“You sure you’re good fer this?” Daryl asked for the third time that morning, cutting another sideways glance at Rick beside him in the passenger seat. They weren’t even out of the gates yet, supposed to have left for their run at daybreak, and the sun was already gleaming over the frosted treetops that stood tall above the rooftops of Alexandria. They were getting a very late start.
It was their second winter in Virginia, and the whole town was sick. Every last person had caught whatever cold plagued them, from the top community leaders all the way down to the little kids that should have been running around outside in the snow. They were caught completely unprepared, viral colds and the stomach flu were something they really hadn’t dealt with since the world ended. Back at the prison, Dr. S used to have a theory that it was because everyone is already infected with something more powerful. That the walker virus somehow also killed off a lot of bacteria that caused such things to spread, so it never got around even when they were living in close quarters. Daryl had his own theories, of course, though he never shared them: everyone had simply toughened up living out in the world. That’s how he’d always been, a walking, talking picture of dirt-stained health. He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d actually been sick with something beyond his smoker’s cough. His personal mottoes, courtesy of Merle Dixon for the most part, were always ‘just rub some dirt on it’ and ‘walk it off’ . Words to live by.
But this cold wasn’t one anyone could just shake off, and it spread through the gated community like wildfire. Everyone in their house had it, too, except for Rick and Daryl - up until that morning, that was. With the town being so unprepared for a mass-affecting illness, they were low on everything , and Daryl had 100% been prepared to go out alone and stock up. He had no illusions that he’d be on his own for this, with Rick’s children holed up in their beds and Michonne retreated so far under the covers no one would even notice she was buried there. Someone had to stay, especially for Little Asskicker. Denise had been one of the first ones to recover from the infectious cold, and was making housecalls as best she could - so when she visited she offered to watch the sick lot in the Grimes household if Rick and Daryl would go in search of much needed medications and unexpired cans of soup. Daryl shouldn’t have been surprised that Rick jumped on the chance to help, but it still caught him off guard. Made his heart do a little kick and flutter combination he wasn’t proud of. It had been a while since Rick had even gone beyond the walls of Alexandria - and no, Daryl wasn’t bitter about it.
They were up at the crack of dawn, prepared to leave, Daryl especially (no, he wasn’t excited to get alone time with his best friend for the first time in months) but Rick was moving slow that morning. Checking on everyone more than once, getting them water and blankets, and pressing his lips to Judith’s forehead so many times to check her temperature that if he hadn’t been sick when he woke up, there was no doubt he was when they left.
Although that was probably the main delay - half the reason they were late leaving was due to Daryl’s driving, he probably wasn’t going more than 10 miles per hour on the ice-caked roads. The redneck hated driving in the snow, but one look at Rick in the unforgiving daylight had Daryl demanding they switch seats. The constable could barely move without wincing as he had tried to climb behind the wheel of their beaten supply car. Daryl shouldn’t have even pulled away from the house, let alone allowed Rick Grimes to talk him into joining a supply run in the middle of December.
It had just been so long since it had been just the two of them.
The last time they had gone out on their own, they’d had their truck stolen by a jackass that called himself Jesus, and learned about a new community called Hilltop. That was one thing Daryl hadn’t expected, whole new communities right up the road from them. Then that night Daryl learned something else he hadn’t expected, Rick and Michonne finally stopped dancing around each other - which was something the hunter had missed entirely . He still wasn’t sure how. No one else seemed surprised by it, and Daryl couldn’t tell if that hurt more than the fact he’d missed his chance to say something to the older man. Again. He was always too late, no matter how long he bided his time. At some point, it became kind of hopeless to even consider the feelings he’d kept to himself for years as something that could be brought to life. Daryl had given up more times than he could count, only to be shocked again and again when he was struck hard by how much he loved his best friend. It wasn’t fucking fair.
This time he knew it was all his fault - he’d been so displaced, putting his own version of distance between himself and Rick when Jessie was the woman that had his eye, that he must have missed how Michonne started filling her place. No , that wasn’t fair. They had something special, even Daryl knew that, but that didn’t mean he needed to witness it. He did his best to not be around to see it acted out in living color. The reminder their relationship even existed was enough to rub salt in the wound every damn day.
