael must have seen the suspicion pass across his face for he said, “You don’t have to be afraid of me, Rick.”

“I’m not afraid of you,” Rick retorted, “I’m just...”

“I know what you’ve been through,” Michael said, moving up the short garden path to join Rick on the wooden porch, “Daryl told me about that place – Woodberry – and the Governor guy.”

“If he told you than you get why I’m careful,” Rick said, unable to stop his eyes from darting down to the rifle. Michael followed his gaze and casually put the gun down, propping it up against the wall of the house.

“Are you happy here, Rick?”

Rick was thrown by the question for a moment. Was he happy? He was content, sure, but was he happy? It had been so long since he had felt true, unblemished happiness that he wondered if he would even know it if he felt it again.

“Daryl is,” Rick answered uneasily, pushing his hands deep into the pockets of his jacket, “and if he’s happy than so am I.”

Michael snorted and a strange look passed across his face, “is that the truth?”

Rick fixed Michael with his clear blue eyes and said defensively, “Yes. I love Daryl.”

“I have no doubts over that,” Michael said quickly, shrugging his broad shoulders, “the way Daryl looks at you speaks louder than any words ever could. Even when you were a walker he still looked at you in that way.”

“In what way?”

“In the way that says you’re his whole world. He would do anything for you.”

Rick felt his cheeks go slightly red and he looked down at the floor, unsure of what to say in response.

“Look, Rick, you and Daryl are welcome here as long as you want. Hell, I want you to stay. This town could use a sheriff to keep it inline.”

Rick felt a faint smile tug at his lips. He could see why Daryl liked the man. Maybe it was time he put his trust in that more rather than trying to find it himself. “Thank you,” he said, feeling sheepish.

Michael nodded, reaching out and laying a hand on his shoulder.

“Think it over,” he told Rick, though he sounded like he already knew the answer he would get. He gave Rick’s shoulder a pat before dropping his hand and stepping back.

Rick watched Michael leave, picking up his gun as he went. The man didn’t look back as he resumed his patrol. Sighing, Rick too turned around and went back into the house. When he pushed open the bedroom door, he was surprised to find Daryl awake and sitting up in bed, waiting for him.

“Hey,” Rick said awkwardly, feeling guilty he had been caught wandering around at night.

“Hey yourself,” Daryl muttered, folding his arms across his chest, “where have you been?”

Rick shrugged off his jacket and kicked off his boots.

“I couldn’t sleep, went and got a little fresh air.”

He walked around the bed to his side and slipped back beneath the warm covers.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said, leaning back against the headboard and watching Daryl out of the corner of his eye.

“About what?” asked the red-neck.

“About this place, about Michael, about the future.”

Daryl huffed, rubbing a hand over his face, “that’s heavy stuff for this time of night. No wonder you needed some fresh air.”

Rick chuckled, scooting closer to Daryl in the large bed and pressing a chaste kiss to the man’s bare shoulder.

“I’ve decided that – as long as you want to – we should stay here.”

Daryl’s eyes widened slightly and Rick saw the flicker of hope dance across them – he had been right then about Daryl being happy here.

“You’re serious?” the red-neck asked, turning around to face Rick properly, “what made you change your mind?”

Rick hesitated, remembering what Michael had just said about the way Daryl looked at him. “You trust me, don’t you, Daryl?”

Daryl frowned at him, confused, but answered anyway, “Yeah, of course, with all I’ve got.”

“Good,” Rick murmured, leaning forwards and pressing a soft kiss to the man’s lips, “then I think it’s about time I repaid that trust by following your instincts for once.”

“This place isn’t like the others, Rick,” Daryl reassured him, a hint of excitement in his voice, “it’s good and honest. We can build a life here, you’ll see. We can trust Michael.”

Rick wrapped his arms around Daryl and drew him close.

“We can try,” the ex-sheriff promised, his breath ruffling Daryl’s hair, “I love you.”

Daryl tilted his head back and kissed Rick passionately.

“I love you too,” he hesitated briefly then added, “thank you.”

Rick smiled, kissing Daryl’s forehead, “you’re my whole world, Daryl, you see that, don’t you?”

“I’m beginning to,” said Daryl, wrapping his arms around Rick’s back. The pair shifted down until they were lying facing one another, legs tangled beneath the sheets and so close their breath mingled.

“So, we’re really staying here?” Daryl asked, needing to hear Rick say it for real.

“Yes,” Rick told him gently, stroking a hand up Daryl’s side, making him shiver, “we’re staying.”

Daryl grinned, pressing a quick kiss to Rick’s lips but when the ex-sheriff tried to deep it, he pulled back. Rick frowned at him and Daryl grinned, “I can’t wait to tell Michael.”

Snorting, Rick caught hold of Daryl’s chin and drew their mouth back together.

“Something tells me he won’t be that surprised,” he murmured against Daryl’s lips, “now, can you stop thinking about Michael and kiss me?”

“Jealous?” Daryl laughed, his hands running up Rick’s back and one slipping into his wavy chair.

“Not at all,” Rick growled, rolling on top of Daryl and teasing out a groan from the red-neck with a roll of his hips.

“Liar,” Daryl gasped, pulling Rick’s head back down and catching his lips in a searing kiss.

Rick found he didn’t have the willpower to continue the teasing argument. Instead, he cupped Daryl’s face in his hand and tried to pour everything he had into their kiss - to try and make Daryl understand just how much he loved him, how much he meant to him, how much he needed him. But he shouldn’t have worried, for Daryl already knew all of that, because he felt it too.

Perhaps this was the start of something good, Rick thought as he let himself become lost in kissing Daryl, perhaps now they could be happy and remember what it was like to live. And if Rick had learnt one thing, it was that life should never be taken for granted and if you had someone to share it with then, well, you were already halfway there.