“Good as I can be,” Rick finally answered him. His voice was so rough, hoarse words breaking and sounding painful to even speak. “Ya gonna get us there alive?”
“I can drive,” Rick told him again, Daryl lost count how many times. He just snorted and didn’t bother to respond. Like hell he could drive. Daryl would eat his vest if the man could see 20 feet in front of him.
Fuck, he should really turn around.
“Don’t,” Rick said, sighing and then coughing at the violent intrusion caused by breathing too deep. “We’re out of everythang, we’ll make it quick.” he promised, and he was right - but Daryl still set his jaw tight, and regretted driving out of the gates of Alexandria as they passed through them.
Daryl pulled up to their third supermarket that day, far into the afternoon and the ice melted most of the way off the roads. He was better about driving in the snow, now, with a good few hours of no sliding tires and the roads relatively cleared of deep drifts. It could have been much worse, it wasn’t like there were snow plows out and about to make the roads accessible.
“Pray this one has what we need,” Rick told him, sounding more winded than he should have. The market was in an isolated neighborhood, at the base of the hills far to the west of Alexandria, and only a couple dozen miles from where the mountains began. Surrounded by homes that could fit the trailer Daryl grew up in inside their living rooms. But Alexandria was just the same. These just had more of a faux ‘log cabin’ feel to them; big stone fireplaces and winding drives that Daryl wouldn’t drive up in this snow if you paid him. No matter how much their luck would improve if they searched the homes instead of the market. The snow crippled their chances of finding food and medication by more than half.
Rick’s pointed look up the wooded hillside let Daryl know they were thinking the same thing.
Daryl shook his head at Rick, squinting at him against the bright sunlight reflecting off the snow. “You wouldn’ make it ten feet up that hill.”
“I’m not that bad,” Rick tried to assure him, and even started walking towards the curve in the road that led up the hill. “C’mon, just these couple houses on the edge. I’m fine.” The snow was piled up on the actual road, eliminating the chance to drive the sedan up, so it was more of a climb than a walk, but Rick kept pace and held on to a lead all the way to the top. For a couple minutes Daryl was actually impressed, and started to doubt his own assessment that Rick was too sick to be out and about.
The top of the hill was still thickly wooded, more like the foothills of a mountain than a hill, and it was a beautiful sight at the top. The sun was half hidden by clouds, but the breaks in the grey overcast shown gorgeously over the gingerbread town. Daryl was pretty sure he could spot Alexandria in the distance, too, but all covered in white it was hard for him to tell. He was a Southern boy, born and bred, and his directional instincts weren’t the best in this element. Sue him. He turned to Rick to ask if the steeple on the horizon was their church, and swallowed his question like a stone in his throat.
“You don’ look so hot.”
“- Really?” Rick asked, half in exasperation, with a smirk pulling at his lips as he panted open-mouthed like a dog. His breath fogged in front of him worse than smoke. “Cause I think I’m on fire.” He was sweating despite the cold, and Daryl was pretty sure the redness to his cheeks wasn’t from the bite of winter in the air, either.
Biting the tip of his glove, Daryl yanked it off as he inched closer; he was completely certain that Rick had a fever and needed to be laying down in the back of the car - not climbing a damn mountain - but he had to be sure. It wasn’t until he’d started to reach for Rick’s face that he realized what he was about to do, and his hand froze in mid air. What the fuck was he doing?
Rick shook his head, seeming to have only just noticed Daryl’s hand hovering between them. “I’m too hot from that climb, and your hand’s too cold,” he was still breathing hard, even though they’d been stopped for a good couple minutes. That was more worrying than the redness to his face that made his bright blue eyes stand out like jewels. “Mine are always too cold, that’s why I always kiss Judith’s forehead,” he said with a smile. “Carl’s doctor used ta say your lips are a better gauge for temperature than your hand.” Daryl ducked his head to hide his face, making it look like a nod, and dropped his hand like a cement block back to his side. His face had to be as red as Rick’s with how hot it felt. He certainly wasn’t checking Rick’s temperature that way.
“We should head back down,” Daryl muttered, turning away and looking down the slope to see if there was even a safe route to descend. He could practically hear Rick’s argument already, that they were at the top now so the hard part was out of the way, why would they turn back.
“Yer sick as shit, we need ta just head home. I can go back out later,” Daryl knew he’d probably go that night, as soon as he was sure Rick was tucked under about a dozen blankets and sleeping off whatever had infected their whole house. Denise wouldn’t mind staying longer, they could even move Tara to Daryl’s bed so she would have everyone under one roof. It was a better plan than having Rick trudge through the snow when it was going to be dark in a couple hours. Who knew how long it would take them to even get down the hill he was skirting the edge of, taking cautious steps with an expectation that his foot will give under a bank of snow any second. Better him than-
Rick spoke so absently, and far enough behind, that Daryl stopped and turned to see the older man staring at nothing. Daryl was closing the space between them before he realized it, and Rick wasn’t reacting to his approach in the slightest.
“Y’alright?” Daryl asked, needlessly, because it was obvious Rick was far from okay. His glassy-eyed stare didn’t even flick to the hunter as he stopped a few feet from where Rick had halted.
His words were almost lost on the wind, and Daryl barely had a chance to squint in confusion before Rick started to list sideways - except he didn’t sway back upright, he just kept falling. Daryl jolted forward, catching his arms under Rick and stopping his body as it crumpled to the ground. Completely slack, head lolled back, passed out cold. “ Shit , Rick!” Daryl jostled his friend, laying him half down in the snow hoping the cold would shock him awake. “Rick, don’ do this - wake up!” He shook him again, about to hit the man to rouse him, but Daryl could hear Rick breathing. It sounded like gravel in his lungs. “ Fuck .”
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
Daryl was not panicking.
Did it just get darker?
The overcast sky was thicker now, sunlight no longer breaking through as the clouds rolled in fast and swift on the winter wind. It was going to start snowing any second, Daryl could feel it in his gut - because that was his fucking luck. He looked around, Rick still half on the ground and half held to his chest, not sure what to do. He couldn’t carry Rick down the slope to the car, and there was nothing on him to use to help lower his body. Shit , don’t talk like he’s dead! He was fine, Rick would be fine as long as Daryl got him out of the cold before it started snowing. Turning around completely, Daryl saw the line of log-cabin houses that they were about to search not minutes before. That would half to do.
With his backpack in the way, full of things they would probably end up needing, Daryl couldn’t fire-man carry Rick over his shoulder to the nearest house. He looked down at Rick’s face, flushed with his hair freezing into curls from the sweat of his fever clashing with the sudden drop in temperature. Daryl kept a close eye on him as he moved his arm more securely behind his back, leaning Rick’s head against his shoulder, and sliding his other arm beneath Rick’s legs. “Please don’ wake up,” Daryl mumbled, and rose to his feet carefully. His face still felt hot as he pushed out all the thoughts of what they must look like, cradling Rick close to his chest, as he carried him to the closest cabin.
Daryl swore to never, ever mention it to Rick as long as the constable didn’t wake up on the way.
Surprisingly, the house was actually a legit log cabin - a la Home Living magazine, or HGTV , but still. The giant logs actually transferred to the interior, and the enormous stone fireplace was a working wood fireplace that could have roasted a wild boar. Daryl made quick work of clearing the dust and debris on the floor, and ran to as many rooms as he could to drag blankets and faux fur throws onto the clean space. He laid Rick down, covering him with even more layers of fleece and knit blankets, before heading back outside to the crumbling wood pile. A few pieces were still salvageable, and Daryl found a bunch of fallen branches that he quickly kicked and hacked into smaller segments that could be carried inside. He had a fire started before the snow began to fall out the giant windows, that were miraculously still in tact and not boarded up. They’d actually found a place that hadn’t been touched since before the apocalypse, Daryl almost couldn’t believe it.
Back outside, Daryl found a shed and broke the rusted lock off its hinges, looking for a hatchet but finding lawn equipment instead. Stacks of metal pails were almost as good as a hatchet, they would need water. The hunter scrubbed the insides with mixtures of snow and gravel until all rust and dust was gone, his gloves soaked through and his hands raw with cold by the time he was done. He brought buckets of fresh snow inside by the fire to melt, and took up a spot by the fire to attempt to dry himself and warm up while waiting for Rick to awaken.
He really regretted telling Rick not to wake up when he carried him to the house.
It was dark by the time Daryl’s worry finally ate through his rib cage and he began to panic. Rick still wasn’t awake. Daryl had shed some of his own wet clothes, and looking at Rick under the piles of blankets he knew he should do the same for the other man. He could feel heart palpitations wracking his chest at just the thought, but it was to keep Rick alive and he could compartmentalize that. Not even bothering to stand up, he crawled over the the man and moved the heavy blankets off of him, taking of his thick winter coat and boots, wet socks and snow pants. The relief he felt at finding jeans under the snow pants when Daryl took off Rick’s socks couldn’t even be described. The pile of damp clothes made him feel a bit better too, knowing Rick would be able to dry and warm faster without them.
The red color to Rick’s face had eased a bit, and there were only one of two reasons for that. Either he was cooling down because he fever was breaking, or he was too cold and was on the verge of hypothermia. Daryl had to check that there was still a fever, meaning Rick’s body was still fighting the cold ravaging him, but Daryl’s hands still ached with cold and he didn’t exactly carry a thermometer on him. In the fire-lit living room, silent except for the crackling of the fire, Daryl could hear his own heartbeat in his ears as he traced every line of Rick’s face. He remembered what Rick had said earlier, about how he always checked Judith’s temperature, but this was one thing he didn’t think he could compartmentalize. He could feel his damn heart beat in his throat, and it felt jagged and broken; he’d only just gotten himself past this insufferable pain that throbbed in his very veins. He couldn’t help but feel it all shouldn’t be this hard. Why hadn’t anyone warned him being in love hurt so damn much?
With a deep breath, exhaled long and slow, Daryl shifted to sit closer Rick’s torso, and leaned over to press his lips to Rick’s forehead. He was still very hot, burning up like the others back home, but not dangerously so. Daryl knew what the fever that burned through you until you were dead felt like, heat waves like a furnace, and this wasn’t that. His fever was still working hard to burn out the sickness from Alexandria. This close to Rick’s face, Daryl could see he had been wrong, the glow from the fire had masked the flush to Rick’s cheeks, traveling across the bridge of his nose and traveling down his neck to his chest. It disappeared beneath his shirt and Daryl very pointedly did not wonder about how far down it went.
“Wh’ time iz it?” Rick mumbled, eyes still closed. Daryl jerked back out of his space, eyes wide and about to scramble away but Rick peeked one eye at him and it rooted him to the spot. The constable gave no indication that he knew how close to Rick’s face Daryl had been, or even that Daryl was the one by him. It took a moment for Rick’s blue eyes to even focus, to take in where they were, and Daryl used every single ounce of willpower he possessed to calm himself the fuck down and school his expression.
That was too fucking close, Dixon. Watch it.
“Dark,” Daryl answered bluntly, because that was as far as he knew. It was before midnight, maybe a few hours after sunset. The snow falling thickly like cotton balls had brought in dark clouds, so he wasn’t really sure when sunset actually was. Rick just hummed in understanding, closing his eyes again and shifting like he was going to try and sit up but thought better of it.
“Did I hit my head?” His voice was still scratchy, but he sounded more present than he had before he passed out - and Daryl counted that as a win.
“No, I caught ya,” Daryl drawled quietly, allowing himself to watch Rick more closely in search of discomforts or pain.
Instead a soft smile graced Rick’s lips. “I knew you would.” Daryl’s face stung it burned so badly, and he cleared his throat loudly to cover how he choked on air at the man’s words.
“Yer head hurt?” he said, instead of acknowledging Rick’s vote of confidence.
“Yeah, a bit.”
Daryl wasn’t used to taking care of anyone. The last thing he had nurtured back to health was a bird he’d found in the lot they used as a mechanic garage at the prison. But that had been a tiny thing that fit in the palm of his hand, Rick was a human being - probably the human being he cared the most for in the whole world. Still, somehow, he jumped into a role so seamlessly he wasn’t sure where the instincts came from. The insecurity of it all made his fingers shake a little, but it reminded him so much of when Judith was born and he had took her from Carl’s arms without hesitation to feed her. Maybe, buried somewhere in his subconscious, he’d always known how to help someone. He’d grabbed one of the pails without saying a word, and helped Rick sit up enough to drink from a coffee mug he’d found in a cabinet a few hours ago. Letting Rick lean against his shoulder as he drank his fill. Daryl couldn’t remember the last time he’d touched the other man this much, but it was such a warm, elating feeling he couldn’t find it in himself to fight it.
After he’d drank so much Daryl had to stop him before he made himself sick, Rick laid back down and pulled the blankets around himself tightly. Daryl settled back where he’d been sitting before, just behind Rick so the man was close to the fire, but still near his head and torso so he could see any changes easily. Then Rick curled himself up so his knees were brought closer to his chest, trying to conceal the warmth beneath the blankets, and at the same time encircling where Daryl sat. Curled up so close his head was practically in Daryl’s lap, nose to his jeans and breathing deep. He had to reek of dirt and leather and cigarette smoke, but Rick just sighed and relaxed into it - like it was comforting to him.
“I’ve missed you,” Rick muttered into the blankets under his chin, and Daryl’s breath snagged in his chest. That wasn’t fair. I’m not the one that left , he thought brokenly, but Daryl bit his tongue and tried to force himself to breathe. He’d missed Rick so much the past two years it physically hurt. Ever since they’d reached Alexandria, they hadn’t been the same, and that fact ripped him to pieces.
“I ain’t going nowhere,” he mumbled, just as quiet and low. It was what Rick needed to hear, the rest would stay locked up in Daryl’s head - just like always. Not bothering to stop the instinct - his chilled fingers were pushing the sweat-damp curls out of Rick’s face, grazing his heated skin, tender and loving and Daryl had no idea how Rick still didn’t know. How could Daryl feel this much for one man without him knowing at least a fraction of it.
“I’m sorry, Daryl,” Rick whispered, a frown creasing the skin between his closed eyes, and all Daryl wanted to do was smooth it out with his hand - but Rick was leaning into his cold palm and Daryl knew if he drew back he would start shaking with the realization he’d been touching Rick’s face this long.
“Fer what?” Daryl asked back, keeping the conversation quiet like someone was in the room trying to hear them.
“You ain’t stupid, yer sick,” Daryl chided lowly, cursing himself for sounding mean about it, but that’s just how he talks. He smoothed Rick’s hair back again to soften the blow, hoping the man still knew him well enough to know when the bite of his words didn’t match his meaning.
“Not for that,” Rick elaborated, and finally opened those blue eyes to stare meaningfully at Daryl. His whole body froze at that look, and Daryl felt like he had missed something very big . The floundering, scramble his memory fell into trying to recall what had just happened was panic-inducing. There was no way Rick could know-
“Yer delirious, shut up and sleep,” he told Rick, drawing away and knowing his words had more bite than he meant them to. Again. But his flight or fight instinct was kicking into overdrive.
Rick’s hand shot out from beneath the nest of blankets, snagged Daryl’s own and held on. “Don’t go.” His grip on Daryl’s hand was weak and fever-hot, shattering something in the redneck’s chest he didn’t want to put a name to.
“I‘m not leavin’,” he reassured Rick as gently as he could, as if he were Judith begging him to not leave until she fell asleep. Rick didn’t let go of his hand, but was placated enough to close his eyes again and fall into a fever induced sleep, so heavy and sudden he was snoring between one breath and the next.
Daryl managed to pull his gaze from the man who never knew he had his heart in his hands, and watched the fire wax and wane with the wind coming down the chimney. Never letting go of Rick’s hand the entire time. Even daring to gently rub his thumb back and forth over Rick’s knuckles, savoring the touch for as long as fate would allow him to.
When Daryl woke up he knew it wasn’t morning. The first was just low embers pulsating in the fireplace, and the snow had stopped so all was so quiet it could be felt throbbing in his bones. It had to be after midnight, no moon in the sky or sun on the horizon, but what woke him wasn’t a noise or a light - it was the feeling of someone watching him.
“Think my fever broke,” Rick whispered, shattering the silence violently, but it was welcome to Daryl’s sensitive senses. He could fear a fucking raindrop out on the lawn in this quiet. Rick knew this, and probably could tell Daryl relaxed when he spoke. Hell, he probably felt it; they were curled up together on the floor, Daryl half under the blankets seeking warmth in his sleep.
Rick shifted closer in the dark, seeming to think about what he was saying before he said it. “I meant what I said, earlier.”
No, he didn’t. He didn’t know what he was saying, and every ounce of Daryl’s sanity rided on that fact. “You were delirious, Rick. I didn’t even know what you were saying.”
Rick rose up on one elbow, grounding himself, and even in the dark Daryl could see how his eyes shown unblinkingly. Looking at Daryl in that way he always did when he wanted the man to know he meant every word. “I told you I was sorry, cause I’ve been so stupid over the years,” Rick said, somehow still very much in Daryl’s space while looming over him. “I don’t know how long I haven’t noticed, but I hope to God it wasn’t as long as I think it is.” Daryl swallowed hard, forcing the word years back down his throat along with any others that would shatter what he hadn’t ruled out as a dream. That small, soft smile Daryl could never look away from slowly curled across Rick’s face, making the hunter swallow hard once more and wait so still and patient he wasn’t sure his heart was beating.
Words stilled between them, and honestly they didn’t usually talk this much - even about things that mattered - so it was easier to hold Rick’s gaze when he wasn’t embarrassing Daryl with words he couldn’t return. He wouldn’t know how.
But he knew what to do when Rick leaned down in the dark and kissed him.
Daryl kissed back, barely pausing between inhale and exhale, pressing up into the other’s mouth and wrapping his arms around Rick’s shoulders and neck. Fingers digging into his sweat-damp hair and soaked shirt like he would disappear if he didn’t. Daryl kissed Rick so fervently, pouring every bit of love and longing and sorrow into the motion that his head swam. There was a very real possibility to Daryl that this would be the only time he could kiss Rick Grimes, dream or no, and he wasn’t going to let it slip through his fingers. He’d learned many times over the past few years what happened when he missed his chance, but this - this moment was his.
Daryl told himself he could hate himself about it later, and sent the most feeble apology to Michonne in his head.
They kissed until they were out of breath, until stubble burn flared on their faces and Rick’s still present fever began to make Daryl sweat as well. Rick’s legs were woven between Daryl’s own, his nose was brushing against his, and the man couldn’t stop pressing kisses to his mouth and his face. They finally settled to press foreheads together, as they’d done many times out in the world after a battle they weren’t sure they were going to walk out of, and just felt each other breathe. Daryl wanted to enjoy this moment more than anything in the world, to soak in the scent and touch and sound of Rick Grimes all around him - but he couldn’t.
His guilt must have been palpable, because Rick’s next kiss had a smile curling his warm lips so wide Daryl felt the other’s teeth. “She’s the one who told me I was stupid,” Rick confided, still quiet like it was a secret. “I think we owe Michonne any favor she wants for the rest of our lives.” Each inhale felt like his lungs were being dragged through glass, and the swelling in his chest was so full of hope Daryl felt himself choking on it. He merely nodded, beyond words, and a huff that might have been a laugh finally burst out of him. Rick kissed the smile on his face so deeply, prying it apart and moaning into Daryl’s mouth that he must have tasted it.
Daryl had no idea what night in December it really was, but it sure felt a lot like Christmas.